Recently I hosted a family gathering of twelve people to send my son off to a new life in LA with love. Foolishly I had decided on fresh green beans for the meal so I dumped the enormous bag of beans onto the island to prepare them for the meal. Knowing I would be stuck there for a good long while, I turned on our kitchen TV to see what might entertain me while I snipped off thousands of stems. I noticed a show on wildlife in the Serengetti, a place where I had taken a safari decades earlier. I decided to “revisit” this remarkable place while occupied in the kitchen.
With the opening scene, I questioned my choice. The documentary opened with a pride of lions stalking an isolated buffalo. Ganging up on the poor creature, they sank their teeth and claws into his back end while the outnumbered animal tried to escape. So much for light-hearted entertainment. The whole show emphasized the reality of jungle life where trying not to become an aggressor’s meal is the necessary preoccupation. I found that I consistently favored the weaker of any two enemies. But that got complicated because sometimes the tide turned and the hunter became the hunted. In the opening chase, the most determined lion who worked hardest for the buffalo supper found herself without her feline companions and the buffalo rallied against her. I have to confess that I took satisfaction seeing her cowering in a tree while the buffalo threw his impressive weight around, searching for her.
Re-runs of Jeopardy will be my future choice.
In a brief passage from 1 Kings, the beloved prophet Elijah is on the run and ends up trembling in a cave. This is strange when you look at the competition he just crushed. On Mount Carmel the man of God invites the prophets of a foreign god, Baal, to prove the strength of their god. He stands on the sidelines of the event, inviting them to go to whatever lengths are needed to catch Baal’s attention. The expectation is that a powerful deity can project fire from heaven to consume their offering. In spite of incantations, self-flagellation and other antics, Baal misses the party. Elijah then orders that gallons of water be poured on his altar. With confidence, he cries out to Yahweh, his people’s God, and shields his face as fire descends from heaven. His teepee of drenched logs instantly becomes a bonfire. 400 prophets of the false god, Baal, are subsequently hunted down and killed that day. The word heard around that impressive campfire is, “The Lord is God. The Lord is God!” Three cheers for Elijah’s successful evangelism!
The murder of her prophets does not go over well for Queen Jezebel. She is so wicked that her name has become a contemporary noun, meaning a shameless or immoral woman. In her fury, she proclaims that she intends to finish off Elijah just as he had ordered the death of the false prophets. The victorious prophet who so confidently called upon his God experiences a reversal of courage and flees for his life. The excitement of the previous scene gives way to an isolated desert where Elijah sits alone with suicidal thoughts. Believing that he is the only person left to defend Yahweh, he seeks shade from a lonesome broom tree while contemplating his fate. Having seen God throw down flames to consume an animal sacrifice, he calls out for God to fry him as well. He is depressed. He is deflated. As he loses all hope, he loses his sense of purpose. In the eerie quiet of the desert, under a solitary tree on a wide-open horizon, God hears the cry of his anointed one: “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
Are you surprised to learn that you’re not the only person of faith who’s cried out to God, “I have had enough!”
In Elizabeth Gilbert’s popular memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, the opening scene depicts her in a heap on the floor. She is newly divorced. A rebound relationship has gone sour. She is devastated and alone. She cries out to a God she’s not sure she believes is real. This is the beginning of her healing. Can you think of a time when you, like Elijah, retreated into the wilderness of self-doubt? Have you lived through a period when life lost all color and sleep seemed the only option? What we find surprising in this scene from Elijah’s life is that he had just presided over one of the greatest moments in his career! He makes the prophets of Baal look foolish thereby exalting Yahweh. He calls down fire from heaven and it shows up in force! But, when confronted with the hatred of an evil woman, he fears for his life and runs for cover. The roar of the crowd is silenced and Elijah is left alone and depressed. What good is he to his God now?
Elijah assumes that his life’s work is finished. Remember Job’s friends who suggested that he wouldn’t suffer from his depression if he just had enough faith? Do you recall that they suggested that he must have done something wrong to deserve the death of all his children. “Confess and then everything will be fine,” they advise. They did their best work when they kept silent company with him. This quiet chapter of Elijah’s life reminds us that God redeems the life of those who find themselves in the pit of despair. Whatever circumstances took them down into that dark space, God offers a glimmer of light to begin the journey back to the surface. God shows compassion by sending a meal that gives the deflated prophet enough strength to travel away from the wilderness, out of his depression, and into a life of renewed purpose. He learns an important lesson of the faith: our worth is not defined by courageous acts of obedience or assaults against evil. God is not lounging, waiting to see what we will do in our own strength. It is God’s unconditional love that hydrates Elijah’s parched soul. God’s reassuring presence enables him to hear, once again, the sacred call upon his life.
In a Nazi death camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer discovered that the essence of his worth came from God’s presence in that horrific place. God sustained him such that his writings from that last chapter of his life still inspire faith in us today. When we get to the end of our own skill set, God shows up in power. Taking her life in her own hands, Corrie TenBoom felt led to smuggle a Bible into a Nazi internment camp. She knew that each prisoner was routinely searched. An act of defiance like that could bring immediate execution. God showed up in force when the guards didn’t detect the Bible and she was able to use it as a source of inspiration for the women crammed into her squalid living quarters. We may cry out, “I’ve had enough!” God hears that as an invitation to conversation. Just as we witnessed in the story of manna and quail last week, we observe that God provides just enough for the next leg of our journey. When we feel most alone, we discover that God’s companionship is enough.
The wilderness is known as a stark setting in which we are most apt to meet God. Monasteries are often established in lonesome places. I spent three days alone on the Isle of Iona at the end of a fabulous European trip. I wanted that breathing room so that I could prayerfully reflect on all that I had experienced. That time remains precious to me. I relished the quiet of my simple cell surrounded by the beauty of Scotland. Eating meals and taking walks alone, I was reminded that my chief companion at any given time is Jesus. Alice Walker writes that “wisdom requests a pause.” When we clear our schedules and shift our gaze heavenward, we meet God. I greet my transition into chaplaincy in the setting of a mental health hospital with some apprehension . But it has become clear to me that this is what God wants for me and from me. So I move forward in faith. I have counseled many of you who have made difficult decisions because you knew that you were doing what God was asking of you. Wisdom requests a pause and, when granted, we discover that we are never alone! God moves us forward.
Jesus provided bread for the multitude who flocked to hear His teaching. They didn’t have to pass a Bible literacy test in order to receive their meal. God’s love generously provides for our every need. It allows us to view our lives in a new light. Even a brush with death can lead to more meaningful living. God uses us to bring hope to others who have lost their way then brings the right people into our lives when we need help. Enough nourishment is given for us to continue the journey.
King Ahab and Queen Jezebel aren’t mentioned in this passage but their threat looms over Elijah. I wonder what threats form a backdrop to your day? Is it financial concern, job security, or marital stress? Is it a feeling of inadequacy you’ve carried with you since childhood? Do you beat yourself up for a past decision? Do you feel socially rejected like Elijah, alone even in a crowd? Has depression eclipsed your vision of the joy God intends for you?
The Bible stories we most often remember have grand acts of God defeating enemies and exalting the faithful: waters parting, slingshot slaying a giant, city walls a-tumbling down. But we learn from this low point in the great prophet’s life that God’s greatest desire is to be in relationship with us. In this depressive, suicidal episode that follows great triumph, Elijah discovers he must trust God. When we find ourselves in the wilderness, doubting ourselves and mistrusting our world, we meet a God who wants us to know that we are loved. Thomas Steagald writes, “God is contending for the hearts of the faithful. These battles are not won by plagues or dramatic demonstrations of power—nor as it turns out, by fire, wind, or earthquake—but rather by the ministry of angels, the gift of food, and the still, small voice.”
When you find yourself in the wilderness, listen for the still, small voice. You are not alone. You are loved. There is a better day.