Series: August 2023
Speaker: Bethany Nelson
"The Quiet Center"
O give thanks to the Lord, call on God’s name, make known God’s deeds among the peoples. Sing to God, sing praises to God; tell of all God’s wonderful works. Glory in God’s holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice. Seek the Lord and the Lord’sstrength; seek God’s presence continually. Remember the wonderful works God has done, God’s miracles, and the judgements God has uttered, O offspring of God’s servant Abraham, children of Jacob, God’s chosen ones.
1 Kings 19:9b-18
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, 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.”
God 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. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
I heard the other day about a man named Bernie Krause. He lives here in the Bay Area and is known as a “soundscape ecologist.” That basically means he records nature sounds for a living. His recordings are used in museums and zoos, as well as in film and television and his career has spanned over 50 years. In a recent interview, he said that in the 1960s, it would take about 10 hours in the field to produce one hour of usable material – a recording with only nature sounds … no human sounds of cars, planes, talking, or anything else. Just nature. Today, he says to get that same one hour of usable material, it doesn’t take 10 hours – it takes closer to 1000 hours in the field.[i] We are surrounded by noise!
Because of the constant presence of noise in our lives, I pay special attention to this scripture passage. God comes to Elijah not in the great wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in the sound of sheer silence. God makes God’s self known in silence. It makes me wonder … how often do we miss God’s voice in our lives simply because silence is so hard to come by? How often do we overlook God’s presence because we are so often surrounded by noise?
Rob Bell is a preacher and author who created a video series several years ago called “Nooma,” where he addresses various life topics from a Christian perspective. Most of the videos feature him talking with background music and lots of moving camera angles. However, one video in the series – titled, “Noise” - is silent. It simply features questions, statements, and scripture projected on a blank screen. It is quite impactful to watch something with absolutely no noise – that doesn’t happen very often! I want to show you just a bit of that video.
“Come to me, all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” ~Jesus, in Matthew 11
If I am not still, and if I don’t listen, how is Jesus going to give me rest?
Have you spent the same amount of time worrying and talking about your difficult, confusing situations as you have spent in silence, listening to what God might have to say?
Why is talking so much easier than listening?
“But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” ~Luke 5:16
These were regular disciplines Jesus had. Silence. Solitude.
When was the last time you were in a solitary place?
What is it about silence that is so difficult?
Why is it easier to surround myself with noise and keep moving than to stop, be silent, and listen?
How much noise do I voluntarily subject myself to?
Does my schedule, my time, my life look like that of a person who wants to hear God’s voice?
About 7 minutes of the 10 minute video is like that. It’s powerful.
I appreciate that Rob Bell’s questions addressed not only the noise of sound in our lives, but also the noise of activity. Listening for the still, small voice of God isn’t about simply reducing the sounds in our lives, but it is about finding the time and space in our lives for solitude and stillness. Time just for God and nothing else.
Some of you may know of Rachel Naomi Remen, who is both a doctor and an author. Much of her medical career was here in the Bay Area at UCSF. In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, she has a beautiful description of this concept of silence that is about much more than a lack of sound. She writes, “In a book about Spain, I remember reading an interesting thing about bullfighting. There is a place in the bullring where the bull feels safe. If he can reach this place, he stops running and can gather his full strength. He is no longer afraid. From the point of view of his opponent, he becomes dangerous. This place in the ring is different for every bull. It is the job of the matador to be aware of this, to know where sanctuary lies for each and every bull, to be sure that the bull does not occupy his place of wholeness.
“In bullfighting, the safe place is called the querencia. For humans, the querencia is a place in our inner world. Often it is a familiar place that has not been noticed until a time of crisis. Sometimes it is a viewpoint, a position from which to conduct a life, different for each person. Often it is simply a place of deep inner silence.
“In working with people with cancer, I have seen the change which happens when a person finds their querencia. In full view of the matador, they are calm and peaceful. Wise. They have gathered their strength around them. The inner silence is more secure than any hiding place.
“Perhaps this is why the silence in the giant redwood forest near my home draws me. Many mornings I get up early and dress hurriedly to get to the woods before the tour buses and the cars arriving with people from all over the world, come to marvel at the majesty of nature. At eight in the morning, the great trees stand rooted in a silence so absolute that one’s inmost self comes to rest. An aged silence. The grandmother of silences. I find the silence even more remarkable than the trees.
“As I age I am grateful to find that a silence has begun to gather in me, coexisting with my tempers and my fears, unchanged by my joys or my pain. Sanctuary. Connected to the Silence everywhere.”[ii]
I love the poem printed on the front of the bulletin – “Come and find the quiet center in the crowded life we lead.” I think that is what Remen is describing – our quiet center. I also think that is what Elijah was seeking up on that mountain. He was finally able get away from the hecticness that had been his life to find a quiet center. He was trying to clear the chaos and the clutter – much of which had been self-inflicted. It was in that place of quiet that he encountered God and received from God a plan of action about how to move forward, to figure out what really mattered.
I wonder what that quiet center is for each of you. There is no doubt that many of us lead crowded lives. How do you find that quiet center? That place or space to be with God? To be at peace and simply be? It can certainly be elusive, but it is so important. I encourage you to find some regular time to clear the chaos and the clutter that is so often a part of life.
“Come and find the quiet center in the crowded life we lead.
Find the room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed.
Clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes that we can see
all the things that really matter, be at peace and simply be.”[iii]
This all sounds so wonderful, but let’s balance that with a dose of reality … it’s not always easy to make that happen. How often does a day go by when I don’t even come close to accomplishing my to-do list, let alone have time for finding my quiet center. Time to simply be? Come on! I barely have time to have lunch.
And then there are those times when we are still and quiet and listening for God … and we don’t hear anything. Come on, God, I’m waiting for my epiphany. I’m ready for you to blow my mind in this time of silence. There are plenty of times that I do spend time in my quiet center, and yet my life seems to be just as chaotic and cluttered as always.
Thank goodness this story also reminds us of God’s patience, and God’s understanding of our very human foibles. Let’s not forget that Elijah is a prophet, chosen by God. If anyone should be the model of amazing piety and connection with God, it should be him! And yet, when God first asks him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” all Elijah can do is basically whine and complain. “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.”
We know this is not actually true – Elijah is not alone – because God reminds him later that there are 7,000 faithful in Israel. But even a prophet can reach the end of his rope, so he is feeling all alone. God senses that Elijah needs a little divine intervention, so God reveals God’s self to Elijah in the silence. We know this is a big deal, because the story says Elijah covers his face, just as Moses did when he encountered God. So Elijah is there in the presence of God and God asks him the same question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah has now experienced this theophany – this manifestation of God present with him – so one would think that he would have a different, perhaps more enlightened answer. Nope. He has the same exact complaints. “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.”
At this point, I am losing patience with Elijah. Come on, man, you are wasting your precious encounter with God! But God does not give up on him. Instead, God sticks with Elijah, giving him a specific and detailed plan for what he needs to do next, and reminding him that all is not lost and he has not been abandoned.
I am reminded of the line from the Psalm we heard – “Seek the Lord and the Lord’s strength; seek God’s presence continually.” God is always with us. Whether we are aware of God or not. Whether we are surrounded by noise or by silence. Whether we are feeling grateful or whiny. Whether we have an amazing epiphany or not. God is with us. May we always seek that quiet center and seek God’s presence continually. Amen.