A Rhythm as Old as the World: A Time to Be Silent, a Time to Speak

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by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. This article first appeared in Reformed Worship; for other articles and to subscribe go to www.reformedworship.org .

In the beginning God speaks six times on six days, and then stops. God rests. But each of these days also has a night. And God rests then too! God doesn’t talk all the time. In fact, Genesis doesn’t even start with a word. Genesis starts with the formlessness of the earth and with the Spirit of God brooding over the face of the deep. Then God speaks. You might almost say that at last God speaks. “Let there be light,” says God. According to Genesis, God breaks the cosmic silence with a creative word. Alternating silence and speech and silence is the very rhythm of God, as old and deep in the nature of things as creation itself.

Discerning the Rhythm

The idea right from the start is that silence and speech naturally take turns, each in its season. And so the author of Ecclesiastes reflects on everything under the sun, and then tells us that it has rhythm. It has a calendar. There’s a time for everything, says the author, “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (3:7).

But who knows which is which? Who knows how to tell time? Who knows when to speak up and when to keep still? Who knows when silence is golden and when it is lazy or even cowardly?

The wise know these things. Wise persons discern the deep grains and patterns of God’s world, and then they try to go with the grain. These are persons whose habits are always in season. They’ve got rhythm where silence and speech are concerned. And so they imitate God by not talking all the time. They’ve got more silences than words, and their silences are just as disciplined and just as thoughtful as their words. They speak only from the context of silence, and when they have nothing valuable to say, they fall silent again.

We have met wise people like this. They have high quality words because they have high quality silences. Sometimes their silences are eloquent. Wise speakers may say more or less than others, but usually less, and always less that needs to be taken back. They give the impression of speaking out of a stillness at their center, a quiet place in which they are at home with themselves, in touch with God, and hospitable to the voices of others.

Silence is the natural context for speaking, but also for listening. What do we hear if we pipe down for a while? We hear the voices of others—not just their words, but their voices. We hear a quaver in a macho voice, or strength in a quiet voice. We also listen for the sounds and the silences of God. The silences of God! So mysterious they are, and so deep. There is a time to be silent and a time to speak, and God has kept this calendar a lot longer than we have. In the beginning we hear not God’s speech, but God’s silence. Everything is darkness and chaos and brooding. That’s where the Bible’s story begins. It begins with the silence of God. At last God speaks, but then God falls silent again.

Losing the Rhythm

But silence puzzles people. They meet a silence and they wonder what’s wrong. Or silence makes people restless. The effect is just the opposite of what you’d expect. You’d expect that people would enter a silence and fold their wings. You’d expect that inside a silence people would smooth out and settle down. But that’s not the way it goes. Oddly, a fair number of people find silence disquieting.

If you go to a big league sports event and the announcer asks for a moment of silence to honor some fallen hero, people will do it all right. People bow their heads, and the place gets quiet. But it’s never for a full moment. No, you get about twelve seconds of silence, and when it’s over there’s an explosion of cheering and whistling, as if the whole place had been holding its breath and had let it out at once. Twelve seconds of silence, and then we’re glad that’s over, so life can get back to normal.

Silence puzzles people and it makes them restless. So they try to get rid of it. People haul their boom boxes to the seashore so that they don’t have to live in the silence between the rolling of surf and the crying of gulls. People crank up the mega-bass in their car stereos and cruise through a neighborhood, blowing all the birds out of the trees. People on subway trains conduct noisy and personal phone conversations. People turn on talk shows and fill their homes with hours of chatter. Some of this chatter is hostile. Some of it, amusing. But mostly the chatter is pointless, what Ephesians calls “unwholesome talk.”

The truth is that silence is part of the created rhythm of human life. The question of whether we need any silences goes to who we are, not just to what we want. That’s why a loss of silence is so serious. A loss of silence is as serious as a loss of memory, and just as disorienting. Silence is, after all, the natural context from which we listen. Silence is also the natural context from which we speak. A culture that fills in our silences therefore disorients us. It rips away our frame. It removes the background, the base of intelligibility for all our listening and speaking.

Even worship leaders sometimes dishonor the church’s silences, filling all of them in, as if silence is dead and only music and talk are alive.

Excerpt

“You can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. . . . It has a strange, beautiful texture. It doesn’t always talk. Sometimes—sometimes it cries, and you can hear the pain of the world in it.”

—Danny Saunders in The Chosen by Chaim Potok

“Tallis says that the greatest music ever written is the silence between the Crucifixus and the Resurrexus est in Bach’s “Mass in B Minor.” I would add that some of the greatest writing mankind has produced comes in the caesura; the pause between words.”

—Madeleine L’Engle

“The best way to achieve silence during worship is to practice silence as part of our everyday lives. Many parents teach their children discipline through “time out” periods—when they are squirrelly or defiant or doing something they shouldn’t, they have a time out period in which they can think about their behavior and make other choices. The same is true and necessary for us older children, youths, and young and older adults. When we feel tense and testy, we need to take “time out”—just a few minutes to gather ourselves, to become quiet inside, to calm down and refocus. When this is a natural habit of our daily lives, then when silence is introduced at specific times during worship we are perfectly comfortable with it and know how to use this precious time to focus ourselves on God in a different way from how we are present to God during the rest of the service.”

—Joyce Zimmerman, from an article available at http://webapps.calvin.edu/worship/worshipers/ particip/Zimmerman_silence.php

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