Silence Is Not Absence

In this third post in our Advent blog series ‘Into the Silence’ Hannah shares her own personal encounter with the Presence that awaits us in the silence.

This time last year it was a cold, grey day and I sat across from my spiritual director, grappling with my understanding of God. Winter was hard for me last year, and I wanted answers. Wise, insightful, and extremely patient, (did I mention extremely patient? Seriously, the woman has ninja skills…) she looked me in the face and gently admonished me.

“Do not confuse silence with absence. He is still here.”

That sentence has reverberated around my brain for the last year. Silence and absence, two very different things. Not inevitable bedfellows after all, but two distinct entities, in which God occupies the former and not the latter.

It came home to me one night when I found myself in a face off with my three year old. As with most parents I find I cannot quite recall what the particular issue had been that night, but no doubt it had been a long day, and there had been some form of tantrum. In an effort to calm her down, I found myself simply swooping up her protesting angry body and holding her against my chest. Rocking. There were no words; she and I were past that point. I was just there – silent but undoubtedly present. The simple rhythm of her hot body pressed into mine, the sway of our limbs as I soothed her with my presence.

And there – all of a sudden – there He was too. Silence and presence filling every cavity of the room, rocking me, rocking her.

“He is not absent, He is present”, I gasped.

Silence is unnerving. Believe me, I’ve been there. How do we wait? What do we say? When will this vortex of deafening quiet END?! Perplexed and frustrated, angry and irritated, we could easily shake our fists at this silent Father. We itch to be doing something, to be making progress, to in some way be climbing our way out of this darkness. And we, sadly, miss the point.

In the silence we come to terms with our own inability to fix anything. In the silence we discover a God who is far more interested in being with us than in giving us our next assignment. In the silence, we encounter a God who would swoop us up and rock us, gently; our thumping heads pressed into his chest, our beating hearts slowing as we receive his presence. He doesn’t need words for this kind of communion. Silence is not absence. And there, my friends, therein lies the hope. He is still here.

Immanuel, God with us. Happy Advent, one and all.

Hannah Montgomery is wife to Tom, mother to Charlie and Grace, mentor, friend, leader… But most importantly, she is a woman who seeks to know personally the deep heart of God. Her pilgrimage into that deep heart of God has not always been easy, but along the way she has discovered some beautiful truths that provide nourishment to others on their journeys.

The Sounds of Silence

Physical and spiritual breathless escape. The infamous Queen was out to get him, to make mincemeat of him. Where could he go to escape the prophet-hunter?

South. South. I must go south – as far as I can from her dragon-like, prophetic-consuming appetite.” He ran and ran, collapsing in despair, depression and self-destruction. God came to him in a deep sleep, tip-toeing round his foetal-like body, with a loaf of fresh bread just baked in heaven’s oven and a jug of fresh cool water from heaven’s springs, placing them by his head. He came again shaking his prophet awake. Speaking solitary words to the broken man “rise up and eat, and drink!”. The prophet sat up and guzzled and slugged the provisions of heaven until he lay back with a satisfied burp and fell asleep again. Heaven’s kitchens repeated the menu of fresh bread and water. Another shake and the prophet was awake and given instructions to eat, get up and embark on a long long journey of 40 days and nights into the deserted wilderness, into the solitude and the silence.

He stepped away from the bush, headed south, south, south. Finally the Mountain of God sat dominating the skyline. He clambered up the side following in the steps of Moses his prophetic hero.

There was no-one around. He took in the sights and sounds of the mountain top, the cleft in the rock, the cave, imagining the wonder of the revealing glory of God to Moses all these hundreds of years before.

The cave became his refuge. A place to shelter and sleep. God came again, this time with a question: “do you know why you are here?” The Prophet’s response was full of self – self-justification, self-pity and self-defensiveness. God then promised that he would pass by, if he abandoned the security of the cave and stood in the open, vulnerable and exposed.

Empty hurricane – no God. Empty earthquake – no God. Empty fire – surely he would come in the fire! – no God. God had not come. Only silence, deep, mountain silence. But the sound of silence was filled with presence, as silence between longtime lovers is pregnant with conversation beyond the confines of words and sentences. The intimate, close up and personal whisper of heaven caressed his prophetic ears again. Baulking and then receiving these sounds of silence – new purpose, new vision, new commission. A life-giving, expanded prophetic calling. The silence echoing with history, reverberating with sounds of God’s silent presence. With a quickened step he took up his call and set out down the mountain.

God came. He came in many phenomena and forms. He came in words and he came in silence. At the dawn of Advent 2019 feel the stir of the Spirit drawing you into solitude, silence and fresh intimate revelation of God and his purpose for your life as he comes to you in silence.

Graham Black is married to the lovely Hazel, is a friend to God and many who need a listening ear, and he has spent many years of his life faithfully praying for his city of Aberdeen. He is a man well acquainted with the silence and solitude he writes about here and is a wonderful story-teller.

Into the Silence…

This is the first of our Advent blog series on “Into the Silence.”

Advent. Coming.

Right now as I type, the Edinburgh Christmas market is in full swing, my Facebook and Instagram feeds are filled with friends’ pictures of their Christmas trees and decorations adorning their homes, and the quintessential poinsettia sits on my dining table.

However, the special day that has inspired all of this festivity is not yet here. This is Advent. This is coming.

I have a few friends who dread the “Christmas season” because the pace of life revs up to a manic speed and they find themselves then collapsing in exhaustion on Boxing Day. I wonder how many of us can relate?

And I wonder if this indicates that we are in a way actually missing out on Advent? Because the very word itself suggests a season of preparation for a great arrival.

Jan L. Richardson puts it this way:
The season of Advent means there is something on the horizon the likes of which we have never seen before… What is possible is to not see it, to miss it, to turn just as it brushes past you. And you begin to grasp what it was you missed, like Moses in the cleft of the rock, watching God’s [back] fade in the distance. So stay. Sit. Linger. Tarry. Ponder. Wait. Behold. Wonder. There will be time enough for running. For rushing. For worrying. For pushing. For now, stay. Wait. Something is on the horizon.”

Jan mentions a great arrival in Scripture – the glory of God passing before Moses in response to his refusal to rush ahead, choosing rather to wait for the presence of God to accompany, to go with them.

There is another great arrival years later. Elijah, alone in a cave in the wilderness – exhausted, scared, discouraged. God promises to meet with him then a great wind whips through, an earthquake shakes the mountains and a fire rages. But God was not present in these impressive displays. Then comes a quiet whisper. The original word for this quiet whisper actually means silence. And in the silence Elijah knows God has come to meet with him as promised and he ventures out of the cave to listen to the words of hope and destiny that God has for him.

Jesus was born into a time of silence. The prophets of Israel had become quiet and it seemed that God was giving them the “silent treatment”. But other voices were not silent. The classic Christmas song, “Silent Night” is not an entirely accurate picture of the time that Jesus was born into. There was nothing calm about it.
There was great political unrest and upheaval, fear was rampant, those in authority could not be trusted, friends were willing to betray one another for a few pieces of silver, it was every person for themselves, division was rife; injustice, poverty, greed, oppression, disease and depravity seemed to have the upper hand.
And in the noise of this chaos and into the silence of God, Jesus – the Word of God – comes. He does not come in a way that draws attention, with noise and trappings. Those who were blessed to meet him at his birth and not long after were those waiting and watching in places of quiet – shepherds, wise men who studied the skies, and two people who had devoted themselves to worship and service in the temple.

We are all living in the midst of noise right now – the noise of financial stress, the noise of cancer, the noise of strained or broken relationships, the noise of mental health concerns, the noise of negative workspaces, the noise of despair, exhaustion, loneliness, fear… And many of us may be experiencing what feels like God’s silence, that ‘dark night of the soul.’

This Advent 2019 Jesus – the Word who speaks life and hope – longs to come again in our hearts. So how do we prepare our hearts to receive him, that we do not miss him when he passes by, when he speaks in that quiet whisper?

Maybe in the midst of the parties and celebrations, cheery tunes, bright, sparkling lights and retailers competing for our attention, we need to find our cave, our mountain top, our stable. Maybe, in the midst of a “season of indulgence”, we fast something that would distract us or muffle our hearing.

However we posture ourselves this Advent, may our hearts deepest cry this Advent truly be, “Maranatha”, “Come, Lord.”

Swapping Perfection for Contentment

Emma Timms from Dunbar shares from her heart as a mum about finding rhythms that keep us in communion with God, our families and others.

How do we find a sustainable rhythm in our spiritual life, family life, work life, friendships, health and downtime? How do we stay present to what is in front of us without getting sucked into worries, fears or a screen?

How do we give ourselves the grace and permission to try, fail and figure it out along the way?

The mirage of perfection just on the horizon has kept me feeling like a failure my whole life. Peace and contentment always just out of reach. If I can just stick with getting up at 5.30am I will have time to pray, exercise and journal. If I could just keep the house in order I wouldn’t get so stressed. If I could just check social media for only 10 minutes a day I’d be more present. If I could just eat well I’d be happier. If I could just keep everyone happy…

If, if, if… When, when, when…
Contentment and peace always just out of reach.

One of the things I’m learning is to greet the day as it comes to me and just do my best. That might sound obvious but if you’ve struggled with perfectionism you will know the relief of realising your best is good enough. Amidst endless failing, half starts and frustrations, I have actually managed to develop and sustain some simple and helpful rhythms.

It’s important to note that what works for our family probably won’t work for yours and what works for yours probably won’t work for your friend down the street. And what worked for you last year might not work this year! It’s something that needs to evolve as your life does. We all have our own challenges, work commitments and family dynamics to work with so comparison, as usual, is useless!

Here are some rhythms in our home to serve as examples and to spark imagination:

Rhythm 1. Yearly
For Jon and I, we have committed to one night away together every year since we’ve had kids. It’s become something so special and life giving to our marriage.

Rhythm 2. Monthly
Every month we have some sort of adventure as a family for a whole day, away from commitments, pressures and jobs. And every month we try to give each other some form of alone time

Rhythm 3. Weekly
We practise a loose form of sabbath. Saturday looks and feels different to every other day… the kids love having our attention and time and it provides opportunity for great conversations and memory-making. The busier we get the more sacred it becomes. It’s not strict or complicated – it just stops the treadmill.

For me this takes the form of cold water swimming. It brings joy, it clears the mind, I’ve made new friends, its actually good for you, its free… it ticks all the boxes. On a deeper level, its reconnecting me with something I loved as a kid and lost as an adult. I’m finding healing through it in ways I don’t even know how to write about.

Rhythm 4. Daily
The Examen
This is an ancient Ignation practice done once or twice a day as a kind of review of the movements of God in your day. There are various ways to use it but I do it right before bed. I’ve done it most nights for the last 2 years and it helps me to process daily life, practise gratitude and stop any resentments building up.

I hope these examples inspire you in your own quest for sustainable, life-giving rhythms that keep you connected to God and alive to your own heart.

If you want to read more, I write a blog for mums at which focuses on keeping connected to the Vine in the busyness, challenges and beauty of parenting.

Emma Timms leads Discovery Church in beautiful Dunbar alongside her husband Jon, teaches pilates, is mum to some adorable children and one happy dog and has gathered other cold-water swimmers now known as the Salty Sisters of Dunbar.