Tuesday, March 3, 2015

An Overly Talkative Religion

I'm re-reading a wonderful little book by Barbara Brown Taylor entitled When God Is Silent. At one point she writes about how God becomes progressively more quiet and remote in the Hebrew Scriptures, but in the Incarnation, "the silent God found a voice." God's Word becomes flesh and our relationship to this Word requires we proclaim it using words. According to Taylor "...this has had the effect of making Christianity an overly talkative religion, but the truth is that silence plays as central a role in Christian scripture as in Hebrew." (p. 74)

Taylor is talking especially to pastors like me, people whose vocations require them to traffic in words. There is a terrible temptation for us to make those words bear more freight than they were ever intended to. We want to speak with more certainty than is possible. We want to provide answers where there really are none. We want to put together carefully crafted homiletical packages, neatly tied up with a nice bow. We want to so engagingly retell what Jesus said that people will go, "Oh, of course. Now I get it." How unlike Jesus we are.

Today's gospel reading shows the same Word that spoke Creation into being at work in Jesus. "Go, your son will live," he says to a royal official, and it is so. Yet this same Jesus can be remarkably hesitant to give neat answers that clear everything up. He's as likely to answer a question with another question. And he is forever responding to questions with stories that don't quite answer those questions but leave you wondering. And when he does speak clearly, it's often something we don't want to hear. "Love your enemies," or "You cannot serve God and wealth."

I wonder what church might look like if we were a bit less talkative, a bit less convinced of our ability to explain Jesus, faith, God. I wonder if some of the current interest in spirituality, along with a greater emphasis on the sacraments, doesn't reflect a hunger for a less talkative church. And I wonder if we'd be a lot better off if we spent less time mining Scripture for answers and more time letting it raise questions for us to sit and quietly ponder.

Of course that might be a little risky for us professional clergy sorts. We get, in a sense, paid by the word. We are also able to control things with words. The worship services I lead are often tightly scripted from beginning to end. The congregation may say some of its own words, but they have been provided by me, either with prayers I have written or hymns I've selected. And we dare not let the service get quiet for very long. Lord knows what might happen if people were left to ponder in silence, if God were listened for rather than spoken about using just the right words.


I was at an event the other day where David Lose, president of Luther Seminary in Philadelphia, spoke of thinking about intelligence as the awareness of all you don't know. He said this in service to his call to "Reclaim the power of 3 overlooked words: I don't know!" For wordy people like pastors, that's surely an invitation to silence, at least on our parts.

Living and working inside the Washington, DC beltway as I do, talkativeness and wordiness are part and parcel of everyday life. So too is the awareness that much of this talk says very little, much of it is manipulative, and much of it is not true. It is too often about gaining the upper hand for our side and diminishing other points of view. Given this, I wonder if we might not offer a much more powerful witness of Christ, the Incarnate Word, if we learned to be a lot less talkative.

I'm going to ponder that quietly for a while.

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