1 Kings 19:4-8
John 6:35, 41-51
Poor Elijah is surely in a bad place today.
We know this to be so because he says so. We also know this is so because of things he has done just prior to our encounter with him at this point in the narrative.
Just before this, he has received the message that Jezebel, his adversary, is seeking his life. And he responds in a way that seems downright surprising to anyone who has followed his ministry just prior to this news which terrified him. I mean, in the stories just told he has only known success. But now?
He is heard to have dismissed his servant — a sure sign that he is done with the ministry to which he had been called.
He is also said to have traveled a day’s journey into the wilderness — again, indicating that he is abandoning Yahweh’s People.
When we meet up with him, Elijah has settled under a solitary broom tree and has announced he is done. Done with all of it. Done not only with his ministry but also done with his life.
It’s hard to figure, yes, and at least to our way of thinking, the story doesn’t give us nearly enough to go on. Indeed, for all of our guesses as to Elijah’s psychological state, we really aren’t told. And yet, it is a fair guess to say that exhaustion and now sheer terror have just caught up with him. And Elijah is just done.
Only God is not done with Elijah. And he lets Elijah know this by sending him a meal. Because without the strength that comes with eating, Elijah surely is done. And without the strength that comes with eating this particular meal from God’s own hand? Elijah surely could not have done what needed to be done next. Or at least that’s what the angel says. Without eating, this particular journey would simply be too much.
Perhaps at one time or another you have found yourself exactly where Elijah found himself. Oh, I would venture to say that our ministerial ‘successes’ pale in comparison to his and most of us have not lived under the death threats of our adversaries. Even so. I have certainly heard plenty of pastors wondering what else they could do with this particular degree. No doubt this is true for all of us, regardless of what work calls us.
Oh yes, it is so that more than once, I’ve found myself skimming the ‘want ads’ — or today’s equivalent — and wondering what life would look like if I weren’t doing this. And yes, it is so that in a very real way some time ago I wandered “a day’s journey into the wilderness”… not giving up on life, no, but trying to distance myself from the beating down exhaustion of pastoral ministry.
It did not present as ‘wandering,’ of course. In fact, I certainly did not consciously think of it in that way at the time. Rather, to my way of thinking, it made perfect sense when I first ventured out ‘into the wilderness.’ It promised to be a good use of my gifts. Only, it turns out, not a good enough use of all that I been blessed with for living in this world where I have been placed. For once the first blush of ‘freedom’ passed, I found myself in a place which was not life-giving. And I was amazed at how quickly I found myself cut off from community I had counted on. More than that, I was amazed at how quickly depression set in. For I had given up a lot — a call to a wonderful congregation and, at least temporarily, my “roster status in my denomination” — to take this “walk into the wilderness.” And I found myself experiencing a profound sense of shame that this was not turning out as I had hoped. And at first I truly did not know how to find my way back.
Not unlike Elijah, I felt as though I was ‘done.’ But it turns out God was not done with me yet.
It came to me in this way. A friend of a friend had asked how I was. She was told that this new work was not all I expected it to be. And she said, ‘You tell Janet she needs to start writing again.’
I wept when this message was relayed to me, truly I did. For I did not believe I had anything left to say.
In that wilderness of my own choosing, I had not had enough to ‘eat’ for a very long time. Not enough in terms of community. Not enough in terms of opportunity to exercise my best gifts. As a result, not enough ‘pressing reason’ to dig deep into and ‘feast on’ the best God yearned to give me. Yes, some of this was the result of my own foolish choices. Either way, I had not had enough.
Now, no, my story was not exactly like Elijah’s encounter with the angel. Elijah was told to get up and eat actual food. And yet, for people of faith — at least this is how it has been for me — the ability and freedom to engage with the Bread of Life, to take it into myself, and to somehow share it with others — well, this is life. It is what makes this journey possible. More than that, I have found it is what makes this journey worth traveling at all. Perhaps I should have been able to find a way to do this in the place where I was — even as perhaps Elijah ‘should’ have been able to figure this out on his own. But we don’t always. Sometimes we have to have someone hand us the food. Sometimes, as was the case with me, someone has to issue a challenge to point us in the right direction.
Indeed, after a few days of despair. After some hours of believing I was ‘done’ with nothing left to say or to share, that is when I started writing in this way: for and with and alongside all of you who read and respond to ‘Dancing with the Word.’ And as I wrote. As I feasted again on the Bread of Life, I was led out of the wilderness again.
I was done. I truly was. But just was so with Elijah, God was not done. And that has been everything. Indeed, that is everything.
- Have you ever found yourself where Elijah found himself? What is your story? Why were you ‘done?’
- Has someone ever literally handed you ‘bread to eat’ so that you might keep moving in the direction to which you were called? Who was that for you? How did you learn God was not yet ‘done’ with you?
- This part of Elijah’s story speaks of actual bread. The Gospel speaks of the Bread of Life which is Jesus. How is it that we feast on this Bread of Life? Is the Bread of Life actual bread? Is this Bread also something more? What do you think?
- My story is that of an individual realizing “God is not done.” How have you seen this to be so for congregations or communities? Again, what is your story?