“Silence as Wonder/Silence as Woe”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
1Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
2Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4For day and night your hand was heavy upon me
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
5Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,
and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah
6Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress,
the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
7You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah
8I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
9Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.
10Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
11Be glad in the Lord and rejoice,
O righteous, and shout for joy,
all you upright in heart. (NRSV)
While we all need community, we all need solitude and silence, as well. That’s especially true for us introverts. I can handle crowds and noise for a while, but sometimes for only as long as a tuna can ride a bike. For me, silence is a spiritually thin place, a mysterious but ever-so real depth I need in order to thrive. Our Lenten prayer services are all about the silence of wonder and peace.
Psalm 32 speaks of a very different kind of silence. “While I kept silence,” he writes, “my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.” Psalms were many things to the ancient Hebrews. They were forums for memory and hope. They were a hymnal of praise and the Book of Common Worship. They were a means of expressing the people’s deepest frustrations with and even anger at Yahweh. As the collective voice of Israel, they now demonstrate to us that silence before God and each other can be destructive. That’s especially true when we fall silent in the face of human misery and the injustices that lead to it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is famous for having refused to remain silent in the face of the horrors of hyper-nationalism in his beloved Germany. During the 1930’s, fear, racism, and hate speech spread like cancer. Parties other than the Nazi Party were vilified, then outlawed. The free press was taken over by the state. Jewish citizens (who knew and loved the psalms) were rounded up and herded into extermination camps. Proud and patriotic Germans, including a Christian majority, extended their hands in the Nazi salute, and watched it all happen – in silence. A captivating leader had risen to power to protect a pure, white, “Christian” population. Surely, they said, God sent this man.
Into the fervor, Bonhoeffer spoke these prophetic words: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”1
Psalm 32 begins with two Beatitudes: “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven…Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” The psalmist then ties the woes of sin, iniquity, and deceit to suffering.
Whatever a psalmist may have had in mind on an individual level, the Psalms give voice to thecommunity’s shared joy and sorrow. So, “While I kept silence my body wasted away” refers not just to the experience of a particular person but to the experience of all Israel. That now applies to Christians who read the psalms in community, claiming to be “happy and blessed,” and an embodiment of God’s all-encompassing love and mercy as revealed in Jesus, and then go silent in the face of evil. We suffer because we have helped to create an environment in which our hubris cannot perceive of God’s Shalom as something for anyone but ourselves, our own clan, or our own nation. We might define hubris as the sin of pride elevated to the stature of spiritual gift. Hubris, then, delivers its own judgment. It’s the heavy hand upon us that dries up our strength and renders us fearful, insatiable, and, ultimately, defenseless. Ancient wisdom knew this well: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Prov. 16:18) The so-called power of pride almost always leads to injustice, ruin, and suffering.
In the early 1960’s, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel (both of Jewish descent) explored the effects of silence on community in their song, “The Sound of Silence.” The duo sang of a vision in which “ten thousand people maybe more” wander in a “neon” wasteland. The people “[talk] without speaking…[hear] without listening…and [write] songs that voices never share…[because] no one ever dare/Disturb the sound of silence.”2 No one dare challenge the status quo.
Then, in a prophetic outburst, the visionary cries, “‘Fools…you do not know/silence like a cancer grows/Hear my words that I might teach you/Take my arms that I might reach you/But my words like silent raindrops fell/and echoed in the wells of silence,” where the people became detached, and wasted away following their beloved “neon god.”
Listen again to verses 8 through 10 of Psalm 32, and hear how closely they give voice to the same plea: “I will instruct and teach you the way you should go. I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you. Many are the torments of the wicked…”
Many are the torments of the silent.
The psalmist urges us to understand that there is no real happiness in silence. Confession, then, is more than telling God our petty little sins. God knows them and loves us still. Confession includes naming and forsaking our neon gods. Confession includes receiving forgiveness and reaffirming our faith in God. For Christians, confession means, above all, following Jesus by lending our collective voice to advocate for and to deliver justice to: the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and those who are hated and excluded.
In the book we’re reading on Monday nights, Philip Newell introduced us to a Dutch Jewish woman named Etty Hillesum. Etty kept a diary of her experiences helping fellow Jews in the community of Westerbork, a transit facility where Jews from the Netherlands were housed before being shipped to Auschwitz. Through all the indescribable horrors, the intensely spiritual Etty Hillesum discovered what she called a place of “repose” in her body and mind. Psalm 32 calls it “a hiding place.” In that place of silent wonder, Etty felt “the deepest and most essential in [her] harkening to the deepest and most essential in others. God to God.”4 That is the relationship to which God calls us.
We dare not sentimentalize Etty and her “place of repose.” She, too, died in Auschwitz. But as a mystic in the tradition of the psalms, she lent her voice to those being persecuted. And to all with ears to hear and eyes to see, she revealed the “happiness” of living in the redeeming presence of the One who weeps at injustice and loves the Creation into redemption.
That same “happiness” and hope are available to us in our own struggles to live lives of wholeness, justice, and discipleship. The German writers and signers of TheTheological Declaration of Barmen actively and vocally declared their discipleship when they said “Jesus is Lord.” Not Hitler. “Jesus is Lord.” Not my religion over another. Not my skin color over another. Not my nation over another. “Jesus is Lord.” Not my life over yours.
Psalm 24:1 declares that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…” That means everyone, regardless of where they live in relation to some ocean, river, or national border. All people and all things are equally beloved by God. When we refuse to be silent and declare that good news in word and deed, we experience and share the abundant life given to us through Sunday’s gift of Resurrection.
2“The Sound of Silence,” w/m by Paul Simon, on the album: The Sounds of Silence, 1966, Columbia Records.
4Philip Newell, “A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul.” Jossey-Bass, 2011. Pp. 76-77.