Wednesday, August 29, 2007

“In Stillness … God”

New Student Days sermon, delivered by Dr. James E. Brenneman, president of Goshen College, on Sunday, Aug. 26, 2007 at Sauder Concert Hall.


“Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46). I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear the words, “Stillness” or “Be still” associated with God, I get fidgety. Maybe it’s because behind those words, I hear my mother’s voice whispering “Sit still!” and this usually happened while we were in church.

When we were children, sitting still in church was mandatory. We were a family that when we went to church my two brothers and me all wore black pants, white shirts, and black ties, and combed our hair precisely. This was not of our own free-will. To her credit, Mom would devise all kinds of little gimmicks (coins in handkerchiefs, terrier magnets, little writing pads) to keep us sitting as still as possible in church.

At least Mom and Dad never did what we observed one father do repeatedly to his sons in church, thump them hard on the ear. Cheesh, with everyone watching from behind, I thought that was more distracting than my friend fidgeting in the first place, which I never even noticed.

Later in life, I realized other reasons why I always got a bit fidgety when people like the Psalmist quote God as commanding us to, “Be still!” In this command, there is a very real paradox, a conundrum. By way of example, I would like everyone here to try to be absolutely still or at least as still as possible for the next 30 seconds. Sit on your hands if you have to [wait].
In that 30 seconds of relative stillness, we just traveled 6,000 miles more in our annual orbit around the sun. That doesn’t include the eight miles we simultaneously traveled in the earth’s rotation in those 30 seconds or the 595 million miles we wracked up this past year. While we were sitting on our hands, the blood cells leaving our heart traveled over 30 feet throughout our body in those 30 seconds. Little electrical power pumps in each cell of your body all the while were pumping nutrients in and garbage out. (75-100 trillion cells in the body). In those 30 seconds of sitting quietly, just one nerve impulse traveled 2.5 miles. Let’s face it, we are people in perpetual motion living on a planet in perpetual motion in a solar system in perpetual motion. Even if we could “be [perfectly] still” as the Psalmist says, in point of fact, we are not.
And here you are: adrenaline surging through your bodies, bundles of energy and excitement; full of anxieties, joys, fears, hopes; new roommates, new friends, new just about everything. Here we are: planning lots of fun things to do to get you even more excited about being here; all kinds of gatherings, colloquium retreats, scrimmage games, picnics, late night activities, an ice-cream social, meeting, greeting, eating.
And in the middle of all this hustle and bustle, in this first Chapel of the new school year at Goshen College you are invited, no commanded, to “be still”? What’s the scoop? What possibly can the Psalmist be thinking? What possibly was the Campus Ministry team thinking when they chose this theme for the coming year? “In stillness. . . God?” Be still? Hel-low!

Since so much natural motion and energy and excitement and movement perpetually surrounds us and flows through us – let’s assume that the words of the Psalmist to “be still” can’t possibly mean a literal kind of stillness as we tend to think about “being still.”

It seems to me, we can only truly respond to the Psalmist’s command to “be still” (and this year’s theme) in a somewhat paradoxical way where stillness isn’t so much the goal, the outcome of an activity, as it is a kind of journeying. If stillness is simply the goal of our spiritual journey, than I quit because it’s an impossible request. Even if I managed to still my fidgety self, the cosmos still fidgets in and around me. For anyone terribly (sometimes terrifyingly) sensitive to the cosmos like I am, we feel its movement inside us even at our quietest moments.

I like to think of stillness then as a kind of movement, a movement toward God – a way of describing a journey that’s a circling back from distraction and chaos to that priceless treasure beneath us in every moment, any time, in any place. Stillness is a journey to that alpha and omega point described by Annie Dillard as that place that is “lower than metals and minerals. . . lower than salts and earths . . . [beneath] the waxy deepness of planets.” That substance “in touch with the Absolute, at base. In touch with the Absolute! At base.” Dillard names this substance, this place, “Holy the Firm.”
“Holy the Firm” describes that foundation beneath all movement, all chaos, all distraction; beneath any and every stillness that we may manage to conjure. Such a stillness is no ordinary stillness. Ordinary stillness has as its logical endpoint death -- can’t get much stiller than that.

Rather, the stillness beneath and beyond the stillness of death is that holiest of all foundations. It is a vital stillness, a living stillness, a pulsing ecstasy, a place of rebirth, a fiery core of new life and oddly enough, a place of repose and rest for our frantic souls. It is that stillness of which St. Augustine speaks, “My soul is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” The goal of the journey, you see, isn’t stillness per se as some religious traditions might suggest and some spiritual practices seem to promote. Rather the goal of the journey is “knowing God.” “Be still and know that I am God.”

“Nothing in all creation is so like God’s stillness” declared Meister Eckhart, the great Christian mystic. Psalm 46 speaks to our deepest fears, then and now: the chaos of nature (floods, earthquakes) and the chaos of our own making (nations at war). When the Psalmist says, “Be still,” it is a command to “desist” to “let go” (lit., let your hands drop, relax, go limp, be weak). What a command here in the midst of warfare. Stop! Stop long enough to know the God of peace “who makes wars cease.” For the Psalmist, nothing clarifies or sanctifies like concentrated stillness in the presence of God. The Psalmist calls for nothing less than radical trust in God, “our refuge and strength.”

Parents, no doubt, you are full of mixed emotions, joy and terror: letting go of your most precious gift, your son or daughter, letting them go into the world of adulthood, freeing them into the unknown future. Students, perhaps, you also come with mixed emotions of joy and terror: leaving home, leaving your family and friends behind, some of you across oceans, in order to enter college -- some of you for the first time, some transferring to a new place – all of you falling into a still unknown future.
The Psalmist invites, no commands, each one of us to let go . . . let go of all our fears, our anxieties. . . let go. . . let ourselves fall past the “metals and minerals. . . lower than salts and earths. . . down past the waxy deepness of planets” to that alpha and omega point, that substance “in touch with the Absolute, at base. Let go, let yourself fall into the hands of the living God. Holy is the Firm. Firm is God’s infinite Christ-like love. God is with you, student and parent. God is with all of us present here today. We are not alone in our partings. God will never leave us or forsake us. Ever.
Hear the words of the Psalmist: “The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of all people is our refuge and strength, our fortress, a very present help in times like these.” If we know that, that will be enough. Amen."

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