Waiting on the Whisper
“Never miss a good chance to shut up” is one of my favorite Will Rogers quips. It’s positively right on the mark, as silence, whether in worship on a Sunday or over extended hours and days, is not only essential to our personal humility and sanity but also serves the wellbeing of our friends who could use a little less of us from time to time. Your mother probably scolded you, as did mine, saying ‘Hush!’, noting that “God’s given us two ears and only one mouth for a good reason!” Listening, rather than speaking, is a vital art to learn. Moms know this.
In fact, the connection between listening and speaking, as any audiologist or linguist will tell you, is deep and profound. We learn to speak by listening: when a child cannot speak the affliction is frequently the result of a hearing impairment. The best way to learn a language is by total immersion in its sound and cadence and the culture of its origin. We have something intelligible to say only because we have first closed our mouths and opened our ears.
Our culture, however, runs on noise, not silence, flooding us with words, with demands screamed at us about purchases we must make, and televisions so ubiquitous that one can barely enjoy a simple meal in a decent restaurant without being assaulted by their incessant distraction and ceaseless drivel. This is yet another reason one of the finest moments of the week is the silence of worship every Sunday.
To be fair to the culture and the screaming heads on the news show ‘panels’, we rather arrogantly enjoy the sound of our own voices a great deal too. If we’re not talking, we’re posting on Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, or blogging along, just as I am now, ironically enough. Which means I should get to the point and then shut up. OK, then.
“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a disciple that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word”, wrote Isaiah, followed by a revelation as to how Isaiah came to have such an effective pastoral-prophetic influence: “He awakens my ear to listen.” Isaiah discovered the sounds of silence, the words that come to us when we are set first, not on speaking, but on listening. He woke up to silence and only through that way of living did he receive the words to say. “Shout from the housetops what you hear whispered in secret”, said Jesus. We must not miss that we won’t have anything to shout for all to hear apart from being quiet enough to first hear the message whispered.
“While I was silent the fire burned… my heart grew hot within me”, wrote David in the Psalms. That ancient artist knew the value of self-muzzling for a season, taking the time to shut down so that he might later speak up. I could quote numerous desert fathers and mothers on the value of silence, as well as mystics across a whole host of religious traditions. I don’t really need to do so. We already know that our souls crave the stillness of silence and our hearts desperately need the quiet to penetrate through the fog of noise to the secret counsel of the Lord. “We need silence to be able to touch souls“, wrote Mother Teresa. This is not an empty silence, conceived in pain, but a fruitful silence, filled with the voice of a distant thunder, rumbling towards us with the truth and passion we need for ourselves and those we serve.
Which is why I don’t preach in July. I shut down the weekly sermon prep and shut up my mouth. Been doing this for two decades now. I did skip two years, both because they occurred in two parishes in which I’d only just arrived, the first in Austin and the second here. In Austin, I took up the work in June and here in May. It made sense to jump in the deep end and get moving. But apart from those two exceptions, I take four weeks to just listen.
That’s work by the way. It isn’t vacation. In fact, it’s some of the hardest work I do, and people who ‘strive to enter the rest’ know what I’m talking about. We think the church and world ‘needs’ us, our opinions and messages – and we’re wrong. Sometimes the church needs our silence and rest, our waiting and prayers, more than anything, and more than they may themselves know. Why? Because the musician must stop playing to tune his instrument. The farmer must come in from the field to fix his tools. The chef must cease cooking to search for the best ingredients. As the Preacher in Ecclesiastes reminds us, “If the ax is dull and he does not sharpen its edge, then he must exert more strength. Wisdom has the advantage of giving success.”
The truth is that I need this season to prepare the lessons for the coming year’s Wednesday study of Romans and to map out the year’s Sunday preaching strategy for the coming year as well. That’s what I’m doing. More than any lesson, however, my heart must be prepared by those prayers we know to pray but don’t like very much. “Search me oh God, and see if there is any hurtful way in me…” Asking the Holy Spirit to engage in a ‘search and destroy mission’ in your soul is dangerous prayer. And necessary.
The further truth is that decent pastors know that they can’t give the church everything she needs even though they must make sure the church gets everything she needs. I have to sit down and make sure the church I serve is edified by voices other than mine. That’s not just because our ears grow dull to the familiar voice and we need to hear old truths through new oracles. It’s because these servants bring a dimension of wisdom and experience we all need, and as it is unique to them and their journey, the church can’t possibly gain those riches through my ministry. Yes, we have guests at various times of the year and a decent teaching team of Pastors as well. But this concentration of weeks rather makes the point in an indelible way, reminding us each Sunday of the value of silence waiting on the whisper. We will be richer people for hearing from Scott Stewart, Charles McGowan, Richie Sessions, and our own Charles Johnson. They’re bringing us Christ, offered to us in the Gospel, as we continue our summer series on Philippians. We need this. We need them.
I’d be grateful if you’d lift your voice in prayer for me as I shut mine down for this brief season. My friend and fellow-elder Jon Reynolds sent me a beautiful prayer this past week as I began the work of waiting. I share it with you here, with thanks to Jon, and to all who regularly pray for me.
Lord, refresh David with Your mercy and grace. In this month of quiet, my prayer is for David to be awestruck anew as he seeks You out. I pray for clarity of vision as he plans out his preaching schedule for the coming year. I pray for relaxing times with his family as he seeks to love them well. Guard and protect him from the lies of the evil one. Remind him of who he really is in You. Thank You for using David as Your vessel of love and grace and strengthen him for the work You have prepared in advance for him to accomplish. In Jesus’ mighty name, Amen.
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