The passage from 1 Kings is the origin of the name of the Still, Small Voice group that gets together on Saturday afternoons. We gather for contemplative prayer. We gather simply to be with God. The “still, small voice” is an older translation of the “sound of sheer silence” in the New Revised Standard Version. Elijah hears earthquakes and winds and fire and yet God is not found in these forces. Rather, God is found in the silence that follows.
Over the past few years I have found that contemplative prayer is hard sell. Many people are uncomfortable with silence. Even more are uncomfortable with having to encounter their own thought processes, the winds and earthquakes that are rattling around in our own minds and come out to play especially when we try to be calm. This kind of prayer is a hard sell because you have that mental storm, what the Buddhists call “monkey mind” and then the leader says, “Do it every day for a few weeks and it starts to get easier.” Do it for few a months and you start seeing things change in your life. Do it for a few years and you are calmer and more focused. You have fewer knee-jerk responses. You are less likely to get pulled into someone else’s panic. But it is a slow and steady discipline, not a quick fix and slow and steady disciplines are a hard sell in any department.
It is the power of learning simply to be with God. This is the place where imminence, that sense of God being immediately available, intersects with transcendence, that sense that God is far beyond you and mysterious. I remember when I was high school one of my jobs as a junior camp counselor was to put the campfire out after the campers had gone up to get ready for bed. And sometimes I just liked to sit and watch the fire. Often I had other people with me and we would sit for a few minutes and just stare as the fire burned down, as the flames descended into red, hot coals, a dull orange light illuminating our faces. You wouldn’t get too close because it was too hot, even dangerous. And yet there was something so comforting about sitting in the firelight, sitting in silence and listening for the language of pops and hisses, the constant sound of exhalation as steam and smoke rise from burning wood. In those moments there was no need to speak; words were disruptive. There was no need to comment, just the joy of all your attention focused on that light in the darkness.
When we can simply be with God, it has the power to change things in our lives. When we can simply be with God, we can break down the barriers between sacred and common. We discover that there are no places and no times that are truly holier than any other, because the fullness of God is constant and everywhere. There may be places and times where we pay more attention, but there is no place and no time where the transcendent God is not immediately available. A common theme that you find in the great contemplative Christian authors throughout history is that all creation is sacred space and all time is sacred time.
Last week I talked a little bit about miracle stories and the difference between how we approach them today and how the original audience might have approached them. So when we hear about Jesus walking on water, our post-Enlightenment minds ask, “How did that happen? What was the trick?” A first-century Christian was more apt to ask, “What does it mean to walk on water?
There are some strong symbols at work here. In the ancient Hebrew mind, the sea was a symbol of chaos. As far as we can tell, most people did not swim. It’s not that there was a prohibition against swimming , it just isn’t talked about very much, the miracle is that Israelites cross places on dry land. Most fishing boats did not get out of sight of land, because the sea was the unknown, a place that swallowed ships and sailors. Think back to Genesis before God said anything on day one, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a mighty wind swept over the face of the waters.” Before God speaks, it is chaos and chaos looks like being in the middle of the ocean, far from land in the midst of stormy weather. That’s what the disciples were experiencing in their boat and Jesus comes walking in on top of it all, untouched and unconcerned by chaos. That’s what it means to walk on water, not avoiding the chaos but walking safely through it. Peter starts to get it right, takes a few steps but then looks at the chaos and gets pulled in.
What does that mean in your own lives? Over the summer, people have told me about things going on. We have had health crises in our congregation. Some of you have talked to me about personal struggles in your lives. Some of you have simply had lives disrupted by visiting grandchildren who are wonderful and beautiful and a source of great chaos. On the international scene we have a president talking about fire and fury such as the world has never seen and North Korea threatening American territory.
And Jesus comes to us walking on top of it all. He doesn’t dismiss the chaos, he just doesn’t give it much attention. Jesus comes walking to us as calm in the midst of the storm. Jesus comes walking over the chaos as a visible sign of what it means to simply be with God. And if you think about the whole story of the life of Jesus it is a living illustration of what it means to live in the kingdom of God now and what it means to be centered in God now.
All of those things that we could lump together as a big ball of chaos can easily become the center of our lives. If you struggle with health issues, they can become all-encompassing. If you struggle financially, worry can consume your days. If you give it enough attention, watching the news and then watching pundits hash out the news can eat up hours of your life. When we are centered in Christ, we approach these things with a different perspective. You will still have to deal with your health problems. You will have to deal with your financial problems. I strongly suggest you take an occasional Sabbath from cable news, Facebook and tweets and when we are centered in Christ I think we have a better ability to simply say, “Enough.”
Now I know that not everyone is going to make silence the central part of your devotions, but I would challenge you to find a way to incorporate it. It doesn’t have to be a long period. If you say the Lord’s Prayer before you go to bed, take another minute to sit with it. If your prayer is conversational, make sure to take the time to sit and listen, that you’re not hogging the whole conversational. It can also be as simple as a deep breath when things start to feel out of control, reconnecting yourself to the constant presence of God. Learn to simply be with God so that you can come to know the God who is with you always, who walks you through the chaos, making every moment and place of your life holy.