Tag Archives: silence

Losing My Voice

“I lost my voice,” she said.  “But I can still listen.”

Neither of us knew how to keep the conversation one-sided.  So despite intentions to give her voice a break, our Skype chat soon reverted to the usual back-and-forth.  My dear friend Jenn updated me about a few of the people we both love in New York, and new opportunities on her horizon; I processed some things that have been happening here in the Middle East.

When it was time for our next call, however, I received a text message instead.  “Had to work late.  Feeling terrible– still have no voice.  I need to rest.”

Over the past few weeks, I haven’t been able to find my voice, either.   

It’s been the fullest month since I came to the Middle East, as far as work and new experiences go.  I shook hands with the city commissioner; brought our current Young Leaders students on their first “college visit” (at the university where I teach); just about burst with pride watching some of them do magic tricks and tell stories at an orphanage; and received multiple lessons in the art of dance.

I also helped take 50 teenaged boys on a day-long field trip; met over 300 local families, whose teenagers are interviewing for our UPCOMING Young Leaders program; made horrible mistakes in Arabic, and learned from them; and celebrated the Resurrection two weeks in a row (as this area celebrated a week after friends and family in the US).

Mostly, things have gone well.  Mostly, the experiences have been a lot of fun.  Mostly, the challenges have served to enhance the victories (for example, an accidental hike down a tougher path than we planned, on the boys’ field trip; or an unexpected rush of people crowding the center, to register for the new cohort of Young Leaders).

Mostly, I come home and think, I need to rest.  

When I try to tell the stories, I am caught between my hope about work, life, and students… and my fears that hope may be deferred, my grief over promises from God that are yet to be fulfilled.  I deeply feel the need for a second story perspective, but I can’t figure out how to take hold of it.

Stuck in uncertainty over whether I should celebrate like it is Resurrection Day, or embrace the grieving of Good Friday, I am silent.  The words catch in my throat.

Picture the Emmaus pathway: Two men walking from Jerusalem, striving to understand what happened in the prior three days.  When a Stranger asked what they were talking about, their response:

“They stood still, their faces downcast.” (Luke 24:17)

After a moment of silent struggle with his question, they threw down an inquiry of their own.  “Are you the only one who doesn’t know what happened?”  The Stranger chose to walk along with them.  Their story came out:

Their hope in the one called Jesus.

Their grief over his crucifixion.

Their confusion over visions of angels and empty graves.

Grief overflows even into their grammar; they relegate hope to the past tense.  “… we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (v. 21)

Another dear friend– this one local– recently sat on my couch to update me on a situation in her life.  “What can I do now?” she said.  “My hope is gone.”  She picked up a glass cup from the table, and asked me what the English word would be, were it to be broken into thousands of pieces.

Shattered.

She covered her eyes with one hand.  I reached out for the other, inwardly reaching for the right things to say– reassuring phrases about her future, her personhood, her reason for confidence– but not finding any voice.  After a few moments, she broke the silence.

“Can you give me a…”

I placed the tissues in her lap, striving to be helpful even before she could finish talking.  “Thank you,” she answered.  “But what I really need is a hug.”

Those men from the road to Emmaus had seen hope broken into 10,000 pieces.  Then He was walking with them, but their faces were downcast, their minds wrestled with harsh realities, their hope was moved to the past tense– because they did not recognize that Presence beside them.

They were walking like it was still Good Friday, but didn’t know that it was Sunday, come to stay. Hope would now be present, continuous.

Losing my voice, unable to see past uncertainties, I need something more than articulate answers.

I need presence.

And an embrace.

 

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In the Silence

Just awkward— the silence.  I searched for more words, looked at the ceiling and floor.

The assignment: find a partner whom you do not know well, from among fellow students in Ingrid Davis’ Leadership Coaching course.  Ask one good question.  Then listen— without making any statement, or asking a follow up question— for five minutes.

It was my turn to answer, so I filled the first one or two minutes with phrases.  Then the silence started.

A few years have passed since I took that class, but I think of those minutes, so silent yet so disquieting, often.  Most recently, they came to mind while I was teaching Public Speaking at the university. My students had studied techniques for interviewing and reading feedback.  They were assigned, as homework, the task of composing and asking excellent questions.  They came back excited to share what they had come up with:

  • “What do you want to be doing ten years from now?”
  • “Where is a place you would like to travel?”
  • “What job have you most enjoyed, and why?”

Goals, dreams, experiences— great things to ask about, I said.  They were smiling and confident.  What did you learn about people?

They kept their grins but avoided my eyes.  I discovered that out of 30+ students, two had asked their questions out loud; the rest had kept them inside.

Why?

Their gazes met mine again.  Hands shot skyward.  “I didn’t want to offend anyone.”  “I am afraid they will think badly of me.” “What if they can’t think of an answer?” They were held back, by the possibility of not being able to connect, from even attempting a connection.

Last week, I traveled to a small town in Germany to assist with a conference.  Contrasting the noise level heard from my Middle Eastern basement— mosques calling people to prayer five times a day, gun shots fired for every wedding or graduation celebration, and a less dramatic but no less salient rooster in my backyard— the quiet of my second-story hotel room was as soft as their down blankets.

The silence pried my fingers loose from the things I had gripped when we first arrived.  The busyness of preparations for the Young Leaders program.  The goodbyes of loved friends moving back to the United States.  The pressure I had been feeling with anticipation of new roles.

I try to escape silence, most of the time.  Whether through filling time with activity, or filling spaces with my words, I avoid quietness because it is unproductive and inefficient.  Or, that’s what I tell myself.

In truth, I might have the same fears as my students have when they resist asking deeper questions.  Staying on familiar, comfortable ground makes me feel confident and pulled together.  Silence is an undoing.  Venturing questions of depth, waiting for answers, is risky behavior— human to human, human to God.  Will He speak?  Will there be a connection?  Or will it just be space, empty?

In the coaching class, after a long pause, I found more words— deeper ones.  The silence had given me space to take the question to a more profound place than my partner could have done with a follow-up question or a reply, so when the five minutes was up, I was still finishing my answer. IMG_4877

Before leaving the area, after the conference had ended, friends and I took a cable car to a mountaintop.  Surrounded by a view that is beyond the words I know for splendor or scope, breathing in the cold, clean air, I could tell my iPhone pictures would be useful only for triggering memories.  The sense of climbing and climbing, each panorama surprising in loveliness and scale.  The broad space that was empty of construction, but overflowing with beauty.

Will I be able to carry that memory of silence and grandeur back with me to a desert in the Middle East?

I’ll have to try.  Because the potential for the connection ushered in by stillness is greater, in my mind, than the risk of rejection or a discomfortable silence.  Maybe, as my partner in class did, I’ll keep listening even through silence, and hear deeper things than I expected.

And maybe, just maybe, the deepest connections will take place in the silence.

——

This blog is a little shorter than some.  Why not use the space for some silence?  Let me know how it works…

Zombies vs. the Holidays

“Are you zombies!?”

She laughed at her joke, while I found the right words to explain myself.  I had attempted to tell my host mom about Thanksgiving in America, and had concluded with, And we eat our families.

Which would make you zombies, she had delightedly pointed out.  Missed one important word.  With.  I re-stated it in Arabic: “We eat WITH our families.”

No, I am not a zombie.  But after living with a host family, wrestling with Arabic from before I got out of bed in the morning, I sometimes felt like I was.  My host mom would say, “Come with me to…” and I would obediently follow, even if I didn’t understand the destination.  My delayed understanding often manifest itself through blank stares, slow reaction times, and silly misunderstandings.  The parents were usually quiet during the day and emerged at night; often that just looked like all of us sitting in the same room, occupied with our own projects.

Sometimes it meant shopping runs or social visits.  On one of these, they asked me, “Do you like to eat …?”  And since it sounded vaguely like a vegetable I had once, and I’ve liked almost everything here, I enthusiastically responded with yes– only to find out it was the one food I have yet to find palatable in any country.

Liver.

When I actually understood all the words spoken, sometimes I still had to confess that I had missed their meaning.  To understand, in depth or in daily rhythms, requires more than translation.  Words are not sufficient.

Mary experienced something that was communicated in words from angels, signaled by a star, witnessed by shepherds; it was a story strong enough to change the way we mark time.  Those shepherds– secondary characters in most Nativities– hurried off to tell what they had seen.  But she, who was as close as anyone could humanly be to the center of the story, kept her lips sealed.  Even modern music lists questions we’d like Mary to answer: How much did you understand?  Mary, did you know?

She had no speaking lines that night.

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.  Shortly before I moved to the Middle East, my friends/teachers Chuck and Ingrid prayed blessings over me.  Chuck’s words were authoritative, asking for empowerment and discernment; my soul affirmed them.  Ingrid, however, blessed me to be like Mary, to treasure things and ponder them in my heart.  No, I resisted quietly.  I don’t want to be like Mary.

I want to tell the stories.  I want to be understood.

In English class yesterday, my students were describing what was needed for a famous regional food, mansaf.  First, fermented yogurt.  Nuts.  Spices.  Meat.  Rice.  A thin, platter-sized piece of bread.  Do we need anything else?  

Omar answered: “People.”

An essential ingredient of some stories is their retelling.  I could be tempted to keep quiet for fear of being misunderstood.  But these are the stories that give life, and just as no one would think of eating mansaf alone, I cannot hold these stories to myself; I invite others to share them.

But the “sharing shepherd” is the easier of the roles for me.  During the two weeks with my Arab family, there were cultural miscommunications, deep talks, awkward moments… but the hardest part was the silence.  Sitting together, presence assured and pressure off, not much in the way of words.

And those stretching times were what made the difference between “visiting” and “living with.”

So I remember Ingrid’s prayer, that I can become a person who knows how to sit in silence.  With others.  With myself.  With my God.  Treasuring the moments that don’t need to be commonly understood or retold, at least not yet.

And pondering them in my heart, I say, Amen.

Sleeping Jesus

IMG_1016 Someone starts a new venture, with clear confirmation that this is what they should do.  Things move forward, and as they do, God seems silent.  But no concern arises; the person is confident that they know what to do.  They have knowledge, expertise, the right equipment, and even clarity.

Then things get hard.

A storm renders the usual equipment useless, and their expertise doesn’t fit the new situation.  They look to God, who seems silent but present.  “Why isn’t He moving?” they ask themselves.  At last they throw Him their question: “Don’t you care that we, we who are carrying out Your commands, are going to drown?”

It was Jesus’ idea to cross the lake.  His friends, many of them fishermen, didn’t worry– they had the knowledge, expertise, and equipment, and then they had Jesus telling them to do it.  So they loaded the boat. 

While Jesus was sleeping…

The storm came.  He didn’t rise.  They knew He could help them.  He woke up responding to their shaking, their begging– or accusing– question, “Don’t you care if we drown?” 

A sunset a few days ago that I accidentally spied, in between dinner at a friend’s house and an evening language class, became a “best” moment in my week.  Walking past an empty lot of desert rock and sand, my eyes were drawn to the sunlight streaming out behind a few clouds, not yet hidden by the mountains that form the town’s western border.

It was a five minute walk.  The wind was the sole sound.  My camera just served as a reminder that some things can only be captured by memory.

Rob Reimer is a wise mentor, who points out how we often ask God, “Do you love me?”  God proved that through the cross, and instead asks us, “Do you trust Me?”  Moments of sunset colors remind me of the beauty and love of God.  He doesn’t say anything.  He just reminds me of His presence.

I hold memories like that for the moments when the storms come.  The presence of Christ is real in moments of silence, whether accompanied by sunset colors or storming waves.  Can I trust a sleeping Jesus?

–Heard for the first time today, and perfect for today’s thoughts:  You Make Me Brave, from Bethel Music