“Preach the gospel always and, if necessary, use words.” This pithy insight has long been accredited to St. Francis of Assisi, but now historians doubt that St. Francis ever said it or anything like it. That’s too bad. For one thing, it’s a pretty clever saying and for the second, preachers and theologians have argued about what the saying meant for generations. Did St. Francis mean we should never speak when we talk about Jesus? Or, if we get to a point when words are necessary, what words do we use? Now, we’re not sure he even said it. It’s too bad; it was a fun quote to debate.
If we need another phrase to debate, I’ll offer us another one: “If you can’t improve the silence, don’t say anything at all.” That’s from my mom. According to Mom, not everything that happens requires comment, and if something is said, say it quick and let everyone get back to the silence. If my mom was alive today, she’d be having a field day with our world. For some reason, everyone in our world feels the need to give their opinion on anything and everything. Politics and economics, who’s to blame and who’s not, who wore what at the latest awards banquet and what comedian, athlete, or professor has been canceled — on and on and on it goes.
It’s the only thing that’s on television these days — panels of “experts” shouting at each other about the latest headline guaranteed to generate millions of clicks.
Sometimes, we need to be quiet.
The first place I learned this was after my father’s first heart attack. My father was in ICU trying to get strong enough to have bypass surgery. For two or three days, my dad drifted in and out and we didn’t know if he would make it or not. Countless friends came to visit us at the hospital. Many of them used the same old worn-out pastoral care cliches I had used when I visited church members in the hospital.
I don’t say those things anymore.
The friends I appreciated the most were the ones who came by and didn’t say anything at all, said a quiet prayer and gave me a strong hug.
The second place I learned this was in the worship services at Brentwood Baptist Church. For years, we’ve slowed things down in the middle of our service and given our congregation time to pray. We don’t instruct them what to pray for. The minutes of silence are a gift to our congregation. We simply stop, give them time to pray with no distractions, then we slowly re-engage our worship experience. Here’s the shocker. When we do surveys about our worship services, the prayer time is always (and has been for years) the most important moment and the highest rated segment of our services.
The most important moments in our worship service — according to our people — are those moments when we say nothing at all. And no, the irony isn’t lost on me.
When you’re young in the ministry, you feel like you have to say something about everything. When you get older, you take greater measure with your words. As you grow in the skill of preaching, you learn the worth of a well-placed pause. Sometimes, your silence is a more powerful way to say what needs to be said than any words could. Silence, like a rest in a piece of music, frames the power and beauty of the next note played. The white space of the canvas focuses the eye on the subject of the painting. Sometimes nothing is the most profound thing you can say.
Recently, NASA released pictures from the James Webb space telescope. According to scientists, we are able to look at stars just after the moment of creation itself. The pictures are overwhelming in their beauty and mystery. The presenters stumbled at trying to describe the indescribable. Our response to wonder is silence.
In fact, silence is our response to a lot of things.
Great joy? Silence.
Our world is so cluttered with sound that we now talk about “noise pollution.” We understand now how damaging the constant drone of noise can be to our spiritual and mental well-being. We need silence to clear our thoughts and refocus our energy. There is something about silence that heals our souls.
And yes, there’s something about silence that makes it easier for us to hear God. After all, He wasn’t in the storm, but rather in the still small voice — a voice so still and small we can only hear it in silence.
So, give yourself a gift. Turn off everything and just sit in silence. Listen to the sound of your own soul. Allow yourself to sink deeply into the mystery that is all around us.
Learn to measure your words and listen to my mom. If you can’t improve the silence, don’t say anything at all. You know, I can’t remember the last time I got into trouble for not talking enough.