Monday, June 11, 2012

There Came a Still, Small Voice

Christianity can be a religion of loud voices, can't it?  Especially today, in the brand of evangelical Christianity we Westerners deal with on a daily basis.

Well, they may not be "loud" voices, but they're prominent.  They're people the evangelical community celebrates as the standard-bearers of our worldview and lifestyle.  Like anybody who's popular in America, these Christian leaders generally possess the kind of charisma that makes a lot of us think we know them pretty well.  And maybe we do.  But that just helps convince us we need to listen to them all the more.

But sometimes we forget that in all of the noise that surrounds us in our Christian cocoons, with all of the voices clamoring for our attention, even with their valid concerns that God has placed on their hearts, God Himself doesn't always call with a loud voice.  While He expects and demands our devotion, and even our very selves, He's not always "hitting us upside the head" for it, as we Texans might say in our Lone Star parlance.

Of course, it's hardly just evangelical Christianity that seems to be run these days by loud voices.  Politics has always been saddled by loud voices seeking to foment a herd mentality amongst a hounded citizenry.  Wall Street loves listening to loud voices because they convey an air of authority and success - whether they can really claim any authority or success or not.

But it's odd that we evangelical Christians so freely allow ourselves to be buffeted by loud voices.  Especially since sometimes, it's God Himself who speaks in a voice that is still and small.

Remember the scenario from 1 Kings 19:11-12, when He spoke to the prophet Elijah?

11 And he [God] said [to Elijah], "Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD." And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks 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:
12 And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a small voice.

If you'll recall the context of this passage, Elijah had become so dejected, assuming himself to be the only person left who believed in God, and seeing no fruit from his proclamations of God's sovereignty, that he had decided he wanted to die.  Jezebel, the nefarious namesake of all that is evil in womanhood, was out to kill him anyway, and being on the run with no friends to help him made his life that much less tolerable.

Well, yeah, he had God on his side, but he couldn't tangibly see God.  God wasn't reaching down from Heaven and wrapping a celestial arm around the weary Elijah, commiserating with him face-to-face, or even giving him a hokey Joel Osteen-style pep talk.

Yet God knew and cared, preparing a sumptuous meal for Elijah out there in the middle of noplace.  Maybe not the physical pat on the back Elijah thought he wanted, but plenty of essential nutrition for the beleaguered - and hunted - prophet to continue his escape from Jezebel's henchmen.  It's the classic wants-versus-needs scenario.  Sometimes God meets both of those, but other times, He knows all we really need are, well, our needs.  Not our wants.

The meal God provides Elijah sustains him for a 40-day trek deeper into the wilderness.  You and I, reading this story with the luxury of hindsight, might be tempted to think that a meal that lasts for 40 days is a pretty significant sign that God is with us and for us.  But just as we'd have probably done, by the time those 40 days are done, Elijah is back where he started.  Emotionally, anyway.

So our ever-faithful and loving God told Elijah to go stand on a mountaintop.  And still, God did not show Himself to his prophet in a way we would expect.  Neither a great wind, nor an earthquake, nor a firestorm provided a venue for God - at least, not this time.  Sometimes God may use loud voices to speak to us, but this time, He used a still, small, voice.

Intimate.  Precious.  Focused.

God didn't think it important for us to know what He said to Elijah in that still, small voice.  Apparently, it wasn't enough to snap Elijah out of his depressive state anyway, because two verses later, Elijah is complaining and feeling sorry for himself again.

But isn't that just like us?  Okay, so at least it's just like me.  A witness to the mercies of God one minute, and moaning about my circumstances the next.  But that still doesn't negate the value of God's still small voice, does it?

In his epic oratorio, Elijah, Felix Mendelssohn dramatically crafts this scene in a dichotomy of crashing power and stunning eloquence that has helped preserve the memory and imagery of this passage for me ever since I first heard it performed years ago.

You'll find, below, the text Mendelssohn used, and your choice of two videos to watch.  For you musical perfectionists out there, here's a link to a video featuring the usual technical precision of St. Olaf College's Chapel Choir and Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Aspaas.

Personally, however, I prefer this less technically perfect rendition by Singapore's Hallelujah Oratorio Society, which I think - despite some aesthetic licenses taken by its conductor - provides a more satisfactory interpretation of the still small voice that is of primary importance in this piece.

Whichever performance you choose, I invite you to worship our God in the splendor of holiness as you contemplate this classical masterpiece, no matter the despair you may harbor today, or the problems from which you feel like running.

Sometimes when I don't hear God in the loud voices of our evangelical religion, I remember Mendelssohn's "Behold, God the Lord."  And I stop still.

And listen for that still... 



Behold, God the Lord passed by! And a mighty wind rent the mountains around, brake in pieces the rocks, brake them before the Lord. But yet the Lord was not in the tempest.

Behold, God the Lord passed by! And the sea was upheaved, and the earth was shaken. But yet the Lord was not in the earthquake.

And after the earthquake there came a fire. But yet the Lord was not in the fire.

And after the fire there came a still small voice. And in that still voice onward came the Lord.

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