“To You, Even Silence is Praise”
God of Zion, to you even silence is praise.
Promises made to you are kept—
2 you listen to prayer—
and all living things come to you.
3 When wrongdoings become too much for me,
you forgive our sins.
4 How happy is the one you choose to bring close,
the one who lives in your courtyards!
We are filled full by the goodness of your house,
by the holiness of your temple.
righteousness you answer us,
by your awesome deeds,
God of our salvation—
you, who are the security
of all the far edges of the earth,
even the distant seas.
6 You establish the mountains by your strength;
you are dressed in raw power.
7 You calm the roaring seas;
calm the roaring waves,
calm the noise of the nations.
8 Those who dwell on the far edges
stand in awe of your acts.
You make the gateways
of morning and evening sing for joy.
A week ago, I spent two and a half days at a retreat on Celtic Spirituality. The retreat was held at Roslyn Retreat Center, which if you have never been there, I highly encourage you to go for a personal retreat or conference. The grounds are spectacular. Rolling hills, wooded walking paths, Adirondack chairs, hammocks, and patios to gather along, talk, pray, meditate, and breathe. Their chapel is especially beautiful. It sits on top of a hill and the entire back of it is glass. So as you are worshiping inside of it, you look out upon the trees changing color, the canal and river below, and birds flying past.
The first day I was there was one of those rare perfect fall afternoons in Virginia, with sun shining, and white clouds moving slowly in the sky. It was easy to see God that day. But the next morning we woke up to about a twenty degree drop in temperature, dark clouds rolling in on the horizon, and soon rain pouring down upon us. We met again in the chapel that morning, worshiping and hearing the story of George MacLeod, who restarted in the 1930s the Iona Community off the west coast of Scotland, an ancient pilgrimage site of music and prayer, literature and worship, justice and ecumenical mission. MacLeod’s famous phrase was “Matter matters,” inviting people to see God and the holy in everyday, ordinary substances and people, locations, and creations. We were invited to take the next 45 minutes and go wherever we would like to meditate, to pray, to watch, to wake up, to walk, to sit, to do whatever our soul was calling us to do. But to do it in silence.
I knew exactly where I wanted to go. On the side of the dining hall, where I knew I could get some more coffee to wake me up, was a covered patio. I put on my jacket, grabbed a mug, and sat outside on the brisk and a little bit damp patio chairs. Sitting there, I first thought I needed to say or do something or come with a litany before God. But something was calling me to instead just sit and watch and be silent. It was still raining hard in front of me, and I was grateful for the overhang. As I sat there for a few minutes my eyes made their way down the hill to an outdoor altar that stood there. And all around the altar were these geese, walking and playing, honking back and forth to each other, without any cover at all. At first I thought, what are these geese doing? It’s wet. It’s cold. It’s raining harder and harder. They should be running or flying for shelter. They should be upset and worried about this new, rainy weather instead of happy and playing, splashing and talking out in the middle of this field. But then I watched them some more. And realized that their feathers God had given them made them perfectly suited for this chillier, damp weather. They were made for this. They weren’t running or hiding, worried or stressed, but instead celebrating the day even in this new weather as another day given to us by God.
And then I thought of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”
And then I thought about my own daily actions. Even as a pastor, I know my days are constantly filled with worries and thoughts of tomorrow, of what tasks do I still need to get done, emails to respond to, reports to write? How much of my week is really spent being present with God? How much of my week is spent really listening to God? As I looked out upon those geese playing, I was hearing God say something to me: “Do not worry, Alex. Be present Take time for silence. Take time to just be, because I am here with you.”
It was a message I very much needed to hear. And the only way I was able to hear it was by coming to God not with my own lists of wishes or praises or things to accomplish. But by coming to God and being silent, being open for God to show me something. I need more of that in my life. As I am sure many, many of us do.
Our Psalm for today, Psalm 65 starts out with a word that is absent from a lot of translations. The word is dumiyya. It means silently waiting. It appears also in Psalm 62, just three psalms before this one. There, the writer says, “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.”
But in many of our more popular translations, this word gets glanced over. The NRSV says ”praise is due to you” and the NIV says “praise awaits you.” Neither mention anything about silence or preparing ourselves to meet the maker of heaven and earth.
I much prefer the translation we heard this morning from the Common English Bible. “God of Zion, to you, even silence is praise.” Dumiyya: silence, waiting, being prepared to hear and see God, that too is as much praise as our loudest songs.
Silence as praise may seem odd to us. And maybe that is why it is missing in many of our English translations. Silence seems opposite to us. We think of silence as passive, as empty, as something that we do only when we are out of words. But not for the ancient Hebrews. And not for me that day at Roslyn. Silence isn’t just a time when we don’t know what to say. Silence can be a time when we are inviting God in, when we realize that we need to speak less and listen more, a time when we come with no agenda or plans of our own, but instead, realize that the God of salvation wants a real and present relationship with each one of us.
The rest of this Psalm reminds us who God is. God is the one who forgives our sins, when we can’t solve them or make up for them on our own. God is the one who visits and speaks good news to people all over the world. God is the one who brings the colors of the sunrise and grandeur of the sunset across our sky. God is the one who built the mountains where we get to stand in awe and wonder. Throughout this Psalm we are reminded, how great, loving, how present, how majestic is God. And in front of a God that wonderful, sometimes the best praise we can offer is not our own agenda and words and thoughts and pleas, but instead our willingness to be silent, to listen, to be ready to see and hear God speak to us.
Some of our most holy moments are not when we are speaking a million words or doing a thousand tasks, but instead are being still, moving slowly, listening for what God wants to say next, looking for what God wants to show us next. I experienced it again this week, at surprise, surprise, out Presbytery meeting. Leaders from First Presbyterian Church Hampton, which holds a monthly Sunday evening Celtic evensong service, led us through some of their practices in it. There was scripture read, but also some words of poets and songwriters. There was a message, but it was much more of an invitation to experience God than a telling us who God is and what we must do next to please God. And then we were invited to come forward and light candles in silence, while offering a prayer. It was fascinating in this sanctuary full of pastors and elders, great leaders of our wider church, seeing how much this practice of silence, of moving slowly, or listening to God and being present in the moment, how many of us needed that and how many of us, even as church leaders lack that in our daily lives.
In a minute we will be inviting you forward to light candles and write down a name of loved one, a family member, a friend, a church member, someone who is a saint who has passed before us and gone ahead of us into God’s kingdom. And as you do, I invite you to remember their gifts, but also to take a moment for silence. For seeing God in this moment, in this day, in this time of silence.
The God of salvation is with us.Tags: 2019, podcast