The best gift my mom ever gave me was the gift of silence. Not that she was a quiet person to live with. She wasn’t. She still isn’t. She currently lives alone on 17 acres of land down a long dirt driveway, but even the birds and horses know when she comes home. If mom needs a set of listening ears, any ol' bird will do. I find great solace in the fact that Francis of Assissi talked to birds too. He ended up a Saint, so there is complete hope for my mom. She processes life with whatever human, animal or tree that is nearby. I like this about her. But she also processes much of life in silence. She taught my sisters and I this gift of silence at an early age.
Now that I am a mom, I know unwaveringly that some of this silence-teaching was for her own sanity.
“Everybody go to your room and create something with toilet paper and scotch tape or read a book or take a nap. I don’t care what you do in there. Go! Now! One hour! Don’t bother your sisters!”
They were moments for her to decompress and find rest amidst the chaos of raising three girls that were only five years a part. But beyond those moments of sanity-silence there were also moments of purposeful silence. I remember them as far back as five-years-old. Hiking on trails, wandering aimlessly in the woods behind our house, being quiet to listen for small animals, or laying in bed at night. Mom intentionally created (forced) moments of silence so that we could listen.
We weren’t always sure what we were supposed to be listening for.
A big booming voice, a whisper, an answer, a condemnation, a challenge, a bird?
But we did know this: God talked to mom. And if we would just shut-up, we might hear God too.
My earliest memories of purposeful silence are at the beach in Florida for youth camp. My mom, a youth minister for a large church, would start each day with something she created called “Silent Sounds.” She wrote short devotionals for the students that ended with an invitation to reflect on a passage of scripture and questions that could be spoken out to the ocean, where presumably God vacationed. Teenagers would spread out all over the beach. I watched them as a little girl and wondered what God would say to them. Undoubtedly there were students who just built sand castles and carved curse words into the sand with sticks. But others were brave enough to look out into the unknown forever and speak out questions to this mysterious God of the universe and wait for answers to wash ashore.
For years my mom led students through this practice. She did so when I was five-years-old and was still doing so when I was fifteen-years-old and she was my youth pastor and I was sitting along the shore, reading her words, contemplating whether I was brave enough to listen for God’s voice. Brave enough to ask for answers.
At some point in the day we had a chance to talk about the moments on the beach if we wanted to. And ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been struck with how many different types of people will speak up, longing to share their experience during those silent moments. The thing is, people who are brave enough to sit on the beach in silence and ask the questions are often desperate for an answer. And they usually get an answer. Only it’s not usually the answer they were looking for. And they are so taken back by what they do hear that they want to speak it out loud- to verify it, validate it, gift it to others, to know they are not alone.
We are usually tempted to sit in silence and ask for answers. During times of sharing, people often started by saying they were looking for answers about their job, their boyfriend, their cheerleading tryouts, their family, their shame, their education and the ubiquitous 'what am I supposed to do with my life?' And those questions aren’t bad.
Only, God never really seemed to answer them for people.
What usually turned up in the washing waves, salty air and scratchy sand looked less like specific answers to our most burning questions and more like platitudes of peace, purpose and power.
I am here. I am holy. You are loved.
People always seemed surprised and relieved. There was a sense that they had seen God’s holiness and kindness as they dug their toes deep into the sand and their eyes scanned the horizon to see where their help would come from. They may not have walked away knowing whether they should ask for a raise, quit a job, or pursue a new relationship, but they knew all over again that God was present and Holy and they were loved…
and somehow that was enough.
Today, I am (yet again) at a crossroads in my life looking for answers. And everything in me wants Jesus to write out an itinerary, hand it off to a dove and send it to me down here on earth in a tiny scroll decorated with ribbons and cupcake stickers, “Jenny’s Scroll of Answers Straight From God!,” it would say.
And yet if history is any indicator of what happens next it is this: God’s will for me right now is very broad. It could be accomplished through any number of jobs, living in any number of cities, pursuing any number of passions. And that type of freedom scares me. No wonder we have created a rather unbiblical theology that imagines God telling us exactly what to do, exactly how to do it, and exactly when to act on every single decision in our lives. I wish it were that easy. Except that then we would never, as my friend says, run wild through the river Jordan laughing and smiling as we bravely, nervously, beautifully pursue a dream concocted deep in our hearts that only makes sense in light of our love for Jesus.
The truth is, some moments in life God seems to have a specific will for us but other times (the majority it seems) He stands alongside of us and says, “What would you like to do? What do you dream it looking like? Ok! Let’s go then!”
If history is any indicator of how this all plays out it is this: When I am silent before the Lord looking for answers, more times than not the answer given to me is no answer at all.
Because in the sacred silence I find something else and it is better than the specific answers I so desperately longed for.
In the silence there is a reshaping of my perspective, a reshaping of my fears, a reshaping of my questions. My answer-crazed heart is steadied and I find God at the edge of the ocean dancing in the clouds, rushing in the tides of clear water, pushing against the back of my legs, running fierce back to sea, inviting me to look at a broader pallet painted wild and free, declaring the only answer I need-
I am here. I am holy. You are loved.
At the waters edge I am invited to partake in a new kind of answer. An answer that is really no answer at all. A reminder of God’s holiness, my belovedness, and a sea of freedom in-between.