Monday, August 11, 2008

The Sound of Silence

1 Kings 19.9-13
Romans 10.5-11
Matthew 14.22-33


A few weeks ago the administration of a town somewhere in England changed from Labour to Liberal Democrat, and with the change of administration came a change for the voluntary and community sector, too. The new Council decided that, while community work is valuable it isn't an immediate priority. It was suggested that there was almost a surplus of community work going on in the town, made possible by the good times when the City benefited from a lot of grant funding. Now that the grants are being targeted elsewhere, it was suggested that the time might have come to let things return to normal and allow some of that community work to wither on the vine.

Coupled with endless delays and complications in releasing what little grant funding remains, and continued debate about what it can - or cannot - be spent on, this suggested that lean times might lie ahead. The only way that most community work can continue in these circumstances is if organisations can win contracts to deliver services to the community or attract small grants from charities and foundations.

Many of the staff and trustees of one local organisation are people of faith, Christian and Muslim. Some of them fell to hard prayer, hoping that God would show them a way forward. They submitted various tenders for pieces of work that they might do. Letters and emails were sent to councillors, MPs and the other powers that be, imploring their help and arguing the case for their community work to continue. And, against this backdrop, they waited for God's will to be made known.

I'm not quite sure what they were hoping for - a change of earthquake proportions in the Council's policy, perhaps? The wind of new contracts filling their sails and helping them to continue on their way? Fire burning up all the sloppy thinking which suggests that much of what passes for community work might be unnecessary and expendable, that getting rid of it won't bring hidden costs which the Council eventually has to pick up anyway, and that many community organisations aren't serving a real need but are really just self-perpetuating?

This isn't to suggest, by the way, that even sloppy thinking cannot contain a grain of truth. Doubtless there are some community organisations, and some pieces of work, which need reviewing to see if they have served their purpose. The sloppiness creeps in when it is suggested that any organisation which cannot mostly fund itself, or sell its services to someone or other, is probably past its sell-by-date. But that is a digression.

The point of this story is that God was not in the earthquake, wind or fire. The Council hasn't changed its mind. So far the organisation I mentioned has only won one or two contracts which, by themselves, are not enough to fill its sails and keep it moving forward. And there has been no refining fire. Although the Council is reviewing the community work that happens at the moment, by the time they have completed their review much of the work may well have ceased for want of funds.

So where is God in all of this? Perhaps God doesn't believe that community work is a priority, either. Perhaps he has more pressing prayers to answer. Or perhaps we just have to accept that God's answer isn't always in the earthquake, wind or fire - big events that turn things around in a spectacular fashion. Perhaps God is in the still, small voice.

The hymn talks about 'a still small voice of calm' as if God's silence were actually a cause for peaceful, calm repose and serenity. But that's not a very accurate translation, and it certainly isn't how people feel in that vulnerable community organisation. A more accurate translation is 'the sound of sheer silence'. That's what the answer to the prayers of those community workers and volunteers actually sounds like - the sheer silence of rebuke, or emptiness, or aloneness.

Of course, in the great scheme of things community work really is of relatively low significance. What about all the people waiting for answers to their most urgent prayers about the war in Georgia, or about illness, personal loneliness and the difficulties of coping with rampant food and energy inflation, or who are simply praying that they might survive the impact of real earthquakes, hurricanes, forest fires and other emergencies? How many times do they, too, hear - or seem to hear - the sound of sheer silence?

It seems to me that we do a disservice to faith and religion if we pretend that the answer to prayer is always loud and clear. Sometimes we find ourselves, like the disciples, in the boat - being tossed about by the wind and the waves, by the storms and tempests of life - and either God seems to be asleep, or else far away and unable to help us.

Elijah the Prophet had derided the prophets of the false god Baal because their prayers and incantations were not answered, whereas his prayer was answered - and in the most spectacular fashion. A storm blew up out of nowhere, seeming to begin in a tiny, distant cloud. And an enormous bolt of lightning brought a thunderbolt from heaven to light the fire for his sacrifice. Yet, if Elijah felt any pride or sense of achievement, this is the moment when it was dispelled. On Mount Horeb he discovered that sometimes God answers our prayers with the sound of sheer silence!

In the moment of victory Elijah had triumphantly ordered the crowd to murder the unfortunate prophets of Baal. Doubtless he felt at the time that they had sealed their own fate by praying to a god who does not answer prayer. Now he discovers that humility and graciousness would have been a more appropriate response, for even the one true God sometimes answers our prayers with the sound of sheer silence.

But then, in apparent contrast with Elijah's sense of desolation, we have the witness of St Paul. When we're in trouble of any kind, Paul says that we should not say in our hearts, 'Who will ascend into heaven...to bring Christ down [to help us].' Nor should we say, 'Who will descend into the abyss...to bring Christ up from the dead [to save us].' This is because we don't have to go in search of him. Even in the sound of sheer silence the Word - that is the wisdom of God, and the proclamation of God's love revealed in Jesus - is always very close to us, part of us in fact, not only on our breath but also in our hearts.

Paul is very sure that we should have no anxieties. In any situation, so long as we continue to say - and to believe - that Jesus was raised from the dead, we shall be saved. And we won't be put to shame - like the Prophets of Baal - by appearing to have our prayers unanswered. How does this bold claim match Elijah's experience, and ours sometimes, when prayers seem to be answered by the sound of sheer silence?

I would suggest that these two, apparently contradictory, experiences are reconciled by the story of Jesus' death on the Cross. Jesus' death seemed to be the moment of defeat for all that he represented. His cry of dereliction, 'My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?' was met with the sound of sheer silence. No doubt the onlookers concluded either that Jesus had been deluded all along about his intimate relationship with God, or that the God he was calling to didn't exist or wasn't interested in him. In that moment, his situation was not unlike that faced by the Prophets of Baal, and like them he met an untimely death - taunted and despised by his opponents because his prayer was not answered.

Of course, there the similarity ends. The Prophets of Baal died there and then, and their cause in Israel died with them. Despite immediate and continued setbacks, the battle to overcome the false worship of fertility gods took a decisive turn that day. Whereas, in an unforeseen event that must have seemed about as possible as a thunder storm on a clear day on Mount Carmel, Jesus was raised from the dead. His desperate cry from the Cross was answered with the sound of sheer silence. He died and was buried. His disciples fled. Apparently his cause had been defeated. But not so! For on the third day he was raised from the dead, as the promise that - even when our prayers are met by the sound of sheer silence - we are never alone, for the Jesus who felt abandoned on the Cross is always with us, in our hearts and on our lips.

Matthew's story about Jesus walking on the water reads a bit like a resurrection story. Alone in the boat, battered by waves and with the wind against them, the disciples think that God is not going to answer their prayers. When they see Jesus coming to join them, walking on the water, they're not reassured. Instead, they think they are seeing a ghost and they cry out in fear. That might be because they don't recognise him through the mist and spray, but it might be because they think he is already dead.

Be that as it may, when Jesus comes to join us on our storm-tossed journey through life he does so as the risen Jesus, bidding us to take heart and not to be afraid. And the message of the risen Jesus is not that we can expect a calm crossing, easy sailing with clear blue skies, but that we must be faithful. Even when our problems and difficulties are met with the sound of sheer silence we must not doubt, for he is with us.

This story is evoked in the film 'The Truman Show', where the hero Truman - played by Jim Carrey - is an actor in a film within a film. At one point he tries to ride out a storm in a yacht and the god-like director of the film tries equally hard to make him turn back. But Truman won't do it. He lashes himself to the boat and says that he would rather die than give up.

In a sense, that is what Jesus is calling us to do - to lash ourselves to the boat and keep on going, come what may, except that - in the Gospel story - it isn't God who is trying to overturn the boat. Instead, God is with us - in Jesus - holding out his hand to catch us when our fear overwhelms us and we think we are about to drown.

Because he has endured the Cross for our sakes, because he has overcome that sense of abandonment and desolation which we all sometimes feel, we need not fear the storm. Like a swimming instructor waiting to catch us as we take our first faltering strokes through the water, Jesus is always there for us - even in the sound of sheer silence.

Who knows what the Simon and Garfunkel song 'Sound of Silence' means. But these words from the song could echo the sentiments of Paul, and the words of Jesus to Peter on the Lake.

"Silence like a cancer grows.

[So] hear my words that I might teach you,
Take my arms that I might reach you."

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