(Our CPE program requires that we plan and lead two hopsital chapel services over the course of the summer. Most of the congregation consist of chaplains, but family members of patients and nurses, doctors, and other staff also show up on occasion. Here's my first effort at hospital preaching.)
When this passage popped up a couple of weeks ago on a website I often use as a prayer resource, I immediately thought of our experiences here at Gigantic Hospital. On the whole, GH seems to move at a measured pace -- appropriate for an institution in which so many events marked by layer upon layer of complexity take place each day. There are detailed plans and protocols for every kind of development, with numerous team members from different areas and levels of expertise involved in decision-making -- all necessary to ensure the best possible care for the variety of people and conditions that show up on our doorstep.
And yet, metaphorically speaking, we are in a place of earthquake, wind, and fire. We are in a place where crucial things happen, where God, our God who is in all things, appears in situations, in questions, in decisions, which are not routine to most people. For the patients and their families, a hospital stay, whether for a few hours or for months at a time, is a detour from the usual road, a breach in the fabric of ordinary life, an abrupt jolt out of the familiar and expected. For the people who care for them, the plans and procedures and outcomes may be anticipated and carefully monitored, but the fact that they involve individual human beings, each with his or her own needs, means that even the most perfunctory of proceedings brings with it the potential for response across the spectrum of possibility.
The text before us offers some insight into the stillness with which we can encounter God even in the wake of momentous events. I love this story from the Hebrew Scriptures in which Elijah, prophet to ancient Israel, offers a potent demonstration of God's power. Calling the prophets of Baal, viewed as the chief competitor of Elijah's God, to a challenge, Elijah initiates a contest in which both he and they will present an offering to their respective gods and await the gods' setting fire to their offerings. The Baal prophets pile up their offering on their altar and entreat their gods to ignite the fire, but nothing happens. Their noisy and completely ineffective entreaties are drowned out by Elijah, who taunts and ridicules them for relying on gods who do not exist. And then Elijah, unable to resist heightening the drama, doesn't limit himself to stacking a heap of offerings upon an altar; he sloshes water all over the whole thing, completely saturating it -- and his God still sets it ablaze, soaked wood and all. Elijah then finishes off the prophets of Baal, and for all of his trouble -- what happens? He has to flee to the wilderness to hide from the vengeful Jezebel, who has vowed to destroy him. It is while he is hiding out in a cave in the wilderness that he encounters the angel of the Lord, who tells him to head for the mountain and await the passing of God.
Elijah has already encountered God in fire; his God is, after all, responsible for the fire which has landed him in this mess. He knows something about the God who appears in mighty things, but he also seems to know that this time, God is going to speak to him differently, more intimately and, perhaps, more powerfully than God has before. And so Elijah waits, inside his his cave. A wind passes by, so strong that it rearranges the geologic features of the mountain, tossing rocks and debris this way and that, but Elijah does not venture forth. An earthquake causes the ground to tremble, and opens treacherous crevices, but Elijah remains in his cave. Flames spring from the earth and smoke saturates the sky, but Elijah does not move.
And then he hears it: the sound of silence, through which he recognizes the still and small voice of the Lord. He covers his face and steps into the opening leading from the cave into the light, and God says to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"
For all that he has initiated, for all that he has withstood, Elijah knows that God, God who is surely in all things, can sometimes be heard most clearly in the quiet that follows the chaos. Here at GH, thanks to efforts to keep a lid on the external stimulii, the hum of machinery and the blinking and beeping of monitors tend fall into the background, but the internal upheavals -- the internal winds and earthquakes and fires -- are not so easily subdued. The procedures, the decisions, the tensions -- they threaten to overwhelm each of us from time to time, and we need to distinguish the still, small voice of God calling to us in the silent eye of the storm. We need to find openings in our days and nights to stand quietly and wait for the God who says, "What are you doing here?"
We can respond that we are listening for what God has to say through the words and expressions of our beloved friends and family members. We can respond that we are listening for what God has to say through our patients and colleagues. We can respond that we are listening to what God says through the things that happen and the things that don't. And most of all, we can be attentive to those openings leading into the light -- openings in which we, like Elijah, wait for the God who speaks with more stillness than we might think possible, so that when God says, "What are you doing here?" we can respond: "I am listening for you."