The Case for Stillness

May 4, 2017

I am haunted by stories.

I’ve been plagued by some Biblical stories the last few weeks. It’s a hard book. So many events are fantastical, impractical, and utterly lacking in common sense. The whole thing feels like a fairy tale where miracle manna falls from the sky, city walls suddenly crash down to rubble, people wander through deserts following clouds, a woman looking back turns into a statue of salt, God comes down as a man to die, and graves open to return captives from lands of the dead.

Harry Potter has nothing on the Bible.

In particular, I’ve been processing the story of Gideon, who led an army against the Midianites. A practical and tactical task, for the most part. But on the way…

The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast ‘My own strength has saved me.’ Now announce to the army, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’" So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained. But the Lord said to Gideon, "There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will thin them out for you there. If I say, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go; but if I say, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go." So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, "Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink." Three hundred of them drank from cupped hands, lapping like dogs. All the rest got down on their knees to drink.The Lord said to Gideon, "With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home." (Judges 7:2-7)

In the story, they go on to win against the Midianites because God basically scares the enemy into fleeing when they think they’re surrounded by a large army. God delivered a hoodwink. Smoke and mirrors made a miracle.

I am haunted by Biblical stories. By all the wild events and characters. I want to believe that God moves in mysterious ways, people's prayers are answered, the dead impossibly raised. That there's a whisper - if we listen - The Spirit of God who takes control and care of all our needs. It’s a fantastical dependence that seems almost wishful, but also requires the greatest kind of faith. There can be an awful silence in the moments before deliverance: like the Saturday before resurrection. Or the 300 men fairly certain they were probably gonna die. Or all the ones who have, waiting in faith for the promise they lived as if they already received.

Not too many months ago, Nathan and I went to see Martin Scorcese’s Silence. What an impossible story. People tortured to the place of denying their faith. Those who did not deny Christ were killed… except for a few compromisers. And the grace of the Father’s heart is revealed to those compromisers in a way that I can’t say. It’ll iron out the movie. But it is so amazing…

The Bible is full of stories of provision, but also people who were martyred: the stoning of Stephen, Paul and Silas imprisoned, and Jesus condemned and crucified with nothing but his calling to sustain him.

But in the middle of all that impossibility, there's talk of "The peace that passes all understanding". Centuries later, Reinhold Nieburh wrote this poem:

I am haunted, not only by Biblical Stories, but movies and poems and plays and novels: artistic expressions of the human events we experience. I hunger for transcendent moments where we touch the heart of God and the Cosmos and our Brothers and Sisters past, present, and future, all at once. For in a story, we are all united. We experience the uncertainty of the characters as we await the conclusion that ultimately draws their narrative into focus.

I am also haunted by ministry… the notion that a life can be lived merging the transcendent with the everyday. That the Creator of the Universe could be invited into our midst again and again, and that somehow we could dare to believe that He would make His presence known. And it is that desire, along with the love of Biblical stories, movies, poems, plays, paintings and novels that led me to the altar of the church to be a minister… and also lured me from the pulpit to the theatre.

And I’ll tell you why. Make-believe was easier to handle than the working out of story in community, which is what ministry requires. So, this particular Jonah got in a boat and sailed away from that idea good and quick. The transcendent is so much easier when it can be revered as an ideal. And this Jonah didn’t even mind being swallowed up by a whale for a wee while, since he knew that part of the story was dramatic and romantic and unusual and glorious!

And then that whale spit him up on the shore of Rosebud, where he joined a host of people longing to tell stories, touch the heart of God, and somehow pay the bills. And we’ve lived through times of plenty, and also through times of want. In our current economic climate it can feel like “here we go again…” smack down in the middle of a battle with the army reduced from 32,000 to 300. Times when dependence on God becomes necessity, not a mythic notion.

I hit the pillow last night in some turmoil coming out of a long day of administrative impossibility. As I drifted off, the words “Be still and know I am God” repeated themselves over and over in my head. I didn’t want to forget them, so just kept repeating them until I lost consciousness.

“Be still, and know I am God.”

And then I remembered a moment during Espresso rehearsals in its first incarnation at Pacific Theatre. We’d been developing the piece over several years and here we were, finally in rehearsals, telling a story I knew in my bones came straight from the heart of God. I found Lucia one morning, sitting on the back stairs, waiting for Stage Management to open the door to the theatre. And she said out loud, in a little girl wonder voice, “Jesus is here.” She whispered it like it was magic in the dark. “Jesus is here.”

“Be still, and know I am God.”

And when Lauren deGraaf played Jesus in Cotton Patch Gospel, there was a moment in rehearsal where I asked her to hug a bag of hate mail during the song about Jesus’s death. The moment was pure miracle. It deeply impacted a handful of people so much that some wanted pictures of it – like vials of Holy Water at some shrine… something to carry home as a talisman for transcendence.

In the practical turmoil that is theatre: the planning and creating and interpreting and working out finances and collaborating within community: these kind of revelations happen in stillness. It’s a beat in rehearsal when you’re about to ask something ridiculous of an actor, but before you do, you pause to listen.

“Be still and know I am here.”

And out of the stillness, the impulse doesn’t go away. The creative requirement gets stronger, and all of a sudden you’re leading 300 warriors to face the Midionites instead of 32,000. And it doesn’t necessarily make any sense. How God wanted LESS people, to make MORE noise. But before that could happen, they had to crawl, silently, in the dark. And also, how

  • Lucia and Morris wait on a step and feel the presence of Jesus before starting the rehearsal day.
  • Jonah abides in the belly of a whale and ponders his fate.
  • 5,000 people sit down and settle before Jesus breaks bread to feed them.

When I came to Rosebud to take on the position of Artistic Director, a song by Steve Bell came to mind.

Down roads I’d never have chosen seems to be the mantra, I think. It is the curiosity that wonders about the trail leading off the main road, that sometimes is a command to throw caution to the wind. It’s the moment when words we hold in our heart bubble to the surface, and we take breath to give them voice. It is in the breath, when we know the words are coming, but we must intake the air, where we can recognize and know that all that comes after might just come from God. And the words might just feed five thousand people… or one. But the number shouldn't really matter.

Lucia Frangione's Espresso played to packed houses and almost empty ones. Sometimes God multiplies our work and sometimes a single weeping woman wants an iPhone picture of an actor hugging a mail bag.

When we feed five thousand, everyone is happy. When we feed one or two, there are few witnesses to tell the tale. And in those moments, these words have to carry the day.

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can anyone of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? …So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:25-34)

If I am honest, I am haunted and troubled by such words. But at the end of the day, His words are daily bread to fill my hunger and keep at bay my need for security and certainty. Maybe in and of themselves, they are the miracle I seek, because it was His words that calmed my spirit last night, and met me early this morning. And maybe, as we wait on His words, it transforms the story. Maybe stories are a way to connect in the stillness and remind ourselves of the bigger picture.

I leave you with some of my favorite words… prayers by any other name I think.

Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The River was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words. And some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.

- A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean

And eventually, all the words, all the stories, all the originals will merge into one final, ultimate narrative: our Creator's.

I am haunted by the sound of his voice, and in the stillness, strain my ear to hear.

The Case for Stillness

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