“Do not speak unless you can improve on the silence."
A Quaker Saying
I have chosen a somewhat difficult task for this post. I am going to use words to talk about the importance of silence. I am going to do so for two reasons. One, as I have gotten older words come more slowly to me. You might think that since we believe that with age comes wisdom and experience, the words would flow more freely as we try to pass on the things we have learned. That may be true for some, but for me the opposite is true. There are times when my age and my experience lead me not to add any more words to the conversation but simply to set and listen in silence and be with people. Second, and this might be a part of the age matter, I have grown somewhat tired of the way we are constantly bombarded with words. I can remember the days when the three television stations we used to get would each sign off at the end of the nighttime news. Yes there was a time when even the TV’s went silent by themselves. But now, all two hundred stations stay on 24 hours. In addition you’ve got the radio, social media – Facebook, twitter and Instagram, cell phones with texting and voice mail. All which means words, words and more words. I do not mean to imply that any of these avenues for words are in themselves wrong, I use them all. In fact, I am texting my daughter while I write this and I also took a break and read an on-line article about clergy continuing education. I do mean to imply, however, that unless we are careful we will let the constant use of words take their true power from them, using words too easily and without much thought we cheapen their value. And by filling the air with words constantly we can lose the enlightening power of silence.
Those of us who claim the Christian faith understand that words have power. Genesis says that God spoke and the universe came into being. John writes in his prologue that Christ is the very Word of God spoken to the world. James says that words are as powerful as fire. We do not doubt the power of words. Yet, our scriptures also point to the importance of silence. It says that it was out of the sheer silence that the voice of God that came to Elijah. The Prophet Habakkuk wrote, “The Lord is in his temple, let all the earth keep silence before him.” After Peter claimed Jesus was the Messiah it says that Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone what they knew. The same thing happened after the Jesus’ transfiguration. The disciples weren’t supposed to get all excited and go tell about their experience. They were told to be silent. John of Patmos wrote that among his experiences of heaven was a half hour of silence. The angels were not singing. The prophets weren’t proclaiming. Even God was not speaking. There was silence.
This is an important matter for the church to think about. For though we have a Word to speak to the world, an important Word, we need to be careful that our words are not just thrown out there adding to the massive clutter of words that is already present. Just another thing for people to read or listen to. Maybe one of the gifts we have to offer the world is a rest from all the noise. A Sabbath rest that involves peaceful silence.
The silence I am referring to is not a fearful silence afraid of saying something in the face of corruption, cruelty and injustice. It is instead the kind of silence that is itself a form of protest. Parker Palmer writes in his book, “The Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life”:
The message of such silence is simple: “we the people” will no longer conspire in supporting the illusions that help corrupt leaders maintain control. By withholding our cheers and falling into silence, we take a small step forward withdrawing the consent that helps maintain abusive power.
The author of Ecclesiastes wrote that there is a time to speak and a time for silence. I think we have sometimes forgotten that there is an appropriate time not to say anything. We remain silent, not out of fear or because we do not care. We have times of silence so that when we do speak we might have something to say worth listening to.