Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Promise of Ministry III: The Sound of Silence

Silence. The echo resounds as 200 people slowly and silently depart the sanctuary after morning prayer. We began our silence at 9:00 this morning and will break it at noon. Some have eagerly awaited this opportunity since the conference began while others shift nervously at the idea of being alone with themselves and with God for three whole hours. As I pointed out to several friends yesterday, silence really has nothing to do with not talking. The practice of not speaking is simply a tool that makes possible the creation of inner space in which the voice of God can speak. And so we ended morning prayer this morning by saying "speak, God, for your servant is listening."

Evening prayer last night lifted up the faithfulness of God, something that is easy to lose sight of as the realities of ministry are explored in detail during the course of the conference. At morning prayer this morning we introduced a bowl of incense that we borrowed from the Episcopal Church right across the street from the seminary, symbolizing our prayers rising up to God. Tonight we will have prayers around the cross in the style of the Taize Community, who I will be visiting in just a few short weeks. The biggest difference in the conference this year as opposed to the past two years is that this year I am focused on worship. The worship has always been the most striking thing to me about the FTE conferences I have attended, but this year it is really the entire thrust of my being here as a returning fellow. Even as it can be sometimes frustrating and fast paced, there is something truly wonderful about being given the opportunity to create the space for others that was created for me by others at the last two conferences. Before I would enter the chapel for morning and evening prayer and it was there that I was able to bring the new things I learned and the new experiences I had to God, but now I am responsible for creating the space in which over 200 other people are able to do the same thing. There is something appropriate about this taking place just after I have been ordained a deacon and my function in the church has been forever changed. Before, as a lay person, it was appropriate for me to be there in the space that had been created on my behalf even as my very presence shaped the space, and now, as an ordained clergy person, it is appropriate that my role reflects my function in the body of Christ. I find deep peace in that.

The returning fellows stayed in the chapel late into last night stringing beads for short chaplets for use in the chapel service this morning and during the time of silence. During our arts and crafts project, we shared about our faith and bounced around many of the questions that seminarians are want to discuss at any available moment, questions of denomination, theology, hermeneutics, and practice. For some reason, last night I was speechless, which those of you who know me realize is a rare occasion, and those of you who do not know me can probably figure out from the length of my posts. It was as though for me the silence had begun early, not a silence adopted for the purpose of the practice but a deep silence that welled up from God deep within my soul. The questions that were bouncing around the group were the types of questions that I love to dive in and tackle and take apart and analyze and discuss and dispute and even sometimes put back together, but last night I had the sense that any answer would have been inappropriate. I was content to sit and listen and string beads on fishing line. As I considered this experience even as it was taking place, I realized that I have every confidence that I could provide some sort of answer, perhaps even a good answer, to any of those questions, but that doing so, at least then and there, would have been unnecessary, inappropriate, superfluous, and utterly inadequate. Later people in the group asked me questions about the Lindisfarne Community and I responded, but it seemed out of place to speak even as I provided the best explanation I could. There was an existential shift in those moments, a few moments of transcendence beyond the questions and the answers to a deep, profound, even erotic desire for communion with God and with God's people. Now I wonder if this experience is in any way tied to the ontological change that I believe occurs in ordination. Is this an experience of my very being having been shifted? I do not know. That is the best answer I can give to this question, and it was the best answer I could give to any of the questions last night. I have no answers, not real answers, only prayers.

A cool rain has subdued the broiling temperatures here in Austin. It is appropriate that rain accompanies our silence. Rain washes and cleanses the earth and provides sustenance for plants, animals and people. Silence washes and cleanses our souls and sustains us in God's Spirit. Our prayers rise before God as incense, the lifting of our hands as a morning sacrifice. The echo of silence resounds in our souls, effecting our kenosis (self-emptying) to prepare the way for the coming of the pleroma (fullness) of Christ.

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