Enjoy The Silence

May 22, 2016

by Rev. Micah Bucey
Minister of the Arts

I promise this is not a sermon-shaped guilt trip for anyone who hasn’t attended one of our Judson Arts Wednesdays evenings, but sometimes, at these secular events, I have weirdly-theological conversations, and this one’s worth sharing. Also, these next fifteen minutes might include the most times I’ll ever say the word “God” in such rapid succession, but the stained glass windows suggest this is a safe space for that.

Last Wednesday’s Magic Time play reading was about a well-to-do family whose members have basically done everything right in their lives, made the right moves, signed the right papers, played the right cards, and then, out of nowhere, their gorgeous house, they’ve built on the shores of Cape Cod, starts to crumble around them. As the house and their lives dissolve, the family questions the faith they’ve always had regarding their place in the universe, one of confirmed and solid centrality, where they firmly controlled everything that happened to them.

The metaphors were obvious, the scriptural imagery was plentiful, the big questions about who’s at the helm of it all were blatant. It seems our art can’t get away from images of God and images of the absence of God, even if we try. These images course through our veins, no matter where we fall on the faith spectrum.

So, after the reading, as we were cleaning up, a different playwright approached me about joining the Magic Time series and, as I launched into my traditional explanation that our space is limited because we’re a church and that our wait list is long, he said, “So, you really are a minister?”

I nodded with practiced conviction. And he went on, “So you call upon Jesus to do stuff for you and that kind of thing?”
“Well, no, I use Jesus as a model for how to live faithfully in the world.”
“But you call upon God to do stuff for you and to intervene in your life? How do you know if you’re doing the right thing?”
“Well, it’s more complicated than that.”
“But do you talk to God? Do you ask God for blessings and things?”
And, instead of spouting some of the more rehearsed things I’ve said in the past, I found myself saying, “Well, I used to. But now, I just sort of talk to God to focus my own thoughts.”
And he said, “But, if God doesn’t answer, doesn’t the silence scare you?”

And I realized I didn’t know how to answer him. Later that night, I found myself thinking about all of my favorite books and songs and plays and art and I realized that, if pressed, I could show how every single one of them, in some way, is grappling with the silence of God.

And, at the top of the list of my favorite creative explorations of this silence is the frustratingly-opaque Book of Job. Now, many of you will immediately think of suffering when I say this name and, surely, this book does feature the father of all suffering celebrities. Even if you weren’t indoctrinated by a monotheistic religion, you probably know a little bit about Job’s place in our literary tradition. Job was the one who did everything right, who prayed right and said the right words, whose devotion to God could not be questioned. And he’s also the one who, in the fantastical and terrible parabolic world of the Bible, became the unfortunate victim of a wager between Job’s God and one of Job’s God’s cronies. A wager. By the time we get to the passage in your bulletins, Job has watched everything around him fall apart. Because how is Job rewarded for his legal-minded piety? God and God’s crony make a bet about how far they can push the faithful Job before his faith snaps.

So Job, who has always done everything right, who has always followed the religious guidelines, rules, laws passed down to him, loses his home, his children, his health, all in one fell swoop of massive misfortune. And then, after sitting in silence and suffering through several advice-laden conversations with his pious friends, Job launches into full-on lament, a lament we all might recognize in our own big and small ways. He cries out to the silence and demands to know what he did to deserve all of this.

And here, Job’s true problem is revealed. Job’s piety is rooted in the legalistic, and maybe even superstitious, binary of “deserving” and “undeserving,” and that system is failing him. Whoever crafted Job’s paradoxical parable is questioning our human devotion to checks-and-balances, a binary I think many of us, no matter how our relationships with God have changed over the years, find difficult to escape. Even those of us who don’t buy into all of this God stuff anymore still want the world to have an order, where the good are rewarded and the guilty are punished.

So what do we do to maintain this false order within disorder? We create images of God, models of God, types of God that fit into our own worldview and sustain our own status quo.

And then a plane disappears over the ocean. Or a suicide bombing kills a group of children. Or a sister or father or anyone close to you suddenly dies. Or your own cancer or chronic pain returns. And the deals you’ve made with the universe, with the God-force, with whatever hand you think keeps the clock ticking, fly out the window and there’s nothing but silence left in their place.

This calm, unanswering silence is how many of us have thought about God at one time or another. It’s the experience of many, definitely those who have turned away from any kind of theism, but even of those who still sit in pews or chairs and still send prayers into the hole where a certain kind of God used to be. Deal-making is part of the human condition, even if we’re just trying to keep a grasp on what little control we’ve got here on the earth.

Think back through your past, maybe sixty years ago, maybe twenty years ago, maybe twenty minutes ago, and remember who or what “God” was to you at that age, at that time. You were five years old, you were fifteen years old, you were sixty years old. Maybe God looked like your grandfather or acted like your friend’s mom. Maybe God had gone through multiple costume changes and character arcs by then. Maybe you’d watched God morph, slowly and gradually, in your own thinking. Or maybe, one day, you woke up and realized that God was completely different than you’d thought just the day before and you had no idea where or when the transformation had occurred.

Now, think back to years ago or minutes ago, and recall the ways that your relationship to this God-thing has changed, as you got older, as you educated yourself, as you read more and more Voltaire. Did you ever try to make kooky wagers with this God-force? Did your relationship with this force ever push you into superstition?

Confession: When I was a teenager, acting in community theater productions, I actually became convinced that I couldn’t go onstage and have a successful performance unless I prayed this exact prayer: “Dear God: Please help me to remember all of my lines and all of my blocking. I can’t do it without your help. I trust you. And please help everyone else to remember all of their lines and all of their blocking. We can’t do it without your help. We trust you. Amen.”

You can’t make this stuff up. Community theater does things to you. I stopped trusting myself and I stopped trusting others. My weird community-theater-loving-God was the only one I trusted. And, as I grew more and more convinced of the necessity of this prayer, I grew more and more superstitious about the need for every word to be said exactly right in a very precise moment before the show started. And, if it were said incorrectly or at the wrong time or with the wrong spirit, potential disaster loomed over the remainder of the performance. Whatever force I thought was hearing my prayers became not only an eager interventionist, but also a silent judge, just waiting for me to mess it up so that punishment could rain down and drown us all in the errors of our ways and words.

It was an obsession, a compulsion, a disordered, idolatrous view of how I could control the future and how the future might be irrevocably altered, should I do anything wrong. We toss around the term, “OCD,” a lot, but the roots of that reality are something I think we all encounter inside ourselves at some time or another, an obsession with control, a conviction that it will all fall apart unless we stay at the helm and dot the “I”s, cross the “T”s, flip the light switch three times, check the lock twice, and do a short, choreographed jig in-between.

But, still, back then, even after all of that praying, I always biffed a line in some small way or someone slightly missed a cue. Every time. Because it was live theater and my prayers were the prayers of a self-obsessed control freak. And those prayers, in the end, went into a silent ether, one that sometimes seemed to send back what I desired, but often didn’t send back anything at all. But it’s difficult to demolish fully-erected idols and I still catch myself saying prayers that sound vaguely like my teenaged self.

The silence of God can create superstition that stretches way beyond community theater drama. The silence of God leaves dangerous space for humans to erect idol-models of God that look a whole lot like they look. We can substitute love of country or love of money or love of violence or love of anything in that God-shaped-space and sculpt our own little gods who want the same things we want. Silence leaves us with the danger of keeping our own interests at the center and, as Anne LaMott says, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” The trickiest thing about theology is that, by the time we’ve fully defined God, it’s already ceased to actually be God. And the noise we’ve made still hasn’t gotten rid of the silence.

So. Am I scared of God’s silence? I think so. I don’t know how not to be. Even at the famous climax of the Book of Job, when Job’s God finally shows up and makes some noise, all God offers is a poetic litany of questions, dozens of questions, tons of questions. So now we’re left with the choice of radio silence or questions, a truly terrifying toss-up. The Book of Job is insanely difficult to exegete because it suggests there’s no code to crack to get life right. And, believe me, on a day when our community is accepting new members, it would feel so good to be able to crack the code of this suffering and God thing. But, if I stood up here and told you I’d cracked it, I hope our new members, and all of you, would run, screaming, toward the exit.

This building, this community, this ritual is not for code-breaking or God-defining or silence-snuffing. This is a place to bring our own self-obsessed idols to smash, to join together for the long haul, to bring our experiences of the silence, our experiences of the sufferings and the joys of life, our experiences of the interruptions that have nearly killed us and the interruptions that have clearly saved us, to mix them up in an authentic stew of stories and songs and scriptures, and to offer that stew to the silence and say, “Look what we made together while we were waiting for you.”

Let us pray:

Silence, you interrupt us, envelop us, and sometimes leave us hanging.
Help us to interrupt ourselves.


For Your Meditation:
“What do all gods have in common? They don’t show up.”
--- The Doctor in Doctor Who, Season 9, Episode 5: The Girl Who Died

"There's questions you gotta answer. Not just why Creation's fulla pain an' misery, or why you'd make a world this cold."
Jesse Custer in Preacher, by Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon

“Ah! I’m calling out, I’m crying
Out! With the last fire in my bones I’m calling up, I’m calling HIGH
--- Shelah in Head of Passes, by Tarell Alvin McCraney

“God exists to be shaped. God is change.”
--- Lauren Olamina in The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

Call to Worship, adapted from The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

One: As wind, as water, as fire, as life, God is both creative and destructive,
Many: Demanding and yielding, sculptor and clay.
One: God is Infinite Potential.
Many: God is Change.
One: God is your first and your last teacher.
Many: God is your harshest teacher.
One: Respect God. Shape God.
Many: Create no images of God.
One: Accept the images that God has provided for you. They are everywhere, in everything.
Many: God is change, forever uniting, growing, dissolving.
One: Forever changing.
Many: The universe is God’s self-portrait.

Ancient Testimony, Job 30: 20-31

“I shout for help, God, and get nothing, no answer!
I stand to face you in protest, and you give me a blank stare!
You’ve turned into my tormenter—
you slap me around, knock me about.
You raised me up so I was riding high
and then dropped me, and I crashed.
I know you’re determined to kill me,
to put me six feet under.
What did I do to deserve this?
Did I ever hit anyone who was calling for help?
Haven’t I wept for those who live a hard life,
been heartsick over the lot of the poor?
But where did it get me?
I expected good but evil showed up.
I looked for light but darkness fell.
My stomach’s in a constant churning, never settles down.
Each day confronts me with more suffering.
I walk under a black cloud. The sun is gone.
I stand in the congregation and protest.
I howl with the jackals,
I hoot with the owls.
I’m black-and-blue all over,
burning up with fever.
My fiddle plays nothing but the blues;
my mouth harp wails laments.”

Modern Testimony, Daniel Berrigan’s Ten Commandments for the Long Haul

1) Call on Jesus when all else fails. Call on Him when all else succeeds (except that never happens).

2) Don't be afraid to be afraid or appalled to be appalled. How do you think the trees feel these days, or the whales, or, for that matter, most humans?

3) Keep your soul to yourself. Soul is a possession worth paying for, they're growing rarer. Learn from monks, they have secrets worth knowing.

4) About practically everything in the world, there's nothing you can do. This is Socratic wisdom. However, about of few things you can do something. Do it, with a good heart.

5) On a long drive, there's bound to be a dull stretch or two. Don't go anywhere with someone who expects you to be interesting all the time. And don't be hard on your fellow travelers. Try to smile after a coffee stop.

6) Practically no one has the stomach to love you, if you don't love yourself. They just endure. So do you.

7) About healing: The gospels tell us that this was Jesus' specialty and he was heard to say: "Take up your couch and walk!"

8) When traveling on an airplane, watch the movie, but don't use the earphones. Then you'll be able to see what's going on, but not understand what's happening, and so you'll feel right at home, little different then you do on the ground.

9) Know that sometimes the only writing material you have is your own blood.

10) Start with the impossible. Proceed calmly towards the improbable. No worry, there are at least five exits.

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