A Time to Keep Silence and a Time to Sing

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used. How have you used the Sarasota Statement? What is your reaction to these phrases? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Felipe Martinez

In our silence, we listen for the stories of those whose cries for justice we have disregarded and whose expressions of faith we have refused to hear. We grieve the ways our silence indulges cowardice, justifies irresponsibility, and promotes fear in the face of injustice.
– The Sarasota Statement, Part III

I have sung in a choir, on and off, since I was in elementary school. Whether it was a church, college or community choir, singing has been for me such a great avenue to enjoy music together with friends and develop a sense of community. Unfortunately, for as much as I like to sing, I am a terrible sight-reader. The best way for me to learn my part is to rely on repetition and on being next to someone who knows our part well. I sing and sometimes sing the wrong note, but I am always listening to my singing partner, working to learn the piece.

Photo credit: Colorful people, Allstate choir 2007, by Becka Spence via Creative Commons

At that point in the learning process, I actually try not to hear what the other voices in the choir are doing, because my little musical brain can only handle so much input. And so I am in awe of my choir directors through the years, because they can hear every part at the same time. Not only that, they can tell when things are not working well, and they can pinpoint which section is not all on the same note (and I suspect sometimes the director knows I’m the one singing notes of my own creation!). At times the director would stop rehearsal and ask us tenors to sing our part alone. It was not a matter of shaming us, but of helping us get on the same tune. Listening to each other, listening to the accompanist, we learned together, those leading the group and those of us bringing up the rear. The beautiful part then comes when we each know our part well, and then singing as a full choir I depend on listening to the other parts, because now we’ve gone from learning to making music together. We sing cooperatively, letting our voices weave in and out in the melody and harmony as the composer would have us do.

As a Church, through the centuries, we have been at our worst when we’ve demanded that only a unison song of our own making will be our song; that no other notes, no harmony could enter our performance. We have been at our worst when we’ve silenced the voices which would have woken up our theology from its oppressive droning on, or challenged prophetically its monotone which we had been indoctrinated to think was the only note which would please God. Nothing could be farther from the truth!

To our shame, when we knew the Church was not singing God’s song, when in our discomfort we silently went along with a harsh tune of judgement and condemnation, of injustice disguised as purity, we unfaithfully let our ears be stopped up and we let God down.

Yet God is steadfast. God has always heard all the voices and has relentlessly invited all into God’s song. As a gracious director, God grants us pauses when we get to listen to voices other than our own, and offers us time to listen to ourselves alone for a moment so we can find our way back to our part in God’s song.

The poet writes there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7) — which I could paraphrase “and a time to sing.” What is crucial is that in that ancient rhythm, the Church faithfully sings God’s song of love and mercy, so that in our pauses we will truly hear those voices God knew were being drowned out, so that in our time of silence we will truly hear the divine melody as it is meant to be heard, so that as we draw the necessary breath of the Spirit we will to jump back into the song when we’re cued.

Felipe N. Martinez has been a solo pastor of a small and a medium sized congregation, as well as an Associate Executive Presbyter and Interim Executive Presbyter. He is currently the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Indiana.

Notes From the Field #1 — Plaza

Editor’s Note: Periodically, we will be sharing “notes from the field” from Plaza and Community Church. We hope their experiences will help inform your own… Perhaps to shape your thinking, spark a new idea, lend some energy to tackle something new, or invite leaders in your community to reflect on a particular guiding question.

If this is the first you are hearing of this project, click here for the full introduction to this pilot program. If you missed the introduction to Plaza Church, click here

Notes from the Field #1 – Plaza

The summer at Plaza Presbyterian Church was refreshing, different, and energizing! We spent the summer exploring a number of church “practices” that have helped other congregations turn the corner to vibrant ministry. (Thanks to Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us for outlining these practices.) We have learned that there is no single path.

Last Spring we discovered that the air conditioning in the sanctuary was not working. Since every crisis is also an opportunity we took this one to move worship out of the sanctuary (a beautiful space that will seat at least 400) into a multi-purpose meeting room that will seat around seventy. With individual seats arranged “in the round” we’ve discovered how much we like being together, how we could recapture good times of fellowship, how helpful it is to be so close to the choir when they sing/pray with and for us, how we can be led in our singing in a variety of ways (piano, guitar, unaccompanied, as part of prayer, with poetry read between stanzas, and more).

Every week we worshiped at 10:00 a.m. and explored a practice together. We practiced and discussed it during Sunday school at 11:00. We left the church building for lunch at 11:45 to practice what we were learning.

We began with hospitality when we welcomed every worshiper with a cup of coffee or a bottle of water, a smile, a pastry, a tour of our summer worship space including a family bowl that became our baptismal font that first Sunday, a personal Bible represented the Word, a wooden chalice and platter served as reminder of the Lord’s Supper, and a small oil lamp was lighted with the flame of Pentecost’s Holy Spirit. Each week a different member brought the bowl and the Bible. Each week the waters of baptism welcomed us. Each week we gathered around the Word and sacraments.

Recognizing that we all want to find home we considered how some of us simply knew we were home when we first arrived, others had to learn our particular language, but all of us were seeking to become followers of Jesus Christ.

We discovered that when it came to the work of justice all of us had wanted to fund and build a Habitat house to begin our Second Century of service in 2007. But we didn’t know how different our reasons were until this summer. One group (among them some of our longtime members) thought we built the house to get a new family in our church. (That didn’t happen and was quite a disappointment for some.) Another group (among them our younger and newer members) said their rationale was because our community needs affordable housing and it was the “right thing” to do and they wanted a “hands on” experience in ministry. Gil Rendle’s The Multigenerational Congregation gave us a framework for recognizing such differences without having to change each others’ minds.

We entered shalom as we considered how important peace and harmony are for a people.

We found that we could pray in a variety of ways, using prayers printed and read in unison, lined out and repeated one section at a time, read responsively, and sung. We can even pray in silence encouraged with a variety of prompts, or none at all.

We have wondered about the place of testimony in our lives and whether what we have to share is something we want to include as part of our weekly worship.

We discovered that we don’t have to be alike for the church to prosper.

We’ve experienced God’s presence during our Sunday mornings together and we’ve reflected theologically, coming to the conclusion that we know something about what it means to think theologically. We even used a case study regarding the decision to exclude a hymn from the new hymnal because of theology. (Read the case study written for our Sunday School.)

This is written in September 2013. We have moved back into the Sanctuary for worship and resumed our old schedule: Sunday school begins again at 9:45; worship at 11:00. We’re taking some of what we did during the summer with us, though. Worship is still forty-five minutes in length. We are considering ways to make worship in the Sanctuary more intimate; we may even return to the Conference Room for worship on fifth Sundays. We are more creative. This Sunday, for example, the sermon will be incorporated in the Assurance of Pardon since it is about how we live in the world of God’s grace.

What’s NEXT? We’ll see.