I used to mistake sticks of dynamite for candles. An easy enough mistake to make, after all they both had a fuse and they were both capable of producing light, but one was destructive while the other was illuminating. I used to preach at people instead of having conversations with them. I was convinced that my volume and passion was sufficient in changing minds and hearts. It isn’t. Indeed, even now serving as my own worst critic, I find that the guilt induced shame that I am quick to heap upon my own head more often paralyzes my forward momentum and truncates my growth instead of goading me forward as I intended. I can only imagine how many people felt who were subjected to my well intentioned yelling that I called preaching. And while I have no doubt that some good was accomplished through what I yelled (after all God has used jackasses before) I think my rhetorical gifts would have been better spent on leading others to contemplate the need to ask good questions instead of me providing all the answers to questions no one was asking.
I supported my family (barely) for over a decade as a Pentecostal evangelist tasked with the weight of the world and the responsibility to save souls, even should it come at the expense of my own. I labored under the notion that if I didn’t produce a supernatural harvest of apocalyptic proportions then I wasn’t a success, certainly not in the Apostolic tradition as I understood it. I would find myself in a different church every weekend, sometimes in very odd circumstances. Because I was willing to go anywhere, I would often travel across country by car to only be paid little better than a poverty wage while required to sleep in musty church basements. But I was getting to preach and practice my craft so I didn’t mind all that much. But sometimes the accommodations were less than ideal. For example, in some homes where we were invited to stay, I remember literally knocking roaches off my leg at the dinner table while feigning interest in predicable small talk or being drawn into theological debates over the timing of the Rapture or the wisdom of men sporting beards or wearing jewelry. In some places we were treated exceptionally well as honored guests, but these were the exception to the rule that some Pastors and congregations seemed to have a vested interest in seeing that we suffered in order to cultivate our humility. Upon reflection, I do believe I heard God’s voice. But not in an audible or even spiritual way. Perhaps God set up these events in my life to speak to me at this now future point through quiet reflection and interpretation. History is instructive and personal histories speak volumes. And believe me when I say I’m listening now more than ever.
We live in an era of bombast. The louder the better. The more vitriolic the more likely folks are to respond with increased volume with caustic tone to match. But I’m hearing the greatest wisdom in the quiet of typing these words and in the contemplation of books read. And sometimes in the invited and uninvited thoughts of fear, doubt, and faith.
I remember a story from the Old Testament where a prophet named Elijah desired to hear God’s voice. Ascending a mountain, he was sure he would hear from God there. After all, many a patriarch heard from God atop a mountain. Once that prophet had made his way up the mountain, he experienced a series of moments that most of us would equate with “God moments.” There was an earthquake and a whirlwind. Mother Nature that has a way of arresting our attention. We are quick to take notice of the big moments. We are creatures who panic at the spectacular. We stop, we listen, we change course, we hide. This prophet experienced all of this atop a mountain. When the earth stopped shaking and the wind ceased to blow, the prophet was still alone, he had heard nothing. Perhaps there is only one thing worse than experiencing disasters, and that is experiencing disasters without gaining perspective. Surviving without learning a lesson. A moment of blinding light without an epiphany. The prophet given every opportunity to hear, still heard nothing. But although he hadn’t gained perspective, he still maintained his position. He still remained atop the mountain. Sometimes being left standing is the accomplishment. Elijah hadn’t gained ground, but he certainly hadn’t lost it. He remained atop the mountain. It was then and there that he heard God whisper.
Not a shout. Nothing spectacular. An everyday mundane moment. A whisper. A whisper isn’t easily heard especially after enduring the loud cacophony of earthquakes and whirlwinds.
When things are loud and then suddenly become quiet, it takes intentionality to adjust to the dissonance. Elijah had to strain to hear this voice. He had bend his ear and his heart to hear the voice that refused to live up to his expectations. We experience less spectacular moments at less elevated positions, but even still, we can hear the voice of God. Although God sometimes surprises us, He never lets us down. In the dark, we need candles to illuminate the darkness. What we think we need when it comes to God is a dynamite experience, but He turns those expectations on their head. We are more likely to hear God in the single flame of the ordinary than in the explosions of the extraordinary.
As an evangelist I was convinced hype and noise was the key to discerning God’s voice. Hyperbolic, over the top, spectacular and extraordinary was the currency I exchanged to motivate others to jump through the necessary hoops to secure the necessary demonstrative emotions that I mistook for the presence of God. I regularly detonated dynamite thinking I was serving as a light to the world. I wasn’t.
Instead I should have listened for the whisper, “Be still and know that I am God.”