Songs in the Wasteland: Silence & Presence

We continue our Celtic Advent series ‘Songs in the Wasteland’ with an old post. Hannah’s words, penned a year ago, felt even more appropriate for the current times we find ourselves in.

“O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.”
O Little Town of Bethlehem by Phillips Brooks

This time last year it was a cold, grey day and I sat across from my spiritual director, grappling with my understanding of God. Winter was hard for me last year, and I wanted answers. Wise, insightful, and extremely patient, (did I mention extremely patient? Seriously, the woman has ninja skills…) she looked me in the face and gently admonished me.

“Do not confuse silence with absence. He is still here.

That sentence has reverberated around my brain for the last year. Silence and absence, two very different things. Not inevitable bedfellows after all, but two distinct entities, in which God occupies the former and not the latter.

It came home to me one night when I found myself in a face off with my three year old. As with most parents I find I cannot quite recall what the particular issue had been that night, but no doubt it had been a long day, and there had been some form of tantrum. In an effort to calm her down, I found myself simply swooping up her protesting angry body and holding her against my chest. Rocking. There were no words; she and I were past that point. I was just there – silent but undoubtedly present. The simple rhythm of her hot body pressed into mine, the sway of our limbs as I soothed her with my presence.

And there – all of a sudden – there He was too. Silence and presence filling every cavity of the room, rocking me, rocking her.

“He is not absent, He is present”, I gasped.

Silence is unnerving. Believe me, I’ve been there. How do we wait? What do we say? When will this vortex of deafening quiet END?! Perplexed and frustrated, angry and irritated, we could easily shake our fists at this silent Father. We itch to be doing something, to be making progress, to in some way be climbing our way out of this darkness. And we, sadly, miss the point.

In the silence we come to terms with our own inability to fix anything. In the silence we discover a God who is far more interested in being with us than in giving us our next assignment. In the silence, we encounter a God who would swoop us up and rock us, gently; our thumping heads pressed into his chest, our beating hearts slowing as we receive his presence. He doesn’t need words for this kind of communion. Silence is not absence. And there, my friends, therein lies the hope. He is still here.

Immanuel, God with us. Happy Advent, one and all.

Hannah Montgomery is wife to Tom, mother to Charlie and Grace, mentor, friend, leader… But most importantly, she is a woman who seeks to know personally the deep heart of God. Her pilgrimage into that deep heart of God has not always been easy, but along the way she has discovered some beautiful truths that provide nourishment to others on their journeys.

Songs in the Wasteland: Birdsong

We are following the Celtic tradition of Advent which begins this week and, much like Lent, tends to involve 40 days of fasting, prayer and reflection in preparation for the feast of Christmas.

This year our Advent blog series follows the theme of ‘Songs in the Wasteland.’

Those of you who took part in the 24-7 Prayer Gathering Online will remember that the theme was “Strange Lands”, taken from the lament of Psalm 137, “How can we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?”

What is the ‘song of the Lord?’ Perhaps a look at Scripture can help us to identify what the ‘song of the Lord’ might be. What is the continuous thread throughout the story of Scripture? The loving pursuit of humanity by the God who never gives up. It is a continuous thread of God’s forgiveness, mercy, redemption, healing, restoration… in other words, hope.

I think the song of the Lord is a song of hope.

Hope acknowledges the reality of the present yet does not stop there – it believes for better. Hope is what occupies that uncomfortable space between the “now and not yet.”

And what else is Advent but this?

The Message version of Psalm 137 says, ‘Alongside Babylon’s rivers, we sat on the banks; we cried and cried, remembering the good old days in Zion. Alongside the quaking aspens we stacked our unplayed harps; That’s where our captors demanded songs, sarcastic and mocking: “Sing us a happy Zion song!” Oh, how could we ever sing God’s song in this wasteland?

Maybe you can relate? We could possibly interchange “Babylon’s rivers” for the Clyde, the Forth, the River Dee, the Tay…

The months of waiting, hoping have stretched out much longer than expected and now we are also feeling stretched, thin, weary. The waiting has grown long. And our once hopeful outlook has potentially faded to match the bleakness of the coming winter season – a sort of wasteland.

It was into this wasteland that the Christ-child came – quietly, subversively yet those whose hearts were in a place of preparation heard, their eyes saw.

We often view the coming of Jesus through a soft warm glow. However, the promised Saviour came at a time not unlike where we currently find ourselves – a time of political unrest, deep divisions and racism, death and poverty, captivity and suppression, fear and anxiety. Even Jesus and His family had to live as refugees for a while. The lament of Psalm 137 would have been much repeated by the people of God.

There was an article on the BBC recently about birdsong during lockdown: “…scientists confirmed a change in the birds’ vocal repertoire when the city fell quiet. The birds upped the quality of their songs, as they called to defend their territory and entice a mate. And while it might have seemed to human ears that bird song got louder, the sparrows actually sang more quietly. These sweeter, softer songs carried further given the lack of background noise.”

Birds always sing before dawn comes…” is the hauntingly beautiful line sung by Cardboard Carousel in their latest single.

What might it look like for us as the people of God to sing before the dawn comes? To enter more fully into Advent this year, opening our hearts to His coming right into our pain and mess, and then allowing the song of the Lord to arise from deep within us and fill this land with hope?

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

The 24-7 Prayer Gathering Online is only 2 days away from beginning! 4,000 from across 76 nations registered so far and the excitement is building! Yes, it will be different this year and we will all miss hugging those we rarely see, sitting across the lunch table from one another, talking late into the night with new, lifelong friends… those things that make the days of the Gatherings so special. And yet, there is an anticipation growing in our hearts. Because what has made the Gatherings most memorable, year after year, are those deeply significant things that God speaks to us as individuals, teams and communities as well as a global family.

Here are testimonies from friends across Scotland who have heard God in special ways at past Gatherings:

The final night of worship in Geneva was in St Peter’s Cathedral… I know that we cannot even come close to imagining what heaven will be like, but that night it felt like what I imagine it will be. The place was packed with people from all over the world, many different church backgrounds, all singing praise to the glory of God. It was amazing. At the end of our time there I was tired mentally from all the mind-shattering things God had been showing and teaching me, but spiritually so fired up for whatever God had for me.” Steph Rooney, Kirkmuirhill

A highlight for me was the space to worship God filled with a group of people who were passionate about His presence and hearing His voice! And one big take away was around my own leadership – learning to acknowledge areas where I project onto others, helping to identify my own shadow so that I don’t allow it to negatively impact how I lead those around me!” Zak Robb, Edinburgh

We went to The Gathering for the first time as a church leadership team, and one highlight for me was definitely the flow of prayer, prophecy and praise each time we gathered – so life giving and naturally supernatural. It seemed like God was doing something remarkable in every nation, and I was so encouraged at the sense of His Church on the move all over the earth! There were so many challenging messages and calls to action, but I was really impacted by Danielle Strickland’s message on ‘mountains and mustard seeds’. This explained the tension of life and ministry in the Kingdom so well, we all carry a huge vision but it must be worked out in our ‘mustard seed’ actions of faith every day. The Gathering also dropped so many gold nuggets in our laps as a leadership team, of vision and direction that we had already been sensing all year – being intentional in our discipleship with just a few people (like Jesus), gathering around tables, being vulnerable and accountable – so many Holy Spirit confirmations for us to take home was fantastic!” Simon Dennis, Aberdeen

My highlight of the Gathering was the resounding cry for unity – seeing the reconciliation I’ve always wanted to see in action and within that, seeing the glimmer of the Kingdom of God!” Healey Rosweir, Edinburgh

The Gathering was inspiring with a real sense of God’s presence and the Holy Spirit at work. The feel was very much that of family gathering, brothers and sisters coming together from all different nations. The one thing that inspired me most was the work of 24-7 Prayer Ibiza, having attended their workshop.” Bob Mallinson, Dundee

And then there is the auction. This is the point in the Gathering where the true culture within the 24-7 family is fully expressed – playful, sacrificial, wild generosity to support various needs within the family, whether they be personal, community or for missional/justice related projects. One example is from last year’s Gathering in Belfast, when all the Scots in the room pooled their money to bid on a silly vest so that a single mum who had just been evicted could provide her children with a new home.
Healey Rosweir of Edinburgh says this about last year’s Gathering and auction: “The auction was an absolute highlight! The hilarity that ensued as the group I was part of began pulling more and more people in to add to the pot, forming friendships with anyone and everyone. It created this atmosphere that was competitive yet so, so joyful – everyone united in wanting to gather as much money as possible to give away to others. I’ve never seen people so happy to part with money before!
*To find out more about this year’s auction click here.

What might be in store for us all this year?

Embodied Prayer

These recent days have been intense and many of us have found ourselves battling stress, anxiety, information overload, boredom and restlessness yet have little capacity. Emma Timms doesn’t just talk about, but walks us through, a helpful prayer practice for times like this.

So I get a maximum of 500 words to talk to you, a few moments of your time as your scroll through your screen. I’m going to use those words to lead you in a practice.

Let’s linger in the sweet presence of Jesus together. I invite you to inhabit this practice fully and give 5 whole minutes of your time and attention to embody this moment.

Close all other tabs.

Lay aside and silence all your other devices.

Place both your feet on the ground and and wiggle your toes.

Take three deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth.

Welcome and recognise the presence of God in this very moment.

GOD IS HERE.

Take 3 more deep, slow breaths, see how long you can linger over them. Repeat the Breath PrayerGod is here” with every breath.

Let go and release everything that’s come before this moment and everything else you have to do after.

Be here now.

Linger in this truth; GOD IS HERE.

Take three more slow, deep breaths, lifting your shoulders towards your ears as you inhale and dropping them back down as you exhale.

Movement and breath awareness during prayer bring focus. Whilst our thoughts and feelings can easily be rushing into the past and the future, our bodies are rooted completely in the present.
Undivided attention is rare and it’s not easy to come by. Take a conversation for example: sometimes you get the gift of being truly listened to – you can tell by the body language and a person’s gaze when they are really giving you their attention – and it feels good. Compare that to when you’re trying to share something with someone and they are constantly looking at their phone and distracted. Well, prayer is in its simplest form is a conversation with God, and it’s a skill we can learn to give Him more and more of our undivided attention – but it doesn’t always come easy! Movement and breathing help us to focus. In the Lectio 365 app with which I’m sure many of you are familiar, we are invited to ‘re-centre our scattered senses upon the presence of God.’ The short practice I just led you in above is a practical way to re-centre.

As well as our focus, the movements of our body can reflect and deepen the movements of our heart. Palms turned upwards can mirror a feeling of surrender. Palms pressed down can help us feel grounded. Kneeling can evoke humility, and arms lifted, worship. I teach Pilates and Contemplative Prayer and we explore all different kinds of movement and prayer practices. The focus and discipline we learn on our mats makes its way into our everyday lives and the fruit begins to show up all over the place.

Here’s a link to a 10 minute seated practice with movement to the simple breath prayer we used above: God is here.
I hope it blesses you and if you have any questions feel free to get in touch!

Emma and her husband Jon lead Discovery Church in Dunbar where they live with their 4 children and Barney the dog. Emma teaches Pilates and has recently been leading others in Pilates combined with Contemplative prayer practices, such as Breath prayer and the Examen. You will often find Emma pursuing her other great passion – wild swimming.