December 5, 2013
I’ve been reading a book about silence. Anne D. LeClare describes the things she has learned from spending two days a month in silence in her book Listening Below the Noise. Who knew that 223 pages could be filled with words about going without words?
In one chapter, LeClare speaks silence as an act of giving up the right to be in control. She says, “To be speechless is to relinquish control, to know that there is nothing we can do, including expressing empathy in the face of another’s distress. At heart, silence is an exercise in surrender” (57).
Perhaps it’s the season, but as I read those words, my first thought of was Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, whose story begins the Gospel of Luke. Like a latter-day Abraham and Sarah, Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth were advanced in years and childless. Zacharias, a priest, was chosen by lot to offer incense in the temple’s holy place, and, while there, an angel appeared to him, bringing the promise of a child. Yet, in spite of surely knowing how Sarah was given a child in her old age, Zacharias questioned, “How shall I know this for certain? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
If angels feel exasperation, I imagine this one did. The man was face to face with an angel, and he wanted more proof?
The angel responded, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God; and I have been sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news. And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which shall be fulfilled at the proper time.” (Luke 1:5-20)
Silence. Surrender. No voice with which to ask for evidence. No voice with which to confer with wise men. No voice with which to explain these things to his wife. In silence Zacharias would wait, and in silence he would become the father of a son.
Long years before Zacharias, Job learned the surrender of silence, faced with the whirlwind of an answering God: “Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to Thee? I lay my hand on my mouth. Once I have spoken, and I will not answer; even twice, and I will add no more” (Job 40:3-5).
As I think of it, scripture is full of admonitions to silence. In Psalm 46, God commands us to “Be still, and know that [He] is God.” In Isaiah 41, just after the passage promising new strength to those who wait on the Lord, God summons the coastlands to listen to Him in silence.
Those who wait do surrender. They are silent. Waiting involves giving up the right to make things happen, and even talking is a way of making things happen.
In Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, silent is the one thing the characters refuse to be. They may be waiting, but they can’t bear to only wait. They would rather talk nonsense than wait quietly, because even speaking nonsense gives the illusion of being in control: you are the one speaking, producing the nonsense; you aren’t having to let someone else do it.
In scripture, the best example of silence is Christ Himself, who “was oppressed and . . . afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Christ’s silence, more than any other, was perfect surrender to the will of His Father.
Zacharias had his power of speech taken away; Job was compelled to silence by a terrifying demonstration of the power of God. Christ, Who of all people had most right to speak in His own defense or complain of injustice, was silent in absolute submission to the Father whose perfect love He knew. He waited on the Lord, for salvation not only for Himself, but for all His elect.
And for His silent obedience, for this surrender to sinful men, God highly exalted Him, giving Him the name above every name.
To be silent, to relinquish control, is, yes, to know that there is nothing we can do. But it is also to know that God has done everything. Those who wait on Him will see His word fulfilled at the proper time. No speech of ours can alter that.
©2013 by Stacy Nott
December 2, 2013
Waiting for Godot in British Literature today. One critic famously quipped that this is “a play in which nothing happens, twice.” The claim seems justified when you peruse the pages in which two characters wait beside a dead tree on an empty country road for the arrival of one who never arrives.
We set the stage for the Samuel Beckett’s seminal tragicomedy — philosophically speaking — with a set of -isms: Modernism, Existentialism, Absurdism, which give us a universe drained of meaning except that which we create for ourselves by deliberate action. (And there’s debate about whether the actions can be deliberate, whether they can mean, but I won’t debate that now.) It seems that Beckett’s two main characters find their meaning in the fact of their waiting: “What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come–”
But waiting is no easy thing to do, and Beckett’s characters attempt to pass the time with formulaic dialog, odd games, speculations, and an apparently endless cycle of repeated action to avoid the pain of thinking, though the first line of the play acknowledges that there is “Nothing to be done.” If waiting defines them, how does that definition change when we realize that their waiting is a hopeless project?
I listened to Advent music as I drove home from teaching, because it is Advent season, and because this music is beautiful, and as I drove I reflected on this other waiting.
Centuries of waiting for an arrival, clinging to prophecies, to hopes, to rituals which must often have felt as empty as the actions of Beckett’s waiting pair. The waiting of a young girl, feeling the kicks of impossible life in her rounding belly, poised on the edge of the fullness of time. The waiting of the magi, full of the wisdom of the stars, opening themselves to a strange expectation, a strange journey. The waiting of shepherds who did not know, perhaps, that they had been waiting until they found themselves in that wild scramble to a stable outside Bethlehem. The waiting of an old man, eager to see a child and depart in peace. The waiting of an old woman, living as a widow in the temple, worshiping, fasting, praying for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Though there must have been days when they were heart-sick with hope deferred, their desire saw its fulfillment. Theirs is no story of waiting for an ever-absent Godot; theirs is the story of the arrival of God-with-us. And their story is also our story.
As we remember their waiting, we live in our own waiting, knowing that this God who kept His promise to arrive will surely keep His promise to return, knowing that none who wait for Him shall be put to shame.
Rest here, weary soul. You are not defined by the fact that you are waiting; you are defined by the One for Whom you wait. He opens blind eyes, relieves captives of their chains, lifts the dead from their graves.
He gives meaning larger than any -ism; He makes broken things whole; He makes the waiting worthwhile.
©2013 by Stacy Nott
November 21, 2013
I’ve been thinking about how much He knows.
The path around the pond is invisible if you don’t know it, covered thickly in leaves. As I sat beside the pond, leaves fell, and acorns fell, and I saw millions — literally millions — of things, though I did not consciously notice all of them.
If He knows my rising up and my sitting down, if He scrutinizes my path — and He does — He knew each leaf, each acorn that I crushed under my boots this morning. He knew how they got there, how they grew, how they were changed by my passing feet.
And if He understands my thought from afar — not even I understand my thought — He understood each of the millions of things that came within my line of vision to be processed by my thoughts, to form the image that I saw.
He knows when a sparrow falls, and if He knows that He must also know when sparrows do not fall. He must know when they fly, how each feather on each wing moves, catches the wind. He must know each twig around which tiny sparrow feet cling.
And if He knows each twig, He knows the trees on which they grow, the angles of the branches, the texture of the bark, the paths by which the sap flows from deep-reaching roots to tender tree-top. He knows each leaf, from its emergence in knobbly bud to the day it flutters, butterfly-like, to earth. He knows the pattern of veins in each leaf, though no two are alike, knows how their corners curl, knows each spot and imperfection, and each perfection.
Not of all leaves in general, but of each specific leaf, of the specific leaf I turned between thumb and forefinger, the specific leaf whose lines I traced with my eyes this morning. He knew its brown and its green tinges, knew how one part disintegrated, leaving an area of delicate web-work. He knew all that before I saw it, before I picked it up. And He knows where it is now, whether it remains where I dropped it on the dusty deck-boards, whether it was blown away, covered by other leaves.
I cannot think of anything He does not know. I cannot think anything He does not know.
And I could trace out details, go with a magnifying glass along the path and examine each leaf, each mark in the dirt. I could speculate until my mind was exhausted, imagine until my imagination was used up, but never outstrip His knowledge.
And yet, and yet, He knows me. He cares to know me, to name me, to set His love on me, to die for me.
©2013 by Stacy Nott
November 18, 2013
And will we ever know, in this story He tells, which parts are the parts we’re supposed to be noticing?
I took my camera out on a walk, filled the frame with this leaf, that pond-ripple. The battery died just when I thought I’d found the thing that would make the best photos.
Are we supposed to be saving, waiting for the perfect thing to fill the camera lens? Or should we spend until the battery goes, trusting that we’ll capture what we ought, unconcerned about what else there may be?
(Did Jesus save up His powers, just for the most important healings? And hasn’t He promised to be our strength?)
None of it belongs to us. And how are we to know?
I am not the one who can say which smiles are most needed, which words will be remembered, which words will even be heard. The treasures of forever are not stored in the chambers of time. The fruits of forever do not grow on the trees of time.
And my eyes, as yet, can’t see forever, except in upside-down reflections on the rippling surface of time.
And so I’m left guessing, wondering. Praying that He’ll do what, after all, He promised to do. That He’ll make the fruit grow, that He’ll mound up the treasures. That He’ll one day strip time from my eyes and let me see the things I don’t know now.
And though it sometimes seems that He says “No” to the things that look to me like the best things, I know that this Righteous One, who knows me through and through, whose power is beyond all and the source of all, does not deprive me of the best, and in His time, He makes it all beautiful.
©2013 by Stacy Nott
November 15, 2013
I remember memorizing Psalm 1 in kindergarten or first grade, standing in our green-carpeted, pine-paneled school room beside my little turquoise-topped desk, a bulletin board covered in butterflies beside me:
“He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which bears its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither, and whatever he does, he prospers.”
I don’t know what they explained to me then, what I picked up by osmosis, but there have been the words ever since in my mind, sending down deep roots, reaching up leafy branches. And I love trees.
They toss their golden leaves against blue skies this afternoon, and they whisper of so many tree-stories: a different connotation for each leaf that drifts down.
The forbidden tree of Eden, with its fruit alluring the first Adam into sin. The Accursed Tree of Golgotha, the fruit of which — Christ’s death — makes payment for that sin. The Tree of Life at the new Jerusalem, healing nations with its leaves.
And the blessed ones, like trees, rooted in heaven, visible on earth, drinking water of life from the spring which does not run dry, no matter where on earth they move. The Lord knows their ways, ensures their fruit, prunes them into prosperity.
Joining Lisa-Jo and her Friday blog party, writing on today’s prompt: Tree. Use the button above to see what it’s all about!
©2013 by Stacy Nott
November 8, 2013
“We live in an age of surfaces,” quoth Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. I taught that on Monday. “We live, as we dream, alone,” quoth Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I taught that on Wednesday. Marlow’s loneliness stems, I think, from Lady Bracknell’s surfaces, from that fact that we only see the exteriors of people, only what they do; we don’t get to see, often, who they actually are.
Both stories, in very different ways, deal with the issue of truth. How do we know it? Can we know it? What is it, when it is known? I hadn’t expected them to fit together as well as they do, but they do.
Buzzwords in our culture are “authentic” and “real.” They are so much used that I shy away from them, feeling that their popularity has rendered them inauthentic and unreal. They’ve become a part of our culture’s surface, things everyone wants to be, but things defined externally: “authentic” people have to fit a certain mold, look a certain way. We get so fixated on letting people see the messy authenticity of our lives, that showing them a clean room can seem artificial somehow. Even though our versions of “messy” can often be just as artificial.
Truth comes, I think, not from trying to be real or authentic, but from being about something bigger than what you are, something bigger than you are. The most real people I’ve met aren’t too worried about being real; they’re worried about what is real. They love the Truth.
Truth is neither the ridiculous farce of Oscar Wilde’s play, nor the grim horror of Conrad’s story. It combines both. Wilde’s characters get better than they deserve. Conrad’s come against the truth of their own depravity. The truth — Truth — presents us with our depravity, and offers us wildly more than we deserve: life for our death, hope for our desperation, glory in place of our shame. Christ wears the horror of our iniquity and clothes us with the earnest that is His blood, a promise for a future in which we are His and like Him.
Those who dwell in this Truth, delight in this Truth, live in this world of dim reflections, of surfaces, but they have a foot in the Kingdom of face-to-face. They are known fully, and they shall fully know.
The truth is, I broke all the rules in composing this, but I did start with Lisa-Jo’s Five Minute Friday prompt: “truth.” If you’d like to join in, or read more posts on her prompt, use the button above.
©2013 by Stacy Nott
November 1, 2013
A morning of startling gorgeousness after a long day of rain.
I began my classes with Psalm 30: “Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning.”
I heard the shout in golden fog rising from the river, from the grass. I heard it in the rust and red and gold and green of leaves which have finally realized that it is autumn rather than summer. I heard it in the vee of geese, powerful wings pumping them over rooftops in the sunrise. It blinded me in sunlight on my dirty car windshield; it warmed me in sunlight on the side of my face. It danced with the prancing steps of the terrier on his small way home.
And there it was, in my students’ faces, as they came awake belatedly, after I dismissed them earlier than usual.
And though we deserve to wear the garments of mourning all our days, He steals the sackcloth to which we cling; He bids us dance.
This is grace.
Participating in Lisa-Jo Baker’s Five Minute Friday today, without writing for Word-Wonder (because Word-Wonder is finished). If you’d like to join in, or read more posts on the prompt — grace — use the button above.
©2013 by Stacy Nott
October 30, 2013
How does one conclude thirty-one days of blogging about words? I struggle with conclusions: the ends of papers, the ends of stories, the ends of semesters, of chapters in life. I don’t like goodbyes, and at the same time I feel a sort of panicky necessity to do goodbyes well — because there have been times when I haven’t done them well, and I regret those times.
This is not a goodbye, of course; it’s just the thirty-first of thirty-one posts, the post which signifies a task complete, a challenge met. But we have a tradition, in our culture, of putting special words at the ends of things: farewell speeches, parting toasts, even “The End” on the last page of a storybook. We like to mark endings, to pause and reflect on what has come before, to notice what was important or meaningful.
What then has been important or meaningful? Well, I blogged every day, and I wasn’t sure I could do that. And I spent a good bit of time thinking about words, sentences, stories, and I had a lot more thoughts than I wrote here, and that was good. And I think, perhaps, some of the things written here are important. No, I know they are.
I keep circling back to Christ the Word, to God the Author-Creator, to the fact that we’re in a story He’s telling, that we don’t know the story yet, that we haven’t gotten to the place marked “The End.”
Today, as I think about “The End,” here’s my thought: this story of ours, this story God is telling, doesn’t have a place marked “The End.” Some parts will end, but the story won’t. I’ve written of those endings: the completion of creation when behold, it was very good. The completion of Christ’s work on the cross, when it was finished. The completion of this story of sin and death when the new heavens and the new earth arrive, and the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, declares that the old things have passed away.
But when He declares that old things have passed away, He also declares that new things have come. That ending is equally a beginning. It ends this realm of time, this brief space in which we struggle and suffer, but it begins an eternity of glory, with which what Paul describes as “this light, momentary affliction” is not worthy to be compared. This is measured and soon over. That is immeasurable and never-ending.
There we will see the Word — the Word who was in the beginning with God — face to face, and we are told that we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. There shall be no more incomplete thoughts: the partial shall pass away and we shall know fully. There the story continues, and it is a tale of celebration, of healing, of satisfaction. There the songs continue, day and night.
The theme of the songs, the center of the stories, the end mark on each sentence? That Word, Faithful and True, King of kings, Lord of lords.
©2013 by Stacy Nott
October 29, 2013
And I’ve begun two or three posts in my head over the past few days. They’ve used words, of course, but they haven’t been about words; they’ve been about the striped clouds, the scarlet vines in the trees, they way a dear friend laughed with me at the incomprehensibility of God’s workings. This is part of the wonder of words: their versatility.
We use them to tell the truth and to conceal the truth, to express emotion and to evoke emotion, to describe reality and to describe fantasy, to persuade, to dissuade, to blame, to praise, to flatter, to insult, and, ah yes, to bless and to curse.
The world in which “words can never hurt me” is not the world we inhabit. Though, on some level or other, it is possible to say that words are “only words” — not causing physical damage — yet “only words” can carry massive weight for good or for ill. Revolutions begin with “only words;” our Declaration of Independence is “only words.” We conduct so much of the business of life in words: wedding vows, oaths of office, criminal trials. We frame friendships atop foundations of tentative words, and sometimes undermine those same foundations with more words. One story, or one song, can define a generation, though stories and songs are “only words.”
We never know, really, where our words will go, or how they will be heard. Some of my more hasty blog posts have been better received than those in which I invested hours, and every now and then I’m caught off guard by someone who took my words to heart, some way or other.
And I wonder at it.
©2013 by Stacy Nott
October 28, 2013
Today is a re-post from just under a year ago, since I’ve been wondering over words much longer than this month, and since we build whole worlds, not simply sentences, stories, and songs, out of words. You can find the original post here.
“People make worlds out of words.”*
They do. I know it. I have lived in those worlds, often and often, and they have taught me to make sense out of my own world, which is also, as it happens, made out of words, by the Word, beginning when God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
“And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. And God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness He called ‘night.’ And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”**
Later, He made man, not by the familiar “Let there be” formula, but with His own hands, from dust, infusing him with His own breath. This was the way to make man in God’s own image, according to God’s likeness: great God-hands fashioning, great God-breath made small enough to fill the fragile lungs. There stood man, a small maker after the image of the great Maker.
His world was ready-made for him, but to him was given the gift of words, the task of naming, so that by a word one man could call up a bit of the world in another man’s mind. So that I may say “cat,” and you see it, though your physical eyes are not on it. That was the beginning.
Later still, at Babel, when all the people of the world spoke one language, they planned to build a world to reach to God. (Still hearing, no doubt, the hissing seduction from the Garden, that God was keeping some good from them, that they must reach out their hands to take it.)
God thwarted their building plan, not by toppling the tower, as I might have done had I been God, but instead by destroying their world-building capability: their language. No longer could one man build a world to which all the others could be effortlessly privy. No longer will every person to whom I say, “cat,” see the thing that I mean.
In their own languages, the people recreated the story. The great project: that tower; the labor involved; the visionaries who, with their words, helped all the others to see it; the friend who labored alongside, with whom one shared words while toiling with stones.
And then the day when the friend gazed with uncomprehending eyes, even at the most commonplace comment, when the friend spoke, and the sounds were utterly new – unlike even the garbling of a baby. The visionary attempted to rally the people, but they told each other he was insane, for he was saying nothing, and they could not understand one another any more than they could understand him.
Though all their meanings were in agreement, they could not understand it, and left the words for blows, and left the blows behind with the project. They knew that the blows were sinful, that such sinners could not hope to find God, even at the top of the highest tower in the world, even if building the tower had not become a hopeless task.
Their worlds divided by only words – and the saying goes that “words will never harm me”! – they abandoned the tower project, wandered off with their different visions, different words, building worlds all over the world.
But the dividing wall – words – has now been broken; to the men who could not reach up to God, God has come down: the Word to crush the wall and heal the breach, the Word to bruise the head of the hissing seducer, to bring all good things to the people who could not even reach for them.
So that the world made by words, broken by words, is restored by the Word. Even now, when God says, “Let there be light,” there is light.
*Donald T. Williams, “Christian Poetics, Past and Present.” The Christian Imagination. Ed. Leland Ryken. Colorado Springs: Shaw, 2002.
© 2013 by Stacy Nott