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1 Kings 19:9-14
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?’ 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.’
This past June I participated in an expressive, lengthy, and loud worship service. I walked in, on time, and the vibrant worship had already been going on for fifteen minutes. The eager mood of the worship leaders did not let down for a single moment of the remaining two hours. This was the installation worship service for the Reformed Church in America’s new General Secretary. It reminded me of my charismatic days as a teenager when all of us “Jesus Freaks” (as we piously called ourselves) would gather together and worship on the weekends. (Isn’t that what all teenagers do on the weekend?) As I stood in the chapel on Calvin’s campus I was thankful for the diversity of the many voices in this small denomination.
In the days, weeks, and even months that followed this installation service, I heard a phrase used to describe the experience: “The Spirit really showed up.” When someone says this, I always want to know precisely what they mean. Do they mean that they felt God in the expressive songs? Do they mean they felt alive and full of vitality? Do they mean they felt loved? Connected? Elevated? Grounded? What do they mean when they say, “The Spirit really showed up”?
I wonder if those who use this phrase (which I myself am guilty of having used) have ever read 1 Kings 19. Elijah is told to go and stand on the mountain for God is about to show up. The exciting wind goes by but God was not in the wind. After the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake fire appeared – surely God would show up in the fire – but God was not in the fire. After this animated show by Mother Nature there is sheer silence. It is this sound of silence, this gentle whisper, in which God is found. This is where God “shows up.”
Why do so many think that God “shows up” only when worship is loud and expressive? Why do so many think that God “shows up” in wind and earthquakes and fire? This is nothing against expressive worship; this newly Reformed woman knows how to dance with the best Pentecostals and raise my hands with the most heart-felt of charismatics. But this is a caution for us to remember that God shows up, not always in display but sometimes in sheer silence.
Can we hear the gentle whisper and also say “The Spirit really showed up!” Because until we can, I wonder if we would be wise to shut our mouths, turn off our instruments, hold our anxiety, and sit in the silence to hear the gentle voice of God.
When I was serving in a church in upstate New York, a couple Roman Catholic nuns attended one Sunday. Following the service their comment was, "That service was prayerful." I thought at the time that as a Protestant the compliment for the service would be: "That was powerful" or "That was moving." My Catholic sisters offered a different take on how they experienced worship.