Grace Presbyterian Church
January 24, 2021, Epiphany 3B (recorded)
The Silence and the Quiet
While I guess I sing more than most pastors, I have not really been a “singer” since my days in higher education – as a student, not as a professor. My last great public performance as such a singer was in the spring of 1988, my senior recital at the small college in south Georgia where I would get my Bachelor of Music degree.
One moment from that recital has stayed with me across the more than three decades since then. I was singing a set of songs from a cycle of songs (or Lieder, to use the proper German term) by the nineteenth-century composer Franz Schubert. That Lied was in a minor key, with a slower tempo and a piano accompaniment mostly consisting of repeated chords. The middle of the song became more active, slightly faster, and definitely louder, but the Lied returned to its slower and stiller character at the end. My instructions for that were not to relax after the last note, but to hold my position and gaze, frankly, until someone started applauding.
I did a pretty good job with it overall, and at the end I managed to do just that – hold my gaze as if off into some unknowable distance, with my arms slightly extended forward as if reaching for something unseen (it fit with the text to do so). And I held it, and the most shocking thing possible happened: people didn’t immediately clap. They held their applause, not speaking or making any noise, seemingly not even breathing. I couldn’t tell you how long that moment lasted, but it seemed to be an eternal instant. At last the applause finally started, slowly but building into a steady round from the maybe-thirty people present.
Let me tell you, that was better than any standing ovation ever could be.
I often flash back to that experience when the subject of silence comes along. Silence is an important part of music, after all, and that creative tension has touched off a lot of notable quotes on the subject, such as:
- “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence in between.” – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Very similarly, “Music is the silence between the notes.” – Claude Debussy
- “A note of music gains significance from the silence on either side.” – Anne Morrow Lindbergh
- “In music, silence is more important than sound.” – Miles Davis
- “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and which cannot remain silent.” – Victor Hugo
You get the idea, and that’s a small sample of the possible quotes.
Silence shows up plenty in scripture as well, though we often plow through it with our words. It thus jumps out as particularly interesting that today’s psalm invokes silence twice in its first five verses, almost repeating the same verse in our NRSV translation in verses 1 and 5. Naturally, most studies and commentaries on this psalm focus on the other ideas that follow – God as our rock and salvation, our deliverance and our honor, our only one we can trust. All of that is good. But I confess I get hung up on the silence, because for the most part we are so bad at it.
The novelist and Presbyterian pastor (and most frequently quoted non-scripture source in my sermons, I am quite sure) Frederick Buechner has quite a few things to say about silence as well. One of those quotes captures the author’s experience of a moment, in a quite different setting than my old recital, with the power of silence in response to a moment that defies words:
I REMEMBER ONCE going to see the movie Gandhi when it first came out. . . . We were the usual kind of noisy, restless Saturday night crowd as we sat there waiting for the lights to dim with our popcorn and soda pop, girl friends and boy friends, legs draped over the backs of the empty seats in front of us. But by the time the movie came to a close with the flames of Gandhi’s funeral pyre filling the entire wide screen, there was not a sound or a movement in that whole theater, and we filed out of there—teenagers and senior citizens, blacks and whites, swingers and squares—in as deep and telling a silence as I have ever been part of.
There are moments like these that show us the triviality of our applause, the futility of our words attempting to describe or control what we have just seen, to bring it down to size and keep it from troubling our minds or souls. Whether a powerful scene in a movie or moment of music, a newborn child or an unspeakable tragedy (I remember a lot of stunned silence in the wake of the Challenger disaster, also in my college days): every now and then our circumstance demands our silence.
There is something interesting about those two verses, 1 and 5, at the beginning of this psalm. To all appearances, to those of us reading the NRSV, the verses are almost exactly the same, with verse 1 claiming that “from him [God] comes my salvation,” and verse 5 invoking “hope” instead of salvation. They are different, and they are both truly found or justified only in God, as we realize when we know our own selves truthfully.
But here the NRSV, in keeping up the poetry, does us a disservice in translation. Verse 1 is the more accurately rendered of the two, with its description of the psalmist’s soul waiting “in silence.” One may imagine a great sanctuary empty, silent, with palpable anticipation – that would be a reasonable metaphor to represent that verse.
Verse 5, however, is worded slightly differently in the Hebrew. The force of that silence is different; while “in silence” is a technically correct rendering, the silence in question is not in the place or condition of waiting around the psalmist, but in the psalmist himself (or herself). We might get the idea more clearly by rendering the verse “for God alone my soul waits silently.” The mental picture above is not necessarily changed, but the focus is different, on the one in the great sanctuary keeping silence rather than on the silence of the holy place itself.
Frederick Buechner had something to say about this too:
WHAT DEADENS US most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter including the chatter of spoken prayer. If we choose to seek the silence of the holy place, or to open ourselves to its seeking, I think there is no surer way than by keeping silent.
That is the hard part, isn’t it? We are terribly prone to fill up silence with words. Are we terrified of what we might learn in that silence? The author and critic James Baldwin famously observed, for example:
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.
Is this what possesses those we have seen in recent weeks, giving themselves over to loudly proclaimed hatreds and threats? Do they fear the possibility of having to confront a core of unbearable pain and emptiness within? And what about us, the folks who don’t go out storming public buildings but nonetheless fill up our lives with what can only be called chatter? What do we fear from the silence, particularly what Buechner called the “silence of the holy place?” And we certainly don’t model silence in our worship, particularly not in these times in the virtual space where silence gets the dreaded label “dead air”?
Even in so mundane an activity as watching television we can’t bear anything in between. The gaps between parts of the program are filled with commercials even noisier than the shows. And how many of you, even if you have a mute button on your remote control, cannot abide those few moments of silence waiting out those muted commercials, but instead flip to another program to fill the gap?
We as a people abhor silence, and that is to our detriment. Buechner again points us to the peril of avoiding silence, or what he also calls here “quiet”:
An empty room is silent. A room where people are not speaking or moving is quiet. Silence is a given, quiet a gift. Silence is the absence of sound and quiet the stilling of sound. Silence can’t be anything but silent. Quiet chooses to be silent. It holds its breath to listen. It waits and is still.”In returning and rest you shall be saved,” says God through the prophet Isaiah, “in quietness and confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). They are all parts of each other. We return to our deep strength and to the confidence that lies beneath all our misgiving. The quiet there, the rest, is beyond the reach of the world to disturb. It is how being saved sounds.
“Quiet is a gift.” We surely do not act like this in our lives or in our world. But how can we truly receive the salvation, or the hope, or the deliverance the psalmist claims? How can we be sheltered in the fortress or the rock of God’s protection and care, if we cannot bear the silence of that holy place, or bear to keep quiet long enough to know that presence? Particularly in the tumultuous time in which we live, the willingness to claim silence and keep quiet, to listen for God every now and then instead of always talking at God or shouting about God or cursing others in the name of God (or even, as much as I hate to think it, singing to or about God), we are indeed depriving ourselves of that rest of which Buechner speaks, of the strength that Isaiah promises, of the fortress and rock and deliverance to which the psalmist would urge us.
For God alone my soul waits in silence.
For God alone my soul waits, silently.
From God comes my salvation.
My hope is in him.
For the silence of the holy place, and the strength in that silence and quiet, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #832, Here on Jesus Christ I Will Stand; #—, For God Alone My Soul Does Wait