Sunday, April 18, 2010

lessons in shutting up

Jesus threw some zingers out, I tell you.

Case in point: here's one makes me cringe pretty much every time I read it: "The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks."

I have spent the last week or so regretting pretty much every time I open my mouth. It seems that every time I utter a phrase or two, I am left with an aftertaste of either a) superficiality, or b) bitterness. As the days pass, I crave silence more and more, simply because speech inevitably leads to frustration. I guess I figure that if I just shut up long enough, maybe things will smooth out a little. Jesus' words remind me that there is something else at stake: my heart. As I began to look back over my words from the week, this is the emerging portrait of my heart, that deep place from which my words flow: afraid, bitter, jealous, critical, and a semi-shade of empty. Even in light of Jesus' reminder, the conclusion is in many ways the same: shutting up is probably a good idea. The difference is that silence is not the fix, but the starting place. It is an avenue for encounter with the one who changes not just the overflow of the heart, but the heart itself. Silence, then, becomes far more than just a temporary form of damage control.

In my desire for reprieve from my stupid mouth, I pulled one of my favorite books off the shelf as I headed out the door this morning. The plan was to spend a few (hopefully speechless) hours at a coffee shop, and the book was Henri Nouwen's The Way of the Heart, a short but hugely impactful look at the importance of the monastic virtues of solitude, silence, and prayer in our current context. His words on silence have stayed with me in a profound way since I first read them: "Silence teaches us to speak." According to Nouwen, words are meant to give life, but can only do so when they are rooted in a listening silence. The way we throw words around left and right as if it's a virtue to constantly tell all (I am as guilty as anyone of this) has cheapened words. They are stripped of their sacredness, their power. More than that, they are actually dangerous. James tells us that the tongue is a world of evil, and in most of our lives we seem happy to prove his point. Nouwen writes that even an abundance of good words is a cheap substitute for the rich utterances that come from one who has allowed silence to teach him to truly speak. In that deep silence, the inner fire of the Spirit is guarded and kindled. It is the Spirit who teaches us to speak not death, or even simply distraction, but life and healing.

Nouwen nails it. But the nitty gritty of it all...that's the challenge ahead. Silence is not exactly easily incorporated into my daily life. Just this morning I had to explain to someone that my lack of words was not, as he had supposed, due to my being angry with him. It requires a whole paradigm shift to learn to spend time with others with few words involved. I don't know where to start, really. But I'll try, because I crave that carefully guarded fire of the Spirit. I crave the taste of words that reflect the creative and life-giving power of my Maker. From the fruit of my lips, Proverbs tells me, I will be nourished. I feel like I've been downing package after package of corn syrup-y fruit snacks. Some resemblance to fruit in shape, pretty much none in nutrition or taste. I think I've hit my limit.

I'm ready for a growing season of silence, in hopes of tasting the real stuff instead. Less crap, more fruit. Jesus, help me shut up long enough to get there.

Friday, April 16, 2010

lenten loneliness

Confession: I have practiced a lenten fast for several years now, and it has rarely meant a lot to me, at least not on any spiritual level. Lacking sweets or caffeine or whatnot generally doesn't remind me of Jesus or his suffering much. The year I gave up TV in a house that constantly had it on may have been the most effective fast in previous years, simply because it opened my eyes to the vast amount of time I actually have, and how much peaceful I am when I spend it on fruitful things. Still, not much to knit my story with Christ's.

This year, for the first time, my lenten fast felt connected to the story of the passion. I gave up Facebook, which those who use it daily will understand to be a challenging task. That, honestly, is why I took a friend's suggestion to leave it behind for 40 days-- because I knew it would hurt a little. But I had chosen other fasts for the same reason in years past, and as I mentioned, they did little to connect me to Jesus' walk toward Jerusalem, his journey toward death and then life. Little did I know, Facebook would break that pattern.

At random (I am reading the One Year Bible this year), I read through the passion narrative just before Lent began. One thing stood out to me as I read the story, something that had not struck me so deeply before. It was the deep loneliness and sadness of Christ as he prays in the garden and walks through the events leading up to his death. Weeping in the garden, asking God to choose some other way, he returns again and again to find that his closest friends can't stay awake to pray for him. Then moments after the mob arrives to take him, each of those who had walked closely with him--those who had been his friends--turn tail and run. They leave him standing there, and he walks through the most horrific of nights alone. The next day, as he breathes his last on the cross, he cries out in agony as even his Father seems to have abandoned him. Such loneliness. I imagine that Jesus' life had been growing in estrangement for many days before that night in the garden. As he moved forward in ministry, speaking subversive and often divisive words, and predicting an ending that no one seemed to grasp, Jesus sense of aloneness must have been acute.

I realized something during those days when I wanted to so much to log on to my account, and had to choose not to. I became aware of the role that Facebook often plays in my life--it is a salve for loneliness, a false fix when I feel estranged and disconnected. It opens the door, on a shallow level, to be instantly connected to the goings on of people in my life. I can even stop and make a comment, verbally jumping into a story in which I might normally play no part. My lenten time of staying away from that vehicle of connection (save for a few times on the road, since I had to connect with places to sleep...) forced me to sit with my aloneness, with my estrangement, and consider the far greater loneliness of Jesus. Again and again throughout those weeks, I was called back to look in on that place in the garden where he wept, on the trials and flogging where his only company was those who hated him. For the sake of my salvation, out of sheer love, Christ chose to walk a path of loneliness. He felt it just as any other human does, and yet he chose the path of estrangement anyway.

As I return to Facebook, Easter having come and gone, I am called to remember another thing. Facebook doesn't need to be the salve for my estrangement when loneliness strikes. I am called to remember that the effect of Christ's loneliness is my reconciliation. It is an intimate connection with the One who created me, and who is always with me. I pray that I will learn to enjoy tools that connect me with my friends, yet refuse to bank all my hopes on false fixes. The Christ of Lent, the resurrected One of Easter...he is to be the salve for all my broken places.