1 Kings 19:11-13 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; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 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?”
As we spend these next few weeks reflecting on our practices, these things that we do that make us into who we are, we begin with prayer, which is appropriate because we often do begin with prayer. We begin our worship, we begin our Bible studies, we begin our meals, we begin our church meetings, many of us begin our days praying; we dedicate our children so that their lives begin with prayer, when you begin a journey you might pray for traveling mercies, when you began a new job you might’ve prayed that you would do good work, when you moved into a new house maybe you prayed that it would be a safe and loving home. At church, when we baptize, when we eat the Lord’s Supper, when we anoint the sick, when we bury our dead, we always begin with prayer.
We start with prayer because praying reminds us that whatever we’re doing we live and move and have our being in God, and God is already listening to us even as we listen for her voice. In the words of St. Therese of Liseux, “prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy; finally it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.” We begin and we continue with prayer because it’s in the practice of praying that our hearts aspire to the love of God no matter what our circumstances are. You all know I love praying with the Psalms, because they give us words to give back to God whether we’re joyful or sorrowful or angry or nostalgic. Prayer teaches us to remember God and be honest with God no matter what.
And over time, that practice becomes a “second nature,” it shapes the way we react to our surroundings, it allows us to discern connections and details in our lives that we might’ve missed otherwise. This is why Paul tells the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.” Paul doesn’t mean, “Bow your head, close your eyes, and talk out loud at God all day.” He means, “Let prayer shape your perception so that you’re always open to what God’s Spirit might be doing in the world; become the kind of person whose heart aspires to God’s love, always.” In the Eastern Orthodox Church, many Christians practice what’s called the Jesus prayer, and it just goes like this, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” And you pray this prayer slowly, inhaling as you say “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” and exhaling as you say “Have mercy on me a sinner” so that over time, this prayer simply becomes the air you breathe.
It takes practice, to pray like that, to let prayer saturate your soul. It takes practice to pray at all. I remember when I started trying to pray after I became a Christian. I would sit down in my chair at my desk, fold my hands and close my eyes and try talking to God. I thought prayer was basically asking God to do things for me, as though God is like cosmic customer service (“I didn’t order crushing anxiety on these fries can I please speak to the manager.” I have to “die to myself?” You should’ve put that on the box!). What I remember most about those early attempts—and I know that many others have experienced this too—is the silence. You ask God to do something, you ask God to give you guidance on some matter, and then you wait, and pretty quickly you start to feel like you’re just talking to the wall.
If prayer has all of these wonderful goals—an unceasing awareness of God’s work in the world, an aspiration to be a part of that work—the real task of prayer, the struggle we go through on the way to those goals, is learning to work with that silence, which we fear denotes God’s absence.
The writer Simone Weil describes two prisoners in adjoining cells in solitary confinement. There’s a thick wall between them but over time they figure out how to communicate through taps and scratches on the wall. Maybe that’s what praying feels like for you sometimes, scratching at a wall wondering if anyone is listening. But in Weil’s example, the wall that separates the prisoners is also the medium that allows them to communicate. Weil says, “So it is with us and God. Every separation is a link.” Our prayers are our taps and scratches where we ask God to take the things that separate us from God and each other and ourselves, and turn them into links that draw us back to God and communion and peace.
In our Scripture today, the Prophet Elijah is being chased by Queen Jezebel, who wants him dead. He’s all alone in the wilderness and there’s really no hope. Elijah lies down under a tree and prays to God, “Just kill me.” In that moment, a Word actually does come to him, telling him to go up to the mountain, that God is going to speak to him there. So Elijah goes up to the mountain and there was a mighty wind, just like the wind that made the world, but God was not in the wind. And then there was a great earthquake, just like when God spoke to Moses and the mountain of the Lord shook, but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, a fire, like the fire in the burning bush, except God was not in the fire. And after the fire, there was a sound of sheer silence. Or was it a still small voice? (Depends on your translation.) Elijah listened to the silent voice, went out from the cave, and he heard God telling him, “Elijah, what are you doing here? Go back to Jerusalem. There are thousands of friends waiting for you there. You’re not alone at all.”
God was in the silence. Often we look for God in the big events. At Christian youth camps, everyone gets saved on Thursday night, the day before you go home when the band plays everyone’s favorite songs and the speaker gives their most emotional message. And then of course everyone goes home and they wonder about the quality of their faith because life doesn’t match that intensity. But for Elijah, God is in the silence. God’s silence isn’t God’s absence, but God’s presence, just as some of our sweetest moments are lying silently with our beloved. It’s not that big moments don’t happen, but if God is in the silence, God is everywhere.
Which means that silence is an opportunity to listen. There is so much noise in our ears. Partly that’s because of our technologies that make it so we never have to sit in uncomfortable silence, but I also think those technologies are more symptoms than the root of the problem. Because when we turn those devices off, then the real noise starts, the thunder in our souls saying, “You didn’t work hard enough today, you’re not smart enough, you’re not qualified enough, whatever is going wrong its your fault, you’re only as valuable as what you produce, as the grade you make, as the college you get into.”
And often our prayers are shaped around those very voices. “God let me get this job, let my child get this grade, let that person achieve this or stop being such a problem, God let me do a good job so that I know I’m valuable.”
But what if God wants to free us from those voices? What if God wants us to imagine a world where we don’t have to listen to them. What if God wants us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What if God wants us to pray for the forgiveness of debts and that everyone would have their daily bread, no matter how deserving others think they are. That’s not how the voices in our world teach us to pray, and so silence is a gift, a way of saying “No” to those voices and of making space to help us to speak the unspoken, to think the unthought, to imagine the unimaginable.
So when you pray, don’t feel like you have to fill the silence. Don’t fill it, feel it. Sit with it. Listen for the still, small voice, and if you practice listening, you might just find that all around you you hear taps on the walls. That chance meeting with an old friend might not have just been chance, that random person who told you of their need might not have been random at all, that young person telling you about their life isn’t “just complaining” but pointing us toward our next call. “Christ plays in ten thousand places” and trusting that that is true, prayer is where we attune ourselves to notice.
When we don’t shy away from the silence, prayer can teach us to listen for the God who is already listening to us, and who knows what we might hear then? Elijah thought he was all alone, but in the still, small voice he learns that he has thousands of allies. What might we come to imagine, what kind of communion might we fin, if we committed ourselves again to the practice of prayer? Ten minutes of silence before you put your head on the pillow? Breathing the Jesus prayer in traffic in the morning? Gathering to pray through the Psalms as a small group? We can name the silences around us, learn to listen to their truth, and trust that God is there, too. We can pray, we must pray, and in praying we can all begin again. Amen.
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