Under Sermons and Talks,

About forty-four miles east of Dallas is a town called Blank. I spent a night there once. A random, wretched, shabby huddle, dumped by the highway: gas station, general store, Dairy Queen, a few abandoned cars, empty skips, and the Blank motel. The sort of ugliness it takes years to create. I imagine that if you live in Blank, you need an alibi. “Where do I come from? Oh, Dallas, well, near Dallas, anyway.” Perhaps the people of Blank wonder how they got there, perhaps they sit over undercooked hash browns and bitter coffee, tracing back their lives to the fatal moment, after which Blank was inevitable. The sad girl in the Dairy Queen pats your arm. She thinks, “poor sap. Another lost soul” but she says, “have a nice day.” And it sounds like a curse.

I didn’t choose to spend a night in Blank; not in the usual sense. You don’t find Blank in brochures of places not to miss in Texas. Suzy and I were moving from Atlanta to Austin. We traveled in convoy: Suzy in the Jeep with the parrot whilst I led the way in a 23 year old Pontiac with a dog and two cats. After 800 miles of uneventful road, the Pontiac coughed, shook a bit, and died. I got out and stood on the roof. I was looking at Blank. Suzy drove to the rusting gas station on the edge of town, and, after arranging for a tow, we left my car in the hands of a long-term manic-depressive named Billie Bob.

Over in the Blank Motel, an Asian lady in a sari sat at the desk watching a Brazilian soap opera. “I’d like a room,” I said. She watched Suzy getting out of the car and asked knowingly, “One hour or two?” “Oh no,” I panicked, “you don’t understand. I’m a priest. I need all night.” She clearly thought I was flattering myself. “Well, as you’re a priest,” she smiled, “you get the discount – all night for the two hour rate.” I thought, you’ve  done this before. I imagined a stream of ministers – Methodists, Pentecostals, revivalist clergy, Episcopalians – all slipping down to Blank for the naughty discount on their off nights.

Around nine, I trudged over to the gas station. My car was in bits, lots of bits, the “well-we-can’t-remember-where-this-goes-so-we’ll-leave-it-out-and-hope-it-doesn’t-matter” sort of bits. Billie Bob was amusing his friends by squirting gasoline into the carburetor with a water pistol. This is probably irrational prejudice but I couldn’t help remembering that the ranks of Space Shuttle designers and open-heart surgeons were pretty thin on men named “Billie-Bob.” “Failed fuel pump,” he said, “I put a mechanical in but it ain’t working, so’s you better have electric.” “Is that expensive?,” I asked. He then offered to buy the car. Eleven o’clock the next day I paid magnificently for the electric pump and drove off. Billie Bob trotted after me, still raising his offer for the car. 40 miles later I broke down outside a truck stop in Dallas. Blank, Texas, haunts my dreams.

Elijah fled…he went on for forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God. He entered a cave and there he spent the night (1 Kings 19.8-9).

Dearest Belladonna,

I checked into this hotel soon after breakfast. From the window, I can see the mountain, its edges as hard as your heart. I’m not sure this will reach you, if it does, though, I’m certain you won’t want to read it. Seeing, however, that you have cast me off and that I cannot even remember the name of this hotel, receive it, my dear, as a postcard from nowhere, about nothing, from nobody. Outside, the olive trees climb the mountain, stopping only at a snow line – cool like you. The sun throws white fire through their gray-green leaves. Soil glints, bark crackles, fences glow. My heart, however, catches nothing. Don’t be misled by the way I’ve filled this card. In truth, it remains – like my heart – a blank. I write only because silence brings me nothing.

Farewell, your loving,

Elijah.

The night before my mother died, the surgeons removed one of her lungs. Before the operation, my father visited. He sat by the bedside. “It’s late,” she said, “you shouldn’t have come.” They talked of this and that; about his day; the flowers she’d been sent; a kindly nurse – but not about the lung, or the short passage to death, or the fear. On an old map, beyond the borders of the land where town and village, river and hill are named, it says “here are the nameless lands,” the rest is blank. The monitor beeps by the bedside. Downstairs, the operating theatre is prepared. Up here, though, we do not talk of how they will lift the lung from her chest; of how desperate it all is; of thirty years loving and living, soon past. “It’s late,” she said, “you shouldn’t have come.” “It’s no trouble,” he patted her shoulder. The words are cover stories, alibis, if you will: “we are not here, really” – my mother, my father, deny their whereabouts, caught in the speechless lands, the silent wastes of the blank.

A truck lurches off the road onto the pavement, the driver swerves and turns hurling the vehicle into fleeing pedestrians, running them down. An embittered man, bewildered in hatred, stabs a pregnant woman. A mother in Aleppo keens over her dead son, blind to the photographer making news. They flash past, these images, receding even as I see them in the paper, on the television. They go somewhere, below the horizon of my attention. These, and many others, mark their continuing presence in my soul only by a persistent uneasiness, a notion held just below the surface, that am I unable or unwilling to look steadily at such things. Or, that to one side of the attention I give to the business of my life, there is a blank, a blind spot, into which I have cast more than I care to know. Also, what about that word, “terrorist”? What does it tell me? That I must fear, perhaps hate; that I can expect no reason here, only a vindictive rage from people who must be put down. “Terrorist” tells me nothing, it’s shuts down understanding, once again, we throw men and women into that blank space on the map, now saying, “here be dragons.” There’s rather a lot I don’t think about, passing by on the other side of the mental road; I am not alone in this, we have only a little strength for our bruising reality, so the convenient spaces I’ve blanked tend to grow.

In this blank, is all I am afraid to voice and don’t want to name, everything to which I choose not to give my heart’s hospitality, don’t want to give the life of speech, except occasionally, in the cool measures of reason. This isn’t the end of it, either. Outside, the world we deny – and, inside, the heart we evade. For our hearts, too, have their blanks, zones of the unspoken, the dead halls of the unattended. The memories we cannot face, the unacknowledged fear that haunts us, the sin unforgiven, the hate we will not face, the loss we cannot bear to reckon, the love we cannot admit. Inside and out, we are besieged by the unspeakable.

And there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake (1 Kings 19.11).

Dearest Belladonna,

I now know why this room came so cheap. There’s a railroad under the window. Train came through after lunch. Damn near shook me off the bed. Rumbling, screeching, walls bending out, ceiling dropping plaster, bed howling at the joints. But I want you to know this, Belladonna. I lay here like a stone. Not a flicker in this wasted soul. Nothing from that turbulence. Nothing to fill this heart. Nothing to break the silence, not even a moment’s rage.

Farewell, your loving,

Elijah.

The glory of God is incommunicable, too much for words. We try, of course, and that’s good, but for all our efforts, we fall infinitely short, as we should. Who can ascend to the throne of God? “I have spoken,” says Job, “of things too wonderful for me,” and he is down in dust and ashes. The roaring, pelting, burning passes Elijah by, he understands all that stamping and storming, any god gets up to a few big bangs. That uncanny whisper, though, like nothing on earth, that’s different, that stops his heart, so Elijah covers his face and says nothing. The true God is unspeakable. Yes, but that we are speechless does not silence God. God speaks himself, fully, completely, unreservedly, eternally God speaks himself. Into the ready hearing of the Son, the Father speaks himself, and the Spirit of their entire love, that leaves nothing unsaid, rises between them, knowing everything. Like the rainy night in the diner, where she cannot stop talking, and hours go by, and the manager checks his watch, and still the boy chatters on and they know nothing but each other as if perfectly.

So, God creates a universe, life, and a people, that, through the Son and in the Spirit,  the Father might speak himself further. Here’s the thing, though. Are we ready for where and when God speaks? “Who could have believed what we have heard?,” asks the prophet; who could have believed where the power of the Lord has been revealed?” His form was disfigured, beyond recognition. Foul beyond words. We despised him, turned away our eyes. He became a curse for us, not even to be whispered in good company. Come, look away, talk of other things, of this and that but not…not him. Pierced, tormented, struck down. Who has words for this? We assigned him a grave in silence, in the land of forgetfulness, in the blank. In the center of history, is the unspeakable. There is God and everything we cannot bear. We have conspired to make this silence, and God has chosen to break it by speaking out of it. We made a vast and silent blank for all that falls by the wayside, everything we cannot face, the neighbors we won’t recognize , the consequences we can’t admit, the terrors we chatter over, the conscience we repress. “We held him of no account but yet he was pierced for our transgressions.” Where fear, horror, grief is blanked out by our excuses and evasions, there, God voices himself as love, making in this desert, a home for mercy. In the places of which we cannot bear to speak, there is the Unspeakable God, speaking words of promise, speaking himself. The Word, filling in the blank. This is the gospel. Remember the Transfiguration? On the mountain, they watch his glory: his smile on Moses, his arm around Elijah. To and fro in the glory, talking of Exodus, mapping the way into the far and fearful country, that near and distant wilderness: the unrecognized neighbor and the uncried pain – the blank.

And, after the fire, a still small voice. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in a mantle and went out (I Kings 19.13).

Dearest Belladonna,

Forgive me. When I woke up this morning, I banged the jug by the bedside, spilt water all over myself, soaked. I tell you, I slumped back on the bed, knocked the Gideon Bible off the shelf above my head. It hit me full in the face, and lay across my nose, like a raft. It was the end, Belladonna. I didn’t move, just stayed there, cursing the day I was born. Then, Belladonna, underneath, I heard my heart – like a stranger, tapping, whispering at the lock. My empty heart, speaking as it filled, filling like a shell fills with the sea. Spirit into my blank and empty heart;  my dry husk of a soul, watered, blooming. I made that claustrophobic, scrunched up, self-pitying, damnable silence for you, because of you. I am coming back. Forgive the whining, it was just white noise – signifying nothing, covering everything else. Believe me, my love, this card is full, really full, written on the inside and the out. Like the scroll of God, opened and shouting from the rooftops.

I shall come to you,, your loving,

Elijah.

“Then the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness.” With wild beasts and a coagulating silence. He sat, singing softly, and summoning angels, laying the foundations for a new fellowship. The Church begins here: a community of courage. A community, as we say, of the Word, the Word that breaks the silence. For, God knows, we have had enough of silence; we are dying from looking the other way, from reasoning ourselves out of love,, from keeping our heads. We desperately need the madness of one singing in the desert, crying out our woes, shouting the names of the ignored and the wretched. “It’s late,” she said, “you shouldn’t have come.” No! You should have come and you should have clung together howling your woe to the Most High. There is too much silence. Too much turning away. Too much is left unsaid, far too much evil left without protest, too much we cannot admit to ourselves, even from the stores of our own heart. Too little reality finds a voice in us, in our imaginations, in our loving.

 

So we find God the wilderness, in the speechless lands calling us to join him. The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, that, following him, we might make of the wilderness a city full of speech. God calls us to make Exodus, to be with Him in the deserts of the blank, learning how to break its silence, learning how to speak, how to reveal the world, in words and deeds, as a world beloved, and, in spite of everything, a world being formed in the Divine mercy. Our job is to learn the language that transforms a wilderness of silence: forgiveness, lament, naming evil, love, welcome, recognition, thanksgiving – and praise, praise for the God who sets the silent halls of the dead a buzzing with voices.

For this, the Spirit makes its Exodus, into our trembling hearts. Brooding, tender and fierce, forming the courageous soul, freeing the tongue, opening the stopped mouth that has swallowed hope,. In this Holy Spirit we find freedom of speech – and the life it lets us in for. Honestly, I find this prospect, the prospect of confronting the unsayable, of resisting my fearful desire not to see, not to notice, not to hear: I find this prospect almost as daunting as I do hopeful – almost. The alternative, however, to letting the Spirit break our silence is, after all, illusion, idle chatter, words without Word; striking ourselves dumb. The alternative to learning the liberating speech of God,  is to live our lives saying we are elsewhere, denying our presence with the unspeakable, settling for sorry distractions, shuffling in the line, queuing in the Blank motel for that seductive, ministerial discount.

Amen.