October 4, 2009

Turn It Off

So all last month we talked about our new mission and vision. We talked about the fact that in order to do this we are going to intentionally cultivate an atmosphere of belonging here, but that this belonging must necessarily be undergirded with a healthy dose of learning in order to mean anything. And finally last week we were reminded through Jesus. washing of the disciples. feet that when we get these first two things in order, serving will be the natural result. Ultimately, this entire process is about becoming the people and the church God made us to be. Well, if our mission is the purpose, our vision the direction, and becoming fully ourselves the goal, we still need to know the steps to take to actually see this happen. Now, in one sense, this process cannot be reduced to a finite series of steps that, once taken, will automatically result in our becoming the people we were created to be. Too often today believers do this and fall to worshiping the process instead of the God behind it. This is more about being than doing. But in another sense, it takes a lot of effort on our part in working with the Holy Spirit as He changes our hearts. There are certain things we can do in order to put ourselves in a better place to experience kingdom life. Yet because of our sinful natures, none of these are things that come naturally to us. Left to our own devices we are selfish, prideful, spiteful, hateful, and a host of other unfortunate things. It takes discipline in order to stay away from these traits and on the path of Christ. In this light, these things we can do are often referred to as spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are activities in which we can participate that put us in a place to be more receptive to the Spirit. They teach us to rely on Him more, help us root out pride and melancholy in our lives, help us create space to listen better to the Spirit, and remind us that we are not the measure of all things. The spiritual disciplines generally fall into one of two categories: disciplines of engagement and disciplines of abstinence. Disciplines of engagement are about actively adding things to our lives that make us more receptive to what God is doing around us and in us. Disciplines of abstinence, on the other hand, are about actively removing things from our lives that can get in the way of our relationship with God. Some disciplines of engagement are study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission. Some disciplines of abstinence are solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, slowing, and sacrifice. While mastering all these things (which we.re never going to manage in this life) won.t necessarily guarantee that we are being totally righteous in everything we do, they will go a long way towards making sure we are on the right path. It is in this sense that they can be viewed as stepping stones to becoming the people God made us to be. How to effectively practice the spiritual disciplines, then, is one of the important things we need to be learning so that we can create a place where spiritual seekers can comfortably belong. They will also put us in a place where we are more prepared to serve on behalf of the kingdom. To this end, this morning and for the rest of the month we are going to focus on a different spiritual discipline each week. We.ll talk about silence this morning, focus on giving next week, talk about ways we can slow down in a couple of weeks, and finally look at some ways we can more effectively study the word at the end of the month. Prepare yourselves because this is going to be an involved series. Each week I am going to include an opportunity for us to practice that week.s spiritual discipline together during the service. And I know that some of these will be uncomfortable for some of us (me included). Others will be easy. The point is neither to throw down a gauntlet nor to just let us slide by in relative ease. My hope is that each of us will find a new practice to incorporate into our lives that will help us connect more deeply with our heavenly Father in order to become more the people He wants us to be.

This morning I want to focus on the spiritual discipline of silence. Let.s face some facts for a minute: We live in a noisy culture and many of us are addicted to noise. When we drive in our cars many of us constantly have the radio turn on. It.s an automatic reaction. We get in the car, shut the door, buckle up, start the car, and reach for the radio knob. But the noise is not just limited to that. In our homes, many of us have the television on constantly as background noise. The assumption here is that we need a certain level of noise in the house in order to feel comfortable. When Lisa and Noah were out of town last week our house was pretty quiet. A couple of mornings I woke up pretty early and the first thing I did was to go and turn some music on so that the place wouldn.t be quite so quiet. In retail stores and office buildings around the country there are speakers that pipe in music all day, every day so that people don.t feel uncomfortable walking around in silence. Now of course there is a sense in which sound is a good thing. Listening to good music helps some people experience God in new ways. Hearing the voice of a loved one is always a comfort to us. Calm music can help create a peaceful atmosphere. But far too often, we have noise in our lives simply for noise.s sake. We use the noise as an escape from the world. We don.t want to deal with whatever it is that.s going on in our lives and so we turn up the volume on life in order drown everything else out. Make no mistake; this will make us feel better for a time. We go into a sort of stasis mode as if we had popped a soma pill from Aldus Huxley.s A Brave New World and we feel protected from the terrors of the world. Yet when we do this, we risk missing out on genuine sources of relief. More to the point, we miss out on an opportunity to engage with God. You see, one of the maxims about God we hear fairly often is that He speaks in a still small voice. If this is true, though, why do we live in such a noisy world? This is why we need silence in our lives: because there is plenty in this world to keep our minds off of God and on temporary sources of pleasure or relief or whatever else it is we are seeking. These all keep us coming back for more because they never satisfy us like our Savior. We need silence because when we are distracted by the world we miss God.

While I was preparing for this morning I found myself thinking about a passage of Scripture in which one of the most well-known Bible characters is going through a period of struggle in his own life and goes looking for God. What he finds, though, is not what he had expected. He experienced a series of awesome
events in which God had often been found in the past yet found Him in none of them. Instead, he, for the first time recorded in Scripture, experienced God in a still, small voice. Turn with me to 1 Kings 19 starting in v. 9 and let.s see how when Elijah.s got distracted by the world he nearly missed God. You see, Elijah was in a pretty tough place. Yeah he.s one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, but he lived at a time when it wasn.t all that great a thing to be a prophet of Israel.s God. The current king Ahab was a moral coward who was dominated by his evil, pagan wife Jezebel. Jezebel hated Israel.s God and all those who worshiped Him. And she particularly hated Elijah because he had a nasty habit of speaking for God and then doing things to back up his words which tempted the people to turn back to Yahweh. Now given Elijah.s most recent spiritual conquest on the top of Mt. Carmel, you.d think he would be sitting pretty high on the hog. But when Jezebel heard that he had embarrassed and slaughtered her prophets of Baal she was out for his blood. So Elijah ran. There was a lot of noise in his world and he ran from it. Now his running was different from ours when we are in a tough situation in detail, but not in intent. We sometimes want to hide in a cave to escape the world…he did. And while he was there God came and spoke to him. Follow along with me in starting in v. 9:

“He entered a cave there and spent the night. Then the word of the Lord came to him, and He said to him, „What are you doing here, Elijah?.” Alright, stop there a minute. Have you been there? Have you ever been in a place where you were running from the world and found yourself in a cave? Ever stop long enough to hear this question? What are you doing here? This is a call to connect with God and let Him minister to us in our times of need (whatever form those times take). But if we aren.t listening, we won.t hear it. When we are distracted by the world we miss God. Just some food for thought. Look how Elijah responds: “He replied, „I have been very zealous for the Lord God of Hosts, but the Israelites have abandoned Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are looking for me to take my life..” That all sounds like pretty serious business. Ever find yourself in a place where you felt like the world was crumbling down around you, the world was out to get you, God was nowhere to be found, and you were the only one standing up for what was right? Elijah is terrified, to be sure, but this prophet of God is having a pity party. The way his response to God is worded it.s like he doesn.t even realize it.s God talking to him. When we run from the world and not specifically to God, we are naturally going to be fixated on ourselves and our environment. But this is no way to experience the help and hope God wants to give us. When we are distracted by the world we miss God. Yet God is good. Look what God says to Elijah: “Then He said, „Go out and stand on the mountain in the Lord.s presence.. At that moment, the Lord passed by. A great and mighty wind was tearing at the mountains and was shattering the cliffs before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was a voice, a soft whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Suddenly, a voice came to him and said, „What are you doing here, Elijah?.” God calls Elijah to stand before Him and suddenly all this sound and fury erupts outside the cave. But God.s not in any of it. It.s like God was saying: “I know there.s been a lot of noise in your world lately and I.ve even created some of it myself, but I.m much more than a big show. Being with Me isn.t always safe, but if you take time to push aside the distractions of the world, you.ll find Me in the silence.” Because the phrase often translated something like “a still, small voice” is notoriously difficult to translate from Hebrew to English. A bit more literally, after the fire there was the sound of silence, and Elijah experienced God in the silence.

You see, Elijah had done the loud and flashy. On the top of Mt. Carmel he had called down fire from heaven and overseen the execution of 950 pagan prophets. Those kinds of things would make for an epic movie and so we pay attention to those stories pretty closely. We marvel at what it would have been like to have been standing there as the wind, earthquake, and fire roared pass the mouth of Elijah.s cave. But when we get to the sound of silence, we turn everything off and head for the door. We are drawn to the loud and flashy like moths to a flame. But just like when the flame goes out and the moth heads for another, so do we. When God.s not doing something obviously big we turn from Him and go towards whoever or whatever is. And this doesn.t just apply to difficult circumstances in our lives like what Elijah was facing here. Yes that.s the context of this story, but we seek the respite of noise anytime we want an escape from anything. We seek the noise when we want to unwind at the end of a long day. We don.t want to dig down to our reserves to interact with our family so we shut the world out by turning the aural stimulus on. I.ve got to tell you the truth on this, friends: this sound addiction provides a powerful tool for the devil to use in order to keep our minds off of God at all times. I can.t tell you how many times I.ve been trying to have a quiet time on some morning when I was kind of tired and rather than invest the effort in meeting with God, I just turned on the TV or some music or my computer. When we are distracted by the world we miss God.

But why is this? Why are we so drawn to the sound? I submit the following idea to you: we are so drawn because we are afraid of the silence. With sound we know what to expect. When we play our favorite song, we know all the words and the music to go along with it. When we watch the news we don.t necessarily know what the stories will be (assuming we missed the advertisements ahead of time) but we know the general format. We have unwritten rules of conduct in public such that we have a pretty good idea of what to expect from people when we interact with them. We even like God to be predictable. As long as we keep waking up every day and He answers some prayers and maybe lets us go through some mildly hard times when we are getting off base we know the routine. But silence carries with it a sense of unknown. Who knows what we might find there. And when we throw an unpredictable God into the mix things get even scarier. You see, silence gives us time to reflect on who we are. Silence doesn.t leave anything for us to hide behind. In the silence we run the risk of hearing from God and when we let Him speak, things start to get daunting. I mean, when you read through the Bible, times when God was speaking were usually not very easy times for whomever He was addressing. But is this how things should be? Absolutely not. Silence can be a great friend. As I said before, silence creates space in our lives in which we can search within ourselves in order to ascertain our identity. For some people this might be a frightening thing, particularly if they either don.t know who they are or if who they aren.t happy with who they are. But how can we ever take steps towards becoming who God made us to be if we don.t know who we are to start with? The simple answer is that we can.t. When we take time to shut out the world—which is a tough thing to do; this is why it.s called a discipline—we create space in which God can work in our hearts and speak to our spirits. It allows Him to gently confront us with areas in which we are broken so that we can go about fixing them with Him. And it allows us to recharge our spiritual batteries which in turn gives us the boost we need to go about pursing some of the other spiritual disciplines. In this sense, silence is foundational to many of the other disciplines. By doing this we are taking active steps towards becoming the people God made us to be. But we can.t do it when we are distracted by the noise of the world. Because when we are distracted by the world we miss God.

So what can we do about all of this? I.m glad you asked. What we can do is work to incorporate the spiritual discipline of silence to be a regular feature of our lives. So am I saying that we should sit in a room without any sound (minus ambient noise, of course) for an hour every day? Well, if that.s what is most helpful to us then sure, but I suspect that won.t be the case for the majority of the people in this room. The thing about the spiritual disciplines is that they intentionally create space in our lives to meet God. Just sitting quietly in a room for an hour doesn.t mean that we.ll meet God, let alone even think about Him. I mean, I can sit quietly in a room for hours and thinking about everything in the world but God. It.s like my own little fantasy world…wait…not supposed to talk about that in public. Seriously though, this is about regularly taking time to work on the discipline of shutting out the various distractions in our lives so that things which normally drown God out are silenced and we are in a better place to hear Him. Indeed, if we remove things from our lives that compete with God for our attention and don.t replace them with God we haven.t really accomplished anything constructive. In fact if we don.t fill those holes with God, we can rest assured that they will be filled by something and probably a worse something than was previously there. All that said, there are some specific things we can do to create periods of silence in our lives. We can take a fast from the radio and television for a period of time. Or we can work on not having the TV be part of the ambient noise of our homes. This might mean only turning the TV on to watch specific programs and then turning it back off. We can un-train ourselves to not reach for the radio button as soon as we get in our cars (maybe by taping a piece of paper that says “no” to the button. We could try going through a day speaking only when absolutely necessary as so not to be rude. The catch to all of this, again, is to fill these spaces with things that point us towards God and otherwise build our relationship with Him. With the television out of the background of our homes we can talk to more and listen better to our spouses. We can take time in the quiet of our vehicles to pray for various people and situations in our lives. When we are intentionally not talking (and thus are not focused on what we are going to say) we can be more observant of what.s going on around us which will put us in a better place to respond to a situation should God call us. After all, when we are distracted by the world we miss God.

At least equal in importance to all of these is taking time to listen to God in the silence. When Elijah “heard” God in the silence on the mountain, he still wasn.t listening. God asked him the same question a second time: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah responded exactly like he did the first time.
Fortunately God was gracious to speak directly what He wanted Elijah to hear; but I can.t help but wondering if things would have been any different had Elijah really been listening. How many times in our own lives would things have turned out differently if we had only been listening? In order to listen to God well, just like listening to other people, we have to clear our minds of other things. This is tricky because God doesn.t often speak in an audible voice like people around us do. Without anything to actively listen to our minds begin to wander. We start thinking about anything and everything but God. Hear well: this is normal and don.t let it discourage you. A helpful way to train (or, discipline) ourselves to be able to focus more quickly and intently
on God is an exercise called Centering Prayer. This is a way to gently clear our minds of these stray thoughts that take us away from God.s side. This kind of prayer has no audible words, but rather a simple word or phrase that describes God which is meaningful to us. It could be just about anything: “God be near;” “Jesus, I love you;” “Speak, Lord;” “Hope;” “God is my rock;” or anything else that carries meaning for you. Personally, because of my relationship with my dad, the word “Father” is what I use. With this phrase in mind we focus on it, repeating it gently in our heads, and letting all other thoughts gradually fall away. Eventually, our minds will be clear and our hearts open to hear from our heavenly Father. Now, like anything activity which requires a level of discipline, we are not going to be instant Centering Prayer All-Stars. At first, we might only be able to sustain this focus for a few minutes. But, with the Holy Spirit.s help, if we make this an intentional practice in our lives, we will eventually train ourselves to quickly clear our minds so that we are in a place to be able to hear from God. When we are distracted by the world we miss God, but as we learn to intentionally shut out the world from time to time, we can learn to see Him in all sorts of remarkable places.

Now, at the beginning of our conversation I said that I was going to be intentional about providing opportunities in each service to practice the particular spiritual discipline we are discussing as a group. This morning I want to take three minutes to silently practice the Centering Prayer together. Think of a word or phrase that has meaning to you this morning, try not to look at your watches, and with your eyes closed if you are not in danger of falling asleep, focus on your word or phrase as you gently rest in God.s presence. In three minutes I will pray for us and we.ll be dismissed to lunch down in the fellowship hall. Let us silently seek God together.