One can hardly help being struck by the incredible flatness and secularity of existence in our time. Technology and the good life have apparently conspired to eliminate the quality of depth from the human consciousness.
Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, said in an interview with Michael Toms that the majority of his friends are living “Waste Land lives.” Many of them, he said, “just are baffled; they’re wandering in the Waste Land without any sense of where the water is — the source that makes things green” (An Open life, pp. 66-67).
This is the judgment of a man who spent his lifetime studying the religions of the world and how they nurtured people in every clime and culture. When he looked at contemporary American existence, he saw a lack of religion and nurture. He saw a Waste Land.
Most of us understand what he was saying because we look around us and see that our friends are living in the Waste Land too. They are busy but they are not getting much out of life. They are like the children in John Ruskin’s story about the rainy day. Because they were confined to the house by the rain, the children invented a game: they would see how many tacks each could pry loose from the overstuffed Victorian furniture. For the balance of the afternoon they all worked feverishly, prying and gathering. Then, when the sun came out and they could all go home, they left, each with his pocketful of tacks and the furniture in a shambles!
Ruskin meant us to see that the room is the world and we are all the tack-gatherers — and that when it is over there is very little point in having won more tacks than the next person. We have only committed sacrilege on the environment.
In such a busy, Waste-Land kind of a world, what gives true significance to our lives? Perhaps the Psalms 46:10 is still a good one: “Be still and know that I am God.”
“Be still.”
It is not easy in the cluttered, rancorous life of the city, is it? Most of our lives are so frenetic that they become centrifugal — that is, they destroy centers. They send everything to the periphery, where it spins and spins and never seems to stop.
Stillness must be created.
There was a time when it simply existed. Stillness was.
But now, in our hectic environment, it must be created. It must exist by design.
I have always admired architects who understand this and manage in their buildings to make stillness come into being. Landscape architects do the same. A Japanese garden is one of the most exquisite creations in the world. It is always the center of the turning world, the place where time and desire stand still. A lily pond, a little brook, a dogwood tree, a simple wooden bridge — and it breathes the clear, pure air of eternity!
There are people who make their homes into this kind of oasis of quietness, with every lamp and book placed just so, to create an effect of simple order and restfulness.
What the psalmist suggested is that we must somehow create such places of quiet in our hearts, so that, regardless of how busy the day or noisy the environment, there is depth in ourselves.
One of the great human beings of our time is Paul Tournier, the Swiss physician who has written many books of helpfulness on the human condition. I once heard Tournier lecture at the University of Chicago, and was deeply impressed by his melodiousness of soul. Some people have no melody in the soul, but his soul seemed to sing like a lark.
I therefore paid close attention when I read in one of his books the secret of his great spirit. He was only a young doctor at the time, but he was searching for some way to live more fully in the world. He went to a forum where one of the discussants was a Dutchman who worked for the old League of Nations. The Dutchman spoke of spending time each day in quiet prayer and meditation, and said it was the anchoring feature of the day.
After the discussion, Tournier approached the man and asked how long he normally spent in this activity. “It depends,” said the man. “Usually I spend an hour or an hour and a half.”
“If such a busy man as he can spend an hour a day in prayer,” said Tournier, “then surely I can do as much.”
So the next morning Tournier arose an hour earlier than usual, went into his study, sat at his desk, laid his pocket watch on the desktop, and began to pray.
A minute passed, then five.
It seemed like an hour, he said. He did not know if he would be able to stay there for an hour or not.
Eventually the hour was up. Nothing had happened. He felt that it had been a failure. He started to get up. But a voice within him asked that he remain a minute or two longer.
God used that extra minute or two of obedience to speak to his heart, said Tournier, and an hour of prayer became a daily staple of his life. It was the centering act that transformed him from an ordinary, frantic individual into an extraordinary, serene, and beautiful person. Now the light of inner clarity shines like a beacon from his eyes! Even when he is most active, there is a stillness and a depth about him that is astounding.
“Be still and know.”
You do know things when you are still, don’t you?
But there is so little real knowledge, so little real certainty, in the world today. We know things probably. We know things theoretically. We know things statistically. But we don’t know them with conviction and certainty.
Really knowing requires a kind of centeredness that is all too rare in modern existence.
A friend of mine in Tennessee sent me a short story he had written about his grandfather. He describes how his grandfather went out on the front porch every night, sat in a rocking chair, and looked up at the stars. Everybody ought to sit on the front porch at night, he said. The thing that’s wrong with the world is that people don’t sit on the front porch anymore. They don’t take the time to know things the way people once knew them.
Clyde Edgerton’s novel Walking Across Egypt is a beautiful, quiet novel about a woman who really knows things. Her name is Mattie Rigsbee. Mattie is in her late seventies and lives alone. She is religious in a very simple way. In fact, her whole life is simple. She is the kind of person Americans used to be, and still are in some small towns.
There is a part in the story where Mattie takes in a young scalawag named Wesley, who has escaped from a detention center. On Saturday night, she asks Wesley if he has ever been to church. He says no; he has been by one, and has seen one on TV, but he has never been to one.
I want you to hear Edgerton’s description of what went on in Mattie’s mind at this point. It is descriptive of the kind of solid life that comes from knowing with the heart:
Mattie saw before her a dry, dying plant which needed water up through the roots — a pale boy with rotten teeth who needed the cool nourishing water of hymns sung to God, of kind people speaking to him, asking him how things were going, the cool water of clean people, clean children, of old people being held by the arm and helped up a flight of stairs, old people who looked with thanks up into the eyes of their helpers, of young and old people sitting together for one purpose: to worship their Maker, to worship Jesus, to do all that together and to care for each other and to read and sing and talk together about God and Jesus and the Bible. That would bring color to his cheeks, a robustness to his bearing. That would do it. He seemed smart enough. And, since he hadn’t been to church, then he was lost; this could be his first stop on the road to salvation (Ballantine, 1987, pp. 130-131).
Do you see what I mean?
Feeling certain about the world. Being comfortable with the created order.
Mattie knew. She wasn’t a Ph.D. and there were lots of things she didn’t know, but she knew about life.
The way you know when you are still.
“Be still and know that I am God.”
Knowing God is the most valuable knowledge in the world. More valuable than knowing the formula for an H bomb. More valuable than knowing how to conjugate a French verb. More valuable than knowing how to make a souffle’. More valuable than anything.
Knowing God sets everything else in the world in order. It pyramids things. It prioritizes life. It says this is most important and other things are not.
People who don’t know God don’t realize this. And they are in the majority of the populace. “Wide, wide is the way that leads to destruction,” says the Bible, “and narrow is the way that leads to life.” Most people are in the wide way, not the narrow way. They don’t know what they’re missing.
Knowing God is the most wonderful experience a human being can have. It transforms everything!
I don’t usually share personal things like this, but this time I want to. It is something from my journal. It happened last October. I was going through some heavy things in my thinking, mostly about where I should be serving God.
I had awakened early, with half an hour to spare over my regular schedule, and decided to use the time to pray. I went into the living room, where I often go early in the morning, and knelt down at a large comfortable footstool. I laid my feelings and concerns before God and waited.
I will not go through the conversation we had, as it would take too long to explain all of it. But when the conversation was over, I simply waited, caught up in meditation. I had a sense of being in the cleft of a rock, like Moses in the biblical description, while God’s glory passed by.
There was a strong light, almost too strong to look upon. I noted in my journal that it was a little like the light in a movie that sometimes comes through the trees, almost blinding the beholder, and wondered if what I was seeing in my meditation was influenced by having seen this in the movies. No, I decided, it was more like the experience I had as a small boy after being confined for weeks with the old-fashioned measles and then coming out of the house for the first time; the sunlight was brilliant. It was a spring day, and I can still recall the sense of effulgence and sweetness in the air, with all the blooming plants in the neighborhood.
Afterward, I wrote in my journal:
Thank you, Lord. If only I could just love you for you, and not for what you can do for me. I sense the joy that would pervade everything in my life — let you be the center of my universe — not me!
This is only a glimpse — one man’s small experience with knowing God at the center or near the center of his life. But perhaps it will be suggestive for your own experience. You may have a better story to tell. The important thing is to make the connection, to remember what it is to be still and know that God is God, and to realize what life could be for us if we would only practice this regularly, at least once a day. To put it mildly, it would transform us!
It wouldn’t happen all at once, but it would gradually happen, over a period of months and years.
Like the story I read recently, as told by Richard Bolles, author of What Color Is Your Parachute? It is about a man who lived in England. He had a three-story house that he wanted to tear down and rebuild. The city council would not give him permission to raze the present building. So he put jacks under the second floor and completely rebuilt the first floor. Then he put jacks between the first and third floors and rebuilt the second floor. Finally he rebuilt the third floor. He had a totally new house, but at no point could the council say he tore down the old house to build a new one.
Our transformations are gradual. They occur little by little. Then one day we wake up and say, “Hey, this is a new me! And God is at the center of my life. What a wonderful life it is!”
And it all starts by being still, so we can know that God is God.
Talk about great things growing from small seeds! This is one, isn’t it?

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