The countdown to Christmas has commenced and for some, chaos and clutter are collecting not clearing. I don’t know if any of the retail stores have posted their signs that say “so many shopping days left” but I am aware that there is a digital app that personalizes one’s countdown to Christmas.
In addition to telling us our elf’s name and how many sleeps we have until December 25, the app boldly states how many days, hours, minutes and even seconds there are until Christmas.
Society’s calendars often tell us there are a certain number of shopping days before Christmas. I like to imagine the church calendar to say there are a certain number of 22 stopping days before Christmas – that we might use this time to slow down and inventory our hopes and dreams – not just for ourselves but for others too – including what we imagine God’s hopes to be.
In the gospel according to Luke, as they receive news that they will become parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth experience long periods of silence and or seclusion.
Maybe it could be a gift for us to find some extended time in the Advent season to be speechless, to listen—to God, to friends, to the yearnings of others.
What if we blocked out some of the noisy chatter in our lives over the next four weeks to listen to what God may be saying to us? Maybe that pondering could bring us a season of more hope, joy, peace and love. Maybe it could help prepare us for the work God calls us to do in 2024.
Yet, anyone who knows me well knows without a doubt that any period of silence for me is a challenge. I struggle to be still.
During my last semester of seminary, I enrolled in a course called “The interior life of a pastor”. There were two of us in the program plus our professor, Kay Northcutt. Part of that class included a three-day silent retreat. My instructor knew me well enough to know that three days of silence was going to be a challenge for me. That didn’t keep her from holding me accountable to silence.
The spring morning when I left for retreat, I dropped off Chuck at his parent’s house in Tulsa. As I was getting back into the car to leave, I found on the ground a chrysalis. It probably wasn’t the most earth-friendly thing to do, but I picked it up and put it in a mason jar. It would go on the silent retreat with me.
A couple of hours later, I pulled up the drive to an old farmhouse out on the western prairie of Oklahoma where we would stay for two nights. The proprietors called it “Turtle Rock Retreat.” While there, we were to cook our food communally and eat it communally – in silence. We were to navigate the countryside - in silence.
We could have one phone call a day. We would enter dialogue with each other only during our prayer and study time in the morning.
I thought about dropping the course after receiving those instructions. The first few hours of that retreat were torture. I wanted to call Chuck so much. I wanted to talk to my fellow seminarian who I couldn’t help but pass on the dirt paths to the barn. But I didn’t. Hours into this deal, I found myself a place to plop on an old cellar hill. And finally, allowed silence to invade my spirit.
All kinds of memories flooded my mind. There I was on a working farm. I was raised on a working farm. I relived the painful loss of my dad when he was 56 – and didn’t get to farm in retirement.
My brain would not slow down – the sound of silence was deafening - Thoughts of estranged relationships would not leave me alone. My list of “to dos” wanted room in my head too. I did not like this silent retreat one iota! But I persevered through the silence.
The second day, after breakfast and community study time, I walked alone down the country lane carrying my chrysalis in the mason jar. The butterfly inside it moved back and forth making it rattle. And I came upon an old cemetery - moss covered headstones dotted the land. I wandered around and found the place where one of God’s beloved named Florence was laid to rest.
I stood over Flo’s grave and cried – not weeping for her – but for myself – finding release for all those difficult to deal with things that first filled my silence. Then, I took the cocoon from the jar, its gyrations felt funny in mu hand, the creature inside was close to bursting out. I laid it gently on the ledge of “Flo’s” headstone, turned around and walked back to the farmhouse allowing myself to imagine the beautiful creature that would soon emerge.
My professor was on the front porch with a tray holding three cups of tea. She motioned an invitation to me to take a seat in one of the old rockers. The same invitation was issued to my classmate. The three of us sat in silence, sipping tea steeped with jasmine.
They had to notice that my mason jar was empty – but, of course, they couldn’t say anything about it. And, as a matter of fact, neither of them ever did…..until one Christmas.
Several years after the silent retreat, Chuck and I got a card from my professor, Kay Northcutt. Inside the card, Kay wrote, “Here’s wishing we were on a porch in Oklahoma – about to release a chrysalis – but wait – that’s exactly what Christmas is!”