It’s almost other-worldly, the hour that bookends every sunrise. While all the rest of the world sleeps, stillness reigns like a paradox, just as eerie as it is comforting.
I can recall my favorite sunrise as easily as my own phone number. It dawned in the middle of July in Prague. The cobblestones of the Charles bridge were cold and echoey; the only sounds were rare footsteps and the rhythm of the river.
As filaments of light began to thread their way above the horizon, a troupe of ballet dancers posed for their photographer. What a pair, the ballerinas on the bridge, and the light, delicate on the water.
In that moment, it didn’t even occur to me to take a picture. There was a stillness that could haunt on that bridge.
It was a stillness that could haunt.
I’ve been an avid stillness-chaser ever since. Early sunrises, solo hikes, long drives — there are so many opportunities to capture moments of stillness. But sometimes, whether we want it or not, stillness captures us.
If you’re like me, the shutdown caused by COVID-19 has been more than a mild disruption to life; it’s been downright disorienting. For the first time, entire nations of people are experiencing forced stillness. What a time to be alive!
There are two ways I think this could go. Either we, the people of God, cultivate this plot of stillness we’re now living on, or we let it become a barren waste. We dive into the gift of stillness we’ve all just been given, or we simply sit down and entertain ourselves. Now, more than ever, is the time for us to learn how to cherish stillness.
First, if we’re ever going to know how to cultivate stillness, we have to know what it is and what it is not. There are so many misconceptions here (cue up all those instagram images of warm, happy serenity). When I leaned against the cold stone of the Charles bridge two years ago, the stillness I experienced wasn’t comfortable. I’ll venture to say that true stillness rarely is comfortable. At least not in the beginning.
Stillness exposes our addiction to busyness and starves our hunger for control.
So stillness isn’t comfortable. What is it? It’s the setting for restoration. Just like a long trail, stillness provides the necessary terrain for us to move from self-worship to God-worship. For me, that normally goes in three steps.
1. Agree with the Lord about the state of your heart.
I went for a solo hike several weeks ago, expecting it to be a picture-perfect portrait of serenity, but in reality it just exposed the divided allegiance of my heart. (Okay, I get that hiking isn’t physical stillness, but for me it’s the silence and gentle movement of walking that stills my heart… point is, it could look different for everyone!)
Miles passed as idol after idol popped up in my heart. Control, busyness, human affirmation… the list goes on. I’d call that hike the hike of agreement. Every step I kicked in the snow was just a “Yes, Lord, you’re right. I’ve blown it.” So often, the first step of stillness is simply agreeing with Jesus about the state of your heart.
2. Watch for God in the details of the moment.
What next? Usually by the time I walk through the agreement stage of stillness, I start to notice the things outside of myself.
This is the time to take in the details of creation (or if you’re on quarantine, notice the beauty of art, or the details in a book, or even the flavor of your tea!). This moves your heart past the all-about-me place to the all-about-God place. The main point here is that it’s all about watching, listening, waiting, or observing, and not about doing. Just be and be wowed!
In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
Just last week I went hiking again in search of stillness, and the glitter of the untouched snow with the fringe of peaks all around me brought such joy that I literally couldn’t stop smiling. This is one way it could look when we experience that second stage of stillness (seeing the character of God in the details of the moment) and move to this third stage:
3. Engage in praise and worship of the one true God.
When stillness brings us to a place of agreement with Jesus about our need for him, and then to a state of observing his character in the things he’s created, it’s only natural that we react with an abundance of praise. Engaging could look like writing a prayer of praise, singing, dancing, crying, calling a friend with some encouragement, creating something beautiful… basically any reaction to the grace of the God who reigns in stillness.
Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name!
Stillness is hard. It means we have to face what’s really going on inside. But oh, is it sweet! If we can learn to cultivate times of stillness by agreeing with God, watching for God, and engaging with God, (especially in this forced stillness during COVID-19) we can experience some of the greatest renewal imaginable. I say it to my own heart and to yours: Don’t miss it!