Finding Your Cave: Going Beyond "Thoughts and Prayers"

Sermon by Rev. Paul Ortiz

First Sunday of Lent

Text: 1 Kings 19:11-12

As some of you may know, I served as a hospital chaplain for two years during seminary. My time there caused me to think deeper about humanity, grief, God, and prayer. I remember once I was with a man whose spouse was toward the end of a long journey with a terminal illness and was in a state of unconsciousness. The man explained that he was a person of faith. However, he also explained that, since the deterioration of his spouses’ health, he no longer had the “words to pray.” So he asked if I’d pray for them, and of course I did! With one hand upon his shoulder and one upon his spouses’ arm, I prayed aloud a prayer that included the theological language I had been taught in seminary. Yet the Lord was not in my prayer.

I prayed with confidence and said all the right things, yet something was off. I could tell that nothing had really changed for this man. I sensed that he still could not pray to God.

Afterwards the man thanked me for the prayer, perhaps out of politeness. And then we both just stood there. Resisting the initial urge to start saying more “pastoral” things, I instead entered into a time of holy quietness with him. After a few moments of deep silence the man began to weep. And he did what most of us do when we begin to cry in front of others, he apologized and tried to wipe his tears away. At which point, without even thinking about it, I found myself whispering to him, “your tears are prayers to God, and God hears your prayers.” Then the man lost it and wept and wept. And I began to tear up, as well. And it was obvious to both of us that the Lord was in the silence.

In Today’s scripture reading, we find another character who is troubled with great despair and ends up hearing God in a new way—in the silence. If you are familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures you may know that Elijah is portrayed as the greatest of all prophets, alongside of Moses. While Moses is known as the law giver, Elijah can be known as the justice bearer. And thus Elijah has his hands full. For a time all goes well with the prophet Elijah, for he indeed is in control of his life. He has prophesied that the corrupt King Ahab will come to an end. He has performed great miracles. He has even called fire down from heaven. Yet after great success, he returns to the royal city of Jezreel to find that things are worse than ever, and there is a price upon his head. Deeply disillusioned, he journeys into the wilderness where he assumes he will die. And it is in the wilderness, away from the empire and all the noise, where the text tells us that Elijah finds a cave. He spends the night in his cave of solitude and hears from the Lord anew.

Elijah is told to go out, because the Lord is going to pass by. There was a great wind, so strong that it split the mountain, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then a great earthquake and fire but the Lord was not in those either. Finally the text tells us that there was the sound of sheer silence. It is there that Elijah hears God’s voice—by listening to silence. I love the translation of “sheer silence.” This suggests a silence that sheers, or cuts to our very souls. Some scholars suggest that this Hebrew phrase can also be translated as the “scream of silence.” Have you ever stopped and made quite space in your life to hear the scream of silence and allow it to pierce your soul? It is only after the storm that Elijah is able to hear God in the sound of silence.

Another prophet that comes to mind is Oscar Romero, an Arch Bishop in El Salvador during the 70s and early 80s, who was martyred for speaking out against the corruption of his day and organizing the poor and oppressed for the sake of peace and equity. Romero, a central figure in the early Latin American Liberation Theology tradition, is famous for saying, “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”

So today, Romero is telling us that there are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried, and we are not to avoid grieving when it is needed. And Elijah is telling us that there are many things that can only be heard when we listen to silence, and not to avoid silent spaces in our lives. How often do we allow our prayer lives to have this kind of depth? How often do we actually listen for God, and allow God to change the way we see the world? How often do we go past offering mere “thoughts and prayers” in the midst of tragedy and injustice? I know I struggle with this.

This week we were made again acutely aware of the epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings in our country. As we heard the terrible news of the 17 students and teachers murdered in the mass shooting at Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, once again the media became flooded with people wishing “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and their families. And once again I couldn’t help but feel that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough. While well meaning, too often “thoughts and prayers” a way of skirting responsibility. It is difficult (overwhelming even) to truly consider how we could work to change laws in ways that would curb gun violence in our country. Rather it is much easier to merely wish “thoughts and prayers,” and move on.

Yet as I found myself frustrated with those wishing “thoughts and prayers” in the face of continued injustice, I thought about how my own prayer life tends to look the same. How often do I merely say the type of prayers that I have been trained to say in order to avoid entering into the grief, silence, and pain—the pain of others and my own pain? How often do we say a simple prayer and move on rather than going deeper and listening to the voice of God in the midst of silence, which challenges us to love our neighbors and work for justice? If you are like me, your initial tendency is to avoid the silence, rather than seek it.

Of course, it is right and good to say a prayer for those who are hurting and keep them in our thoughts. It is the natural thing to do, yet this morning the story of Elijah tells us that there is so much more to prayer. Like Elijah, we must find our cave solitude. We too must create spaces away from the empire and all the noise in order to hear a new word from God. And from this, we too will be empowered for greater action in the world. 

In the verses that follow this morning’s text, Elijah is sent out to do something quite subversive, the Lord tells Elijah to go and anoint new kings and rulers in the face of the current ones. Like Elijah we must find our cave, we must go beyond mere “thoughts and prayers,” and we must learn to listen to the silence and be transformed for the work of God. 

Throughout the season of Lent we will be experimenting with prayer practices together. Here at Berry Church our community has built some prayer stations that you will have time to engage with during the next few weeks. And we will continue in a worship series called “Listen” where we will explore what it means to not only speak to God in prayer, but to listen as well.

May we make space in our lives away from the empire and all the noise, and may we listen to the sound of sheer silence. For God is waiting to speak to each of us anew. Amen.