The following is from week 2 of the sermon series “Doors and Windows: Faces of Faith in Transition.” Since many of you followed last week’s conversation about “Mapping the Message,” I thought you might like to see the product of all that series planning. I really enjoyed sharing some of the creative process, and I hope we can talk more about that soon! Meanwhile, read on for some thoughts on finding that still, small voice–even when all around us feels like chaos.
It’s official. Nothing is sacred. A development company wants to put a strip mall and a stucco subdivision at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Because Arizona doesn’t have enough of EITHER OF THOSE THINGS, apparently. The Canyon is a natural wonder of the world. It is sacred space to several native tribes that live nearby, and have for centuries. It is the icon of our whole national parks system, and as such, a national trademark. And even so, it is not entirely protected from capitol corruption. The firm that wants it has spent years making connections in a nearby community, garnering influence on the town council… and they might just have the votes they need to break ground.
Teddy Roosevelt, who helped envision the parks system, once said of the Canyon, “I want to ask you to do one thing…in your own interest and in the interest of the country — keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”
Did you know that the Grand Canyon is around 17 MILLION years old? The thought of a TJ Maxx sitting near the edge is almost laughable. ALMOST. If it didn’t sound exactly like what somebody would try to do to make a buck. If it didn’t sound exactly like a place where hoards of tourists would go to buy a $10 fleece hoodie, if perhaps they hadn’t anticipated how chilly it would get at the bottom of that big hole in the ground, come evening. [pause for effect. and to shuffle notes 🙂 ]
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that 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; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. [I Kings 19:9-15]
We are doing a worship series about transitions because this, right here, is where we are… but at any given time, most of us are trying to get to somewhere else. We are living through changes in work and school routine, family situation, health, finances, or maybe just a change in perspective—an evolving sense of our place in the world. Whatever the particulars, we need language and tools to process the distance from here to where we’re headed; and we need a safe space to seek the holiness in all that lies between.
Last week, we talked about the way community and shared history can help us move through seasons of change. The stories of our faith give us something of value to we carry ahead with us. That same narrative keeps us connected to the distant and recent past, while our connections in church and family urge us to move ahead and “cross over,” into the promise of new life.
Those are much needed gifts, when it comes to our spiritual range of motion. But sometimes, we are just in a nothing place. Sometimes, we’ve let go of what’s behind, but we don’t really know where to step next. We’re in a season of waiting and uncertainty. It feels like we’re just biding our time until the path ahead comes clear.
Into that sort of space steps the prophet Elijah. Elijah, like every prophet before (and every prophet since) wrestles with his own doubts. Everywhere he turns, he sees people worshiping false idols. Again and again, God has shown faithfulness to them; and again and again, when they are afraid or in need, they reach back for the hollow rituals, the easy answers, the sins of their past. Elijah has preached ‘til he can preach no more about the One True God—will the people never listen? Has God sent him out here for nothing? And maybe, creeping around the edges of all this, is his own unbelief… after all, if everyone around you is worshiping other gods…maybe they know something you don’t.
Maybe his One True God is…well, not so “true” as he’d believed.
And out of that void—like every prophet before him and every prophet since—Elijah steps out into wilderness. He goes to the top of a mountain and then–and this is one of my favorite passages in all of scripture— there was a great wind. 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 (say it with me) The Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a sound. Of sheer. Silence.
And sometimes, it’s just that simple.
Ferguson, MO has looked like another country, another place in time lately. An unarmed teenager, shot and killed by a police officer; an old wound, torn apart and exposed to the elements…a wound that we sometimes like to pretend is healed, or at least, belonging to other people. We saw images of escalating violence, heard stories of widespread rage, with nobody listening. Nobody listening.
Then, after days of local police making even MORE demonstrations of power and force, the Governor sent in Capt. Ron Johnson, a highway patrolman with some ties to the community. Johnson told all the officers assigned to the detail to “take their gas masks off.” And then…
He and other state troopers walked down the street, side by side with a group of protestors; their presence saying that this new leader was their protector, and not their adversary. Young men with bandanas around their faces paused to embrace him; at the Quiktrip, burned out by looters earlier in the week, children drew on the ground with colored chalk; people stepped outside their homes, holding candles against the dark night sky— And just like that, the streets of Ferguson started to look less like a war zone, and a little more like the kingdom of God.
It didn’t fix everything. It’s far from over. But for just a moment, some holy whisper could be heard over the clamoring human crowd.
For days, people tried to get each other’s attention with weapons; with smoke and fog and fire.
But–we know this story– The Lord was not in the teargas. The Lord was not in the fire.
The voice of God was waiting for a quiet moment, to be made known. The voice of God waited in stillness.
Here’s the truth: whatever our chaos—whatever turmoil we wade through, or whatever the ‘waiting place’ in which we must make peace with ourselves and others–we will look for God in all sorts of places. We will absurdly look to our own devices; we will look to our day planners and throw ourselves on what Barbara Brown Taylor calls ‘the altar of busyness…’ We will run and task ourselves into a frenzied whirlwind, trying to answer and fix and find our way clear.
But the Lord is not in the wind.
Sometimes, we have to get out of our space; out of our heads, away from our vices… and get out to a place that is still…before we can hear that still, small voice.
Even the best prophets can be strongly influenced by what other people worship. The media frenzy, or the profit margin; the title and all it implies; and sometimes…the busy schedule. When we’re in a place of transition, it makes us feel in control, maybe even a little bit normal, to keep up the fully programed, Johnson County pace. But the thing is… to hear what God needs to speak to us, to find where God is leading, we have to get to someplace quiet. Someplace where all that we have, and all that we THINK we are can be stripped away; where we have no more masks and no more weapons, and we are completely vulnerable to our true selves; and the voice of wilderness that’s waiting there to be heard.
When we talk about being stewards of creation, we are often talking about practical things; we recycle, we use real dishes at church potlucks (mostly); maybe we even drive a Prius. But being faithful to creation is also about being a PART of creation. Not just the strip malls and stucco houses that we’ve filled our desert places with. We are called to get out IN the created world; into places of beauty and stillness and solitude. Our civilized minds and active bodies rage against that quiet; but the spirit craves it. And if we don’t, from time to time, strike out to appreciate all that lives and breathes beneath our feet—then we are likely to lose it entirely. To developers with more patience and time than we can manage.
It is tempting to worship movement and noise; audible, visible signs of power and ‘things happening. But remember, when we are moving through places of change and transition— the Holy Spirit is moving and shaping us all the while, like a raging river against rocks as old as the earth. We have only to keep still. We have only to keep still, and the path will be carved ahead. Maybe even within us.
Since I’ve been assured that Kansas people DO know who Wendell Berry is, I’ll leave us with one of his better known epistles… some good news for moving ahead, and waiting for the word that will speak in wilderness.
“The Peace of Wild Things”
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Sometimes, it really is just that simple.