Singing for Silence: An Advent Reflection

One of our lectionary readings during Advent comes from the part in Luke’s gospel where Zechariah is told that he will have a son.  Z, a high priest, does not believe the messenger who relays this to him, and for his impertinence is rendered silent until the baby is born.

8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” 21 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

But I wonder if she let him sing.

This past month I have been back at Emmanuel Episcopal to sing Lessons and Carols and their Christmas Eve service.  A number of reasons led me back to Emmanuel for the holiday season, but the most grace-filled unintended consequence has been a time to shut up and sing.

Let me admit right now I am an advocate of organized religion, but I know it’s not for everyone.  When I stumbled upon the Eucharistic liturgy of the Anglican Church, I knew I was right where I needed to be.  And why?

Well, when you have the attention span of a gnat on crack, a bit of structure, especially spiritual structure, is a good thing.  Quite often, I refuse to hear the calm voice of the Lord over the incessant chattering in my mind.  Ironically, this chattering is often revolving around theological issues: I love reading other people’s take on theology, especially in reaction or appreciation to CS Lewis.  But this I find more often than not, is a hindrance to grace, an intellectual posturing that does more to remove my mind from God than focus on Him.  So when Providence places before me, this ADD addled stumbler-after-Christ, a point of focus, I grab at it like a lifeline.  Hence, the liturgy.

How does singing enter into this?  I don’t have much of a voice, a shaky tenor at best, and the musical ear of a white cat (they are usually deaf).  They say that singing is prayer times two, and I think the reason is because it focuses the singer on singing the song, not analyzing its lyrical content.  Therefore, the cadences and rhythms and poetry of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” is more important than say, an analysis of 15th Century German theological understanding of Jesse’s lineage.  The repetitive phrase “Praise Him, Ye Angels” sung over and over again, while not intellectually taxing, is nevertheless (to me anyway) a spiritual time out from the brain’s cacophony of words, words, words.

Did Z have this problem as well?   I think he might have.  The first part of verse 22 lends itself to the possibility:  “When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary.”  Meaning, possibly, that when Z came out, he usually had something to say.  It was clearly not pleasant to be in this situation, as can be inferred from the last part of the verse “he kept motioning but was unable to speak.”   Z is a high priest, a man immersed the Book, a man, most likely of clear arguments and rebuttals, of binding and loosing.  And yet he cannot speak.  What can he do?  What does God want him to do?

Listen, of course.  But he’s impatient.  This doesn’t make sense to him, he needs to talk it out.  But no, silence.

But perhaps one night, before John was born, he realized all of this, let his mind be as quiet as his voice, at which point, maybe, just maybe…he sang.

My gift of silence comes from being in the choir-a bit of paradox, I know, but a place where I am forced to breath, to listen, to hold a note and not bombard it with thought.  To rejoice in waiting.

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“Holy Scriptures:” Reflections on George MacDonald 25

This story may not be just as the Lord told it, and yet may contain in its mirror as much of the truth as we are able to receive, and as will afford us scope for a life’s discovery.  The modifying influence of the human channels may be essential to God’s revealing mode.

It was one of those nights last night when I wasn’t exactly in the mood for a three hour theological debate, but it happened anyway.  A good friend of mine and I had a bit of an argument that opened up some old wounds.  In the midst of coming to peace with that, we got on a tangent on how our respective views of the world color our thinking.  It’s no secret to my friend that I am a Christian, and in his frustration, he said, pointing to my Bible, “Doesn’t it bother you that none of it is even true.  That it’s all just stories someone made up?”

Oh, boy.  Now this is where my problem of reading more than conversing comes into play.  I hear these words “true” and “stories,” and immediately my mind is abuzz with articles, essays, books, and podcasts that I’ve absorbed on these two words.  I try valiantly to remember my reflections on those essays in which I put those articles, etc. into my spiritual context as a Christian.  Merton, Bell, Norris, Aquinas, Feiler, Underhill, the conflicting doctrines of Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism, the Cloud of Unknowing- all dancing in my head as I face the increasingly annoyed and aggravated gaze of my friend.

Did I tell you that at this point it was 1 AM?  It was 1 AM.

So my mind wasn’t exactly primed and prepped for this discussion, and of course I fell flat on my face.  We ended up having a rather garbled interchange on the nature of truth and the need for comforting fictions to keep us in line- ah, can hardly remember, really.  I do remember at one point admitting, “Look, I just don’t know.  But I’m convinced it is worth it.  There’s something there.  I just don’t know what.”  Yeah, put that in your theological pipe and smoke it.

So this quote of George MacDonald resonates with me.  It probably got him into a bit of trouble- there’s always the literalists out there, and they usually have the loudest voices, ready to defend “The Book.”  But he’s admitting something terribly important to our faith as Christians.  “[Scripture] will afford us scope for a life’s discovery.”  In other words, it’s enough for what it can impart- words that describe the nearly indescribable.  We don’t bow down to it, we don’t worship it, but it is a text that tries to convey the unfathomable mystery of God.

Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace, continues this thought:

It is a mystery, a matter of faith in something that can’t be explained or understood, at least not in our conditional human speech.  Silence is the best language for it- “the silence of eternity interpreted by love” (quote by Whittier).  She later goes on describe how Christians can say “yes,” about what they believe: “Answered in the spirit of hope, not that other people of faith will come around and see things my way, but in the conviction that the incarnation of Jesus is powerful enough to live up to its name and will work to the good of all people despite all our groaning, quibbling, and squabbling over terminology.”

It’s not really about the Bible, ultimately, but what happens when that follower of Jesus lifts their eyes from the page and looks out at the world.  Are they able to see and hear the word of God in their interactions with their neighbors and enemies, in the soft breeze that gently flows by them, in the darkness of a night lit by only one lamp, with a frustrated friend sitting on the couch?  Are we ready for discovery through human channels?  Are we open to the experience of word?

When No Escape is a Good Thing and “The Word”- George MacDonald Reflections 9 & 10

9: Escape is Hopeless

The man whose deeds are evil, fears the burning.  But the burning will not come the less that he fears it or denies it.  Escape is hopeless.  For Love is inexorable.  Our God is a consuming fire.  He shall not come out till he has paid the uttermost farthing

10: The Word

But herein is the Bible itself greatly wronged.  It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth.  The Bible leads us to Jesus, the inexhaustible, the ever unfolding Revelation of God.  It is Christ “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” not the Bible, save as leading to Him.

Christianity gets particularly singular, despite its numerous doctrines, traditions of the church fathers and mothers, saints, and denominations.  All things point to Christ, and Christ alone.  What are we to make of this?

The more educated I’ve become about Bible, the less I’ve come to see it as the be all end all of Christ’s teachings.  It is a combination of historical documents, poetry, storytelling, myth, letters, and prophetic writings.  To some, this automatically renders the Bible, and thereby Christianity to be of no use, authority, or truth whatsoever.  For myself, however, this realization brings on a sense of relief and enables my faith to come more alive.  Why?

I was at a retreat at Weston Priory, and the brothers took us through the benedictine tradition of lectio divina, which is a very slow, methodical, meditative reading of a passage of scripture from the Bible.  I asked, at one point, “So what does this passage mean?”  The subtext of my question was an inquiry into what the doctrinal position was on this particular passage, a “when Christ says X, he means X” equation.  The brother looked at me and then asked quietly, “Well, what does it mean to you?”

What the brother was emphasizing was a return of my consciousness to what holy scripture was meant for: to assist in the growth of my relationship to God.  That’s what scripture is meant to speak to.  If my first impulse was to read the Bible as a series of rules that I must obey, to apply X to X, as one would in following directions on how to build a table,  then I was truly missing the point.  Of tantamount importance is what this particular passage of scripture was saying about my relationship to Christ , right then and there, and the impetus of this reading was to focus my mind on that, and that alone.  The Bible, having led me to where I need to be, can now be put to the side, as I dwell in He to whom I have been led.

And by my faith I believe I have been led to a place where inexorable Love is supreme, that anything that is not Love is burned away.  The part of me that comes with the baggage of hate, anger, greed, selfishness, insecurity, anxiety, is stripped away, and I am able to dwell in that Perfect Love.

More signs of hope

As a Christian, the fundamentalism of some who practice the faith deeply disturbs me.  It disrupts the spirit of embracing “The Other” that Christ so adamately demanded of those who would follow Him.  I stumbled upon this clip while perusing through Youtube, and find a rational, balanced, faith-driven assessment of the faults of fundamentalism, particulary as it relates to holy scripture: