Scripture Reading: Matthew 6 (NRSV).
I don’t know about you, but silence makes me uncomfortable. It doesn’t take long for silence in the context of worship to drive us crazy. We want, we expect something to happen. When there are prolonged moments of silence, we think that something has gone wrong.
I find all sorts of ways to remove silence from my life. When I’m driving in the car, the radio is always on, telling me the news of the day, broadcasting a Pirates game, or filling the silence with music that lifts my mood. When I’m home by myself, I always have music playing or the television on, filling the silence with ceaseless noise. The only time in the day when the noise stops is when I get into bed at the end of the day, the only noise being the sound of crickets. But that silence is only tolerable as long as I fall asleep quickly. Otherwise, I’m quick to reach for the television remote and fill the silence until I am tired enough to fall asleep.
Labor Day weekend, for many of us, marks the end of Summer and the time for leisure that it has hopefully granted us. As children head back to school, as vacations become a distant memory, and as our fall schedules heat up, we’re left with fewer opportunities for silence. There’s always something to do and its doubtful that we’ll find any time to be bored or sit in silence wondering what to do next. No, our fall will be full of busy, long days in which we will fall asleep as soon as our head hits the pillow. If we do have time for leisure, it won’t be the quiet meditative variety, but rather the stimulation of our favorite TV program.
Amidst all of this, what we need most of all is what we’re most unlikely to find and most hesitant to seek out: silence.
Years ago, in an undergraduate spiritual formation class, we spent two class periods watching a documentary called Into Great Silence, about the monks of a French monastery. As the story goes, a German director had been interested in going to this monastery in 1984 to film a movie about them, thinking it would be a fascinating film for viewers who have no idea what goes on inside a monastery. Initially, the monks said no. It was too soon for them, but they left the door open to the possibility that further discernment would change their minds in time. Sixteen years later, he got the call.
The film is odd because there is no soundtrack except the chanting of the monks. There are no interviews with the brothers, only brief video-portraits of each monk that flash on the screen for a few seconds in silence. There’s no commentary, aside from the occasional scripture passage. There’s no plot or action in the film besides a scene where new monks are received into the community.
What the documentary shows its viewers in two and a half hours is nothing but the routine of these monks. They pray, sometimes in silence, sometimes in chant. Sometimes they pray with the scriptures in front of them, and other times they intercede without any additional tools except a kneeler. And they work. A monk in one scene is shown washing and cutting vegetables for a stew. Another monk cuts fabric for new robes. Some others cut wood for the furnace. Still another cobbles a shoe.
Following an ancient rhythm going back to the Rule of Saint Benedict in the 5th century after Christ, these monks pray and they work. Pray and work. They pray and work in silence only interrupted by the chanting of the psalms and the noise of their tools.
I wonder what they hear in the silence, don’t you? Our world is so loud that we can’t hear anything, but in the silence, maybe these monks can hear the voice of God.
After we watched this film in class, our professor offered a few words of commentary. All I can remember from his reflection was this: could you imagine how bad things would be in the world without monks and nuns who give themselves to a life of piety and silent devotion.
His comment flabbergasted me. How could these monks, secluded on a mountaintop, praying and working for their own self-sufficiency be doing any tangible good for the rest of the world? Most of the world doesn’t even know that they’re praying. And just look at how bad things are in the rest of the world! Kids are dying from preventable diseases and in the midst of war while these monks live long lives in safety. The prayers of these monks didn’t stop hurricanes that killed countless people. Their prayers didn’t stop 9/11 or Sandy Hook. These monks must misunderstand the call of Christ! They should be doing something to alleviate suffering and end violence. They should take a stand and speak out on issues of life and death.
No, my professor insisted, could you imagine how bad things would be without these monks devoting their lives to prayer?
Often, we think about prayer as work avoidance. Prayer is what we do when we can’t think of anything else to do. Prayer is what we do when we don’t want to actually do something to address a need. But work, our labor, is what we do when we actually want to make a difference, right?
What we fail to understand is that prayer is a kind of spiritual work. It’s what happens behind the scenes, changing our hearts, reordering our lives.
I’ve realized more and more in the past few years that you can really tell the difference between those who do the hard, difficult, thankless work behind the scenes and those who don’t. You can tell when a musical performer spends hours every day pouring over every single note and when they’re just putting on a show in the moment. You can tell when a pastor gets up and delivers a sermon whether they’ve spent considerable time wrestling over something, or if they’re just relying on their own cleverness to get them through the service. You can tell when you talk with someone whether they actually are prayerfully listening to you or just trying to get their own agenda across.
Most of us, myself included, don’t put in the work of prayer as much as we need to. We pray in worship, we pray before meals, we pray when we really need something from God, we pray when we need to show others how pious we are, but when we’re alone, we find some noise to fill the silence and distract us from the work of prayer that we need to do.
Whether we know it our not, that lack of prayer shows in our daily lives. Rather than being informed in our actions by prayer, we’re likely to do what we think is best. Rather than praying that others will be forgiven, we’re likely to carry a grudge. Because our whole lives aren’t shaped by prayer, we’re likely to be an entirely different person outside of church than we are within it.
When our lives are shaped by prayer, everything becomes about what God is doing and about the needs of other people. Every place we go becomes a place of prayer and we make space for holy conversation. But when our lives are shaped by the noise around us, our life becomes all about us and what we need to get through the day.
What would happen if we made prayer and work the rhythm of our lives, making silence the music of our lives? How would the world change if even our work, our leisure, our eating, and our sleeping were prayer?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us how to conduct our piety and he gives us instructions that directly contradict the desires of our sinful nature. Jesus tells us not to give offerings in front of others so that we’ll be seen. Yet, we make sure we put something in the offering plate week after week because we don’t want to be seen as one who does not give.
Jesus tells us that we shouldn’t pray in public where we’ll be seen. Pastors who pray in front of the congregation in church have apparently already received their reward! The sidewalk prophets who make a show of their piety won’t have a special place in heaven. Instead, Jesus tells us to go in the back room and shut the door. Pray in secret to your Father in heaven.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “go and fight for public prayer in schools and at government meetings.” He says, do it in secret. Where no one can see you. Don’t Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook your prayers. Don’t even let anyone know that you’re praying. Do it in secret.
Pastors love to bore their congregations with long, drawn out Pastoral prayers. We often think that the more words we say, the better. We want to make sure every concern is named. To be honest, we often have an agenda as we pray, trying to get a point across.
But God doesn’t hear that kind of prayer. God knows what we need.
So maybe prayer is more about listening in silence for God to tell us what we need.
Look at Jesus’s prayer. It tells us what we need:
We need the kingdom of God and God’s will to be done.
We need our daily bread.
We need our debts to be forgiven and to forgive our debtors.
We need to be freed from the evil one.
End of list. Full stop. This isn’t just what we say to God in prayer, this is what God is saying to us. These are the important things to focus on in our lives. These concerns should be the focus of our prayer and work. Everything else is just commentary on these needs.
As I think about what I want my own practice of prayer to look like, these words from Jesus’s great sermon give tremendous insight. Pray in secret. Pray often and carve out specific times for prayer. Find a private place to do it regularly. Don’t say a lot, but listen for God. Pray for what you need and listen for God to tell you what you need. Spend a lot of time forgiving others.
As I was reading this past week about the legacy of the great writer and devout Christian Madeleine L’Engle, I found further inspiration for prayer. As she wrestled with doubts in her faith, she came to realize that “believing takes practice.” It’s like, she says, “a pianist who goes to practice the scales and doesn’t like doing it. But if you’re going to play [good music] you have to practice the scales.” She developed a routine of prayer that she forced herself to do everyday, whether she wanted to or not, whether she got anything out of it or not, to keep her faith alive. Somedays she would love it, somedays she would hate it. But she always spent time with God.
I think all of our lives would be transformed if we took Jesus’s sermon seriously, if we followed in the footsteps of the great pray-ers that have come before us. We have so many resources for prayer at our disposal, but the most important thing is to just do it. Take your bulletins home, pray for those on our prayer list. Pray the Lord’s prayer. Pray the Psalms and the morning and evening prayers in your bulletin insert. But our prayer can go beyond that too. Just spend some moments of your day in silence, and see if God shows up. Pray when you can’t sleep. Pray when you’re driving down the road in the community and pay attention to what God reveals to you.
We can do all of that individually. And I hope that you’ll make a commitment today to find extra time for prayer this month. But I think it’s possible for us to go more deeply into this practice of prayer together as a church.
Think back to those monks in the French monastery, praying and working. They’re set apart from the hustle and bustle of the world—just like we are here in Eldersville. They’re part of a close-knit Christian community—just like we are in this church. They pray for the needs of the world, and as my professor argued, their prayers sustain the global church. Prayer is their mission. They may not actually be able to do much for the concerns of the world. We might feel the same way, isolated and insulated from ways that we can be the answer to prayer.
What if we, like those monks, devoted our lives together in community to being a people of prayer. Interceding for the churches of the world and the concerns of the cities? What if we really kindled the fire of prayer in this place and kept it going, no matter what? What if, wherever we went, we carried this place of prayer with us so that we can really hear the needs of our community and intercede for those needs?
Friends, as a church we find ourselves in a difficult situation. We want to maintain our Christian fellowship as long as possible. We want to hold onto our community and sustain it into the future with vitality. We lament as we remember the days when the pews were filled. We look for answers, strategies to fill the pews so that we can make a difference.
But you know what, we may never have more than 30-some people here on a Sunday. We may never have the resources to do the things we want to do. We may not even be able to sustain the status-quo.
We may not have any fancy mission statement, we may never get any accolades for our work. We may never see any statistical growth. But maybe this can be our thing. We can be a community that prays without ceasing. Prayer can be our church’s contribution to the world God loves.
We may not be able to do anything else, but what we can do is spend time in silence listening for the voice of God. We can gather in community and hold each other accountable to praying for the needs of our families, our communities, and our world. We can become a place of prayer out here on a back road that no one ever pays attention to.
And you know what? Spending that time in prayer, spending that time open to the needs of our community, may very well not fill the pews. It may not look like it’s changing anything.
But when we take time to pray—here in church, in the privacy of our homes, out in the field, taking care of chickens, whatever we’re doing and wherever we are… When we pray to the Father who is in secret, Jesus promises that our Father who sees us in secret will reward us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
For Further Reading:
Silence in the Face of Mystery, Rowan Williams
In the Beginning Is Silence, Mark Galli
Silence: Essays by Readers, The Christian Century
God’s Country, Brad Roth (chapter 5)
A Light So Lovely, Sarah Arthur (chapter 7)
The Relational Pastor, Andrew Root (chapter 13)