These are shrill times.
It seems everyone has something to say these days, some new bit of noise to add to the deafening din all around us. When the Grammy for Album of the Year goes to a beehived, tattooed, wiry British singer (Amy Winehouse) who is best known for a sassy, swinging tune about the all-too-serious matter of drug rehabilitation—"Ya try to make me go to re-hab, but I say no, no, no"—you know we're not in Kansas anymore. The track makes even the grim denial of a drug problem sound like a toe-tapping good time. Such noise.
And we preachers can be just as shrill. Just last week, a colleague forwarded to me a link to a video on the Internet featuring a preacher in Arizona who for five minutes passionately expounds on a cryptic Old Testament verse that the King James version renders, "… him that pisseth against the wall." His inspired conclusion? "Real men urinate standing up. The Bible says so!" (I promise, Presbyterians, I'm not making this up.) And the best part? It's been viewed some 80,000 times since he posted it online last month.
So much noise, even from the church. And I'm certain that in my time I've added my own ridiculous preacherly contributions to the chatter.
How do we speak our Christian story amid such clamor, inside and outside our walls?
For several months now, I've been reading a biography of Walker Percy, a southern novelist, essayist, and moralist who lived and wrote in the same little Covington, Louisiana, in which I grew up. In point of fact, he was our neighbor. His home was just through the trees—a fact that may constitute my only real claim to fame in this life! Percy converted to Christianity in the 1940s as a young man, soon becoming a devout Roman Catholic. His newly adopted faith, especially its claim that humanity is more than merely a set of biological processes playing themselves out, shifted his entire subsequent writing career (6 acclaimed novels and numerous essays) to wrestle with subtle questions of how faith, hope, and love could be possible in this topsy-turvy, mechanized, modern world.
Percy frequently bemoaned the sad state of language in the shrill times of the twentieth century, especially what he dubbed the "threadbarness of religious words." G-O-D was at the top of his list of complaints. What can the word "God" possibly mean anymore if the preacher yells "God says!" while down the street a sailor yells "God %$#&." The more holy the referent, the more susceptible the word becomes to overuse, meaninglessness. Early in his career, Percy concluded by complaint:
When the holy has disappeared, how in blazes can a novelist expect to make use of it? [It has been said] that God has left us, and I think that one can give this a Catholic (Christian) reading that though he has not left us, his name is used in vain so often that there remains only one way to speak of him: in silence. Perhaps the craft of the religious novelist nowadays consist mainly in learning how to shout in silence.
"Shouting in silence." That for me puts a fresh, new spin on the matter of evangelism, that business of learning how to tell this New Testament story we steward and to invite others into it with us. A stance of reverent silence, at least occasionally, may just make for the most faithful evangelism in these noisy times in which we live.
The Gospel of Luke reports that, as Jesus hangs dying on his cross, "all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things" (Luke 23:49). And while Luke does not say they were silent, I cannot help but imagine they were. There they are, taking it all in, standing in awe and grief and silence as God's Beloved, their Rabbi-Messiah, surrenders his life right in front of them. There is nothing any of them could have said more powerful than their awe-full silence.
Before we know it, beloved, another Holy Week will be upon us. We Christians are annually gifted with seven days (Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday) to "stand at a distance" and "watch these things" unfold before us again. Of course, it's not really again, for the New Testament loves to celebrate the good news that this one Friday-Sunday weekend has happened "once and for all" (Romans 6:10, Hebrews 9:11-12, 1 Peter 3:18). But there is another sense in which it very much happens again, and again, right before our own eyes and ears. We break the Christ-bread and break open the Christ-story, hearing again about his agonizing death (and what it means) and of his astonishing new life (and what it means, such as in Luke 24:13-35).
I just can't help but wonder, amidst such nonstop chatter about Grammys and Primaries and War and Weather, if we believers might do well to huddle together for some sacred silence—deliberate moments of worship wherein the Holy Spirit creates fresh space in our cacophonous lives to hear again to the message that has come to us. Come join me and your elders for another Holy Week of hearing and responding in this way. And as you come, remember Psalm 62: For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.
Hush now, busy world; hear this strange and saving story we have to tell you. Quiet now, believing church; listen again to this bit of massive news that saves and sends you.