Lyrical Living: Words to Live By
“Drop Thy Still Dews of Quietness, Till All Our Strivings Cease” Click here for audio
Matthew 6:19-21, 25-34
Pastor Donna R. Buell
“Drop thy still dews of quietness, till all our strivings cease.”
Oh, I wish God would drop some of those still dews of quietness into my life. I’ve been having a hard time experiencing them lately. You see, I seem to have mastered the art of multi-tasking, but in the process I have lost the ability to sit still and quiet and simply be. In some ways that’s a good thing, because I get lots of stuff done. But in other ways it is a disaster, because I know that at my core I am an introvert with a contemplative spirituality. And so I need deep pockets of silence and stillness and Sabbath at the center of my life. When I go long stretches without that stillness, I lose touch with myself. I lose touch with my spirit. I lose touch with God.
Even when I do manage to sit still for a little while, it feels like my body wants to keep on moving. It is as if my internal engine is idling too high. And I know that, in the long run, that isn’t good for the engine. But it isn’t only that internal engine that idles high. My mind does, as well. It is easily distracted and that makes it hard to concentrate on one thing at a time.
I know I’m not alone. We live in a culture that pushes us all the time. We are bombarded with images and sounds, tasks and needs. And all the technology which makes life and communication more efficient and immediate comes with the pressure to be available all the time, to respond instantly, and to do more and more.
Given the complexity of the many problems we face in our culture, there also seems to be a high level of anxiety surrounding us all the time, and that gets internalized as well. We worry about our financial security, our jobs, and our health insurance. We worry about our family members. We worry about the direction we see our country and our world moving, and yet the public debate about important issues is so polarized and so strident that we can’t come to any consensus around good, strong, nuanced policies that will actually move us toward real solutions. And all this anxiety filters into our workplaces as well, with people feeling increasing pressure to improve and perform and achieve at higher levels, with fewer people and resources. And that gets to feeling as though nothing we ever do, no matter how good, is ever enough.
Now and then I just feel like shouting, enough already! Or in the words of the old Broadway musical, “Stop the world I want to get off.”
Now, before you start worrying about my well-being, I want to let you know that I wrote those words 4 years ago when Marty and I were serving the Northfield UMC, a congregation much larger than this one, with more staff, administration, program, and pressure. I can honestly say that I don’t feel as overwhelmed now as I did when I wrote those words. But the need for pockets of silence and stillness in my life continues to run deep. In fact, it always has. That is why I am drawn to today’s “lyric” from the hymn we just sang. I can remember this hymn from my childhood. Even then it was a favorite of mine. I liked the sound of it. I liked the harmony, with its accidental sharps and flats. I liked the quiet of it. And I liked the peace and the calm and the trust that it called forth from my spirit. I had no idea at the time that I was a contemplative. But looking back I can see that I always was. And I think I responded to this hymn, even as a child, because it helped to affirm and to nurture that quieter spirit within me; it helped to reset my internal engine, which even then tended to idle too high.
“Drop thy still dews of quietness, till all our strivings cease.” Have you ever seen the way a drop of dew gathers at the narrowest point of a leaf and just hangs there for the longest time, seemingly in defiance of gravity, until at last it lets go and simply drops to the ground?
We live in a world that is all about striving. People are being pushed from every direction to do more, to earn more, to buy more, to have more, to know more, to achieve more, to be more. And though this might be good for the economy (though even that is questionable) it isn’t especially good for us and for our lives, for our families and our relationships, for our communities and our world. It isn’t good for our spirits.
We tend to think of this as a modern phenomenon. And surely our advances in technology have compounded the problem. But, as Ben read for us from the Gospel of Matthew, even Jesus was aware of our human tendency to strive and to worry. Some of us major in one more than the other: striving as if the very future depended upon our efforts or worrying as if those worries themselves could actually improve the outcome. In both cases we are so focused on what might happen, what we want to happen, what we fear might happen, or what we can make happen that we forget to be present, here and now, to what “is” – right in front of us, and to those things which are within our limited sphere of influence.
“Drop thy still dews of quietness, till all our strivings cease.”
Jesus told the crowds that day to stop striving after things, storing up treasure here on earth. Life is more than food and clothing and the latest high tech gadget. And don’t spend all your time worrying about tomorrow. You aren’t going to add a single hour to the span of your life with all your worry, in fact, it will likely have the opposite effect. If you’re going to strive for something, “Strive first for God’s kingdom,” Jesus said, “and for God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Focus on the things that really matter.
Jesus practiced this preaching in his own life. He focused on things that mattered, on the well-being of individuals and communities. He didn’t focus so much on the letter of the law as on the spirit at its core. He always tried to be truly present to whomever he encountered, extending to them God’s love and God’s grace. And he had little patience for the petty stuff, and for those who were self-righteous, and who were sure that they had it all figured out. And he had a regular pattern of withdrawing from the crowds and from their needs, so that he might spend time alone with God, renewing his spirit, resetting his idle, listening to that still small voice, clarifying the priorities of his ministry. And because he did that, because he withdrew, he was able to return and re-engage with people and respond to their real needs. This is how he lived and he tried to teach this to his disciples and to all his followers.
We all need those times of quiet and stillness, not just those of us who are introverts. We all need patterns of withdrawal and engagement. We need them for the sake of our own lives, certainly. But we need them for the sake of our culture and our world as well. We need time to step back and consider who we are and where we are headed and how best to get there. And then from that place, we need to engage with the world and its needs.
Yet you and I know this isn’t easy. Our culture used to provide more assistance, but we are on our own now. And we all know that there is stuff out there that will fill every nook and cranny of our existence if we allow it. Some of it good stuff to be sure. But some of it isn’t worth the time of day. We have to be intentional about powering down and carving out time and space to make room for quiet and stillness. And when we do find the time, we have to be patient with ourselves, for we don’t know what to do with it. It takes practice. And my own experience is that the more we practice, the more we cultivate this sense of quiet and stillness in our daily lives, the more easily we are able to return to it and to embrace it in ways that are life-giving.
Ideally we would have large pockets of silence and stillness. But most of us are lucky if we can find a way to stop and take a deep breath now and then. It is hard to turn off all the noise and chatter in our lives. It is challenging to still our bodies and quiet our thoughts. If you’re anything like me, your mind is racing here, there, and everywhere. The Buddhists, who know a thing or two about this, call it monkey mind. Our minds are like a monkey swinging from branch to branch; leaping after whatever catches its attention.
We also need to recognize and affirm the value of these times of silence and stillness in our lives and in our culture. It isn’t a waste of time. And we certainly need to value it in the church, where our engine is often idling way too high. For when we allow ourselves to keep going and going all the time, we fail to make ourselves available to God, and to who God is calling us to be and to what God is calling us to do.
Thomas Keating once wrote that “Silence is God’s first language. Everything else is just a poor translation.”
Last Sunday Pastor Marty talked about God’s work of Creation. Well, Sabbath rest is built in to the order of creation. That seventh day when God rested was just as important to the work of creation as all the other days. We need to figure out how to order our lives with that kind of space, with that kind of pattern of creativity and rest, of engagement and withdrawal, of words and silence, of action and stillness.
In an issue of the Upper Room journal Weavings, focused on the subject of availability, author Stephen Doughty wrote an article about his first ministry experience as a student intern at a small rural church in Vermont. And he shared some valuable lessons he learned about availability from the good folk there. These are his words:
My assigned dwelling for the summer was with two older women in the community. The first morning I did what I continued to do through the rest of the summer. I jogged down their driveway, along the dirt road running through the center of town, and up towards the church. And it just so happened that there he was on a stump out in front of his house, not far from the church. He was small, blond, barefoot. I waved. He sat as motionless as the stump itself, except that he turned his head slightly to watch this strange bit of business scurrying past.
The same thing happened the next morning. I jogged and waved; he watched. And so on the next morning, and the next. Unknown to me, though, something was building and on the fifth morning it broke. As I approached his stump, the young fellow suddenly thrust an arm forward, pointed sharply at me, and called out, “You! Before this summer is over I’m going to teach you how to sit on a stump!” The slightest hint of a smile broke around the corners of his mouth. I nodded, smiled back, and kept on jogging.
The sad truth…is that I never took the boy up on his offer. We became friends. We laughed. We talked as much as his shyness and my awkwardness would allow. But alas, not once did I say, “How do you sit on a stump?” and then go ahead, receive of his expertise and just sit for however long he felt a novice could take it.
The omission was my loss…I was middle aged myself before I realized he was on to something I much needed to learn.
A Readiness Remembered, Stephen V. Doughty, Weavings,Volume XII, Number 5
How do we learn to sit on a stump? How do we learn to stop now and then, and to be still and silent? How do we release ourselves from the prison of needing to seek and strive all the time? How do we allow ourselves to sit quietly in the presence of the God of all creation, allowing ourselves to remember that we are not God. We need to learn how to do this, and we need to practice it. Because it is this practice that will help us engage faithfully in the tasks of our everyday lives in this world which is so in need of thoughtful, centered, reflective, faithful engagement. How do we learn this kind of Sabbath practice?
In his book, Earth Gospel, Sam Hamilton-Poore quotes Wayne Muller and then prays about our deep need for Sabbath. pg. 129.
In the trance of overwork, we take everything for granted. We consume things, people, and information. We do not have time to savor this life, nor to care deeply and gently for ourselves, our loved ones, or our world; rather, with increasingly dizzying haste, we use them all up, and throw them away…|
Sabbath time can be a revolutionary challenge to the violence of overwork, mindless accumulation, and the endless multiplication of desires, responsibilities, and accomplishments. Sabbath is a way of being in time where we remember who we are, remember what we know, and taste the gifts of spirit and eternity.
Grant me grace this day
to rest and remember
that there is nothing I have to do,
nothing I have to buy or sell,
nothing I have to produce or consume
in order to become who I already am:
your beloved creation.
May your overworked creation
and those who cannot rest today
come to know the liberation of your Sabbath.
It does take practice. But as with any skill, practice may make perfect, but it will make possible. So we begin small. We begin by simply stopping now and then to take a deep Sabbath breath and remember the God who is the source of all life and breath. We stop now and then and take a Sabbath pause before beginning our day, before starting a new project, before sharing a meal, before facing a challenging decision or person, and we pray that we might feel God’s empowering presence within us as we do whatever it is we are about to do. We find deeper pockets of Sabbath rest when we can withdraw to a quiet place and allow a little space where God can be at work within us and through us. In these Sabbath pauses and spaces we are reminded that God alone is God, and “that all things are not held together by us or through our efforts.” (God alone is God, L Joseph Rosas III, Alive Now, July/August 2012, page 23) If you’d like some help practicing, you might consider joining our centering prayer group which meets for about 30 minutes each Tuesday at noon. We’d love to share our practice with you.
“Drop thy still dews of quietness, till all our strivings cease; take from our souls the strain and stress, and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace.” Please, God, may it be so.
For our prayer time today we are going to engage in a little bit of stump-sitting. I invite us to be silent and still in the presence of the one who is God. But because I know how easy it is for our monkey minds to get distracted, I invite us to be guided by a series of phrases that will hopefully lead us deeper and deeper into that silence. In Psalm 46 we hear the divine call, “Be Still and Know that I am God.” Let us enter now into the sacred Sabbath practice of silence and stillness before God.
Be Still and Know that I Am God
Be Still and Know that I Am
Be Still and Know