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The silence of the wilderness

When you hear that something interesting is going on in the wilderness, are you the kind of person who goes there yourself, to check things out?  Peter Marty, writing for the Christian Century, is fascinated that first-century people took the initiative to go all the way to the wilderness to hear John the Baptist preach.  John didn’t come to them to dwell in their midst as Jesus did, but the people had to go to John. 


And what did they hear there?  Peter Marty writes,

“…something about him worked on them.  If his message told them their lives were messed up more than they ever realized, that had to be jolting. If his voice was the only one crying out in the silence of that landscape, that had to feel eerie. 


“There aren’t a lot of living things in the wilderness that make noise, and vast expanses of sand absorb sound better than even the softest carpeting.  For its silence alone, the wilderness is an uncongenial place.”


Silence can be a treasure, difficult to make space for silence in our daily lives, but extreme silence is disorienting.  Peter Marty describes what happens in an anechoic chamber, a room without an echo, where the background noise measures in negative decibels.  He says a quiet room in a well-built house has a noise level of about 30 decibels.  The Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis have an anechoic chamber where the noise level is -20.3 decibels. 


For $600 an hour, you can pay for the experience of being alone in that chamber, in the extreme quiet, though, according to the lab’s owner, Steve Orfield, few people last longer there than 20 minutes after the vault doors close and the lights go out. 


Peter Marty describes it this way:

“The lack of an echo removes all air pressure on the eardrums.  That sabotages spatial awareness and dissolves one’s sense of balance. Most guests sit down quickly.  To hear your own heart beating, blood flowing, bones grinding, and lungs expanding, researchers have noted, does most people in.  The experience is highly disconcerting.  You suddenly must endure a confrontation with yourself as the sounds of your own body start to drive you crazy.


Marty continues:

“…there’s no easy escape from wild places.  When John the Baptist’s words reverberated in the heads of his followers, they must have realized there was no quick exit from the discomfort.  Suddenly they had to face everything about themselves that was previously too scary or hidden to acknowledge…”[1]


And that’s the trouble with silence and wilderness.  Do you boldly go to the wilderness, as people went to hear John the Baptist?  Or maybe, does the wilderness slam down around you, in the form of disabling illness or chronic pain, or the disorientation of unemployment or even retirement, or the grief of a death or a broken relationship? 


How do you face the truth of your SELF when you’re away from everything that reminds you who you are, how you interact with others, your identity?  And how much time are you able to tolerate in that space? 


Today’s reading from Second Peter says “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”  So to me, this sounds like: HUMANS CANNOT TELL TIME.  I mean, we have our ways of measuring time, which are acceptable to us and generally agreed upon—clocks that can be calibrated with great precision to measure fractions of seconds.  But we can’t all agree on how to perceive time. 


I learned that my brain has extra trouble perceiving time.  It’s an executive function of the brain involving how good is your brain at guessing how much time it will take to do a task or how to prepare for something.  I frequently underestimate how long a task will take, and then I didn’t budget enough time.  And if I’m facing a task that isn’t interesting to my brain, I’ll overestimate how much time it will take, so I get overwhelmed and don’t even start.  It’s not that I can’t figure out time—obviously I can—but it takes a lot of extra work for me to schedule and budget time. 


But the writer of Peter makes an argument that however humans perceive time isn’t the same way God determines time.  The day of the Lord will arrive, at some unexpected point when God is ready, and whatever you’re doing at that moment is whatever you’re doing.  There’s no advance announcement, no kind of warning to clean up your messes before company comes over. 


And that day of the Lord is when reality as we know it is destroyed, meaning: there won’t be any more secrets.  All the injustices that are committed in the dark, all the wrongdoings that were swept under the rug, all the shame that was kept in silence—it all gets exposed. 


So who do you want to be?  What do you want to be found doing?  I don’t believe this is meant to be frightening or threatening; I believe this is an invitation to self-evaluation.  Are you living as God has called you to live, using your gifts in a way to make the world a better place?  Are there some messes to clean up in the meantime—a relationship to repair, investments to reevaluate, time wasted in unfruitful pursuits that are neither helpful nor restful? 


What wilderness will help you focus, remove some distractions, and listen to the beating of your own heart?  You don’t really have to go all the way away to the wilderness.  You don’t have to rent an hour in an anechoic chamber.  You can set aside a time and space for reflection.  If you’re like me, having trouble perceiving time, you may have to set some extra alarms or write an appointment on your calendar to make space for silence, reflection, and just a little bit of wilderness.


Did you know this counts as prayer?  Invite God into the conversation.  Because God is not only the mysterious guest showing up at some unknown future time: God is also the Holy Spirit who longs to meet with you, who knows you so intimately as to join you in sweeping out the cobwebs that have formed in your heart and then to sit back and remark, “I really like what you’ve done with the place.” 


God isn’t coming to scare us to death but to bring comfort.  Anathea Portier-Young, an Old Testament scholar, looks at today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah and notices that the Hebrew word translated “comfort” has a basic meaning “to reverse one’s mind—or feeling—state.”  The same word can be translated “to change one’s mind,” “to have a change of heart,” “to regret,” “to be sorry or repent,” or even “to mourn.” 


Portier-Young writes about Isaiah’s words of hope: “For the people who have suffered captivity, exile, and dispersion, loss of loved ones, loss of homeland and freedoms, their reversal will be one from anguish to comfort.  From fear to hope, sorrow to joy, shame to self-love.  From insecurity and uncertainty to the assurance of divine providence and care.”[2]


And this call comes to all of us.  She notes the Hebrew grammar and how in this section of Isaiah, it is inclusive of masculine and feminine, singular and plural subjects, which “yields a broadly inclusive call to action and proclamation.”  Portier-Young identifies the command “Comfort my people” as an instruction to a broad audience, in exile as well as in the homeland, separated by hundreds of miles. 


She writes, “Each member of the community, both present and absent, receives a commission to preach and transform the very landscape to make possible the shared experience of redemption and return.”[3] 


It’s very hard to do something for others that hasn’t first been done for you. 


So we’re in this work together.  Are you in a place struggling to accept some hard truth in your life, or even struggling to love yourself?  Then you receive the good news, comfort from God.  Are you doin’ okay, feelin’ good about life?  Then find where you can offer comfort to someone else, to proclaim good news. 


All of this prepares the way for Jesus, God-with-us, who brings the healing the world so desperately needs.  The Lord will gently lead us, all of us, together, in peace, at some time determined by God, out of the wilderness of disorientation and suffering, and will lead us to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness and you are at home. 


 Pastor Cheryl



[1] Peter Marty, “The eerie call of John the Baptist,” The Christian Century, December 2023, page 1.

[3] Ibid.


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