I want you to imagine you are sitting in Carnegie Hall or the Sydney Opera House, waiting for a concert to commence, featuring a magnificent Symphony Orchestra. However, before magnificence, you must experience chaos. The sound of the musicians tuning their instruments is really odd. Screeching strings echo. Blasts come from the wind section. It is chaotic and unpleasant and you may be wondering how all that noise could actually become something beautiful. Finally, the conductor emerges from stage left. The audience erupts in applause as he takes his position on the conductor’s platform. Then he calmly raises his arms over his noisy orchestra – and there it is – the most important time of the whole evening and critically important to everything else which follows this moment: silence.
The time for tuning their instruments is over. The discordant noise is no longer. The conductor stands motionless, waiting for the total attention of every musician, each of whom at that point forgets about their experience, the tuning of their instrument, the people around them and the many more watching their every move. All they are focused on is the conductor and as he holds his arms up there – they remain focused and that essential silence continues – until finally, the conductor’s arms begin to move as magnificent, soul-stirring music begins.
Why is it so hard for those of us who find ourselves in the 21st century western Church to find the essential silence and focus only on the Conductor? Well, the picture I have just painted answers that for us today. Like an orchestra tuning their instruments, contemporary western Christianity is producing a lot chaotic and unpleasant noise in the name of God and the Church.
The dominant view of God as some kind of domesticated and practical deity Who is just there to meet our needs and bless our lives, has fuelled all kinds of conflicting preaching about His ways and His character and His mission. This noise reveals a failure to be still before the One who declared: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways .. for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Rather than adding to the noise, perhaps it is time for us to finally be silent, to be still, and to wait in quiet anticipation for God to begin a new work.
Leopold Stokowski, the composer who founded the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in 1945, once said this: “A painter paints his pictures on canvas, but musicians paint their pictures on silence.” Is it possible that God is waiting for us to be silent long enough so He can begin painting a new picture in our imaginations; as He begins to transform our image of a manageable God into One Who can truly inspire and transform and truly deliver on His promises?
As we seek to reverse this malformed view of God, perhaps we need to cover our mouths with our hands and humbly confess our ignorance like Job of the Old Testament who, when confronted with the reality of God’s otherness, said, “I have uttered what I did not know.” Perhaps that’s what God is waiting to hear most of all from His people today – the words, “I don’t know.” Maybe in the midst of the noise generated by all those who believe they do ‘know’, God is waiting for a people to emerge who are brought to their knees in humble admission that so much of what we have written, preached, prayed and sung in the name of God reveals more about our ignorance than what we really do know about God.
Does this mean we can know nothing about God apart from His existence? Of course not. But there is an important hierarchy to knowing; before we can know anything about God we must first humbly confess that we know nothing. We must recognise what Kierkegaard called the “infinite qualitative difference between God and man.” Like poor old Job, an honest relationship with God begins when we accept our finite condition as a creature and stop our futile attempts to contain God with our noisy words. Job’s humble silence before the grandeur of the Almighty, (see Job 40:1-5), was not an isolated event. The same human response has been recorded numerous times in both Scripture and history.
Modern Christianity, with its never-ending noise about its consumable god, can lead us to believe that our words and notions about God are of supreme importance. It has turned the modern Church into a noisy orchestra without harmony and fearful of silence. But humble silence offers us a liberation from the noise and the opportunity to experience the wonder of God and His grace anew. Silence can provide God the canvas to begin a new composition in our souls.
In today’s hectic, hurry-up environment, it is so easy to get trapped in our to-do lists, our family demands, and even our service to the Church and the community. In all that busyness and frenetic activity, we so often lose track of the one thing that is needed. Learning to cultivate intimacy with the Lord and keep Him in the centre of our lives and our ministry can be a real challenge in a world which continually bombards us with more and more opportunities to ‘do’ and less and less time to ‘be’.
This is so intoxicating when it happens in the Church and sometimes it takes years before we finally work out the difference between ‘doing things for God’ verses ‘being with God.’ Spending time with God will not get us out of doing the hard work – not at all – the fruit of that time in the presence of God will always be active ministry. The difference is, we will be working with God and not just for God. Our ministry will be God-initiated, not just God-honouring. There is a world of difference between those two. Working for God can be done without any personal relationship with or dependence upon God and there are ‘Martha’s’ all over the world working really hard for God. However, working with God is impossible to do without a personal relationship with and dependence upon God. Working with God requires us to join Mary at the Master’s feet – draw near to Him and abide in Him.
In Matthew 6:33 we read, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” The kingdom of God is the rule and reign of Jesus Christ. Not it doesn’t say, “Seek only the Kingdom of God.” It says to seek it first, as your No. 1 priority every day. Jesus didn’t tell Martha to get out of the kitchen and stop wasting her time doing all that she does. Jesus doesn’t tell us to stop all our good works and ministry in the Church and in the community. Jesus doesn’t tell us to not meet the needs of people around us and serve them as unto the Lord. Jesus simply told Martha to seek first what is better – to seek first the Kingdom of God … to sit at His feet first … so that all of her gifts and activity will flow out of her intimacy with her Lord and her relationship with Him. He will then guide her in all that she does, rather than having all that she does become a barrier to her really knowing, loving and serving her Lord in His mission.
May the Holy Spirit give each of us ears to hear, eyes to see and hearts to embrace what God is saying to us and all His people in these troubled, but exciting times.