Silence makes us uncomfortable doesn’t it? It especially makes us uncomfortable. We expect the silence to be filled, but do not know quite how to do it. I have experienced this multiple times with groups of teenagers, when through some weird coincidence the two or three conversations in the room all hit a silent point at the exact same time. There is a moment of silence and that moment will always be broken by nervous laughter and someone loudly proclaiming “Awkward silence!” The truth though is that silence itself is not awkward, the way that we handle it is. We are not use to it, but we need silence from time to time. This is a fact that just about any parent of young children can attest to. After spending a couple of hours with the energy and constant noise of a couple of young children, most people are begging for a little “peace and quiet”. To try to accomplish this one of the tools that parents have developed is the “quiet game.” The quiet game, for those who have never played, is a game where the goal is to be quiet. If you talk you lose, and if you stay quiet the longest you win. My parents tried this tactic on my siblings and I growing up. My sister loved the quiet game. However, my brother and I quickly saw through the charade and realized it was not really a game. We are honestly kind of brats about it, but it did not take long that when my parents would try to start the quiet game, we would both say “I lose” and then go back to talking. I am hoping my own kids do not figure this little trick out for a few more years. We are not very comfortable with silence and we are even less comfortable with the idea of having to be quiet. This scripture though is one that reminds us of the vital need for silence and solitude in our lives. St. Faustina, a catholic nun venerated to Sainthood in 2000, once wrote, “A soul that has never tasted the sweetness of inner silence is a restless spirit.” If we are being honest with ourselves, a restless spirit, is a good description of how many of us feel. There is a discontent, a feeling of being not quite balanced, that we cannot put our finger on. This morning’s scripture and others like it speak to the need for inner silence, for solitude, for a time and space to be like Elijah and stand in sheer silence, in the presence of God.
St. Faustina wrote about the need for inner silence in the mid-1930s. In the past 80 years, the world has only become a louder place. Finding silence and solitude now is harder than ever before. We fill our lives with noise. For example, on average we watch TV for five hours a day and 73% of us usually have the radio on whenever we get into the car. Not only do we fill our lives with noise but we can customize how much noise we have in our lives. Right now, if we have enough bandwidth it is possible to stream TV shows from Netflix, while watching silly cat videos on youtube, and streaming music from Spotify, all while playing an online game on our phone. That sounds extreme, but based on some Facebook statuses of college students, it is apparently possible to do all of that AND post on facebook at the same time about what you are doing. We feel our lives with noise, and it is not all just auditory. We live in a plugged in society of instant access where busy and rushed is the new normal. It is impossible for us to find times for solitude and silence when we are always connected. If you want any further proof of this, the average teenager sends 3,000 text messages a month or about 100 a day! This statistic is also five years old, which means it is probably more now and it is not just teenagers but 20-somethings who are texting this much. This level of noise, this level of connectedness has ironically left us all feeling disconnected. It has left us with a restless spirit. A good test for the restlessness of our spirit is this. When you lay down to go to sleep, can you go to sleep peacefully or are you kept awake? Does all of the noise of the day, all of the information, all of the thoughts that were put off because of busyness come rushing in and keep you awake? If that sounds like you, then it is possible that what you need, what your spiritual life needs is silence and solitude. To rekindle that connection with God, to bring rest to that restlessness we need to unplug, we need to disconnect. We need to be still. In doing so we can find that our faith is more vibrant and strongest when it is a faith unplugged.
We make the mistake of looking for God in the noise. We like shiny things, we like grandeur and bigness, so we often expect God to make a big splash. This scripture reminds us though that often God works in the exact opposite way. God was not in the wind, in the shaking of the ground, or in the fire. The big displays of power, of might, of shock and awe is not how God got Elijah’s attention. Verse 13 in the NSRV translation puts it this way, “and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. What an odd way to say it, the “sound of silence.” It was in the absence of all other sound that Elijah knew God passing by. This is a theme we see throughout the Bible. People have encounters with God in the silence and solitude. Moses was “beyond the wilderness” in complete solitude when we encountered God at the burning bush. Samuel was in the quiet stillness of the night, when God was first spoke to him. After Paul encountered Jesus along the Damascus road, he spent an unknown but decent amount of time in silence and solitude in the desert of Arabia. Jesus himself regularly practiced seeking time alone in solitude and silence. Matthew 14:23 records, “After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.” That is one of several instances, where Jesus goes off on his own to pray. The biblical evidence seems to suggest that connection with God, deep connection with God anyway, requires silence and solitude. The reason for this is simple, only when our lives are unplugged can our faith be plugged into God. All of the noise in our lives, all of the distractions, clutter out God, they push out the divine, and drown out the Holy Spirit. It is only when we are intentional about seeking space away and seeking to quiet our hearts and minds do we find God in the sound of sheer silence. I remember growing up and playing with Legos. There was a time when I had all of the pieces all mixed together but I wanted to build something back to the directions, and I needed a specific, small piece. The only way that I could find it was to separate all of the pieces, moving away all of the distractions and excess until the piece I was looking for was able to be seen clearly. Taking times of intentional silence and solitude in our lives works the same way, it allows us to peel back the noise, to separate the distraction, and push away the trivial until what we can find that still, small voice of God that has been there the whole time. This is vital to do, because by going through this process we stop focusing on so many other things and focus just on God. There is a huge emphasis on silence in the Bible, because it is in silence when everything else is turned off, that we can know God. Psalm 46:10 says it very straight forward, “Be still and know that I am God.”
We do not like being still though do we? We might see the needs for silence and stillness, but there is something that bothers us about it. The best way to confront these issues is to name them and deal with them head on. When it comes to solitude I think there are two major issues with the practice that we struggle with. The first is loneliness. We do not like the idea of solitude because we do not like the idea of being alone. There is some validity to this. We are made and created for being in community, and when we are not we also feel off-kilter and out of balanced. However, our spiritual life is meant to be a balance of community and solitude. We are meant to be in community together, worship together, and serve together. However, we are also meant to be in relationship with God and like any deep relationship that can only be fostered one on one. We need time with each other but we also need time with God. In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes about solitude, “Loneliness is inner emptiness. Solitude is inner fulfillment.”
Our second issue with solitude is that it does not feel right to be still. For some of us, we feel the need to always be doing something. Because there is always something to do. There is always important work waiting for us, and there are always trivial chores stacking up. With so much to get done, taking time to sit by ourselves and be still seems like a terrible waste of time. Some of us hate the idea of “burning daylight”. We should remember the story of Mary and Martha. If you remember, Jesus came to visit the two sisters and Martha was busy doing all of the work, while Mary sat still in the presence of Jesus. Martha gets frustrated that she is the only one doing the work, but Jesus tells her that Mary made the better choice. There is always work to be done, and we should do it. However, taking time to be still before our Lord is always the better choice. Martin Luther, the great reformer, said it like this “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” Solitude in God’s presence is not a waste of time, but rather it is an investment of time that centers us on what is truly important and enables us to face all of the other stuff that life can throw at us in a day.
The other issue we might have with being still before God is in being silent. I am an introvert, in fact, I just about maxed out being an introvert on the myers-briggs personality test. This means that I desire and even crave time alone. The idea of being by myself four several hours in a quiet place, is quite honestly thrilling for me. However, there is a difference between being quiet and being silent. I am good at quiet. I am terrible at being silent. Perhaps you are like me, and even when you are physically quiet your mind and your heart are still churning out an non-stop progression of thoughts. We may not be making noise but our internal voice always seems to have just one more interesting thing to say. Instead of being internally silent, we chase that thought and we allow our mind to wander. Being silent means that we silence ourselves as well. If we truly want to have God’s leading in our lives. Then we must take times to listen and that means we are not talking at all. Remember, it was in the sound of sheer silence that Elijah knew God was present. In another bible story, when God spoke to Samuel he replied, Speak Lord for your servant is listening.” We can spend all of the time in solitude with God that we want, but if we do not approach that time with an attitude of listening, of silence then we will not hear God.
Silence and solitude are spiritual disciplines because they do require us to practice some discipline. As people from a connected culture addicted to noise, intentionally seeking silence and solitude does not come natural to us. It is something that we have to be intentional about and aggressively make time for and then guard that time. During this lent as we are more intentional about our relationship with God, may we take time to seek God in silence and solitude. May we know the sweetness of inner silence. In the secret, in those quiet places, may we come to know God more, and hear his voice. May we have a faith unplugged, may we take the time to disconnect and Be still. May we heed God’s own advice we he told us “Be still and know that I am God.” Be still.