In 1971, John Francis was living in San Francisco, searching for meaning and his purpose in life. One day tragedy struck when two oil tankers smashed against one another, leaking thousands of barrels of oil into the San Francisco Bay. Hundreds of volunteers walked the coastline around northern California doing their best to help the animals and wildlife affected by the black crude collecting on top of the water. Francis was one of those volunteers. Something inside him changed as he watched a bird struggling to breath with the oil clogging its lungs. When it died, Francis could not hold back the gush of emotions.
Those events led Francis to make changes in his life. At first, Francis decided to forego gas-powered automobiles. He felt like using fossil fuels for transportation would only compound the problem that lead to the spill. Wherever Francis had to go, he walked. Sometimes he rode a bike too, but mostly, he walked. No cars. No buses. No airplanes. No trains. Only his two feet to get him where he wanted to go.
The comedian Steven Wright once said, "Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time." That's true. No matter how far you have to go, if you have the time, you can make it on foot. That became the thought process for Francis.
Many people, including his own father, thought he was crazy. He was told, you can't be a contributing member of society by walking everywhere. Francis found that every time he tried to explain his reasonings, he wound up arguing with every one he met. So he took another step, so to speak.
On his birthday in 1973, he decided the only way to stop arguing is to be silent. So for one day, Francis gave up speaking. It felt so good to him, the next day he decided to continue his silence. The days turned into weeks then months then years, 17 years, in fact. Francis never uttered a word out loud. He didn't even laugh out loud (That's LOL to you young people). He learned to communicate by some hand signals and sometimes he scrawled his thoughts on a page. He also learned to communicate with his banjo that he had always strung over his shoulder.
Instead of speaking, Francis said he tried listening.
In his book "The Ragged Edge of Silence," Francis writes this about his choice:
"As I lived this quiet life, friends and strangers sought me out, and they were eager to share their lives with me because they accepted my silence as a sign that I would listen."
On Earth Day in 1990, Francis decided to end his period of silence. During those 17 years, he earned three college degrees, including a PhD, and walked across the continental United States and through other countries across the globe. Everywhere he went, he tried to help humanity and his brothers and sisters of nature with a message of peace.
We are strange creatures sometimes. We spend the first two or three years of our lives trying to learn to speak and then spend the rest of our lives never shutting up. There is constant search for the right words, the right thing to say, the perfect anecdote or story to help.
I know a couple who recently experienced a horrific experience. An experience most wouldn't wish on their most hated enemy. This couple lost their five-month old little girl. One morning, the father woke up early, fed the tiny little girl, drove her to the nursery school, where she was going to spend a couple of hours. Before they could pick her up that afternoon, they received a phone call telling them the baby was gone, a victim of something called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS. She left behind a mother, a father and a 4-year-old sister.
I saw the father the other day and he was trying to tell me the story. He told me about how his baby was just starting to show her personality. She wasn't just an "it" anymore. She was a human being, my daughter, he said.
But now she is gone and the rest of the family was left to struggle with "Why?" Why did something like this happen? What is there to learn from something like this? How do we go forward? How do we survive?
I searched for just the right words. I stalled to find the perfect anecdote or story to help. But there are no right words. There is no story or helpful anecdote that will help a grieving mother and father through the death of a child. It just doesn't happen.
There was a time in my past, when I thought as a minister I was supposed to have all the right words at just the right time. I could help any grieving person by sharing a story, or a word of scripture or a simple, "maybe it's just the Lord's will."
The problem is, it's not "the Lord's will." There is no Psalm of comfort in those settings. Explanations are just beyond reach. Time will heal some wounds, or at least makes them bearable, but nobody knows how much time is needed for each case.
I struggled with the silence as the tears welled up in this dad's eyes. I had nothing to say. All I could do was listen and say, I'm sorry. You're right. It's not fair. I wish it never happened.
After the grieving father left, I sat there on that ragged edge of silence, searching for answers. Then I realized that maybe my silence was the answer.