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A Reformed Biweekly
April 14, 2014
Easy silence
Peter Hoytema

Pastors spend more time attending funerals than most people do. Realizing that must have been what prompted someone to ask me an interesting question recently. He noticed that pastors often ride to the cemetery in a car driven by a funeral director and he asked, “What do you guys talk about when you ride together?” He was surprised when I told him that we tend to discuss the same things everyone else does: the weather, current events, the latest celebrity gossip (the last one not so much).  
His question reminded me of a car ride conversation I had with a funeral director earlier this year. As she pulled into the cemetery she told me how excited she was about the Dixie Chicks concert she was going to that weekend in nearby London, Ontario. I’m hardly a fan of country music, but as the car came to a stop and we prepared to step out toward the grave I said to her, “I hope they sing what I think is their best song: ‘Easy Silence.’”
If you’re not familiar with the song, it celebrates the security that love creates and in which lovers rest. It conveys the beauty of being in the company of someone whose love for us quiets our troubles and enables us to “breathe in sanctuary” in the midst of a noisy, threatening world. The song affirms the capacity and comforts of love as one lover turns to the other, gratefully acknowledging “the peaceful quiet you create for me, and the way you keep the world at bay for me.”   
It's a tender song. But we all know that silence is not always easy, even when we are in the company of those who love us most. That’s because there are many different kinds of silence, some easy and some hard. There is the silence of joy, when words cannot adequately convey pleasure that fills the heart. There is an awestruck silence, the kind evoked by the presence of glory in things as majestic as a night resplendent with galaxies and stars, or in something as delicate as a snowflake. There is the silence of hope – a private aspiration too precious to share, and the playful silence of daydreaming – whimsical creations of worlds and relationships we imagine inhabiting. These kinds of silences constitute easy, sometimes holy, moments.
But then there are the silences that are difficult, almost oppressively so. There is the silence of regret, which keeps our focus fixed on the past as we mull over choices we did or did not make that we wish we could revisit. Conversely, there is the silence of worry, which keeps our focus fixed on the future and every possible negative scenario we can concoct.    
Illness is a kind of silence, one which can paralyze us physically, emotionally and spiritually. There is nothing easy about an aging parent whose life has been hushed by dementia, a child whose vibrancy has been muted by depression or a home that has been rendered silent by the loss of a spouse.  
Loneliness is a kind of silence. So is divorce, unemployment, abuse and concerns about a loved one’s walk with the Lord. These are not kinds of silence that create sanctuary. They are the very things that disrupt it and make us crave it. When you think about it, any painful element in our lives is a kind of silence. It’s as if there is something empty there that yearns to be filled, a silent void waiting for a word from the Lord that will speak blessing into it. Hard silence stubbornly refuses to be refashioned into easy silence.

God’s love is stronger  
The hopeful news of the gospel is that the capacity of God’s love is stronger than any power to resist it. When God enters our lives a sanctuary is constructed at the centre of our troubled hearts. Order is reestablished in the chaos, fears are quelled and a tumultuous world is kept at bay as we rest in the refuge of God’s sovereign love.   
What that looks like is suggested by one particular word in the Bible. The Old Testament has a number of words that convey the mystery of silence. One of the more striking of them is the Hebrew verb charash, which is used over 40 times in the Old Testament.  Charash does not merely suggest the status of being silent in a passive sense; it indicates the active effort of making or keeping silent. It’s what Proverbs 11:12 has in mind when it conveys the charash silence created by those who wisely “hold their tongue.”
The words of Exodus 14:14 illustrate the point even better. Here we find the people of Israel, pursued by Pharaoh and his army to the brink of the Red Sea. In terror they cry out to Moses, convinced they are going to die. Moses reassures them by saying, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” The verb translated as “to be still” is charash, and it means much more than simple inactivity. Moses calls the people to active restraint, to the intentional quieting of one's raging emotions. The King James Version captures the meaning of this verb more accurately by having Moses tell the people, “Ye shall hold your peace.”  
Charash silence is a restraining order issued against our worst fears. The stillness of charash is created when clamouring worries have been muzzled and when restless hearts have been fitted with a straitjacket. Sometimes the restraining influence of charash is impossible, as we see in Jeremiah 4:19, where the prophet “cannot keep silent” due to the overwhelming agony of his heart.  
This is where the remarkable image recorded Zephaniah 3:17 comes in, and it relates directly to the easy silence created for us by One whose love is both soft enough to soothe and strong enough to protect. In this verse, God is described as “mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you (charash) with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”  
There is a danger in reading that verse in an overly sentimental way. And these days it can also be used to promote what is often touted as Christian “spirituality,” which is actually rooted more in Eastern mysticism than in what the Bible teaches, where silence is pursued through meditation in an effort to empty the mind of thought and to increase one’s awareness of the divine presence within.  
The verb charash is nothing like that. To be quieted by God's love renders us alert and attentive. Christian meditation seeks to fill the mind, not empty it! Most importantly, the kind of peace we all crave is initiated and sustained by the transcendent God of the Bible, not by a mystical divine presence that we must struggle to discover within ourselves.

Blessing in all the vacant places

Charash is what God has accomplished for us most powerfully on the cross. Here the eternal Word was rendered silent by death – a hard silence to be sure, but one which announces blessing in all the vacant places in our lives, just as the silence of our Lord’s dying was broken by the triumph of his rising. The beauty of being quieted by God's love is experienced at its highest level when we enter the easy silence of friendship with Jesus.  
I am in a time of waiting as I write these words. A friend who was involved in a car accident some time ago has yet to regain consciousness. It is a kind of silence and it is not easy. But there is within it the mysterious subduing of fear and the quelling of worry.  It is the stillness of charash, the quieting of the heart performed by One who enters and blesses the hard places of our lives. It is the fullest application of what the country song suggests: in life, it is not so much that we keep the peace. The peace is what keeps us.    
Shortly after my funeral car conversation, I rode with the same funeral director as before. She told me all about the concert and was especially eager to tell me that the Dixie Chicks did indeed sing “Easy Silence” that night. As I reflect on both conversations now, I'm struck by how appropriate a topic it was to discuss on the way to the cemetery. 
Peter Hoytema is pastor at Westmount CRC in Strathroy, Ont.    

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The painting on page 1, “The Road to Emmaus” based on Luke 24, is by Daniel Bonnell. His complete works are available at Image used here by permission of the artist.

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