Sunday, February 08, 2009

Silence - part two [disciplines for the inner life]

1. Silence, the fear of: here
2. Silence, suffering in:

OK, so this is not a movie...yet. But it will be soon. And I haven't even read the novel...yet. But I will soon.
The author Shusaku Endo, in his book, A Life of Jesus, states that Japanese culture "identifies with one who 'suffers with us' and who 'allows for our weakness.' With this fact always in mind, I tried not so much to depict God in the father-image that tends to characterize Christianity, but rather to depict the kind-hearted maternal aspect of God revealed to us in the personality of Jesus. Silence, written mostly in the form of a letter by its central character, depicts the theme of a silent God who accompanies a believer in adversity."
Oh, and Endo's masterpiece inspired Scottish classical composer and conductor James MacMillan to create Symphony No. 3, Silence which is right now inspiring me as I write this post.

Consider Job, Moses in the desert with the sheep, Sarah waiting for the child, Hannah pleading for a child, Hosea chasing after his whore-wife, Israel waiting for a Messiah, Joseph thinking he might have a whore-wife, Mary and Martha standing by their brother's grave. Listen to the darkness before Jesus words: My God, My God. Listen to the shivering disciples in the upper room on Saturday. Silent Saturday.

The passage I was instructed to meditate during the week was none of these, but it was as familiar: I Kings 19. The characters in the Old Testament narrative are an evil queen, a wussy king, 450 massacred prophets of Baal, and one bone-weary prophet of Yahweh.
I imagine you also are familiar with this OT heroic tale. Elijah meets the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel with nothing but his gift of hearing God. He calls down fire from heaven that burns the entire ox carcass, stone altar, even the dirt and water surrounding the altar. The people respond by worshipping the one true God and killing off the frenzied, gesticulating, self-maiming prophets of Baal. God responds by sending rain after three years drought. It's a happy ending, right?

Wrong. Evil queen does not care about rain or the feelings of the people. She vows to kill Elijah anyway. Understandably, Elijah runs for dear life. The man who hears God can't take it any more.

God, like a knowing mama, sends a Samwise Gamgee sort of angel with a knapsack of food to chase Elijah across the desert to make sure he gets food, water and sleep. It must have been some kind of good food, too, since Elijah eats it and then walks for forty days and nights to a cave deep inside of Mt. Horeb. Maybe it's the silence of that walk, maybe its the nourishment of the food that brings clarity, but once God finally speaks again to Elijah the prophet has changed his tune from bleary despair (I can't do this anymore; I just want to curl up in a ball and die!) to a crystal-clear grievance with the King of the Universe.

God: Elijah, what are you doing here? (I sort of picture God sitting behind a mammoth desk, looking over a pair of spectacles at this man who opens the door of His office without knocking.)

Elijah: I've been working my heart out for You, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies. The people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I'm the only one left, and now they're trying to kill me. (Here Elijah, after delivering his legitimate appeal for help, drops down into the wing-back chair across from the desk, places a hand on each knee and watches God's face for an answer that makes sense. Instead God motions to his aide standing at the doorway and goes back to signing papers on His desk.)

God's Secretary: Go, stand on the mountain at attention before God. God will pass by. (The secretary opens the giant panelled oak door as he speaks and waves Elijah out of the room. Elijah looks at the aide, back at God who is bent over His desk seeming to have already forgotten Elijah's presence in the room, and back at the aide again. He slaps the arms of the chair, lets out an exasperated sigh, stands and walks out of the room, out of the building and onto a mountain ledge.)

A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn't to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn't in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn't in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper.

When Elijah heard the quiet voice, he muffled his face with his great cloak, went to the mouth of the cave, and stood there.

God: So Elijah, now tell me, what are you doing here? (He says this in that quiet voice.)

Elijah: I've been working my heart out for God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies, because the people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I'm the only one left, and now they're trying to kill me. (I picture him taking a deep breath before he speaks. Not out of exasperation but out of determination. The text says "Elijah said it again..."; his grievance has not changed at all. No amount of hunger, exhaustion, travel, knee-knocking wind or quake, blistery heat of flame or God-forsaken silence has changed his original complaint. This is one determined man.)

God: Go back the way you came through the desert to Damascus. When you get there anoint Hazael; make him king over Aram. Then anoint Jehu son of Nimshi; make him king over Israel. Finally, anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Anyone who escapes death by Hazael will be killed by Jehu; and anyone who escapes death by Jehu will be killed by Elisha. Meanwhile, I'm preserving for myself seven thousand souls: the knees that haven't bowed to the god Baal, the mouths that haven't kissed his image.

God breaks His silence. And He does it in a small, quiet voice.

It will probably take a life-time of learning the truth found in this story. God's silence sometimes has to do with a kind of testing of my determination, focus, desire. If I'm telling God I have a desire I think He sometimes wants to know if I'm going to change my mind about it before lunch.

I have plenty of those short-attention-span kind of desires, believe me. When I look back in my old journals they are the ones I've written in scribbly all-caps across an entire page. The very ink on the page quivers with excitement and shortened breath. And often they are never mentioned again. I read them now and think: Really? I was that fired up about opening a bed and breakfast, having 10 children, earning a six-figure income, [fill in the blank with a desire of the month].

The thing is when I read back through those journals I also find other desires. Ones that are still at the front of my mind; that still keep me up at night. The verbiage may have changed as time brings clarity and helps me hone in on the core of the request. But that is exactly the point. As I walk through my own journey of exhaustion, sleep, hunger, food, thirst and water the determination to hear God's voice on the matter is sharpened, increased, developed. That determination - as it matures - become able to discern the true voice of God. To withstand all the whirlwind and storm and fires around and within me in order to wait for the powerful and tender voice of the Almighty.

Am I able to reconcile the truth that God is sometimes testing me with His silence? Am I willing to bear up under the hardship, and even suffering, that accompanies this testing? Or will I be side-tracked by my own irritability?

When I first read -- and I mean really read -- this account with Elijah I misunderstood his focused determination as petulance with the King of the Universe. I thought: How dare he be so bold to not cower and self-deprecate before the presence of God? Why doesn't he add some qualifiers to that complaint?

Something like this instead: God, I'm sure You've got this all worked out and I'm just not hearing it, but [cough, clear throat] is there any chance I could get some more help around here?

The truly hard part of the test is staying focused on the true character of God. He is not cruel. He is not capricious. He is not too busy to care. He is not like a little boy holding a magnifying glass over a tiny bug just to watch it squirm. He is clear enough about His good motives to risk me misunderstanding His silence.

It only makes sense that He would desire that same kind of clarity from me. And, in most cases, there hardly seems a better method than to let me sit with my request for awhile. And not just sit, but walk, sleep, drink, eat, suffer, struggle and lug around the desire waiting for the opportunity to hand it off to God. What a shame to allow all the inner noise of anger, peevishness, bitterness, busyness to drown out any chance of hearing the small, quiet voice of the Almighty. Even worse would be to not carry the burden at all. To look for cheap and quick ways to trade it off, say for a pot of stew or a plate of fries or something. Yes, this is a sure-fire way to dull the suffering of silence. Also the joy of desire.
A ... positive, meaning of silence is that it protects the inner fire. Silence guards the inner heat of religious emotions. This inner heat is the life of the Holy Spirit within us. Thus, silence is the discipline by which the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive.
Diadochus of Photiki offers us a very concrete image: When the door of the steam bath is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good. Thereafter the intellect, though lacking appropriate ideas, pours out a welter of confused thoughts to anyone it meets, as it no longer has the Holy Spirit to keep its understanding free from fantasy. Ideas of value always shun verbosity, being foreign to confusion and fantasy. Timely silence, then, is precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts.
--From The Way of the Heart by Henri J. Nouwen

Oh mighty truth. When I follow God's silence, I too will develop the strength of silence.
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