Plastic Jesus sermon series – Silence: Can You Hear Me Now?

SCRIPTURE – Mark 1:35-39
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

Plastic Jesus sermon series
#2 – Silence: Can You Hear Me Now?
August 21, 2011

(Start the sermon with 30 seconds of silence)

How does that feel? It’s awkward, isn’t it? When it’s that quiet, you’re worried that something is wrong. “Did he forget what he was going to say? Is he having a brain cramp?” Isn’t it funny how when we are confronted with silence, we automatically think something is wrong.

When I first got out of seminary, I was part of a group of new pastors called the Bethany Fellows. We met twice a year in various places around the country for relationship-building, educational opportunities, and spiritual renewal. I loved those retreats, except for one part: the silence. Each retreat featured a period of 24 hours of silence. Me. Being silent. For 24 hours. One retreat in Phoenix I learned that the Diamondbacks baseball team was playing during our day of silence, so I promised the retreat leader if he let me go I’d only cheer in my head. He didn’t think that was funny.

I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way about silence. I believe we are conditioned to fill the silence. One of the things I thought about in my Public Speaking classes were vocalized pauses. You know what those are: “Um,” “like,” “you know.” Our brain uses those almost involuntarily to avoid leaving a gap of silence until our next thought. So instead of a noiseless pause until our next word, we break the silence with “Umm…”

The fear of silence places more insidious roles in our lives. When it’s our turn in line at the funeral home to speak to the family, when we are sitting in the hospital waiting room, when our friend has just told us about her troubled marriage, we can’t just NOT say something. When I first started making hospital visits in seminary, I had a lot of trouble being in a room with someone without saying something. Surely there was something I could say to help, to make things better, to fix this problem.

Why is silence so scary for us? Moments of silence feel like eternities to us because we are so used to having noise in our lives. A lot of times we’d rather have some mindless TV show that we’re not even watching blaring in the background rather than face silence. The irony is that it is in the silence where we are mostly likely to hear God. And yet, our lives are absolutely overflowing with noise.

I have a couple theories about our fear of silence. The first one is that we are afraid to be quiet because when we are, it means we are not speaking. And when we are not speaking, that means we are not in control of the conversation. And if you’re like me, you like to be in control. There’s a name for people like us: control freaks. That sounds so negative! I prefer “control connoisseur.” I think in reality we are all control connoisseur. Who likes to be out of control? We all want a hand in what is going to happen. And when we’re quiet, when we create space in our lives for God to speak, we don’t have the floor.

My second theory, closely related to the first, is this: we are afraid to give God control because we’re afraid of what we might hear. And if we’re speaking, we don’t have to worry about hearing what God has to say to us. I think we spend a lot of time distracting ourselves with noise in order to keep from thinking about things we don’t want to think about, like doubt and discouragement and death, or to keep from hearing things we don’t want to hear, like how God is calling us into the deep end of our faith. We use noise as an insulation, packing it around us tightly so nothing – not even the voice of God – can get through.

P.M. Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, says that noise is “all part of a phenomenon expressed in ancient Latin as horrovacui, which is the abhorrence of the void, fear of emptiness.” He said we often overuse electronic gadgets for the same reason we spend innumerable hours shopping: we don’t want to be left alone with our own thoughts. Or our God.

So instead of creating space for God to speak, instead of turning over control, we cling to it. We control our electronics with remotes. We control the exact temperature of our side of the car and we control the exact firmness of our side of the bed. We control when our sprinklers come on and when our lights go out. And we control when – or if – we listen to God. As long as we are in control, we don’t have to worry about what God might tell us to do. And we are in control, aren’t we?

Almost. OK, not even almost. We are not in control. We don’t like to hear that, but we aren’t. In an article about the illusion of control, the author said, “Death always drives the fastest car on the highway.” In other words, no matter how luxurious your SUV with the leather seats, DVD players, and heated cupholders, you still have to stop and wait when a funeral passes.

If we want to go deeper spiritually, the first thing we have to do is relinquish our illusion of control and turn that over to God. David Goetz says, “In true spirituality the first act is a decision not to act, which goes against all we believe. Shouldn’t we be doing something for Jesus? But before we do, we must be: to listen and wait for God, to make space for God.”

At first, that sounds scary: listen, wait, make space. We’re used to speaking, acting, taking up space. What would it be like if we followed Jesus’ example? Mark tells us, “Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” Go off alone? I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to be alone. When I’m with other people, I feel needed, loved, important. But when I’m alone, I’m reminded of just how small I am and how big God is.

That’s why I think our idea of “getting away” is to go to the lake or to a state park…with a few thousand other people who are looking for some solitude. Can we ever really get away like Jesus did? When he tried, his disciples tracked him down: “Everyone is looking for you!” We’d love to take the morning to get away and pray, but have you seen our email inboxes and to-do lists lately? Everyone is looking for us! How do we get away in spiritual suburbia?

Here’s some good news for us: Goetz makes the point that quietness is more inside space than outside space. He says, “Solitude begins with the practice of being still. For one minute, two minutes, five minutes – to rest from our pursuit of efficiency.” To paraphrase the psalmist, be still and know that I am God – and you are not. Being still reminds us that God is in control, and we are called simply to be, not to do.

This is not easy. I struggle with being still. And, being the control connoisseur I am, if I’m going to take time to be still, I want results. I want something to show for it. I want a transcript of my lengthy and enlightening conversation with God. If I can will my climate-controlled world into being, I should be able to will my God into conversation. And if God won’t speak to me, at least I can keep talking and talking and talking to God. As long as there’s no silence.

There’s a Zen saying that goes, “Only speak if you can improve the silence.” I believe that it is only when we are truly still that we can know God most deeply. But that takes discipline. Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen says, “It’s not easy to sit and trust that in solitude God will speak to you – not as a magical voice but that he will let you know something gradually over the years.”

Years? I don’t have years! If I can have popcorn in three minutes and my clothes cleaned in an hour, I don’t want to have to wait years for anything. But it’s taken so many years to fill up our lives with noise that it’s going to take awhile to begin to empty it out, to clear some space in the clutter for God to come and abide with us, to speak to us, not in the radio-DJ game-show announcer voice, but in a still small voice.

Is it possible to live the deeper life and the noisy life? Maybe, but I doubt it. And yet our lives are so full of noise, it’s hard to imagine living any other way. The reality is that if we aren’t intentional about building quietness into our lives, it will be quickly eaten up by the 100 things we have to do.

But if we’re willing to try, the rewards can be renewing. Eric Sandras gives this advice: “In the morning, or in the evening, take five minutes and refuse to turn on any noise-making device (that can include family members). The regular exercise of silence can flush our minds clean of unwanted noise.” Tricia Rhodes calls this spiritual breathing. Mentally inhale the reality of God’s presence and exhale the noisy clamor inside of us. Inhale the peace of Christ and exhale the anxiety of the day. Just sit. Just be. Breathe. Listen. Give up your control. Be still. Look, the noise will still be waiting for you when you’re done. Everyone will still be looking for you. I promise. But for those few moments, remind yourself who is really the Lord in your life. Be still, and know that God is God – and you are not. Thanks be to God.

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