Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Action Figure Meets The Great Silence

Elijah was the original action hero – dispensing justice
with lots of violence, explosions, and drama.
His God was a lot like himself.
Nothing surprising in that in those days.

In Elijah’s day, the human race was still quite primitive.
Their idea of God was primitive.
So Elijah’s God was an action hero too.

In today’s lesson, things had been really tough for Elijah.
So, like most of us, that’s when he ratcheted up his religion
and went looking for God.
Elijah looked for God at the place where God lived
– Mt. Horeb, sometimes called Mt. Sinai.
We may not think of God as living in a particular place.
But in Elijah’s time, God had an address.
It was Mt. Horeb.

Moses had met God there, received the law there.
It’s easy to see how they thought God lived on a mountain.
The Greek gods lived on Olympus.
El Capitan overwhelms me with awe,
and I hear from friends who have visited Horeb
it’s an impressive place – holy and mysterious.

Biblical scholars think the earliest Jewish experiences of God
were shaped by the even more primitive religion of their ancestors.
The ancestors probably worshiped a mountain,
before they worshiped El Shaddai, the God of the Mountain.
They also worshiped powerful forces of nature like the desert storm,
the earthquake, and the forest fire.

The Psalms are full of that imagery. Psalm 97:
“Clouds and thick darkness surround him . . . .
Fire goes before him . . . .
His lightning lights up the world.
The earth sees and trembles.”
That’s what a religious experience was – God doing dramatic stuff.
When nothing spectacular was happening, they felt cut off.
So they prayed in Psalm 83:
“O God, do not keep silent,
be not quiet O God, be not still.”
A silent God was an absent God – a God who did not care.

That was Elijah’s religion when he went looking for God
on Mt. Horeb.
And the dramatic stuff happened.
There was a windstorm, then an earthquake, and a fire.
Bryon described a storm like that in the Alps.
“O storm and wind and night, thou art wondrous strong!”
Elijah had always met God in those spectacles.
But this time he did not discern God’s presence.
The wind was just wind; the earthquake, just an earthquake;
the fire, just a fire.
And he thought, “Is that all there is?”

Then after the powerful forces of nature passed,
there was a silence, a profound palpable silence
-- like the silence of Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley.
It was precisely the kind of moment that meant God was absent.

But instead of praying,
“O God, do not keep silent,
be not quiet O God,”
Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle as a sign of reverence,
because God was there.
Precisely in the absence of religious experience,
Elijah believed in God’s presence.

Different cultures, different faith traditions,
and different people define religious experience differently.
So which one is right?
Is God really in the wind, in the earthquake, or in the fire?

Do we meet God in the born again experience of forgiveness,
the ecstatic experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit,
or the mystical experience of unity?
And where is God when we are not having whatever kind of feeling
we think of as spiritual?

God is infinitely greater than our capacity for religious experience.
He is in our religious experience. We do meet God there.
But God is vastly bigger than our feelings.
Theologians from Dionysius in the 6th Century
to Karl Barth in the 20th Century to John Hick today
caution us not to limit God to what we think of
as religion or spirituality.
At those times when God seems utterly silent, totally absent
– at those times we do not feel the least bit spiritual
and have no sense of God whatsoever --
God is there.

Carl Jung had these words inscribed over his door
and on his tombstone,
“Bidden or unbidden God is present.”
And so God is – seen or unseen, felt or unfelt, God is here.

Carlyle Marney, a great Baptist preacher, told the story
of a little boy was trapped by a fire
in his second story bedroom.
In the yard below, his father called to him,
“Jump son, jump. I’ll catch you.”
The child cried, “Daddy, I’m afraid to jump. I can’t see you.”
“That’s alright,” the father answered.
“Go ahead and jump. I can see you.”

Just so, the silent God is present – watching, caring.
The very silence of God is an invitation to faith,
the very absence of spiritual experience,
invites us to a deeper encounter with God
– just as Elijah met God more profoundly
in the silence than in the storm.

Most of us want religious experience. I do.
But if we cultivate trust in God
without the aid of religious experience
the God we trust will be vastly bigger.

One of my theology professors, Francis Fiorenza,
asked us a question that changed my religion forever.
He asked, “Do you want to have a religious experience,
or do you want to experience everything religiously?”//
I have been pondering that question for 8 years,
and it has finally begun to form into an insight.

We start by trusting in God’s presence all the time.
It’s like that saying, “I believe the sun is shining even on a cloudy day.”
Faith removes the fear that blocks our contact with God.

Then we can look inside ourselves and find God there.
We don’t see God or feel God.
Instead we look at everything through God’s eyes.

We just watch without judging.
We observe the world around us with a serene compassion.
We do the same with the world inside us.
We watch the thoughts rushing through our minds,
the emotions passing through our hearts,
the very physical sensations of our bodies.
We meet God not be seeing God
but by seeing as God sees.

God is light, pure and perfect light.
We don’t really see perfect full spectrum light.
We see things illumined by the light.
Just so, we don’t see God.
We see the world differently because God illumines it.
We see ourselves differently in the light of God’s grace.

We still have religious experiences.
They are the divine light refracted into various colors.
That’s why we have different experiences – all valid.

But the rest of the time, God is still with us
– not as storm, quake, or fire, but silently watching –
and we can know God then by joining him in the watch
– by doing nothing – dropping our efforts to be action heroes
-- just watching with the infinite patience of God.