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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Psalm 46 - Approaching the Inaccessible Silence of God

In our daily lives we are rarely silent.  Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons may have sung that “silence is golden,” but I think that, for most of us, the lyric from the Simon and Garfunkle song, “The Sound of Silence, is more accurate, “silence like a cancer grows.” Silence is difficult to achieve, surrounded as we are by televisions, radios, computers, automobiles, airplanes, air conditioners, furnaces, refrigerators, fluorescent lights, etc… Sound permeates everywhere.[i]

And even if we could achieve silence, we’re likely to find it extremely uncomfortable. 

There are rooms – called “anechoic chambers” designed to be completely soundproof.  No sound gets in from outside their walls; they are 99.99% sound absorbent with a decibel rating of −9.4 dBA.[ii]  These rooms are so quiet that you can hear the beating of your own heart.  But the human mind isn’t able to cope with this amount of silence.  People who spend any length of time within an anechoic chamber grow physically disoriented, they fall over if they’re not sitting in a chair, and they begin to experience auditory hallucinations. The brain starts to generate noise in order to fill in that silence.  (By the way… the longest that anyone has spent in one of these soundproofed rooms is only 45 minutes.)

We don’t know how to handle silence.  It disturbs us. 

The Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly wrote, “Outwardly all silences seem alike.”[iii]  We don’t know how to read these silences because they all seem the same.  If someone is silent we can’t quite tell if they’re angry, hostile, disinterested, confused, bored, happy, or irritated, or any number of other emotions.  Perhaps they’re accusing us… or waiting for us to speak… Maybe they’re depressed and I should say something comforting…  We don’t know how to read the silences between us as so we try to fill up those silences with small talk and chit-chat.  “So…how about them [insert your favorite sport team]?  Did you see the latest episode of that show we like?  Can you believe that [disliked politician] said such and such?  Did you see what currently popular actress was wearing?”  We’re so uncomfortable with silence that we feel it necessary to till with something – even the meaningless jibber jabber of small talk.

But I’m not sure that it’s supposed to be that way.  Repeatedly throughout the bible we’re instructed to “be still” to “be silent.”

If you were to attend a service with the Society of Friends (otherwise known as Quakers) you’d find that instead of a preplanned meeting with songs for everyone to sing and readings to be read aloud by the congregation, the members of the congregation sit together in silence until the Spirit of the Lord moves someone to speak.

The Quakers intentionally practice the spiritual discipline of silence in their worship by waiting – in silence – for the Lord to move them.  They have a saying, “Do not speak unless you can improve upon the silence.”[iv]  There are times in their meetings when no one says anything at all and then they all go home. And the marvelous thing is that they don’t go home thinking that they’ve wasted their time.  Instead, they are delighted to have spent quality time in the presence of God and their fellow believers.

And they aren’t the only ones.  From Greek Orthodox Christians come the traditions of the hesychasts – individuals who spend their days in silence, listening for and to the voice of God.   They ignore their physical senses, trying to acquire an inner stillness with the goal of attaining an experiential knowledge of God.  They are seeking God in the silence.

Be still and know that I am God.”  Psalm 46: 10
Yahweh is in his holy Temple, let the whole earth be silent before him.” Habakkuk 2:20
The earth is silent with dread when God takes his stand to give judgment.”  Psalm 76: 8
In John’s vision of heaven there was a “silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Revelation 8:1) that preceded the coming of the Lord.

Silence precedes the coming of the Lord.  Silence precedes the voice of God. Paul wrote to Timothy that God dwells in “inaccessible light,” (1 Timothy 6:16) and if I may extrapolate from his visual description to provide an aural, I would suggest that God also dwells in an inaccessible silence. The noise and confusion of our world, the buzz, buzz, buzz of those constant demands on our attention pull us further and further away from the silence of God.

Maybe we think that this kind of spiritual discipline – listening to the silence for the voice of God  - is more suited for monks in a monastery or spiritual hermits living in caves or in the desert.  And, it may be true that living a devoted space like a monastery or living alone away from the rest of the world might make it easier to experience that concentrated silence that precedes the voice of God, it is not necessary.  It just takes practice.

The Psalm begins, “God is both a refuge and strength for us, a help always ready in trouble.” Already in the first verse we’re being told that this instruction to silence comes from a place of noisy struggle and desperate need.  The further we go into this psalm, the more we find this to be true – the earth is in turmoil, the mountains are tumbling, the oceans are roaring and foaming and seething, nations are in upheaval, kingdoms are at war.  There is conflict. Battle.  Struggle.  Violence.

But in the center of it all - in the eye of the storm, as it were – is a champion who is unmoved by this tumultuous chaos.  In the middle of all this is the instruction “Be still and know that I am God.”  Here is that silence that precedes the voice of God.

The cacophony around threatens to overwhelm us.  The noise and chaos batters at us – but if we can be still, if we can turn our focus away from these distractions and listen to the silence, we will hear from God.

[i] Everywhere there is a medium through which the sound waves can travel, anyway…

[iii] "Outwardly all silences seem alike, as all minutes are alike by the clock. But inwardly the Divine Leader of worship directs us through progressive unfoldings of ministration Words should not break our silence, but continue it. For the Divine Life who was ministering through the medium of silence is the same Life as is now ministering through words. And when such words are truly spoken ‘in the Life' then when such words cease the uninterrupted silence and worship continue, for silence and words have been of one texture, one piece." -- Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion

[iv] I cannot find the original source of this quote.  I find it attributed to many different authors.

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