Swedish author, Henning Maskell, wrote a piece called, "The Art of Listening" for the New York Times. He describes the 25 years he spent in Africa. “In Africa listening is a guiding principle. It’s a principle that’s been lost in the constant chatter of the Western world, where no one seems to have the time or even the desire to listen to anyone else. . . It’s as if we have completely lost the ability to listen. We talk and talk, and we end up frightened by silence, the refuge of those who are at loss for an answer.”
“A truer nomination for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, the storytelling person. What differentiates us from animals is the face that we can listen to other people’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, desires and defeats – and they in turn can listen to ours.”
“So if I am right that we are storytelling creatures, and as long as we permit ourselves to be quiet for a while now and then, the eternal narrative will continue.”
As long as we permit ourselves to be quiet.
For all the whining I do about the noise in my life, I confess that it is not easy for me to permit myself to be quiet.
I'm compulsively on my phone and my computer, wondering if the email I expect is there, checking that someone hasn't texted me, mercilessly disquieted by these technologies that I simply won't lay down for fear of missing something. I am a victim of my own bad habits, habits of inattention and motion and living blurred.
Silence and slowing are deliberate and difficult disciplines for someone like me.
Zechariah, in today's story, is silenced and slowed. He and his wife receive the impossible news that they, in their greying years, will have a baby. That's a prayer long since forgotten. Zechariah's response voices his incredulity: "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years."
Those are the last words he speaks. The angel pronounces him mute. Nine months of silence. A curse?
Or maybe, a gift.
Nine months to begin imagining and believing again that God is good and keeps His promises. Nine months to remember the years of prayers he and Elizabeth had prayed, they hoping for a child, wanting desperately for a family. Nine months to trace the trajectory of losing faith. Nine months to marvel at the announcement, to puzzle out the future. They, the son of a prophet?
And the first words he speaks, eight days after John's birth, are words of worship: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!"
Silence is a place to regenerate faith and to see God.
Maskell says we've completely lost our ability to listen.
I'm more hopeful.