Date: March 5, 2017
Title: “Fasting From Noise, Feasting on Silence”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: 1 Kings 19:1-13
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. Lent is a time of reflection and repentance as we prepare to celebrate new life at Easter. Some Christian traditions have emphasized self-discipline and self-sacrifice during the season – as in, “giving something up for Lent”. And that may be helpful – especially if we consider not only what we “give up”, but also what we are willing to “take on” during Lent. Hence, our sermon series will have us weekly considering a “fast” (a giving up) of one thing, in favor of a “feast” (a taking on) of something else. This week, it is all about noise – and silence.
A few years ago the Finnish National Tourism Board was trying to come up with a compelling campaign to increase the number of visitors spending time and money in Finland. They gathered together some of the brightest marketing managers, who began by comparing Finland to other, more populous nations. These marketers wracked their brains, trying to find something uniquely “saleable” about their home. Finally one of these creative geniuses started to joke around with slogans like Finland – it’s empty and quiet; or Finland – wide open spaces and nothing else! – until it dawned on them that they had found their campaign. As the marketing manager put it:
We decided, instead of saying that it’s really empty and really quiet and nobody
is talking about anything here, we could embrace that reality, and make it a good thing!
I think Finland is onto something here. As the world becomes increasingly noisy and life becomes more hectic, silence is a gift. There are good reasons to stop and be quiet.
In 2013, a study was published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function. Undoubtedly you read this publication cover to cover every time it comes out – right? In any event, in this particular study researchers were trying to discover the effect that noise has on brain function. They used mice and different kinds of sound, and they included silence as the control in their experiment. What they discovered surprised them. It turns out that the mice who were exposed to two hours of silence per day developed new cells in the hippocampus – the section of the brain associated with memory, emotion, and learning. And not only that, but these new cells actually became fully functional neurons, improving the brains of the mice.
Silence may quite literally grow your brain. Medical science tells us it will also lower your blood pressure, prevent your burnout, improve your memory, increase your creativity, foster your self-awareness, and help you to deal with the highs and lows of your own emotions. Perhaps Herman Melville had some inkling of this when he suggested “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”
Just as the prophet Elijah. He has just pulled off a grand production, showing off and showing up and then killing the priests of Baal. And those priests’ primary benefactor, Queen Jezebel, is out for revenge against Elijah. So he runs away into the wilderness, thinking that a God as powerful as YWHW would be revealed in the same showy fashion. Would God show up in the wind? No. Would God be found in the earthquake? No. Would Elijah find God in the fire? No.
In Elijah’s mind, he had failed. He even decided life was not worth living. He had thought his big show would surely convince the people to return to covenantal living with God. But all it got him was a death sentence.
God tells me him to go Mount Sinai, to stand in the same place where earlier Moses had received the covenant itself. And it is there Elijah learns that being zealous is not enough, but that patience and persistence and relationship is what finally will keep people’s attention. It is there that Elijah learns to listen to the silence. It is in the silence that God calls Elijah back to life, back to the nitty-gritty, everyday, ordinary things of life. It is in the silence that God calls us back to life as well.
Poet John Ciardi reminds us “We are what we do with our attention.” Think about that. Where do you place your attention on any given day? According to one study, Smartphone users check their phones on average once every 6.5 minutes, or about 150 times a day. We are a people obsessed with productivity, a society which seems prone to tolerate endless noise. Too many of us squander our attention on things which rarely make much difference. We neglect our daydreams and short-circuit our creativity attending to the nightmares of constant communication, constant motion, constant cares.
We need to be reminded that silence is not empty. We are what we do with our attention. And silence is not empty; it is, indeed, full of answers. If we will only listen. This Lent, I invite you to join me in a fast from noise. Now, don’t panic. I am not suggesting a six week silent retreat. But what might happen, if we all decided to pay attention – to listen, and to rest, in silence for ten minutes every day? I don’t care if it is the first thing in the morning, or the last thing you do at night, or if you find some time for silence in the middle of your day. Just take ten minutes. Only ten minutes, to do nothing but listen. To know you are loved, to remember you are worthy, and to recognize you are in the presence of God. Just ten minutes.
Fasting from noise…feasting on silence… oh, what a feast we can have! Thanks be to God! Amen.