[special_heading title=”What Are You Doing Here?” subtitle=”by Tim Mooney” separator=”yes”]Elijah vs. 450 Prophets of Baal. It’s a showdown, a shoot-out at the OK Corral. Each side would prepare a bull for sacrifice, lay it on the altar, but put no fire to it. Each would then cry to their respective God to consume the bull with fire. Whichever God responded would truly be God. The other would be a sham.
The prophets of Baal go first. They shout, dance, cry. They cut themselves until they’re bleeding. Elijah engages in trash talk. “Cry louder, guys! Maybe Baal is meditating, on a journey, or has fallen asleep! Maybe Baal’s wandered away” -answering the call of nature. Despite their cries, Baal does not answer.
It’s Elijah’s turn; he ups the ante. He soaks the bull and wood with water – three times! Then Elijah prays to God. Fire falls from heaven, consumes the bull, and licks up every last drop of water, and Elijah slaughters all 450 prophets.
Elijah is victorious, he’s at the height of his power. But Jezebel vows to kill him. And the mighty Elijah turns and runs, not knowing what to do, unsure of who he is. He laments his fate, longs for death to put him out of his misery. He then promptly falls asleep under a broom tree.
After a particularly successful stretch of life, it is not uncommon for things to fall apart. Our past experience, the rules we played by to get to where we are, no longer work; that which propped us up, hems us in. It’s more than a mid-life crisis, and it’s not limited to those in the middle of their lives. It occurs whenever Life asks us to listen more deeply. God’s life within us is never equal to our present life. God’s life is always more, and God prunes what has been our life, in order for more life to emerge.
David Whyte in his book, The Heart Aroused, speaks of that moment in every man or woman’s life when suddenly things are no longer the same. He quotes from Dante’s Commedia: In the middle of the road of my life, I awoke in a dark wood, where the true way was wholly lost. In the middle of the road of our lives, as in Elijah’s life, sometimes we find ourselves in a dark wood and the true way is wholly lost.
Are there signs we are going through such a spiritual upheaval? Elijah gives us one. He falls asleep. We do this, too, in two ways. Falling asleep is a metaphor for the ways we dull ourselves to avoid God’s life within pushing us toward new life. Alcohol, drugs, sports, online surfing, a frenzied busyness, a lot of sleeping. But falling asleep might be exactly what we need. To rest, to be in liminal space, where we become open to something new, beyond what we would rationally allow ourselves. It’s what Elijah does. Dulling ourselves is not the answer. But rest might be what we need.
An angel awakens Elijah. Waking up is a metaphor for becoming attentive to God’s life within us. Elijah is told to eat and rest. How simple. It is important to do those things that nourish and restore the soul, for the journey of faith that lies ahead.
Where did we get the idea that self-care is a luxury, rather than an essential rhythm of life? With all the demands on him, Jesus found a healthy rhythm of rest, nurture, and prayer essential for himself and his disciples. Out of that rest, silence, stillness, Jesus winnowed the Jewish Laws, all 613 of them, down to two. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; love your neighbor as yourself. Is this not why we are here?
After eating, resting, Elijah is ready to journey, to Mt. Horeb, where he lodges in a cave. In the cave God asks Elijah, What are you doing here? Elijah’s response is telling. He speaks the truth as he sees it. It’s not the whole truth of his situation, but it’s his truth. It’s truly how he feels and thinks about what’s happened to him.[callout_box title=”It’s not the big events that form us as much as the sheer silence, the sheer stillness, in which we hear God’s still small voice telling us what we’re really doing here.” subtitle=””]It is vital that we do the same; answer the same question. What am I doing here? I’m here in this place in my life because of this, this, and this. Our response to God might come out as lament, self-pity, rationalization, or excuses. Look, God, I’m here, I am who I am, because of what’s happened to me. This is how I see it. Elijah names his truth. God invites us to do the same.
Elijah moves to the entrance of the cave; the Lord is about to pass by. First, a violent wind and storm splits the mountains. Then an earthquake, and a raging fire. Perhaps metaphors for the powerful things that had happened to Elijah, particularly Jezebel’s threats against him. These forces shaped and dictated his life. But God was not in the wind and storm, not in the earthquake, not in the raging fire. God was not in any of these earthshaking, bone-rattling events.
Then came the sound of sheer silence. But it was not empty. Something was there, something more than what had just happened. It was the still small voice of God. This voice is most deeply heard when we make room for sheer silence, sheer stillness.
Elijah is drawn to the silence, the stillness. He listens. Again, God says, What are you doing here? The same question as before, but in the silence, the stillness, Elijah is able to deeply know what he’s doing here, what his purpose is, what is true about him, what calls him more genuinely than any earthshaking experience.
I want you to notice. How Calvinist and Presbyterian it is to talk about silence and stillness. We tend to focus on head knowledge, and we justify this by going back to John Calvin, the 16th century Protestant reformer, father of all Presbyterians. But Calvin surprises us. His Institutes of the Christian Religion, are based on the following two premises. Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God…and without knowledge of God, there is no knowledge of self. This knowing is not objective, scientific. It is experiential, existential. A knowing that one lives into rather than reads about. This knowing includes mind, heart, and gut. This knowing comes when we listen to the sheer silence, the sheer stillness, that is behind and between and after all the storms, earthquakes, and fires of our lives. It is what is always there. In the silence, in the stillness, we come to know/experience ourselves, and we come to know/experience God. We come to the source of our reformation.
With that in mind, I invite you into a time of silence, of stillness. For about five minutes. Briefly answer God’s question, What are you doing here? with your truth: lament, gratitude, confusion, longing. Then quiet your body and mind; become still, silent. Listen for God’s still small voice.
Twenty years ago I was about to begin my final 3-week training for Spiritual Direction. I stopped for coffee, opened my journal, and I poured out my truth to God. I didn’t want to be around a bunch of stuffy, spiritual people. God wasn’t doing what I wanted him to do – I was tired of waiting. I wanted things to go my way; I was putting my foot down on paper. I was stubborn, spinning in self-pity, and dad-burn tired of it all. I held nothing back. I let God have it until I was spent.
A surprising silence and stillness followed my rant. A parable of Jesus’ came to mind. A father asked two sons to work in the field. One son said, “No!” But later changed his mind and went to work. Jesus commended this son over the other son who said “Yes!” but never went to work. In the silence, I saw I need not have my intentions always aligned with God. I did not have to be yielded to God every moment. A deep sense of freedom came, whereas moments earlier I had been wrapped up in my own prison. My stubbornness left. I trusted God in a new way, I yielded to God’s mysterious ways of working in my life. I knew that God loved me even when I’m being the rebellious son yelling, “No!” Speaking the truth as I see it, opens me to the deeper truth always there in the stillness and silence, after every storm, every earthquake, every fire.
It’s not the big events that form us as much as the sheer silence, the sheer stillness, in which we hear God’s still small voice telling us what we’re really doing here.
We are sad that Wil is leaving. But, from my conversations with Wil, he is leaving because he listened to the still small voice. We are sad he will not be a part of our community, but he listened to that voice that leads him to more deeply move into who he feels God has called, gifted him to be. For that we can rejoice.
Beneath the roar of life, the sheer silence, the sheer stillness is waiting to be heard. Let’s listen to it. You and I will know better what we are doing here. A reformation for all of us. Amen.