Hearing Through Silence
3. The Voice in Silence
If we are to hear echoes of the “wonderful story” within another story, we have to learn how to set aside what is obvious in order to see a more subtle, understated pattern. We have to learn how to turn down surface noise so that we can hear a hear a deeper rhythm.
Events and information, data - structure - but what gives a story its movement and grips us is the strength of the dynamic beneath the events. Data is given like icebergs being carried along on a current. The life of the story is in the current. Current on which they are flowing. This is where we hear the voice. It is the current - not the data - which is the voice of God.
To hear the current - have to be attuned to it.
Elijah travelled forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At 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?” He 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.”
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; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
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?” (1 Kings 8b-13, NRSV)
Elijah was engaged in a conflict for the soul of Israel, battling the King, Ahab, and his formidable wife, Jezebel. They had gathered the forces of earthly power - of kingship and state religion - into their hands, and in earlier episodes, Elijah fights fire with fire. He proclaims a drought, which will only be ended when he declares it ended. He defeats the priests of Baal in a dramatic mountain-top confrontation and then kills them. But this victory is short-lived, for Jezebel retaliates with a threat to his life. Elijah flees into the desert.
At first he is convinced that all he can do is die. He is depleted, drained, exhausted. All motivation is gone. He is overwhelmed with shame. He feels powerless, hopeless and afraid. An utter failure. But though he asks to die, his request is not granted. Instead, in answer to his prayer, he receives rest, sleep, and sustenance. After more sleep, and another meal, he feels strong enough to undertake a journey.
He heads deep into the wilderness, to Horeb, or Mount Sinai as it is also known, the holy mountain where God spoke to Moses, giving him the Commandments and the kernel of the Torah. This was the place where, after their escape from Egypt, a ragbag group of slaves had been forged into the people of Israel. In spiritual terms, Elijah returns to his roots, to the birthplace of the nation.
Within a cave, enclosed in the womb of the sacred mountain, he listens for the beating heart that was once the source of everything he needed. He wants to hear the voice that Moses heard, telling him again the ancient story. He does not want a repetition of Moses’ experience - that will always belong to Moses. Rather, he wants his own encounter with the same voice. He wants to hear the story for himself, engage with it himself, so that he can draw on its eternal power for his own situation.
But first he must learn how to listen. Until now, Elijah has experienced God speaking to him in various forms of awesome power. In the power that can withhold rain from the earth. In the power that can send down fire from the sky. He has become used to pitching this awesome power against the human power of the Ahab and Jezebel. But now he is stranded by the ebb-tide of his energies. Exhausted, depressed and despairing, all power seems to have abandoned him. Does that mean that God has abandoned him too? He has to learn that God is still speaking - God is always speaking - but that most of the time, God chooses not to shout.
Elijah expects to hear God’s voice in the wind, earthquake or fire. But he hears nothing but noise. Instead, to his astonishment, he hears the voice of God in the “sound of sheer silence” that follows the storm. The terrifying dissonance of destruction no longer speaks to his condition. On the contrary, it is in the silence that insight visits him and a strategy takes shape in his mind. As the silence deepens around him and within him, he sees a pattern forming. He glimpses a way of making a creative response to events. Now he knows what he must do. What God wants him to do.
If we want to hear God’s wonderful story, then we, like Elijah, must learn the art of discernment. We must learn how to set aside the clamour of urgencies and disregard the glamour of power so that we can hear and follow the “still small voice.” Because this is the voice that is telling us the story of abundant life. The voice is speaking constantly, around us and within us, but rarely does it raise itself above a whisper. The voice does not bully, it beckons. It leaves the initiative with us, inviting us to quieten ourselves until we are able to hear what it is saying.
He does not raise his voice - the Servant (Isaiah)
The story of abundant life is all around us, but we do not hear it because we are not tuned into it. So we do not receive the resources it offers us, and we cannot use them, either for our own benefit, or to share with others. If we knew how to listen to the wonderful story, how to engage with it, how to enter into it for ourselves, we could also release, receive and realise its potential. The consequences could be more wonderful than we could imagine. It could transform our lives, change our circumstances, renew our world.