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The Sound of Soft Stillness
June 19, 2022
1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a
Sixty years ago this past week, my father moved the six members of our family from a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Waterloo, Iowa so he could begin serving as pastor of a church there. It’s easy to remember that date because we arrived in Waterloo on Flag Day, so he tried to convince us that the flags that lined so many streets in Waterloo were put there to welcome us to town. We weren’t fooled.
Outside of his military service in World War II, he had spent the vast majority of his life in western Pennsylvania, where almost all of his family still remained. That meant it was quite a change to move his household some 800 miles to the midwest. So why did he do it?
The fact was that he had just graduated from seminary and, like all recent seminary grads, he was faced with the task of searching for a church to serve. As you may or may not know, applying for a job as pastor of a church is not like applying for a job in any other field.
That’s because your priority isn’t looking for the best possible compensation package and/or best working and living conditions. Your priority is trying to find the congregation that God is guiding you toward. That’s a tricky thing to do since, even at this late date, God is shy about using emails or texts or Facebook Messenger. Not that I’d go so far as to call God a Luddite! It’s just that God prefers the traditional method of communicating — in a still, small voice.
So how do you go about trying to discern God’s will? Well, my father chose to find his initial church by deciding to serve the very first church that contacted him and by praying that God would guide the right church to be that first one. That church would prove to be Bethel United Presbyterian in Waterloo. And his procedure proved to work out well since he stayed there for more than 25 years.
When I was a Student Pastor, I served a small church in tiny Hazelton, Iowa. Just outside of town was a large Amish community that I believe was about 250 families strong. During my time in Hazelton, I learned that the Amish split their congregations into groups of roughly 50 families. Each of those groups are led by an elder who is appointed for life. And the way those elders are chosen is not all that dissimilar to the method my father used to find his way to Bethel.
If an elder dies and the Amish need to replace him — and yes, it would definitely be a him — the group would nominate a number of potential candidates. Then they would gather a collection of Bibles equal to the number of candidates. Inside one of those Bible, they would place a piece of paper saying, “You are the new elder.”
They would then mix the Bibles up, pray over them and over the candidates, asking God to lead the correct person to select the Bible with the paper inside. At that point, each candidate would choose a Bible. Whichever man ended up with the paper would then serve as elder until he died. That procedure always seemed to me to be an example of profound faith in the presence and guidance of God.
Contrast that procedure with the many times throughout history in which people chose to cover their own personal prejudices and agendas with an ill-fitting cloak of presumed divine blessing. The most egregious of those times led to the Crusades.
The origins of that tragedy lay in the rigid social stratification of medieval Europe. As time went along, there were less and less opportunities for the younger children of the aristocracy due to less land and fewer jobs to go around. That, in turn, added pressure for downward mobility. But that couldn’t be allowed to happen.
Meanwhile, the Middle Eastern lands of the Bible offered opportunities for new lands and new loyalties. Plus a land grab in that region could be clothed with falsely religious goal of wresting the Holy Land back from the so-called infidels. And so they pretended that their personal schemes were blessed by God.
In far more recent times, we heard the Rev. Jerry Falwell make the outrageous claim that the 9/11 attacks were God’s way of punishing the United States for tolerating abortionists along with gays and lesbians. To be fair, Falwell would later back away from that claim.
Four years later, Pat Robertson stated on national television that Hurricane Katrina leveled New Orleans as God’s response to America’s abortion policies. The logic of any of those claims escapes me. After all, Jesus taught that anywhere people worship “in spirit and truth” is a holy land.
And if Falwell and Robertson were somehow correct in their assess-ments, you have to question why God would target random people for his anger and not merely those who participated in the actions that spurred the divine wrath.
Or what about the seminary student who was asked by a professor to explain how that young man received a call leading him into full-time church service. The student said, “Now I know why God gave my wife and me a mentally handicapped child. Because of this child, I have been led into the ministry.” The professor looked this well-meaning father in the eyes and said, “I really don’t believe God needs you that badly.”
The truth is that the Crusaders, Falwell and Robertson and even, to a lesser degree, that seminary student — along with many, many others over the centuries — were clothing their personal beliefs in the guise of the divine will with absolutely no evidence to back that belief up other than their own say so. But don’t we all sometimes act on our assumptions of what God should want and then try to force God to do what we think is right?
That’s what Elijah did just prior to today’s Old Testament lesson. The result was that his choices led him into the fear-ridden situation we see him struggling with. Those of you who saw our play about Elijah two weeks ago will remember the dramatic showdown on Mount Carmel that pitted 850 prophets of Asherah and Ba’al against that lone prayer-slinger, Elijah.
Only Elijah’s prayers were able to bring fire down from heaven. It was as if he had won the theological Super Bowl. But instead of being given a trip to DisneyWorld, he was issued a death warrant by Queen Jezebel. She was furious because Elijah had ordered the crowds to arrest all 850 priests of Ba’al and Asherah and immediately put them to death. His idea was to purify the country and remove the people’s temptation to worship idols. But God never asked for that. Elijah just assumed that’s what God would want.
Faced with the queen’s death threats, Elijah was suddenly very afraid. So he hightailed it all the way from central Israel to Mount Horeb, probably in Saudi Arabia. Horeb is another name for Mount Sinai, the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments.
Elijah had gone back to his theological roots to try to figure out what had gone wrong. There’s where we find him cowering in a cave, whining to God about how he’s the only faithful person left in Israel, even though that simply wasn’t true.
If Elijah — who was perhaps Israel’s greatest prophet — could get things so drastically wrong, that raises the question, “How can any of us know the will of God?”
I think there are at least three avenues for us to discern God’s will. And I don’t think any of them will come as a surprise to you. That’s not to say that any of them are completely straightforward and unmistakable. After all, if they were, we wouldn’t be able to have people believe that all of their own personal ideas come directly from the mind of God.
The first tool for discerning God’s will is, of course, the Bible. Scripture is the written record of God’s relationship with his people throughout history. The trick is that, as God interacted with his people, God continued to reveal more of himself and his will to them — sometimes in ways that seem contradictory on the surface.
That’s why leading theologians always say that the best interpreter of the Bible is the Bible itself. That is, if one passage seems to contradict any other passage, then you can be pretty sure that you are misunderstanding one or more of those passages.
That makes the task of discerning God’s will more difficult than we may wish that it were, but there are plenty of options to help us — biblical commentaries, scholarly writings, pastors and so on. However, the very best interpreter of Scripture is the Holy Spirit.
And that leads us to the second avenue for discerning God’s will, which is prayer. The Bible is God’s self-revelation. And since that’s the case, what better source could there be for understanding that self-revelation than by asking the one who made it? So many people approach prayer as if it were parallel to plugging quarters into a vending machine. They figure prayer is their way to get God to listen to their needs and desires and perhaps even persuade him to give them whatever it is that they happen to want at that moment.
But prayer isn’t intended to be a process of begging or persuading. Instead, it’s intended to be a method for us to bring our wills into alignment with God’s will. But you can’t learn anything new when you’re the one who’s talking. Prayer is at least as much about listening for God to speak as it is about talking yourself.
Now the truth is that that isn’t an easy thing to do. Elijah learned that in our Old Testament lesson today. God wasn’t found in the earthquake, wind or fire — that is, God doesn’t ordinarily speak through the dramatic events of life. And, yes, that includes that highly dramatic contest on Mount Carmel with its fire from heaven. Apparently God was willing to do that once, but he was clearly telling Elijah that he wouldn’t make a habit of it.
Instead, Elijah hears God’s voice in the soft stillness after the storms and fire are over. It’s in that silence that Elijah senses the presence of God and finally hears God’s voice. It’s there that we, too, can hear God’s voice as we listen through the silence for God’s guidance.
Let me make that a little clearer. Typically most people experience a feeling rather than hearing a literal voice. But is that feeling really coming from God or is it merely their own thoughts being projected onto heaven? That’s where the third technique enters in. Just as a properly-functioning compass will always point to the north, so any genuine message from God will always point to loving actions.
For that matter, God will almost always point you away from your own concerns and towards the needs and concerns of others. As Morrie Schwartz once said, “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give love and to let it come in.” So, in answer to the question, “How do we hear the sound of God in silence?” we listen for the heartbeat of love.
When you’re trying to discern God’s will, remember that Deuteronomy (4:28) says, “[…] seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul.”
So let’s listen for the sound of God moving in the “soft stillness” of our hearts, quietly bringing the triumph of life over death, healing over pain and love over injustice and prejudice. Amen.
by Jim McCrea
Rev. Jim McCrea
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