“Don’t know where I am or how I got here. Well, the only thing that I know how to find is another vice.” -Miranda Lambert
Then the word of God came to him: “So Elijah, what are you doing here?”
10 “I’ve been working my heart out for the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,” said Elijah. “The people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I’m the only one left, and now they’re trying to kill me.”
11-12 Then he was told, “Go, stand on the mountain at attention before God. God will pass by.”
A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn’t to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper.
13-14 When Elijah heard the quiet voice, he muffled his face with his great cloak, went to the mouth of the cave, and stood there. A quiet voice asked, “So Elijah, now tell me, what are you doing here?” Elijah said it again, “I’ve been working my heart out for God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies, because the people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your places of worship, and murdered your prophets. I’m the only one left, and now they’re trying to kill me.” -1 Kings 19:9-14 (MSG)
What are you doing here? What an absolutely terrifying question to face, especially when delivered by, ya know, God. You can almost hear its condescending perception just by reading it on a page. It’s a question that triggers so many more, ones of purpose and intention–the deepest kind, the darkest kind, and the most important kind. It addresses the things that are too easily hidden on the inside by forcing you to piece together your doubts, questions, confidence, and faith to mold an answer.
This verse has been in my head for days now, and in it, Elijah is addressing this exact question firsthand. His response is powerfully desperate, as more common translations say he is jealous for the Lord, envious of the person he was when he remembered who God was, hungry for direction and peace that can only be found in wandering the caves of his own confusion, struggle, and darkness.
While standing at attention on a mountain, Elijah observes a lot: rock-crushing winds, earthquakes, fire. But none of these affect him or cause him to shift his posture. He’s looking–looking for something he’s known before, but has simply lost. Something that has fueled him thus far and something he needs to keep going. The aftermath of commotion that shelters a silence, and it’s from that silence a low whisper emerges… and boom. Elijah heard it. Heard HIM. And he knew exactly what it was, who it was, and what his response should be. He remembered.
Life has a funny way of getting us off course, no matter how pure and noble our intentions. In a twisted way, that’s almost the point of intending anything– that is, to arrive elsewhere, to venture past a plan into a realm you don’t get to control. To get lost. To be lost so that you are forced to go back the way you came, down every doubt, up every insecurity, and through every stain of fear on your faith. We forget in order to remember. And when the old becomes new, we are rejuvenated by something we had throughout the whole process: a deeper sense of self and the presence of something so much bigger than that. We see the light and the shadow.
As a photographer, you see photographs in a different light (literally). I like shadows, because there’s a dramatic nature in them, there’s a highlight of something and hiding of something else. Though I’ve never delved deeper into that preference, I believe it’s because that portrait style is familiar–it’s real. It’s what we’re all made of, bits of light and dark. And like Elijah, I have felt myself wandering through caves of my own to frame my dark parts with light.
“He struggled with himself, too. I saw it — I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.” -Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
No restraint. No faith. No fear.
If you know me at all, it’s no surprise that Miranda Lambert’s new single “Vice,” struck a chord with me. There’s a lot of pain there, a sting in her tone, a self-realization of the scars that have morphed into broken habits that seem to be an inescapable routine. No restraint. No faith. No fear. “Standing at the sink, not looking in the mirror,” because you know you’ll find another vice looking back. Though it sounds so tattered, I think it’s a journey we all have to take at one point or another. We have to look at our vices, at ourselves in the mirror. And it totally sucks. But it’s a brokenness that is necessary for rebuilding. And when you are renovated and repaired, there is inordinate strength. You have gone in your cave to come out again.
I’m sure this is the worst interpretation of Elijah’s story there ever was, but I feel like he’s reminding himself of who God is, who God’s not, and the person he’s called to be in response. Even more amazing is the fact that Elijah’s response before and after this whole experience is verbatim. Though I have no idea of the meaning behind this, I would like to believe there was a difference in his voice when he spoke the second time. Perhaps the first time around, Elijah was saying what he only knew to be true from the past, going through the motions of a truth he had lost touch with. But the second time, perhaps he remembered– remembered the truth not from the past but in the present. It was alive. He had been reintroduced into who God is with a whisper, and I think it’s through that process that He began to enter into his true self again. From there, God sends him back the way he came, but this time, with instruction and direction. We have to get back to the heart of ourselves, in spite of the commotion around/in us. We need a recentering.
So, what are you doing here? It’s amazing how many times I’ve asked myself that question in the past few months. Working through my own shadows has been terrifying, and I’m by no means finished. I feel as if I’ve been spitting out words with nothing behind them for so long now. There’s a lack of passion, a lack of belief even, in the way I answer that question in my everyday. I feel as though I have gone into my cave… and haven’t quite made it out yet. Almost as if I’ve been in there so long, that I’m taking on Miranda’s perspective: “Well, the only thing that I know how to find is another vice.” As if the absence of so many things is all that I see, as opposed to the pockets of newness my head tells me are there, despite what I see. In other words, even though I’ve asked myself that question repeatedly, I’m not sure that I’ve truly answered it.
I feel like I’m a much better liar than people give me credit for, and, more often than not, I’m able to temporarily believe myself in spite of what I know to be true. The truth is, I feel as far off course as I’ve ever been, and I don’t know what I’m doing in any sphere of my life. When I take a look at myself, I feel commotion and restlessness. I have littered my heart with so many lies that I can’t seem to shut out the chatter long enough to hear a gentle whisper from my Maker. Although there are days I would convince myself otherwise, I have certainly forgotten the truths of who God is and how those translate into who He’s called me to be. In some ways, I feel like I’m unconsciously avoiding remembering, because I know the costs associated. The change in direction, the “starting over” feeling that I’ve felt so many times before.
Perhaps my (and everybody’s) journey is much less of a fight then we’d like it to be. As a great friend told me, maybe it’s a “Shhh…Be still and know” experience. Perhaps Elijah’s story shows us that it wasn’t combatting his vices and distractions that helped, but, rather, it was silencing them. The winds, earthquakes and fires inside of him had to be resolved to a stillness– that was the game changer. It was silence that spoke to him, and there’s something powerful there. It’s in that silence God was found, remembered.
Whenever I scan back over some of these words, I feel I’m on the edge of insanity, and if you’re reading this, I’m sure you share the same sentiments. Regardless, here’s what I know. You are not a series of your own vices. You are not the commotion you feel and hear. You are not the lies you sell yourself. And you have the ability to get out of your cave. It takes a brave soul to turn the light on, but the road to remembering starts there. The God I know is in the stillness of our hearts, the places that were carved for his presence only. And as you let yourself re-welcome Him in, I believe you welcome your true self back in as well. We are not defined by our vices, but by who God is and what He does for us. Once we rediscover that, we are able to respond in life-changing ways because we are restored with a passion and life greater than ourselves, despite its whisper-nature. From there, we just have to be brave enough to listen and remember.
So, what are you doing here?
Getting out of the cave,