I had an out-of-town meeting yesterday, about an hour away. On my way to this meeting, the distance provided me with one full hour of unstructured alone time. I was not reading, I was not making telephone calls, I was not having people stop by my office, and I was not writing.
I had an hour of uninterrupted time to spend some time praying. I had a lot on my mind, after all. I was worried about a family in our church that just had their power shut off, I was wondering where the new leaders in our church would arise from, I was wondering if we would have enough money to be able to finish the year, I was concerned that violence continues to cast a dark cloud over our neighborhood. I felt a weighty burden on my shoulders. Often times, the only thing that I am able to do is to pray.
The words would not come out. I could not even think the words that I wanted to say. I knew what I was thinking, I knew what I was feeling, and I knew the type of things that I wanted to express, but I could not. In my desperation I let out a big sigh.
It was then that I remembered a verse from the Letter to the Romans, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26, NRSV).
I wondered, perhaps, if this is the experience to which this passage refers. There are times in which we feel an oppressive weight upon our shoulders, when our hearts are burdened. When we find it difficult to focus or concentrate, or even make words. There are always times in which we feel as though we are barely treading water and as though our pockets are filled with stones. These are times in which praying can be difficult.
How ironic that there are some very difficult times, times in which we most need to pray, that it is difficult to do so. This is particularly difficult for me, as words are the way in which I make my living and the way in which I live out my calling. I interpret the words of scripture, and I use words to explain scripture and why it matters to those in my congregation. I use words to offer up common prayers with and on behalf of my congregation. I use words to comfort those who are sick, I use words to celebrate the sacraments, I use words to help those entrusted to my care to try to make sense of God, their lives, and how God impacts their lives. Words are what I do.
There are, however, times in which words are never enough. When people grieve, sometimes the ministry of being is more important than the ministry of words. Words are useful only insofar as they communicate something which needs to be communicated. There is something, though, of the human condition which is ineffable, which cannot be expressed within the limits of language. Sometimes there is something so beautiful and wonderful that words cannot do it justice; other times there is so much burden and that words cannot express the depths of despair.
At these times, perhaps, it is best simply to remain silent knowing what is on one’s heart and mind. Perhaps, at these times, when words cannot suffice, words need not be necessary because presence with another person and/or presence with God is enough. When something limited like language cannot express what we need to express, there is a communication which is far deeper than words.