Cool things Quakers do part 2: Silence

Sermon preached at Sandcreek-Azalia Friends meeting on July 24 2011. The first part is the contents of the bulletin, with the sermon following.

Psalm 46
1 Kings 19:1-18
Hebrews 4:1-13

Reflection questions:
How do I use silence?
Who do I pray for?
What am I thankful for today?
Do I have any sins to confess?
What have I learned from today’s Scripture readings?
Has God called me to share what he has shown me with the others?

Advices for time of silence:
Prayers recognizing God’s greatness
Prayers for others
Friends and family
The church and Christians
Our leaders (president, governor, mayor, representatives, et c.)
Our enemies
Prayers for ourselves
Prayers for wisdom and strength
prayers about anything that makes us anxious
Prayers from scriptures
Lord’s prayer
Tax collector’s prayer: (Lord have mercy on me, a sinner)
Samuel’s prayer; (Speak Lord, your servant is listening)
Reflect (Queries, et c.)
Meditate on scripture
Think about the readings, praying for wisdom. If anything stands out, read again with this in mind. Pray that God will be your teacher, and the Holy Spirit will help you understand.
Prayerfully consider speaking
Traditionally Friend’s ministered from within the period of silence
Sometimes God speaks to one person through another instead of directly
When we share, we learn from one another

While most Friends think of our own silent worship when we think of periods of meeting together in silence before God, the mind does not need to move very far away from ourselves. The Old Testament commands not only singing and shouting praises, but also to be silent before God. The early Church valued silence – Ignatius, John’s disciple told the church of Ephesus that Jesus speaks to us in silence. Augustine valued silence so much that he assumed that the voice that prayed in the Psalms was a spiritual and not physical voice – because our soul cries out to God in prayer, even when our bodies make no sound other than our own breath. Wider Christianity values such practices in silence as “Contemplative prayer” and “Lectio Divina.”

Personally I think it would be useful to study the traditional disciplines in depth – perhaps as small groups. Friend’s minister Richard Foster wrote: Celebration of Discipline and Prayer: Finding the Heart’s true home – Both of these books would be a good basis for a beginners study – Foster is easy to read, and actually writes about disciplines such as fasting and silence in such a way that makes the reader want to explore these exercises. If there is a desire to study in greater depth, every chapter of Foster’s books represents a large body of ancient Christian material and experience. I must criticize Foster for neglecting the cooperate nature of Christian discipline while ancient writings on discipline focus on community, however even with this defect, I highly recommend his books.
As for me, while I’d love to talk about what worked for people in centuries past – there is too much to look into anything in a single day. I once heard that every ancient writer wrote about the value of being silent before God – even the necessity. Silence is necessary, because it is a way of acknowledging that God is sovereign – Until we are silent – we are in control. It is in the quiet moments that we meet God – for God was not in the wind, nor in the fire. Until we stop and listen – we only offer God what we say, but by listening we risk hearing God’s voice – and, because we are so small, and God is so big, meeting God is a scary thing. Once we meet with God, we are no longer in control
I just told you what it seems everyone has written! The difficulty we have with silence is that we are unwilling to submit to God, instead we wish to have control. There are many advices written, both by Friends, and by others – I would like to explore some of these at another time, preferably in small groups, or some other Christian Education setting, however for now, I will simply share my own experience.

I told you the first time I spoke to you how I met God in a quiet moment. Because of this the moments of silence are sacred to me. When I met God, I was alone, it took a few years before I fully recognized Christ’s presence in the ‘gathered meeting.’ I absolutely fell in love with silent worship when I was a student at Barclay college in Haviland Kansas. Every Wednesday we were required to meet for a 50 minute unprogrammed meeting. This meeting did of course begin and end with silence, however there was no shortage of song, scriptures or other vocal ministry – if there was a shortage of anything, it was silence, as some of our students would bring a scripture, and several songs. In addition to this, I also often attended a late night prayer service – which was silent except for bringing forward prayer requests.

Just like everyone else I find silence difficult – though, I am not sure if my difficulty is the same as the restlessness that others have. My personal difficulty is that my mind is rarely silent. When everything is quiet, I think, I plan, I worry. With my mind creating just as much noise as there was before the period of silence, I must push past this in order to get to the point where I submit to God – so, I will share what I do to make use of the silent moments.

I believe the first thing that I have done to make use of silence, though I was not aware of it at first, was the reading of scripture. Remember that a rich period of silence actually requires a rich life of discipline. Silence alone is not very helpful – if we approach silence without immersion in scripture, it is as if we wish to receive the gift of prophecy while ignoring the prophets who gave us scripture.

At first, the way that I calmed my mind so that I could pray at Barclay college in the more silent prayer service was to pray with a pencil and a notebook. I wrote down every concern that was brought to the group – and when I prayed over these concerns, I wrote down everything that came into my mind – and prayed about those as well. This practice allowed me to release my anxiety instead of focusing on the same details again and again – which, of course is a struggle for anyone who has learned to worry instead of trusting God.
Later, when I was a student at Friends University, I attended St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church for their Sunday morning Prayer service. This was a community of Lebonese Christians who traced their origins down to Peter’s ministry in Antioch – when they read Acts, they saw their own history. Every week, the Orthodox Christians would pray their prayer book – the prayerbook was amazingly complete – it had praises to God, general prayers for the individual Christian, confession, prayers for other Christians, world leaders, local leaders, all who are sick, et c. Between the reading of scriptures and the prayers, an hour was filled. The was followed by mass which was even more prayer and the Eucharist – however, as I am not from their denomination, I am not welcome to partake of communion, but I was welcome pray with them, and to learn how to pray from them. Actually, I have seen Evangelicals do something very much like the Orthodox prayer service, it was called a ‘concert of prayer’ – while the words were less scripted, the outline could have been borrowed from the prayerbook itself.

I would recommend that any who cannot deal with silence, because they don’t know WHAT to pray about to read a prayer book, the Anglicans, Orthodox, and Catholics all have them. I remember the days when my prayer vocabulary was limited to thanking God for food, the bedtime prayer, and the sinners prayer. Yes, Friends are right that a prayer life limited to the prayerbook would be empty, however it is just as empty if we never learn that we can pray for all those things which are included in the prayer books. We too often forget, when we are first Christians we are babies – even though it seems obvious that scripture tells us to pray for all things, we forget unless reminded of all things.

While I attended St. Mary’s – I also attended an 8:00 AM worship group that was part of Mid-America Yearly meeting. This group was both part of EFI, and unprogrammed. While it seems that the practice of praying the prayerbook at the Orthodox service, and the practice of meeting in silence, and sharing scriptures, songs, and ‘vocal ministry’ out of that silence may seem very different – I met the same God in both places. If anything – what I learned from my liturgical Christian brothers and sisters helped make my time of silent worship more fruitful – they taught me the discipline of deliberate daily prayer. If my prayer vocabulary never grew beyond the dinner table and kneeling next to my bed – silence would never become fruitful.

Last, I have attended 3 kinds of meetings that observe times of silence. One is the kind that observes very strict silence, where people seem annoyed if the silence is broken. Another kind is like the Wednesday worship service at Barclay college, where a few people did everything they could to fill the silence as if it were dead air on the radio. My personal favorite was the unprogrammed worship group at Northridge Friends, where on most weeks there was singing, the reading of scripture, and a couple brief messages (the best ones were those few wise words that Eva Brightup would share). Some weeks, there was an hour of silence, others the hour was hardly enough to contain the ministry that people brought – but every week, I felt I was worshiping with people who continually lived with Jesus.
I wish that instead of speaking to you today, you could listen to the ministry given by Western Yearly Meeting’s teenagers on Friday night at the Yearly Meeting sessions. The kids shared scriptures, a few skits, and personal reflection on what it meant to be in constant communion with God, in addition they shared songs with the group – some were old hymns, some were songs which were new when their grandparents were born, and others were just now written. When the teenagers shared the half hour of ministry that they brought – they opened up a time of unprogrammed worship, and they invited others to give ministry to the group – the remaining half hour hardly contained the ministry that people gave – God blessed this time greatly.

One difficulty that we have is that sometimes we value silence for it’s own sake. The problem is, even though everyone encourages silence, the purpose of silence is not for the sake of silence. We are encouraged to submit to God, and to listen to God. I believe that we will not only be called to account for our idle words, but also our idle silences. It is as important to break silence as it is to keep it. If all we are doing is mechanically keeping a form, silence becomes as dead as any form kept for its own purpose. Forms are valuable! Friends attempted to find essential Christianity when people were remembering the forms but forgetting Christ, but Friends quickly adopted and adapted forms in order to meet our very human needs.

I mentioned Eva Brightup – Every time she spoke in meeting, though her message was usually the briefest, her message spoke to my condition so much that it was like God was speaking to me through her. Yes just as Elijah found God in the silent whisper instead of the fire wind or earthquake, sometimes we find God in the moment of silence – but sometimes God speaks prophetically through another. Yes – when we speak out of the silence, we are likely interrupting the prayers of those around us, but if we remain silent when we should speak we are withholding God’s blessing. Have you ever discovered something in your Christian life that would bless not only you but the community? It is a meaningful ministry to share such a blessing – and it is traditional for Friends to share out of silence.
I left some advices in the bulletin – these are from my own experience – I recognize that others might have different experiences. I know that my struggles are not always the same as those of others.

In my opinion, to better use our time of silence, we need to engage deeply with Scripture, develop a richer prayer life, and recognize that if we are willing God might speak through us – and we should be obedient. To aid with these advices – I recommend a study of Richard Foster’s books on Prayer and on the Disciplines – I think they would both be a good basis for a small group study. If any wish to go deeper than Foster’s introductions – one could write a book on each of his chapters. In all, we should remember that part of the difficulty with silence is that we get out of spiritual exercises what we put into them. Until we learn, silence can be a painfully empty form. Friends, I encourage all of you to practice and to learn. My prayer for all of us is that we grow into maturity in Christ – even though some parts of growing are difficult. I hope we will learn to use silence.


One comment on “Cool things Quakers do part 2: Silence

  1. LAR_Northman says:

    I like how you use your personal experiences to illustrate your point.
    I wish I had a more detailed critic but you did a very good job here.

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