By Corinne Causby
As one who is not oft acquainted with a lack of words, I found myself in quite a predicament halfway through my Pilgrimage to Israel in January 2015. Somewhere, somehow, I misplaced my journal—the journal in which I had recorded my thoughts and emotions of the sights we’d seen, the journal in which I had drawn sketches of pictures I was unable to capture on film, but had seared themselves to my minds eye.
I knew more words would come, but they wouldn’t be the same words. I grieved for the loss of the unique syntax I had used in the moment of experience to give light to the emotions of a particular place. In the process of grieving the loss of words, I began reflecting on what lie ahead.
The day I discovered I’d misplaced my journal was the day we were to transition from Galilee to Jerusalem. As we drove from Tabgah to Jerusalem, I began reflecting on the power of words. Words enlighten. Words obscure. Words heal. Words wound. Words love. Words tear down. Words matter.
Often we aren’t aware of just how much words matter until we lose them. Words matter because we are faced with the constant strain of words hurled at us from every possible angle. News from the other side of the world. Promises of politicians. Status updates from friends. The constant assault of words allows us to tune them out, hearing only what we want to hear and tuning out what we feel like is noise. Despite this constant noise, we rarely reach for silence, reaching instead to control the noise.
Jerusalem is quite a magnificent city. The Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Villa Dolorosa and the Western Wall all allow us to experience with our eyes the history we have only read about. They allow us to experience with our ears the utter complexity of three religions competing for space in a sacred city. It is disorienting to hear a Muslim call to prayer while men and women wail at the Western Wall with Christian church bells ringing in the distance. Throw into the mix the sounds of merchants selling their wares on the crowded streets and the multiple languages of pilgrims all melting into one discordant note. It’s a note that no matter how much you try, you cannot control. There is a complete blending of sounds that makes it impossible to tune out that which you don’t wish to hear.
It is during those moments I found myself reaching for silence. Something that surprised this outgoing and talkative extrovert. I found myself reaching for the absence of sound, unable to block the competing sounds, each vying for my attention. I found myself unable to put into words the experience of suffering and oppression we witnessed at Aida Camp near Bethlehem. I found myself quieted in awe of the mystery of how a Bedouin boy in Qumran stumbled upon a cave of wonders, full of words from the past. I reach for words, and I am silenced.
One evening during our time in Jerusalem, we sat down with Carrie Ballenger Smith, the pastor of the English-speaking congregation at the Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem. Carrie gave us a tour of the church, which included a breathtaking (literally and figuratively) hike to the top of the bell tower where we were afforded spectacular views of Jerusalem that left us speechless. Afterwards we gathered for an informal Q&A with Carrie, asking her about her ministry and her journey into the pastorate. She spoke about what it meant to be an ordained woman in Jerusalem, where protestants are an anomaly, not to mention female protestant clergy. She spoke of the struggles to preach to the context in which her congregants found themselves living in. She talked about the importance of naming the complexity of the struggles that face Israelis and Palestinians.
I found myself drawn to her story as I consider congregational ministry as a Baptist woman. Her confidence as a minister was inspiring and I found myself doubting that I would ever be fit to serve in such a complex, diverse and difficult situation. Aware of my doubts, I asked her about her journey towards confidence in ministry, as I often find myself lacking confidence in myself, much less my words. Carrie explained that because words are so absolutely important, anyone who preaches ought to be terrified. She went on to say that confidence is built in communities that support you and encourage you. My mind flashed back to my church community in Winston-Salem, N.C. that has been incredibly supportive and encouraging. I thought about ministers there who have given voice to the gifts they see in me. I pondered on why, despite these incredibly supportive communities, I continue to doubt myself.
After we finished with our questions, I felt a tap on my shoulder. A fellow pilgrim motioned that he wanted to speak to me in the lobby when I had a moment. I was unsure of what to expect, and as I made my way to the lobby, my anxiety grew. Had I said something wrong? Had I offended Carrie with my questions? What if I wasn’t supposed to ask the questions I had asked? He pulled me aside, looked me in the eye, and spoke words of love, affirmation, and encouragement. “You have exactly what it takes to be a minister,” he said, “I can see that. Others can see it. You were born for this, Corinne.”
And so, I stood there in the lobby of the Gloria Hotel in Jerusalem and leaned into the words of a friend.
I realized that I don’t always have to have the words myself. There are others who can speak truth into our lives—truths we might not believe if we said them ourselves. I realized how important words are in these discerning moments of seminary, and how much we need our colleagues and peers to speak words of affirmation to us. I am left to wonder if the words of my friend would have carried the weight they did had I not lost my own words and learned to reach for silence. For it often seems God speaks to us most clearly in those silent moments, when we have run out of words to say, and we are silenced long enough to hear someone else’s words.
Corinne is a second-year seminary student at Wake Forest School of Divinity. She is a native of Winston-Salem, N.C., where she lives with her husband, Forrest and three children. Corinne is a CBF Vestal Scholar and an active member of Knollwood Baptist Church. She currently serves as an intern at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem.