Wednesday, July 11, 2018

"Halfway to Silence" 

by May Sarton

I was halfway to silence
Halfway to land’s end
When I heard your voice.

Shall I take you with me?
Shall we go together?
All the way to silence,

All the way to land’s end?

Is there a choice?



Perhaps you remember Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood? Perhaps you longed for a closet of sweaters and imagined changing your shoes at the door? Maybe you watched the show growing up, maybe your kids watched it- or maybe you are like me and watched “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” thinking this tamed Tiger, X the Owl, and King Friday seemed oh-so familiar-- only to realize that they were. Mr. Rogers created a landmark program with a singular focus of caring for children, understanding their development, honoring their feelings and inspiring the best in all of us. He began every program the same way: a yellow flashing street light, changing into a comfy sweater, singing the same song... letting us know that we were worth the time to slow down and be together. He started every broadcast with this same ritual, and it launched him into hard topics. His very first national broadcast involved King Friday building a wall to keep the changers out. He cared so much about children that he wanted them to know how to make peace. He explained the hard words like assassination and spent a week on programing about death and divorce. He broached every topic we hesitate to talk about with grown-ups, let alone children. He wrote scripts, produced the show, acted, wrote the songs and learned and studied with the best in child development along the way. He relentlessly pursued the creation of sacred space where the best in humanity could be honored and developed - and I believe he did this grounded in his faith.

Rogers-arguably a busy man-made time for silence and space for God. He may have been busy, but he never hurried. He fiercely guarded his quiet space and honored the spiritual disciplines that gave him life. Before he changed a single sweater or tied one shoe, he awoke every day at 5:00am, slowing down to appreciate silence. Into the silence he prayed the names of friends and family out loud. He prepared to swim, every day moving his body through the water- and just before diving in he sang a song from Taize. One of his spiritual mentors and friends, Henri Nouwen, shared the wisdom of Taize, a protestant monastic community in France that centers worship on singing simple songs and honoring silence. Every morning his ritual invoked the wisdom of his spiritual neighborhood, even as he alone dove into the water, singing “Rejoice in the Lord.” After his swim he changed for the day and weighed himself at 143 pounds...every day of his life (now that is discipline!). Leaving the pool, he walked into the studio and at the door he prayed, “Dear God, let some word that is heard be yours.”

He was intentional and driven, but not frenzied and hurried, “Being quiet and slow is being myself, and that is my gift.” Even the pace of his cadence was slow. One late night talk show host was surprised to find Fred Rogers to be true to life, and Mr. Rogers ever gently named the feelings and gave permission for Johnny Carson to laugh (Tonight Show, 1980). Being slow was his gift. You- the partner in conversation- you were worth the time. He made space for time on his show, not only in the ritual of each broadcast but exploring fast and slow, he countered the world’s bias toward action. His half hour (on the same set for decades) was simple and slow, even making space in one broadcast for everyone to see what a minute feels like by setting an egg timer for one minute (in what would have been considered a crisis in a newsroom and dead air for any other producer). Silence was sacred space, not dead air. In one broadcast, a scientist was helping the neighborhood and all of us hear some fish...apparently noisy fish and even though they had everything set up and all the people and equipment in place and the food to help invite the fish...well, it just didn’t work out. The scientist got nervous...like any of us would...filling the ‘dead air' time... "Well I’m sure they will be ready in just a moment” or “I guess these fish are not very hungry.” But Fred Rogers saw this as a chance to be patient. He believed “development comes from within. Nature does not hurry but advances slowly.” He slowed things down, and it was his gift. Researchers found its impact; children watching Mr. Rogers had a higher “tolerance of delay”; they could wait and were more patient...perhaps less tugging to get Mom or Dad’s attention (Friedich and Stein, 1973).

We are tuned in to action. We never tell stories about sitting in silence. We tell the stories and they start with “You won’t believe what happened...” or “we were doing this or going here when....” Our stories are actions. We have, as Mr. Roger’s suggests, “a bias toward action.” Even if the silence and the stillness makes all of the action possible...we tend not to talk about it. We never talk about gas stations (unless there is some wild and irregular event ) but they are essential to getting us and our cars where we want to be. We talk about the destination and the journey, but not about the fuel. Our scripture tells a similar story and may have a similar bias toward action. But there are quiet moments if we tune in. Jesus learns from those who went before, sensing God in the still, small voice or burning in a bush. If you take a moment to look at Matthew Chapter 14, and if your study Bible happens to be like some of mine it will give you big headlines. In this chapter, you find Jesus feeding the 5,000 people, walking on water, and offering healing. Verses 22 and 23, these verses about Jesus dismissing the crowd and going up to pray alone are almost lost in the dramatic, big, loud lines. Jesus has gathered thousands of people, teaches them to break bread, and suddenly a small offering turns into bread for everyone, and everyone becomes a neighbor and shares the food they have, and in the end there is more than enough to go around. Jesus sends the disciples off in a boat and dismisses the crowds and goes off to pray, alone in the silence and to connect deeply with God. I sometimes wonder if we would even have this line if it wasn’t so essential for what happens next- Jesus approaching the weary disciples as they sense him coming to them from across the water. But these two little verses deserve a big highlight. They remind us of Jesus pausing, being still and appreciating silent places. I would argue that it fuels his work; the big headlines and the wow moments are impossible without this sacred pause.

Perhaps you, like me, struggle with taking a pause. And maybe....just maybe, the idea of not pushing snooze on your alarm clock at 5:00am is unfathomable right now. But perhaps you could carve out a minute. One minute. Just like Mr. Rogers taught us. Maybe there is space for a little intention. Perhaps as you enter the door of your house you could say a prayer of blessing and gratitude.  Perhaps as you exit your car you could pray for the person you are about to encounter. Maybe you could try praying for your neighborhood as you walk your block. What a difference a pause might make. Consider it; that sacred silence, that pause pregnant with possibilities- it is yours to fuel the next big headline of the day. Fred Rogers offered this reminder to the broadcasting community as he accepted an award: “It seems to me, though, that our world needs more time to wonder and to reflect about what is inside, and if we take time we can often go much deeper as far as our spiritual life is concerned than we can if there’s constant distraction.” And he leaves us with this: “that place of quiet rest where the real you can be ultimately found.”

May we have the courage to seek out our quiet places, our deepest being and value silence. 

May it be so.

Amen.