Stillness. In our time of quiet, it’s how we listen for the voice of God, which comes not in roar of the whirlwind, but in the quiet of the listening heart. That’s how Elijah in the Hebrew scriptures encountered God.
The word of the Lord came to Elijah, and said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” And there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting the mountains… but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind came an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire… a sound of sheer silence… And sitting there in the silence, the voice of God came to Elijah and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13)
The sound of sheer silence… which means we have to stop talking, and listen into the depths. In my counselling classes in seminary, our professor used to tell us to listen between the words. Listen to the words, sure… but listen between the words. For the truth that we’re seeking can be found in the silences between the words.
We’re all experienced that, right? Our kids have something heavy on their hearts. You’re sitting at the kitchen table with them. “What’s up?” “Oh, nothing.” “What happened today?” “Nothing.”
But we know that something happened… something is troubling them. And so we keep sitting there, not talking, but being attentive… And sometimes, after about an eternity, something starts to crack open in the silence. And the pain starts to seep out of our kids’ heart, and the truth starts to be revealed. In the silences between the words.
Roland Winkle wrote an essay for the Christian Century last week. He wrote, “I’m a fixer, a problem-solver. If someone from my church family needed help and advice, they called me. My wife and kids believed I had all the answers. Unfortunately, so did I. I would always respond with an answer. Silence was just another word for failure to help. Then my nine-year-old daughter began a 15-year journey through psychiatric institutions and group homes. At first I saw this as yet another problem to be solved. When she would call me to complain about things, I confidently bestowed my pearls of wisdom. The only problem: this wasn’t working. I kept trying, but nothing seemed to do any good. But this was my precious, unique, fearfully and wonderfully made daughter. I would never dream of giving up. One day she called from a facility in Texas and griped about how they were being unfair to her. I was poised to intervene with magic words of (wisdom.) And then—out of the blue—my tongue was frozen by an unseen force- the Holy Spirit? No words escaped my mouth. Silence? From me? I just kept listening. When she was done talking, she said, with a burst of hope and uplift, ‘Thanks for listening to me, Dad. That really helped. I feel much better now.’ That was 20 years ago. Whereas once I would have found long silent spells in conversations with my daughter awkward and intolerable, I now find them welcoming and hopeful. I know that my silence is profound and life-giving. I can now see the image of God in my own child and be reminded of who really is in charge-and who is the one who ultimately fixes everything.”
In the second chapter of Proverbs, a parent says to the child, “Take my words to heart, and tune your ear to wisdom. Listen with all your heart so you can understand, and if you cannot understand, then pray to God to be opened…
What does it take? Deep listening. But you know what? Sometimes we’re just not there. It’s not going to happen.
5-year old Mark is a chatter-y little guy. “Why is the sky blue? Why are clouds fluffy?” Curious, open, alive. The whole world is just waiting for him to explore and share.
Well, Mark is trotting behind his mom, chattering away. He keeps trying to get his mom’s attention to show her a wonderful butterfly he has found. He pulls at her, and she brushes him off. He is starting to get on her last nerve. He calls to her, and she ignores him. That last nerve is getting thinner and thinner. Finally, he pulls hard on her arm and shouts, “Mom!” And she wheels around and snaps, “What do you want? Can’t you just shut up for 2 minutes?”
I understand that. Anyone who has cared for small children can appreciate the last nerve syndrome. There’s just so much a person can take.
But the look on Mark’s face… it is like he has been slapped. He doesn’t tell his mother about the butterfly. He doesn’t tell her about anything. He shuts down. The curiosity, the joy is gone, hidden away in some secret place.
You and I have done the same thing. Cut people off, shut down the lines of communication. But what if we had been able to set aside our own agenda for a moment, and stop. Listen.
What if we had turned to Mark and asked, “What is it?” What would have been the look on that small boy’s face if we had heard his excitement, and shared in it; if we had sought to appreciate the wonder and beauty of a butterfly that Mark so desperately needed to share. Each of us needs to be heard and understood. But for one person to be heard, the other person has to be silent.
Sometimes, our hearing takes on an odd form.You know how it is when you look into an infant’s eyes. They are open, vulnerable, like gazing into the soul of someone who hasn’t yet learned to hide. We look into an infant’s eyes, and it is hard to look away, because it is with their eyes that their voiceless conversation arises. And we have to listen, with our eyes, with our whole body. And with our whole body, we reflect back what they are saying to us.
When the baby smiles and twinkles, we smile and twinkle back, as if to say, “You are feeling joy and delight! This is what joy and delight look like on your face. The world is joyful and delightful!”
When the baby cries, we look sad, interpreting the world back to the child: “You are feeling sad, uncomfortable. This is what sadness and discomfort look like. This, too, is your world, sometimes filled with sadness and pain.”
What gets confusing for the infant is when their voiceless conversation is not understood. A baby’s cries are met with a laughing face (let’s try and cheer this kid up!) But that’s not what the baby is saying at all: don’t we understand???
When we smile when they cry, the world becomes incomprehensible to them, for there is no coherence between what they are feeling and trying to communicate, and what we are reflecting back to them. Like in management courses, how we are trained to say, “What I hear you saying is…” And the person can say, “No, that’s not what I was trying to say at all!” or “Yes, that’s it exactly! You understand!”
Listening to the words… listening to the silence between the words. Maybe that’s why God gave us one mouth and two ears, so we’d get the proportion of speaking to listening right.
Jesus’ whole life was a life of listening to God- and obediently responding. The word obedience comes from the Latin root ‘obedere’, which means, “to listen attentively.” The opposite of that, deafness, comes from the Latin root “sourdis,” from which we get our word, “absurd.”
Life becomes absurd, crazy, absurd, meaningless when we are deaf to the world around us, deaf to God within us. And life gains meaning, sanity, and order as we become obedient- listening- to God’s voice.shutting down the voices within us and around us, and just allowing there to be… emptiness.
Frederik Buechner is a very thoughtful Christian man. He wrote, “What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort than being able from time to time to stop that chatter, including the chatter of spoken prayer. If we choose to seek the silence of the holy place, or to open ourselves to its seeking, I think there is no surer way than by keeping silent. God knows I am no good at it, but I keep trying, and once or twice I have been lucky, graced.”
Listen, the Proverbs tell us. Listen and you will understand. Listen, and you will be wise. Listen, and your life will have meaning, and fullness, and hope.
In the Name of the One who hears us, and will never let us go; even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Resources: Christian Century, Aug. 29, 2018, “Silence: Essays by Readers”
Scripture for Sept. 9, 2018
My child, if you take my words to heart, and listen for my commandments; if you tune your ear to wisdom and your heart to understanding; if you cry out for understanding, and search for it like it was buried treasure …then you will understand what it is to be in awe of God, and you will discover what God desires for you. For God alone is the Giver of Wisdom, and from God’s mouth comes knowledge and understanding. God reserves common sense for the honest, and keeps watch over those who walk in the ways of fairness and justice, for these are the paths that lead to happiness. When wisdom comes into your heart, and knowledge fills your soul with delight, then common sense will be there to watch over you, and understanding will be your guardian.
You must understand this, my beloved: let us all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for a quick temper does not bring God’s righteousness.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.