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Devotion: Embrace Silence

Last week's devotion, prior to rehearsal on April 21, 2015, was brought to the choir by NLC tenor section member, Ian Cook. Take a moment to read it, while life continues to hum around you.

I love silence.

As I’m sure many of you are aware by now, I am a very quiet person. Sure, I can talk a lot if the subject is right, but usually I’m content to sit back and listen… so if I haven’t said very much to you yet, don’t worry, it’s not because I don’t like you! You might just have to come talk to me, first. I have found that I learn so much more by listening than I do by talking. I’ve also learned that as soon as I open my mouth, my ears try very hard to close themselves, and I don’t want that to happen. And so I listen.

But listening is becoming a lost art. There is so much noise around us constantly that we are having to close our ears more and more, turn our headphone volume further and further up, talk louder and more constantly, just to block it out. Silence is nearly impossible to find any more—and when I say silence, I don’t mean scientific silence, which is physically impossible except in a vacuum; I mean pure, natural silence that is unadulterated by the noise of humans. Just try to think of some spaces where you could find real silence in our world. You can go to the park… where you will hear the sounds of passing cars with their radios blaring and the constant buzz of highways. You can go out to rural Minnesota… where you will hear the rumbling sounds of a tractor, the distant hum of a highway, or maybe the gunshots of hunters or the motors of fishing boats. You can go deep into the heart of a national park, deep in the woods, miles from civilization… and you’ll still hear the airplanes as they pass overhead. Silence is a limited resource, and just like oil, our society is addicted to consuming it and burning it up. We are constantly expanding our cities, building bigger highways, inventing bigger and louder machines, and filling up the natural silence with the noise of civilization. And, to be clear, I’m not trying to say that civilization is bad—I love living in the Cities—I’m just saying that it’s noisy!

In fact, we’ve become so accustomed to this constant noise that we’ve become unaccustomed to silence, even to the point of fearing it. Silence makes us feel so awkward that we constantly fill the pauses in our conversations with, um, y’know, like, filler words, that, uh, sort of, just don’t really, y’know, well, mean, uh, anything, in order to fill up that silence. At this point, we’re not communicating, we’re just contributing to the noise. We’re making meaningless noise to drown out the deafening silence. We open our mouths… and we close our ears—and we don’t listen. And our conversations become empty, with neither side really listening to what the other is actually saying.

Now, if you ever make an intentional effort to be quieter, to embrace silence, and to really listen, you might start to discover why I love it so much. Silence is a place of calm, and a place of peace. It is a place where I can lose myself, my sense of ‘I’, and melt into my sense of ‘we’. It is the place where I truly feel the most connected to the sacred and to every other person around me. And it is from this silence, this place of listening, this place of connectedness, that any meaningful communication must begin.

So what is my point? Why am I expounding on being quiet when we’re about to start a choir rehearsal, where the entire point of our gathering together is to not be silent? My point is that it is very easy for our singing to become noise, to turn it into filler, which just drowns out the silence that makes us feel so uncomfortable. And the audience might just come to hear us drown out the silence for them. This might especially be true with music like this, where (unless we’re careful) at first listen it might all sounds so similar, and it’s all in Russian, which means that most of us can’t even guess at the meaning of the words without writing in the translations. But by turning our music into noise, we close our ears, and we stop listening to each other and to the audience. Our song ceases to be a conversation—because that’s really what it should be—and becomes empty filler.

On the other hand, by embracing silence and carefully listening, we are able to be incredibly intentional about our singing. We can engage our audience in an intensely meaningful dialogue through our music. This music is not empty noise; it is a promise of enormous proportions, and we need to intentionally, authentically, and meaningfully communicate it to the audience.

Let’s begin this rehearsal with quiet. Embrace it. Melt into your sense of ‘we’, and really truly listen. And then, when we open our mouths to sing, don’t let your ears close; engage each other, and even our future audience, in meaningful communication. So please join me in a moment of silence.