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The sounds of silence

The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenements halls and whispered in the sounds of silence. – Paul Simon, 20th century

German theologian Dorothee Söelle, in her brilliant book, Suffering, describes silence as the surest sign of despair. Healing from such profound suffering begins with speech. When we are finally able to name the source of our suffering and despair, it begins to lose its’ power to paralyze and mute our lives.

The culture that Jesus was born into was pure agony. The Jews of his age lived as an occupied people whose political and religious life has been hijacked by corrupt leaders – especially the various Herodian kings. John the baptizer began speaking truth in the midst of this intense suffering and quickly loses his life when his criticism of Herod’s marriage incurs the wrath of the reigning despot. Jesus eventually walks the same path as John preaching good news to the poor, release to the captives, and a renewal of God’s realm and meets a gruesome end at the hands of the Romans aided by a corrupt religious hierarchy. Speaking truth to power during the time of Jesus was deadly. It can still be dangerous – even if you are not a political activist.

I understand this in some small part because of Nancy McIntyre, my Sunday school teacher in junior high school. In 2002, in order to honor the death of my father in 1999, I went back to Perryton, the little town in the Texas panhandle where I was raised and called her up. The voice on the other end of the telephone showed absolutely no surprise when after 20 some odd years I called and simply said, “Hi Nancy. It’s Melinda McLain”. Without a moment’s hesitation she responded, “Well it is so good to hear from you. I understand you are now a pastor in the United Church of Christ. I expect that I am somewhat responsible for that.” Gulp. “Why yes ma’am, I suppose you are.” She then asked, “the UCC ordains gay people don’t they?” “Why yes ma’am, we do”, I replied. “That’s good”, she says, “you know we left the Presbyterian church because they won’t”.

Nancy McIntyre was my favorite Sunday school teacher at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Perryton, Texas. Not only did she teach me about the Christian faith and the Bible, we were also spiritual outlaws together and she was my first adult friend. Nancy was an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (still a bit rare in the early 70’s in the Texas panhandle) and a lay preacher. She would take me with her when she would go to preach in one small town or another and I would sing a solo with my guitar usually Simon and Garfunkle’s “The Sounds of Silence” or Mac Davis’ “Stop and Smell the Roses”. After the benediction, we would literally run to the car before, as Nancy used to say, “they catch us and run us out of town”. So I suppose it is no surprise that I am still a bit of a spiritual outlaw. And it was a delight to find out that as my spiritual journey had moved me along, my favorite teacher was moving in tandem. When I sat with her at her kitchen table out on the breaks of the Canadian river, I heard her speak of Bishop Spong and John Dominick Crossan like they were old friends.

Several years later I heard she had built a chapel (see photo) at their ranch in the middle of nowhere and I drove out to visit again. Unfortunately, she was now dying of pancreatic cancer. I brought the elements of communion and a stole and celebrated the eucharist on my knees before her. She told me, “I haven’t said this before, but I know I will see you again in another place.” Such love, such faith, but most importantly, the willingness to show up and speak out.

I began this everyday blogging project on December 2nd, 2012 as a “spiritual Advent project”. It is my attempt to “speak” out some of the wisdom I have accumulated in my years as a pastor and believer. I want to put forth words of hope and encouragement for the various communities to whom I’m accountable and remember with love those that nurtured me. Some of the best benefits to undertaking any sort of daily spiritual practice or project are that we receive gifts of the Spirit in addition to packages under the tree. One of the best practices is to remember those who have blessed you with gratitude and be willing to make amends to those with whom you are estranged.

If you would like to use this season as a means for spiritual growth, consider the things that you have a hard time talking about or maybe some past action that still fills you with shame. Is there a problem that makes you shake your head and sigh, “I just don’t know what to do”? Or perhaps you just need to say something to someone in your life that has remained unsaid. Whatever it is, see if you can use this season to move from shame to love, and from anxiety to gratitude. And when we can do this, there will be just a bit more room for the Christ child to be born in our lives.

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