Centering Prayer

Preached by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali on February 2, 2014, at University United Methodist Church.

O God, in the stillness, come meet us.  Amen.

When you get a few moments of silence, what do you do? 

Truthfully, it seems that most of us tend to fill the quiet spaces of our lives with word and sound.  We turn on the radio, the tv, check facebook or email messages, we make mental grocery lists and chore lists.  We make noise, internally or externally to fill up the quietness.

In our day and age, silence is not what impresses people the most nor does it get people’s attention.

This was also true in the time of Elijah and King Ahab.  Divine appearances were usually noisy and showcased displays of power.

Like most scripture passages, the section that we read this morning has a “back-story.”

This story takes place in the 9th century.  At this time, the kingdom of Israel has split into Israel and Judah.  King Ahab rules Israel and does not support the Israelite way of life and worship.  He promotes the worship of Baal to the delight of his wife Jezebel, who supports 850 pagan prophets. 

Elijah, who is a prophet for the Lord God, is taking a stand and trying to make things better for the Israelites.  He tries to get Ahab to change his ways.  Instead, this back fires on him because he and Jezebel’s prophets enter into duels between the gods—Baal and the Lord.  Of course, the Lord wins every time, which makes things harder for Elijah and Jezebel tries to kill him. 

So, Elijah decides he would rather not live anymore and he runs away to die in the wilderness.  The whole time, he is praying, well whining, really.  He’s complaining to God about how hard his life is and how he is being persecuted and how he is the ONLY faithful person left in the whole land.  This is a bit of an exaggeration to say the least.  God listens, patiently and sends some angels to give him food.  Then Elijah wanders for 40 days and 40 nights, complaining the whole time.  (sounds a bit like another desert story I know!)

Finally, Elijah finds some shelter and continues his ranting conversation with God.  This time, God stops him and says, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He explains (once again!) that he has been faithful to God and has shared the prophecy with others, but that they are trying to kill him.  I can imagine that what he is really thinking is: "hasn’t God been listening to me all this time?!"

Then, the word of the Lord tells him to go stand on the mountain because the Lord is going to pass by.  Some scary stuff starts happening.  I can’t imagine how Elijah feels as he experiences these things alone on the mountain.

First there is a loud wind, which would have been a typical way for God to show up, but somehow Elijah knows that the Lord is not in the wind.  After that, an earthquake comes and shakes the mountain, but again, Elijah knows that the Lord is not in the earthquake.  Then a fire comes and blazes on the mountain, but again, Elijah knows that the Lord was not in the fire.  The Lord is not in any of the things where Elijah would expect to find God.

Finally, there is a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah hears it, he knows it is the Lord.  The voice comes to him and says once again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

I wonder, is Elijah expecting something else?  Is Elijah expecting God to show up in something noisy?  Or is Elijah expecting God to simply grant his petitions like a fairy godmother? 

Are we expecting something else, too?  Do we enter prayer with a list of complaints and situations that we expect God to fix?

God changes the game for Elijah.  God keeps asking “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  I can imagine this in so many different tones: inquisitive, incredulous, affirming.

Scripture contains countless stories about meeting God.  This is just one, but it is wise for us to slow down and fully consider this story.

You see, Elijah has become very self-centered in his prayer.  He is focused on complaining to God and telling God everything that is going wrong in his life.  He also promotes himself by saying that he is the only faithful person left (this is an exaggeration).  

We need to be honest with God; that is part of the gift of prayer.  But, we also must pause to listen to what God might say to us.  We must remember that prayer is a dialogue, a conversation.

Like Elijah, we also have to recognize God in the silence.

Father Thomas Keating, a modern-day Cistercian priest and founder of the centering prayer movement points to many mystics and holy people throughout history who referred to a kind of prayer in which “deep calls to deep” without words.  He calls this special kind of silence centering prayer.  

Teresa of Avila in the sixteenth century, calls it “the prayer of Quiet.” 

Keating also writes, “Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.”

Just for a moment, forget about the roaring winds in your life that make your bones shiver, the earthquakes that shake up your routines, and the fiery situations that you don’t know how to put out.  If we take a cue from Elijah, we will realize that none of those are God.

No, God is found in the silence, stillness, and the pause.

So today, I want us to enter into some intentional silence and to engage in some centering prayer. 

Find a comfortable place on your pew, shrug your shoulders and let go of the winds and the earthquakes and the fires from this past week.  Take a deep breath.

Ask the living God to become real to you during this time of centering prayer.

Hear God ask you this question: What are you doing here?

We are going to enter into 5 full minutes of silence. During this time, listen.  Try not to answer the question, just sit with it.  If it helps, you can repeat the question in your mind, like a mantra.  If your thoughts wander, don’t judge yourself, just re-center your mind using the question.  What are you doing here?

God, thank you for the gift of silence and for the gift of your presence.  Thank you for bringing each one of us here.  Amen.

Copyright 2014, Rev. Jill Sander-Chali