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When God Is Silent (Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching) Paperback – February 28, 1998
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Barbara Brown Taylor's When God is Silent is a gem of a little book. The Lyman Beecher Lectures she gave at Yale in 1997 are presented in an attractive new format from Cowley Publications which suggests that one has picked up something of an art book, something to be cherished. It is a little book both in size and in the scope of the author's intent―but on handling and browsing through it, the reader become immediately conscious of an economy whose very modesty speaks its worth. . . .From the threads of ordinary experiences which we all can recognize, Taylor weaves something that gives voice to what we have not quite been able to say for ourselves, but something to which we find ourselves giving a deep interior assent. . . . The journey of just 130 small pages is a rich labyrinth of meditations―on music and silence, on the statistics of our broken world, on the imagination, on the writings of mystics both ancient and modern―all of them serving as gathering places for poetry and insight, reflection and prayer. . . .This book should not be left to preachers alone; it is a handbook for those who hear the whisper of God and want to listen. It is a book about the fragility of our words and the depth of God's silence―and it is ultimately a book about the music that results from the crashing of our words against that silence of God to carry on its very failure some of the song of God's own music. (Rev. Bruce Jenneker, Trinity Church)
Barbara Brown Taylor's concise, pithy and challenging prose is evidence that she is practicing what she preaches: that Christian pastors take more care with the words they use and treat language with economy, courtesy and reverence. . . .All too often, Taylor insists, Christians are part of the problem rather than people who offer an alternative. It isn't simply that the jargon of psychobabble is working its way into worship, but something deeper: a lack of trust in the essential mystery of God's word. . . .If Taylor is eloquent in describing our misuse of language, she is even more eloquent when meditating on the value of silence, on ‘the game of divine hide and seek [which is] part of God's pedagogy . . . [making] silence a vital component of God's speech.' She offers concrete and practical suggestions for ways to improve our relationship with both silence and the words God has given us. (Kathleen Norris, author of Amazing Grace)
In her 1997 Lyman Beecher Lectures, Barbara Taylor probes the question. . . : In a culture afflicted with rampant word inflation, how can preachers hope to bear effective witness to the Word? . . .“The instinctive reaction of many preachers . . . only exacerbates the problem. Perhaps, Taylor hypothesizes, instead of trying to compete with the incessant, empty chatter of the day, preachers should honor and cultivate a space for sacred silence. In broad and deft strokes she lines out the sweep of salvation history, suggesting that ‘revelation' has always been as much (or more) a matter of what God leaves unspoken as of what God states.In this book . . . Barbara Taylor has framed a fitting space for further reflection. (David J. Schlafer, priest and consultant in momiletical formation, Bethseda, MD)
About the Author
Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest. She holds the Harry R. Butman Chair in Religion and Philosophy at Piedmont College in northeastern Georgia and serves as adjunct professor of Christian spirituality at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur. Recognized as one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English language by Baylor University in 1995, Taylor has published numerous collections of her sermons and theological reflections, including The Luminous Web, Speaking of Sin, and Gospel Medicine.
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It is targeted toward pastors, but approachable for anyone with a moderate understanding of theology. My mom bought copies for my siblings and I because she found it so meaningful, and I can certainly understand that impulse.
Taylor is teasing out what it means that we don't hear from God anymore. God used to talk to the Israelites all the time, but as the Bible progresses, we hear God's voice less and less. She argues that part of this is because we now live in a desert of noise, and we are thirsty for the Word, but can't make it out amidst all the other things we are listening to.
I want to share so many quotes with you, but I will settle for a few, to give you the flavor of her language and logic.
"Without limits, we would have no feel for the infinite. Without limits, we would be freed from our longing for what lies beyond. It is precisely our inability to say God that teaches us who God is. When we run out of words, we are very near the God whose name is unsayable."
"At their request, God never spoke to all the people again. Secondary speech replaced primary speech. The pillar of fire and cloud that led the people through the wilderness gave way to a tabernacle they could carry around with them. The hot lava of God's voice cooled into the six hundred thirteen commandments of the law."
On a personal level, I was struck by this quote:
"Perhaps there is no proof a famine exists except for the fact that people are hungry. In the land of plenty, the source of that hunger can be difficult to diagnose. It is often not until we have tried to ease it with everything else we know that we discover by process of elimination our hunger for God. Our problem is not too few rations, but too many. The proof that we are in the midst of a famine of the Word are the suffocating piles of our own dead words that rise up around us on every side. It is because they do not nourish us that we require so many of them. It takes thousands of words, coming at us every moment, to distract us from the terrible silence within."
There is a nutritional deficiency disease called kwashiokor. It is not an overall lack of calories, but a lack of protein and micronutrients. People can fill their bellies with carbohydrates and not feel hunger pangs, but they are still lacking, to the point of death. Her statements here made me think about how we can feel like we are consuming enough to feed our souls, but still not feel safe and nourished.
There are some really painful moments of realization for me in this book. Somehow, the image of Jesus on the cross asking for word from his father, and his father giving him nothing, not bread nor even a stone, was one of the saddest crucifixion narratives I've read.