Psalm 13 (VT #728), Psalm 46:10 (VT #730), Romans 8:26 (VT #729), Philippians 4:4-7 (VT #726)
As you probably noticed, all of our Bible passages for today are taken from one page of our hymnal, all on the theme of prayer. I especially like the way they linked the last three scripture passages together, with one flowing into the next.
Psalm 13 (VT 728) begins with a question for God, a prayer that might be familiar to you, or may become familiar to you at some point in your life: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”
The psalmist feels alone, abandoned. And she reaches out to God for companionship, for God to show up in her life, to draw close. Then we have, almost as a response, a verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans (VT 729), a word of promise about the Holy Spirit, the presence of God. When we don’t know how to pray, when we’re overwhelmed with our weakness, with our lack, with our inability, with our desperation—when we’re alone with ourselves, Paul reassures us, the Spirit of God joins in our prayer, interceding with our sighs, with our sighs that are deeper than words.
And, finally, the last passage, the final scripture on the page is a single verse from the Psalms—it’s actually half a verse. “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10, VT 730). In the chapter as a whole, in Psalm 46, this verse pops out from all the others because God interrupts the Psalmist’s prayer. The chapter, as a whole, is written in the voice of the Psalmist, crying out to God—then, all of a sudden, God shows up with these words, this call to be still. “Be still and know that I am God.”
In our stillness, we know God. Stillness is hard. I mean, I’m pretty good at the stillness that looks like laying on the coach, watching Netflix. I’ve got that kind of stillness down to a perfect art. But I think the kind of stillness God is talking about has more to do with the clutter in my head, the flightiness of my thoughts, my mind awash in activity, with worries, with concerns, with disappointments, with failures, with frustrations, with lists of everything I have to do, with what I could have done better, with what I don’t want to do but know I have to do at some point, maybe tomorrow, or maybe tonight before I go to bed, if I remember.
The stillest my mind has ever been, I think, was sometime after the eighteenth mile of a marathon I ran in Bethlehem, in Palestine, several years ago. I was on a long stretch of empty road. I had left one refugee camp and another was ahead in the distance. All I remember was the pounding in my feet, the impact of the asphalt at the end of each stride, the bluntness of the rhythm. Everything was quiet, except for the thud of my shoes. Then, the startle of the call to prayer from a mosque somewhere. Then the sound of another call to prayer from somewhere else, another mosque. After the voices faded away, I realized that I couldn’t think about anything, that my head was a blank screen, I was too tired for even a thought to cross my mind. “Be still and know that I am God.”
That stillness brings the knowledge of God has something to do with the fact that we’re always coming up with reasons to believe in God, or making up a God who we can believe in. I think it was John Calvin, the great church reformer, who talked about our minds as idolatry workshops—the human mind as a perpetual forge of idols. We’re always producing images of God, which means we’re always crafting God with human images. That’s not horrible, since we’re human beings after all, and we can’t really get away from being human.
But I think this verse from the Psalm reminds us that we’re always busy with making up God’s identity, a God we can relate to—which is fine, as long as remember that underneath all of that, before the metaphors, before the words, in the sighs too deep for words, there’s an emptiness, a nothingness, and God is there too; that, perhaps, when we tire ourselves out with our busy minds and hearts, when we exhaust ourselves with our worries and concerns, that we can be reassured that we’ll collapse into God, because there’s nowhere else.
We cannot go where God is not, I think that’s how we put it in one of our benedictions. In the emptiness, in the nothingness, is God. In the stillness, before and after our thoughts, God is there.
I know that our worship services are anything but still. We’re here after all, and we’re people, and people move around, which is good, because that means we’re alive, we’re breathing. But I think that worship, what we do here, is a kind of venture into the stillness of God, the stillness that God offers us as the presence of the Holy Spirit. Here, we offer our thoughts and words and activity to God as a collective prayer, as a kind of sacrifice of our doing, our making, our work—worship as a kind of prayer that empties us of ourselves, of what we carry with us, in an offering to God, as we entrust ourselves and our world to God.
Our worship service is one long prayer. We are called to worship with a prayer, an opening litany, then we sing songs that are prayers, then someone else offers a congregational prayer on our behalf, and the preacher usually prays before the sermon, prayer as a kind of framework for all the words and thoughts involved in the sermon and our response, then you take turns speaking thanksgivings and concerns during an open time of sharing, and finally the worship leader returns for a prayer of benediction before we go home.
There are, of course, other parts of our worship, but everything we do fits into the category of prayer: even our collection of tithes is an offering our work, our lives, to God’s service.
We pray. That’s what church is for us, a collective prayer. We pray for the world, for the church, for the needs in our community, in our neighborhoods, in our homes; we pray for ourselves, for family and strangers, for friends and enemies; we ask for the peace of Christ and the comfort of the Holy Spirit; we pray against oppression and violence, against the insidious powers of sin and death in all their manifestations. There’s so much to pray against, and for. And we offer all of it to God, in prayer.
There’s an old word in the Mennonite tradition that captures this posture of prayer that we learn through worship. Gelassenheit in German, yieldedness in English. Our Anabaptist spirituality is all about our yieldedness to God, how we open ourselves to God’s will, God’s presence—a posture of welcoming, of reception, to the movement of the Spirit in our lives.
That’s what we do here, as we pray. We yield to God. And, as we spend time here, together, through worship, in a posture of yieldedness, we learn how to receive each other as from God. The one who heard our prayers, has now sent us each other as companions along the way, as gift of the Spirit, as wonders of God in human flesh. To be still and know that God is God is how we make room in our lives for others, for us to welcome one another as sent by God.
Worship is a kind of stretching, or reaching out to God with each other, body movements for our spirits, as we pray, together, “How long, O God, will you hide your face from us?”
And we listen for God’s response—a stillness there before and after the jumble of our thoughts, in the sighs of breath before and after our words, and we learn to see the face of God somehow in the blur of all of God’s images at once, some kind of likeness there in all of our faces together.
 John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, I.11.8.