28 October 2010
God as Silence?
In August 2010 I travelled to Chicago for the ELCA conference Follow Me: Sharing the Gospel in a 2.0 World. One of the highlights was catching up with my friend and colleague, Pastor Martin Malzahn and having dinner with Martin and his then fiancee Vanessa.
During our meal Vanessa asked me, “So, what is your image of God?” While God is, of course, right at the heart of things, and our own image(s) of God are such a powerful influence on the ways we live out our faith, we rarely ask or get asked this question. For Lutherans, I think, this seems like an impolite theological question - there might be too much sharing involved.
The Bible is filled with various images of God. In the Hebrew Scriptures God walks through the Garden of Eden, appears to Moses in a Burning Bush, speaks to Elijah in a still small voice. Jesus is God and an image of God. So is the Holy Spirit, who appears as flame, wind, and a dove. Like the Bible, we all have multiple images of God that we carry around, images that help us to relate to God in different ways at different times.
When Vanessa asked her question, I had to pause. I closed my eyes there in the restaurant and looked into my heart. It only took a few seconds, though it felt much longer. I opened my eyes, looked up and said, “Silence. My image of God is silence.” The answer surprised Vanessa - and it really surprised me.
It was one of those moments where the answer you give, what you say, actually surprises you, and gives you a new insight about what you really think or believe.
“My image of God is silence.” I had never given that answer before.· I had never even thought it to myself.· I had never included it among my images of God. But it was true and right.
I explained the best I could. For me, my deepest experience of prayer - and my preferred way to pray - is silent prayer, prayer without words.· In the silence, I try to open my heart to God, just as God’s heart is always open to me. It is a wordless communication. I can just offer up all my thoughts, feelings, concerns, and hopes to God without naming, enumerating, formulating, or editing. For me, it can be a prayer experience of great freedom.
For me, the image of God as Silence does not connote absence or emptiness, the way we often think of silence - like an awkward pause, a lull in the conversations, something to be avoided - as the lack of something. Just the opposite. The great Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich described God as the ground upon which all being is based.· For me, the silence connotes the constant presence described by Tillich. Silence is underneath everything - under the layers of words, noise, music, television in our daily lives.· Under everything is silence.· It is always there, but it is obscured.· Just like God.
My answer to Vanessa’s question revealed to me just how much shaped I have been by the Christian contemplative tradition of spirituality, which incorporates silent prayer and retreat.· It is a spirituality that is most often practiced in monasteries, but dates back to the earliest days of the Christian church and has been practiced and made popular by people like Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris, and Richard Rohr. My journey in the contemplative tradition began for me around the time of my sabbatical through my experiences at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, D.C., although I can trace it back to Divinity School with my interest in Christian Spirituality and worship at the Episcopal monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.
So, what is your image of God?· Give it some thought.· Give it some space and prayer. You just might be surprised, and I bet you will learn something about your faith and spiritual life in the process. If it’s helpful, unpack it a little bit by talking about it, journaling, drawing or doing some kind of artwork.
If you are willing to share, I would love to hear about it.