The Need for Silence

So often we try to convey or communicate the character and work of God to others by stepping up the noise and the activity; and yet for God to communicate who and what God is, God needs our silence.

– Rowan Williams, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, 98

The spiritual life involves speaking and not speaking.

In speaking, we issue invitations. We draw attention and take action. We converse, convince, and persuade. We do.

In not speaking, we stop. We become silent. We are still. We listen, contemplate, and consider. We be.

The church has always needed heralds. Romans 10:17 says, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” In Romans 10:13 we find, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In Romans 10:14-15, Paul asks, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”

The logic is easy to follow. The person who hears and responds in faith does so following a proclamation of the message of and about Jesus, brought by another person who has been called and sent forth for that task.

The best gospel ministry marries proclamation to demonstration. We are told what the kingdom of God is like, but then we see it, it is put on display. In Matthew 4:23, we read that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” There is not only speaking, but activity.

And yet to plumb the depths of God, to know who God is and what God is doing, there comes a time for silence. Psalm 46:10 says, ““Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” In Psalm 62:5, we read, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.” Lamentations 3:26 reads, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”

Even Jesus withdrew to lonely places to pray. Jesus surely spoke. But he also surely took time to listen, away from the noise, the activity, and the constant demands.

Ecclesiastes 3:7 reminds us, there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” Observe each in its own time, do not neglect either. There is speaking and not speaking. There is action and stillness. There is doing and being.

God call us to both.

The Practice of the Shepherd

In our examples of Christian leadership, we too often emphasize getting others merely to do as they are told. In this way the church largely conforms to the leadership structures of the world. Indeed, leadership is normally an empty euphemism when applied to our standard communal efforts, whether in a church or outside it.

To manipulate, drive or manage people is not the same thing as to lead them. The sheepdog forcibly maneuvers the sheep, whereas the biblical shepherd simply calls as he calmly walks ahead of the sheep. This distinction between sheepdog and the shepherd is profoundly significant for how leaders of Christ’s people think of their work. We must ask ourselves frequently which role we are fulfilling and constantly return ourselves, if necessary, to the practice of the shepherd.

– Dallas Willard, Hearing God, 107

This passage from Willard has long been one of my favorites because he captures the essential nature of the pastoral task, which is to lead others in the “manner and spirit” demonstrated by Jesus, described here as the practice of the shepherd.

Too often, pastors think they are responsible for enforcing behavioral conformity, minimizing conflict by correctly navigating congregational power dynamics, or for successfully executing a strategic plan or vision. And while faithful shepherding may involve correcting and rebuking those who err, protecting the flock from danger, creating an environment where all brothers and sisters in the fellowship relate peaceably with one another, and discerning God’s leading for the congregation and leading all to walk according to God’s prescribed path, the manner and spirit in which these things are done, when they are done in the way of Jesus, differs markedly from the ways of leadership we commonly find in the world.

Jesus claimed he was the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). In doing so, Christ pulled together threads found across the Old Testament that speak of God as the true and loving shepherd of a people God has claimed as his own. Christ remains our Good Shepherd. Those who serve him, both men and women, are called to lead in a way that reflects his person and character. Willard writes, “When we lead as shepherds, our confidence is in only one thing: the word of the Great Shepherd, coming through us or, otherwise, to his sheep.”

How is this possible? We are reminded that Jesus knows his sheep, and they know him, and they know and listen to his voice (John 10:1-16). This is the way we should want it. Willard says, “We do not want them to follow another, even if we ourselves are that ‘other.'” We trust that God has called the congregation together, that the Spirit has been given to them, that we have limited responsibilities as servants and shepherds, and that Christ is the head of the church.

This understanding of the pastoral task, of course, is congregational. That is another reason I think it is so helpful, and so needed. It is a way of leading not only for pastors, but for the body, who respond together to the leading of Christ. Willard states, “Following the practice of the shepherd, we would never stoop to drive, manipulate or manage, relying only on the powers inherent in unassisted human nature (see 1 Peter 4:11). Not only that but the undershepherds (pastors of God) count on their flock to minister the word of God…to them. Ministry of the word is never a one-way street when it is functioning rightly in any group.”

Leading in this manner requires a quiet confidence in the power of God, a steady commitment to teaching the congregation the Scriptures, and demonstration of holiness in heart and life.

This also requires the rejection of all other ways of leadership and a form of servitude that can only be learned by putting aside oneself and putting on Jesus Christ. Paradoxically, that is both the hardest part, and, in the end, the easiest way, for while trusting in Jesus requires the abandonment of all that we are and all that we have, it brings to us the return of eternal and abundant life.

A Meaningful Life?

The key to a meaningful life is to know God and enjoy fellowship with God, the source of all joy, now and forever.

But that is not so easy. Why? Because we are acclimated to another climate, a different set of ideas, a frame that is foreign, so oppositional to that God, that while we might long for that kind of fellowship and companionship and constant joy, and even though we may even taste it fleetingly, momentarily, we will find ourselves feeling pulled, by an orbital force, away from that God. We will attempt to center our universe elsewhere, because until we meet that God, our universe is centered elsewhere, centered on another reign, another rule, a different set of priorities and objectives.

Some call this “the world.” Until we see otherwise, the world is all we know.  It is tangible, visceral. Its impulses and key stories are our impulses and key stories, no matter how good-natured and kind we may be, or think we may be. For the forces of this world, the powers and principalities, are subtle and complex, not to mention seductive. They exert influence not only in the domain of our choices, but on our motivations. They not only warp our vision of what is ultimately good, but our character, which is vital for our ability, in the end, to choose and to do what is good. These “powers and principalities,” if I may call them such (for the Bible does), are manifold and multi-form, visible and invisible.

This is why the Christian message of salvation, or good news, is so startling. It moves us from one realm to another, from darkness to light, from one way of seeing to another, from one set of rules to a new understanding of rules altogether. A meaningful life, one that rings out in eternity, is one that is part of eternity now, one that lives by a dissonant sets of principles and commitments from that which is familiar.

When Jesus entered the world, he did so as true light, as God. Jesus came preaching, yes, but he also enacted and embodied an alternative reality. He called this the kingdom of God. Some theologians today speak of this as the reign of God, or God’s family, or God’s eternal kinship. Whatever you call it, this reality was his message. And as he preached, enacted, demonstrated and embodied this message, Jesus was, in a sense, displaying the fullness of meaning. His life demonstrates, in a deeply profound way, what it means to live a life of purpose, vocation, harmony, and blessing, a life that lasts. Nothing Jesus did was in vain, for all was done for the glory of God and for the good of this world, according to the plans and purposes that had been appointed specifically for him.

This is why Jesus was rejected. His life was in dissonance with everything else that had ever been in this world. But his life was, in actual fact, the true song, the song everlasting. His words and his deeds, they still ring out. For while they were done and said within time, they transcend time. In his life, he accomplished the most meaningful thing that has ever been done.

And because of this, we may find meaning by no longer living for ourselves, but by dying and being made alive in Christ.