Tag Archives: Elijah

It Isn’t Working

What do you do when it just isn’t working? In the life of a teacher, this question is certain to arise far more often than one might hope. Every August and January, teachers across the country are putting the final touches on lesson plans and syllabi, getting ready for the onslaught of the next round of students in just a few weeks. My two colleagues and I finished the spring semester syllabus for our section of freshman Development of Western Civilization a couple of weeks ago, teacher[1]after which I emailed the syllabus and a couple of paragraphs of greeting to the 106 freshmen who gathered with us two days ago, the first day of classes. In my wildest dreams I hope that the students will greet the syllabus with an expectant excitement that matches the enthusiasm with which their faculty constructed it. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of teaching is the planning, because at that stage things are still pregnant with great possibilities. Every fall and spring teachers are convinced that this semester the seats in their classes will be filled with the most motivated and brilliant students ever and this semester each class will be a serious contender for the gold medal in pedagogical fabulousness.

p_86809577_1[1]But then, of course, the students show up and reality happens. Some days are truly exhilarating and the medal possibilities are still in play. Some days are a study in mediocrity. Some days feel like slogging through quicksand. And some days, no more than five minutes into a 50 or 75 minute class, a little voice in your head says “IT ISN’T WORKING.” Its_not_working_anymore[1]You try to ignore it, pretend you didn’t hear it, but there it is again–“IT ISN’T WORKING.” The students know it; you know it—now what?

Of course, this situation is not unique to teachers. Every one of us has “It isn’t working” moments far more frequently than we would wish. A classic case is provided by Elijah, one of my favorite Old Testament characters. In one great story, Elijah is fresh off one of the greatest and most spectacular successes any prophet of God has ever experienced or ever will experience.06-elijah-and-the-prophets-of-baal[1] In a high stakes contest with the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel, God has shown up in impressive fashion, as Elijah calls down fire that consumes the sacrifice, the wood on the altar, the stones that the altar is made out of, and the water surrounding it. All this after five hundred prophets of Baal failed to arouse even a spark or a whiff of smoke out of their God after hours of praying, chanting, dancing, and self-mutilation. The people fall on their faces and cry “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!” In the exhilarating glow of spectacular success, elijah-kills-prophets-of-baal[1]Elijah has the five hundred prophets of Baal taken down the mountain to a brook and executed. I’m sure that Elijah was thinking, “I’m the man! I’m really good at this! This propheting stuff is fun!”

But then. King Ahab reports to his wife, Queen Jezebel—a woman who in terms of evil and just plain nastiness puts Lady Macbeth to shame—what has happened to her prophets and everything changes. imagesCAYBGFA0Jezebel sends a message to Elijah saying “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” Elijah runs for his life into the wilderness. One day into his flight, he gives up. “Yesterday I was on my way to the propheting gold medal,” he complains, “but today it isn’t working.” He collapses into a fetal position under a broom tree and goes into a classic drama queen moment: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

We’ve all been there. I’ve had new teachers come to me after a bad class and say, in essence, that “if this is what teaching is really like, I’m going to quit.” Fill in the blanks from your own experience. If I had known that married life was going to be like this, I never would have gotten married. If I had known that children would be such a pain in the ass, imagesCAKN00Z5I would have remained childless. And for me, perhaps the biggest one—if I had known that following Jesus and living the life of faith was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have bothered. Saint Teresa of Avila was having one of those moments when she wrote “Lord, it’s not surprising that you have so few friends when you treat the ones that you have so poorly.” So we all know what we are tempted to say and do—and often do say and do—when it isn’t working. Are there any better strategies?

Several weeks ago I accompanied Jeanne as she sang at church.

We pray for blessings
We pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love is way too much to give us lesser thingsMN0091986[1]

‘Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise

We pray for wisdom
Your voice to hear
We cry in anger when we cannot feel You near
We doubt your goodness, we doubt your love
As if every promise from Your Word is not enough
All the while, You hear each desperate plea
And long that we’d have faith to believe

What if my greatest disappointments
Or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy
What if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are your mercies in disguise

Wow. There’s an alternative model—maybe reality and the cosmic scheme of things is not perfectly patterned and adjusted to my preferences and what I think I need. Maybe there’s more going on than I think. Maybe, just maybe, I’m not the center of the universe and maybe, just maybe, elijah2[1]God has not fallen off of the divine throne just because things aren’t working out the way I want them to.

An angel visits Elijah, and the angelic response to Elijah’s drama queen moment is very instructive. Elijah says “now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” and the angel says “Get up and eat.” Elijah wants to die and the angel makes him lunch. Sometimes it’s as simple as that—eat properly, rest, get some exercise, take your medication, and get over yourself. And it works—the meal energizes Elijah for forty days and forty nights, until the next crisis. I may not be any better than my ancestors, but I am still loved by God. And that’s sufficient—even on those days when it isn’t working.

The Fertility of Silence

This may sound odd coming from a person who started this blog a few weeks ago, but over the years I’ve not been a fan of social media, electronic readers, and the like. A year and a half ago, a couple of good friends and I were conversing about a topic that had been on everyone’s minds for a few weeks—the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. In short order, however, the conversation turned into a rant (from me) about the generally self-absorbed quality of online communication. The earthquake/tsunami topic arose because one of my friends said “I have something I want to read to you,” then proceeded to start reading from the top a multi-entry exchange on an acquaintance’s Facebook page about the disaster and subsequent tragedies in Japan.

Is anyone else struggling with how to feel about all the suffering in Japan? None of the usual feelings—anger, sadness, empathy—seem right. So I just feel numb. Am I the only one? Can any-one help me out? 

I know what you mean. I’m usually a very sensitive, caring person, but I’m numb too. How am I supposed to feel? 

I haven’t been able to sleep because I’m so upset.

We’re watching one of the most culturally developed countries in the world disintegrate in front of us. I turn the TV off but I can’t stop thinking about it. 

I know—I’m at a loss.

And so on. My blood pressure started to rise. My friend never got to his own contributions twenty or so more slots down the line, because I interrupted him with more force and annoyance than was probably warranted.

This is why I hate Facebook, blogging, chat rooms, and all that e-crap! This whole conversation has turned a great and profound tragedy into yet another obsessive round of “Me Me Me”! How should I feel, tell me I’m okay, do you think I’m right, how fast can I get this to revolve around me? It’s still all about me, isn’t it?”

Well!, my friend replied, I didn’t read it that way at all! These are good people—What do you want them to say? 

“NOTHING!! Let me read you something from a book I finished today. Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows: “There are times when any word is the wrong word; when only silence can prevail.” This is one of those times! If I posted on that Facebook thread I’d say, in my son’s words, “Let me serve you a large helping of shut the hell up!”

Oh my. I’m glad my friends love me, because that was not only rude, it was definitely a conversation stopper. Where did that come from?

Actually, I know exactly where that came from. This conversation took place while I was back in Minnesota during Spring break, getting my every-six-month Collegeville fix. I was staying with these friends in their apartment at the Ecumenical Institute where all of us had been resident scholars during the spring of 2009. At morning prayer on this particular day, the closing prayer had included the petition that God would assist us during the Lenten season in being responsive to “the fertility of silence.” An evocative phrase, “the fertility of silence,” especially in a world in which the white noise of television, radio, the internet, and just plain old daily life threatens to make silence into nothing more than a fossilized reminder of something that human beings used to have available. Some claim that “God is in the details”—I’m learning, rather, that God is in the silence. I’m reminded of a couple of lines from a beautiful Advent song I heard a few years ago at an Advent Lessons and Carols service: “As we await you, O God of silence, we embrace your holy night.” In response to our frequent complaints that God never says anything, perhaps we need to embrace the fertility of divine silence.

This should not be surprise to anyone who takes stories in the Bible seriously. Consider Elijah, for instance. In First Kings we find the prophet exhausted, fearful for his life, hiding in a cave from Queen Jezebel. Elijah has just scored a major victory over the forces of idolatry and for Yahweh by destroying the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel. And Jezebel wants him dead.

Exhausted from running, Elijah eventually collapses and wants to die. After an angel makes Elijah breakfast while he sleeps and gets his batteries recharged, Elijah still feels very mistreated and sorry for himself. With what must have struck Elijah as a cosmically stupid question, the Lord quietly asks him “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “WHAT AM I DOING HERE?” Elijah sputters—“I’ve been the only one in the kingdom seeking to do your will, I’ve torn down their altars, I’ve killed the priests of Baal just as you told me to, AND SHE’S TRYING TO KILL ME!” Is that any way to treat your favorite prophet? In response, God says “come over here on top of this hill—I want to show you something.” In succession, Elijah experiences a rock-shattering wind, an earthquake, and a fire—perhaps similar to the fire that brought the victory on Mount Carmel a few days earlier. Elijah probably thought, “There you are! It’s about time! Now drop some of that on Ahab and Jezebel!” But—amazingly—“the Lord was not in the wind,” or the earthquake, or the fire. All of these are followed by “a still small voice,” or as another translation puts it, “sheer silence.” And in the midst of that silence, Elijah knows what he is to do.

Silence is divinely fertile because it shatters our expectation that God is transactional, that if we ask for X properly, we’ll get it. The transactional God is a projection of our human need to find at least a small part of reality that we can control. This is understandable, since the obvious truth that we are small fish in a large ocean of reality is never far below the level of consciousness. A wise person recently wrote that it’s a pretty good sign that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you hate, likes all the same people you like, and holds the same values that you do. There’s a reason why the first commandment is a prohibition against graven images—human beings are incurable idolaters. The ancient Israelites found Baal attractive because they thought they had him figured out. Elijah in the cave was upset because he thought he had God on a leash and found out otherwise. God is not transactional—God is indwelling. God is with me wherever I go, but never in ways reducible to formulas. As Jacob said after encountering the divine in a dream, “surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”

I came out of my sabbatical three years ago with a mantra from Psalm 131: “Truly I have set my soul in silence and in peace; As a weaned child on its mother’s breast, so is my soul.” Silence reminds me, as a first grader told Kathleen Norris once, “to take my soul with me wherever I go.” When I remember that God is in the space of silence and peace within, I realize that the divine’s response to my need is something entirely unexpected but absolutely God-like. In an encounter with divine reality we do not hear a voice but acquire a voice; and the voice we acquire is our own.