Since Christmas, I have been thinking/talking/praying about what I am going to give up during the Lent season this year. I have never before actually committed to practicing a spiritual discipline, but I knew right around Christmas that I wanted to commit to something. In our family observance of the holiday (which has often been thankfully simple and pleasant), we all gathered around the celluloid altar to watch “Little Miss Sunshine,” the indy film about a little girl’s hopes to shine in a beauty pageant, and her family’s efforts to see her dreams made a reality. I had seen it before, but this time I was curiously intrigued by what one of the characters’ traits; the little girls brother had taken a vow to be silent until he got to flight school so he could fly jets for the Air Force. His father, a motivational speaker wannabe, sarcastically humored him, saying it was a sincere illustration of the boy’s resolve, and admired his son for at least that.
I began thinking to myself about how hard it waould be for me to remain physically silent for any amount of time, given the experiences I had been through for the last several months, and the desire both in my heart and expressed desire of others to share those experiences with others. As time passed, I mulled that idea over in my head, seeking guidance and advise on the practicability of it. Many that I talked to were as amused as I was by the thought of a ‘vow of silence’ for the Lenten season. Some were surprised at the idea, but were curious to see how it would play out. Admittedly, I had the same questions myself…
However, after my trip to Urbana over the New Year, I was impressed by a realization that God does not need words. He transcends even language, to the point where we do not need to even speak to pray to Him or worship Him. I wrote about it recently (“Courageous,” somewhere on this blog), and I further began to value ‘silent’ prayer and worship. However, I place a high priority on community with others (both religious or secular), and that my silence would not be serving others’ best interests. God quite clearly did not need words, but verbal communication is 75% of how we mere humans interact. It would not be very glorifying to God if, when asked for my thoughts on a personal subject, I were to simply shrug and write a note to them saying “I am being silent for Lent.”
Part of serving others is to listen to them, to offer a sincere ear for their issues and struggles, as well as being able to allow them to listen to my own. It is my belief that every man, woman, and child has a reflection of God within them, and that it is through them that I also respect and honor God. Fasting is described as a disciplined, personal act of devotion to God, and I find Him in my own heart and in the hearts of others. It is for this reason that I cannot remain silent, that I would need to make certain exceptions to my ‘vow.’ Interdependent relational practices glorify God as well, so my fast would have to take a more compromising aspect than a strict, legalistic set of rules to obey during my 40 days. I think my intent is to learn to ready my lips to speak, but to be wise about when I use them:
“Pay attention to and listen to the sayings of the wise; apply your heart to what I teach, for it is pleasing when you keep them in your heart and have all of them ready on your lips (Proverbs 27:17-18).
I came across another interesting passage in Proverbs as I was figuring this whole discipline out that seems to suggest that silence itself does little if it is not carefully measured and applied wisely:
Proverbs 17:27-28 – “A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered. Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.”
To be totally silent may prove antithetical to my very purpose in learning and growing through and with others around me. A few guidelines for my fast began to take shape;
– I cannot fast from praying; praying is what replaces that which one forfeits for Lent. I might pray silently on my own, but I will not restrict myself from praying out loud if it would be an expression that I find essential to build up another person.
– Worship, in its many forms, is equally important to remember, not restrict, during any Lenten season. The author of Hebrews tells us in chapter 13: verse 15 “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name.” However, worship is directed at God, not others, so I might silence myself during worship as I see appropriate or necessary (though my heart might not be able to contain itself at times – out of the overflow of one’s heart their mouth speaks, right?).
Each day will present new challenges and difficulties, but I think if I center myself on being flexible but committed in my personal act of devotion to God (which necessitates service to others), I will be able to gather wisdom and discernment, instead of just odd looks and questioning glances. Further along the lines of choosing my words wisely so that others may benefit from my selective speech, there are a few concepts that we on earth do not hear enough of, and that I will in no way restrict myself from sharing. Those very basic concepts are thanksgiving, apologizing when I have done wrong (since I am sure I will mess up even when I am quiet), and that I love them. Any break from my fast to relay these messages in an appropriate way will not violate the implicit goals of my fast.
Finally, I have been urged in a way to incorporate an inter-faith aspect to my fast, since I am so drawn by Muslim, Christian, and Jewish fellowship and reconciliation. Though Lent is practiced 24 hours a day for every day of the week, excluding Sunday (a feast day), my practice will be slightly different. In the Arab world, fasts are conducted only during the daylight hours, for every day during the fast. I will be mimicking this style of fast, as an act of solidarity and remembrance for my brothers and sisters I met, and have yet to meet, in Iraq, Israel, and Palestine. In Judaism as well, the Sabbath is observed in connection to the setting of the sun. The hands of a clock marking a day seem to be less of a Semitic cultural influence and more a Hellenistic tradition. Strict observance of the local times the sun sets or rises will not signify the dawn of my day, but if there is light, I will know it has begun. As the light begins to give way to darkness, I will know I can slowly begin to use speech more freely, though being careful to apply the lessons I have learned from silence that day.
The goal of my ‘fast’ is not to maintain strict adherence to a set of rules that I have determined, but to be sympathetic and concerned, to build up others and forget about myself for awhile, as Paul writes;
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Ephesians 4:29).”
This is the ultimate goal of my commitment to quiet myself (in measured degrees); to learn how to listen to God and others through my relative silence. I want to considerably reduce my unnecessary words so that I can learn how to listen to God through the calm, as well as through His words through others. Paul goes on to ask Ephesus, as I ask you;
“Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will [courageously] make known the mystery of the gospel… Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should (Ephesians 6:19-20).”