Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Practice Stillness

Commit your way to the LORD; trust in God, and God will act. God will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday. Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently. (Psalm 37.5-7)


Every Lent, our church reads and discusses a book together. By design, the titles aren’t directly tied to the Lenten process. Instead, they hand us great big theological concepts to contemplate during our time of consecration. This year we’re reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins—a controversial book that invites us to question nearly every traditional view Christians hold about overarching concepts like grace, inclusion, Heaven, Hell, eternity, judgment, and so on. In other words, many of the hot buttons that have sparked firestorms within the Church for centuries will come under scrutiny as we study together.

Since we’re comfortable wrestling with questions at our church, last evening’s first study group focused on questions that challenge faith. Several perennial stumpers made the list, including why an all-powerful, loving God allows human suffering. It’s a question we’ll never answer as long as we remain addicted to self-inflicted sorrow. We’ve never asked God’s permission to make war, incite violence, ignore poverty, or squander life-sustaining resources on weaponry and wealth production. We've done this on our own. Therefore, before asking why God permits suffering, we should ask why we create it.

Still, the question gains traction in times like these, when economic inequities, social unrest, and overall uncertainty feel like too much to handle. We’ve done such a fine job of endangering ourselves we don’t know how to undo what we’ve done, let alone how to make any progress toward improving our condition. Naturally, we want God to do something. Psalm 37 is written to people like us, with questions like ours, living in times very much like our own. Yet the poem, attributed to David, emphasizes what we should do—not on a grandiose scale, but on an intimate level that opens our understanding. David doesn’t put the “where’s God in all this” question to rest; he suggests we figure out ways to discover God in the midst of our messed-up, stagnating, and doggedly unrepentant world.

The Whole Burden of Life

The psalm portrays a society at war with itself. Listen to verses 12-14: “The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them; but the LORD laughs at the wicked, for God sees that their day is coming. The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy, to kill those who walk uprightly.” Throughout, David stocks the poem with reassurances that God will deal with perpetrators of injustice. But he also counsels those who suffer at their hands to be patient. God’s retribution will be certain, though not necessarily swift. Their day is coming. And that begs a question: until that day comes, what are we to do?

“Commit your way to the LORD,” verse 5 urges. I so love how the 19th-century Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, paraphrases David’s advice. “Roll the whole burden of life upon the Lord,” he wrote. “Leave with [God] not thy present fretfulness merely, but all thy cares.” The commitment David calls for is one of total surrender. It’s the conscious decision to rest when chaos reigns, to trust despite trepidation—to depend on God in the absence of concrete direction. “God will act,” David insists, speaking from experience and by faith.

“God will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday,” verse 6 promises. Vindication is a big word that often gets confused with vengeance—and they are not the same thing. To vindicate someone is to validate his/her choices and actions. It confirms the moral fiber and character of the person whose inner light won’t bow to darkness. Yet David surprises us in the next verse by describing how we should respond in circumstances that press us to abandon our knowledge of what is right. Rather than push our agenda or defend our stance, verse 7 says, “Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for God; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.” Confidence in our choices invites us to step out of moral chaos and into the stillness, to forsake rushing to judgment and wait for justice, to quit worrying about powers that be and start trusting God’s supremacy. “Don’t get swept up in the mess,” David says. “Roll the whole burden of life upon the Lord. Be still.”

Hiding Place

Lent provides a ready-made reason to practice stillness. We enter its desert to escape chaos. We find quiet and distance we seek from the constant assault of unprincipled, wicked behaviors. It's very easy to enter Lent’s stillness and solitude hoping for some type of epiphany. And we must never overrule the possibility God will transform our pursuit of quietness into a revelatory, transfixing experience. Yet if that’s all we seek in the stillness, we may be disappointed. The timing may not be right—we may not be ready for it. And a mystical moment may not equip us to deal with the world once we reenter its madness. On the other hand, having learned (or relearned) how to practice stillness will prove extremely useful wherever life takes us.

Proverbs 18.10 tells us, “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe.” In contrast, verse 11 says, “The wealth of the rich is their strong city; in their imagination it is like a high wall.” Faith in a just, all-powerful God ushers us into the stillness. When chaos erupts and confusion descends, we run for safety that can only be found in stillness. And notice how Proverbs’ writer flips the equation. Assurance and peace of mind we discover in the stillness are real; insanity that drives us into God’s strong tower is illusory. Wealth, the power it brings, and the will to oppress fashion a false, fleeting sense of security. It offers no hiding place from a God Who will act justly to vindicate those who follow God’s ways. During Lent we practice stillness so that we can take shelter when moral confusion threatens to overpower us. Practicing stillness is how we keep it real.

We not only find safety when practicing stillness. We enter the true reality of God’s justice and power.

Podcast link:

Postscript: Question 7

How do you practice stillness?


Tim said...

I confess I have a long way to go in practicing stillness. When I try to create it, I become very self-conscious and my mind strains to figure out what it should be doing. Thus, I do all I can to make way for stillness--to be ready to enter it when it presents itself to me. And I've found it often comes at the oddest times, in the oddest places. I can be in the middle of a crowded room and suddenly feel myself grow still. I can be halfway through a TV show and feel myself withdraw, causing me to wander into another room to be still. So I suppose my practice of stillness begins by staying open to it, by letting it call me apart, whether physically or mentally. But what I've learned over the years is that heeding stillness's call also enables me to call to it. When I'm inundated with inner, or outer, chaos, I can reach for it and it will find me.

Jan said...

My Lenten discipline is to immediately sit for 20 minutes after waking up. I used to regularly sit in silence, but had let it slip by. I am feeling it to be true what Brother Lawrence said--if you are not going forward in the spiritual life, you are going backwards.

Silly though it is, the Ipod (probably Iphone, too) app called "Equanimity" has a little timer that starts and ends with a bong that helps me to center. The accountability it provides shows my immaturity, but helps me at this point!

Tim said...

Jan, thank you for the tip about the app! It may be just what I need to overcome my own immaturity!

And thanks for passing along Bro. Lawrence's comment. It's so true that if we don't actively pursue growth and discipline, we begin to lose ground.

You have been a marvelous help to me--and I'm sure to others who come here.

Many blessings and much gratitude,

pam lee-miller said...

Stillness is much like the journey of comes and it goes. I have practiced many different disciplines to enter the still calm peaceful presence of God.

Writing often does this for me...words moving and forming and coming from some place that feels other than myself, preaching--words moving through air and bodies learning into them hearing them and even more as the electron synapse in the listeners ear.

I paint---when words can't be found, often color will silence the noice through drawing or painting or sketching...

I have worked with a spiritual director---retreated----stayed in silence......

I can even be in the midst of a busy room and leave---letting my spirit drink from a source of life that sometimes surprises...

it comes....sometimes I find it...sometimes it finds me....
but it always comes when I need it most..............

the easiest is to practise of lectio devina or praying the scriptures........

have a great evening........p

Tim said...

I agree, Pam, I too find stillness in writing--which enables me to get lost in thought. (Much to my partner's dismay at times, I might add, as I quickly lose track of time.)

It comes....sometimes I find it...sometimes it finds me....
but it always comes when I need it most.

I know exactly what you mean. I can't really explain it, but I love when it happens!

And, yes, there are a number of disciplines like those you mention that help usher us into stillness. I often pray the scriptures as well, yet I sometimes find myself talking back to them when I should be still and attentive!

Many blessings, dear sister,