Scripture reading for today:

Zechariah 8:1-17, Psalm 42, Matthew 8:14-17, 28-34

Facing our Fear of Breaking the Silence

Have you ever had something you needed to say, but your body refused to say it?

When I think about silence and speech in the Christmas story, I remember the priest Zechariah, whose ability to speak was removed by the angel Gabriel until after his son, John the Baptist, was born. How ironic, in light of that story, to consider one of today’s passages, written by Zechariah’s Old Testament prophet namesake, which contains these words of YHWH: “Do not be afraid… Speak the truth to each other…” (Zech. 8:15-16).

Zechariah the prophet is a silence-breaker. In the book Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out, Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann traces a pattern through scripture of silencers and silence-breakers. Brueggemann notices that the silencers are usually kings, priests, and scribes: people of privilege who benefit from maintaining the status quo, whose instinct is to muzzle anyone seeking change. The silence-breakers, on the other hand, tend to come from the margins of society. They are often prophetic performance artists, poets, and storytellers, people of imagination, people who queer the binaries and break open the little boxes where we try to contain God. They risk everything by speaking inconvenient truth to power.

 God’s people cry out in slavery, and to confront their oppressor, Pharaoh, God chooses Moses, self-described as “slow of speech and lacking eloquence.”

God sends Nathan to break David’s guilty silence by telling stories about sheep, and commissions Elijah to challenge and taunt the wicked king Ahab.

The Spirit touches Isaiah’s lips with fire. She puts words in Jeremiah’s mouth and feeds them to Ezekiel in an edible scroll.

Esther risks her life, “coming out” as Jewish to King Xerxes in order to save her people.

 The Syro-Phoenician woman talks back to Jesus about deserving crumbs from his table, and her faith is rewarded.

Today, surrounded by this great crowd of silence-breaking witnesses, consider: what is the fear that keeps you silent? What worst-case scenario holds your tongue and prevents you from saying the thing God is asking you to say? Is it the fear of what others might think? The fear of criticism? The fear of making things awkward and uncomfortable? The fear of using the wrong words or being misunderstood?

* * *

Have you ever had something you needed to say, but your body refused to say it?

It happened to me thirteen years ago, the first time I attempted to articulate the words, “I’m attracted to women.” (Today I would call myself gay or queer, but those terms felt too daunting at first.)

I was lying on my pastor’s couch. She already knew from the context exactly what I was trying to tell her, yet still, I couldn’t do it. I felt like Keanu Reeves when his mouth vanished in that disturbing scene from “The Matrix.”

Fear and shame had stolen my voice. To open my mouth would be to give tangible shape to something that until then had lived quietly, if uncomfortably, inside my head. Once spoken, I would never be able to take those words back.

My pastor sat there patiently for what seemed like an hour, watching tears stream down my face until I finally wrestled the words from my throat. Her empathetic and nonjudgmental response unravelled the shame that had tied me in knots. I practically danced home, feeling a hundred-pound burden lifted from my back. I had spoken, and I had survived.

I have often loved Advent for its snow-fallen silences, and have sung soft candlelit carols about “how silently the wondrous gift is given.” There are some silences that are meant to be kept: the silence that allows survival, the silence of listening to the margins, they silence of holy awe before God. Yet this Advent, I’ve been reflecting on the truth that we are also called to break silences. “The hopes and fears of all the years” must also be spoken.

In her essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Audre Lorde, a queer black womanist poet and activist, wrote, “While we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

If anyone knows this choking weight of silence, it’s LGBTQ2S+ people. I can’t tell you how many queer Christians I’ve met whose years in the closet have taken a toll on their physical health. The well-known worship leader and songwriter, Vicky Beeching, was finally compelled to come out as a lesbian when her body literally began consuming itself with a stress-induced auto-immune disease.

Because of the deafening volume of both hateful speech and complicit privileged silence from the church, queer Christians like Vicky and me operate under the default assumption that churches are unsafe for us, that we need to silence a key part of our being just to walk in the doors, to be welcomed and to belong. This is a major reason why two years ago, my co-pastor Mark and I planted Open Way, an affirming evangelical church in Vancouver: to allow LGBTQ+ Christians to bring their full and un-silenced voices to the table and to call on allies to break their silences and speak in solidarity.

This season, the angels’ refrain hangs in the air, echoing the prophet Zechariah’s words, singing, despite all these things: Do not be afraid.

Listen and you’ll hear God incarnate crying out for the first time from the feeding trough. God has taken the unspeakable risk of pitching God’s tent here with us in human form, complete with lungs and vocal cords. This means that our human belovedness is unshakeable; no faltering word from our lips can possibly diminish God’s love for us.

Let this truth strengthen our backbone as we wrap words around our realities, as we speak our loves and our losses, as we name our hopes and our fears, as we give voice to the things that breaks our heart and that break the heart of God. Our words might just pester their way to justice. Our words might just drive out the demon of someone’s shame, cushion someone’s fall, or help someone stand firm. Our words might even echo those first words in Genesis and speak into being a new creation, sparking imagination for new ways of being human together.

Speak, friends.

Speak the truth without fear.

Like Jesus, we were not born to be silent.

Thank you for reading the New Leaf Advent Reader, a collection of reflections from writers across Canada. If you are enjoying the reader, sign up to receive the readings in your inbox each day here: SIGN UP And please share this reflection with your friends and family who might also enjoy it.