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Friday, June 22, 2018

Speaking and Keeping Silent


The third chapter of Ecclesiastes contains fourteen polarities – sets of opposites – and says that there is a time for each one of them. We know that, don’t we. Not every time is a time for birth. Sometimes things need to die before new things can be born. Not every time is a time for laughing. Sometimes laughing is completely inappropriate. It’s a time for weeping.

At the Annual Meeting of Hamilton Conference, May 25-27, I invited delegates to reflect on three of the fourteen polarities. In earlier posts, I shared people’s thoughts about whether we are in a time for scattering or a time for gathering, and whether we are in a time for embracing or refraining from embracing.

On the last day of Conference, we considered whether we are in a time for speaking, or a time for keeping silence.

Christianity is a very wordy faith. We worship a God who creates by speaking. We read the
prophets who declare, “Thus says the Lord.” Our worship services consist primarily of lots of words – spoken words, sung words, read words, prayed words. Talk is all around us.

Our faith certainly calls us to speak – to speak the truth, to speak up in the face of injustice, to give voice to the voiceless, to open our lips in praise or lament, in thanksgiving or sorrow.

But we also need to be aware of the importance of silence, of not speaking. Sometimes it is best to keep quiet.

In the Book of Job, after Job suffered a terrible series of calamities, his friends came to comfort him. And it says that they “sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one said a word to him, because his suffering was very great.” Sometimes there is nothing we can say.  There are times when it’s best not to say anything.

After the shepherds left Bethlehem, Luke tells us that “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Sometimes we’re also called to keep silence in the face of great mystery – in the face of things that are too momentous or profound to explain.

I invited folks to complete one of these sentences:

“I believe we are in a time for SPEAKING because….”

“I believe we in a time for KEEPING SILENT because ….”

A Time to Speak
Ninety-eight people said we are in a time for speaking.

About half of those said we’re in a time for speaking because communicating builds

community. As one person put it, “Speaking is essential for vital healthy conversation and communication.” It’s important to create space where people can share a variety of perspectives and grow in their understanding of one another.


Some people said it’s a time for speaking because the Good News needs to be shared. “We are called to bear witness to our faith. If we do not share the stories of how God is working in our lives, who will?”  A couple of people even used the “E”-word (evangelism.)

For some, speaking means speaking out about injustice and in solidarity with the marginalized and suffering. “Not everyone has a voice,” one person wrote, and the church is called to ensure that their voice is heard.

Others saw speaking through the lens of the changes taking place in the church. A common theme among this group was the importance of continuing to speak about our tradition so we do not forget where we came from in the midst of great change.

A time for silence
Seventy-five people said we in a time for keeping silent.

One group said we should keep silent so that we can listen. In these times, it’s important to hear different perspectives and careful listening is required. This is the opposite of a wonderful expression I read recently – “predatory listening.” Predatory listening is listening just long enough to load up with a come-back or counter argument. This group saw silence as the context in which we can begin to hear one another.

Another group also talked about listening, but specifically listening to God or to the Spirit. Several people quoted the verse from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” “Give God a chance to get a word in edgewise!” one person wrote.


As expected, there was a group that related listening to the restructuring of the church. There is so much information and so many unanswered questions, it’s essential to give ourselves the space to let it sink in, to ponder and reflect.

A fourth group talked about keeping silent in the face of injustice. Interestingly, the “Time to Speak” group said we need to give voice to the voiceless. The theme of this “Keeping Silent” group was that we need to be quite so the voiceless can be heard.

In his book Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Eugene Peterson says that the Book of Ecclesiastes is the antidote to the temptation to try to provide either miracles or answers. It speaks into the ambiguity and uncertainty of life and warns against the “vanity” of looking for the easy way out. This approach to wisdom is captured in the polarities of chapter 3. Some times are right for gathering stones, at other times scattering is called for.  Some times  are meant for embracing, others for refraining from embracing. Some times we are called to speak out. Other times we called to keep silent.

The collected wisdom of Hamilton Conference is that, depending on how you look at it, these “times” can happen simultaneously. It can be both a time for speaking and for silence.

What I learned from this exercise is that pondering the meaning of these activities and the demands of the moment is, in itself, a spiritual practice.

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