My Struggle with Silence

Photo © Michael Moran/Otto

Photo © Michael Moran/Otto

I am charismatic, in the theological sense of the word, so I think it goes without saying that I like speaking in tongues. Somehow this gives me peace and directs my thoughts to God and often I receive revelations as I go off in this mysterious language. Tongues is very much a part of my devotions as well as my daily life. Some of my most powerful spiritual experiences the past year were when I worked at a grocery store and I would mutter in tongues under my breath while putting the produce out.

There are times, though, where I need to not speak in tongues and embrace silence. Silence can be a bit more challenging.

As soon as I start praying in tongues, I find myself feeling lighter and more ‘spiritual’. Yet silence confronts me in my humanity; to reach out for God in this state is difficult. I have all sorts of thoughts flooding in, often completely random—like scenes from horror movies I watched 5-10 years ago or I start thinking about my friend Tori’s dog, Stella. Perhaps that is why this is a discipline I so desperately need. Thank God I’m a Quaker.

I think from time to time I may use tongues to fill up my spirituality quota for the day, and though I may receive revelations from God as I speak in tongues, it may also be my way of drowning out the voice of God. I am sure it edifies my spirit but the truth is my escapist tendencies creep their way it into my life with the Spirit. I am a bit scared that I may pray in known and unknown languages so often in order to avoid silence.

In silence, I direct myself to God and intentionally wait on him, seeking dialogue and guidance. In silence, I put down my ambitions and say, “you do you, God”, and I slowly receive things to intercede about or things to reflect on or verses to dwell on or words to hold on to. Or I just find stillness and peace; a presence that centers me.

In silence, I get frustrated, bored, and annoyed—but also, I grow in patience, finding greater glory in the small things, sensing and experiencing Christ’s presence even more fully. I can really hate this silence thing, but, my God, it is a gift.

Held in the Light

J. Doyle Penrose's "Presence in the Midst"

J. Doyle Penrose’s “Presence in the Midst”

Something I have come to really appreciate that I have experienced during Quaker meeting is ‘holding someone in the Light’. Towards the end of some meetings, especially among the non-Evangelical variety, there is some time left for those in the meeting to name people that need to be held in the Light (and they often give reasons for why this is needed), and a moment of silence is given to do just that.

Now I cannot tell you what everybody is doing during that silence or how intercessory this practice is for those sharing this moment (especially in a meeting that may have nontheists), but I have heard a few people describe it as a practice of petitioning God by imagining those named consumed by Light.

A powerful aspect of this form of prayer is that you do not get into specifics and you are not trying to push a certain outcome out of God. All you are doing is trusting the Light with the one you love, hoping and believing that Love will have her way. In this way, it reminds me of a lot of the charismatic/Pentecostal practice of praying in tongues, or glossolalia. Those who pray in tongues often speak of not knowing what to say in prayer or having something in their spirit that needs to be spoken, though they are unable to cognitively understand what exactly that may be, so they submit their mouth to the Holy Spirit and allow her to speak forth what needs to be spoken in an unknown tongue.

The major difference is that one of these practices is almost completely imaginative and is a very focused, internal experience, whereas tongues-speaking is vocal and can even lead to a physical experience of the Spirit. That does not mean glossolalia is not at all an enriching experience for one’s interior life, for many who practice this ‘gift of the Spirit’ often incorporate visualization and actually make their devotional tongues a form of contemplative prayer.

As somebody who is charismatically-inclined, I do believe in the value of vocal prayer, both in one’s native tongue and in unknown spiritual languages. Though language is often limiting, it is important, especially if you believe your spiritual life is primarily built upon a relationship with God. Having said that, I admit that holding people in the Light has become a huge part of my own prayer life and has liberated many of my prayers from being fueled by anxiety and fear and taught me to trust even deeper.

Throughout the day I come before God holding people in the Light, placing them in God’s hands, believing that Love will have her way. I even hold myself in the Light throughout the day, receiving the free gift of God’s presence wherever I am, believing that I am embraced and cared for constantly and unconditionally. It’s centering; it helps me see life through the lens of the God who is love, it postures my heart to love more fully, and sanctifies my imagination. I don’t know if I am ‘holding people in the Light’ the right way–afterall, I am an amateur Quaker–but I know I benefit from it greatly and it’s another reason I am thankful for these 11-months of Quaker immersion.

More Than a Story

“The Son is the image of the invisible God…” Colossians 1:15a

To be honest, sometimes I hardly believe in God. It’s not just doubt, but God and faith and all of that spiritual stuff seem so beyond me. I wish I could say I mean that in some powerful, mystical way, like I am just so overcome by God, but I don’t. I mean it in an anxious, worn-out way. It’s more like God is a distant theory that I cannot wrap my mind or heart around.

I am kind of going through one of those periods right now where I hardly believe in God, if you really want me to be honest. In these times where I cannot sense his closeness and I am unmoved by both testimonies and the words of everyone’s beloved N.T. Wright, I can only hold on to the gospel: Christ and him crucified.

Crucifixion (after Delacroix), oil on canvas, 40×30 cm

This gospel of the Crucified God is what keeps me holding on. It’s a story that defies every narrative about the almighty God, as it was through Christ’s life laid down for all creation that the most glorious mysteries are revealed. Power itself is redefined through this sacrifice, as he humbles himself to the point of torture and crucifixion and then bursts forth gloriously in resurrection.

There is power in weakness. There is glory in sacrifice. There is hope for the broken, the lost, the hurting, and the dead.

The violence of humanity is confronted at the cross, and a new way is declared. A whole new order is established; a new existence is created. The last are first and the marginalized and oppressed are lifted up. That is the gospel of the Kingdom.

This story is sometimes the only apologetic that reaches my heart and motivates me to follow God. Sometimes God seems so beyond me, and he even can seem a bit cruel and silly, but if he looks like Jesus, I need to follow him. This gospel, this Kingdom, this Jesus—it’s the most beautiful story I have ever heard.

And I don’t know if this makes sense, but perhaps it is too beautiful to just be a story. I’m inclined to believe that this story’s beauty is beyond the work of man’s imagination. Five years ago, when I fell on my knees and claimed faith in Christ, clueless to how such a procedure should go down, I don’t think I just fell in love with a beautiful story. I am pretty sure fell in love with a beautiful person.

Remembering all of this may not immediately stir my heart or even cause me to be confident in the reality of God (though sometimes it does), but it gives me enough courage to take one step forward in following Jesus.

So Far on the Pendle Hill Hike

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You may or may not know this about me but I am currently a part of the Quaker Voluntary Service. (If you know me, you know this, especially since I have blasted every outlet of communication with obnoxious fundraising tactics—sorry, not sorry.) That means I am spending the next 11-months living in an intentional community, where I am practicing Quaker disciplines and living out the Quaker way with 5 other volunteers, as well as serving as an intern with a nonprofit in town.

So basically I am having some good, clean Quaker fun for about a year.

I know, I know: I am blessed. This really is a rare and special opportunity, and I am beyond thankful for the Quaker communities in the area, as well as the nonprofits cooperating with QVS and those who personally helped fund me, making this opportunity possible. And I love the work I am called to with the American Friends Service Committee, and I am really thankful for all the Quakerism I will get to experience this upcoming year. But as I am being immersed in Quakerism in a city that has Quaker meetings and churches, programmed and unprogrammed, Liberal and Evangelical, I have been confronted by something that I am coming to see as a goal. This so far unspoken ‘goal’ of mine has been sitting in me for awhile now but I have not known exactly how to approach it. This goal being me figuring out how the hell I fit into the Religious Society of Friends—or if I even do!

It is no secret that I have been interested in Quaker history and spirituality for a few years now. How George Fox, Margaret Fell, and Robert Barclay articulated the gospel of Jesus Christ does not just resonate with me but inspires me—and the same goes with their, and other Quakers’, stories. How Quakerism has historically valued contemplation, simplicity, community, and peace is glorious. I love that! I love “holding people in the Light”! I love the sacramental nature of… life itself! I love how the Quaker testimonies have driven so many people to be radical! And yes, no branch perfectly expresses my own convictions, but still something in me is… convinced. Is that the right word? Have I become convinced that Quakerism is true? I think I have. Maybe the form of Quakerism I have found to be true is some idealized version that only exists in my head and maybe this is me romanticizing a culture and community so that I can finally have a home, but I cannot deny that I am inspired by the vision of Quakerism—even if that may be just my vision. It looks too much like Jesus and reeks so much of the gospel that I cannot help but pursue whatever this is.

No matter what happens, I intend on being faithful to Jesus wherever he leads me. How the the Religious Society of Friends fits into it all is beyond me, but I am thankful for this year of immersion with Friends. Perhaps I will get some hints throughout the year on how to go about this whole Quaker-thing. I hope I do. More than that, though, I hope I can see Christ more fully for who he is, in his love and glory, and realize his gospel more powerfully in my own life. I think the impact of Quakerism in my life probably cannot be undone at this point, and I am at least thankful for that.

Hold me in the Light as I serve with my house, my meeting, and the American Friends Service Committee–and as I pursue Christ among Friends. This is a fascinating, beautiful, and wildly different season of my life where much discernment is needed. Trust God for me, for I am unable to claim that my faith is perfect. I know how this whole following Jesus, God, the Light, Love, etc., can be–it’s not easy, but I am glad we can lean on each other. And may you be blessed wherever you are on your own journey.