“Old men should be still and still moving.
Here or there does not matter.”
T. S. Eliot
Eliot’s paradoxical turn of phrase – to be “still and still moving” – certainly fits me, both because of this time of life, and certainly at this time of year.
In early January I hit a wall, mentally exhausted, emotionally and physically drained.
It was catch up time after the pressures of the past five months, from the death of my wife’s brother Melvin in late August, through the recurrence of our daughter Debbie’s breast cancer, and the weeks and weeks of anxiety and chemo that followed, along with all the usual demands and opportunities of the ministry.
Then came Christmas. We tried to tone down the rush this year, but even so the season took its toll, bringing both good and bad stress. Our 18-month old granddaughter Anabel came for four days with Kevin and her mother Caroline, and brought with her both absolute delight and perpetual motion. There is no need for nuclear power plants when Anabel is around! She generates non-stop energy! Debbie had another chemo treatment the Monday before Christmas with side effects that hit hardest on Christmas Day, and even though she was able to take part in family events they were all tinged with the awareness of her vulnerability.
With the New Year came the annual retreat of our Sandy Ford Fellows, twenty-five seminary student leaders who receive scholarships from the Fund and come together here once a year. As always it was a joyous and rewarding time, four and a half days full of conversation and teaching and worship and simply being together. And immediately after that was a board meeting of Gordon Conwell Seminary and the dedication of its new Charlotte building to Jeanie’s parents, Frank and Morrow Graham. Jeanie’s loving and humorous remarks were the highlight!
But by that week-end I knew I was running on fumes. The next week I was supposed to head for Seattle for another board meeting retreat, this time with World Vision. I love World Vision – the vision itself, and the people. But I dreaded the thought of getting on a plane and heading to the west coast. My mind it seemed could not hold onto another thought.
My body was also showing signs of weariness, as I found out after one of my usual workouts at the Y when my blood pressure registered 84 over 60, the lowest it has ever been.
For Christmas friends had sent us a CD featuring a song “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” which surprisingly became a great hit in England in the early 90s. Surprising, I say, because the English are not exactly fans of religious music of the gospel variety.
Even more surprising is that it consists totally of the raspy voice of an nameless old tramp recorded during the making of a film about homeless people made on the streets of London near Waterloo Station in the early 70s. The audio engineer caught the voices of the street people – some bawling out drunken ditties – including the voice of the old man singing the same words over and over. It was not used in the film but the engineer took it back to his studios and found that his fellow workers were moved to silence and even tears when they heard the rough of the old tramp.
Twenty years later the engineer produced a CD of the song, with the voice of the old man sometimes barely audible, other times made louder, starting and ending in his lone voice, but augmented by other voices and instruments. But always there is the single rough, quavering voice singing the same words over and over
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet,
Never failed me yet,
Jesus blood never failed me yet.
This one thing I know
For he told me so,
Jesus blood never failed met yet
Never failed me yet ….
And on and on it goes – for an astonishing seventy four minutes!
That Sunday I e-mailed the friend who sent me the CD and asked her to pray for me.
Yesterday I listened to the CD “The Blood of Jesus” and that raspy voice of the old
tramp got to me so that I was in tears. I realized it spoke to the “getting old” man
inside of me. No doubt this is in part a time of year thing. I find it difficult to
concentrate in prayer and the smallest demand seems more than I want to respond to!
I almost did not go to church that morning but as we were taking a visitor I did go but left after the sermon. Jeanie pointed out after that I had dressed in a suit coat but an odd pair of pants – a sign of sartorial fatigue!
My friend e-mailed back, encouraging me to take some time without the pressure of being “on deck”, allowing for some emotional space and healing activities. At the same time I read Jesus’ mother’s words (when the wine ran out at the wedding feast) to “do whatever he tells you.” Wise words, which said to me, as I wrote: “do the ordinary things he says today. Not to look for the extraordinary things to do, but to sit quietly for a bit, take a walk, read, make a couple of needed calls only, and get my tooth (a cap had broken off) fixed”!
I did reluctantly (overcoming my over-active conscience!) cancel the trip to the West coast board meeting. And I did take time to sit, to read, to walk, to pray.
In a Weavings article I read a quote from Thomas Merton: “As rays of sun do not set fire to anything by themselves, so God does not touch our souls with the fire without Christ.” As I walked quietly and sat for a long time by a stream in our neighborhood I prayed “May Christ be the magnifying glass through which I see the ordinary today, so that I may have strength to rise above winter moods.” Butternut our cat had followed me into the woods and he and I sat on a rock, gazing at the water and bushes, the rocks and sky, “doing nothing well”!
I took another cue from Alice Fryling’s The Art of Spiritual Listening in which she suggests setting aside time to sit with the verse “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), repeating the verse over and over, leaving off a word or phrase each time. As I did this, spending a minute or two on each phrase, I wrote down the impressions that came to my tired mind and heart.
Be still and know that I am God
You are God, I am not. You are Center. Not my moods, my complaints, my
busyness. Not my desires – physical, emotional, sexual, or spiritual! Transform
them into longing for You.
Be still and know that I am
Make me aware of Your being, in my hands, toenails, teeth. Your light in my
physical reality. Your time runs through the ticking of the clocks. The world is
running on, as I sit, without me! You are as present as – through – beyond –
the sun that gives light today to all I see.
Be still and know
I do not have to read, to know. To run to the computer to know. To talk on the
phone to know. To be at World Vision to know. To talk to a friend, to know.
To read my Bible to know (there may be times to stop reading the Bible for a
time, as I heard my friend Martin say recently). When I am still, my knowing
comes not from without but within, or, more truly, what I see and experience
without is received and illuminated within. Until the light of Christ makes me see.
For that I need to
Not to move. “O in this single hour I live all of myself, and do not move. I the
pursued, who madly ran, stand still, stand still, and stop the sun” (May Sarton).
“Peace, be still.” “Still, still with Thee.” Why is a “still” so named – a distillery?
Must we be “still” to be “distilled” i.e., purified? “Be still my soul.”
It was when St. Francis lay still behind the convent, ill, eyes unable to see, that
he knew and composed his famous canticle to Brother Sun!
Be still, Leighton. I motion myself with my hands. Stop. Hush. Stay. As I
motioned “stay” to Cocoa our grandson’s dog. I rein myself in.
The clock strikes. Ten. I listen to each stroke.
I discovered I had an extra week today! Somehow my mental calendar had
dropped next week! My life suddenly is a week longer. So – will I run? Or, be still?
When I find myself
as a being before God
as a physical being in a world irradiated by light
as a moving creature, urged on, but able to say “Whoa”, I am not ruled by urges
as a temporal being, living in the I Am Eternal One
reminded by the clock to live here, now
I can be content
with whatever I have
When I am still, “compulsion”(the “busyness” that Hilary of Tours called “a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him”) gives way to “compunction” (being pricked or punctured) when God can break through the many layers with which I protect myself, so that I can heard his Word, and be “poised to listen.”
Days have past now, since I hit that wall, and since I began to listen daily to those words: “Be still and know that I am God.”
I can see that “stopping” during this month was essential. If I had gone on to Seattle and the rest I would not have slowed down enough to quiet my mind, truly to listen.
And the difference is clear. When I am on automatic I “know” many things very partially.
In a mindful state I “know” a few things quite well.
In true contemplation I “know” one thing at a time deeply.
And the many things fuse into one thing.
The paradox of our modern world is that we know so much about so many things, about “how” things work, but so little about “who” we are as persons, about “why” we are.
And believers are not immune to this dis-ease. We have more and more sources of “Christian” information about the Bible, theology, ethics, history, psychology, and organization – but relatively little time to absorb even a little bit of the “information” so that it will form and transform us.
That is why in our spiritual development programs for young leaders the most valuable times for them have been the in-depth times of unhurried conversations, and some of the most difficult have been the silent contemplative mornings and days by the lake.
It usually takes something “arresting” to stop us in our tracks, to set us on the “second journey” that Susan Howatch describes in her novels about clergy who are so mesmerized by glittering images of religious success; the “downward and inward” journey that Palmer Palmer says is essential to leading from within; the “wall” on the critical journey that Gulich and Hagberg wrote about; or the “series of humiliations” that Thomas Keating says dig through the interior “tells” of our lives, breaking through our “false selves” and making us real.
This stopping and re-starting is not a one-time happening, but an ongoing process that goes on and on in our lives.
So for me again, at the beginning of the year, I have been reminded that in perpetual motion I can mistake the flow of my adrenalin for the moving of the Holy Spirit, can live in the illusion that I am in control, ultimately, of my destiny and even my daily affairs.
I looked back days later, during a snow and ice storm that cancelled all plans for two days, and realized how important it had been to stand still. So that I can ask with fresh intention:
What is Your will today?
You are God.
I hear two clocks ticking. A reminder that in the hours and minutes of this day
You are present – in my time. As I live in Your eternity, and know that
“my times are in Your hand.”
And I can, in Eliot’s words, be still, and still moving on into the fullness of what God has in mind.
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