Midweek Reflections

Midweek Reflection 28 October 2020

Silence Part 1

 

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“Is there any word from the Lord?” (Jeremiah 38:12)

How do we cope when God is silent?

In the year 597BC, the Babylonian army, having invaded Israel and laid siege to Jerusalem, captured the king, Jehoiachin. Together with the leading figures of society, he was taken into exile in Babylon, and his uncle, Zedekiah, was installed by the conquering force as a puppet king. What was left of his kingdom was caught between the opposing forces of Babylon to the north and Egypt to the south. Zedekiah was, it seems, a weak, vacillating person, with unreliable advisers. How should he try to protect his vulnerable kingdom? Should he somehow try and play off the forces of Babylon and Egypt against each other? In his uncertainty, he sent secretly for the prophet Jeremiah, who was under house arrest for allegedly siding with the hated Babylonians. His question to Jeremiah reflected his vulnerability and confusion: “Is there any word from the Lord?”

Leaving aside Zedekiah’s particular circumstances, his question is one which many of us will have asked at some point in our lives and faith journey. The great Christian writer C S Lewis described his own experience in his book “A Grief Observed”. Lewis married relatively late in life, and his wife, Joy, died after just four years of their marriage. Shortly after, Lewis wrote:

“... Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?”

And this is the observation of a minister and theologian in the Episcopal Church of the United States:

“Very few people come to see me because they want to discuss something God said to them last night. The large majority come because they cannot get God to say anything at all. They have asked as sincerely as they know how for answers, for guidance, for peace, but they are still missing those things. They want me to tell them what they have done wrong. They have heard me talk about God on Sundays and they hope they can make use of my connections. Perhaps I know a special technique they can try – or better [still] – perhaps I can lend my own weight to the cause, adding the poundage of my prayers to theirs, in an effort to force some sound from God”.

We might be forgiven for recalling some words from the prophet Amos:

“The days are coming”, declares the sovereign Lord, “when I will send a famine through the land – not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it” (Amos 3:11-12).

In these notes, I want to try and reflect a little on the nature of silence, how we encounter it in our everyday lives and then, in the following weeks, how it connects with our faith and understanding of scripture.

Do you recall your first, or most profound experience of genuine silence? Maybe it was the beauty of a previously unknown landscape seen for the first time, or the impact of a particularly significant life experience, either of which left you lost for words. My childhood home was directly beside one of the busiest major roads in the country, mid-way between two big vehicle manufacturing plants. As well as commuter traffic, lorries transporting part-finished car bodies and chassis from one plant to the other rattled past the house all day and night (or so it seemed). It was never quiet.

The contrast was in the two weeks of summer holiday each year on my grandparents’ farm in a remote spot on the edge of the Northumbrian fells. The nearest farm dwelling was over a mile away, as was any road of significance; the nearest major road was five miles distant. After the end of the working day, and during the night, complete silence fell, except for the faint sound of an upland river as it rushed over stones and boulders. The point was that awareness of this silence was something entirely outside my normal experience, though I couldn’t have described it like that at the time, of course.

Even to talk about silence seems almost a contradiction in terms. And we have something of an ambivalent attitude towards silence. There has surely never been a time when there has been more possibility of communication in all its forms. Though paradoxically we might argue, too, that there has never been a time when isolation, loneliness, and lack of communication has been more acutely felt. I was chatting recently to a neighbour whose daughter had just left home for the first time for university. She described her feelings; as well as a natural concern over the risk of Covid-19 on the college campus, it was the experience of silence in the home that was most pronounced.

We’ve all been at public events – not least church services – when we’ve been politely instructed to turn off our mobile phones until our departure. Here’s the American writer whose words I quoted earlier:

“It is more and more difficult to choose silence when communication is possible. To let the telephone ring, to leave the e-mail unread – these amount to acts of social sabotage. To choose silence for even an hour, we must risk the loss of connection with other people, who may have a hard time understanding how anything could be more important to us than responding to them. We must also handle our own sense of anxiety. What if that call is from the hospital? From someone who wants to invite me out to dinner? For some of us, silence provokes so much internal chatter that it cancels itself out.”

It's true that when we encounter silence in our everyday lives, context is important. Silence may suggest peacefulness and tranquility (as it did on my childhood holidays), but equally it can mean something is wrong. If you imagine two people sitting in a room in silence, it could mean that they don’t know each other; it could, equally, mean they know each other so well that words are unnecessary. It could mean one is angry with the other, or one is leaving and both are too sad to speak. Our experience of silence has many possible dimensions.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book “Being human: Bodies, Minds, Persons” talks about why it is that our natural tendency is to treat  silence as a vacuum that we feel we simply have to fill with our own words. Perhaps, he suggests, it’s because silence takes us out of our comfort zone – that is, the way we normally try to organise or control or just try to make sense of the situations that confront us in life.

But if we are to grow as people – let alone as Christians – then there surely have to be times when we are taken outside our comfort zone, beyond the familiar and controllable. That may well not be easy – but we can see the point. After all, isn’t it true that the people we’d least like to spend a long time with are those who seem to have everything neatly worked out; those who have ready answers to every question in life and an explanation for every possible situation?

So how do we relate all this to our Christian faith and understanding? In the next reflection, I’d like to consider how as Christians our experience of silence is shaped by scripture.

 

Download a .pdf of the above midweek reflection.