Just Call Me Grumpy
by Paul Hooker
Transfiguration Sunday afternoon
I have been asking myself all afternoon why I feel such disgruntlement with worship.
After all, the sermon was literate and thoughtful, true to the texts of the day, and full of encouragement to be the people of God engaged in bearing witness to the love and justice of Christ in the world. The children’s sermon was a delight: a meditation on the transformative possibilities inherent in the most basic elements of creation. The Great Prayer gathered up the remembrance of God’s graciousness in creation, re-membered the narrative of Christ, and called forth the power of the Spirit not merely to draw the gathered worthies into the presence of Christ but also to love those unloved and ill-treated by the world. We were benedicted with the injunction to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. All of it accompanied by towering organ music and the best efforts of a choir to represent in song the scriptural paradox of the Christ event. Even the hymns, though hardly my favorites, were true to the spirit and themes of the moment.
So what is wrong with that? Or with me, that it leaves me dissatisfied?
What is wrong, I think, is that there was no space for mystery, for not-knowing. We have, as a people, ceased to be in awe. We have convinced ourselves that we know all the answers to all the questions. We are here to tell you about it.
Annie Dillard once observed of the modern predicament that, “We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree.” Were she meditating on today’s texts, Luke’s version of the Transfiguration story, she might have said that we have finally managed what poor old Peter could not: we have built booths—what Greek calls skene, source of our word, “scene”—to contain the numinous in the drama of normalcy.
You know the tale: Peter, James, and John go with Jesus to the mountaintop. Moses and Elijah appear, and Peter burps up the instinct to put together a little stage show, perhaps to memorialize the moment, perhaps to take on the road to see how well it will play in Peoria. But before he can design the set, there is a cloud, a blinding light, a heaven-rending voice—and then there is nothing but Jesus, standing alone on the stage to deliver the final monologue. In response to which, Luke says, the trio “kept silent and in those days said nothing to anyone.”
The day’s preacher, eager to give the congregation something to do, used the disciples as a foil (something the Gospels do regularly), encouraging us not to remain speechless as they did, but to tell the good news. I didn’t argue the point.
But downstream from the moment, I can’t escape the feeling that their silence wasthe point. When you stand at crumbling edge of coherence and peer over into the wild unknowing, there are no words. Talking is a profanity.
The Church has become frighteningly good at talking. We preach what Christian Wiman memorably called the “unthunder.” We pray prayers that rarely rise higher than our hairdos. We advocate for this, witness to that, issue calls to action for the righteousness that isn’t happening and demand moratoria on the unrighteousness that is. But does all this talking finally amount to anything more than sound and fury?
Don’t misunderstand: it’s not that we are saying the wrong things; we are, as a friend of mine used to say, “on the side of angels.” It’s that there is no right thing to say. At the heart of things, there are no words. There is only silence.
Where the disciples missed the point was not in their silence, but in their impulse to speak. At least they got it right in the end. Would that we could say as much.
Where, then, are the moments when we are silent before the mysteries?
In the Sacraments? Well and truly said. But even here we can’t stand the absence of our own voices. We cram the liturgy full of canticles, set to inane tunes that swing like giddy children’s songs, accompanied by organ explosions that startle the contemplative out of her chair, to say nothing of her contemplation. We drape the Table in prayers that are less pleas to God than preachments to the gathered, second bites at the homiletical apple. We reduce the mystery of body and blood to justice and social action. We might as well be building booths. One expects the voice of God to interrupt with a command to listen, but it seems God can’t get a word in edgewise.
Or in the music? One hopes. But even the anthem—ostensibly a paean to the paradoxical Christ—gets lost in its own bombast as the tenor section screeches and claws its way to the triple-fortissimo high F in the final phrase. No mystery here, just strained vocal chords and pitches that echo slightly flat in the wounded air.
And so, as Sunday afternoon creeps on, I cannot shake an emptiness I struggle to name. I struggle because its name is silence. I yearn for silence. I yearn for the encounter with That Which Has No Name, or at least no name we can pronounce. I yearn to be struck dumb like old Zechariah, skeptical of the mystery until it was enfleshed before his very eyes. I yearn for the presence of That Which Does Not Need Me to Talk About It. I yearn notto know, but instead to be knownby that which lies beyond knowing.
So what does all this ranting suggest that I do? Drop out of the choir and stop coming to worship? Find a quiet spot in the woods where I won’t bother anyone? Perhaps, but no. I love the music, miserable musician that I am, and I need the fellowship, and I hear in sermons truths worth pondering. I thrill to the sensation of the foundations of the earth quaking beneath my feet when the organ rattles the windowpanes with the lowest-of-the-low C. I savor the taste of sweet bread dipped and dripping with the fruit of the vine. I will be there next week and the week after, hoping, waiting. It is as Peter says elsewhere: “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
But occasionally I will slip away—in mind and spirit, if not in body—and cease listening to the words. There will be moments when I will tune out this everflowing river of talk and attend instead to the silence. I will be here in my seat, but truly I will be gone. Gone into the cloud at the top of the mountain. Gone into the shining darkness. Gone into the echoes of a voice that speaks and says exactly Nothing. I’ll see you on the other side.
If there is one.