Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Sound of Silence (Proper 14A) Aug. 10, 2008

Text: 1 Kings 19.9-18

John Cage was a somewhat eccentric composer who made a name for himself in the 60s and 70s. He did such things as write music for toy pianos. His musical scores sometimes did not even specify which instruments should be used. I believe that one piece of music starts with the instruction: “For any number and combination of instruments.” Others simply tell the musicians to play any notes between C and F sharp or something to that effect. But perhaps his most famous piece of music (and I use that term loosely) is entitled “4’ 33””. It can be played on any instrument but I believe it was premiered on a piano. The pianist came on stage, sat down at a piano, and pulled out a stop watch, and sat there for four minutes and 33 seconds. Then he walked off stage. I don’t believe there was any applause and I’m pretty sure there was no encore.

One critic who despised Cage and his music wrote, “We may hope that Mr. Cage writes more and longer pieces like this.”

Kind of silly, right? It’s like hanging a blank canvas in a museum and telling visitors that the real art is what they can see in their minds’ eyes. Or like giving diners in a fine restaurant empty plates and having them imagine a marvelous meal.

On the other hand, maybe Cage had a point: Like a painting in a museum, music has a frame. Silence frames and surrounds music. When we go to a concert, there’s usually a brief moment of silence before the pianist’s hands touch the keyboard or the conductor’s baton falls. It enables to concentrate and really hear the music. Perhaps Cage was saying that we cannot really hear music until we are comfortable with silence.

How much more important, then, might it be to be silent before we listen to God?

We live in an amazingly noisy world. At any moment at least a dozen noises are distracting us: the radio, the telephone, 2 or 3 people speaking, the truck going by on the street, the timer going off on the stove. Now God could just pull the plug on all that. Can you imagine the eerie feeling you would have if suddenly every appliance, every radio and television, every cell phone and landline in your house fell silent? It would seem like one of those moments in a horror movie when you know the serial killer or monster is just about to gobble up the victim. But of course God doesn’t work that way. God expects us to do some of the work: to turn off the vacuum, the computer, the television, to sit still and listen. Maybe we need to do what Cage did: to get our stopwatches and just sit there for four minutes and 33 seconds. That’s a lot of silence and it’s not easy to sit silently for that long.

There are some messages that can only be conveyed in silence, some truths so enormous that mere words are not enough. The late John Claypool lost a daughter to leukemia when she was only 11 or 12 years old. His friend, the theologian William Hull, preached at the funeral and took his text from the first verse of the 8th chapter of the book of Revelation: “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” Perhaps silence is the best response to the death of a small child. It is an event that transcends and defies words.

Just prior to the story we heard in today’s OT reading the prophet Elijah had defied not only the prophets of the false god Baal; he had defied Israel’s ruler, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. They had introduced the cult of Baal. To defy Baal was to defy the king and queen. It was an act of treason. So Elijah was fleeing for his life when he took refuge in a cave. And God said to him, “Get out of there. Go back and finish the job.” But Elijah was terrified, “they are seeking my life to take it away.” Elijah did not want to hear God’s message. So God had to get Elijah’s attention. So he sent an hurricane; then an earthquake; then a wildfire. But Elijah was still in the cave. He wasn’t listening. Then came the most ominous sound of all: sheer silence. The older translations call it “a still small voice” but I prefer “a sound of sheer silence.”

Silence gets our attention because we do not expect it. Silence reorients our sense and perceptions. After silence we hear things we had never heard before and hear old things in new ways. We may hear our spouse saying, “You have not been listening to me. We are drifting apart.” You may hear your children say, “We never see you and need you to pay attention. We are adrift in sea of moral confusion and do not know where to turn.” But most importantly, you may hear God say, “Are you listening? I’ve been trying to talk to you. I have something important to say: I love you. You are of infinite value. If only you valued yourself a small fraction of how much I value you.”

I studied piano for about a year with a woman who was a very serious practitioner of Buddhism. We always began our lessons by meditating. Remarkably, I played better after meditating because I heard things in the music that I’d never heard before.

Whether you call it meditation or not, I recommend silence, because there are many worthwhile things we can only hear if we learn how to listen.