Songs in the Wasteland: Silence & Presence

We continue our Celtic Advent series ‘Songs in the Wasteland’ with an old post. Hannah’s words, penned a year ago, felt even more appropriate for the current times we find ourselves in.

“O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.”
O Little Town of Bethlehem by Phillips Brooks

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.

Songs in the Wasteland: Birdsong

We are following the Celtic tradition of Advent which begins this week and, much like Lent, tends to involve 40 days of fasting, prayer and reflection in preparation for the feast of Christmas.

This year our Advent blog series follows the theme of ‘Songs in the Wasteland.’

Those of you who took part in the 24-7 Prayer Gathering Online will remember that the theme was “Strange Lands”, taken from the lament of Psalm 137, “How can we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?”

What is the ‘song of the Lord?’ Perhaps a look at Scripture can help us to identify what the ‘song of the Lord’ might be. What is the continuous thread throughout the story of Scripture? The loving pursuit of humanity by the God who never gives up. It is a continuous thread of God’s forgiveness, mercy, redemption, healing, restoration… in other words, hope.

I think the song of the Lord is a song of hope.

Hope acknowledges the reality of the present yet does not stop there – it believes for better. Hope is what occupies that uncomfortable space between the “now and not yet.”

And what else is Advent but this?

The Message version of Psalm 137 says, ‘Alongside Babylon’s rivers, we sat on the banks; we cried and cried, remembering the good old days in Zion. Alongside the quaking aspens we stacked our unplayed harps; That’s where our captors demanded songs, sarcastic and mocking: “Sing us a happy Zion song!” Oh, how could we ever sing God’s song in this wasteland?

Maybe you can relate? We could possibly interchange “Babylon’s rivers” for the Clyde, the Forth, the River Dee, the Tay…

The months of waiting, hoping have stretched out much longer than expected and now we are also feeling stretched, thin, weary. The waiting has grown long. And our once hopeful outlook has potentially faded to match the bleakness of the coming winter season – a sort of wasteland.

It was into this wasteland that the Christ-child came – quietly, subversively yet those whose hearts were in a place of preparation heard, their eyes saw.

We often view the coming of Jesus through a soft warm glow. However, the promised Saviour came at a time not unlike where we currently find ourselves – a time of political unrest, deep divisions and racism, death and poverty, captivity and suppression, fear and anxiety. Even Jesus and His family had to live as refugees for a while. The lament of Psalm 137 would have been much repeated by the people of God.

There was an article on the BBC recently about birdsong during lockdown: “…scientists confirmed a change in the birds’ vocal repertoire when the city fell quiet. The birds upped the quality of their songs, as they called to defend their territory and entice a mate. And while it might have seemed to human ears that bird song got louder, the sparrows actually sang more quietly. These sweeter, softer songs carried further given the lack of background noise.”

Birds always sing before dawn comes…” is the hauntingly beautiful line sung by Cardboard Carousel in their latest single.

What might it look like for us as the people of God to sing before the dawn comes? To enter more fully into Advent this year, opening our hearts to His coming right into our pain and mess, and then allowing the song of the Lord to arise from deep within us and fill this land with hope?