Have you ever wondered why I leave such a long period of silence at the beginning of our opening prayer in Sunday School? “What the heck is she waiting for?” you might wonder. The answer is simple: I’m waiting for God.
I learned this from Elijah. Do you remember the story where Elijah encounters God at Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19: 1-18)? Elijah was running away from Jezebel’s death threat against him after he had bested her prophets in a barbeque contest (and you thought Memphians took their barbeque seriously!). He fled to the desert, contemplated suicide, and then hauled himself to Horeb after an angel gave him water and honeycakes. *When he arrives at the mountain, Elijah experiences an earthquake, a strong wind, and a consuming fire, but God is not in any of these. At long last, Elijah hears “the sound of sheer silence,” and knowing that this silence signals the transforming presence of God, he covers his face with his mantle and steps out to the entrance of the cave to meet his God. Ultimately, God does speak to Elijah, but only after preparing him through silence. First Elijah must remember that God is not a creature, not even a creature like the powerful forces of nature. Elijah must experience the profound otherness of God – an otherness that cannot be contained and manipulated for human ends through human speech. The silence confounds Elijah’s natural impulse to let speech stand in for God and to order God to his own purposes. It is in the silence that God effects a theocentric reversal of perspective for Elijah. Elijah does not find God; God finds Elijah.
The silence before worship [or a Sunday School prayer] functions in a similar way for us. It effects a theocentric reversal of perspective. In our fallenness and fragmentation, we often come to worship seeking a god to do our bidding; but in the silence preceding worship, God finds us, and in finding us, re-locates us within God’s broader purposes for creation. In silence, we remember that we do not provide the ultimate meaning and purpose of creation, and we rediscover ground for hope in the knowledge that genuine human flourishing arises from locating ourselves within the limits set for us by God whose purposes we serve.
Speech is sometimes a form of control. It can involve a kind of cognitive mastery of one’s environment. There is power in naming, and perhaps this is why God refuses to give us a singular name by which we might call on God. Because giving up speech involves giving up this power, we are often uncomfortable with silence and seek to fill it, if not with sound, then at least with familiar thought. We want to use silent time “efficiently,” making mental notes of what we need to do after worship or thinking through some problem we want to bring to God in prayer. But the silence before worship is not designed for us to focus on ourselves, our needs, our wants, or our list of things to do. It is designed to reorient our religious affections theocentrically. Silence can become the occasion for quieting the constant stream of self-talk that fills our heads. Silence can become the occasion for de-centering ourselves so that we are open to feeling the presence of God in our lives.#
So there you have it. I’m waiting for God. This Sunday, I hope you’ll wait with me.
*The section of this blog post until the pound sign (#) is lifted from Shaping the Christian Life: Worship and the Religious Affections, which Matt and I wrote several years ago.