Sound of Silence

 

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. – 1 Kings 19:11-12

Periodically I feel as if I am standing with Elijah outside the cave on Mt. Horeb. His life is a bit more dramatic than mine. He has just killed all the prophets loyal to Queen Jezebel. The Queen has sworn to find him and to kill him. He has run away to save his skin. His path has led him to a cave on the Mountain of God. He lodges there. He waits.

He hears a voice. The text says “the word of the LORD” came to Elijah. The voice asks him what he is doing there. He rants: “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of Hosts. For the people of Israel have forgotten your covenant…killed your prophets…I am the only one left and they seek my life, to take it away.” The voice tells him to go outside the cave and wait; the LORD is about to pass bye.

Elijah waits. A strong wind rises, tears and breaks rocks. But God is not in the wind. After the wind there is an earthquake, and then fire. Rock shattering wind, earthquakes, and fire are great images for the presence of God and God’s presence is often associated with all three. But this time God is not found in them.

Then Elijah hears something. The hebrew is translated in different ways. He hears the sound of something like a soft breeze. Some texts name it “a thin silence,” others “a sheer silence.” This silence is not the sound of emptiness. It is the silence of presence. When Elijah hears it he wraps his face in his cloak and goes out to the entrance of the cave; he knows he is in the presence of God.

Someone once said that if we are to embrace the spiritual life we eventually have to become comfortable with periods of unknowing and silence; we enter into a relationship with God who enters into a relationship with us, and yet always remains beyond our knowing. We use many words, and our words are important. Yet God remains beyond our words.

It sometimes happens that the images we have of God, the knowledge we have accumulated, the stories we have cherished begin to crumble. The things that moved us, inspired us, comforted us, begin to feel empty. We may feel as if we are loosing our faith, or that our faith was unreal. The truth is not that the stories and images are not good or helpful, or that our faith was or is unreal. It may simply be that we are moving closer to the one who is spoken of in the stories, but is so much more than the stories. The stories, the words, the images must give way to the reality of the living God.

Thomas Merton underscores the importance of this for our religious practices. He writes:

“If there is no silence beyond and within the many words of doctrine, there is no religion, only religious idolatry. For religion goes beyond words and actions, and attains to the truth only in silence and Love. Where this silence is lacking, where there are the “many words” and not the One Word, then there is much bustle and activity but no peace, no deep thought, no understanding, no inner quiet.” (Love and Living. NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979, p. 20)

It is so easy for us to fall in love with the busyness and activities of the church. We need to be careful that we do not fall in love with our own busyness and our own words, and forget that God is the center of all that we do. There are times in which we must stop, be silent, and listen to God, who meets us in silence. The stories we tell, the images we use, the words, are important. Even the work we do. But at some point, like Elijah we must stand outside the cave on our own Mt. Horeb. There we discover the presence of the One who meets us in silence.

Resistance

I learned something this morning, something you probably already knew. I didn’t. I bought a new LG smart phone, turned it on, and there it was, this new (to me) fact: beneath the LG logo are two words: “Life’s Good.” I did not know that LG stood for “Life’s Good.” In addition to all the other magical things this little device does, it makes a very basic religious, philosophical, existential statement. Turn it on, listen to a short delightful musical prelude, know: LG – Life’s Good.

I needed the reminder. I woke up with a headache. My body felt soggy. My arms and legs were struggling to wake up. I fixed my coffee, opened my newspaper, skimmed the headlines. Things had not changed much since yesterday. Angry violent people continue to drag the rest of us into larger cycles of violence. The plight of refugees continues. A congressman reports a dream of rising terrorism and burning American cities. Another child is shot while sitting on a porch playing. My heart aches. My conscience is tweaked. I am frustrated; I know I can do so very little about any of it. In addition, I was scheduled for a root canal in the afternoon. So it was good to get a reminder: LG – Life’s Good!

Sometimes it takes an act of the will and all the strength of a deep conviction to claim, assert, embrace, even fight for this: Life is Good! This day, this moment, these bodies, this air, just being here: a miracle.

Think about it. I read recently that it takes 5,000 years for light to travel from the center of the sun to its surface. Only then does it flare out into the solar system, striking the surface of planets, including our earth. Our very lives are contingent upon light that began its trek toward our planet 5,000 years ago. It takes a universe to support a life.

Somehow everything came together, comes together, consistently, reliably, so that we are here. This day: a miracle. Me with a toothache, drinking coffee, grumbling about the news, wondering if getting up today is worth the trouble. You, reading this page.

I think the most basic religious quest is to reclaim, to embody this aspect of reality: life is good. The goal and practice of good religion is not to diminish our experience of life, to fill us with guilt, anxiety, or dread, but to enhance our lives, to enlarge them! To set us free from the distortions we tend to impose upon life, the harm we do to each other. In Christian language, it is the work of redemption.

One of my favorite Gospel stories is the healing of the Gerasene demonic in Mark 5. A man who is naked, who lives his life howling, sleeping in tombs, cutting himself with rocks, terrifying his neighbors, runs up to Jesus. Jesus heals him. When the people of the town hear about it, they run out to see what happened. What they see is the man, who had been possessed by legions, sitting near Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind.” (Mark 5:15) Jesus has redeemed him, set him free from all that had distorted his life. Jesus restored the goodness of his life. Jesus sends him home to live well with his family, within his village. His life is meant to be good. Jesus made it so.

Why do I go to church? Because here it is (or at least, at its best should be),  that I remember that life is a sacred gift. Not because it is an opportunity to produce something more than what it is, or different than it is. But before anything else to affirm, grasp, breathe in this basic reality: Life is good, holy, of God. 

And this day it helps that my phone reminds me: LG – Life is Good. Let us resist everything that would tell us otherwise. Let’s claim its goodness. The act of doing so is a moral imperative. For those of us who are religious: doing so honors the God of life.

Strawberry Jam

 

A Confession (1985) by Czeslaw Milosz

My Lord, I loved strawberry jam

And the dark sweetness of a woman’s body.

Also well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,

Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.

So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit

Have visited such a man?

Nothing like stating the obvious: creation came to be not by accident, but by intention.

Read Gen. 1:31. It does not say that God saw everything that God had made and said “oops”, or “Oh no!” Rather it reads: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (NRSV)

We seem to forget that the bible begins with Gen. 1 and not with Gen. 3. The overarching biblical plot is not that of an angry God whose desire is to curse and to destroy, who must be appeased, but of a creative God of blessing, whose intention is that all life should flourish.

Thomas Merton wrote somewhere that the cow grazing in a field under a tree praises God perfectly, by simply being there.

The material world, this embodied life is not a mistake. It s a gift. It is not meant to be endured and suffered, but to be lived, to be celebrated.The spiritual life is not an escape from this life, but a deeper embrace of it.

That’s why I so love Czeslaw Milosz’s A Confession. Maybe only a person who loves the taste of strawberry jam can be a prophet.

Maybe only the person who shares God’s love for this created world will be moved enough to protest our violence, our readiness to destroy and kill, our careless abuse of the earth.

Consider the BORG

 

A few years ago I decided I would give up busyness and worry. It would have been easier to give up coffee and red meat. I made it about three days. I discovered how much I am addicted to busyness and worry. Withdrawal is worse than a caffeine headache. I discovered what I suspected: if there is nothing to worry about, I find something; if I have a few hours of uncommitted, discretionary time, I find a project and get busy doing it.

I have internalized a cultural value that embraces busyness and mistrusts idleness. It is wired into my nervous system. I am struggling to get it out of my system. I am in recovery.

Reading Thomas Merton helps me in my recovery. In one of his journals he wrote:

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.”

His point: to embrace this somehow tears into the fabric of our identities. We are less and less authentically ourselves, and more and more defined by what is outside of us. We become more driven by what is expected of us (or by what we expect of ourselves), and loose touch with who we might be, what lies at the center of our own souls. It is a depersonalizing act of violence. We are drawn and quartered. Worse yet, we tie the ropes onto our hands and feet.

There is much about being human that is beautiful and good, and has absolutely nothing to do with producing anything. We are so much more than the things we do. If we jamb our days till they overflow with projects, we are at risk of loosing important parts of ourselves. Do we recognize the value and importance of simply having tea with a friend, of breathing in the smell of a damp field, of listening to the rain, of simply sitting together opening to God?

Merton suggests that not only are we missing significant pieces of our human experience. We are at great risk of misdirecting our lives. Our compulsive busyness becomes a source of violence as we begin to value others and ourselves less as people, and more as objects in relationship to our projects and goals. We fail to notice and begin to pour the dark side of our personalities over each other.

Again, Merton:

“When we live superficially, when we are always outside of ourselves, never quite ‘with’ ourselves, always divided and pulled in may directions by conflicting plans and projects, we find ourselves doing many things that we do not really want to do, saying things we do not really mean, needing things we do not really need, exhausting ourselves for what we secretly realize to be without meaning in our lives…this inner contradiction, derived from the alienation and frustration in American life, is one of the roots of violence in our society. We seek release by fantasies and dramas of violence.” (Love and Living, Harcourt, 1979, p. 43.)

Even the church is complicit when it surrenders without critical thought to cultural models that surround it. A good Christian becomes defined as a busy Christian, purpose driven, fully engaged in a 24/7 busy church. Busyness becomes a substitute for real discipleship. People unconsciously become valued more for what they do to help the church meet its goals, than for who they are as sacred persons.

A path to recovery? Recognize and name our addiction. Reclaim the beauty and power of sabbath time, silence, listening to God, of play and idleness. Value each other first as persons, and then figure out what we might do together.

We do have much to do. We are called to feed the hungry, clothes the naked, visit the sick, to respond to the needs of others that surround us. But out of compassion, not as projects that prove our significance as an organization. And we need to keep real boundaries in place, least we turn ourselves and others into cogs in some productive machine (Borgs).

We need to recover our sacred, human center.

Consider the Dolphins

A few weeks ago my wife and I spent a weekend in Cape May. We stayed on the fifth floor of an ocean front hotel. Our balcony faced the ocean. I am not an early riser, but sunrise over the Atlantic is a thing not to be missed. So I got up early in the morning and sat on the balcony with my coffee. The sunrise was spectacular. The sun rose, a large white-pink disk. Half the sky shimmered, soft greens fading into shades of yellow and pink. Low clouds were like rose colored mountains floating just above the horizon. I listened to the waves striking the beach and the water flowing back to the sea.

Then I noticed that there were at least a dozen dolphins swimming just off the shore. One at a time, then in pairs, then in groups of three or four, blue-gray thick bodies would rise, arc above the water and disappear. They were feeding, or dancing, or perhaps just playing.

It struck me, as I watched the dolphins, that all of this beauty and the joy of the dolphins had nothing to do with me, my agendas, the things I can become so caught up in, the things I take so seriously. Yet there they were.

Since I am a clergy person, I tend to think in religious categories: yet God created them, keeps them, sustains them; for their own sake and not mine. Here is an obvious thought: God’s world is a lot bigger than mine! Yet how often I act as if my concerns are the center of God’s agenda! Or at least should be.

I wonder how much our religion is an attempt to domesticate God, or at least is an expression of a desire for a domesticated concept of god.

Think again about God’s response to David through Nathan the prophet, when David first proposes to build a house, a temple, for God: “Go tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD, Would you build a house for me to live in?’ ” (2 Sam. 7:5) Think how silly the idea that God who created all things needs someone to build a house in which God is to live? David’s thought is to honor God, but maybe also to harness God’s presence and power to his political agenda.

Maybe even in our churches, our desire is less to release ourselves to God, and more to domesticate God, to have God be present in this place, this time, this building, to hear and tend to our agenda.

How much richer our faith and freer our experience might be, if we were able to release ourselves into infinite sphere of God’s creation, rather than try to draw God down into the tiny space of our anxious minds, into the sphere of our churches, our goals and agendas, and even our religious doctrines.

Thomas Merton wrote somewhere that God is no-thing. We struggle with no-thing, so we make God into something, and then worship the something we create, not the living God. The result is idolatry. We even fight wars over whose concept of something is more true.

God and God’s realm are much larger, more beautiful, more joyful, than we imagine. God is the God of the sunrise, the oceans, the dolphins, of 100 million galaxies. Perhaps our most appropriate response should simply be awe and gratitude, that we, our neighbors, even our enemies, get to be part of it.

I’m Back

It’s been awhile, but I am back to blogging. A new look. A new theme. A new beginning.

I remain convinced that faith is about becoming more human, more alive, and perhaps even more vulnerable.

So much of what we experience can dehumanize us. Faith is a path of resistance.

It is not a path to a life beyond mediocracy. It is not a passion driven embrace of a purposeful mission statement. It does not help us move from good to great.

It is a reclaiming of an essence.

Reread Jesus’ parables. He deconstructs all concepts of what is good and what is great. He cracks open our concepts so that we might glimpse a different paradigm.

I look forward to our conversation.

Bill