silence

Shhhhhh . . . . .

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

“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.

Silenced


By Rev. Mindi

This past week, allegations of child sexual abuse poured on the internet after Lena Dunham’s memoir came out, in which she describes encounters with her sister. While Dunham denies that abuse took place, the internet swarmed with tweets and blogs either defending or accusing Dunham. 

But it’s not about Dunham. What alarmed me was the high number of people who had their own stories of child sexual abuse by a peer or sibling, someone else who was also a child who abused them. These people shared their stories and were promptly told by others that they did not experience abuse, just “exploration.”

Once again, child abuse is silenced. Victims are told their stories are untrue or do not matter.

As the church, we have heard this story time and again. I was just graduating seminary when the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston broke the news, and one by one other stories across the U.S. made the news. 

Us Protestants, especially those who practice congregational polity, are still silent. And we still have secrets. While we have gotten better about boundary training, background checks, safety procedures—we’ve done a good job of protecting ourselves, but a lousy job of protecting children, let alone listening to them.

A January 2014 Religious News Service article states that 1 out of 4 women and 1 out of 6 men were sexually abused as children, meaning “that our churches are filled with abuse survivors.” But most children never report abuse. The shame associated with child sexual abuse, the feeling that no one will believe them, keeps children silent, along with the fear that the abuse will continue, or be worse. And a myth perpetuated among adults that children will lie about being sexually abused to punish and adult is unfounded. Studies have shown time and again this is simply not true.  But children often feel that no one will believe them, and sadly we have made that belief true.

It’s time to stop the silence about child sexual abuse, especially in the church. We need to address the issue not only in our policies but in providing resources for counseling and support. We need to let people know they are not alone, and that help is available, and that they did nothing to deserve it.

But we also need to be accountable, too. Pastors, youth workers, and other leaders are let go—fired or resign—under allegations of sexual abuse. But often there are no charges filed. Churches do not go to the police very often, preferring instead to restrict someone’s access to children, to pray for the abuser, or to move them along. Perhaps if they did it one time, they won’t do it again. Several studies show that abusers will continue to repeatedly abuse children. In my own denomination, I know of cases of pastors and leaders who were fired, told not to work in a church again—only to go on to a different denomination, and the information not shared and passed on, let alone a criminal report made. Accountability structures for child sexual abuse are severely lacking in many Protestant denominations.

Church, we have failed. We have failed the children who are victims of child sexual abuse, especially in the church. We have reacted by making sure that no adult is left alone with a child, installing windows on Sunday School classroom doors, running criminal background checks—but we have not listened to the victims among us. Churches, all too often, have put the institution first. Take the example of this church in Oklahoma, and all the lengths they went through to protect themselves, instead of the children abused in their midst.

We must do better. First and foremost, let us listen to victims first. Let us listen to their stories, their experiences. We should provide as safe a space as possible for people to share their stories, their hurts, the places where the church has failed them. Secondly, we should act to protect our children not because our insurance policy says so, but because we truly believe that every child is valued and a gift from God—and that means we value their stories and what they tell us.