During the Reformation, pastors and theologians argued about who was worthy enough to talk directly to God. Martin Luther translated the Bible into German and rewrote the lyrics to pub tunes to give ordinary folk direct access to God. Today Lutherans continue to believe that anyone (no matter their training, status on a naughty or nice list, attendance record at church or the number of Twitter followers they have) can pray directly to God.
Nearly 500 years after the Reformation, cultural shifts and changes in medical diagnosing have reversed the question. We are allowed to talk to God. But, is it OK if God talks to us?
In Exodus, God regularly talks to Moses. Like teenagers who grumbly ask their parents to leave them alone, in the midst of their 40 years of regular interventions in their life by God, the Israelites ask God to stop talking to them. Unlike most parents of teenagers, God grants their request and stops talking audibly.
If you have ever been given the silent treatment, you know how lonely and immature the tactic can feel. So why is God so silent?
Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor encourages us to notice the ache that God’s silence stirs up in us. Rather than filling the void with imagined rules or words that God or Jesus might say, Taylor encourages us to lean into the longing for a more intimate relationship with God.
In the silence, we may find ways to communicate using some of our other senses. As deaf and hard of hearing individuals have taught us, we can live and love without aural interactions. For some, the lack of verbal language can be a gift. Beloved pets are some of the wisest teachers who train us to love without words. Others find this unspoken intimacy in gardens, in the science of the stars, or through cuddles with sleepy children.
When the world seems to be spinning out of control with natural disasters, wars and injustice, we may long for a word, whisper or irritated bark from God to comfort or motivate us. We may be a creation that was called into being through words, but in order to sync our lives, congregations and calls to the Holy Spirit, we must learn to trust the unspoken relationship we have with God. This sacred, silent intimacy, when partnered with the lessons passed down in our sacred texts, can enable us to be present and ready to help others who are also aching to hear God’s voice in the world.
On unimaginably tragic days when there are no words for the horrible injustices of our lives and world and rituals, services with long silences may provide us with companions willing to sit with us as we lament God’s silence and heal from unimaginable heartaches and heartbreaks.
Whether God’s silence brings you calm or agitation, the promises of God’s love silently echo from the past and can be felt in the waters of our baptism. Whether you have heard it a million times or this is the first, never forget that you are blessed. God has chosen you and will never forget you.
Sometimes we are called to be God’s hands in the world, working mightily to hasten justice. Other times, we are called to join the silence and awe that follows indescribable hurt. As humans, we cannot avoid awkward encounters and will always have moments we wish we could redo in hindsight. We sometimes talk when we should have been quiet and are quiet when we wish we could have said something.
When we get it wrong, with or without words, may we err on the side of loving boldly and forgiving more boldly still.