Saturday, August 11, 2012

Bread and Tears

Scripture reference 1 Kings 19:1-15
Clearly, when we hear this story from 1 Kings, we recognize our need for, “the previous episode.”  Just like most weekly TV shows we begin with, "Previously, on Elijah’s journey..." we need to be filled in and reminded where we are in Israel’s story.

    The title of the book tells us we are in the time when Israel was ruled by Kings. The current king is not a ‘good guy’. King Ahab  is known as the king who "Did evil in the sight of the Lord” He married a foreign princess and encouraged the worship of foreign idols." (oldtestamentlectionary.unitingchurch.org/2010/June/Pent41Kgs19_10.htm)
    In a previous ‘episode’, Elijah and the priests of these foreign gods had a “prophet-contest”. You may remember the story.
    Elijah vs. the Prophets of Baal 450 and Asherah 400
Each side builds an altar, and lays out a bull to sacrifice. They each set up wood for a fire under the altar but don’t start the fires.
    Elijah says each group will pray to their god(s), and the God who answers with fire, wins and is declared the REAL God. 
Nothing happens after vigorous petitioning by Baal’s prophets. They even danced around the altar. After hours of this, Elijah starts mocking them and they cry out more vigorously to their gods, but there was still no answer.
    When its Elijah’s turn he completes the preparations, THEN has jar after jar of water poured on the altar until the wood is so soaked that there’s a trench full of standing water around the altar.
    Elijah prays to the Almighty ‘Elohim’ and (18:38) “The LORD’s fire falls; it consumes the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licks up the water in the trench!”

Elijah is the winner and the winner gets life, the losers get death. All 750 prophets are killed. (That’s the way winners and losers acted back then...not sure it is that different now.)
Shortly afterward, Elijah prays for rain to end a drought and it rains like crazy.

All these successes means Life is good for Elijah the prophet,... At least until King Ahab’s wife hears what happened to ‘her’ beloved prophets. She, Jezebel, sends a message to Elijah saying, “May God strike ME dead if I haven’t made you as dead as the prophets you killed by this time tomorrow.” (19:2)



What does the great successful prophet do? He runs for his life.
Elijah flees to the wilderness, leaving his assistant behind so he would be completely alone. He literally goes from the mountain top to the deepest, loneliest valley.
    His fall into depression is complete. His prayer now is, “Lord, Take my life!”
It is a quick transition if you read straight thru, but often depression strikes abruptly.

Contemporary songs and stories give depression many names;
a bitter pill, or the great darkness. Even well-known mystics like John of the Cross, fell into what he called, “The dark night of the soul”. We might even call it the Food of the Devil because some have described depression as if another person inhabits your very being.
    It may seem strange that Elijah slips so quickly from such a victorious place of triumph to the depth of seeking his own death. Historic experience tells us that a great Low often follows a glorious high.1     Dr. Bill Long says, "Sometimes the seeds of our depression and loss and confusion are sown in tremendous victory." (www.drbilllong.com/lectionaryII/1Ki19.html)
    "Invulnerability on one day has given way to the greatest sense of vulnerability in the next.,” he says. "In a situation like this, Elijah (& those suffering extreme mental distress) need the voice of another person.
    By hearing only your own voice, your mind swirls endlessly and unhelpfully around certain predictable and unhelpful thoughts. You need some help from outside, some words of instruction or comfort or challenge."
But Elijah is alone and he seeks only the solace of sleep. Whether the angel comes in his dream or in reality, an angel comes and touches him, provides him with physical nourishment and companionship and the encouragement he needs. IT takes at least 2 tries before he is strong enough to go on but eventually he does.


 Following this event, Elijah (v. 11) who is still struggling mentally, even after his body has been nourished, shares his complaints with God. Then he listens to God’s direction, continues his journey and experiences the wonder of the Almighty One in stillness. Great stillness that followed violent wind, earthquake, & fire. (another one of the famous Elijah stories) Today’s story of depression under the broom tree is less known.
Ultimately, even after this episode of misery, God sends Elijah back to work.

Dr. Long reminds us that “what Elijah didn’t realize is that his journey was not simply away from his trouble, but his entire journey was a movement toward God...what was happening to him (and can to us) is that we are slowly, drawn by the gracious arms of God into closer communion with the Divine."2

Like many who seek and pursue God have discovered, "We find God not only on the mountaintop of our victories but in the troughs of our despondency."'
. . .
“I alone am left., says Elijah to God, and that sums up how any of us can feel.


Yet God Provides.
 In the midst of his depression, God provided
    An angel
    Bread, water,...Physical nourishment was enough to get Elijah to continue his journey...and his journey took him even closer to God.

Such Divine provision can be hard to accept. Even Elijah had trouble trusting in God’s providence. Even Elijah, ‘the Great’ who had won such a victory, who had seen God send fire, who had seen God send rain, even Elijah  - . . got depressed....
   
    This week, I wondered How each of us hear this story?
I wondered, if this story is true...not only for Elijah but for us...
If God’s promise is to provide us bread..
    If God provides the nourishment WE need for the journey of life,
...then what does it mean for us when we feel like Elijah?

    Do we look at biblical stories as the history of our OWN faith journey? They are stories when God provided for someone, sometimes a whole nation of wandering people. Certainly these ARE the stories we can lean on. .
    Or does depression leave us feeling, WE are all alone, “the only one,” so much so that we forget the great stories of God’s faithfulness and assume this is only a story about some old prophet.

There must be a way for us to hold these stories close enough [X] to be our own family history so that even ancient Elijah encourages us and gives us strength when we need it.

Many years ago, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale wrote “The Power of Positive Thinking”. The book changed many lives and sparked Dr. Peale’s rise to fame, until his own religious bias and bigotry got him into trouble.

    Still the world was impacted by his work. You may remember best that he and his wife created “Guideposts” magazine.
    While his work has been criticized it also sparked research into the ways the human mind effects bodily recovery.
    Some call it, “dispositional optimism, defined as the general expectation that good, versus bad, things will happen across important life domains.”3 These scientists have gone on to explore how optimists cope with life’s struggles vs. The ways pessimists deal with tragedy. Is life a matter of attitude, controlled by the way we think and problem solve? or is there something more here?
When we are in the depths (depression or pain) do we need prayer, positive thinking, brain-power?

Dr. Peale combined jungian psychological practice with his strong faith in the God who provides.
    I remember when his words were just what I needed to hear.
But many have criticized what they saw as unfounded optimism. Some say, and rightly so, that merely ‘thinking’ positively denies the reality of pain that needs to be felt. Stages of grief and loss are real experiences, not to be denied. . .
    There are many layers to what we call depression. It can be an appropriate response to circumstance, or it can come out of the ‘blue’. It effects almost everyone at some time in life and for some it IS their life.

I think Elijah’s story speaks to us from centuries past. His story, like Moses’ and many other men and women of the Bible record, are are stories of real lives - yes, often with embellishments, certainly with note-worthy experiences, but none of them were excepted from the tragic experiences of real life.
    We need them in OUR family album. We need their stories to strengthen us for OUR journeys.

There are some encouraging steps in Elijah’s journey to give us direction today. These are not substitutes for professional help. They do assist us with integrating our faith journey with the struggles of everyday life.

*** 1st. We might see from Elijah what NOT to do.
When our desire is to run, to hide and be totally alone, we may need to seek healing. Elijah didn’t do this, but when he was sent an angel, he did respond by eating. It appears he went straight back to bed. (no an uncommon action) His renewal didn’t happen all at once, but he did try again.
Often it takes, trying again and again. Even thinking positively doesn’t happen all at once. :-)  Elijah accepted help.

***    So perhaps our next encouragement is to recognize angels when they come.

    Angels don’t always float down on white wings. I’ve experienced them in many other forms, haven’t you?
    (Once as a girl from NJ, fluent in Italian, who happened to be at the Florence Train station very late one night when 5 clergy-women got stranded by a bus that never arrived.) It was easy to recognize “Gabriella” (seriously that was her name!) as an angel.

But sometimes an angel comes simply as someone holding out a bit of bread to eat or water to drink.
Yes, that person who persistently called you when you felt so very low and thought you’d rather stay in the solitary depths of your depression, perhaps THEY were your angel, provided by God and offering you the nourishment you needed for the journey ahead.

*** Most of all, we can learn from Elijah to live in trust. I don’t think we can remind each other of that enough, because we are ever-forgetful.
    We need to hear this even when we have fallen to the depths, God is still there.
    When the ‘dark night of the soul’ comes, and all we feel is the absence of God, we must trust that our story fits right into the family of God. We learn this from the Bible characters we’ve studied. We learn that God will provide even when the provisions are not the flavor we asked for, it will be what we need.

    This was Jesus’ message when all he could talk about was bread.

    “Jesus offers bread that does not feed for a day or even a season but satisfies unto eternal life. More than that, Jesus doesn't just give heavenly bread; he IS the heavenly bread -- that is, his very flesh and blood mediates the living presence of God.”4

Like Elijah we -     Keep On Keeping On.
* It’s how we live in Trust.*
Sometimes it sounds like naive positive thinking. 
Sometimes we’ll be called a ‘Pollyanna”
Sometimes it will take years and many loaves of bread before we are nourished enough for the journey
And sometimes it will take an angel’s visit to turn things around

Living in trust IS the life’s work of Christians.
    If even the great prophet Elijah experienced depression on his journey to closeness with God, than perhaps we should be honored to be part of his family.
 
So keep coming to church, even when you don’t feel like it or don’t FEEL anything.
Keep praying even when you are not sure it works or what you are praying for.
Keep reading the stories about the saints of the Bible, our faith family, even when you don’t understand or think they can’t possibly be related to your life.

You WILL find God’s promises revealed in the practices that nourish us for the journey.

It’s not just MY promise to you, it’s God’s.

1 comment:

Purple said...

The invitation to weave personal stories with biblical stories is wonderful.

So many parishioners "don't come" to church when life is all-out-of-kilter...this sermon speaks tells us otherwise. thanks.