Find Your Cave
In September 1940, in France, an 18-year-old named Marcel was on a walk with Robot, his dog. Robot found a hole that prompted Marcel to investigate. He came back with three teenaged friends, and together they discovered a cave. This cave had nearly 2,000 different paintings on the walls- paintings in vivid color and impressive detail; paintings that were more than 17,000 years old. Two of the boys had to leave soon after- one to go back to his boarding school, and another to escape the imminent threat of the Nazis, but Marcel and Jacques remained. And their experience of discovering the cave and its paintings was so profoundly moving, that Marcel and Jacques camped outside the cave every night all fall and winter to protect it. They left only when a reinforced door was installed. Both boys joined the French Resistance, but when the war was over, they returned to the cave and worked there as tour guides. In 1948, the caves were opened to the public, and Marcel and Jacques were among the first to realize that in allowing the public to view the caves, the paintings were being destroyed. And then the young men worked to protect them. The Lascaux Cave closed to the public in 1963.
Our text today picks up with the prophet Elijah in a different cave. He had recently been the star of quite a dramatic religious show. You may remember that earlier in the book, Yahweh, God’s temples were in ruins. Many of the people had turned to Baal worship, including King Ahab and his Queen, Jezebel. Elijah, Yahweh’s prophet, was both more or less out of a job and also an ongoing threat to the political powers. There’s a drought that ends only after Elijah faces off with the Priests of Baal. He calls upon the power of the Lord and overcomes the false prophets. Elijah then has all of Priests of Baal executed and then predicts a downpouring of rain that ends the drought. Queen Jezebel vows to have Elijah executed as he had done to all of the priests who were loyal to her. And Elijah runs off into the desert. He is desperate, depressed, ready to die. An angel preserves his life for forty days, and Elijah gets himself to a cave on Mount Horeb, a mountain you may also know as Mount Sinai. (Yes, this is the same mountain where Moses encountered God.)
And it is there on that mountain that Elijah finally hears a word from God. It’s interesting- you might hope to hear an encouraging word or expect to hear some kind of directive. Instead, God asks “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah explains his plight, and then God tells Elijah to go stand out on the mountain, that the Lord is about to pass by. There’s a great wind, so strong as to split the rocks- but God is not in the wind. There is an earthquake- but God is not in the earthquake. Then a fire- but God is not in the fire. And then, “a sound of sheer silence.” It’s a phrase that is nearly impossible to translate. Some translators chose the language of the “still, small voice.” Some commentators talk about it as the sound of falling snow- nature’s act of silencing. Still others talk about a crushing silence. And it’s there, in that mysterious emptiness, where God’s glory is manifest and once again Elijah hears the words “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
In a newsletter entitled “Desperately Seeking Silence” from the author and podcaster Nora McInerny, I read her account of a recent flight she took. It was a very early flight and Nora had prepared herself to settle into her seat on the darkness of the plane, cozy up under a blanket, listen to a podcast, and fall back asleep until she landed. Instead, she writes, “Blaring from every speaker in the aircraft was the kind of music you only hear on light radio stations in various waiting rooms…The kind of music that nobody needs to hear at 5:30 AM, certainly not in the 21st century when we all carry our own preferred audio right in our pockets…This was a noise that couldn’t be canceled, that was so loud I couldn’t actually hear [the music in my noise cancelling headphones].”
As a rule, I don’t ask flight attendants for anything unless they specifically walk up to me and say, “what would you like, ma’am?” But nearly everyone who boarded the plane seemed to wince at the sounds disturbing our scheduled nap time, so when she stepped into the aisle to help someone with a bag, I raised my hand and asked if the music could maybe be turned down a bit?” The answer was no. It was a company policy. The noise must be tolerated.
"Weeks later, I was at the gas station. I’d dipped my credit card, selected the worst/cheapest gas available, and was about to grab the nozzle when suddenly I was being screamed at. Above the touchscreen where I’d selected credit over debit, a small TV screen played video after video of branded content pushing everything from snacks to new TV shows. There was no mute, no pause, no way to opt out of this “brand experience.” There was nothing to do but get the bare minimum of gas needed for me to return home, and get… out of there."
Nora writes about how no one wants to hear the music on the airplane, and no one wants to watch TV while they pump their gas. None of this constant noise is there because we want it, necessarily. She writes, “It’s there because somebody looked at their customer data and saw a way to make money that has nothing to do with gas or snacks or scratch-off tickets: your presence. Your quiet. Your brain space. Your ears. Your eyes.”
She’s right, of course. We live in a world where it is incredibly difficult- and more and more difficult each day- to find quiet. Social media has commodified our attention and put it out on the marketplace for sale, but long before Facebook came along, TVs were blaring, radios were blasting, lights were blazing all night, keeping us busy. This is not a new problem, although it may be a worse problem. It isn’t hard to understand why even the church’s ancient desert fathers and mothers went out into the wilderness to get away from the world to experience and hear from God- not a luxury available to most of us- but understandable nonetheless. People have always needed to escape the noise, distraction, and busyness of their lives to create quiet spaces for listening to God.
Elijah’s story, and Nora’s, I suppose, teach me a few things about quietness and caves. Elijah had done some incredible, miraculous things in the verses preceding this encounter with God in the cave. He had literally caused the “fire of the Lord” to come down consuming the soaking wet offering of the bull, the wood, and even the stones and water. He had overwhelmed the onlookers with the clear presence of God. In fact, they were so compelled with Elijah’s act of calling down God’s power they executed the priests when Elijah told them to. He gave them a show! With lights and smoke and pyrotechnics, more hardcore than any rock concert. And that’s all before the rains came! But never in those verses do we hear the voice of God. We can clearly see that the Lord was with Elijah, but we never read of the Lord communicating with Elijah.
It makes me wonder about the ways we expect to experience God, maybe even the ways Elijah expected to experience God. We love a big flashy show, we’d sure love a miracle, an inbreaking of God into our daily lives in an overwhelming way. But Elijah left that place despairing. It reminds me of one of my youth years ago. When we first met, he’d just returned home from a mission trip overseas. I asked him how the trip was, and he said, “It was good. I didn’t get a lot out of it though.” You see, he expected that trip to be a spiritual high. Understandable, right? Maybe Elijah felt the same way. What they were both missing, what we all often miss, is that God most often speaks to us in the silence. Perhaps Elijah learned not to associate God with the pyrotechnics and the show. God is in the silence.
But of course, silence is painfully hard. The TV is on for background noise, fans hum as we fall asleep. We listen to podcasts and audiobooks (my drugs of choice), music, scrolling social media, texting, calling, our own incessant chatter. To be clear, none of those things are bad, but they can keep us from sitting in the silence confronting the truth of ourselves. Professor and storyteller Richard W. Swanson writes, “We should think about our need to find ways to fill the silence that is God’s voice. We should think about our need because our discomfort with the actual silence of God is significant. It is always a good thing to recognize, name, and track our discomfort because discomfort makes us do things that are sometimes destructive, or at least unhelpful. We should think about our need because our discomfort leads us to invent a very noisy God who is as uncomfortable in actual silence as we are.”
When we rush to fill the silence, God’s silence, we miss the reality of God. We very likely begin to make God in our own image, or to find ourselves with that noisy god who conveniently directs us towards all the things we want in the first place. The alternative to filling the silence is to seek out your cave. To find for yourself your version of Elijah’s cave and to wait there for God to meet you.
It would likely look different for all of us, our caves. Perhaps yours could be a designated chair in your house, or maybe it is a specific time of day. It could be the quiet commute after you drop the kids off, or your morning coffee. Perhaps it is a walk outside, creating something beautiful, getting your hands in the dirt. Your cave is whatever space, time, and posture you set aside to listen, to be with God. It’s there in the quiet waiting that something new will emerge, a voice in the silence. And perhaps, like Elijah, that voice will ask us “What are you doing here?” I wonder how we will answer.
The discovery and preservation of the Lascaux Cave is an incredible story, and it makes me trust that there are spiritual caves out there and in here that are waiting to be discovered. Places of deep meaning and truth, ancient wisdom, and beauty, crushing silence, and still small words. Those depths are worth exploring. Elijah’s story, God’s story, reminds us that when we take the time to withdraw from the world, we can trust that God will meet me there. Nora’s story reminds us of the urgency and intentionality we must bring to this endeavor. The world will not give you a cave. In fact, all of the forces in your life are making it harder and harder to retreat into the deepest parts of yourself. Friends, find your cave, create listening spaces, protect your cave. Do not fear the silence. Listen for the still, small voice. God is still speaking. May we listen. Amen.