The task before us this summer-the theme-the musings-the rumination is “The Gospel and Emerging Adulthood”. Typically, amongst scholars the emerging adult is classified as a transitioning stage of life that aligns with the ages 18-35. As an emerging adult myself, who is married to another emerging adulthood, with good friends and colleagues all living into emerging adulthood-I find that this topic is profoundly important and near to my heart. Furthermore, in this generation of emerging adults, we find ourselves emerging out of the cusp of the millennial nomination. This is an era that comes with its own unique set of graces and struggles. I, like so many other 18-35 year olds find myself wading through emerging adulthood just trying to make for myself a personal and spiritual home. As an emerging adult, I want to tackle a subject that is not talked about much amongst our generation, and perhaps even the generation before us: Silence. And yes, believe me, I realize the irony in writing a whole sermon-a whole speech-about Silence. But if Simon and Garfunkel can write a song about silence, I figured it was high time for a sermon about it.
I, like many of my peers, have long struggled with silence. Particularly with unplanned silence, as in a silence that wasn’t scheduled for me in prayer, meditation, etc.; but silence that would creep up on me in conversation and make feel almost like I was suffocating under the pressure to find things to say. The elongated pause, the awkward silence, the thoughtful moment would typically make my skin crawl and I would immediately feel the urge to fill the silence with some witty statement or new topic of conversation. Research shows that this cringing feeling amidst silence is not only about me, but is a common trait of many young adults in this generation. We are the generation, after all, that created special hand gestures to alleviate the awkwardness of silence-if you have ever done the “awkward turtle” you know exactly what I am talking about.
And even in the planned silence, we still feel squirmy. I have practiced meditation for nearly 8 years now, and my first teacher-a Buddhist monk from rural Iowa and a big believer in silence-accused me of having a ‘monkey mind’-that whenever the stillness or silence of the moment crept in-my mind would reach out and grab new topics, images, and ideas to fill what I was considering a void. As it turns out-a lot of emerging adults struggle with monkey mind. In our image driven, digital over sharing culture, where there are constant outlets of expression, speech, thought, and opinion-silence is often viewed as a weakness, as a vulnerability, a lack of concern or input; even as a lack of intelligence. We tweet, we post, we instagram, we text, we call, we email, we chat, we share, but do we do silence? It seems that even times for intentional silence is becoming more rare and scarce and the only minute long ‘moments of silence’ we share together is in grieving for loss. For us silence signals sadness, not joy. Silence shows inconsideration, not thoughtfulness. It hasn’t always been this way.
There are reasons for this cultural shift about silence. George Prochnik, in his book “In Pursuit of Silence” shares research that in the current American society-sound signifies a good time. When something is loud, our minds immediately jump to ‘fun’ ‘party’ ‘enjoyment’ etc. Restaurants are using this research to drum up business-the noisier the place, the more business they get. And even when we attend these riotous restaurants, we fell an immense amount of pressure to shout conversations across the table to each other over the din of sound until our voices go raw. We shout, we laugh, we sing, we converse animatedly to show our interest and delight in community. Noise is constantly surrounding us and defining how we live. Sound through music and movies are now streamlined into our pockets via phones, tablets, and electronic devices that enable us to be immersed in sound from the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we go to bed at night. I myself have formed the bad habit of turning on the radio as soon as I wake up, and falling asleep to the sound of the Jimmy Fallon on my TV at night.
This over exposure to sound is not only bad for your mental and spiritual health, but it an be detrimental to your physical health as well. Prochnik goes on to say in his book that long has over-exposure to sound been associated with hearing loss as many of you know, but newer research states that it also effects your cardiovascular system-your heart. Trying to sleep in a noisy environment (say by listening to the TV or talking a lot before bed) your blood pressure can rise through the night and stay high all day. He also mentions about excessive outside noise that is often unavoidable can also be damaging. Prochnik says that in the United States, “many times subways that haven’t been maintained are already running at a decibel that is dangerous.”-those of you who have ever ridden the MBTA green line through Boylston station can relate to this, methinks.
Furthermore, too much noise can damage our mental and spiritual health. While constantly expressing through words, we often don’t pause for true introspection and discernment. We get so caught up in speech that we can’t even hear ourselves clearly. Emerging adults and our culture at large has been thoroughly steeped in an opinion sharing age, an age that values speaking up, standing up for something, civic activism, speaking truths, poetry and protest in full force. While these are beautiful trademarks of who we are as a culture; I find that the lack of silence makes us lack in many thing-not the least of which is our spirituality and relationship to the Divine. The ancient Egyptian proverb of “speech is silver but silence is golden” is bandied about but do we really find Silence golden? Perhaps our generation would rewrite the proverb to say “Silence is Golden-but Speech is platinum”. Do we cherish silence anymore and practice it the way we should? Still in our every day lives, more often than not-we choose sound over silence. Why is that? Because for many of us: silence is scary.
In our scripture today of 1 Kings 19:9-18, we see Elijah, a broken prophet, standing on a mountain waiting for God to pass by. At this point in the Elijah narrative, Elijah is running away from his life and his responsibilities-after he demolishes all of the false prophets that belonged to Jezebel, the angered queen sends him a message that she is now coming after him to take his life personally. He is scared, failing at his prophetic duties, feeling alone and abandoned, Elijah goes and hides in a cave on a mountainside and waits for God to pass by. This great rattling theophany approaches him and Elijah witnesses a great storm with crackling lightning and earthshaking thunder-but he does not find God there; then comes a tumultuous earthquake that shatters rocks and uproots trees-but God is not there; then a roaring fire ignites and consumes the world around him-but still God is not there. Through all of these terrors, Elijah stands firm and waits for a true revelation from the Divine. Finally the scene is enveloped in an eerie and total silence. A silence felt down in the core of your being. A silence that fills up the heavens. This silence is so profound, that over the years Hebrew scholars have struggled to bring it justice in translation-in the KJV it is called ‘the still small voice’, and in other interpretations it is called ‘a soft murmuring’ or a ‘deep silence’. Modern Day Hebrew Scholar, Dr. Choon Seow says that it is so difficult to translate because the phrase is an oxymoron in Hebrew-the literal wooden translation is ‘the sound of fine silence’. God chooses a discourse through the sound of silence.
It is in this distilled silence that Elijah encounters the Lord. What does Elijah do? He hides. He physically pulls up his mantle-a bit of his cloak-over his face in fear; much like a child may pull the covers over their head in fright. Elijah stood through the storm, through the quake, through the fire, and shutters in the silence-because-silence is scary. In silence we find ourselves vulnerable, disarmed, and naked. In silence we fear that we may not be understood, or perhaps we will not understand. In silence we worry that our innermost expressions will be exposed, and not guarded by our carefully crafted words. Silence opens up in us a sacred space that we are not always familiar or comfortable with.
But the Sacred One comes in the silence-God chooses the mode of discourse-god is not in the fire, the quake or the storm, but God chooses silence to communicate with Elijah in that moment. Though silence may be intimidating, we stand a lot to gain from practicing it. In silence we are offered a chance to examine those vulnerabilities and truths we were once afraid of. We gain insight into ourselves, and introspection into our souls. In resting in quiet, we become more comfortable with our own vulnerabilities and truths and know ourselves better. WE become less dependent on sound as a protective barrier and embrace self-awareness, which also makes us more accessible to others. Howard Thurman reflected on his need to abandon speech at times and accept silence, he said, “ I abandon all that I think that I am, all that I hope to be, all that I believe I possess. I let go of the past, I withdraw my grasping hand from the future, and in the greatest silence of this moment, I alertly rest my soul.” The silence that surrounds great introspection allows for thoughtfulness and rest.
In silence, we become better listeners and thus better friends-stronger members of our community. Dr. Robert Dykstra, a pastoral care professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and longtime pastor, would often share with his classes a story of what he found to be his most profound moment in pastoral care. When a fellow faculty member and dear colleague of his lost a spouse during the school year, Dr. Dykstra repeatedly asked if there was anything he could do, if she would like to talk and process, or if he could bring her anything. The faculty member thanked him but refused him every time. Finally, Dr. Dykstra called her up and asked her if she would like him to just come sit in her office in the afternoon-she accepted. Similar to the way that Job’s friends sat with him in silence during his anguish and agony, Dr. Dykstra sat on the floor of her office in complete silence, sometimes grading papers, sometimes drinking tea, or simply sitting-every afternoon for nearly two weeks until his colleague told him she was fine to be on her own again. He never offered advice or verbal comfort, but simply sat in a billowing, comforting, intimate silence. Months later-his colleague told him that through all the grief, casseroles, and weeping conversations, that those afternoon hours in silence and companionship had meant the most to her and offered the most healing. Silence is just good pastoral care, Dr. Dykstra would say, silence makes us better friends and better companions through life.
Silence often offers us clarity-provides us a chance to perceive things more clearly. Rainer Rilke, my poet companion this year as many of you know, wrote, “Since I’ve learned to be silent, everything has come so much closer to me.” A few weeks ago I was visiting my parents in Southern Illinois-they live among the great plains and cornfields and deep blue skies wider than the earth itself. My Dad, Husband, our family dog Riley, and I went for a hike through a patch of woods and a prairie land. For the majority of the hike we chattered away about the mosquitoes, where we wanted to go for dinner, how are jobs and lives were going. We got to one point near the center of the field and my Dad called abruptly for 60 seconds of silence. He set a timer and we stood amongst the tall grass and wildflowers in the blossoming silence of the moment and as Rilke said, I did feel that everything was somehow coming closer to me-the smells of the honeysuckle, the buzz of the insects, the deep green of the oak trees. It is in silence that the things that have become far away from us often return, and we can feel closer to the universe, to our loved ones, and to the sacred presence all around us.
In fact, not only in the Elijah narrative, but also all throughout the Scriptures do we see God communicating intimately through the sound of silence. It is often in silence that we can develop a more intimate relationship with the Divine. As Elijah did, we often ask again and again for God to answer us-to hear our prayers and respond in clarity and sound-but sometimes God is the sound in silence. Sometimes God’s silence speaks. God’s silence spoke profound volumes while Elijah stood on that mountain awaiting reprieve, God’s silence in the story of Job defines the entire interaction and discourse that becomes Job’s revelation and foothold for life. God’s silence is just as profound as God’s words. When a young unwed mother gave birth to a savior in the manger, God was silent. When Jesus in agony dies on the cross, God is silent. In these profound moments of silence with God-it does not mean that there is a lack of communication with the Divine. God is sharing in those moments with a chosen discourse of meaningful, intimate silence. God’s silence speaks volumes to us, Gods quieting of our souls is a priceless companionship. God’s silence is an invitation-a deepening-a ripening of one’s own intimate relationship with the Divine. Sufi Poet, Rumi, says “silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.” Sometimes it is in the silent moments that the sound of God is felt deep in our bones.
Beloved, we are called to live into this sacred silence. In our emerging adulthood amongst the clatter, twitter patter, and banter of noise, let us make time for silence in our lives. 5 minutes of quiet with a cup of tea in the morning. A prayer and 3 minutes of silence before we sleep at night. 10 minutes of peace as we walk along the Charles River or the Harbor. Do not be afraid, as Elijah was, do not pull your cloak over your face, for God often reaches out in the silence. In the conclusion of his book the “Power of Silence” Prochnik states that nowhere can complete silence be found-even monasteries and Quaker meeting houses have background buzzing, murmurs, subtle noises. We must redefine silence for ourselves, carve it our and shape it in our own lives. When we create for ourselves an intentional silence, quiet space, Prochnik says become injected with ‘the fertile unknown”. Enter into that fertile unknown and take heart that God is there. Spend a little time in that fertile unknown every single day. Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation. Make yourself a home in the Divine sound of fine silence and may you find holy companionship, insightful clarity, and a dwelling place in the presence of God.
~Rev. Brittany Longsdorf, University Chaplain for International Students