Thursday, May 24, 2012

Silence is golden!

Don’t get me wrong. Like many folks who have over active control tendencies, I am not thrilled by silence when I teach. But sometimes, silence in a lesson or in a meeting is great.

I remember my home ward in Pittsburgh. There were fast Sundays where it was common for there to be gaps between the testimonies. I don’t know how many people lived in the ward, but in our sacrament meetings, we probably had about 150 or so.

During the summer months when BYU kids were home, it was not uncommon for one of them to get up and start a testimony with words like, “I didn’t want this time to go to waste, so…”
When I was a bishop, I discussed more than once in our ward council that I thought it was a good thing to have moments of quiet in a testimony meeting. Part of the value of testimony meeting is allowing members to ponder about their own spiritual experiences, their own testimonies. If there is a steady stream of magical genealogy stories and five-year old memorized catch-phrases, there’s less opportunity for meditation.

(Please don’t misconstrue what I’ve said: I’m also happy to hear how someone’s faith was bolstered while working on family history, and I think there’s value in hearing from a child once in a while – though truth be told, I’m not particularly edified by hearing the same child every month. Maybe the child is edified by sharing her testimony each month, though, so live and let live…)

Similarly in a teaching situation, if I ask a thought provoking question, it makes sense that I’m going to wait for people to think a little before responding. And as a class participant, it’s ok to sit on my hands and not be the first to answer one of those questions. First, the silence allows thoughts to collect. And second, not being the first to speak allows me to hear things differently.

I learned this lesson well in the ward council. I had one bishop who was particularly good at listening to everyone else in the room before he gave his opinion on something. He (or someone else) would ask a question, he’d allow people some time to collect their thoughts, and then he’d listen to whoever responded. Often he would then query the other council members by name, just to be sure he’d given everyone the chance to respond. And then, after everyone else had a chance to speak, he’d weigh in.

The effect was that over time, people were much more willing to speak in ward council. There was much less temptation to hear the bishop’s idea and agree with it just because he said it. Sometimes when he spoke, he agreed with what others had said, and sometimes he asked further questions that had occurred to him.

I was so impressed by this that when I was a bishop, and I was asked to do some training on ward councils in a stake meeting, I said the bishop’s role on the ward council was first to be quiet!

Of course the value of silence enters our personal devotion, as well. Just as the bishop needs to stop talking long enough to hear the counsel his counselors and others give him, so we need to be quiet long enough to allow the spirit to speak to us when we pray and ponder.

For me that may mean reading the scriptures without a preconceived notion about the reading material to see what is “new” and “fresh” in this reading. (Reading an unmarked set of scriptures helps me here, as I’m finding out using my Kindle Fire scriptures this year.) It may also mean staying “connected” at the end of my prayer long enough to listen for promptings (I confess, this is really hard for this natural man to do). After all, it’s hard to submit to our Father in Heaven as a child submits to his earthly father, if we never hear what our Father wants us to do.

I have heard Elder Packer teach that the prelude can be one of the most spiritual times in sacrament meeting. I think that’s true if the prelude is a period of quiet contemplation (but not so much if it’s the time to set up our home teaching appointments or talk about the weekend’s BYU scores). Since my lovely wife is one of our ward’s organists, I particularly enjoy listening to prelude music. And I enjoy the opportunity for a little silence to gather my thoughts, to center myself on what is about to happen in the meeting, and to ponder the significance of the sacrament ordinance.

So if you see me sitting quietly on the bench in the chapel before a meeting, please just let me sit. Thanks. And shhh.


  1. Really good reminder. I don't know if it a function of aging, but those quiet moments seem to have much more value to me that they used to.

  2. I so agree that the moments of silence in a testimony are important. The bishop you described is one in a million (give or take). Too many of my former priesthood leaders ask a question, hear a quick answer and then give their opinion and counsel without fully listening. Thanks for sharing your perspective. Keep up the good work.

  3. MMM, the older I get, the worse my hearing gets, so moments of silence happen more often of their own accord... :-)

    RL, it hadn't occurred to me that my bishop was unusual. Lucky me to have had that role model before I served as a bishop.

  4. There was a "teaching tip" at the end of one of the lessons in the GAS manual this year that said this same thing (it's okay for there to be silence after you ask a question - just let people sit and think for a minute). If the silence goes on too long, I'll restate the questions, just in case people are being silent because they didn't catch the question the first time ;)

    I am trying to teach my children the importance of being still. It's amazing to watch them feel the spirit when they are actually being still.

    This reminded me of a YW lesson we had about reverence where we were read a story about some seminary students who made index cards with a message written on them about how they had made a commitment not to talk and visit in the chapel before the meeting (to promote reverence in the chapel). I wanted to look it up, and after some searching I found it was originally an article in the Ensign:

    Kind of a good idea, I think :)

  5. "Be still, and know that I am God."

    I think, often, there is a direct causal link being taught in that simple statement.

  6. Papa D, you're at the top of your game today!