What if Elijah had been easily disappointed? How would the famous story about the prophet (1 Kings 19:11-13) had been different?
The Holy One, whose Mystery is beyond human reckoning, that Holy One causes a stirring within Elijah. And Elijah finds it’s a deep urge to experience more fully the Holy One. As he explores this urge he gets this surprising and powerful sense, “Go to the mountain. Climb it. God is going to meet you on that mountain.”
So, he goes out and he climbs up and he comes to a cave at the top and settles in to wait and to pray for this gift, this experience of the Divine. Soon there comes a great wind. It grows to an unbelievable force, something that’s more powerful than any wind Elijah had ever heard about. Rocks are shattering. And Elijah is a little frightened, but more excited than anything else, “Wow! This has got to be it. God is showing God’s mighty power. Here is how God is going to appear.” But wind drops and dies. And that’s it. Nothing special. No God. Just a bunch of dust settling.
What if Elijah had been easily disappointed? That would have been the end of the story. He would have packed up and gone home telling himself, “Well, that was a bust. God must not be real. That’s the last time I let the voices in my head take me for a ride.”
That disappointment could easily harden into cynicism. So, any time those deep urgings come again, he just dismisses them. The Quakers say the big question is how to tell if it’s the Holy Spirit moving or just indigestion. That’s a very good question. If you grow cynical, you just think everything is indigestion.
If someone says, “I don’t believe in God,” a good question can be, “What god don’t you believe in? Tell me about this god that you don’t believe it.” Someone then usually describes some ornery old guy in the sky, who treats us all like voodoo dolls. Or they describe some wish-granting genie or cosmic Santa Claus.
And then a good reply is, “Well, I don’t believe in that kind of god either. But there’s good news …”
And then what I would hope to convey is: God is so much more than petty little projections of human powers or desires. Once you’ve glimpsed this, it’s hard to find the right words for how much greater God truly is, how inspiring of awe and love and devotion and fulfillment. But to experience how the Holy One calls to us, we have to take the leap of faith to trust our deepest urgings and venture out to mountaintops seeking God. And we need to hang on as storms come and go, hang on and not get discouraged as things that seem like they could be god capture our attention only to let us down and drop away.
It can really shake us when we realize that our childhood view of God has got some cartoon qualities, or that our childhood view of the world has some cartoon qualities. It can really shake us to see that some of the loudest voices claiming to speak for God are full of sound and fury that inflicts suffering in an already hurting world. Where is God in all that? It can be tempting to be disappointed and pack up and leave the mountain and get cynical about that deep inner urging within us. Periods of doubt can in fact be very important in a rich and mature life of faith. Doubt does not need to be something we fear or judge or get too attached to.
Doubt can be part of the sloughing off of notions of God that we need to grow beyond. Like a snake sloughing off its old skin. Our understanding of God can grow and mature as we grow and mature. God reveals to us more and more as we become ready for the challenge.
In our Christian faith, we can see this kind of growth by stages in the lives of the disciples. They can be good models for us.
Jesus said to them, come and see, and they trusted to take that risk of faith, and what they saw was the astonishing poignancy of God’s love. But still the disciples still clung to the belief that salvation comes like a Hollywood hero who mows down all our enemies and rescues us from tragedy. So, when it came to Jesus’ bitter end, the reality of the cross really shook them, and not just because of the unbearable pain of it. They didn’t like that their Messiah ended up being a humiliated, tortured loser and who met the same fate as the scum of the empire. That’s why they abandoned Jesus. (Now, I am talking about the male disciples. The female followers didn’t abandon him. But they would have been more inclined to see how God is at work among the losers, right?)
However, the male disciple did end up keeping enough faith so that after the crisis of the cross they still were open enough to hear this surprising new Word of revelation, the Word of resurrection. They discovered that God’s revelation through the flesh has to pass through the cross to get to the new way of new life. Old beliefs about God, God’s power, suffering, and salvation had to get sloughed off.
So whenever doubt comes, whenever our limited notions about God drop off and disappoint us or even get crucified, just hang on and to stay listening. Trust that the storm will come and go.
Now if you do get disappointed and climb back down the mountain, that doesn’t have to be the end of the story at all. It happens. It’s just important to not get too hardened by cynicism and doubt. Because those deep urgings will come again, and when they do come, we again have the opportunity take that risk of faith, and climb that mountain, settle into waiting and praying and weathering all the storms and fires and quakes of false gods. All we need to leave behind sloughed off, hearts cleared and open, we can hear what remains, the still small voice of the Holy One Beyond All Name the humming stillness that calls to us at our core The humming stillness that calls from us the deepest awe and love, devotion, and fulfillment.
For that I give thanks.
(Delivered July 29, 2018, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)