Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Silence . . . a feast for champions

Over this next year, I and our church Harris Chapel UMC are joining in with our Bishop Ken Carter to study a chapter each week from the Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts as a part of our spiritual practices in 2014. It is our hope that we grow deeper, wider and stronger roots through our weekly study and have a better understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus and that continued life and ministry as revealed in the early church. This and upcoming blogs are in response to how I have experienced the weekly scripture.

LUKE 1:20b -- "But because you didn't believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen."

I have a church member who reminds me quite often of a statement I shared once in a sermon: "Sometimes, talking is overrated."

Isn't that the truth.

More and more, I am beginning to take this to heart. Last month, during our church fast, I felt a call into silence and to make silence more of a discipline this year. I had just finished reading Lamentations 3:22-26 and it was that last verse of Jeremiah's lament that I kept being drawn back to: "It is good to wait in silence for the Lord's deliverance". I hadn't really paid attention to that verse before. I hadn't taken notice of Jeremiah's message of the feasts we need to have often -- feasts and meals of  silence.

Oh the things you learn in silence. The things you see. The things you hear.

Jeremiah used the language of  "good" to describe a prescription for living and in this text he was particularly speaking about a way of being when you find yourself under attack and under siege. He suggests moving into a foxhole of silence until the bullets have stopped flying and the enemy has been captured and overthrown. He suggests we just let the Lord handle it -- "wait in silence". And when it's all clear, we can once again emerge. Victorious.

Not a bad warfare strategy!

But this Luke text handles this feast of silence differently. Jeremiah's silence is self-imposed, unlike Zechariah who wasn't invited to simply, "Be Quiet and Listen" or to "Stop Talking", he is just silenced! The angel of God picks up the remote control, presses the mute button and keeps it on mute the entire length of his wife's pregnancy. For nine whole months, Zechariah is not able to say one word. How he must have felt, particularly if he was a talker. The thoughts that must have been going through his mind: "What in the world has happened?" "Am I really not going to be able to say anything for nine months?" "How is this going to work?" "Really!?"

I remember my own experience with silence. It started with a silent retreat in 2008. It was a part of orientation at Candler School of Theology where I would earn my Master of Divinity degree. And truth be told, I didn't really comprehend or understand what the silent retreat would entail. Let's just say, I saw silent on the email invitation, but I wasn't thinking silence -- certainly not silence for 3 1/2 hours. I thought I would lose it. I was a talker and I knew it. To engage in silence was a challenge. It was an act of surrender that made me nervous. Vulnerable. I later wrote about it:

"I'll admit that first, it felt kind of strange, as though someone had lowered a muzzle over my mouth or cut off my air passage. The fact that I was forbidden to talk made me want to talk more. And you know I finally did -- briefly, after I tired of the head nods and smiles at lunch that took the place of "thank-you's" and "hello's" and "how are you's?" I just couldn't take it. So, I leaned over to the young lady at the other end of my table and whispered, "Hey, did you get your computer configured, yet?" But not before I had heard the small still voice of God whisper in my ear "I love you and no good thing will I withhold from you." So I shut up and continued to sit in silence. And good thing too, because I would have missed what God had to say."
Sometimes we have to be silenced in order for God to do work that does not need our interference. Sometimes we talk to the point where we speak up doubt that negates the workings of faith. Sometimes our constant uttering gets in the way of God getting all the glory. Clearly Zechariah was struggling in his faith. He had trouble wrapping his head around this message of he and his wife, who were up in years, as parents. He had difficulty, like many of us, digesting that his prayers had actually been answered, after all these years, after the many offerings of petitions, at an age where they likely would look more like grandparents than parents. Zechariah, like us sometimes, struggled to believe that dreams and wants and desires of years past were actually coming to pass. "How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old." Poor Zechariah just wanted a little assurance. Don't we all?
And interestingly enough, the imposed silence provided that for him. God had Zechariah's undivided attention. Of course it would have been easier if he would have just believed the angel that appeared from out of nowhere. Sometimes the situation requires other measures. Oftentimes, there is a larger purpose we can’t see. One of the purposes may be how we as children of God react. News and situations will test who we are in Christ and point to where our faith lies and what we truly believe. Zechariah needed faith strengthening. And that required him to be in a posture of simply listening, a practice we often fear because of what it will bear out. In silence, we will no doubt come face-to-face with some things, likely our self and some truths. But more often than not, we choose to turn up the world's volume than hear the still small voice.
German theologian and scholar Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book "Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Christ", shares that “Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech." Sometimes we need to silence ourselves so that we become self-aware. When we are unaware, our subconscious can speak with words for the purpose of making an impression, with a determination to put someone in their place, for the purpose of competition, maintaining or taking control and manipulation. Proverbs 10:19 says it best, "with lots of words comes wrongdoing, but the wise restrain their lips." 

The wise recognize silence as a gift and an incubator for spiritual maturity. And in this Luke text, it becomes an incubator for boldness. Zechariah lives into Bonhoeffer's understanding of silence as "nothing else than waiting for God's Word and coming from God's word with a blessing." Zechariah emerges from his feast of silence with a bold spirit that begins to prophecy a word of liberation and freedom. He speaks not only to himself, but the community as well. "Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. . . . Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people."

Blessed be, indeed. It really is "good to wait in silence for the Lord's deliverance."