“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?’” – 1 Kings 19:11-13
In my Indigenous Spirituality class we’re reading a book by Kent Nerburn titled Neither Wolf Nor Dog. It’s a wonderful read, especially if you’re ever curious about Native American sentiment toward our Western culture – and, if you’re living in the United States, you really should be curious. After all, we are all living on stolen property.
As the subtitle describes, On Forgotten Roads With an Indian Elder, this is a story of a white man encountering an elderly native (“old man Dan”) and learning what it means to be a part of native people and earth as a whole. As Dan recounts all the things that were handed down to him from his ancestors, Nerburn begins to realize just how devastated native culture has become and just how much he – and by extension, his readers – could learn.
In a conversation early on in their journey, Dan tells Nerburn:
“You’re getting better with silence,” he said.
“I watch you.”
“You’re learning. I can tell because of your silence.”
I sensed that he had something to say. Dan did not make small talk when he was on his hill.
“We Indians know about silence,” he said. “We aren’t afraid of it. In fact, to us it is more powerful than words.”
I nodded in agreement.
“Our elders were schooled in the ways of silence, and they passed that along to us. Watch, listen, and then act, they told us. This is the way to live.
“Watch the animals to see how they care for their young. Watch the elders to see how they behave. Watch the white man to see what he wants. Always watch first, with a still heart and mind, then you will learn. When you have watched enough, then you can act.”
There was a silence. – Nerburn, Pg. 65
Even for someone as introverted as me oftentimes becomes bugged by silence. I need some background noise or something to watch or something to entertain me. But why? Why do we have a difficult time in silence with no music, TV, cell phone, computer, or anything else to distract us?
Another professor of mine, for my “Knowing Self, Knowing God” class, gave an entire lecture on solitude last Thursday. He pointed out how we have a tendency to move from one distracting thing to another and said that it was because, “We don’t want to deal with who we are.”
Is it shame? Sure. Is it loneliness or depression? That, too. What about guilt? Definitely. Or it could even be something that happened to us. Whatever it might be, it oftentimes comes to the forefront of our hearts and minds when we’re in solitude. When the silence comes, that’s oftentimes when God shows up and, like Adam and Eve, we don’t want to be seen naked – we don’t want to be seen with our pain, depression, shame, or whatever exposed.
Elijah recognized that the “sheer sound of silence” meant that God had arrived. What’s critical about this passage is what Elijah was going through right before going out on the mountain.
In chapter 18, he challenges the prophets of Baal to display which God is the true god to be worshipped. And after the fire burns up the altar that Elijah had constructed and everyone had bowed to God, rains came, which ended a long drought. Almost immediately after, Elijah had received a death threat from Jezebel, King Ahab’s wife. Terrified, Elijah fled.
“[H]e got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’” – 1 Kings 19:3-4
Elijah was suicidal.
And then he meets God on the mountain.
Oftentimes we cast these biblical characters as super-humans; capable of scaling tall buildings in a single bound, flying faster than a speeding bullet, or whatever other feat of Superman we want to use, but they were just as human as we are. Including Jesus.
They were sad. They were lonely. They were scared. They were depressed. And yes, they were suicidal. But what also happened? They found solitude with God and, over time, were healed.
Jesus repeatedly found time to get away and simply be with God. He didn’t have a journal, a “devo” – not even a Bible. He simply got up, got away for a while, and then came back and got to work. He repeatedly got away from the many voices pulling Him whichever direction they wanted Him to go and listened to the One Voice that mattered: God’s.
Being silent in mind and heart, like Old Man Dan talked about in Nerburn’s book, is the most essential element to healing and growth. It is where we encounter God, which means it’s where we encounter the truth about ourselves – the very truth we do not want to hear. As Henri Nouwen says, when we commune with God, we have to face our demons, too (paraphrased). When we’re silent, alone, undistracted, and focused on the moment with God, we can deal with who we are and move forward.
I share these thoughts because my life is getting busier with school and work. Football season is upon us, which means there are games nearly every night of the week. If not, then there are the baseball playoffs that are right around the corner. And when those are over, hockey and basketball are waiting – and those are just the sports that are demanding our attention; I haven’t even gotten to all the TV shows and movies that are coming up.
It simply means that it is a critical time to be centered in God. The only way for that to happen is to follow Jesus’ example. Shortly after hearing of John the Baptist’s death, Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself,” (Matt. 14:13a). Jesus dealt with His pain by going to God alone, which then enabled Him to carry out His work, for in the very next few verses, Jesus feeds roughly ten thousand people (if you count the women and children who were with them – Matt. 14:21).
Whatever our mission may be, it won’t be carried out if we don’t consistently return to God for healing, guidance, and peace. Jesus didn’t do it just to be an example; He did so out of necessity for His own well-being.
May we follow His lead and listen for the sound of silence.
Side note: Louis C.K., a very famous and hilarious comedian, shared some eerily similar thoughts on Conan the other night. Silence has an incredible power on the human psyche, which is all the more reason why God meets us there. We just have to listen.