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The irony is this: I could not find time to write or to think about this topic for months. To speak of stillness, one has had to be still.
I can remember stillness. And oddly, there is no guilt associated with the memories. (Now, it seems, I feel guilty when I think of being still.) I used to sit for long hours by the stream in the pasture when I was a child. Just watching the water go by and listening to the wind and the birds. Not thinking of anything, except the water and the wind and the birds.
Wondrously, although I had chores assigned and schoolwork to do, I was allowed time to “gather in” the stillness. I was not permitted to be lazy—work had to be done and done right; life does have its responsibilities, of course. But times to watch and wonder and wait did have their respected places. They were, in fact, another kind of work, not always recognized now in our product-oriented culture.
I can remember stillness in church too. In the way people came in and sat down, people who had worked along steadily all week and were now ironed and polished and . . . quiet. In the pauses between prayer requests. In the lull between the last Amen and going home.
The thing about these stillnesses is that they could occur in the midst of work or worship or wandering. They happened in solitude and in company. They were part of a pattern: getting things done, resting, working, thinking, being.
I have not experienced real stillness for a long time. The pattern now is far different. Hurry to get to work, to school, to church. Fit in the myriad activities required in all those places. Run the errands. Refine multi-tasking with scientific precision. Fill every minute with something. Turn on the TV, the radio, the computer. Grade those papers. Answer the cell phone. Check the mail. Hurry.
But today I stopped. Just stopped. To breathe. To think. What is the rush? Does God require this frantic activity? Does constant motion prove my love for Him? What really keeps me struggling to do more and more and more?
There are several driving forces—and none of them is pretty. One is pseudo-guilt. If I am not tired, I should be fired—isn’t that the unspoken thought process I have bought into? Yes, teaching in a Christian school is hard work, and tiring. But is God pleased when my activities crowd out reflection? Is it better to have accomplished three to-do items on my self-appointed list or to sit quietly with God, listening?
“Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). A very tough command for our modern sensibilities. To be still seems almost sinful, doesn’t it? There always is something else that needs to be done. But the question is not “When will it get done?” The question is “Should it get done?”
Another source of my frenetic activity is avoiding reflection. If we are still, alone with ourselves and God, we will have to think of things we might rather not. The anger about that unfair comment from some parent will bubble up. The anaesthetic for loneliness might wear off. Fear and worry might stand out in bold relief, sins that they are. Ah, there’s the rub. So we keep running—under the pious banner of “doing good works.” This must make the devil very happy.
And then there is the big problem: being still can make you feel small. If you are not in a hurry, breathlessly on your way to the next responsibility, maybe you are not all that valuable in your context, and what will people think?
But more tellingly, being still with God will make it glaringly clear that you are in control of nothing—not even your next breath. That we depend on His goodness for everything. Every thing. And then it will be evident that all our frantic efforts, however well intentioned, cannot hold a candle to prayer and trust. Oh, how much easier it is to work ourselves into the ground (and often those around us too) than it is to quietly ask God and wait for His answer.
Why is this? We would never say right out to God that we think He is incompetent. But our trust in our own endeavors seems to say the same thing. What is at the bottom is, perhaps, that we have our own ideas about what should be done, and when, and how. When our prayers do not move God to meet our timeline or our agenda, we find Him unhelpful and resort to our own devices. Soon we just resort to our own devices from the start. And the devices eventually end up running us.
I get out of breath. I wonder how everything will get done. I fret, I get annoyed, I panic. It is my own fault. “In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). Martin Luther once said, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” He must have understood that God really does not need our help with work but that we need work to help us to God.
As I reread this right now, my mind is already on the next thing I have to do. The noises and the speed and the superficial activities, even the ones that seem to be very Christian indeed, are beguiling me. But I resolve to let go of the narcotics of motion and noise. To slow down. To choose. The stillness is still there, I’m sure of it.
Alice Bronson is an English teacher and a freelance writer.