Thursday, September 13, 2012
The Preacher’s Corner
Hard for modern persons to deal with silence
Our organist has been out these last few Sundays and we’ve celebrated the Holy Communion without the traditional accompaniment of well-loved hymns as the people receive the consecrated bread and wine. I perceive this may be just a bit unnerving for us.
I say this because it is hard for modern persons to deal with silence, even for a few moments. We are so much surrounded by sounds of every kind—soft rock in the supermarket, easy listening at the dentist, sirens of the police cars, the omnipresent prattling of people on their cell phones, whispers in the library, the erotic thumping that comes from bass speakers as autos laze past one’s bedroom window in the night, the incessant blare of unattended TVs after we’ve wandered into other parts of the house.
During our not-infrequent power outages, particularly when they occur at night, I am struck at how suddenly quiet our town becomes. The same is true when a blanket of heavy frost or snow covers the ground. It is the aural equivalent of that magical moment at sunrise or sunset, when the waves on a lake or stream seem to subside and the waters are so smooth that you imagine Jesus could come walking across them. It is an instant when I think of the words of Scripture: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Theologians of the liturgy are trending toward the idea of silence. A Memphis church I know has signs that say “Deep Silence is Observed Before the Service.” It is hard for we who belong to the chattering class.
As Hugh T. Kerr of Pittsburgh’s Shadyside Church wrote, the Holy Communion “is a service of sacramental silence in which the voice of God is heard...In these days when people are seldom alone, this period of silence is a means of grace.” And Oswald Milligan has remarked, “Rightly used, the silence of a great congregation whilst communicating may be one of the most uplifting and inspiring influences that flow from the observance of the Sacrament. It has the inestimable advantage of providing a time when the voice of man being hushed, Christ is left free to speak His own word to the soul that waits upon Him.”
Danny McKenzie, a son of our congregation, has mused upon these subjects, and I am impressed by his thoughts, which I quote with the permission of The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal:
“My Presbyterian upbringing comes back during each communion service at our Methodist church. Though I try awfully hard to concentrate on the meaning of the service, my mind drifts off as soon as Virginia Miller, our organist, begins playing her medley of old standards.
“I find myself back in Pew 7 on the south side of the First Presbyterian Church in Holly Springs—our usual seat where in my pre-teen years I sat with my parents every Sunday, almost without fail.
“Our communion services were quiet. Mary Doxey didn’t play the organ, and the choir she directed didn’t sing. The only sound was the clacking of the little glasses being placed in their wooden holders on the backs of our 100–year-old wooden pews when we were finished drinking the grape juice that even we kids knew really wasn’t wine.
“Well, that wasn’t the only sound. Since my father was doing his elder’s duty and serving communion, my mother and I sat by ourselves over in Pew 7. In this very special quiet, I could hear her humming softly, usually one or two of the old favorites. The very real peace and the quiet that permeated our sanctuary was, by itself, enough to tell me that though I didn’t fully understand the meaning of the communion service, I did indeed know that it was a very special time. My mother’s soft soprano humming made it all the more special.
“ ‘When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died. . . .’ My father, God rest his soul (not to mention his vocal chords), couldn’t have carried a tune if he’d had an 18–wheeler, but he encouraged all of us—my brother, two sisters and me—to sing, and especially to join the choir.
“So it was that towards the end of my eighth-grade year I found myself in Mrs. Doxey’s choir, a place I would be nearly every Sunday for the next several years. My mother was there, too, and she was smiling. Perhaps it was because she was finally rid of the weekly chore of making me sit still. Probably, it was because she was singing again.
“ ‘Are ye able,’ said the Master, ‘to be crucified with me.’ Those old hymns were a comfort to my mother in her last years, especially when her eyes and knees had gone bad. She would hobble around her home in Benton County, where she and my father had lived in their retirement years, singing softly to herself. I have no doubts the words and their meanings relieved untold amounts of pain in her knees, and the frustration of being nearly blind.
“On mornings when it wasn’t so cold, she would take her coffee and go sit on the deck under God’s roof of oaks and elms. It was always difficult deciding whether to go sit with her or to stand quietly and listen to her singing. She would, of course, stop singing when someone came up, so I usually listened for awhile, then went and sat with her.
“ ‘Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee. . . .’ Nowadays, as Virginia Miller plays her medley of old standards during communion, and as Marvin Tatum and I softly hum along, I think back to those early Presbyterian days, and to my mother and her humming.”
We will be glad when our organist returns.
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