When I was growing up in the church, there was a song we sang during many of our student-lead worship services that began like this:
In the secret
In the quiet place,
In the stillness
You are there,
In the secret
In the quiet hour I wait only for You
'Cause, I want to know You more.
Since the days I would join other teens singing and reflecting upon these lyrics, I have graduated from college and divinity school and become a pastor. After many years of academic scholarship in religion and theology and the day-to-day business of the pastoral life, that quiet, still and secret place oftentimes feels very, very far away.
We do not live in a world that caters to stillness or quiet. There is always more to do. More hours to work, more doctors to see, more bills to pay, more products to buy, more activities to drive the kids to. The business of our daily lives keeps us in a perpetual state of hurry, with little or no time to sit quietly and be still, aware that there may be more going on around us than what we can sense.
Truthfully, silence and stillness scares us. Our chaotic lives have become so normal to us that moments of nothingness seem abnormal and awkward, so we do anything we can to fill the void. Just this past Sunday there was an unplanned moment during our Sunday morning worship service between the offertory meditation and the Doxology. Our talented pianist temporarily misplaced the music for the next portion of the service and the result was no more than 30 seconds of silence. Only 30 seconds, but the spirit of our congregation quickly became restless. There was an apology, then a joke followed by laughter to relieve the tension in the air. Anything to break the silence.
We don’t want to be alone with God in the quiet because we don’t want to be alone with ourselves. There are places in our souls we dare not travel and heights to which God longs to lift us but we’re too afraid. So we reach for anything near to occupy our thoughts, time and imagination to save us from the divine invitation to solitude.
As I have reflected on the unexpected intrusion of silence in our most recent service and our constant fight to reject it, I cannot help but be reminded of the Old Testament story of Elijah and the chaotic life that almost drove him to his grave. After being a faithful prophet for God, Elijah had finally been met with resistance from Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, and she had made clear her intentions to have God’s servant killed. Depressed, Elijah runs into the wilderness, begging God to let him die. Life had gotten to him, and it was just too much anxiety to take, so he wanted out. But the Lord had other plans, and calling Elijah out of a cave, he commands him to stand before God high on the mountain top. Elijah obeys, climbs the mountain, and waits for God to show up.
The text says there was suddenly a great wind, but God was not in the wind. Then an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake, either. A fire, but God was not in the fire. Finally, there came upon the mountain top the sound of sheer silence. God was in the silence. Out of the silence, Elijah had an encounter with God, and though he had been burned out by a life of busy service, the God of the silence restored Elijah’s vision.
The chaos of our lives and of the world around us grows with each and every day. As the noise gets louder, we think we will find God and receive clarity just as soon as we put our heads down and work harder. Truthfully, any response to the noise and chaos around us that is created in and out of the chaos only leads to more of the same. These insights lead us to justify actions such as bombing other nations, arming school teachers and replacing true spiritual formation with sacrificial burnout.
We can certainly see God in the chaotic. God is always there, even in the darkest night. God is the One stretched out of the cross, the One torn apart by limited airstrikes, and the One lying motionless in the halls of the Washington Navy Yard. In all of these places we can see and be identified with and be comforted by presence of the Crucified One. God is always present in the chaos, yet when the time comes to make meaning, to defeat the darkness and to discover truly rational and spiritual responses to the disorderly, we must seek it in the secret, quiet and still places of life. We must carve out moments of solitude and create the conditions in our lives where we can truly meet with God and discern God’s response to the noise.
We must go somewhere where we can get away from ourselves long enough to find God and the truths that will set us free from the chaos of our lives, the truths we so often want to ignore.
I think the Holy Spirit was breaking through in our church service this past Sunday, and I’m ashamed to say that we, myself included, unintentionally quenched that spirit. I pray the Silence will return and change us. I pray we will find God in the stillness and nothingness. I pray that we will allow ourselves to be led into the secret, quiet places and finally begin to find the wisdom needed to properly respond to chaos. Even if it’s only another 30 seconds.
Alex Gallimore ([email protected]) is pastor of Hester Baptist Church in Oxford, N.C.