I Kings 19.9b-14

Acts 21.37-40

Sitting With Silence

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

[Following about 30 seconds of silence…]

There is something in us that is uncomfortable with silence, isn’t there?  In a world where music and podcasts and talk radio and audiobooks are pumping through everybody’s earbuds, my own included, silence appears to be at a premium.  I know more than a few people who can’t even go to sleep if it’s quiet, so they keep a noise machine at their bedside.  There is something in us that is uncomfortable with silence.

In my blog last week I wrote about a letter Kent Siladi, Minister and President of the Connecticut Conference, sent us to say our church was being held in his prayers.  If you read the letter, you would have seen this quote from Mother Theresa:  “God speaks in the silence of the heart.  Listening is the beginning of prayer.”  If Mother Theresa is correct, if God speaks in the silence of the heart, we would do well to be comfortable with silence; if listening is the beginning of prayer, then maybe next time we sit with God we should stop talking, stop asking, stop complaining, and simply listen.  Sit with the silence; listen.

So I wonder, if we were given the choice this morning, which you would choose:  would you rather spend the next ten to fifteen minutes of our service in silent contemplation, no music, no words, nothing but the quiet sanctuary and our own thoughts; or would you rather spend those ten to fifteen minutes listening to me preach?  (Note well, I said if we were given the choice...)  While you think about that, here’s another one:  if we were given the choice this morning, would you rather spend the next ten to fifteen minutes of our service in silent contemplation, or would you rather submit yourself to an electric shock?  If you think this constitutes a no-brainer of a choice – you would be surprisingly wrong.  I know I was.

In a research experiment at the University of Virginia a number of years ago, volunteers were asked to spend anywhere between six to fifteen minutes alone, in complete and utter silence.  They weren’t allowed to fall asleep, check their cell phones, or do anything to disturb the silence.  At the end of the experiment, on a scale of pleasure from 0 to 9, the subjects rated the experience as an average of 5.  Being alone with their own thoughts, at least in this experiment, was a mezza-mezz, take-it-or-leave-it kind of proposition.  When the experiment was repeated, this time permitting people to distract themselves with cell phones or reading or using the internet – although they were still forbidden to be in direct contact with anyone else as they did so – they rated the experience as much more pleasurable.  And here the researchers posed a question:  if people found it less pleasant to be alone with their own thoughts, to what lengths would they go in order to escape the experience?  So they designed a third version of the experiment:  fifty-five people were left alone in a room with two kinds of stimuli:  photos of beautiful landscapes and an ankle bracelet that would deliver a mildly painful shock at the press of a button.  They were alone for fifteen minutes.  The researchers argued among themselves: “Why in the world are we doing this?  No one is going to choose the electric shock over the landscape!”  This is where they were proven wrong:  two-thirds of the men chose the electric shock, and one quarter of the women did.  People actually chose the unpleasant sensation – the distraction - instead of being left alone with their thoughts.  One of the take-aways from this is not so much that we enjoy pain, but rather that external stimuli are sometimes more appealing to people than are quiet and solitude.

So if you think you’d rather be alone with your thoughts than be subject to an electric shock, or if you think you’d rather sit for the next ten to fifteen minutes in silent contemplation rather than listen to me preach, perhaps you might want to think again.  And I suppose the corollary is that if listening to me preach is analogous to being subject to an electric shock, perhaps I might want to think again...

But the reality is that we do live in a culture that would prefer not to have to dwell in quiet with itself.  We keep the radio or the television on in the background even when we really aren’t listening; if you’ve ever visited me in my office you know I always have music on; we all know people who can’t let ten minutes go by without checking their Twitter feed or their Facebook or Instagram account; and we likely have encountered folks who would rather listen to themselves talk than allow a moment or two of dead air float between their ears.

The passage from I Kings that Marie read this morning is likely a familiar one; it is a favorite of preachers and congregations alike, and for a very good reason.  Not only in our own day and age, but also in the day and age of Elijah approximately 2800 years ago, people needed to be reminded that while God could sometimes be found in the loud and spectacular – in the parting of the seas, in the pillar of fire, in the flooding rains and the glory of the rainbow – God can also and equally be found in the small and minute and negligible.  As Elijah waited for the experience of God, he felt a wind strong enough to split mountains and shatter rocks; he felt the earth tremble beneath his feet so that he feared for his life; he felt the heat of a raging wall of flame pass around him – and still, in spite of the human appetite for the spectacular, he knew that none of these great and powerful experiences spoke to him of God.  Finally, when there was nothing left – when there was nothing left to hear but a deep and deafening silence, Elijah knew that God was there.  God is present when we sit with silence.

And I wonder if this is part of the human preference for noise.  Who wants to be left alone with a God who is at once greater than the hurricane, the earthquake and the wildfire and yet at the same time deeper than the most profound and soul-searching silence?  Who wants to be left alone with a God who came most powerfully to Elijah and to you and me in the extreme rarity that is a total stark naked hush? 

I had an orchestra conductor years ago who liked to say, “Silence is the canvas on which every fine piece of music is painted.”  Sometimes he said that for the benefit of our audience, who apparently thought you had the right to jabber and converse and fiddle with candy wrappers right up until, and sometimes beyond, the opening bars of the concert.  Though, quite honestly, most of the time he had to say this to us to get the orchestra to quiet down so we could begin rehearsal.  But it is an idea that has remained with me, silence is the canvas on which every fine piece of music is painted.  This is why I chose to read the prelude to Paul’s address to the mob that attacked him in Jerusalem.  Twice in this brief passage we learn that the address was about to be composed on the same canvas my conductor described:  “Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the people for silence; and when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying...”  What Paul had to say to the mob is secondary to the fact that he waited to say it until there was complete and utter silence.  If you were following along this morning you noticed that while I stopped reading in the middle of a sentence, I did not stop reading in the middle of a chapter or even the middle of a verse – I ended where chapter 21 ends, there in the middle of the sentence with the silently expectant crowd.  Now, understand that chapter and verse numbers are typically quite arbitrary and were placed in the Bible many years after the texts themselves appeared; but I’d like to believe this morning that the chapter and verse endings were placed here for a purpose, that here, in the middle of the sentence, between the silence and the speech, is where the Spirit’s best work sometimes takes place.

I take two thoughts away from our scripture lessons this morning.  One is that there is a difference between the experience of isolated silence the University of Virginia research team examined that led people to prefer an electric shock, and the experience of God.  Because while both Elijah and Paul put that silence to good use, it was not an empty silence – the very silence itself was the encounter:  the encounter with God and the encounter with the spirit within each of us.  It may be true that quiet contemplation on its own doesn’t cut it for many people, but there is the difference between quiet contemplation and the holy dialogue that is the authentic encounter with God.  And yes, we are talking about prayer here, if prayer is defined as both speaking with and listening to God in all God’s closeness and vastness.  Who knows, perhaps if the research projects’ subjects had utilized that time of enforced quiet to pray, or to be in touch with the presence of the Spirit within and without, they might not have chosen the electric shock?

The other thought is that there is a kind of silence that ought to make us uncomfortable.  When we are silent in the encounter with injustice, or racism, or poverty, or war, or vengeance, or hatred, we should be uncomfortable, because God has given each of us the voice of justice and equality and abundance and peace.  When we speak about leaving our Kurdish allies defenseless against the Turkish army, when we speak about the isolation and detention of immigrant children separated from their families, when we speak of the homelessness and economic inequality we witness in our own communities, we witness to the reality of the salutary discomfiture of silence.  And I would suggest that when we do lift up our voices, these too are the times that we engage, deeply and profoundly, in the kind of dialogue that connects us with God.

Mother Teresa wrote about the kind of inner silence that is at once prayerful and compelling; she wrote,

To make possible true inner silence, practice:

Silence of the eyes, by seeking always the beauty and goodness of God everywhere, and closing them to the faults of others and to all that is sinful and disturbing to the soul.

Silence of the ears, by listening always to the voice of God and to the cry of the poor and the needy, and closing them to all other voices that come from fallen human nature, such as gossip, tale bearing, and uncharitable words.

Silence of the tongue, by praising God and speaking the life-giving Word of God that is the truth, that enlightens and inspires, brings peace, hope, and joy; and by refraining from self-defense and every word that causes darkness, turmoil, pain, and death.

Silence of the mind, by opening it to the truth and knowledge of God in prayer  and contemplation, like Mary who pondered the marvels of the Lord in her heart, and by closing it to all untruths, distractions, destructive thoughts, rash judgments, false suspicions of others, vengeful thoughts, and desires.

Silence of the heart, by loving God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength; loving one another as God loves; and avoiding all selfishness, hatred, envy, jealousy, and greed.

Let this be the kind of silence that shocks and transforms both ourselves and our world.  Let this be the silence with which we sit.

Amen.

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