by Rev. Eric Elnes, Ph.D.
Some of you have already discovered it.
Some of you haven’t noticed yet.
Some of you are suspicious, but not sure–wondering, and maybe waiting for more evidence before you make up your mind.
But we are not alone here.
This place is not just earth and sky, plants and animals, and us humans.
Funny things happen that add up to more than that.
Every great religion has been formed and continued by those who have discovered it—and wanted to know more.
Most of the time we stick to [practicalities]–and try to survive–get good grades, get good jobs, establish homes, keep comfortable and safe–and help others when there is enough left over.
But that’s not all that life is about.
There is the spirit realm–and spirit beings–and some say God.
If so, that is the most exciting–and then the most meaningful, thing of all …
If there is no contact [with God], all religion is bunk.
If there is contact … it is the most important thing you will ever do.
-Rev. Bruce Van Blair
I have been excited for us to reach this fourth series in the By This Way of Life succession. We haven’t made a big deal about it, but since May all of our series have been related within the overall rubric of By This Way of Life. Eight more series are scheduled between now and Easter of 2014. All are meant to take us deeper into a journey that gets more and more exciting as we begin to sense the ancient path of Jesus in a way that can be understood, and followed, in our everyday lives. Sometimes the way of life Jesus advocated and modeled tends to get obscured by the historical and cultural distance between him and us. Other times, it gets obscured by the agendas that both conservative and liberal Christianity try to box him into. And, of course, the way of Jesus gets obscured by our own personal agendas, prejudices, and preconceived notions of who Jesus was and what he taught.
We are not claiming to be perfect interpreters of Jesus’ path through this string of worship series. No, sometimes what is most important is not perfection but intentionality. As Parker Palmer once observed, “The faith journey is less about making a big leap of faith than it is about putting one faithless foot in front of the other, and doing it again and again. What happens as you walk that way is sometimes transformed by grace.” (“Taking Pen in Hand,” Christian Century, 9/7/2010, p. 23).
No place could Palmer’s observation be more true than when it comes to the focus of our present series on prayer. With prayer, we are continually reminded that God chooses relationship over perfection. This is both a blessing and a challenge. The blessing is that we don’t have to be saints to be in authentic conversation with God. The challenge is that, well, we don’t have to be saints to be in conversation with God!
Really, aside from rattling off a few one-way requests now and again, we would all just as soon leave conversation or relationship with God to others—like to the saints, or at least, the professionals, right? That’s why we have saints and professionals, isn’t it, to take care of that for us?
Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, the impact of this series is going to depend more upon you than me. That’s because the focus isn’t on learning about God so much as experiencing God. Firsthand. For yourself. And in ways neither you nor I can predict. So a lot will depend on your willingness to allow God to connect with you in the first place. And I can guarantee that you will struggle with the mere notion of being willing to communicate.
How can I be so sure that you’ll struggle? Well, what did we find each and every week of the last series? We found that, since the very beginning of things in the metaphorical Garden, we human beings get nervous about being in relationship with God. The barrier to relationship is on our part, not God’s. Relationship with God is a scary thing. It’s messy. It’s far from a precise science and we’re well aware of all the folks who do crazy things and claim, “God told me to!” We don’t want to become one of those people.
Then again, what if we were to make a sincere effort to connect with God, opening our heart and soul to wherever God would call us, only to find that there’s no one on the other end of the line? As Bruce Van Blair noted, if there is no possibility of connection with God, all religion is bunk. We don’t want religion to be bunk, do we? Yet some of us secretly think that it is bunk—so secretly in fact, that we don’t dare admit it even to ourselves. We go to great lengths to avoid testing the connection. We don’t want even to try because we’re afraid we’ll be disappointed. We’re afraid of facing the possibility that we’re all alone in the world.
Yet even scarier than discovering that there isn’t any God is discovering that there really is; discovering that God truly does desire to engage with us and is fully prepared to do so! This may surprise you, but personally, the realization that God can and will engage with us has been my biggest burden.
I’ve been into prayer and meditation now for 33 years. Most of this time, I have practiced daily prayer and meditation for at least 30 minutes and have intentionally worked to maintain my awareness of God’s presence at various points throughout the day. I have done this because I became convinced beyond any reasonable doubt—and most unreasonable ones—that there is a God; that God is not only aware of us but far more highly aware of us than we are aware of us; and that God is not only willing, but quite able, to guide us into the fullest sense of joy and vitality that we can have as human beings. These beliefs have been proven, and re-proven, more times than I can possibly count, and my prayer life is a constant source of inspiration, awe and wonder for me. Nevertheless the biggest challenge that I face in my relationship with God—by far—is just being willing to be in relationship with God. I kid you not.
Why? Because I keep getting signals that show me a better way to do things than I can possibly come up with on my own. By “better way,” I don’t simply mean a way that God would prefer that I would not. I mean a way that I would prefer as well. This may not seem like much of a problem to you, but bear in mind that discerning a “better way” nearly always involves a disruption of whatever plans I’d already made, or opinions I’d already formed. Truly hearing something from God, then testing what I think I’ve heard to the point where I’m convinced it’s not just my own monkey-mind shaking the trees takes time, and I’ve normally got a schedule to meet. So while I’m still chewing on something I feel I’ve received from God, or still searching for guidance, I’ve got a Trustees meeting to go to where they want my opinion now, not later (or at least pretend to want my opinion!).
Then again, sometimes I get my signals crossed, even after I’ve spent time in prayer and discernment. I get frustrated that God doesn’t make things clearer and easier. I quoted Parker Palmer earlier. Did you know that as great a writer as he is, he has not published a book yet that has not involved writing seven different drafts? That’s the way prayer works for me. I come up with a draft. Then I have to revise it. Then I revise again and again until I sense that the overall direction has clicked into place.
But you know what? As much as it frustrates me, I’m not really complaining. I love the whole creative process of prayer. It wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it were all cut-and-dried like some televangelists try to make it sound. Looking back on my life, I have done some things and had some experiences that make me so happy they still make my head spin, and they’ve all come about as a result of this wonderful, messy process. The benefits so far exceed the effort that I’ve kept up the practice all these years, despite the fact that I know for sure that I’ll get my wires crossed regularly. Like Palmer says, “The faith journey is less about making a big leap of faith than it is about putting one faithless foot in front of the other, and doing it again and again. What happens as you walk that way is sometimes transformed by grace.” When you commit to regular, two-way communication with God, your whole life ends up being transformed by grace—missteps and all.
If you’re one of those who has a hard time doing much more than offering a sentence or two of petition or thanks now and again, you stand to benefit most from this series. Likewise, if you are convinced that this whole prayer thing is really a bunch of hooey, you may be among the most surprised by the end of the series, provided you’re open to being surprised.
Each week, we’ll be offering some concrete experiments to take home. Of course, there is no requirement that you do them, and you will always take home plenty of food for thought regardless. But if you do try them, you will be in the best position to form your own conclusions about God’s ability and willingness to connect with you. That’s far better than taking my conclusions or anyone else’s, isn’t it?
This week’s experiment takes its cue from the prophet Elijah. Elijah was a Hebrew prophet who got into a great deal of trouble with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in the 9th Century BCE. We’ve touched on his story before. Jezebel had sworn an oath to kill Elijah, and Elijah was pretty convinced that she would do just that if he didn’t escape to the wilderness wastelands in the south of Israel. Elijah was feeling pretty lonely at the time. Most of the other priests and prophets of Yahweh had either been killed already by Jezebel or had decided that the pressures were too great to continue.
In his loneliness and desperation, Elijah goes deep into the wilderness until he reaches Mt. Horeb, which other biblical passages know as Sinai, where the Ten Commandments were originally given. In the English translation of the passage, it says that Elijah went to “a cave” on the mountain in order to connect with God. But the Hebrew text literally says that Elijah went to “the cave.” This is the writer’s way of indicating that Elijah did not simply go to any random cave to connect with God, but that he went to the one that every Hebrew worth their (kosher) salt would have known was the ultimate cave for meeting God. It was the very cave that Moses was said to have stood at the entrance of when he asked to meet God.
Do you remember Moses’ story? The mythological imagination that informs it is some of the best—and funniest—in scripture. As the story goes, Moses wants a face-to-face meeting with God. He’s tired of God always descending in a cloud to meet with him. He wants clarity. Certainty, even. When Moses persists in his request despite God’s objection, God finally concedes but in a little different manner than Moses was expecting. God commands him to stand at the entrance of a particular cave (the one that Elijah stands in centuries later). There, God will cover Moses’ eyes with God’s hand, so that he doesn’t see God’s face which is apparently so glorious it would kill him. Then, once God walks by, God lifts God’s hand and Moses see’s “God’s back.” The Hebrew actually says that Moses sees God’s “backs.” The word here is a dual plural form, indicating that what is seen is two “backs” of equal proportion. The quiet Hebrew humor here, which runs throughout the Old Testament but is almost always missed in translation, is wonderful. What the story is trying to tell us is that Moses sees God’s rear end. It’s like God is saying, “So you want certainty? You want clarity? Then you can kiss my ….”
So Elijah travels in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights to this cave (Where have we heard this before?). He goes there because it’s the one spot he can think of where God has made an appearance of some sort, and he’s so desperate at this point that he’ll take anything he can get. As the story goes:
9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”10He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 11He 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;12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When 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?” 14He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.
Again, the mythological imagination behind this story is dynamite. Provided you’re not looking for an account of something that happened long, long ago in a land far, far away, but are looking instead for what keeps happening on down to our present day, the story will speak great wisdom to you.
For instance, the story notes that God asks Elijah twice to name why he’s there. Is this because God can’t read Elijah’s thoughts, or that God has a short memory? No, it’s the story’s way of telling us that when it comes to seeking guidance from God, it’s helpful to be quite clear as to what kind of guidance one is looking for. If you’re looking for a specific response, then ask a specific question. And make sure it’s one that actually matters, deeply, to you. Chances are, if it matters deeply to you, it matters deeply to God as well. Often, asking the right question is as important as listening for an answer.
The fact that God’s response is not found in the wind, earthquake, or fire is also significant. These are three of the great metaphors in the Bible for the voice of God. You may even recall Jesus comparing the Holy Spirit to the wind: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”
What the story is trying to tell us when it says that God’s voice was not in the wind, earthquake or fire is that God’s voice does not necessarily come with the ancient equivalent of flashing neon signs. Rather, it often comes to us in such subtlety that the only way you tell anything has happened is that your perceptions of your surroundings have changed ever so slightly. The story may also be speaking to us about the depth of Elijah’s surrender to God. He’s not playing games. When God’s voice doesn’t come in the “usual” or “expected” ways, Elijah doesn’t pretend that it has. He doesn’t play ventriloquist. He doesn’t just make something up to suit whatever desires he may have. No, Elijah is so open to God coming in whatever form God chooses to come in that he’s not manipulating the situation in any way. This tends to be an important reminder for all of us. If you’re going to ask God to communicate with you, you’d better be sure you’re willing to let God show up in whatever form God chooses—even if it’s not in the form you expect.
Finally, when God’s word does come, don’t be surprised if it comes with marching orders. When we connect with God, we may experience that connection as a tug into some form of concrete action. Not always. (Sometimes we’re prompted into inaction!) But when get a glimpse of higher ground, we eventually feel the tug move toward it—whether that higher ground be into a relationship with another person, or out of a job that’s driving us crazy, or simply into a state of higher confidence in what we’re already doing.
Elijah’s story suggests that the action into which God moves us may often seem unrealistic, like we’re not capable of doing it. For instance, Elijah is to anoint two individuals as kings over Israel and Aram. It’s not like anyone can just go and do that! Surely he would have been inclined to protest that he’s not qualified for the job, or that the job is too dangerous. (It would have surely put Elijah in danger from the competing candidates for kingship.) This points out yet another important dynamic: Just because the sense of call seems too high or too risky does not mean that it’s not coming from God. Remember: God always assumes that we’re in this together, not alone. What course of action is too high or risky with the Creator of the Universe on our side? In God’s opinion, none.
Now, if all this about God’s opinion and God’s calling us into action sounds a bit too anthropomorphic for your comfort level, bear in mind that it is actually impossible to describe a higher state of consciousness from the perspective of a lower state of consciousness. We’re like dogs trying to describe the activity of our master. All we can use is dog language. Just because a dog must use dog language to describe what the relationship looks like from its perspective doesn’t mean that the dog’s experience isn’t real. The worst thing the dog can do is assume that the relationship is not real just because the dog doesn’t understand entirely what’s going on.
Finally, this coming week I invite you to form your own opinion through a special exercise meant to test to see if any of this holds water. In your bulletin you received a yellow card with the title of our series on one side and space to for you to write down a particular question or need before God on the other. This is what you’re invited to do:
First, like Elijah, find your cave. That is, find a spot where you can step out of the fray of life and find a little quiet time alone, preferably at the start of the day, but really anytime and any place you can do this with a high degree of intentionality. Examples may be the breakfast table, in a den or living room, or while you’re out walking
Next, find a question or need that’s really important to you right now. Make sure the question isn’t too abstract or impersonal, like “What is the meaning of life?” or “Why is there evil in the world?” The question or need should be highly personal and of enough importance that you’ll actually remember the question later. Do you remember how George Washington Carver found a question worth asking? As the story goes, one night he walked out into the woods and prayed, “Mr. Creator, why did you make the universe?” He listened, and God responded: “Little man, that question is too big for you. Try another!” The next night he walked into the woods and prayed, “Mr. Creator, why did you make man [meaning, the human race]?” He listened and he heard: “Little man, that question is still too big for you. Try another!” The third night he went into the woods and prayed, “Mr. Creator, why did you make the peanut?” What he heard was: “Little man, that question is just your size. You listen and I will teach you.” And you may know that George Washington Carver invented some three hundred ways to use the peanut. Finding a question both important to you and just your size will raise the chances of your not only sensing a response but understanding it!
Finally—and this is the hard part—get willing to hear an answer. Eighty percent of prayer is just getting willing. Get so willing that you can feel it in your gut. Get so willing that you will literally be open to “hearing” God in whatever form God chooses to address you, even if it’s entirely unexpected or unconventional. Get so willing that you will remain watchful throughout the day for a response. Finally, get so willing that you will be willing to make a few mistakes en route to finding a response you find trustworthy.
Keep asking this same question or stating this same need each day. You need not spend hours in prayer. All you need to do is find that cave and stay there long enough to find that place within you where you are open, feeling in your gut that you are truly willing to receive response. Ask God for it. Even demand it. Then, just go about your day. You needn’t be overly concerned about finding an answer throughout the day. Let God do the action, not you. Like Elijah, simply be watchful. Pay attention to the music you’re listening to; to the conversations you’re having; to the inner voices running through your head.
Don’t expect God to act on your timetable. A response you can trust may not come for days or weeks, or it may come before you’ve finished writing the question down. Whenever it happens, a response will come. Listen. Listen for that still, small voice—that finely powdered silence—which can’t be directly heard, but changes the acoustics of your surroundings. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes. For in the realm of prayer, intentionality is more important than technique. When we’re intentional, even our missteps may be transformed by grace.