The Gift of Silence

July 10, 2019 8:28 am

Silence for a season is a gift God gives us to help us listen more attentively to the voice of his love and mercy.

It is impossible to hear God while we are doing the talking, a lesson Peter painfully learned on the Mount of Transfiguration. Overcome by the splendor of the scene, he spoke out passionately, but also imprudently. God silenced Peter, interrupting with an admonishing but merciful rebuke: ‘This is my Beloved Son! Listen to him!’ (Mark 9:7).

The prophets also knew that their first priority was listening in silence rather than speaking in the Temple. Isaiah wrote, ‘The Lord GOD has given Me the tongue of disciples, that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word. He awakens me morning by morning, He awakens my ear to listen as a disciple’ (Isaiah 50:4). Isaiah could sustain weary ones with the word of God because he woke up every day to listen first, and only then to speak.

David also knew the secret of personal silence and its relationship to public ministry. He was tempted to speak but held his peace:

I was speechless and still;
I held my peace, even from good,
and my sorrow was stirred.
My heart grew hot within me;
as I mused, the fire burned.
Then I spoke with my tongue
– Psalm 39

The fire in David’s heart grew stronger as he stayed silent and took the time to ponder deeply, to listen. He refrained ‘even from good’. When he finally did speak, the word of God came from a deep, blazing place within him and strengthened the people of God for thousands of years. Temporary silence can have eternal consequence.

“What you hear whispered in your ear”, Jesus said, “shout from the housetops!” (Matthew 10). The order is vital. We have nothing to shout if we’ve not been quiet enough to hear the whisper.

‘Silence’, wrote Henri Nouwen, ‘gives strength and fruitfulness to the word. We can even say that words are meant to disclose the mystery of the silence from which they come.’

I note all this because it is my custom each year to enter a season of silence as the beginning of a new ministry year. Just as I begin each day with quiet and silence, so too I find it essential to begin the year in the same manner.

It has been my custom for many years to cease speaking publicly for a period of several weeks in July. The world does not need my voice. I most assuredly do need the voice of God – and the discipline of silence quiets my mind, disavows me of the deceptive myth of my importance, and prepares me to hear the whisper of heaven so that, soon, I will have something to shout from the housetops, a whispered word to strengthen weary fellow disciples.

I am writing to remind our members of long-standing, and to inform our many new members, that this brief season of rest and silence is not unusual. With few exceptions, this has been my practice every year for some twenty years (I was very foolish in the first twenty years and kept right on talking!).

I am not on sabbatical, I am not sick, I am not discouraged, and I am eager to serve C3 in every possible way. It is exactly that eagerness which demands of me a deep silence for these next few weeks. I will trust with David that while I am silent the fires will grow hot within me. Pray with me that this is so.

This silence is a gift for you too. Churches can be overly dependent on a single preferred voice and thus miss great gifts God desires to give us through the ministries of others. Churches can also ‘tune out’ the familiar voice. In his kindness, God sends others to say the same things that have always been said, but in new, invigorating ways, with fresh vocabulary, helping us all to have ears to hear again.

So in July, you will receive not only the gift of my silence but also the extravagant blessing of hearing other voices through gifted servants sent to us from God. This Summer, we are taking up the Psalms as they relate to the progress of Mission around the world and here at home. These are magnificent preachers of the Word and ministers in the mission. We need to hear their voices and be inspired by their example.

  • This is part of a letter I share with our congregation every Summer. I hope the explanation of the grace of silence offered here will benefit you too.

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