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The Practice of Silence is Accepting Reality and Surrendering Control (Silence VIII)

Jesus’ testing in the wilderness were all about seeing how he would respond to his limits. Would he, in the process of being hungry, alone, and surrounded by silence, give up? The practice of silence is, in a similar sense, an embracing of our limits so that, like Jesus, we learn to be out of control and yet perfectly okay, confident we are held by God.

When I was fourteen, I went on vacation with my family. Growing up, my parents often had horrible fights that led to cold freezes, revealing a rage beneath the surface, threatening to explode again. On this trip to Florida, they had a spectacular fight. My brother and I sat on the backseat of the car, on our way back from the restaurant where it had happened, sitting in silence, just begging to get back to the hotel so we could escape to our room or anywhere else. But earlier in the day I had said I’d love to ride go-karts, and out of the blue my dad pulled into the parking lot of the local racetrack. I was surprised, but I couldn’t muster much excitement; my mind was numb from living through my parents’ fight. This frustrated my dad, since he felt that he was doing something kind for me, and he snapped, “You aren’t excited?” I tried to shift gears and muster some excitement.

My brother and I got into two go-karts and away we went. They were fast and it was fun, but it was still hard to shake the feeling that I was having fun under false pretenses, to make my dad feel better. Then, coming around the final turn, it happened: I was supposed to stop, and the summer help was flagging me down, absent-eyed, his mind a million miles away. But I forgot which was the brake and which was the accelerator. Suddenly I bolted back into full speed, right at the track worker. Suddenly, he was all electricity, jumping into the air like a cartoon, releasing his inner Michael Jordan, as I sped right under him, avoiding a manslaughter charge. Then I slammed on the brakes and screeched to a halt.

His flight was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and my brother and I tumbled out of our go-karts trying, through our laughter, to hold it together. Then I discovered that my parents had seen the whole thing, because when we got back to them they were laughing hysterically, too. Suddenly, everything was perfectly okay. They seemed happy, my brother and I were laughing. The storm of the fight was forgotten. And a belief solidified within me, without me ever recognizing it: I’m in control. I can make things better. I mean, by accident I had just made things better, so if I tried hard, could always find a way to make things better. To control life.

This belief has caused me all sorts of problems, because life is not controllable. As a pastor, for example, there have been times when I felt I had done everything right, and therefore person A or B should respond how I wanted them to and how I felt they should. But they didn’t. Because the truth is, they are people free to do whatever they want, and I’m not in ultimate control. This is a painful truth, but a needed recognition: when we find our limits, we can find freedom, surrendering to reality.

Practicing silence is, I think, acknowledging that we are not in ultimate control. It places us, emotionally and mentally, anyway, in a position similar to Jesus being tested in the wilderness. It is acknowledging and embracing our limitations, that we need someone beyond ourselves. It is a way of acknowledging our need for God in the places beyond our understanding, beyond our even having words to pray. It is confessing that we are not in ultimate control—of God, of others, of life—and that only in this confession do we become free to live. It is what Jesus showed us not only in the desert but on the cross: the movement of spiritual life is always emptying of ourselves and placing ourselves in the hands of another. 


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