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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 flickr.com. 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.

Out of Stillness and Silence

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Vikki Montgomery

Author Pico Iyer avoids using the word God, claims no particular religion, and doesn’t speak of himself as a spiritual person. Still he has something important to say to Christians striving to be “contemplatives in action.”

In an On Being conversation with host Krista Tippett, we learn that Iyer was born into a family of East Indian professors at Oxford University. When the family relocated to California, Iyer attended school in England from age nine through university. By his thirties, he said he had racked up one million frequent-flier miles in a single U.S. airline.

He confesses, “Anyone who travels knows that you’re not really doing so in order to get around—you’re travelling in order to be moved. … So I realized I have a lot of movement in my life, but not maybe enough stillness.”

At the advice of a friend, after losing his family home to fire, he went on retreat at a Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur. At first he felt guilty for leaving his work and his family. “And as soon as I arrived in that place,” he says. “I realized that none of that mattered and that, really, by being here, I would have so much more to offer my mother and my friends and my bosses.”

In the last 24 years, he has visited the hermitage more than 70 times. “Sometimes, people like me have to take conscious measures to step into the stillness and silence and be reminded of how it washes us clean,” he explains.

Tippett reminds him of a line that he wrote, “[T]he point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or the mountaintop, but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion of the world.”

Soon, Iyer launches into a description of spirituality and religion:

Spirituality is … the story of our passionate affair with what is deepest inside us and with the candle that’s always flickering inside us and sometimes almost seems to go out and sometimes blazes. And religion is the community, the framework, the tradition, all the other people into which we bring what we find in solitude.

Iyer then quotes his long-time friend, the Dalai Lama, saying “[T]he most important thing without which we can’t live is kindness. We need that to survive. … [K]indness is water, religion is like tea. … It’s a great luxury. It increases the savor of life. It’s wonderful if you have it. But you can survive without tea, you can’t survive without water.”

Circling back to religion, Iyer says, “And so everyday kindness and responsibility is the starting block for every life. … [We need to] ground ourselves in the people around us before we start thinking about our texts and our notions of the absolute.”

Hold the doctrines. Hold the theology. Just share everyday kindness.

“Our outer lives are only as good as our inner lives. So to neglect our inner lives is to incapacitate our outer lives. We don’t have so much to give to other people or the world or our job or our kids,” he cautions.

My takeaway from this conversation is that even if we can’t go on retreat, we can enter a contemplative space: where we live, perhaps where we work—and definitely where we worship.

How can injustice continue if we, alone and in community, allow stillness and silence to do its work in us?


Vikki Montgomery

Vikki Montgomery is a contemplative, communications consultant, writer, and educator. Her greatest joy is being a mother and grandmother. Her spiritual mentor confirmed her intuition that silence is the first language of God.