The Consolations of Stillness (Ps. 46)
Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church
November 27, 2016
It’s Advent. Our season of watching and waiting. But to be honest, I only feel like watching. There’s no time for waiting. To that end, I offer this story:
I was already weary before the election. Not an easy year. Trials of Roof and Slager going on two blocks from church. Handwritten hate mail in my box. Country’s racial tension at a boil. And the nasty political cycle. Majority of Americans saying they’d had enough.
So I wheeled over to pick up the boy from school. Threw snacks into a backpack. He bounded from the building. We rode to the water, locked bikes, walked out on the spit.
No one was there. Just the onrushing tide. Strong wind off the harbor. Low falling sun. And every seabird we’d ever seen. Albatrosses. Skimmers. Night herons. Great egrets, stilting through the mud. More birds than people. We sat and watched. Passed crackers and water bottles. Quiet enough that you could hear the spartina rustling. Lap of the water on the wall.
Sat, watched, mumbled the words of poet William Stafford:
We live by faith in such presences.
It is a test for us, that thin
but real, undulating figure that promises,
“If you keep faith I will exist
at the edge, where your vision joins
the sunlight and the rain: heads in the light,
feet that go down in the mud where the truth is.”
I hadn’t understood before. Down in the mud where the truth is. Until I sat, surrounded by herons and egrets, to watch and listen. And I set all our problems in the context of a larger story. A larger story that we are endangering, to be sure, but one that is also greater than us, and will continue no matter what we do. It was a comfort, the truth that there is something greater than our efforts, but I also sat worried. “I think we should keep this,” as Stafford said. I think we should keep it.
I’m aware that the retreat to the outdoors is a feature of privilege, a stereotype of white liberals taking time away to hug trees and write poems. But I reject the caricature. Being outdoors is not a white privilege, but a human one. We are all children of this earth, its rightful inheritors and children, black, white, Asian, Latino, everyone. And grounding ourselves in it is no one’s privilege if not everyone’s. Earth is mother to all of us. Whether you live in my neighborhood or another, there is always an osprey, a dogwood tree, a community garden, or a ladybug climbing the wall. We can all ground ourselves in this larger story. Because we are all a part of it. But I’m not saying anything the psalmist didn’t say.
God, said the old Hebrew poet, is our refuge and our strength, and went on to sing of a greater story. We will fear, he says, of course. Waters, mountains, and kingdoms will move, but something grounding will remain. The works of the Lord, said the psalmist. Which we might translate, with the help of modern theologians, as the mystery, the ground of being, the serendipitous creativity from which we and the universe emerged. It’s not easy to get in touch with this. Especially if we never stop. If we never slow down to look. If we never bike down to the water and sit quietly, watching.
Be still, said the psalmist, and know. Be still. And in the midst of such a harried season, between the politics and the holidays it’s a good word: Be still. It brings us a kind of consolation. Knowing that we don’t have to do it all, acknowledging that we can’t. But grounding ourselves for the things that we can do. As I sat watching the egrets, I wondered about the consolations of stillness. Why is this helping? I asked. And the thoughts whispered as the wind. Being still consoles by focusing oneself on the breath. I breathed in and out. Being still consoles by grounding oneself in a larger story. I thought of the universe story and the wonder that any of us are here at all. Being still consoles by locating us as parts of a greater whole. I looked at the egrets and even the tide as my kindred and kin. Being still consoles by letting our loves rise to the surface. I looked at the scene before me and felt the mystic’s love for the whole. I love you, Lowcountry, I thought. I love you ocean, tide, sun, sky, birds, fish, boy sitting beside me eating crackers as the sun goes down. And this is where my ethic is grounded. In this love. Not anywhere else.
The psalmist might have understood this. Be still and know. Then act accordingly. Which brings me to a final thought.
The stillness isn’t a retreat. It’s a regrounding. The quiet isn’t checking out. It’s checking in. A beautiful paradox of faith. I was watching the world in order to get going. I was letting go of my worries in order to hold on to my work. The work the rabbis have taught: to restore and repair the world. Which is where we are.
We begin the season of Advent in the midst of the most turbulent political time anyone can remember. Our friends are threatened and afraid. Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ people, women, those of diverse ability, all explicitly threatened by the president-elect and his administration. We know we’re going to have to fight. We’re going to have to stand for all our dear ones. We’re going to have to speak and to say who we are and what we value. It’s a season of watching, to be sure. But there really is no time to wait. Our sisters and brothers, our earth, want to know what we have to say.
So we go outside and ground ourselves for the struggle. We remember who and what we love. And we rise from the places we sit to join the movement until every sister and brother, every being, can flourish.
It’s a salve for our troubled times. As poet Mary Oliver writes, we go outside because “the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and mystery of the world, out in the fields. . .can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”
Maybe that’s Advent’s invitation this year. That we watch and listen so that we might re-dignify our stung hearts. So that we can join the struggle. Because God knows, this isn’t a season of waiting.
 William Stafford, “Spirit of Place: Great Blue Heron” in The Way it Is: New and Selected Poems (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 1998), 167.
 William Stafford, “The Whole Thing” in Even in Quiet Places, (City: Press, year), pp.
 Mary Oliver, “Staying Alive” in Upstream: Selected Essays (New York: Penguin Press, 2016), 14-15.