“For everything there is a season,” the Teacher wrote, “and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Eccles. 3:1, 7b). Following the murders at Tops Market last Saturday, it still feels to me like a time to keep silence – a time to “‘be still, and know that [God is] God!’ . . . The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (Ps. 46:10-11).
During the last eight days, many have spoken with eloquence and passion, calling out in grief and anger; calling out for healing and justice; calling out for systemic changes in society that would end such violence, changes often and widely discussed and never effectively implemented. Those voices need to be heard and heeded if we are ever to be whole. And I will add my voice to that chorus.
First, however, I need silence. Like the poet William Alexander Percy, “I have a need of silence and of stars” (from his poem “Home”). Like the prophet Elijah, I need to retreat to the desert, further into the wilderness, to my cave, where I might hear the voice of God in “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12), the voice Percy described as the “silken sound of whirled infinity” that is too hard to hear above the clamor and cacophony of our conflict. I need to still my thoughts and my emotions and find beneath them the ground where my footing is certain and my strength is renewed.
The mythical giant Antaeus was invincible in battle as long as he remained in touch with his mother, Earth. Hercules was finally able to defeat Antaeus by lifting him off the ground, breaking his contact with the source of his strength. Silence helps reground me in the source of my strength; it helps me hear again the voice of God, telling me in the words of an old hymn: “When through the deep waters I call thee to go, / the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow; / for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless, / and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress” (“How Firm a Foundation”).
My first need, following events like those of last Saturday, is to be still until I recall that God is God, our refuge and sure foundation. And when I am still enough, the first voices I hear are those that speak from the long tradition of our faith. Here’s what they say to me.
First, I don’t have the perspective or the knowledge to speak intelligently about things eternal. I hear Job debating with his friends about why bad things happen to good people. And after God challenges him, “Where were you when I created the world and all that is in it, when I ordered the life you live?” Job confesses, “I know you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. . . . I have uttered what I did not understand, things to wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:2-3). And I hear echoes of Job when St. Paul reminds us that “now we see in a mirror, dimly [in a riddle],” and we “know only in part,” but there will be a time when we know fully, a time when what is mysterious will be made clear (1 Cor. 13:12). The silence reminds me I cannot answer why such things happen, and living without knowing calls me to rest more faithfully in God, my strength and my foundation.
Second, tragedies like last Saturday’s give me the perspective I need for a fuller life. I remember the words of Jesus when people asked him about the Galileans who had been slain during their worship, or those who died in a building collapse (Luke 13:1-5). He doesn’t explain why bad things happen; instead, he calls us to see them as reminders that life is short, and we need to live each day to its fullest, because this is the only day, the only moment, we can be sure of having. Tempus fugit, memento mori, carpe diem: Time flees, remember your mortality, seize the day. “Teach us the shortness of life,” the psalmist wrote, “that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Ps. 90:12). Remind me of my mortality, that I have a limited number of days in this world, and that those days will soon be over. If such events bring me to stillness and remind me of my own mortality, wisdom may speak to me in the silence.
Third, last Saturday reminds me God is at work bringing healing even before I know it. St. Paul wrote that “in all things God works for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). In all things, even events like last Saturday’s killings, God is already working for good. I hear Fred Rogers and the advice he gave for children who see scary things in the news. “Look for the helpers,” he said. “You will always find people who are helping.” You will always find signs that God is working for good, even in terrible circumstances. Someone from the Jefferson Avenue neighborhood said he had never seen people coming together in such expressions of love and concrete support as he had seen since the shootings. Starting last Saturday, God was already working for good.
Finally – but not finally, really, for there is much more God will say in silence – the perfect reign of God is not far off; it is closer than we know. In Revelation, John lays out his vision of the future God is creating, “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2). And John saw no temple there. Think of it: no temple, no steeple, no symbol or gathering place for organized religion, “for its temple,” he wrote, “is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” The place where we meet God is in the community itself, without walls, without structure. It’s woven into the fabric of our relationships with our neighbors, and it’s indistinguishable from the fabric of our daily commerce with each other. The place where fearful and mysterious and tragic things happen is also the place where we will meet the God who is behind all and through all and in all.
There will be time and opportunity for other words. There will be more to say about last Saturday, and about all that led up to it, and about all that must and will follow. But first there is the silence, the listening, the opening of ourselves without filters to the God in whom we live and move and have our being. And maybe, just maybe, a word from God will come to us, as it did to Elijah in the wilderness, in a sound of sheer silence, telling us how to respond and calling us to new work.