Awkward Silences


You see, I wrestle with silence a lot.  We have this strange dance, silence and I.  I am much more comfortable in silence than I am in large groups of people whose conversations swell and mix together, eventually sounding like static or clucking chickens.  I need--I crave--times for silence.  But I resist it sometimes as well, behaving like I somehow enjoy having four or five programs or projects going on at the same time.  I feel like I'm being so much more productive that way--until it all gets on my nerves and I begin to rearrange my office again and put in a rug and zafu meditation cushion in the corner in hopes that I will take advantage of the space and "just" sit and be and reflect and pray and make tea for folks who come by to visit and sit on the floor. 

That all works well until the next newsletter article is due or the next retreat needs planning or the next adult forum is around the corner, and I don't want to use a pre-packaged DVD curriculum, but I honestly don't have the time or the energy to come up with something original at the moment.  But I do feel like I need to come up with something, you know?  And the parish folks expect something new and quirky that has a great poster that is designed really well and catches their eye when they turn the corner in the hallway. 

So there I am, wanting nothing more than to find a way to BE present and rest in silence and wonder what it might look like for an entire community to ground itself in such silence, while at the same time experiencing this pressure to unveil some grand spiritual spectacle that will be an "Aha moment" for at least ten people in the room at any given time.  It's twisted, right?  But I don't think I'm the only one who experiences this wrestling with silence....

I have always found today's Hebrew text with Elijah intriguing.  Here is Elijah, running for his life and hiding from Jezebel in a cave on Mt. Horeb.  He's holed up there when suddenly God's voice comes to him.  On my inner TV, the conversation sounds like this:

God: "What are you doing here, Elijah?  Why are you holed up in this cave?"

Elijah: "Well, I'm pretty upset right now." 

God:  "Well, whatever for?"

Elijah:  "Well, I've been working so hard as a prophet, you see?  And, as for the other Israelites, they aren't trying at all.  They have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and now they are seeking my life to take it away too!" 

And what does God tell him?  "Oh, I am so sorry; yes, I know that you have been such a wonderful prophet?"  No.  God says to him, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by."

Elijah doesn't get some sympathetic statement from God; instead, he gets a call to get out of the cave and bear witness to a theophany--a manifestation of Divine Glory.  He receives an invitation to an Encounter.

And that's when Earth, Wind and Fire show up.  Not the band, but the elemental forces.  Imagine it from Elijah's point of view:

Now there was a great wind, so strong it was splitting mountains

and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord,

but the Lord was not in the wind;

and after the wind an earthquake,

but the Lord was not in the earthquake;

and after the earthquake a fire,

but the Lord was not in the fire...


I have to say, if that happened to me, I would have chased those rabbit holes of experiences as far as they would have gone! 

I would have thought: 

"Look!  Now that's a wind!  Let's explore this and see what we think about it."

"Have you ever experienced the ground shaking beneath you like this?   I wonder what that might mean."

"Would you look at that fire?  Who has had any experiences with fire like this?  This must be something important to note...."

Don't you know that Elijah was more than a little bit awestruck when these elemental forces showed up?  But, as it turns out, he had yet to experience the deep theophany:

After the fire, there was a sound of sheer silence... 

I find the Tanakh translation much more profound here:  kol dememah daq, the calm, whispering voice.  After the spectacles of the mighty wind, the shattering earthquake, and the raging fire, there was this calm, whispering voice, this sound of sheer silence, this small, murmur that truly caught Elijah off guard.  And, what did he do? 

Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. 

He wrapped himself up for protection as it were, not from the spectacles of elemental forces but from the profundity of the kol dememah daq...this stark manifestation of the utter power of the Almighty, of Eyeh Asher Eyeh, of "I will be who I will be." 

As I've meditated on this text, I imagine Elijah thinking, "Wait just a minute!  I could have handled God's Presence in the spectacles!  I kind of expect that.  But this calm, whispering voice?  What the heck do I do with this?  We didn't learn about this approach in prophet school!  Where's a good spectacle I can point to?"

Because, you see, Elijah had just performed a miracle by stretching out three times on a dead child to raise him back to life.  And after that, he battled it out with 450 prophets of Ba'al, calling down God's Presence in a fire which burned up the entire altar he had made--cut-up bull, stones and all.  Then, all of the prophets of Ba'al were killed too!  Now that was a spectacle! 

But this calm, whispering voice?  This murmur?  This sound of sheer silence?  This is something really different...and Elijah is awestruck by the Reality of it--Reality with a capital R.

Here's where I am hooked by this text.  I think that Elijah, in the telling of the experience, has been viewed as some kind of exemplar of individual spiritual practice.  We could all, I think, view this text as one of the embodiments of an apophatic theology--a perspective or lens that seeks to get beyond images to rest in the utter "otherness" of God, the incomprehensibility of the Divine.

But I don't think this text's teaching connects with us only on an individual level regarding our approach to prayer or theological reflection.  I think this text has a great deal to say to the entire Church today, the community of faith, when it comes to how we approach the practice of faith, the cultivation of a space in which people are invited to seek an encounter with the Divine.

Here's the question bouncing around in my heart right now:  How might the Church actually be a space that encourages the stripping away of the need for spectacles?  So often, we seem to be focused on programs and their development and maintenance.  Our energy goes more toward the maintenance of the programs than toward any deep encounter or wonder or vulnerability.  I wonder how might the Church seek to cultivate spaces rather than develop programs when it comes to the practice of our faith.  What might that look like? 

Here's what I mean by that:  Elijah is holed up in his cave, and he must have resonated with the spectacles of earth, wind and fire.  But he was knocked back by the invitation to a different type of encounter--one that simply, profoundly lay out there in starkness and even rawness.  But as we continue reading the story, we see that it was this experience with this calm voice, this silence--however disconcerting--that grounded him for his future life of ministry.  When he rested in the Reality and let go of the spectacle--that's when he lived into his vocation. 

Now, I recognize that this might be a radical shift.  It is for me in my own context of a suburban parish that relies so heavily on well-developed programs and managed events--events that seek to compete with the myriad other events in everyone's lives.  But this question won't go away:  what if there is another way of being, as a community of faith, as a spiritual community?  What if there is another way of inviting people into spaces of sharing, of vulnerability, of deep listening and conversation that doesn't depend on spectacle

How might the Church live into this call for trusting in the Encounter of God in the midst of a world that seems to thrive on busyness, events, hand-held calendars, and text reminders?   I wonder what it would be like if we began with wonder and silence rather than marketing ideas--and then let the Spirit genuinely guide us to a new space of encounter.  I know it would be risky, but we may just be shocked....

Let us pray.  Holy God, who speaks to us in the silences of our lives and invites us to listen closely for the Spirit's Presence, be with us as we continue to seek after you.  Guide our hearts and open our eyes and ears so that we may gain new glimpses of you--trusting that there is deep faithfulness in the riskiness of listening deeply.  Through Jesus Christ, Our Lord, who showed us what it means to attune our deeper selves with your purpose.  Amen.