Last Thursday we held a Zoom gathering to launch my book. I had asked my friend John to offer a short reflection and closing prayer at the end. He talked about silence.
John was there a couple of years ago when I first spoke publicly about my childlessness, at a gathering of Baptist ministers. The topic was 'finding God in...' and several people gave presentations that evening. John explained that, after my presentation, which came last, he felt the need for silence. He then spoke about the silence of God in Lamentations, which two panel members had mentioned that evening. Perhaps the most appropriate first response to suffering, he suggested, was silence.
I was really struck by this thought. We usually feel the silence of God as an abandonment. What we long for, above all, is for God to break the silence. It had never occurred to me that there might be a different kind of silence. An appropriate silence. A respectful silence. A silence that takes seriously a person's pain, and knows that no words are adequate. A thoughtful silence. A holy silence.
I have always loved the story of God meeting the prophet Elijah at Mount Horeb, which is found in 1 Kings 19. Elijah is told to go out and stand on the mountain, because God is about to pass by. There is a great wind, but God is not in the wind. Then there is an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. There is a fire, but God is not in the fire. And after all that, there is a sound of sheer silence. This is the moment that Elijah realises God is there. Then God speaks (1 Kings 19.11-13, NRSV).
One of the things I like about this story is the fact that the Bible does not explain any of this. There is no commentary to help us understand why God has chosen to reveal Godself in this way. I have always understood it to mean that God speaks quietly, even silently. Certainly, the few moments in my life when I have been pretty sure God was speaking have been very quiet moments. God's words appeared in my mind, without fanfare, and brought peace.
But there have also been many times when I have been in great distress, and God has said nothing at all. I am enchanted by John's suggestion (or my interpretation of it) that this silence may be a form of communication. That God might be present despite it. That God might be present within it. I wonder how Elijah knew that the silence after the fire was a godly silence?
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