Setting: Turkana, Kenya. It was late at night, the sky was clear & the Milky Way spanned from horizon to horizon. But I didn’t see it because I was crouched on the floor of our tiny kitchen, bawling. NW Kenya can be a quiet & isolated place, and that night I felt it more than ever. Kip was at an evening church service in the village. The boys were asleep. I was exhausted from the heat from the day. Our well had run dry recently and in a land with little water, I was having to ration even more. And that afternoon, the pleasant breeze that blows a bit of the heat away also blew in layers of dust; fine silt covered everything— countertops, books, dishes, and the sheets of my little boys’ beds. On top of everything else, the people we worked with seemed unappreciative. Instead of ‘thank you’ for our work, we instead got, ‘what else do you have for me?’ I was tired of being in Turkana. And where was God, I grumbled. As I sat on that dusty kitchen floor, I felt God’s absence. It was not really a crisis of faith, but more an epiphany that I was not in control.
Have you ever felt like events in your life were out of your control? In our story today, we encounter a highly successful, yet terribly frightened and depressed Elijah.
That’s the way I began a recent sermon on Elijah experiencing God in the silence on the mountain. This week, as I read through Shelley Trebesch’s Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader, I was terribly frustrated by her weak theology, poor writing, and lack of significant academic sources (mostly, the theology though). Yet rather than focusing on how exasperating it was to read, I’d like to focus on the truth that she attempts to speak to: the loneliness/isolation/dark night of the soul that so many believers, especially leaders, go through.
Like many before and after me, I’ve walked months and years in dark silence. I’d rather look at my own desert times and reflect on where they’ve led me, hopefully as a means of contemplation and encouragement.
I’ve learned that God remains faithful, even when we don’t sense God’s presence. I look back on my past and, like Ebenezer standing stones, can mark the faithfulness of God in my cycles of despair. I disagree, though, with Trebesch’s suggestion that we don’t remain in isolation permanently. While I’ve not personally sat for more than ten years in a spiritual wilderness experience, there is someone who has: Mother Teresa. One of her biographers writes, “Her letters revealed that, except for one short period, Teresa had been afflicted with a deep sense of God’s absence for the last half-century of her life. Such was her unflagging dedication to the work she’d undertaken for God that most of the world was completely unsuspecting of her spiritual darkness.”
The presence of God in the powerful storms passing by the cave would have made sense. Elijah hadjust seen God at work that way on Mt. Carmel. But Yahweh doesn’t fit our expectations. God doesn’t fit nicely in our box (that’s another thing that troubled me about Trebesch’s thesis: the presumption of how God works in our desert times). Instead, Elijah heard a sound of sheer silence. Sometimes, God speaks in storms and responds in powerful ways. Sometimes, the presence of God is most keenly sensed in absence, in silence.
Trebesch is spot on, I believe, in the wilderness times often being opportunities to wrestle with identity. As we prepared to leave Kenya those many moons ago, I recognized I was being stripped of the identity I’d worked so hard to achieve. Leading up to our departure, I wrote my first attempt to work through my identity:
I don’t want to go back to the States and be “a secretary.” But if I went back and took a job doing secretarial work, would that change who I am? I know it would change what others thought of me, but should it? What if I thought of myself, not as “a secretary,” but as someone who does secretarial work and someone who loves being close to creation, and as someone who loves to take walks, and as someone who teaches classes once in a while, and as someone who does the family laundry, etc.? Doesn’t that create an opportunity to be more round/complex? I must say that doing secretarial work does not appeal to me long-term, but I feel overwhelmed with thinking about going back and deciding what I should do. What if I stopped thinking that that was so important? What if I started to realize that who I am is more important than what I do?
Elijah, Paul, Moses, even Jesus—in facing those 40 days in the wilderness, the silence in the garden, the thorn in the flesh—like Mother Teresa, they remained faithful in spite of the dryness of spirit. This is how my story ended that night:
That night, on the dusty floor of our house in Loupwala, Kenya, I fell at Jesus’ feet. I sobbed in dark silence. I confessed that, as much as I try to convince myself, I was not in control of the chaos around me. I couldn’t prevent dust from coming in the house or the water from drying up. I couldn’t change the weather or my isolation & loneliness. I couldn’t alter our neighbor’s responses to our ministry. There was just a lot I couldn’t change, didn’t have control of. I confessed all that to him, and slowly, the ability to take a deep breath… to have peace… filled me. Somehow, I slept that night, and was able to keep going. To serve tea to my neighbors, to listen to their concerns, to take care of my children. To attend to the task at hand.
 Katy Lines, sermon, Englewood Christian Church, Indianapolis, IN, November 5, 2017.
 For those interested in a more robust expression of the theme of this book, I’d highly recommend A.J. Swoboda, The Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016).
 Shelley Trebesch, Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of A Leader (Altadena, CA: Barnabas Publishers, 1997), 49.
 http://blog.franciscanmedia.org/mother-teresa-a-saint-who-conquered-darkness; an except from the book St. Teresa of Calcutta: Missionary, Mother, Mystic, published by Franciscan Media.
 Trebesch, 36-37.