“Discovering God in Silence”
In church language, we call the Sunday before Lent, The Transfiguration of our Lord. This strange word comes from the mysterious story that I just told the children. It is a story about the sudden appearance of two ancient heroes. It is a story of a revelation concerning the identity of Jesus. It is a story that leads to the phrase “mountain top experience”. But first and foremost it is a story that reminds us that when we are in the presence of God, we are reduced to silence.
The Ft. Davis Mountains are one of the oldest mountain ranges in North America. I have been told they are actually the southern tip of the Appalachians, which makes no sense to me but then I am not an archeologist. The Ft. Davis Mountains are located in Texas, west of Ft. Stockton and south of I-10. For about 10 days in the month of April the Ft. Davis Mountains are one of the prettiest places in the world. The spring flowers of Texas shower those mountains with every color imaginable. But for the other 355 days it is a stark reminder of how desolate this world can be.
In the midst of the Ft. Davis Mountains there is a conference center called Prude Ranch. It is a working ranch, complete with horses and cows. Once in the spring and once in the fall, the Presbytery of Tres Rios would rent the ranch to hold week-end youth retreats. Twice a year, I would pack our youth into the church bus and head for the Davis Mountains.
Often I would be asked to either lead or write the program for those events. One particular year I had written a program which was designated to help the youth grapple with issues of trust and faith. Behind the ranch was a well climbed hill called Little Round Top which offered a magnificent view of the mountains and valley. On a clear day, which practically defined every day in West Texas, one could see McDonald’s Observatory which housed the second largest telescope in the United States. Needless to say, at night in the Davis Mountains, the only light was provided by God.
I got the idiotic idea that the climax of our Saturday night experience would be to escort 100 middle school kids up Little Round Top and hold a worship service. Many of the adult leaders were not excited by this idea. There were a thousand things that could wrong. I promised the leaders the trail would be well lit and safety would be our highest priority. But let’s be honest, when you combine the words mountain, darkness and middle school kids, anyone can understand the concerns. After some discussion, we decided to proceed with the experience.
At the end of our evening session, I sent members of the youth council ahead of us to mark the path with their flashlights. When the last member reached the top we started out. What normally was a 30 minute climb in daylight ended up taking over an hour. Some of our more adventuresome youth broke from the lit trail and found their own way to the summit. Tensions were a bit high by the time the entire group arrived intact. Many of the kids had already been there for twenty minutes and were ready to go back down. Others were exhausted from the effort and panting heavily. In the midst of all this I tried to calm them down and lead worship. I pulled out my notes turned on my flashlight and looked at what I had prepared. Then I looked at my congregation. There were 100 kids, many of them who had never been up Little Round Top. The ones who had climbed it before wanted to hang off the rocks in the dark. The new comers were worried about getting down in the dark. And the adults had already formed a committee to hang me at dawn which by the way is still believed to be legal in Texas.
I stuck my notes in my pocket, put my flashlight under my chin to reflect my face and said, “In order for us to worship we have to prepare ourselves. Everyone sit down, turn off your flashlight when I turn mine off and silently reflect on the words I will share with you.” I turned off my flashlight and paraphrased the opening words from Psalm 19, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the moon and stars proclaim God’s handiwork.” At first there were the usual giggles and responses that always accompany 14 year olds. But then they became silent. And that is when worship began. Not a word was said, for five, ten, nearly fifteen minutes. 100 plus kids and adults, sat silently gazing into the heavens, captured not by the stars, not by the moment, but by the Spirit of God. Knowing that no words could describe what we had experienced I turned on my flash light, said “Amen” and declared it was time to go back down the hill. The mob that climbed Little Round Top quietly, reverently, made their way down the hill and back to their cabins. There was no evaluation at the end of the process; the traditional Saturday night gathering around the fire was cancelled. The kids just returned to their cabins and went to bed. Once you have seen God, what else is there to do?
In the following years, I climbed Little Round Top many times. Sometimes it was with others, sometimes it was by myself, often it was at night. The breathtaking view was always the same, but not the experience. I quickly learned it was not the view, it was not the night air, it was not even the adrenalin. It was the silence, a silence so loud that it blocked every single thought from my mind and me to see God.
What would you give for that experience? Should we jump in our cars and run up to Humpback for a view a thousand times more impressive than Little Round Top? Should we volunteer to be a chaperon for the next Presbytery middle school retreat in hopes that you will discover the sound of silence? Perhaps none of that is necessary.
When Jesus and the disciples came down from the mountain they were met by a very noisy crowd demanding Jesus’ full attention. A father shouted out, “Teacher, would you look at my child? He is possessed by a demon.” As if on cue the child began to scream out all kinds unspeakable curses. Jesus went to the boy, touched him, and the boy and every one around him fell silent as they were “Astounded by the greatness of God.” It was a mountain top experience, without the mountain.
How often we are aware of the power of God to quell the noise, the commotion, the disorder in our daily lives? How often are we willing to embrace silence as a way of beckoning God? How often do we practice silence as a daily discipline to discover God? How often do we affirm that the God of silence is also the God who eternally walks beside us?
We think of experiences like Ft. Davis come once in a lifetime. But for those willing to embrace the silence, the presence of God can be an everyday phenomenon. Open eyes and closed mouths often lead to unexpected epiphanies of grace.
The folks who put together the Christian calendar knew what they were doing when they placed the Transfiguration on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. They are saying the Christ witnessed on the mountain is also the Christ you will find in the valley. The Christ who stands beside Elijah and Moses is also the Christ who stands beside the broken boy. The Christ who was declared to be the Chosen is also the Christ who has chosen you.
Think about that…… silently.
Run that around in your soul……. Silently.
Remember, “The Lord is in his Holy Temple. Let all the world keep silence”. See with your hearts, and not just your eyes and you will regularly experience the glory of God. Amen.