This was a tough week for me. I wonder if it was for you too. Several mornings I woke up climbing out from one dark dream or another. It is a gloomy time in general, I think. So much seems wrong. Our hopes seem so out of reach. I found myself trapped on one hand, between the sense that I needed to say something beneficial, that I needed to add my voice this week to the many others who have stood up for humanity, spoken for truth and goodness, and on the other hand, the sense that one more statement no matter how pithy or clever or biting was only going to add to the cacophony of distrust, dismay, and division.
I was surely encouraged by much of what I read and heard. I was grateful for it. On the eve of our denomination’s biennial meeting in Portland, which began yesterday morning with worship, a statement was released naming the reality of evil that tears at the fabric of our lives, applauding the courage of those touched by recent killings, and citing the particular implications of the Orlando attack for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer people and Muslim communities in particular, and noting that, as with most violence, people of color were again impacted more severely than others.[i] I was grateful for the clarity of thought from our own denomination, for the attention to justice, for the recommitment to mending our whole human family.
I was grateful for leaders like Jim Himes, a Connecticut congressman and an elder in his Presbyterian church, who refused to participate in one more moment of silence, a customary demonstration of respect in the house and senate that he believed was a profanity, that it would only be emptied of any power by the refusal of our political leaders to take any meaningful action that might protect and heal us.[ii]
There were other voices too—online friends, and personal conversation that revealed thoughtfulness and abiding hope in the midst of vulnerability. There were stories of acts of kindness and generosity from people of all faiths, poured out for the victims in Orlando. I was encouraged by much of it, drawn to it.
And yet, I just couldn’t bring myself to add to the noise. I’m still not sure why. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe I misjudged. Maybe my silence is part of the inertia that keeps us mired in a seemingly endless cycle of division and distrust and destruction.
I hope not.
I found some solace in Elijah and his encounter with God in the sheer silence. I found some encouragement in Legion, the man who was so riddled by the army of voices in his head that he had to retreat to the tombs and the shallow relief that only the quiet of the grave could offer until Jesus came along and gave him back his right mind.
There is something that these stories have to teach us, I think, about where we are today, about how to move beyond, and about the way God speaks to us. There is something in the silence. There is a value in being quiet long enough for clarity to make its way into our lives. There is a value in waiting for the deep quiet to settle in, for that singular, clear voice of truth.
I see Elijah as someone who is just a little tired of it all too. In the story he runs because Queen Jezebel has vowed to take his life. The story tells us that Elijah runs because he is afraid. I think he stops running because he’s done. He’s confronted with despair. He’s just tired of it all and he wonders what it all means anymore, or if it means anything at all.
He may be afraid in the moment, but fear is not Elijah’s cross to bear. This story comes after Elijah has defied famine with the help of a handful of meal and a little oil and a faithful widow and her son in Zerephath.[iii] This story comes after Elijah has taken on by himself 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and seen God’s fire consume the altar he built and the prophets along with it. And this story comes before Elijah again stands up to Jezebel and confronts Ahab. You may remember the story from last week when Jezebel plots Naboth’s death. Jezebel, and Ahab with her, are terrors, but Elijah is not terrorized by fear. His terror, I think is God’s absence. I think it is his despair: Everything I’ve done. Even everything you, O God, have done. And it hasn’t made a bit of difference.
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.[iv]
No amount of power fixes this. Violence only seems to beget more violence. So God isn’t in the wind that breaks the rock. God isn’t in the earthquake that levels everything around him. God isn’t in the fire that never stops consuming. But Elijah finds that God is in the silence, and he covers his face with his coat and steps into the gap because he knows the eternal is here.
I love the symmetry of this story. After the silence, God again asks what Elijah wants. And Elijah’s response is the same—word for word. It is identical. Nothing has changed, and yet everything is different. Were we to continue a little farther we’d find that God sets out the path for Elijah’s retirement. He just has a few more things to do—a successor to appoint, a king to confront. And then his work is done.
Oh, and one more thing. You aren’t alone, Elijah. There are many who remain faithful. There are many who know the way and have given themselves to it. There are many who know what makes for life. And maybe that’s the most important thing for us on a day like today after the couple of weeks we’ve had. Maybe what is important is to remember the short term is never the whole story. It does not define us or our life.
I suppose we can measure that in a couple of ways. On the average day in America, 91 precious souls are killed with guns. [v]Fifty-eight of those take their own lives, and 33 are taken by others. Each day. In other words since those 50 precious lives—that’s including the shooter’s—were lost in the early morning of June 12th in Orlando, another 630 or so, according to the averages, have been lost as a result of gun violence. And another 630 or so will be lost this coming week. And each one was as precious as the last. And that’s just in America, which is, of course an outlier when it comes to the devastation of gun violence. When we look beyond our small country, we find according to some estimates, that more than 200 million people were killed in conflicts in the 20th century. That’s about 1 million a year or 2700 precious souls a day, just from conflict of one sort or another.
And still there is hope. Still the way is clear. Still there is a Spirit found in a God who gives life rather than takes it away, who stills the storms within us and speaks to us of hope, and possibility, and wholeness, who in Jesus chose to give rather than take one more life. And I know this God speaks because I’ve seen the Spirit of life in those who know what to say when I don’t, who know how to act when I don’t, who will not give up when I am so tempted to do just that. I know this God speaks because I’ve seen an outpouring of love that is nothing less than a flood—deep calling to deep—in response to the violence we face. I know this God speaks because even as we are confronted with yet another tragedy, goodness and kindness and love shout their presence.
It turns out Elijah was wrong. There were some 7000 precious souls in Israel who held onto faith even as Elijah’s waivered. And after the man who only knew life among the tombs was healed, Jesus gave Legion his marching orders. He sent him back to the community to serve and love the people there. And this is our work too—to give ourselves to the love and the life we know in the silence of our lives, to give ourselves again to the human family where God dwells and teaches us of resurrection and new life.
Thanks be to God.
[i] See “PC(USA) leaders mourn victims of Orlando nightclub tragedy, recommit to advocating for a just society”, June 14, 2016 at pcusa.org. Retrieved June 17, 2016.
[ii] See “Rep. Jim Himes: Why I walked out of the House’s moment of silence for Orlando” in the Washington Post, June 14, 2016. Retrieved on June 17, 2016 at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/06/14/why-i-walked-out-of-the-houses-moment-of-silence-for-orlando/?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
[iii] 1 Kings 17.
[iv] 1 Kings 19:10.
[v] See Everytown for Gund Safety data at: https://everytownresearch.org/gun-violence-by-the-numbers/. Retrieved June 18, 2016.