Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Silence is not the Answer to Everything

I have been discussing the silence at length in my congregation.  Through this past summer, we have incorporated intentional silence in our Sunday worship, using silent, focused prayer in the place of the regular prayers of intercession.  At the same time, we have begun our parallel community, The Still, Small Voice, which is a group that is shaped by the practices of meditation and contemplation.  If you are ever in Falmouth on a Saturday, come join us at 4:00 p.m.

                I have had discussions about silence with members of my congregation, with clergy colleagues and with unsuspecting members of the public who innocently inquired about what it is that I do.  The reaction has been mixed.  For some, silence is such a foreign concept, especially in the modern church arena, that pursuing it can be relegated to that odd, niche market of the introverted mystic.  For others, silence can play a minor role in the life of the church but, especially among Lutherans who give great value to the preaching office, silence can never compare with a well-crafted sermon or a lofty hymn. 
                But then there are those who have taken part in silent practices of one form or another.  It may have been in a religious context or a stress-relief seminar, but they had the experience of allowing themselves to be still.  They are often surprised that there is a Christian tradition around silence; that to be still can be a way of seeking the presence of God and that practicing silence is part of ancient church practice.

                As much as I have come to appreciate silence and have begun to see silence as a transformative practice for the church, I feel like I should say that silence is not the answer to everything that ails us.  We live in a society that is divided over many issues and where extreme views are often the loudest voices.  We live in a culture that continues to struggle around racial equality and justice.  We live in a church that is anxious about its own decline and questions its own relevance. 

                Silence is not the answer to these problems.  Silence does not resolve conflicts.  It does not share the full breadth of the promise of the good news.  Silence in and of itself does not feed the hungry, advocate for justice or create understanding.  Intentional silence could easily devolve into liturgical naval-gazing.  The world may be going to hell around us, but at least we are calm, finding the ripe strawberry between the tiger and the cliff (as the Buddhist story goes). 

                If through the practice of silence we are able to develop calmer and more peaceful lives, this would be a good start, but only a start.  At some point we are called to break our silence, to give witness to the peace we experience; to go out and share this peace (or shalom or the good news or the reign of God) with the world around us.  We are sent to live in the presence of God just as we have sat in the presence of God in contemplation.

                Silence is an excellent preparation for this journey.  It allows for a rebooting of our minds so that we can look at world with renewed perspective.  In silence we learn to listen, so we can actually be in dialogue with another rather than simply talking over one another.  In silence we learn compassion, to be aware of God’s immeasurable love for all people which might send us to carry out that love in word and action.  Silence teaches us to be patient, so that we can respond mindfully to what ails our lives rather than living from gut-reaction to gut-reaction.

                Yet none of this matters if we fail to get beyond the silence.  In the gospel stories, Jesus sometimes went by himself to pray and invited his followers to pray in secret.  He did not remain in retreat, nor did he favor being in retreat over being in the world.  Jesus went by himself to pray so that he could return to his ministry to and for the world. 

Silence is not the answer to everything, but it is a place to begin our answers.  Find God in silence and accompany God into the complexities of life.  Listen for God in silence and then be part of God’s answer to a hurting world.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

On Silence

On Silence 
(This article first appeared in the Matters of Faith column of the Cape Cod Times on August, 15, 2015)

                I am going to start this article with a plug so I can get it out of the way rather than try to subtly sneak it at the end.  Recently, my congregation (Christ Lutheran Church of Falmouth) received a grant from the Calvin Institute of Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan to work on a project around the use of silence in worship.  Our project is a new community we call The Still, Small Voice.  We have been gathering at 4:00 p.m. every Saturday to spend time in intentional silence, a mix of the Christian traditions of silent contemplation and meditation on scripture.  Anyone from any tradition is welcome to join us for this experiment.
                The reason our project involves silence is in part due to my own journey with silence, the tale of an introvert in an often extroverted profession; the story of a musician who became tired of noise.  I have been a pastor for seventeen years, a period of general decline in my Lutheran tradition as well as many other established traditions.  As we have looked to turn things around, it often feels like we are trying to compete for who can put on the best show;  who can get the best musicians; who has the best sound system; who can install the technology to make a lasting visual impact.  It is like we decided that the best way to deal with a culture overstimulated by screens was to create a worship service that was more stimulating and more expressive than what was cued up on Netflix in the omnipresent devices in our parishioners’ pockets. 
                I encountered worship services that were big and exciting, some that bordered on the manipulative, constantly reminding me of how much I was enjoying myself.  I knew that God was present there.  I knew that people around me were genuinely moved by this worship.   Yet I could also see that I was not the only one walking away from the experience drained rather than inspired, seeking some time in quiet, time in meditation or a prayerful walk.
                Our culture treats silence as something to be avoided.  Silences are often described as awkward.  On the radio or television, silence is called dead air.  I have been in churches in several traditions where, outside of the occasional moment of silence, quiet is a sign of a missed cue, a lost place or a faulty sound system.  Silence is the discomfort of a dusty parlor where everything is breakable and nothing can be played with.
                So let me be an advocate for silence.  Let me share some of its value.  Silence is not empty, but amazingly deep.  Silence need not be uncomfortable, but can be extremely calming.  Silence is not the absence of sound, but is that space where sound begins; thought begins; self begins.
                This may be why we often avoid silence.  When you take away the distractions and the noise; when you turn off the screens and unplug the headphones, you are bound to encounter yourself.  You are bound to encounter the worries and anxieties that replay in the background of your mind as well as guilt over past actions, anger over current offenses and possibly, some shame around thoughts you would rather not admit.  You may discover that your thoughts are not as deep as you would like, spending too much time on what’s for dinner and speculating about Game of Thrones.  You may discover that your thoughts are embarrassingly primal (which can relate both to dinner and Game of Thrones.)
           Saint Teresa of Avila, one of the great Christian voices on silence, believed that encountering one’s self in silence was the beginning of a journey to a deep encounter with the divine.  In The Interior Castle she wrote, “If we neither possess nor strive to obtain this peace at home, we shall never find it abroad.”  If we constantly look outside ourselves for inspiration, for comfort, for completeness, we will always be chasing what seems out of reach. 
            Yet like Dorothy and her friends in Oz, we already have a brain, a heart and courage.  We are already at home.  We are already complete because God is with us.  It is easy to forget this reality when we are constantly distracted, told by other voices that we are not enough; don’t have enough; need to be more than we are.  Another Christian voice for silence, the 13th century German priest known as Meister Eckhart described our situation saying, “God is at home; it we who have gone out for a walk.”
             Silence can be a way back home.  It can be a way to reboot the system and rediscover ourselves.  Silence teaches us to listen and pay attention.  It leads us to respond rather than react.  It reminds us that peace is already with us.
             I invite and encourage you to find some space for silence.  It doesn’t need to be long hours of meditation with candle and incense.  It can be as simple as a few minutes with phone silenced and computer logged off.  A few deep breaths with eyes closed can be a start.  Take time for silence in the midst of busy days.  Remember who you are and remind yourself that God is with you.