Listening in the Silence

Prior to today’s story, Elijah had been on the run for forty days and forty nights. He has been in constant motion for the past month. On the outside Elijah has been active and yet in today’s story we find out that, on the inside, Elijah is spent and empty.

Today too, we find ourselves with busy outsides and a weary insides. We too find ourselves in a frantic flurry of activity, doing, doing, doing. We find ourselves busy working or watching television or whittling down our to-do list – whatever it is, we are busy doing until at last we too are spent and weary on the inside.

Elijah’s experience of a busy outside and weary inside reminds me of a story I once heard about a fig tree. It is a story that I read in the Gospels that used to confound me.

In the story, Jesus approaches a fig tree covered with leaves and, finding no figs to eat, curses the tree. The next day Jesus and the disciples walked by the same tree and find it dead to the roots.

I could never figure it out:

the tree was covered in leaves, why did it die? Did Jesus kill it?

Then I heard a horniculturalist explained how fig trees work. There are certain plants, she said, like fig trees, that sprout leaves fuller and greener than ever the last season before they die. The last springtime of full, lush, green leaves is a grand deception. Jesus didn’t kill the tree in the story, the horniculturalist posits. Jesus just told the truth about it. (Source: Recovering the Sacred Center by Howard Friend)

What the story teaches us is that a fig tree with many green shoots may still be unhealthy at its core. This reality teaches us a truth not only about fig trees but about our lives. Sometimes our lives – busy and active – can be a flurry of activity on the outside but leave us brown and fading on the inside. This reality sheds light on Elijah’s struggles as well. A productive prophet, he had been zealous for God, working hard to further God’s agenda. He had sprouted shoots greener and fuller than we could imagine – raising a boy from the dead and calling forth fire from heaven.

Yet, calling forth fire had not ended how he had expected. Sure, Elijah had defeated the prophets of Baal, in a showdown. Yet, in retaliation the queen had issued a royal death sentence for Elijah.

And, in response, Elijah had hit the ground running. Literally. Elijah took off for the desert, his feet pounding on the earth. And, as he ran, the list of his hardships and worries become louder and louder in his mind until at last they were a cacophony of self-pity, resentments and regret.

Collapsing under a tree, Elijah cries out, “Enough God. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

He had been in constant motion and now, now he has nothing left. His core had turned brown and he had nothing left to give.

An angel appears and gives Elijah food for the journey and then he is back in motion, running, running, running for forty days and forty night until at last collapsing in a cave on a mountain.

This is where we find Elijah in today’s text.

God asks Elijah why he is in the cave and Elijah explains about his busy outsides and weary insides. God hears his exhaustion and responds, “Go out and stand on the mountain for I will pass by.”

And so Elijah waits. We don’t know if he passes the time pacing back and forth or curled up in the fetal position, shivering and anxious. Either way, Elijah waits for God as chaos occurs all around him – winds howl, the earth shakes and a fire rages.

And then suddenly Elijah hears: sheer silence. Elijah stills.

And in the silence, Elijah hears that which had been there all along:

the gentle whisper of God.

And so the Holy One speaks to Elijah, cutting right past Elijah’s frustrations and addresses the concerns that lie at Elijah’s core.

My child, God whispers, I have plans for you. You will anoint a new king and a new prophet. You are not alone. There are seven thousand faithful in Israel who will stand beside you. You will not be left alone.

I imagine Elijah unclenching his muscles, surrendering his fervent efforts to grow lush greenery, surrendering to the presence of the Holy One who is before him, allowing the presence of the Holy One to flood through his dry core, quenching his thirst as one who has long been parched.

It is then that his vision clears from the clutter of his everyday life to the truth of the matter: God loved him and had not left him alone … the commotion of the world had just obscured his seeing. It is then that Elijah has the energy that he needs to leave the cave and return to his call.

And so like Elijah, God calls us in the midst of our achieving, in the midst of our fretting and our worrying, our list making and internet searching, God call us to be still and listen,

That in the silence, we too might hear what is always present: the gentle whisper of a God who loves us and claims us as God’s own.

That in the silence, we too might hear what is always there: the still small voice of God.

That in the silence, we might hear the voice of our Creator who breathed life into our beings and, upon our creation, declared that we were good.

That in the silence, we might hear the voice of our Holy Parent who cares for us and claims us as beloved.

That in the silence, we might hear the One who promised Elijah: You will never be alone.

That in the silence, our inner core might at last be nourished and rested and green.

The question is: How might we listen in the silence? How might we create opportunities to quiet ourselves and rejuvenate our inner core?

Parker Palmer was faced with this exact question when he was trying to discern a new direction for his life. I preached about Parker, a Quaker and author several weeks ago. Parker had worked hard to live up to other’s expectations of him and slowly and miserably found himself burnt out and ill-fitting for the professions.

In one such case, many people had expected Parker to become the president of a university. During this time that Parker was focus on being successful and thus was ecstatic when he got an offer to become the president of a small university.

Being a Quaker, Parker choose to listen in the silence by calling a clearness committee. A clearness committee is a group of Quakers who sit with the decision maker – both in silence and in questioning for three hours so that together they might hear the voice of God.

And so the committee was convened and at first the questions were easy: What is your vision for the school? How would you handle conflict?

Then someone asked a question that sounded easy but was in fact very hard: “What would you like most about being president?”

The simplicity of the question loosened Parker from his head to his heart. From the green growth to the core of his being. Well, he began, and then listed all the things he did not like.

Gently but firmly, the person interrupted Parker saying, “I asked what you would most like.”

Parker responded, yes yes, I am working on that and then resumed his litany of dislikes.

Once again the questioner called Parker back to the original question.

Well, Parker finally said in a small voice, “I guess what I would like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word president under it.”

Parker was sitting with seasoned Quakers who knew that, though Parker’s answer was laughable, his mortal soul was at stake and so they went into a long and serious silence.

Finally the questioner broke the silence with a question that cracked all of them up and cracked Parker open – Parker he said, could you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?

By then it was obvious that his desire to become president was rooted in desire to look good rather than an authentic calling based on who and whose he was. You see, in this story Parker is exactly like the fig tree that Jesus encountered, he was like the burnt-out prophet Elijah. If he had taken that job, it would have be a grand deception just like the fig tree. On the outside, he would have been active and successful and leafy but on the inside he would have been brown and weary because there was not one thing he liked about the job.

The experience, like Elijah’s holy encounter on a mountainside, re-focused Parker. He started his journey to replenish his core, to dig his roots down deep into who he was, whose he was and what he was about. In the end, Parker finds his calling in writing and teaching outside the academic. And perhaps his shoots weren’t quite as tall as he would have liked, but Parker found a more honest and grounded place to seek his roots in. He had journey past the clutter and anxiety of his life to find the sacred center, the center where we hear the gentle whisper of God: God loves us and has not left us alone.

The invitation of today’s scripture is to listen in the silence, that we who are weary might rest and replenish our core.

The question for us is: How might we punctuate our personal prayer life or our worship or our Tuesday night meetings with listening? How might we leave space for God to speak and nurture us in our own lives and in the life of the congregation?

Barbara Brown Taylor raises this exact question in her book, When God is Silent. She comments on how Christians often punctuate their prayers with phrases like, “Hear us, God” or “God, hear our prayer.” We do a lot of speaking in the prayers, but she wonders, where is the listening? What would it be like for us to say, “Speak, God, for your servants are listening?” and leave time for listening?

Now that we have heard the story of Elijah and others like him, the question becomes: what is our story as individuals and a church? How do we create spaces and pauses to say, “Speak, God for we your servants are listening?”

My friends, we can start today, at this moment, close your eyes, be still, listen and know: “God loves you and will be with you always.”


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