Saturday, February 2, 2013

"And They Kept Silent..."

I was officiating at a funeral a while back.  I was working then with a funeral home I don't work with all that often, and somehow this was the first occasion we had shared together in the funeral of a veteran.  Following the service, we traveled in caravan to the cemetery. The prayers and words of committal were spoken at the graveside.  Then the honor guard shared their piece.  Taps were played and the guns saluted. Next, as is always the case, two men in uniform removed the flag from where it was draping the casket and began to fold it before they placed it in the hands of the family.  I have been a part of dozens of these and this one was going pretty much as you might expect.  
 In fact, I have to say it always give me pause to bear witness to the formality of this ritual and to consider the symbolism playing out before my eyes.  What was different this time though was that as the flag was being folded, the funeral director stepped to my side and began to speak… offering a rote and practiced explanation of what we were experiencing then.  Truthfully, I wanted to kick him. There are times for words and times for silence and this seemed to me to be a time for silence.   
Only that is not usually, the case, is it?  We do not often stand silent before anything, not even when we encounter the most sacred.  Not even when words are unnecessary or superfluous.  I expect, in part, this may be because we are uncomfortable with silence.  There may be any number of reasons for this but for me? Well, when it’s too quiet sometimes I have too much room to think.  Or I wonder if someone has forgotten their part.  Or, as the leader of a group, I grow anxious wondering if people are not understanding and so I fill the emptiness with my own noise.  Silence makes us uncomfortable and so often from beginning to end, we are prone to fill our days with noise.

I remember still my first meeting with a spiritual director many years ago.  I walked into her office with trepidation, not quite knowing what to expect. It was early in our conversation when she asked me how I prayed.  As I stumbled around trying to formulate a response, for in all truth my prayer life had been faltering then, she interrupted me and asked if I had ever tried centering prayer.  I had not. And so Sister Audrey  proceeded to coach me in how to try this on, reminding me that in this manner of prayer it was not about speaking, but listening.  It was about receiving.  But it required silence.  And like so many others who have practiced this form of prayer, I have found this to be so: the discipline of practicing silence so that we can hear the voice of God can be learned. And at times?  Once we have encountered God, all we have left is silence in response.

This was surely so for Peter and James and John as they bore witness to the Transfiguration today.  Indeed, their final response to these amazing events is simply silence.  Not that Peter hasn’t been filling the space with the sound of his own voice just moments before. Still, at the end of the account before us now, once all is said and done, all the disciples have to offer is their silence. There are simply no words of response that would be adequate, no attempt at explanation that would begin to capture what has just played out before their eyes.   It is clear that as we follow them down off the mountain now, they are living the truth that all they can do is hold it and themselves in the midst of what they have just seen and heard.
Oh, I do have to say that for all my annoyance with the funeral director at the graveside that day, I do see myself in him.  All too often I find myself wanting or needing to explain what is before us. I jump in with words, with analogies, with stories, when finally none of what I have to offer even comes close to adequately offering any real new insights.  The story before us now is a wonderful case in point.

Indeed, I was almost embarrassed this morning to look through my old sermon file to see what I had thought to share on other Transfiguration Days.  Oh, my efforts are heartfelt.  Still, in a number of those sermons I am clearly 'reaching.'  And for the most part they don’t even come close to shedding more light on an which is all about God's light in the first place.  I don’t know that I can get away with it, when it comes to preaching this time around, but this is one of those times when it would truly seem most faithful to the text to simply stand silent before it and watch and listen to what is happening. 

So do simply stand still and notice with me:
Jesus took with him his closest disciples and together they climbed a mountain.  A place where the Holy is often encountered.
And that he was praying.
That in the midst of his praying he was transformed. That Jesus became light itself.
Notice that he was miraculously joined by Elijah and Moses … prominent figures in the faith who had long since died … and that they are in conversation about what is before Jesus now… that he will suffer and die on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  We are led to understand then that even though this path might be somewhat unexpected and certainly unsavory, Jesus is, in fact, the fulfillment of all that has gone before.
That Peter, as Peter is prone to do, as we all are prone to do… wants to DO something to capture the moment, to make it possible to stay there in this light, in this understanding, in this encounter with God.
Notice that at the same time, the disciples experience fear as the cloud descends upon them … for that may be first and finally a deeply sane response to being in the very presence of God.
That God’s voice is heard from the cloud --- echoing the words Jesus heard at his baptism. Only this time the words are not meant for Jesus alone.  They are also meant for Peter and James and John and for all of us for this time God's voice concludes with the command to listen to Jesus.
And oh yes, it is so, isn’t it?  How can we listen, how can we really hear if we are not first silent?  If we are not still enough to take in what is being offered to us?
Silence often makes me uncomfortable, but if I am not silent, how will I ever hear the voice of God?
Can we, can I, be simply silent in the face of the wonder of what is before us now?  And then can we hear the voice of God speaking in it also to you and me?

It is so that almost as an afterthought, I am reminded that God's people are all too often silent when we should speak...  and yet, do you suppose if our first response were silence, we might be all the more ready to speak when the time comes?
  • I have made the case above that 'silence' is the only adequate response to the Transfiguration the disciples witnessed. Do you agree?  Why or why not?
  • Can you think of other parts of Scripture which we are better off experiencing than trying to explain? Which ones?
  • What is your experience with silence in the presence of God?


  1. For the past year I have been grateful for your insights and reflections. This particular post has helped me shape the message for the approaching Sunday. Please carry on!
    Rev. Harry Buch, Central Congregational UCC, Madison, OH

  2. I have often preached on the silence but this year something else has struck me and it is quite the opposite. I quote your own words: "Notice that [Jesus] was miraculously joined by Elijah and Moses ... and that they are in conversation ...." It is the conversation draws my attention this year: the conversation between eternity and time, between divine and mundane, between God and human beings. The event of the Transfiguration might also be called the Conversation, a conversation into which Peter and James and John and, with and through them, we ourselves are invited. Your focus on prayer, a conversation with God, fits right in with this. It's how I'll be approaching this this year (2016).