Elijah was a prophet of God…and a thorn in the flesh of the King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. The conflict culminated in a contest between Elijah and Ahab and Jezebel’s prophets of Baal to see whose God was the true God. Elijah won…which enraged the king and queen. They were so enraged, in fact, they put a hit on Elijah.
The besieged prophet ran and ran and ran into the wilderness. Finally, he collapsed under a broom tree and asked to die. “It is enough; now, O God. Take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” As soon as he spoke the words, Elijah promptly fell asleep.
Hopelessness is exhausting, isn’t it? When you try to live a good life, when you try to do right by your parents, children, partners and friends, when you do everything right and the world still falls apart, hopelessness is tempting. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to pull the covers over your head, go to sleep, and forget it all.
That’s what Elijah does. He goes to sleep. When he wakens, an angel is there with food and water. “Get up and eat,” the angel says. Elijah does, then… immediately falls back asleep. When he wakes up the second time, the angel is there again with food and water. “Get up and eat,” the angel says again, “otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
It’s easy when our world falls apart to neglect the things that nourish us. We forget to eat. We stop praying. We avoid the faith community that nurtures us.
The angel reminds Elijah that even when life goes off the rails, it is vital that we continue doing the things that feed us—physically and spiritually. If we don’t…if we don’t get the rest we need, if we don’t eat good food at regular intervals, if we neglect nurturing our spiritual selves, then the journey to a better, more hopeful place will be too much for us.
After a couple of good long naps and some nourishing food and drink, Elijah sets out. “He goes in the strength of that food for 40 days and 40 nights to the mount of God.” Then what does he do? He finds a cave…and falls asleep again.
When he wakes up, God asks Elijah: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah responds: “I have been very zealous for God; the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets. I alone am left and they want to kill me, too.” Even after fleeing from those who wanted to kill him, getting some rest and nourishment, and journeying to the mount of God, Elijah still feels hopeless. At least now he wants to live; that’s progress, I guess. But he’s still in pity party mode.
What are you doing here today? Are you here because this is just what you do on Sunday mornings? Are you here because somebody made you come? Are you here because you truly want more ideas about how to act the world into wellbeing, because goodness knows that’s what the world needs? Are you here because, like Elijah, you’re just hanging on by a thread and desperately NEED to experience some glimmer of hope?
So, Elijah is asked what he’s doing at the mount of God, he does his whiny, hopeless thing, then Spirit tells him to wait for God, who’s about to pass by.
“There was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.”
Then–you’re going to love this part–God’s Spirit asks again, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ You’d think after experiencing the wind, earthquake, fire, and sheer silence, Elijah would have been moved to respond differently. He isn’t. his response is exactly the same: “I alone am left of the Prophets of God…and they’re trying to kill me.”
So…a terrified Elijah runs from Ahab and Jezebel, collapses under a broom tree, sleeps, is tended to by messengers of God, who make sure he gets food and water and more sleep. Then he journeys 40 more days, sleeps some more…and THEN has this revelation of God in a moment of sheer silence. All that happens, and Elijah’s mood hasn’t changed one iota. His pity party is still going strong.
After all this work with Elijah–which seems to have accomplished nothing–what does God’s Spirit do? The last verse of the story. “Then God said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.”
Despite his whininess, despite his loneliness, despite his despondence….despite everything that had happened, God uses Elijah anyway. Elijah responds the same way at the end of the story as he does at the beginning of the story….and God uses him anyway.
This summer, we’re exploring the resources we have to act the world into wellbeing. By acting the world into wellbeing, I mean, actively sharing God’s love in the world. Kind of like Martin Luther King said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” That’s our calling as followers of Jesus–to share God’s love in public, to act the world into wellbeing.
So, this summer, we’re reflecting on the resources we have here at First Congregational actively to share God’s love in the world. Our friend Elijah reminds us of a key resource each and every one of us has–our humanity…not our humanity as we want it to be, but our humanity as it is. Whether we’re fearful or exhausted or despondent–we still have something to contribute to the work of acting the world into wellbeing.
Here’s a thought. I wonder if God didn’t use Elijah despite his human flaws, but in light of them? Maybe Elijah’s fearfulness, loneliness, and despondence actually helped him do the work to which God was calling him.
In a book titled Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, author Joshua Wolf Shenk reflects on Abraham Lincoln’s struggle with depression, then suggests that it was Lincoln’s depression that gave him the insight he needed to lead a country at war with itself.
Lincoln seems to have struggled with depression most of his life, from major depressive episodes in his 20s and 30s, including two breakdowns, to chronic depression later in life. Shenk’s thesis is that from his depression, Lincoln learned that true happiness always would elude him. Not waiting for an elusive happier day to come freed Lincoln up to see reality as it was…which is exactly what a country in the midst of a civil war needed. War is no time for rose-colored glasses.
Shenk also suggests that Lincoln’s personal acquaintance with deep suffering gave him insight as he guided a country also plunged into deep suffering.
Often, when we name resources–including our personal resources–for acting the world into wellbeing, we focus on our strengths, the material resources we have, the knowledge and skills and personal attributes we have. All the things we might put on a resume.
The stories of Abraham Lincoln and the prophet Elijah remind us that our strengths aren’t the only resources we have to act the world into wellbeing. The parts of us that feel less strong also can be tremendous resources as we seek to follow Jesus in acting the world into wellbeing.
When the Voices of Hope choir from the Swannanoa prison choir came to sing for us a couple of months ago, a woman named Taylor told us her story. Taylor’s undiagnosed mental health challenges shaped and guided her life…and caused great suffering for Taylor and for many others. They’re also what led to her incarceration. Now that she has received the medication and other help she’s needed, she’s able to share her story with others.
As a pastor, hearing Taylor’s story was a wake-up call to me to be as vigilant as I can be to guide people who are struggling with mental health challenges to the resources they need. I’ve been committed to talking about mental health challenges in church for a long time. But Taylor’s story showed me just how much suffering can come from people not getting the resources they need to deal with mental illness. By telling a very painful part of her story, Taylor is acting the world into wellbeing.
What are the painful parts of your story? A struggle with depression? A chronic illness that saps your energy? A phobia that keeps you isolated from others? Deep wounds from physical, emotional, or religious abuse? Addiction? Age? Rage? Grief? What are the painful parts of your story? What things don’t feel strengths for you? What things prevent you from doing more to act the world into wellbeing?
What if those things that don’t feel strong might be the very resources that will help you act the world into wellbeing? What if the parts of yourself you hide from others—perhaps, especially at church—are the very things God wants to use in sharing God’s love in the world? What if God wants to use ALL of who you are, like, ALL of who you are to act others into wellbeing?
And what if you did? What if you did use all of who you are to act the world into wellbeing? What might happen? What might happen to you? What might happen to this church? What might happen in the world?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2019