Last weekend, Randy Harris, from Abilene Christian University, spent a day with our new missional leadership cohort at Rochester College, helping them to write a shared rule of life. Randy’s the guy to do this work, and we get so much more than rule of life help. He says things every 30 seconds or so which challenges us to more and deeper.
For instance, he was talking about being attentive to God and how important the contemplative life is to that end. Along the way he noticed a text from Habakkuk 2 in which idols are compared with the living God. The thing about an idol is that it doesn’t speak or do anything. You have to supply all the energy. In contrast, Habbakkuk says, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab 2:20). We keep still because God is active. Randy then said something to the effect that most efforts at worship renewal appear to him to be more pagan than Christian. We’re working up a performance because we’re not sure God is doing anything. Too harsh?
I don’t remember the last time I sang the song, “The Lord is in his Holy Temple,” in worship. But here’s the thing I remember about that song. It has a four beat measure of silence toward the end in which no one sings. I never encountered a song leader who treated that measure as anything more than a brief pause. We were never silent for four beats. We couldn’t endure it. It was too awkward. Which is totally ironic, given the intent of Habakkuk 2 and the parallel intent of the songwriter.
The fact that we never seem to sing this song anymore and, could never be silent when we did, seems to me to be a parable of sorts that might indicate Randy is on to something.
Most congregations I attend have no space for reflection, no moments when we are invited to be still or silent. When there is silence, it is typically because someone has missed their cue to lead a prayer or read a Scripture, etc. And everyone fidgets in these moments, embarrassed at the lack of performance. We cannot abide silence. I cringe to think that our assemblies might be closer to Amos 5, “Take away from me the noise of your songs,” than Habakkuk 2, “Let all the earth keep silence before him.”
In fact, this might be an important way the church learns to serve the world. My wife, Donna, and I were talking about this and she noted how even when we are asked to observe a moment of silence in the wake of a tragedy at a public event like a ballgame, those moments used to be much longer than the brief pauses we now observe. A few posts ago, I noticed that silence is now a luxury commodity to be sold, for instance in the premium flyer lounges at airports, or with apps that allow you to avoid pop-up ads for a small fee. We are trained not to be attentive, not to be still, not to be silent.
This is an instance of the larger cultural environment, constantly bombarding us with information, influencing the way we worship. It should be the other way around. The way we worship should prepare us to live a life not given to us by the principalities and powers of the age. And that life should be attentive, because our God is no dumb idol.
So, what if our Sunday worship took Habakkuk’s distinction as the starting place for worship planning? What if silence was a prime indicator of belief in a living God? What if worship was intended to form us for greater attentiveness in the world? Would we sing less? (In my experience, we could sing less and still be singing a lot). Would we have fewer powerpoint slides? Would we have more moments for reflection? Would our sermons be less performance oriented? Would worship be a space for slowing down? I think these are things worth thinking about.