Yesterday a friend of mine spoke about the “still, small voice of God” and the need to be quiet in order to hear God’s voice. It’s not often that we hear a message in church about being silent, or the value of times of quiet reflection. But it’s possible to take a concern for the practice of silence and its use in preaching and ministry even further.
As Henri Nouwen observes, “If it is true that the word of Scripture should lead us into the silence of God, then we must be careful to use that word not simply as an interesting or motivating word, but as a word that creates the boundaries within which we can listen to the loving, caring, gentle presence of God” (The Way of The Heart, Ballantine Books, 1983, page 44).
“The simple words ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ can be spoken quietly and persistently in such a way that they become like a hedge around a garden in which God’s shepherding can be sensed . . .These words . . . can slowly descend from the mind into the heart. There they may offer the context in which an inner transformation, by the God who transcends all human words and concepts, can take place” (page 45).
So silence can shape a kind of meditative preaching in which time to reflect, time for silent meditation, time for listening prayer, time for the Spirit’s own work, time for God’s living Word, are all more important than the many words that are usually the centerpiece of most ordinary sermons.
As for counseling and silence, Nouwen observes
“it is also possible to experience the relationship between pastor and counselee as a way of entering together into the loving silence of God and waiting there for the healing Word . . . pastoral counseling is the attempt to lead fearful parishioners into the silence of God, and to help them feel at home there, trusting that they will slowly discover the healing presence of the Spirit” (pages 45-46).
Perhaps Nouwen’s most relevant insight for ministers is his observation that “In a society in which entertainment and distraction are such important preoccupations, ministers are also tempted to join the ranks of those who consider it their primary task to keep other people busy” . . . instead “the question that must guide all organizing activity in a parish is not how to keep people busy, but how to keep them from being so busy that they can no longer hear the voice of God who speaks in silence” (pages 46-47).
Nouwen adds one final caution to this series of reflections: “Charity, not silence is the purpose of the spiritual life and of ministry.” Be sure to wrap your preaching, counseling, and organizing in the love of God and a genuine love for His people.