No Noise is Good Noise

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 123; 146, Proverbs 15:16-33, 1 Timothy 1:18—2:15, Matthew 12:33-42


The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil.

The ear that heeds wholesome admonition will lodge among the wise.

Those who ignore instruction despise themselves, but those who heed admonition gain understanding.

– Proverbs 15:28, 31, 32

The Book of Proverbs is a collection of pithy sayings, instructions, and poems from several sources. Chapters 10 through 22 are attributed to Solomon, but he probably did not author them directly. Proverbs contains many themes, and one of the most prominent is wisdom.

A lot of this wisdom centers on the idea that, frankly speaking, we should know when to keep our mouths shut.

In our culture, most conversations pretend to be exchanges of ideas, but we generally lack tolerance for the silence necessary to thoughtfully reflect on what someone is saying to us. Instead we fill “awkward” silences by speaking whatever comes to mind first. Often we are mentally formulating our response before the other person finishes talking. And too often our default response mode is rebuttal rather than reflection. This is especially true when the discussion is about a disagreement, and we are more concerned with making our case – with winning the argument – than considering what the other person might have to add to our understanding. Spirited debate can be invigorating, even fun, but how often are we listening to respond, rather than listening to learn?

When we receive constructive criticism, we don’t have to immediately reply with a defense; we can take time to mull it over. When someone is experiencing grief or pain, we don’t have to offer cliched sentiments because we feel we have to say something comforting; we can simply be with that person. When someone is telling us about their problems we don’t have to offer unsolicited solutions; we can support them better with open ears and open arms. In these situations and many more, taking time to think will improve what we have to say, or show us we needn’t say anything.

Listening without feeling a need to respond every time will make us better friends, better parents, better co-workers, and better followers of Christ. Don’t be afraid of silence; that’s when we can hear God speak.

Comfort: Being slow to respond is often a sign of depth, not ignorance.

Challenge: For the remainder of the week, whenever possible, count to five before responding – or thinking about responding – to questions, news, etc. Note how these pauses affect the conversations.

Prayer: Loving God, teach me to listen for you in the silence. Amen.

Discussion: In what situations do you find it difficult to hold your tongue, even when you know better than to speak?

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Word Power

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Zechariah 4:1-14, Ephesians 4:17-32, Matthew 9:1-8


Speech has the power to build up or to tear down. We might claim words are only words, but they impact the world around us and inside us in real ways. The words our parents speak to us in childhood can enhance or undermine confidence throughout our lives. Gossip can destroy reputations. Journalists can topple empires and poets can terrify dictators. As people following Christ, we are called to use our words constructively.

As Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”

Gossip may be the low-hanging fruit of evil talk, but it is a bumper crop. Not every truth needs to be spoken to every person, especially uninvolved parties. On the occasions we find it necessary to share a harsh truth, our words can be direct without being vindictive. A message that shames or belittles for our momentary satisfaction is not necessary to offer correction or guidance. As rhetoric grows more divisive in this age of anonymous internet comments and confrontational “reality” television, we are encouraged to have an opinion about everything. In matters where we lack knowledge or have no stake, it’s perfectly acceptable to have no opinion at all and stick with it. When we “tell it like it is,” consequences be damned, we reveal more ignorance than wisdom. Bernard Meltzer advises us to ask ourselves if what we are about to say is true, necessary, or kind; if it’s none of these, perhaps we should practice silence.

Yes we must speak up to confront injustice. To share the gospel. To teach each other. But always – always – we are speaking to other children of God.

Words matter because they are manifestation of thoughts, and therefore ignite action. Let silence be a dam between your thoughts and your lips. Release their power in a controlled fashion so as not to leave chaos in your wake. What you hold back represents potential; what you spill can not be reclaimed.

Comfort: Your words have the ability to give grace to those who hear.

Challenge: This week, be especially mindful of when you are silent and when you speak.

Prayer: Loving God, be present in my thoughts, on my lips, and in my heart. Amen.

Discussion: How many of your unnecessary, unhelpful, or unkind words could be replaced with better words or silence?

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. . .

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 19; 150, 1 Kings 19:8-21, Acts 5:34-42, John 11:45-57


When we find ourselves in a verbal disagreement, most of us have a natural tendency to raise our voices. As the discussion becomes more heated, we try to convince each other through sheer volume. However, many communication experts tell us the best way to be heard – in an argument, or whenever we need to emphasize a point – is to speak more softly. Doing so decreases aggression in others, and compels them to focus and listen.

The prophet Elijah learned God did not always speak through mountain-cracking winds, rumbling earthquakes, or roaring fires … but was also present in the still silence that followed. When Jesus needed to rest in God’s presence, he often retreated to quiet isolation. Paul exhorted the faithful to speak only those words that build up, certainly not the sort of words that are loud or argumentative. In a world where even religious voices are often shrill, are we placing enough value on silence?

Saint Francis of Assisi is sometimes credited with saying: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” It’s not really his saying, but is very much in the spirit of his teachings. Our society emphasizes the persuasiveness of words (thus the steady appeal of talk radio and blogs), but relatively few people are “talked into” faith. We listen most eagerly to words that echo what we already believe. Attitudes and beliefs are changed most often by experiences. If we are to be the hands of Christ, perhaps those hands are most authentically experienced when they are offered silently in comfort or prayer.

Of course there is nothing inherently evil about words, even those spoken loudly if they are for a just cause, but we must remember they are merely symbols of the ideas they represent.  If they become a stumbling block, we can dispense with them. If our actions betray our words, we are better off not using them. If we want to teach someone about our faith, quiet, loving actions are a solid beginning. Jesus is the Logos – the Word made flesh: what other words could possibly serve us better?

Comfort: You can speak softly and still carry a big witness.

Challenge: In your prayer life, stop speaking long enough to listen.

Prayer: [Observe one full minute of silence] 

Discussion: What makes you raise your voice?

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Silence: Golden or Fool’s Gold?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 19; 150, 2 Samuel 17:1-23, Galatians 3:6-14, John 5:30-47


The phrase “silence speaks volumes” can have different meanings. There’s an active silence when we refuse to speak, leaving others to draw their own conclusions. Ask a child, “Are those your crayon drawings all over the wall?” and silence probably answers the question for you. This silence gives us a slight sense of control when speaking would be difficult.

Then there’s a passive silence, like when we hear gossip among friends, or racist remarks in the cafeteria. In that silence we relinquish control, and those who hear it – or rather, don’t hear it – are more free to interpret it as they will. Declining to participate may send a message that we don’t agree or approve, but it is just as likely (and arguably more so)  to be heard as indifference, assent, agreement, or possibly fear.

As far as we know, David’s trusted counselor Ahithophel kept his silence after David arranged for the death of Uriah so he might marry Uriah’s wife Bathsheba – who was Ahithophel’s granddaughter. (Yes, the book of Samuel should come with a scorecard.) Perhaps this is why, when David’s son Absalom took his father’s throne, Ahithophel so easily swapped allegiances and began to counsel Absalom. It’s not hard to imagine David never saw this betrayal coming.

Whether it’s in business meetings, friendly conversation, or important debates, we should be careful not to make assumptions about people’s silence. Doing so can lead to serious miscalculations. We should also be careful about our own silence, because people will fill in the blanks for us. We don’t need to weigh in with an opinion on everything (Proverbs tells us “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue”), but there are times when an assumption of agreement or neutrality is dangerous. Consider this quote from writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel:

Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.
Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

There is no such thing as “no news”; there is what people hear, and what they assume. Let’s be wise using both our words and our silence.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s reading from John, see Two Point Perspective.

Comfort: Your words can affect the world for the better. 

Challenge: Pray about when to speak and when to keep silent.

Prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)

Discussion: When do you feel most free to speak up? When do you feel least able?

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Silenced

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, Jonah 1:17-2:10, Revelation 11:1-14, Luke 11:14-26


Along his travels, Jesus encountered a man who was rendered mute by a demon. Jesus cast the demon out and the man began to speak. The crowd was amazed, through some of them claimed Jesus cast out demons because he trafficked with demons. He rebuked them by saying a kingdom divided against itself could not stand.

Dark forces always prefer our silence. For centuries the demons of racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia, religious persecution, and other persuasions have silenced countless people. Fears of rejection and retaliation muffle our truths. From slavery through suffrage through the civil rights era through today, the Bible itself has been used to dismiss generations of cries for justice. We effectively silence each other by refusing to listen: if your candidate, doctrine, or experience differs significantly from mine, too often I reject it outright without considering what it has to say about mine.

When I am forced to listen, if your words make me uncomfortable, I will find excuses to discredit them. Maybe I can’t pin it on Beelzebub, but your party, nationality, education, income, or number of piercings conveniently justifies my suspicions.

Fortunately, Christ’s power and love ultimately loose the tongues of the oppressed. God’s Kingdom is united around the language of justice. How do we make sure that kingdom is not divided? Martin Luther King, Jr may have summed it up best: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We must recognize that the injustice which concerns us does not stop with the relief of our own oppression, or that of people like us, but extends to such relief for all God’s beloved children. The members of a united house speak truth to each other, especially when the house is in need of repair to keep it from collapsing under its own failings.

When Jesus restores our voice, let us use it wisely and compassionately. When others undermine and defame us, let us remember we are a kingdom united around justice. In the words of James Weldon Johnson:

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty.

Comfort: You have  a voice that deserves to be heard.

Challenge: Try to listen for voices you have been dismissing.

Prayer: Creator God, I lift my voice in praise and love to you. May I join with all of creation in singing your song of love. Amen.

Discussion: When have you felt like you weren’t heard?

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Peace as Silence

Today’s readings: Psalms 50; 147:1-11, Zechariah 3:1-10, Revelation 4:1-8, Matthew 24:45-51

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A popular acronym advises us to THINK before we speak –  to ask ourselves whether what we are about to say is true, helpful, inspirational, necessary, and/or kind. THINK may seem cliched, but it’s still excellent advice. Psalms 50:19-20 speaks to us today when it says:

“You give your mouth free rein for evil,
and your tongue frames deceit.
You sit and speak against your kin;
you slander your own mother’s child.”

Our current cultural mix of traditional and social media pushes us to opine on the latest news before it’s fully reported, to become outraged over (non?) events we really know nothing about, and to offer our often uninformed commentary in formats that remove the social buffers normally keeping us civil. The rapid-fire sarcasm and verbal slugfests that pass for dialogue and entertainment frequently have no purpose but shouting our own opinions and displaying our own cleverness.

Fortunately we do have the ability to turn it off. Simply deciding not to respond to every opinion we hear or read can be a solid start. Many people never quite get that concept: they will continue to respond as long as someone else continues to antagonize them. Withdrawal from a contentious non-productive exchange of spoken words, texts, or comment sections is not some admission of defeat.  Consciously moving away from violent noise and into silence is an affirmation of peace.

At other times the conversation we need to end is the one we’re having with ourselves. Negative self-talk damages our spirits, and we may need a great deal of counseling to learn to stop it. Wordy prayers that run on and on are not a conversation with God – they are a monologue of doubt and desperation.

Silence, both external and internal, makes space for Elijah’s “still small voice” of God. It gives our thoughts room to expand and mature. It teaches us what is important and what is fleeting. When we regularly seek the peace of silence, we are better prepared when it is time to speak up for matters of justice, mercy, and love.

Comfort: God waits for us in the silence.

Challenge: Find time each day to meditate, unplug, or make whatever arrangements you need to enjoy a period of auditory and mental silence.