"… and after the fire a sound of sheer silence." - 1 Kings 19:12
Many of us remember the King James translation of this verse: "… a still small voice." Lovely and evocative: after all the cataclysmic sturm und drang, comes something non-threatening, even intimate. Other translations give us "a soft whisper," "a low whisper," "a gentle blowing," and the like.
But something has always appealed to me about the New Revised Standard Version, which reaches beyond audible voice and wind to "a sound of sheer silence." The opposite of the roaring of earthquake, gale, and fire. The absence of anything that a human ear might recognize: a silence that spoke volumes.
At a recital, a singer and a pianist performed folk songs: beautiful poetry, exquisite music, world-class performers who transported us with their artistry. One of the songs ended on the softest of notes. Every ear in the hall stretched to gather in the last tender waves of sound. The singer finished. The pianist suspended his hands just above the keyboard and held the pedal down as the strings' vibrating grew smaller and smaller. We couldn't tell when the music stopped. His hands remained above the keys as we leaned in, listening to the memory of the last chord. I was so rapt I forgot to breathe. Finally, he dropped his arms and applause exploded.
After the notes ended, he had played the silence.
Perhaps that was the heart of the performance — and the song, for all its beauty, was warm-up and introduction for the voiceless, soundless, breathless mystery to follow.
God of mighty presence, sometimes I have forgotten that you contain more dimensions than I have yet known. Bless you for your eloquent, powerful presence in the mystery of absence. Amen.
John A. Nelson is Pastor and Teacher at the Niantic Community Church, United Church of Christ (UCC/UMC), in Niantic, Connecticut.