I agree with those who feel that America is headed for uncertain times in our near future. According to a new Quinnipiac University Poll released Tuesday, America’s President-Elect, Donald Trump, will enter the presidency with a historically low approval rating, only 37%. Trump’s approval rating has actually declined since his popular vote loss and electoral college win last November. At present, his approval rating is comparable with George W. Bush’s when 43 left office.
These numbers shouldn’t shock us. Just under half of Americans didn’t vote at all. Trump only garnered 47% of the voters who bothered to make an effort and lost that total by nearly 3-million. What does this mean? If just under half of eligible Americans didn’t vote and Trump didn’t win half of those votes, then, if my math is right, starting January 20th, America will have a President which roughly less than 25% of America voted for. Just over 1 in 4.
That’s no mandate. In no business is that even a quorum. Whichever way you slice it, most Americans either didn’t bother or didn’t vote for Donald Trump to be President. He begins his term as a largely unwanted executive.
Nevertheless, we have an electoral college system and regardless of all the hashtags and protests, Donald Trump, whether you like him or not, whether you voted for him or not, whether you think for financial or personal reasons he will continue his stalwart defense of Vladimir Putin, Russia, and Wikileaks, or not, will be the 45th President of the United States.
This fact has sent some of my friends into elation. They detest Hillary Clinton, decry Democratic policies, and think – at least a few – that Trump is the right kind of disruptive force at the right time. Other friends are experiencing darkness and despair. For them Trump is the worst kind of thin-skinned, reprehensible, uninformed, egotistical puppet that makes for a horrible person and a disastrous leader.
I have no idea what America and the world will look like after four years of Trump. Neither does anyone else. What I do know is that too many Christians have surrendered their hope to American politics and the allure and brightness of power.
This was the temptation for a prophet named Elijah, too.
In Elijah’s time, there was a ruler named Jezebel who had all the power while he had none. In the kinds of stories Christians like to tell at VBS, Elijah has a showdown between the prophets of BAAL – the prophets who served Jezebel’s god – and YHWH, Elijah’s God. The question was whose god would show up. Which is the real God? Which God has the power?
The test was simple: Light an offering on fire.
The prophets of BAAL wailed and screamed and cut themselves to get BAAL’s attention. Elijah even mocked them and their god asking if he might be away relieving himself, as BAAL failed to ignite anything. When Elijah got his turn, God sent fire from the sky and not only burned the offer but consumed the entire alter.
Game. Set. Match.
This is the kind of display Christians really want to see from God. Something dramatic. Demonstrable. Powerful. Indisputable. For the life of me, it’s the only reason I can think of that countless men and woman have spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars looking for Noah’s Ark rather than using those same resources to feed the hungry and clothe the poor. We suspect that if there was some way of demonstrating the reality of God that was incontrovertible others would fall to their knees in praise to God and salute our rightness.
But Elijah’s victory doesn’t last, at least Elijah’s feelings about victory don’t last.
After God’s display of power, Jezebel puts a contract on his head. Elijah has to flee into the wilderness. Elijah is forced to leave the kingdom and all human companionship. He enters into the wildness of the desert where he collapses mentally, spiritually, and physically. He is alone and hurting. He even asks for death.
This is what victory looks like!
In this moment, God doesn’t give Elijah a 4-year plan or call-to-action. He doesn’t promise the prophet companions or comfort or ease. God simply tells Elijah to go stand outside the cave and wait.
If you know the story, you know all heaven breaks loose next. Wind. Earthquake. Fire. This is what we expect (and want) God’s power to look like. Strong. Relentless. Irresistible. We want God’s power to show up in the dynamic and demonstrable so badly that increasingly we’ve become people willing to deploy force to ensure God looks forceful. But God is not in the wind, earthquake, or fire. Here, at the same place where Moses was given the Law, we’d expect something a touch more robust. But, nah!
After all the hubbub, God is revealed in the sound of sheer silence. The traditional translation is “a still, small voice,” which in literal Hebrew is “the voice of silence, thin.” The thin sound of silence.
I worry that Christians, on the Right and Left, have either lost or never developed the capacity to recognize the God of thin silences.
I mention Elijah’s story in connection to politics because, for whatever, politics has become the warehouse for our anxieties, desire for control and manipulation, and the arena we are most likely to lay aside Christian commitments in the service of our narrow and parochial desires. Politics, it seems, is the greatest area of life where we defend and encourage behaviors within our favored politicians and parties that we would not accept from our children or friends. In politics, it has become standard to stand with the morally disgraceful as long as the detestable woman or man agrees with us on our narrow and provincial politics. Worse, when our political side “wins” whichever battle is raging in the headlines, we foolishly chalk that victory up to God’s will.
If Elijah teaches us anything it’s that if we think victory always looks victorious we can easily be wrong. As much as we’d like God to put on a show, rebuke the enemies of our agenda, and light the world aflame, God may not be interested in us proving something to our friends. We want fireworks and sparkle. So, when our candidate wins, to us, that demonstrates the twinkle and glow we were hoping for. But when our candidate loses, we question what in the world God is up to. Yet, in our lust for the dazzling, we miss something crucial: God can be in whatever God chooses to be in.
It’s simply foolishness to post, tweet, or speak that God’s will was in Trump’s win. [TWEET THAT] Victory, as Elijah reminds us, doesn’t look like we think it does. We are a people accustomed to end zone dances, but God lacks our need to spike the ball. God was victorious in the fire at the showdown against the prophets of BAAL. God was equally victorious in the sorrow and silence of Elijah on Mt. Horeb. If we interpret God’s victoriousness based on our limited life experiences we will always identify God in the wrong places, like we have done, overwhelmingly, in politics.
Perhaps what we all need right now are thin silences. Maybe we need to lean in and press deeply to intonations we’re unaccustomed to. It could be that an unpopular President and the disruption many feel and fear are God’s opportunities to listen for new instructions and forge new pathways. Maybe the thin silences can call us to a new way of being the creative, loving, and transformative force the church has always called disciples to be. Perhaps for those of us feeling elated, thin silences reveal to us the cursory and fading nature of displays of power. For those feeling despair, thin silences call us to remember God can show up in ways we’d never expect.