With a degree of trepidation I have decided to write a series of reflections relating to the present epidemic. My trepidation arises from the fact that social media is overwhelmed by everybody wanting to have their say about the virus. Why add to the weight of words? I feel like echoing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady: “Words, words, I am sick of words!” Now is not a time for pontificating – now is the time for silence, and reflection. In the words of the ‘Teacher’ (NRSV): “There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Eccl 3.7). Now is the time not to speak, but to keep silence.
I am struck by the silence of the prophet Ezekiel. After his vision of God in all his glory followed by his commissioning to be God’s spokesman, he wrote: “I came to the exiles at Tel-abib, who lived by the River Chebar. And I sat there among them stunned, for seven days” (Ezek 3.15). He was “astonished” (AV), “overcome” (GNB); “deeply distressed” (NIV), “in a state of consternation” (REB), and “appalled” (The Message). Or as the commentator Joseph Blenkinsopp suggested, “he remained among his fellow deportees in a catatonic state”. What lay at the root of this sense of shock? Was Ezekiel overwhelmed by his vision of God or by the challenge of his calling – or was he first and foremost overcome by the sufferings of his compatriots in exile? Tel-abib was literally a “dump “of a place. There in a desert waste, far away from home, God’s people were eking out an existence by the river Chebar. This surely is the thrust of the AV translation: “I sat where they sat”: Ezekiel was lost for words and had nothing to say. Here is a Biblical parallel to the pandemic we face. At a time when thousands and thousands of people are losing their lives, let’s show a little empathy by simply ‘shutting up’.
There will be “a time to speak”, but now is the moment. That is why I did not pull my recent series on worship in 1 & 2 Timothy. I allowed time to pass – judging it to be a time for stillness and reflection. Psalm 46 comes to mind, written at a time when the very foundations of the Psalmist’s world seemed to be under threat.
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult
In this context he gives a word from the Lord: “Be still and know that I am God”. Be still and allow the reality of God’s presence to seep into your heart and mind. This is the word that we need to hear. As any experienced minister knows, there are times when we can only sit and be silent, as we accompany people in their pain. What is there to say when a baby has died, when a young man has committed suicide, when a young mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer, when coronavirus strikes and loved ones are taken? All we can do is to sit there, hold a hand perhaps, and pray in our hearts for those who are traumatized at what life seems to have thrown at them.
“To whom” cried out the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger (4 BC – 65 AD), “can any man say – ‘Here I am! Behold me in my nakedness, my wounds, my secret grief, my despair, my betrayal, my pain, my tongue which cannot express my sorrow, my terror, my abandonment. Listen to me for a day – an hour – a moment! Lest I expire in my terrible wilderness, my lonely silence! Oh God, is there no one to listen?’” Or in the words of American hospital chaplain Shuji Moriichi: “We must provide careful listening to silence. Far different from ‘dead air’ or ‘empty space that needs to be filled’, the absence of words actually can hold the person’s emotional complexities, spotlight the mingling conflicted thoughts and feelings, or invite us deeper into the story that has not yet been fully told.”
After seven days of stillness the Lord gave Ezekiel “a word”. Next week I too shall begin to share some “words” of reflection. But at this point let me end with a poem which speaks of ‘stopping and listening’. Alas, I am not clear about the authorship. Some attribute it to an Irish writer, Kathleen O’Meara, from her novel Iza’s Story (1869); others to an American Catherine O’Meara, in her 2020 post in The Daily Round Blog with the title ‘The Time of Pandemic’:
And people stayed home
And read books and listened
And rested and exercised
And made art and played and learned new ways of being
And listened deeper
Someone met their shadow
And people began to think differently
And people healed
And in the absence of people who lived in different ways
Dangerous, meaningless and heartless
Even the Earth began to heal
And when the danger ended
And people found each other
Grieved for the dead people
And they made new choices
And dreamed of new visions
And created new ways of life
And healed the Earth completely
Just as they were healed themselves