Earlier this summer, I was talking to a friend of mine who was in town visiting, and we were catching up on life stresses, as you do. We started with the usual stuff – jobs, finances, family. And we each had loads to be thankful for, but also our share of open questions and challenges too. But then my friend started talking about some of the details of his life that are very different from mine. He lives in an area where everyday levels of violence are really high, so some of the traumas that I’m most confronted by through the news are in front of him weekly if not daily. And his work puts him in contact with politicians and other leaders who are supposed to be helping with this but are sometimes maddeningly obtuse – not getting it, not caring, doing the wrong thing. And my friend just plugs away with them as an advocate – patient, persistent, passionate, not giving up, but also not blowing things up, not burning the bridges he needs to be useful.
And my friend isn’t just good at his work, best as I can tell, but he’s one of the happier people I know – consistently peaceful and joyful.
So I asked him: how is this so? How do you not check out and give up, or become consumed by rage or just entirely reactive to all the stress and chaos around you?
And he said, well, I used to be, but I have this daily practice that helps and has really changed me, especially as I’ve kept at it these past twenty years. And the practice he was talking about was twenty minutes of silence a day.
And he asked me, Steve, do you know about this practice? Have you tried? And I told him, yes and yes, but not for twenty years. More like twenty days. And he encouraged me to keep at it, that it’ll work a lot of good in me.
Just twenty minutes of silence a day, engaged in some particular ways we’ll talk about today, practiced over many years, had reshaped my friend’s inner life. Had helped to grow in him a reservoir of wisdom and peace, was helping him stay grounded and pursue his life’s aims in circumstances that could so easily leave him reactive and stressed out.
This is a practice I’ve been trying more and want to commend to you today. It’s a type of what can technically be called apophatic spiritual practice, a fancy word – apophatic – that I’ll say more about in a few minutes because I think it will help us understand what we’re trying to do here.
But let me first read one of the scriptures from today’s Bible readings. And I’ll share a way of reading this passage that models this kind of spirituality.
Jesus has just been teaching his students some of his more famous material about the prominence of anxiety and fear in the human experience, and about God’s desire and capacity to grow presence and peace in us. And then, we’ll see, his teaching takes an interesting turn.
It goes like this:
Luke 12:32-40 (CEB):
32 “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourselves wallets that don’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys. 34 Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.
35 “Be dressed for service and keep your lamps lit. 36 Be like people waiting for their master to come home from a wedding celebration, who can immediately open the door for him when he arrives and knocks on the door. 37 Happy are those servants whom the master finds waiting up when he arrives. I assure you that, when he arrives, he will dress himself to serve, seat them at the table as honored guests, and wait on them. 38 Happy are those whom he finds alert, even if he comes at midnight or just before dawn. 39 But know this, if the homeowner had known what time the thief was coming, he wouldn’t have allowed his home to be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, because the Human One is coming at a time when you don’t expect him.
So let’s start not with a full analysis of this passage but just noticing what seem to be the two most radical things Jesus says. It is possible through being present to this day, this moment, to live with faith and generosity that opens us to all that God has for us, and to character and experience that we will consider to be treasure. This is “in heaven,” Jesus says, not so much because it happens after death, more because it is spiritual, it is invisible, though very palpable. You can’t count the treasures of joy or peace or freedom, but they are very real and very good.
The other radical thing Jesus goes on to say is that the God Jesus knows and teaches about isn’t fixing to get us to be God’s servants so much as to serve us! Just as life doesn’t need to be what we expect it to be, Jesus is teaching that so too God is likely not what we expect God to be like.
But what is Jesus teaching us about God?
Is God a “master”? Well, yes, it seems at first. Jesus tells a little story about a Master of the house who is off at a fancy wedding, and how it’s important for everyone else to be ready for him when he comes home, no matter how late he is. Jesus would seem to indicate that God is at least of this level of importance. God owns everything, God is all powerful. And when God seems absent to us, it isn’t that God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care. We will experience God’s return – our Master, worthy of our allegiance and service.
Fair enough, and yet, when I hear the word Master, I think of the American institution of slavery – of empowered White men who claimed to own land and people and to exploit both violently for their own pleasure and profit. This is me, in America, but for Jesus’ audience in 1st century Roman colonized Judea, there could have been similar overtones. Yet the God Jesus calls Master is not what we know as a Master at all. In fact, in the story, this so-called Master returns late at night only to serve the so-called servants. Recognizing they’re tired and hungry, this so called Master would bring them food and drink, find them a nice place to shower and sleep, treat them like guests in his home. This is not a Master at all.
So is God a servant? Well, yes, Jesus says so. The God character in the story subverts everyone’s expectations around power, and takes care of people. God is eager to serve those who trust God. Jesus says, don’t be afraid little flock, it is God’s delight to give you all that God has. And this is very much in keeping with the most radical, most counter-cultural statements about God in the Jesus’ prophetic tradition that said, “There is no God like this one, who works for those who wait for him.” People throughout history of conceived of God as one who waits for people to work for God. But the God of Jesus’ tradition doesn’t need, doesn’t want, human servants. This God, they said, works for the people who wait for God. God wants to take care of you, Jesus says, like a servant.
And yet, is God really a Servant? Does this word capture the full being and nature of God? Of course not. God isn’t kind because God lacks power or freedom or status or possibility.
So if God isn’t really a Master or a Servant, if these are both metaphors, what is God? Once, after Jesus served his students, he said, I’m not just your servant, but your example and teacher, and he said he doesn’t call them servants either because he shares everything with them, he tells them everything. He says, instead, they are friends.
So is God a friend? Well, yes, in that God shares with people, gives to people, enjoys being with people. And yet, you can’t go have a beer with God. I mean you can, sort of, by faith, right? Pastor Michaiah encouraged us in a sermon this spring to try a “date with God” – time by yourself, where you believe God is with you and enjoy that sense of companionship. And this kind of thing is totally real for me. If I could call Jesus my best friend and not have people laugh at me, well, then I’d tell you Jesus is my best friend. But still, it’s different, right? I can’t see him. God’s not in a single body these days, which matters. And if God’s a kind of friend, it’s not a relationship of full mutuality, which is sort of the definition of a friendship – mutual presence, a kind of evenness. But even Jesus said, “You’re my friends, if you do what I command.” Granted, his command he was referring to was to love one another. “You’re my friends when you love one another.” But still, friends don’t give each other commands, but God can and does. God maintains the authority in any relationship. So God is something more or different than we mean when we say friend too.
And anyway, in this passage, Jesus doesn’t talk about God as a friend, but does say God, or maybe Jesus himself, is kind of like a thief.
So, is God a thief? Well, in the sense of unpredictable sometimes, a little beyond our understanding, tricksy in that way, sure. But that’s not really right either. Because God wants to give and give, never to take. So we can pass from that metaphor fully capturing God as well.
Jesus himself moves on from the thief image pretty quickly and calls this thief/not-thief God the Human One. I’ve been enjoying this translation I’ve been teaching from called the Common English Bible, and they translate this term Jesus most likes to use for himself as “The Human One.” More commonly, it gets translated more literally into English as The Son of Man.
And so is God a son of a man? Or a human one? Well, Jesus says yes, in both senses of this word. He’s in part another human, just like us. And maybe he’s also a very particular human that gets talked about in an earlier Biblical work of prophesy called the book of Daniel that envisions God present with a human being that is God’s special messenger or leader on earth.
And so, another radical claim of Jesus-centered faith, that God is now “a human one,” that God has become one of us.
And yet, does this capture all God is? A human being? God is a lot more than another one of us, even if God is also that.
Maybe you see what I’m doing here, and maybe I’ve overdoing it, but one more. If all these metaphors for God are useful, but also not entirely descriptive, not capturing all that God is, can we simply call God as Jesus most often does, as Father?
That’s where Jesus starts in this passage. Before God is or isn’t a Master or servant or friend or thief or Human One, Jesus says:
32 “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom.
So is God a Father? Well, of course God is a Father. Jesus calls God Father all the time. In Jesus’ native language of Aramaic, it was literally Abba – which is somewhere between Father and Daddy – more informal and intimate that Father less childish than “Daddy.” And like a good /Dad, God is a source of life. God is a source of protection and provision and comfort and guidance, someone that could hug you when you need it and encourage you when you need that, and guide or correct you when that’s what you need, and anything else the best of Fathers could do.
And yet, God’s not a man. Jesus and the scriptures are clear that both men and women are made it God’s image, and that God is beyond sex or gender, or maybe inclusive of all the best qualities we might associate with one sex or gender. So as much as God is Father, God is also Mother. And yet God’s not only a parent either. God isn’t particular in affection toward one family, God isn’t located in one space like every parent we could ever imagine is. Even though God has been known to us in a body, as Jesus, The Human One, God these days doesn’t have a body at all. God is Spirit, which is how God can be omnipresent – everywhere at once, as a living presence of love.
And this doesn’t sound much like a parent or a father at all. And so to call God Father, or Mother, or Parent doesn’t capture all there is to know about God.
Every time we put language to God, we find this happens. It might take us somewhere helpful, but then limit our understanding as well, be incomplete, even fail us in some way.
The way I was reading the text today – naming all the words we associate with God but then naming their limits, how they don’t quite work either, I’m imitating an ancient Christian text that does this, the 5th or 6th century writings of an author that calls themselves Dionysius the Aereopagite.
It’s an early text in this kind of spirituality we call apophatic – a Greek work that literally means away from speech, unspeaking.
The idea here is while God is known to us in the person of Jesus, without Jesus in front of us, in the flesh, we can only speak of God just as the scriptures do, through metaphor. God is a Master, a servant, a friend, a thief, a human one, a Father. Lots of other language our Bibles and our songs and our faith say about God.
All this language is metaphor. It says true and helpful things about God on terms we understand and know. That’s what’s great about metaphor – it can put big or abstract or unfamiliar or hard to understand things in terms that are smaller and concrete and familiar and easier to understand.
But metaphor has limits. It never fully captures things. God isn’t fully or exactly what we mean when we say master, servant, friend, thief, human one, father, or any other words at all.
To know God is to engage with words and imagination and thinking. But to know God is also to continue to unknow many things – to admit as we go along that our knowledge is partial and limited, that there is always more to God than our words can get right.
This is sort of bad news if you like knowing everything or being perfectly confident about everything you know. Which is kind of still the age we live in. Call it the modernity, or the Age of Enlightenment, or the age of science, or the age of colonialism – you can call it lots of things – but we live hundreds of years into an age in which people are kind of obsessed with standing above things and controlling them by fully knowing them. So for some of us, it’s frustrating to find out that what we call God is not like this at all. God is not something or someone we can stand above or control or at the moment, fully know.
And yet this is the good news too, that what and who we call God turns out to be larger, more complex, more mysterious than we can control or fully understand.
Janet Williams, a scholar of apophatic spirituality, puts it really helpful. While we can be in relationship with God, in that sense know God, we can’t ever get to the far side of God. There will always be more.
Apophatic spirituality – spirituality that moves away from speech, spiritual practice of unspeaking, is a way of pressing into the mystery of unknowing. Of connecting with God without trying to pretend to fully describe. As I’ll share in a second, it’s a type of spiritual practice with a lot of benefit.
We teach spiritual practice so much at Reservoir because our experience has been that faith is a set of things to try as much as it is a set of things to believe. And we’ve found that our faith practice does good in ourselves and does good in the world. It grows connection and depth and joy and peace in us. And this connection with God often gives us more power and purpose in the world.
So in a world with all kinds of scandal and crisis and problems, I’m teaching about spiritual practice not to deny or avoid those things, but to equip us to be people who can engage well, engage helpfully, engage joyfully with our lives and our world.
Other times at Reservoir, we talk about the common problems of our private lives and name the issues of our shared public life, but this week and in my next sermon, I’m entirely talking about the spiritual practice that can help us engage those lives well.
In two weeks, I’ll preach about kataphatic spirituality. “Kataphatic” means with words. I’ll talk about spiritual practice that engages our language and our imaginations and share some more about a year-long experience I had with this last year. But this kind of spiritual practice, this invitation to fill our minds with God, is a little more familiar at least around Reservoir.
So this week, I’m wanting to introduce us to the other side of the tradition, to apophatic spiritual practice – unspeaking, emptying our minds of what we thought we knew about God.
Most spiritual practice can be grouped into these two categories – kataphatic and apophatic, speaking and unspeaking, filling and emptying. Most prayer, most ways of Bible reading, worship with singing, spiritual friendship – these are katphatic spirituality, filling our minds. Whereas fasting, silence, solitude – these are more apophatic spirituality, emptying ourselves.
Let me share a story of what this can feel like.
Last Thursday, I noticed that I was particularly reactive to everything going on around me. I had been a lot busier that week than I thought I’d be. I had some problems I didn’t know how to resolve. And the usual bad news stream of things happening out in the world was getting me down more than normal. So I started my day with this generalized stress and wasn’t particularly hopeful about what was ahead.
Now I mentioned at the top that I’d talked to a friend earlier this summer that had encouraged me to spend keep spending time in silence each day. He’d talked about 20 minutes a day in his case, over something like 20 years. So I’d been trying this again.
And if you’re not very used to twenty minutes of silence, or don’t know how to use it well, there’s a practice you can use for it called centering prayer. Where you use a spiritual word or short phrase – a word or a couple of words you think to be true and helpful about God. And the goal isn’t to analyze this word, or overthink about it. It’s just a center, or an anchor, a place to start, and a word to return to if you find yourself distracted.
And for various reasons, my word for centering prayer that day was “room.” Jesus said, “In my Father’s house, there are many rooms.” And my experience of God is that God has room for me, has space and time and attention for me.
So I thought of that word “room” and then went from there.
It’s not very easy, not very interesting to describe most of what happens in centering prayer. After all, it’s unspeaking. You start with a word but then move to a kind of holy spacing out, just being still and silent with the God you’re not trying to describe or understand.
So really, all I can say about the process that day, is that I sat still and silent and spaced out, now and then centering my attention on that word “room” and wherever it led me, but mostly spacing out. Not a lot to say.
What I can tell you, though, is that some things shifted in me. Like I was living in the same house, but someone had moved the furniture around, so it all felt different.
I was less interested in some of the big things I had no control over.
When it came to my own problems, it became clear that some of them weren’t mine at all. With one person in my life, I realized their problem wasn’t mine at all, it was theirs. And as a prayer, I wished them well, committed them to God, who could help them in ways I couldn’t. With another person in my life, it just seemed clear now that their potential crisis that could effect me wasn’t a crisis at all, that it was going to be fine.
You could probably attribute a lot of this perspective gaining to just slowing down, which is what silence and solitude, even 20 minutes of it, do for you. They slow you down, they gain you peace. Less dialed in and anxious and reactive to everyone’s stuff, which is how most of us spend most of our lives these days. And stiller, calmer.
But I think that in centering prayer, and in all apophatic spiritual practice, we’re not just gaining peace, but the beginnings of wisdom. The most famous, most classic, work of apophatic spirituality is an old text called The Cloud of Unknowing. Because it’s encouraging you to rest in the consciousness of all that you do not know and understand. To be at home in the smallness and humility of the human experience.
The Cloud of Unknowing commends this centering prayer I’m describing not to deeply focus on what we can learn about the spiritual word we choose, but to center our attention on that word in order to forget about everything else and to move through that holy spacing out to the peace and humility of being present in a world we can’t control or understand, with a God we certainly can’t control or fully understand either.
And in this unknowing, to find our place again.
Which is what happened for me that day. I was less distracted, less distressed, more grounded. And as a result, it turned out, more useful, more productive too. I had a few bits of work that day I could do, and I realized at the end of the day, I did them much better and much more completely than normal.
If on an average day, I do half of what I hope to do and half as well as I want to, this day, I found I’d done all I’d wanted to, and probably better than I’d hoped to.
And that’s partly luck, maybe – it was just a good day. Maybe partly favor, God being kind to me. But I do think it’s partly the fruit of what came to me in that unspeaking, centering prayer.
Again, there is spiritual practice that is much more active than this, prayer and other things where we talk through our concerns, where we actively engage our thoughts and imagination with God. And I’ll talk more about that kataphatic, with words, spiritual practice in two weeks.
But this was a taste of the benefits of the unspeaking, apophatic, without or beyond words spiritual practice. Forgetting what we think we know, unspeaking in stillness with God, usually grows peace in us, and often roots us and gives us more power as well. Which maybe isn’t surprising, because we know that wisdom usually begins not with everything that we know, but with the humility of acknowledging all that we don’t know.
I wonder if more of this apophatic spirituality, this connection with God and ourselves with fewer words, doesn’t come at a good time for many of us. Because in this time and place when so much about religion and church and faith is being reexamined, is wanting some change, many of us find ourselves less sure about exactly what we believe about everything. Many people aren’t as sure about what exactly to think about God and all other matters of faith.
And this can seem like a spiritual barrier, like it’s a problem to God or a problem for us in connecting with God that we aren’t sure about everything, that there’s so much we don’t know.
But in apophatic spirituality, this isn’t a problem. It’s less of a barrier, in fact, than a benefit. Because in admitting freely that there’s so much we don’t fully understand, we’re saying to ourselves that we don’t know it all, which can open us to greater peace and wisdom.
And if we don’t give up on God, we can find that we can come in silence and stillness to God and appreciate that we can’t every find the end of God, that God can be with us in our unknowing, and be very real and powerful to us whether or not we have a lot to say, and whether or not we think there’s much we understand.
And this can be the beginning of a spiritual practice and divine connection that can grow great peace and wisdom and power in us.
As my friend did for me, I want to encourage you to try more of the apophatic, so I’ll end with two encouragements.
An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing
Commit to a life of growing humility – more and better questions, and ready admission of all you don’t know. It will make you wiser and quicker to discern wisdom and foolishness in others.
Spiritual Practice of the Week
Try five to twenty minutes a day of stillness and silence. Choose a single word associated with God and truth as an anchor for your attention during that time.