Overflow or Emptiness?
A wise man once told me, “Minister from the overflow, not from the emptiness.” I’ve never forgotten his advice, although I’ve often failed to follow it. The sage is Dr. Steve Seamands at Asbury Seminary, and he meant that we often minister out of our own needs, hoping to fill ourselves up with affirmation from others and a desire to find spiritual fulfillment in what we do. Instead, we need to be sure we are filled up with God’s grace to the point of overflowing so that what God has poured into us with his steadfast love will spill onto the lives of others.
I’ve filtered this thought through the process of preaching. Where do my sermons originate? Whose words am I saying? Why am I saying them?
One of the ways I experience the overflow of God’s grace is through the practice of silence. I need to still myself and quiet my mind so I can hear the voice of God. Too often, even my prayers are filled with anxious thoughts and busyness. I need to be alone and be silent. Monks have practiced silence as a spiritual discipline for centuries, dating all the way back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
I’ve found this little tidbit instructive from the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers,” a collection of aphorisms and sayings collected from 4th and 5th century monks who fled to the deserts of Egypt to fight demons and find God:
“A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything’” (Ward 139).
I enjoy learning. I benefit from continuing education offerings and conferences like New Room, but I also have discovered that when my energy for ministry fades, I need more than new information or the latest ministry tools and strategies. I need silence.
Finding the Space for Silence
Rev. Kevin Burney, the Director of Ministerial Services for the Kentucky Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, recently organized a Silent Retreat at one of our retreat centers. A group of about twenty-five clergy from our conference spent approximately forty hours together in mostly silence. The only times we spoke were during the passing of the peace at communion, unison prayers at morning and evening prayers, and appointments with our spiritual directors. Even our meals were taken in silence. Most of the time was spent in solitude seeking God in silence. I generally take silent retreats on my own, but I was thankful for the group experience and the rhythm established by our times together.
During my daily quiet time I have developed the discipline of sitting in silence at the beginning and end of scripture reading and prayer. It’s easy, sometimes, to rush through but when I practice silence, I am better able to be still and hear what God wants to say. Then, to transition back into my daily responsibilities, the silence helps me apply God’s Word to the tasks and agenda ahead.
Listen, then Speak
I don’t listen very well. I usually need to put serious effort into it. I’m more into talking. I help coach high school soccer and I can testify there are many times when the head coach is teaching a new drill and I’m thinking about something else. When the team begins the drill, one of the players, who also wasn’t listening, will ask me, “Coach, what are we supposed to do?” And I have to admit I don’t know. Some of us, especially those with brief attention spans, have to work at listening. Listening to God can be even more challenging, because we can’t physically see him standing in front of us getting our attention. So, what can we do? Silence is the way to go.
Silence forces me to deal with the noise going on inside my head. I’m often unaware of that noise because of the cacophony of other voices surrounding me daily. But, when I step back from the meetings, counseling sessions, hospital visits, sermon prep, radio in the car, and the television in my living room, I become more aware of my self-talk. Whenever I spend time in solitude and silence, I start to turn that voice down and begin hearing God.
Speaking from silence helps me speak from a place of spiritual fullness, having heard the loving voice of my Heavenly Father. It means to minister out of the overflow rather than the emptiness. Even Jesus said that he speaks only what he hears from the Father:
“For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me” (John 12:49-50 ESV).
To listen, I must stop talking, including the voice in my head. God calls us into communion with himself and wants to use us to deliver the greatest news, ever. I want to minister and speak out of the overflow of God’s grace. In order to do this, I need to speak from silence.
“The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.” trans. Benedicta Ward. Kalamazoo, Michigan, Cistercian Publications 1975, revised 1984.
Image attribution: Poike / Thinkstock