Saturday, August 12, 2023

“When God Is Silent” - August 13, 2023

Text: Psalm 13, 1 Kings 19:11-13

This summer, we have been looking at questions and topics that were suggested by the congregation.  One person submitted this:

“I often think about how to be faithful and patient when God is silent.  Am I praying for the right thing and in the right way?”

This is a question that at some point or other, every one of us can relate to.  How do we get through those times when God is silent?  When it seems like God is not there?  

Silence, in the first place, is difficult for many of us.  We are so used to constant sound.  We are so used to talk, to chatter, to tv, to music, to muscle cars gunning their engine down the street.

I ride my bike on some of the bike paths and multi-use trails around town.  When you come up behind someone walking and you are going to pass, you call out, “On your left.”  It’s just common courtesy and it is a safety issue.  The problem is that sometimes people have earbuds or headphones and they are playing the music so loud they are oblivious.

We are used to sound.  For some of us, silence can be uncomfortable.  

When it comes to silence, context can be everything.  If you walk into a room where another person is sitting and no one says anything, it may be because you don’t know each other.  Or it may be that you know each other so well that words are not necessary.  It may be that there has been some conflict between the two of you and there is an awkward silence.  It could mean that you are both too sad to speak.  It might mean that you both know the room is bugged.  It might be that the other person is sleeping.  There are many reasons for silence.

Our dog Rudy died almost 3 months ago now, but it is still hard.  And I know of several families in our church who have lost a pet just this year.  One of the ongoing painful reminders of the loss is that the house is so quiet.  

We live in a culture that is not especially comfortable with silence.  

Quite a few years ago we had a church retreat at Dayton Oaks – some of you will remember this.  We all took something called the Spiritual Type Inventory.  You answer a bunch of questions and then find what your spiritual type is - you could be head, heart, mystic, or activist.  It was very interesting (to me at least!), and the point was not to pigeonhole people but to think about the various ways we are wired spiritually and live out our spiritual lives.

This was part of a doctoral project I was working on. My hypothesis was that in a university-type congregation such as ours, members would tend to have a “head” spirituality – a focus on thinking and intellect and rational faith.  As it turned out, we did have more people in the head group but it was a good mix.  Another church in a university community had more people in the heart group and another had more in the activist group.  So much for my hypothesis.

At any rate, one of the things we did was to have the head spirituality people gather in a group, and the mystics over there, and activists over there, and so forth.  There were questions for each group to discuss and then we all talked about them in the larger group.

One of the questions was, “What part of the worship service is most meaningful to you?”  Folks with different spiritual types might be drawn to different parts of the service.  One person in the mystical group said that the time of silence after the sermon was the most meaningful part of the service to them.  It was very meaningful to that person, but some in the other groups hadn’t really noticed that that was part of the service at all.  

For some, silence is an opportunity to “be still and know that I am God.”  For some others, silence can be uncomfortable.  Some of us are moved by the quiet and the meditative nature of a TaizĂ© service.  For others, it’s just not their thing.

However we feel about silence, when it comes to God, we want a God who speaks to us.  We want a God that keeps in touch.

As we think about our question this morning, we need to ask: what do we mean by God’s silence?  This might mean different things to different people, but I think it can mean something like spiritual dryness – a time when we may feel far from God.  It may come about in the midst of difficult circumstances.  Maybe we are feeling kind of beaten down by life.  Maybe we have tried to do the right thing and got nothing but grief for it.  Maybe we are filled with worry for a loved one.  

Or maybe we are trying to make a decision and unsure of what we should do.  We may pray and pray but don’t find much of an answer.  We may pray for clarity and don’t get any.  And after a while, maybe we stop praying.  It may feel like God isn’t there, or that God isn’t paying attention.

To think about God’s silence, we might ask about the flip side of that.  What is it like when God is talkative?   When God is communicating?

It is interesting the way that God speaks in the Bible.  After creation, God speaks to the man and woman in the garden, just like we might speak to each other.  God spoke audibly to Abraham.  God spoke to Moses regularly.  God spoke to the prophets.  But over time, God spoke less and less directly.  

When the boy Samuel was serving in the temple with the priest Eli, we read from 1 Samuel: “Now the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  Which sounds not unlike our day.

God seemed to give up audible words and went to speaking through dreams.  Angels appeared less and less.  And the seemed to pay less and less attention.  Until finally, God spoke to a young woman named Mary.  And God came to us in Jesus.  He revealed who God was.  He spoke God’s words.  Jesus was God’s Word. He showed us how to live.

So how does God speak to us today?  In a time when the Word of the Lord is rare and visions are not widespread?  We do not expect to hear the audible voice of God.  We do not expect the shrubbery to catch fire and begin speaking to us – we don’t expect burning bushes.  We do not look for angels to appear or expect vivid and unmistakable visions.  

I suppose the way God speaks is a little different for each person – maybe depending on those spiritual types – but it may be through the words of scripture – as the words we read become God’s word to us.  It may come as we seek to follow Jesus, knowing that Jesus is God’s Word.  

It may be through a growing conviction, a sense of what is right.  It may come as we take in the beauty of God’s creation and spend time in nature.  It may come through other people who help us, who encourage us, who inspire us.  

Sometimes it involves taking one step forward and finding some confirmation that this is the way to go, and then taking another step.  God may speak to us as we follow that part of God’s will we know to be true, as we follow the light, and we receive more light.  It may come as we work for justice, work to make things right and bring healing in God’s world and we find God’s strength and power.  

Or maybe we find a sign of some kind – that might be different for different folks – but some sign of God’s leading us.  Sometimes we have a powerful experience of God’s presence.

Maybe none of that is happening for you.  Maybe it feels like it is complete radio silence from God.  If that is the case, know that you are absolutely not alone.

Many of the Psalms speak of a sense of profound sense of God’s silence.  Susan read for us Psalm 13.  And then we sang it.  There is a reason we tend to sing happier, more joyful hymns than singing Psalm 13.  But it is honest and true to our experience, just as the joy is true to our experience.  There are those times when Psalm 13 describes our lives.

What does Jesus cry out from the cross?  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus felt God’s silence, God’s absence.  When he said that, he was quoting from Psalm 22.  Some would say, “Oh, he was just quoting from the Psalms.”  What do you mean just quoting?  There is a strength that comes from knowing that others have gone before you and that they have been there too.  There is power in knowing you are not alone.

Yet after speaking of God’s silence, Psalm 13 concludes:

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
   my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
   because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Where does that come from?  It seems to come out of nowhere.  It seems like a sudden departure.  But it comes from knowing that God had been there before.  It comes from knowing that others had experienced this same sense of God’s silence - and yet God had always proven faithful.

Martin Marty is the dean of American church historians, a longtime professor at the University of Chicago.  A group from our church went to hear him speak at Drake together with Bill Moyers – this was 22 years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11.  He was already long retired even then, and today he is 95.

Years ago, after the death of his wife, he wrote a moving book reflecting on the Psalms.  He said that there is a summery kind of spirituality, a spirituality of joy and praise and thanksgiving.  But Marty wrote about those times when God seems silent.  Roughly half of the Psalms reflect a wintry sort of spirituality.  The title of that book is A Cry of Absence.

Marty wrote, 

Winterless climates there may be, but winterless souls are hard to picture.  A person can count on winter in January in intemperate northern climates, or in July in their southern counterparts.  Near the equator, winter is unfelt.  As for the heart, however, where can one escape the chill?  When death comes, when absence creates pain – then anyone can anticipate the season of cold.  Winter can also blow into surprising regions of the heart when it is least expected.  Such frigid assaults can overtake the spirit with the persistence of an ice age, the chronic cutting of an Arctic wind.

We can all experience those times when God seems absent, when it seems like God has gone silent.  We can all face those winter times of the soul – and in time, we all will.

How do we get through those times?  How do we stay faithful when God is silent?  

I don’t presume to have the answer.  I think one of our problems is that we talk way too much, maybe to cover up the fact that we don’t have answers.  I could have actually taken a number of the questions that came in for sermons this summer and preached the “I Don’t Know” sermon series.

So let me just suggest a few things.

The example from the Psalms is helpful.  Even though God is silent, the Psalmist continues to cry out to God, and there is a confidence in God’s goodness and care.  The Psalm actually ends with praise.  So keep on praying.  You can cry out to God, you can even complain to God.  God can handle it.  And we can depend on God’s love.

And then we can sometimes think of prayer as primarily asking for God’s blessing for ourselves and those we care about.  As we grow in our understanding of prayer, we can see the larger picture that at the heart of it, prayer is not about telling God what needs to happen but building a relationship with God.  And we can maybe focus our praying there.

That means that prayer is not just our talking to God, but listening to God.  It may be that sometimes we can’t hear God because we are too busy talking.  We read from the story from Elijah.  He was fearful and running for his life.  There are all kinds of pyrotechnics in Elijah’s story, but we find that the Lord was not in the mighty wind, and the Lord was not in the earthquake, and the Lord was not in the fire.  The Lord was in the silence.

God may speak to us out of the silence.  In the midst of the silence.  But we have to listen.  We have to “be still and know that I am God.”

There are those times when we are too numb with grief or too filled with pain or too distracted by the crises around us to really be able to listen.  To really be able to pray.  And I think that is where the community comes in.

We can pray for one another.  And with one another.  And when you are too hurt or too tired or too discouraged to even pray, the community can hold you up and pray for you.  And when others are too hurt or too tired or too discouraged to even pray, you can pray for them.

And we can trust that in time, we will "sing to the Lord, for God has dealt bountifully with us."  Amen.