THE STILL SMALL VOICE
Rev. Kit Ketcham, Dec. 15, 2013
Every year about this time, I become much more deeply aware of my craving for spiritual renewal. It's a time of year when my own reservoirs have often been drawn down by my own personal matters, the latest news of war and hate, the ongoing needs of people I love and serve, and I need to find new meaning in my life so that I can live with a sense of abundance rather than deprivation.
This experience of needing to refill one's spiritual reservoirs is common to many in helping professions. It's also common to caretakers, to people in transition who are moving from one stage of life to another, to people who are grieving, to anyone who needs to find new meaning in life.
We get the message in a variety of ways----some of us find ourselves withdrawing from others, some of us get sick, some of us go into therapy or self-help programs, some take up a hobby, some may become addicted to one thing or another.
When we find ourselves craving too much solitude or cringing when someone needs us to do something, when we find our behavior out of bounds for some reason, being more irritable, more tired, more overwhelmed, more needy, these are often signals that our spiritual reservoirs are low and we need to replenish them.
Many of us come here to Sunday services hoping to find a place where we are not only intellectually stimulated but also emotionally touched, where in the quiet times or in the music, we hope for a sense of something bigger than ourselves, a sense of connection to others, a moment we can carry away into our workaday week.
The need for spirituality in our lives is a common but tricky thing because it is such a personal experience. For one person, it might be an insight triggered by a poem or a speaker's words or the music; for another, it might be an emotional sense of gratitude for an act of kindness. For others, these might not be particularly significant at all.
But I have learned over the years that I can become more attuned to the moments in life which offer spiritual experience, whether they come during worship or during an ordinary day. I have had to train myself to recognize them. I have had to restructure my life a bit to be more open to them. I have had to go looking for them. But I’ve learned that I can't usually expect them to be administered by someone else, like a dose of medicine; I have to be open to them myself.
I found a little vignette that I think fits here, recounted by the late French author Andre Gide. while he was in Africa years ago. He wrote:
"My party had been pushing ahead at a fast pace for a number of days and one morning when we were ready to set out, our native bearers, who carried the food and equipment, were found sitting about without any preparations made for starting the day.
Upon being questioned, they said quite simply, that they had been traveling so fast in these last days that they had gotten ahead of their souls and were going to stay quietly in camp for the day in order for their souls to catch up with them. So they came to a complete stop."
We human beings seem to be constantly in a state of movement of some kind---particularly in our life stages, as parents, in marriage or singleness, in job changes, even in retirement, just to name a few. It's important to recognize that the changes in our daily lives affect our spiritual lives, just as the African workers knew and addressed, when they needed to.
We are often so busy and preoccupied with those changes, both big and little, putting one foot in front of the other, that we are not able to be as mindful of or open to spiritual experience as we might be at a different time.
Just recognizing our human desire for spiritual experience is a positive step. Just realizing that something that gave us spiritual sustenance at one time is no longer so powerful---that's a huge insight in itself. It may not feel good but it's a sign that a person is ready to grow and is starting to look around for ways to nurture that growth.
It can be helpful to look back over our lives and recognize the times in our lives when we had an experience we might call a spiritual experience.
For some people, it's the birth of a child; for others, a deep love felt for another being. It can be a moment in the woods or on a mountain top or in deep snow or on a stormy beach. For some of us, it may be the latest jaw-dropping news out of the world of science. But whatever the stimulus is, it's a time when we experience a sense of awe and wonder that may be new or familiar but gives us a chill of recognition---so this is what it means to be alive.
Let's take a moment together to reflect on those chilling moments of awe in our lives. I invite us to enter into a time of silence, to look back in our lives to a time that was particularly meaningful in a way that felt bigger than ordinary moments. It might have triggered goose bumps or a sense of recognition of something important. Let's be silent for a little while. (1 minute or more; chime)
One of my earliest spiritual experiences was sitting on a cold, windy hilltop out in far eastern Oregon, near Ontario, with friends from our Baptist Youth Fellowship, singing the old hymn "O Worship the King", as I watched the sun come up on a stormy early Easter morning singing these words:
"O tell of his might, o sing of his grace,
whose robe is the light, whose canopy space;
his chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.
That bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light,
it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain."
I know that my experience may mystify some of you. It’s hard to explain why this was so important to me. But I was 16, looking for deeper meaning in the faith I’d been brought up in, hungry for more than platitudes. Somehow singing these words, on this stormy, cold morning as the sun came up, expanded my vision beyond mere religious doctrine and connected it to the entire universe of light and space and storm and loving care.
How can I convey the sense of importance that I find in spiritual experience? How can I help others find spiritual experience and connection themselves?
Sometimes we don’t realize that we have drawn down our emotional and spiritual reservoirs. Sometimes we shut off the conduits of spiritual experience assuming that they have no meaning in a rational life. I would invite you to reconsider that assumption, for it’s easy to tune out this very real human desire.
I have learned that one thing that has helped me has been to have a regular spiritual practice. Like walking every day helps me stay fit for my physical life, a spiritual practice helps me stay in shape for my spiritual life.
And there are many spiritual practices, not just the traditional prayer and meditation Some people read for inspiration, some write in journals or write poetry, some dance, some sing, some walk or run, some garden, some volunteer to serve others, some work with their hands, or create art.
Prayer is part of my spiritual practice, but mindfulness is the point of any spiritual practice. When I pray that I will be a good minister, a good person, my prayer reminds me to be mindful to look for the meaning in my life, because it is there that I find my spiritual sustenance. Mindfulness means listening for the still small voice of inner wisdom that comes when I am touched by the spirit, the insight that may come when I am open to it.
There’s a wonderful story in the Hebrew scriptures about the ancient prophet Elijah who needed wisdom and guidance in a troubled situation. He prayed to the spirit he called God to advise him; he believed he would know what to do if he just listened.
As he was beseeching his God for guidance, suddenly a great wind came up and swept through the trees, knocking them down, causing rockslides, blowing dust and debris through the air. Elijah listened carefully but he did not find his answer in the wind.
An earthquake shook the mountain where he was standing and great cliffs tumbled around him. But even though he listened, he found no answer in the earthquake.
Lightning flashed from the sky and struck the dry brush around him, lighting it on fire. But the answer was not in the fire.
The story goes on to say that after all these cataclysmic events had ended, Elijah continued to listen, and after the fire came a still small voice. It was in that still small voice that Elijah found his answer.
We often think we’ll find our spiritual experiences in big moments, in times of great drama and tension. And sometimes we do. But more can be found in the aftermath when we are still, when we take time to be introspective, when we are alone, when we are able to be honest with ourselves, when we experience emotion about something, when we are open to hearing the still small voice of our own heart and mind as we have been touched by the experience.
Let's return to the silence for a few moments and let the quiet of this room seep into our minds and hearts. During this time, I invite you to let your mind be open to your own inner wisdom, however it may reveal itself. (1 min. chime)
We may each discover some personal way that spiritual meaning comes to us. Spiritual experience is something we can learn to see; we can cultivate the ability to recognize the spiritual in our lives. Spiritual experiences are not, in my humble opinion, just nice things to have happen to us. They can be trail markers and guideposts, they may be telling us something, something that our rational approach to life has yet to see.
As Karen and I were talking about today’s topic, I asked her about her own spiritual experiences, what she had found valuable. If you know Karen, you won’t be surprised to hear that working with animals offers her many of her spiritual experiences. Most of us know that she volunteers at the Wildlife Rescue service here in Clatsop County. Karen told me that she’d been packing cats around ever since she could walk!
Camping trips with family connected her to the natural world. Just breathing the clear air, being in the trees, on the beach, all these things have led her to a deep connection to and appreciation of nature. She says “my heart rate drops, I feel at peace with the world, tranquil.” And she finds this tranquility and sense of peace when she runs.
Many of us know that Karen is a runner, spending time every possible day alone out in the open air (not in a gym or on a treadmill!) running.
She feels exhilarated, high, in total harmony with her life. Even though running is hard work for most of us, Karen finds it restful and clarifying. She told me of a wonderful moment during one run.
It was evening and she was alone, pounding along a snow-covered trail near her home. The moon was rising, the stars brilliant overhead. As she reveled in the cool sweet air, feeling her body respond to the physical demands of running, she heard a sudden noise, and before she could make sense of it, out from the shelter of a culvert a passel of deer took flight, startled by her footsteps----shadowy, alert, responsive to her presence.
She says she stopped, stunned, struck by their beauty and their presence on that beautiful night. As she watched, the moment was embedded in her mind and heart as one of the valuable spiritual experiences of her life, one she returns to when she needs a little spiritual renewal.
Karen’s experience with the deer reminds me of a time when I camped with a friend on the banks of the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska. It was very early spring and the sandhill cranes were migrating. We hoped to see them in flight.
Early that morning, before the sun was up, I joined a host of others on a small bridge over the river. We could see the shadowy forms of cranes in the water and fields but were totally taken by surprise when, at some unseen signal, thousands of cranes lifted up and flew over our heads, all at once, uttering their eerie call. I vividly remember the awe and wonderment I felt at that time.
Let's spend some more time in silence together and this time I invite us to think about the times we may have experienced something that caused us wonderment and a sense of awe and what our response to it may have been. (1 min, chime)
Recognizing our need for spiritual sustenance, listening for the still small voice, and responding to its call----these are the elements of spiritual growth.
My use of periods of silence during this sermon are a partial response to the urging of a still small voice in me, because I have learned that silence works for many of us. We may not have much silent time to spend listening for a still small voice. Worship services may be that important chance to be still and listen, even though these periods of silence are very brief.
As we go our separate ways today, I hope we will return in our hearts and minds to that place of stillness where we can listen for the still small voice of wisdom and guidance that lives inside of us.
We may call it God, we may call it our inner self, we may call it human nature----it doesn't matter what the words are. But that still small voice represents our best selves, guiding us to goodness, not evil; guiding us toward life, not death; guiding us to growth, not stagnation; guiding us to health, not sickness.
We are in the season of the year called Advent, in the Christian world. Advent means beginnings. May we find in times of stillness the beginnings of new spiritual life.
Let’s pause once again for a time of silence.
Our closing hymn is #83, Winds Be Still
BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that mindfulness of the spiritual meaning in every moment of our lives is a key to growing as spiritual beings. May we listen for the still small voice, may we heed its wisdom, and may we grow in spirit as we move forward in our lives. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.