I am going to talk about silence. Yes, I know, there is an issue here. It reminds me of the famous Seinfeld show: 30 minute show on “Nothing.” I remember going to the Yale Divinity Library and looking at the Encyclopedia of Philosophy and finding 30 pages on “Nothing.” So, you are getting off light by me talking 10 minutes or so about silence!Today’s dancing (and again thank you to the Inlet dancers) agitated me deeply about the ways that we receive the good news of Jesus Christ. Of course words are important – it is the way we communicate; but what if you can’t hear? What if you cannot read? How then do you share or receive the good news of love, compassion, joy, justice, peace. How would you show, rather than tell? Do you talk the talk, or walk the walk? For a preacher, whose primary task is to speak – it is hard.
Today’s dancing strikes me as an antidote to our furious use of language; So many words and frankly, too much noise; how much nicer, at times a handshake, a smile, a turn, a lift, a raised arm. Remember the words of Henri Nouwen? “The best things we can give to each other are signs of affection, gestures of sympathy, peaceful silences and joyful memories.”
Today’s dancing reminds me of the variety of learning styles that we have. Some thrive in the lecture room and for some that is impossible. Some are visual learners, some are hands on learners. Some need lots of time to process. Our whole Sunday school program and curriculum is shaped by the reality of multiple learning styles – the kids cook, act out, paint, use figures. It isn’t all words.
It was probably in my first year here, I preached a sermon and one of you came to me and said; “John, that was a good sermon but it reminds me of when Mozart says to Salieri “a nice composition but too many notes.” I had “too many words.” This criticism is most likely still true.
Now I know there are issues to speak out about – there are many concerns that I have and you have that must be talked about: violence, guns, poverty, injustice, racism – all these things… but so often in this partisan madness sides talk past each other – it is as if we don’t even share the same vocabulary; it is so much blah, blah, blah – separated by a common language.
But sometimes you don’t have words to express the deepest things – only tears and sighs, and laughter, and groans work. Only brush strokes on canvas or an embrace gives meaning. Sometimes words get in the way; when you are tongue tied and wanting to tell someone you love them.
We know words can hurt. As James writes: “but few can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”(3:8) Epithets abound these days. How often have you said something you wish you could take back? You spoke too soon. If only I would have thought first and spoke later – it like pressing the send button the email that you soon regret. Words are power – who gets the first word is often the one who wins the day; the one who speaks the loudest and longest get the attention. Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, once said: “whoever says the first word to the world is always right.” I am glad that God got the very first word!
If only we lived the gospel life so fully that people would look at us and our lives and just know that we are followers of Jesus; we wouldn’t have to say anything – so powerful would our evangelism be.
Richard Foster writing in his book Freedom of Simplicity describes how the Desert Fathers and Mothers renounced speech in order to learn compassion.
Abbot Macarius said to a brother (they were out in the middle of the desert) “Brother flee!” and the brother responded: “Flee? We are already in the middle of nowhere… where can we go?” Abbot Macarius placed his finger to his mouth and said, “Flee from this.”
And Foster writes about this: “Silence frees us from the need to control others. One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless. We are accustomed to relying upon words to manage and control others. A frantic stream of words flows from us in an attempt to straighten others out. We want so desperately for them to agree with us, to see things our way. We evaluate people, judge people, condemn people. We devour people with our words. Silence, is one of the deepest disciplines of the spirit simply because it puts the stopper on that.” (Guide to Prayer, 115)
All the passages from scripture today are about silence and stillness and the power that comes from listening, just being. We are not good with silence. It makes us uncomfortable. But how can we hear God if we do not silence ourselves? In sheer silence, God comes. Our souls wait in silence for God. A time for silence is given the same weight as a time to speak. Jesus stills the waters and all is silent – and the disciples look up and see Jesus. God is in the temple: people shut up and are expectant.
We have to get still to listen. You have to shut up to hear.
Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know that I.
Be still and know that.
Be still and know.
Be still and….
Silence in the presence of God – the way to empowerment, the way to clarity, the way to compassion, the way to justice, the way to knowing what to say.
As St. Francis once said: “Preach the gospel always, use words only when necessary.”