Many years ago, when I was a second year divinity school student trying to figure out what sort of ministry was the right path for me, I took a field education assignment at a local church, after a year spent at a day shelter for homeless women. One of the benefits of this new placement was frequent preaching and worship leadership. Field education sites at churches were notorious for giving students the jobs no one else wanted, especially in the way of youth group leadership. My placement included youth work (which I didn’t mind), but that work was balanced by ample time in the pulpit, including monthly preaching.
I don’t know how many sermons I preached before I experienced the remarkable, humbling, almost goose-bump producing, moment of unplanned silence. But, when it happened, I was completely awestruck. And, continue to be whenever such a moment of grace occurs.
What in the world am I talking about? In some churches, the sense of the presence of the Spirit is measured in noise—in music, in animated preaching, in voices raised up in affirmation of various kinds. In predominantly white Congregational churches of the Northeast, the sense of the presence of the Spirit is measured in silence (much of the time, anyway).
In those moments when the only sound is the sound of my voice, when the congregation is completely silent, it is tempting to take the moment and stop talking myself. I’ve never gone that route, but still it is noticeable when a sanctuary of people moves into a space of silence, so quiet that one could hear a pin drop. Even in a relatively small congregation, complete silence is hard to come by. Coughing, clearing of throats, shuffling of paper and the contents of purses, and the general rustling of body movement, is omnipresent in a normal worship service, even during the sermon.
Moments when the sanctuary is full of people who are completely engaged in the moment, when it feels like all assembled are collectively holding their breath, so urgent to grasp and maintain that sense of the Spirit, that collective yet unspoken experience when we are aware that we are not alone, are moments of remarkable grace and wonder. It’s also very clear that such moments can’t be manufactured. Sometimes, in the planning for a Sunday worship service, I feel like what I’m putting together something—an observation, a point, a perspective— that will lead to a moment of utter silence. Yet, it never happens that way.
Silence is always unexpected, unplanned.
In my many years of ministry, these moments of silence feed my spirit and assist me—especially now, when our situation seems so precarious. As we struggle with our shrinking numbers and our stubbornly needy buildings and demands on our resources, it can be easy to allow worries to get in the way of experiencing a moment of grace and offering a word of gratitude. How wondrous it is when a moment comes suddenly that is teeming with that sense of the Spirit, that feeling of otherness that comes upon us.
For a brief moment, I don’t need to care about what will happen tomorrow or the next day. I don’t need to think about what we are going to do with our aging, shrinking church. I don’t need to contemplate our deficit budget or the developing leak in the roof.
These moments of grace and wonder are holy reminders that we are a part of something greater—greater than our building or our endowment—and something much smaller, and intimate. Let us be not simply grateful. Let us be captivated by awe and wonder, that it will help us to discern our path forward—not in fear, but in love and hope found in the still, small voice that speaks to us in silence.