Faith Works 3-21-15
Of all the things I could offer to explain under the heading of "why?" in worship, I think silence may be the most challenging.
Partly because I'm a speaker, a preacher, a storyteller at heart.
Partly because we live in a world with very little silence in it. Sounds, stirrings, buzzings, hummings, beeps and tweets: sound is everywhere.
There are, as Paul & Art would suggest, "sounds of silence" – wind in evergreens, the crunch of snow on a cold, moonlit night, cicadas in the summertime. They are background noise without weight or pressure or insistence.
And there are quiet noises that can drive you mad. Dripping faucets, sniffling loved ones, high pitched screeching.
In worship, there are usually words and music. Some churches have liturgical bells, others have handbells; there may be a pipe organ, a piano, a Clavinova, or just a pitch pipe. There can be beautiful soloists, practiced choirs, full-throated congregations (if you doubt that last, talk to the Welsh).
From beginning to end, whether you have a praise band and carefully thought-out bridge music, or Great Aunt Hattie on an out-of-tune piano, the pacing and placement of music is important to the experience of turning our faces and lifting our hearts to the Lord in thanksgiving. You don't want ALL the music in a lump, then nothing but talking (or vice versa).
Likewise, the speech that goes into a gathering for prayer and praise has to be constructively laid out. There's impromptu prayer, formal statements of faith or devotion, sermons that may be from a manuscript or as much sung and shouted as they are said.
All of which takes us back to silence. The silences between parts of worship can be too long, or too short. Within a sermon or a song, pauses, rests, silence is a gift. Like most gifts, you can't just spend all your time on Christmas morning unwrapping presents.
The big exception is among the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers. I have a huge warm place in my heart for Quakers: they were part of my family history deep in my mother's side, likely shaping me in ways I'm not fully aware of; Lafayette (IN) Friends Meeting "adopted" me at a crucial point in my college career, with a scholarship that carried me over a rough patch from which I might well have turned around at.
Some of my first preaching outside of my home church, to relative strangers, was at Farmer's Institute, what's called a "programmed" Friends meeting outside of West Lafayette, and Phil Gulley was a student at my seminary about the same time I was, who has gotten a delightful series of novels out of ministry among programmed Friends.
Those latter are in contrast to the classic "unprogrammed" meeting, where Quakers meet in worship with nothing but silence, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Someone may be moved to speak, or not. It's not a bad thing if for forty minutes or more no one says a word. If you've never experienced silent worship, you've missed out.
And programmed Friends, along with many other Christian traditions, will have a time of silence. It might be a minute, it might be longer. And I've been at public events where "a moment of silence" was announced, and the period couldn't have made it to ten seconds.
For personal use or for corporate worship, silence can be as much a gift to God as a powerful soprano solo or a preached message from the Gospels. And for a busy, buzzing, battered world, silence can be the gift God would have us give each other, so that we can listen for that "still, small voice."
A musician I was reading online said about his art that "Music is the artful arrangement of carefully chosen interruptions to the silence." Worship and prayer may be much the same, and may our interruptions improve on the silence.
Which may be harder than you think.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him your horizon marker at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.