A Silent Thunder
This has been a week of some pretty spectacular spring weather in our neck of the woods. Violent thunderstorms, torrential rains, hail, wind… virtually every night has witnessed the pyrotechnics of heaven. Today there are declarations of states of emergency, flood warnings, and evacuations across southern AB. It’s been a pretty incredible few days.
After last night’s storm—which was the most violent one of the week, by far—I heard someone remark about how this kind of weather is evidence of the power and glory of God. I somewhat sullenly bit my tongue. Perhaps it was because I spent part of last night trying to stem the tide of water that was flowing into my basement bedroom and scrambling to rearrange furniture. Perhaps it was because I spent another, much later part of last night teetering on a rickety ladder, trying to unclog my eaves troughs with frozen fingers in the blinding rain and darkness split open by periodic flashes of lightning. Perhaps it was because all this rain is wreaking havoc with my soccer season! Whatever the reasons, there were many things going through my mind during the storm last night, but mouthing paeans to the God of creation for his wondrous displays of power and glory was not among them. I was mostly just wishing someone would turn off the tap.
This morning a group of us from church spent some time looking at one of the lectionary texts from this week, 1 Kings 19:9-13. It’s a well-known story. Elijah is on the run from Queen Jezebel after—speaking of pyrotechnics—God had vindicated him with fire from heaven during his cage match with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. Elijah is hiding in a mountain cave, waiting to hear from the Lord about what to do next. As he stands on the mountain, he is greeted first by a great and powerful wind, then by an earthquake, and then a fire. But the Lord was not in any of these signs. The voice of the Lord came, rather, in a “gentle whisper,” a “still small voice.” Or, as some translations render it, “a sound of sheer silence.” This is where the presence of God was finally encountered.
I’ve had a number of interesting conversations this week that emerged out of my last post about “recovering pastors” who have become atheists. Several people took the time to share their own stories of walking away from faith with me. As is always the case, the stories are complex and multifaceted, with plenty of hurt and attempted spiritual manipulation and self-righteous religious behaviour thrown into the mix. I often feel very sad when I hear stories like this, and for a wide variety of reasons. The fact that stories about leaving faith behind are becoming increasingly common does not make them any less disheartening to hear about.
One of the themes that almost invariably emerges during conversations like these is that of not seeing. “I just didn’t see any evidence,” I often hear. “I prayed, I worshipped, I fasted, I read my Bible, but… nothing. Eventually, I just realized that there was no God, that it had all been a lie.” Too much silence. Always, too much silence.
I don’t have much to say when I hear stories like this. I, too, long to hear more from God than I do. I, too, would prefer to see more unambiguous evidence of a God who cares for his people and for his world than I often see. I, too, would love more spectacular experiences of the God who I am so convinced surrounds and sustains his world. To borrow a weather metaphor, I guess there are times when I would like to see some more of the ferocious lightning rather than all of this predictable and boring mildness. There are times when I would love some thunder to interrupt all this silence.
But the still small voice…
God speaks in the thunder, certainly. But not only in the thunder. Actually, not even often in the thunder. Perhaps God doesn’t want us to rely and depend upon the spectacle. Perhaps it is because characteristics like peace, gratitude, patience, joy, and perseverance are the kinds of things that grow best in—indeed, even require—the absence, the wilderness, the quiet. Perhaps it is in the stalking of the silences that the sturdiest kind of hope takes shape.
I have a favourite quote that I keep in a handful of prominent locations (including on this blog!) so that I am forced to encounter it often. I’ve probably referred to it a number of times here before. It comes from Peter Berger’s The Heretical Imperative:
It is not given to men to make God speak. It is only given to them to live and to think in such a way that, if God’s thunder should come, they will not have stopped their ears.
I cannot make God speak or act. I wish I could, but I can’t. No one can. But I can unstop my ears. I can train myself to be open, in case the ground should shake or the sky be suddenly streaked with fire.