In the not-too distant past, I was struck with a new insight into an old story. In the book of 1 Kings, the prophet Elijah has successfully stood up to the prophets of Baal, proving that God (Yahweh) is the real God and Creator of the universe. Unfortunately, as a result, the evil queen has declared she wants to see Elijah put to death. So Elijah flees into the desert, despairing to the point of requesting death. An angel sends him further on to Mt. Horeb, where he spends the night in a cave. From there we pick up with what is likely to be a familiar story:
[The angel] said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces 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; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place…” (1 Kings 19:11-16, NRSV)
You’ve likely heard the story before; perhaps in the context of a sermon about how we should seek God in the still, quiet place. And that is a legitimate interpretation. But let me share my insight.
I believe, deeply, in the immanence of God. This means I believe God is always present in all of Creation. We sometimes get glimpses of that: it might be a “theophany,” an appearance of the divine like Moses saw in a burning bush or the disciples’ witness of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, or it might be a glimpse of the divine breaking into our ordinary world through a beautiful sunset or spectacular vista. There are the moments people tell us about when they’ve experienced God in nature; when all the world comes into a different, sometimes sharper focus, and one gets a glimpse of the glory that surrounds us all the time but goes unseen.
While such moments may be rare, I believe in the immanence of God as the underlying truth of them. God is always present; everywhere. And so, when I read this story recently, I struggled with the assertions that “the Lord was not in the…wind…earthquake… [or] fire…” Because I believe God is always present, I believe God would be present in the wind, earthquake, and fire. And that’s good news to me in my life, because if I allow the story to become metaphor about the presence of God it reminds me that God is present in whatever chaos (wind), whatever world-shaking news (earthquake), whatever raging crisis (fire) I encounter. God is present. I am not alone.
But the story reads that “the Lord was not in the…” wind, earthquake, or fire. At face value, the story seems to contradict a theological doctrine I hold close to my heart; undermines part of my understanding of the mysterious nature God. Until I realize, this is not an objective narrative; this story is being told to us from the point of view of Elijah.
Elijah has already (twice!) heard an angel and/or the Lord speak to him. Elijah has defiantly and successfully stood up to the prophets of Baal. But now Elijah runs in fear for his life, expressing that despite his own zealousness for God, he is endangered; threatened. I now see that, from Elijah’s perspective, God wasn’t present in the wind, earthquake, or fire. These external, physical phenomena of chaos echoed the circumstance within his soul. But as they passed – as the world stilled, as the quiet came – then Elijah was able to discern God; when he and the world were quiet, Elijah was able to hear God, was able to speak and be spoken to.
I think this is the core of the story, and it connects with my understanding of “creative dislocation” as a value of camp and retreat ministries. You see, Elijah was so enveloped by the chaos of his circumstances that he could not find or sense God in the midst of them. That is not the same as asserting that God was not present. Yet it seems to be in keeping with our experiences in this life; there are times when it seems next to impossible to experience the presence of God.
Elijah had to go into the cave and wait for the moment of stillness, the moment of quiet, to re-encounter the divine. This is exactly the reason retreats are so important to our spiritual journeys. From time to time, it behooves us to take a few minutes away from the busy-ness, the chaos and clutter of our lives. It benefits us to step away from the wind and fire and earthquake, to still and center ourselves in such a quiet way and place that we can, once again, connect with God.
Camp and retreat ministries provide us the opportunity to come away from our ordinary routines in which we are no longer able to discern God’s presence. Retreats allow us to see the world with new eyes and gaze on the wonder and divinity that always surrounds us. (This, to me, is the miracle of the Transfiguration [Matthew 17]. Jesus wasn’t changed; he was always the divine son of God, and the glory of God always surrounded him. But for a moment the disciples were changed, their eyes opened; able to see clearly the glory of the divine that walked with them.)
Elijah might not have perceived his fleeing to Mount Horeb as a retreat, but in that mountain top experience he was able to re-encounter God, was able to more clearly hear God’s calling on his life. (And it is intriguing to me, but probably a topic to explore another time, that part of what he heard from God while on the summit was the call to go and appoint a new prophet to follow him.) At their best, camp and retreat programs provide for us a means to disconnect from the ordinary in order to more directly re-connect to the extraordinary; to step away from the mundane and encounter the spiritual; to have our own eyes and spirit opened to the ever-present glory and wonder of God… and then take that remembrance and experience back with us into our daily lives.
Rev. Ron Bartlow is in ministry in the local church and as Director for Camp & Retreat Ministries in the Desert Southwest Annual Conference. He is still on a quest for a TARDIS, but until then Ron travels through time slowly and in one direction. This reflection was originally written for the Desert Southwest Conference and helps inform the “Mountain Pathways” Discipleship Plan at Trinity Heights UMC.