Selah: An Obscure Foundation for Simpler Living

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He (Chris) was 18, a senior in high school.
I was his pastor. My wife and I were good friends with Chris’ parents and often shared a meal with them.
One Sunday, after church, Chris’ parents told me that an issue with their business had suddenly come to light, and they needed to leave town for a few days to resolve it. They asked if I could pick their son up after school and drive him to a doctor’s appointment on Thursday of that week. It was a simple request: transportation. That was all I was being asked to provide. I was happy to help and was at the designated place for rides to pick up students after school on Thursday.

As school ended and students flooded out of the building, I soon saw Chris coming across the campus to my car, weighted down with his saxophone, backpack, and books. He opened the door, sat down, and before I could greet him, burst into tears—not a few tears, but long and loud sobs.
Not exactly the exchange of greetings I had anticipated!
I knew Chris well. He was thoughtful, fun-loving, and full of adolescent energy. He oozed musical aptitude and talent, seemingly playing all manner of instruments, from violin to saxophone to the saw. He often used his musical gifts and talents to lift our spirits when we gathered for worship. When the notes of Amazing Grace warbled from his saw, and he bent it to get to the high notes, the congregation almost always burst into applause. He had a future, heading to a Midwest university on a music scholarship. But in that front seat of my car that afternoon, he was none of those persons I knew so well. He was distraught, overwhelmed with a yet undisclosed burden. I knew he felt safe in my presence, so I gave him the space and moment to retrieve composure.

When the sobbing subsided, I asked him what had happened. I had imagined all kinds of things but was unprepared for what I would hear. This was Chris’ response:

  • Can someone just please stop the merry-go-round? I want to get off!

As he unpacked what he meant, a picture of a young man buried under a deluge of activity emerged. He was an all-state athlete in a sport that made high schoolers gods. He played in the school orchestra, sang in the choir, and played in the jazz band. He was the student-body president. He was in the church youth group and sang and performed in different church musical groups. By almost any ordinary standard, he was living a high schooler’s dream life, but here he was, sobbing in the front seat of my car, depleted, straining to get out from under out-of-control pace and oversized expectations but unsure what to do.


Chris had gone through a buffet line of activities and said “yes” to every option. His plate was piled high to the point of breaking. The depletion he was suffering from being too busy is not unique. Most of us suffer from having too much to do. Few feel like they have too little to do. Most of us brag about schedules that are too full. No one brags about having too little to do. Being able to juggle too many expectations and keep too many balls in the air is a badge of honor. But just like ignoring warning signs urging us to slow down before the coming curve leads inevitably to a disaster, living a life of unending busyness and hurry will gut your life, dreams, and future. We must be very clear about this: busyness is not merely harmful but deadly. Here is a small list of the precious things it destroys: It shatters emotional health. It ruins physical health. It suppresses the ability to think and concentrate. It turns a marriage into a 10-car smash-up. It crushes souls.

There are a number of important reasons we fill our lives with impossible busyness. On coming Tuesdays, I’m devoting space to these underlying issues and the life-giving and peace-building solutions that can give our lives back to us. Today, I am beginning by pointing out the vocabulary deficiency leading us into a life of strain, hurry, exhaustion, and depletion.
While preparing to write this post, I looked in an online Thesaurus for synonyms for busyness. This article is partly about the damaging consequences of busyness, but I wanted alternative words to describe the frenzied pace we have embraced for too long. As I looked in the thesaurus, in a flash, I saw the way busyness is viewed as commendable while a lack of busyness is viewed as deplorable. Let me list some of the synonyms for busyness so you can see and judge for yourself:

Busyness is viewed as commitment, effort, hard work, zeal, dedication, perseverance. Where I grew up in a farming community, all those words earned you praise. These words get you noticed in your work life, earn your advancements, and expand your possibilities.
The antonyms of busyness—the words that portray an opposite quality—are these: apathy, negligence, indifference, neglect, lethargy, ignorance. In most places, these words get you shunned, overlooked, fired, and unfriended.
Our very language has failed us. The words we use to talk about our lives lead us down a path to the front seat of a car where we are sobbing, wondering how to get off the merry-go-round of out-of-control busyness.


Here's unexpected, excellent news! A word that holds the balm of tranquility and deep rest that can save us from the madness, weariness, depletion, and crippling losses that come with leading a life that is out of control. The word is an obscure Hebrew word that shows up 71 times in 39 Psalms. The word is “selah.”

We know little about the word. We know it is ancient. We know it is Hebrew in origin: סלה. We know from its markings it is pronounced say’-luh. We know it is an invitation, not a command. If the invitation is accepted, we know it provides an opportunity to pause and think—remember the last time you did that?—but it is not in itself a dense theological term. We are not pausing to think about selah, but about the important things in life. Most of the time, it invites us to pause and think about what God is up to.
Most Hebrew scholars, having failed to find a solid way to translate the word, believe it has a place in the world of music. If this is true, it is equivalent to a musical rest, that moment when the crescendo of music is completely silenced, and for a moment delicious, impactful silence washes over you.

I played a euphonium (baritone) for years. In concert bands, I sat in the back with trombones and tubas. Percussion was always nearby. Sitting in that place you could hear the melody build slowly, picking up momentum and instrumentation. As it soared and the pace quickened, you could feel the energy building. When the low-throated instruments and percussion joined, it could feel like a parade of the elephants. Caught up in the energy, I had to watch the conductor carefully for the moment when all playing paused for a beat. I didn’t want to be the one who rushed on ahead, filling the silence with sound, when all we had to do was pause and be silent for a moment or two. Those silences were pregnant and alluring. I learned that music loses some of its impact apart from a selah silence.  

But how do you translate this silence? Most Psalm translations simply transliterate it from Hebrew to English: “selah.” Unfortunately, a few exclude it from the Psalms. The New Living Translation calls it an “interlude.” The Amplified Bible Classic Edition translates it this way: “Pause, and think of that.” The Passion Translation says, “Pause in his presence.”
Rushing through days deprives us of selah rests. Our constant motion makes us yearn for the tranquility of selah. Slower life becomes more desirable as a result of frantic living. Many are beginning to question if there isn't a simpler way to live after years of living at an unsustainable pace. In this moment, the invitation and word of selah are necessary.
I'm looking forward to a deep, meaningful conversation each Tuesday with this spiritual formation community about the sort of life that is possible when we examine and, maybe one day, embrace the invitation provided by an old, obscure word, "Selah." Some of us are finding how to slow down the pace of our life and have much to share that will help us all . Some of us barely hang on; we can learn to help one another as transparency grows. Some of us sit with Chris, overwhelmed, unsure how to get off the speeding merry-go-round. We can walk together on a way to a slower, simpler life.

Whichever words and stories may come each Tuesday, here is the word for today: Selah!

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