The church service I regularly attend doesn’t have a sermon. Instead, we take ten minutes to be silent. That’s quite a change from growing up listening to half hour sermons and enjoying loud and highly emotive sung worship. And for the last few weeks I’ve had to really wrestle with myself to keep going.
Today I almost didn’t, until the reason why became clear. I had managed to convince myself of various different reasons, all of which have some truth in them (otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to convince myself).
The first of these was boredom: silence is boring especially when God doesn’t say anything in it. Then I realised that it wasn’t necessarily that God wasn’t saying anything, but that I wasn’t listening.
Then, I decided that I wasn’t listening because I needed something different. I needed a sermon: something to engage and challenge me. I needed something that my extroversion could interact with.
All of this has been going on in my internal thoughts for the last two or three months. So tonight I decided: why not go back to the familiar? I’ve been meaning to go and see what the local charismatic church is like for some time, so why not? Sure, I know – just like every other time I do this – it will probably leave me feeling frustrated, alienated and angry. But it’s got to be better than the numb anxiety that the silence induces, right?
In talking this over with my better half, I realised that at the root of all of this wasn’t so much that I was bored, or that it doesn’t suit me. It was this: I am scared of encountering my true self.
I love a good “worship session”. It has a sort of nostalgic glow to it: the feel-good factor of all that singing and loud noise and emotional guitar and teary eyed backing vocalists and…
So. Much. Noise.
In that noise, I can drown out everything that I don’t want to hear and hear only that which I do want to hear. So it’s not surprising that those are the environments in which people most often (claim to) hear from God; because we all want that.
What’s much, much more frightening is having to spend ten minutes with myself. Wether or not God is present. In that ten minutes I am forced to remember so many things I would rather forget: I am anxious, I am broken, I am fragile, I am scared, I am worried, I am paranoid, I am useless, I am awkward, I am so many things I would rather forget.
I am loved.
That one hit me like a ton of bricks just now. I’ve been doing the silence all wrong. I’ve been using it like some beaten down Christian who has just said the confession and remembered all of their sinful nature and all of their horrible characteristics. “I know I shouldn’t be that way, but I am that way.” And then I dwell on it.
The problem with unguided silence is that it allows those of us with a predisposition for depression and negative thinking (my CBT counselling used to call this ‘warpy thoughts’ which I’ve always found to be simultaneously both moderately insulting and amusingly fair and accurate) to perpetuate these myths freely. Then they spiral deeper and deeper into my perception of myself so that next week I come back needing to unravel yet more negativity, only to pile more on.
So, I thought, should I not go? Does the silence only cause me harm, right now? But the thing is, that isn’t the fault of the silence. The silence only exposes me to myself. And I only have three choices: avoid myself, defy myself, or permit myself.
So far I’ve been avoiding myself. Mobile phones really can do wonders for distraction and diversion – as can a pen and paper, or indeed an ornate stained glass window if the other two fail to be of significant enough interest. But all that’s done is left me feeling more and more frustrated.
Defying myself hasn’t worked either. If I sit there and try to just listen, or breathe, all I can do is realise just how physically anxious I am (for reasons other than all of this); just how alone I am; just how silent God seems. I can’t force myself to be positive. I lack both the energy and emotional will right now.
What I can do, what I have thus far failed to do, is to permit myself. The story of God seems to be one of a relentless pursuit of unconditional love. And I have experiences that tell me that God loves me – and other experiences that tell me that I am not an awful person. Experiences that tell me I am fun, friendly, interesting (It’s amazing how hard it can be to write a list of positive attributes about oneself and not cringe for a good five minutes afterward) – and so on.
I could, if I so chose, dwell on those instead. That’s not an easy challenge, but it is a worthwhile one. I cannot change who I am – at least not overnight. I cannot force myself to stop being anxious or to have the attention span of a wise old monk. But I can start to be kind to myself and to allow myself to be me. Even if it is only for ten minutes a week.