Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Strangest of Times

Lent is a strange season for a Protestant seminarian.

My last class of the quarter met this morning. Last term my one third-year required course was in church and sacraments, a wonderful class in which our professor repeatedly nudged us to consider ways in which we might make use of Word and Sacrament in order to offer our future congregations more clarity with respect to who they are.

Over the winter the major requirement has been missiology, another terrific class, this time with the professor nudging us to understand the church as the community from which we are sent forth, as God is by nature a sending God. After class today I laughed as I told the professor that we are going to need 50-hour Sundays to accomplish all the things he and his colleagues are telling us we need to do.

As I drove home, I thought about the similar to-do lists that have been at least implied by our professors in theology, in Scripture, in pastoral care, in homiletics. The combination is daunting. I also thought about the very wise words a classmate shared with me a couple of days ago. She spent a couple of years between college and seminary in China and related that it has been said of such an experience that "People go there for a week and write a book; they go for a month and write an article; they go for a year and are silent."

It's true of anything, I suppose: The more you learn, the less capable you feel of instructing anyone else. We have been filled with words, and words about words, for nearly three years. We are Presbyterians, most of us, and we believe in the one Word, Jesus Christ, and in the Word of Holy Scripture, and in the possibility that our own words will make their own small contribution in service of the others. But we know that we are much like Americans who have been to China for a year, and should at least at times be reduced to silence in view of what we have witnessed.

Silence. It is a subject we have not formally explored in these three years. And here it is Lent again and it seems to me that the only genuine response to make is one of silence. Silence before the great and terrible mystery of suffering. Silence in the face of a God who shares in the most human of experiences with the purpose of shattering its power.

I do not expect, not yet this year, to be prepared for suffering to be demolished. Easter will, once again, come far too soon. And I will not look particularly silent on the outside; I have too many responsibilities that preclude an outer demeanor of contemplation.

But inside, I am already gone: way, way down into the silence of Lent. It will seem like a noisy season to me in the exterior worlds in which I spend my time, worlds which will be filled with music and preaching and teaching and other forms of oral expression, all of them in dissonant contrast to the silence of the interior world I carry with me.

I am watching the men's Olympic figure skating finals as I write this. It occurs to me that these athletes, surrounded as they are by crowds and cheers and applause, must also enter deep wells of silence, invisible to the rest of us. Perhaps this season of my life is my own personal Olympics. On the outside: focus, determination, an endless series of tasks.

On the inside, the silence that offers the space for possibility, for hope, for encounter.


karen gerstenberger said...

I wonder if these exercises (Ash Wednesday, Lent, etc.) are designed for those whose lives are going well on the surface, in order to break that surface open. I know that I am too deeply broken to go through these motions now. It's plenty for me to do, to come to prayer and reflection on scripture in the mornings, and to try to live from it, and with it, during the day. That's all I can do, at this point. I pray that this season will be one of support, sustenance and solace for you.

Karen said...

Me too. Thanks for speaking for me, Karen. She's a smart both are.

Gannet Girl said...

Karen, you are speaking for us all.

karen gerstenberger said...

I love you both.