“Why, God!?”

why god

“Why, God!?” is a refrain expressed by all kinds of people and, most likely, by you at some point in your life.  That’s because we all face suffering, on some level.  The circumstances might vary from person to person, but we all have been touched by this fallen world and experience some sort of brokenness.

Brokenness of either/both body and soul comes in all shapes and sizes.  Yes, it sometimes is the result of our own foolish and/or self-destructive choices.  But sick bodies, broken spirits, and damaged souls are just as likely to occur simply because we live in this world that’s askew from how it should be.  In other words, sometimes we really are victims of disease, accidents, natural disasters, and mysterious evil that we have trouble putting a name to.

In such situations, it’s very normal of the human condition to cry: “Why, God!?”  I like honesty, and this is an honest question.  Personally, I don’t “poo-poo” people who are frank and sincere with God.  Yes, sometimes that question is only rhetorical – not really asking a question but expressing anger.  That’s okay, too, because God is more than big enough to handle a question asked in frustration, even rage.  Even a cursory reading of the book of Psalms reveals David’s emotions of not understanding many of his situations and exactly what he’d like to see happen.  Sometimes he pukes some awfully raw feelings onto God – and those emotionally charged words made their way as being a part of the Bible.

I get it.  Suffering is an unwanted companion, and we’d like to send it packing and have nothing to do with it.  Yet, suffering and the evil it can wreak is not outside the purview of God.  As heinous and as powerful as suffering might manifest itself, it is never beyond God’s capacity to touch it with resurrection power.

The answer to our “why?” question is, frankly, not usually answered – and even if it does get answered, sometimes we don’t like what we hear.  I want to make an observation about the New Testament Gospels and the life of Jesus, and I want you to consider it for a moment.  The observation is this:

Jesus never explained evil and suffering. 

Christ did not send out fliers and emails for a seminar on suffering from a divine perspective to be held at the downtown Jerusalem Hilton.  Instead, Jesus, the supreme Pastor, was present with people in their pain and wondering.  Jesus Christ did not provide cerebral answers to questions; he asked his own questions and filled people with God’s grace, forgiveness, and love.

Jesus encountered people in their concrete real-live struggles and trouble, and, when a group of five-thousand people were hungry, he asked, “Who will feed them?” and when folks were struggling with how to make ends-meet, “Where is your treasure?” and to those with misplaced values, “What does it profit?”  Christ’s questions were designed to shepherd and lead people toward a path of healing, not necessarily a way of being cured.  Jesus Christ’s words and actions were meant to show people that he himself is the path toward peace, healing, and, sometimes, even the perceived need to be healed.

In the encounter with a Samaritan woman, Jesus, the Pastor, comes along and has a lengthy conversation with her that began with talking about getting a drink of water on a hot day and ends with the woman being in touch, maybe for the first time, with her deepest need of being accepted, loved, and satisfied.  Sometimes I chuckle over some scholars and writers pouring over this story in John’s Gospel, trying to find the secret sauce or discernible outline to speaking with people in need of emotional and spiritual healing or enlightenment.  Yet, again, I’ll just make a simple observation about the story:

Jesus put love where love was not.

woman at the well

The woman did not have love from the Jews because she was a “half-breed” Samaritan.  Furthermore, she had a string of loveless marriages and was with a man who apparently was just using her.  Then, Jesus showed up.  He abandoned all contemporary Jewish convention by speaking with a Samaritan woman.  He put his agenda on hold.  He was fully present to her.  He asked questions and took the time to listen.  And then he extended to her the kind of love that she desperately needed. Drinking water from a deep well became a powerful metaphor and picture of cleansing and refreshment to a dry and parched soul that had not known love for a very long time.  Jesus changed her life.  He put love where love was not (John 4:1-42).

So, let’s wheel back around to the question of “why?” and “why” we ask it in the first place.  Typically, we want a fix.  We’re broken, and it’s a big enough mess that the only repair person is God.  God, however, doesn’t feel the same anxiety we do about the dilemma (in fact, he doesn’t have any worry at all).  Instead, God does something we usually don’t expect.  He sends someone to care, and another to help, and yet another to pray, and even more to meet various needs.  Behind the scenes, far from our fear-laden hearts, the Lord of the universe is paying attention to us and orchestrating a massive campaign of love.

In those times when it seems chaos will win the day, and in those seasons when evil appears to have the high ground, please know that there is a God in heaven who sees your life and is personally writing a protest song against the injustice and unfairness of what is happening.  And Christ’s resurrection is at the center of that song.  When it’s sung, it will melt fear, cause demons to flee, and create transformation in ways that you would never have seen coming.  Where we are looking for a supernatural miracle, God is eyeing to bring common ordinary people to your doorstep with a basket full of love.

When Jesus left this earth, here is exactly what he wanted his followers to know going forward:

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).

The ever-present love of Christ shall never leave you, nor forsake you.  You can count on it.  Allow your “why” question to turn into a “who” question.  “Who” will be with me to the end, will pour his love into my heart, and will hold me up when I can’t stand anymore?  Every path leads to one infinite source of living water: Jesus Christ.  It is to him that you and I are to find our peace and our rest.

Psalm 23 – God Is Bigger than Your Darkest Valley

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You, Lord, are my shepherd.
I will never be in need.
     You let me rest in fields
of green grass.
You lead me to streams
of peaceful water,
and you refresh my life.

You are true to your name,
and you lead me
along the right paths.
 I may walk through valleys
as dark as death,
but I won’t be afraid.
You are with me,
and your shepherd’s rod
makes me feel safe.

 You treat me to a feast,
while my enemies watch.
You honor me as your guest,
and you fill my cup
until it overflows.
Your kindness and love
will always be with me
each day of my life,
and I will live forever
in your house, Lord. (Contemporary English Version)

A few days ago, I woke up to a white blanket of snow.  Yes, it is mid-April and I looked out my patio window at 7” of freshly fallen snow.  There is such beauty in the glistening snow with the morning light that it’s hard to lament the intrusion of winter into Spring.

Psalm 23 is a familiar place in Holy Scripture, even for many who are not followers of God.  Far from just a funeral prayer, this psalm contains a singular and timeless message:

No matter what the circumstance, and whatever the need, God is enough – He is bigger than your darkest valley.

That’s what I was reminded of on the snow-covered day.  God is here.  God is with us.  Despite old man winter, God trumps the weather every time.  His infinite beauty has a way of breaking through to the most challenging and desperate of experiences.  We have everything we need with God.  What’s more, I am reminded with the late intrusion into Spring, that fresh green new life will soon sprout from the eventual melting into the soil, even if it looks nothing like it right now.

God provides no matter the need.  God protects no matter the dilemma.  God’s power overshadows the darkest of valleys.  God’s presence is everywhere.  With the God of the Bible we shall never be in want of anything.

Today would be a good day to punctuate your schedule with a prayerful reading of Psalm 23.  As you can well see, it only takes a minute to read, maybe a few to carefully and slowly read.  Use the alarm on your phone, FitBit, computer, or other device for some set times today.  When the alarm goes off, take the few minutes to allow Psalm 23 to decenter your thoughts from worry, anxiety, and the fatigue of the day and center them in the sovereignty and grace of God.  Maybe use a different version of the Bible each time you read.  Here is Psalm 23 again in the New Living Translation:

The Lord is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.

     He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.
 Even when I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
protect and comfort me.
You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.
Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord
forever.

The Desert

 

footprints in the desert 2

Every one of us must take this journey.  No one is exempt.  It is a pilgrimage that takes us into uncharted territory.  Lack of certainty, the unknown, and mystery are the companions along the way of this nomadic travel.  The harrows of this trip might seem to be the outward troubles and circumstances which surround you, but the real test is the journey within – it is the walk across the desert and the aridity that seems to exist in the soul, as if there are no familiar resources to draw from.  There is only one way, and that way appears so fearful that you and I try and avoid it like the plague.  But we cannot.

When times are tough, and when we find ourselves in the midst of circumstances that we didn’t see coming or have no desire to experience become the desert journeys which both demonstrate and define who we are as people.  The rock hard vicissitudes of this fallen world are no respecter of persons.  They come to all, whether rich or poor, black or white, privileged or underprivileged, introverted or extroverted, hard working or the just-getting-by, as well as the young or the aged.  What truly separates one person from another is how they handle the inevitable desert journey with its dryness of soul and seemingly endless barrage of trouble.

You cannot avoid it.  Eventually, someone you love will die – maybe even several of them in a short amount of time.  If not now, there will come a time when your financial budget will no longer budge and you’ll wonder what in the world you are going to do.  Even if you have never known poverty or want, the prospect of what will happen in the future might occur, with its lost investments and/or the slow erosion of economic resources because of circumstances out of you control.  There will come a time when you will be betrayed, become the victim of a verbal hate crime, or lose your reputation.  If relationships are presently serene, there is coming a day when it will not always be this way.  Strained friendships, difficult relations with co-workers, marriage troubles, and family squabbles aren’t just things that happen to other people.

Perhaps at this point you no longer wish to stick with me on this journey of words.  It’s a downer.  Maybe there isn’t enough positive thinking and you’d like to break off this train of trouble.  That is your prerogative.  But it doesn’t negate the fact that there is either right now something going on under your nose that you’re ignoring or in denial about, or a turn in your life that is coming down the pike.  Then what will you do?  Will you have the inner resources to face it?  Is your soul in a state that can sustain a loss, even a minor one, tomorrow?  Are you ready for adversity?

If you have ever felt alone, lost, hopeless, empty, and in the dark, as if you are sinking in quicksand, I want you to know that this is a journey that we all must undergo.  It is tempting, when going through such a time, to look backward and long for the good ol’ days.  But those days are gone.  They aren’t coming back.  What worked for you back there probably won’t work for you now.  So, here is the thought that I’d like you to think:

The desert is the perfect place for transformation; the wilderness journey is the means to a new and better life.

The ancient Israelites were slaves in Egypt, hard pressed and in agony.  Through a series of miraculous events God redeemed them out of that place and sent them on a journey… into the desert.  Yes, that’s right.  It might have seemed to the Israelites that they were jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.  Here they were out in the middle of nowhere without water, food, and basic necessities.  It’s endemic to the human condition to complain and seek to blame someone for your trouble.  Moses took a lot of crap from the people.  Yet, God had his own purposes and plans for the inner redemption of the people as well as outward freedom.

God put his people squarely in a place where they could not go back, couldn’t go around, and most definitely could not stay put where they were.  Nope.  They had to go through the desert.  There was no other way.  Moses made it through those years of living in the desert by reminding the people that there was a future for them, a better future than Egypt or the desert – a hope of the Promised Land.  God also shaped the way they were to think about the past through an annual rehearsal of the deliverance out of bondage, the Passover.  For the daily and ever present activity of desert living, God enabled Moses to delegate the practical situations of being together in a desert situation by gifting others to help and walk with him.  And this was all formed through the covenant experience of Sinai – the giving of the Law, the Promise that God would always have his loving loyalty upon the people.

Going through your own desert journey will require the same resources of Promised Land, Passover, and the Law of Promise.  That is, viewed through the lens of the Christian, God is forming within us a deep spirituality based in the promises of His Word, the sustenance of the Lord’s Table, and the confident expectation of Christ’s return and the hope of His reign to be manifested in everything from small family structures to large corporate systems, and humungous governments.  In short, the kingdom of God is near – if we have the eyes of faith to see and the ears of belief to hear.

It is imperative that you and I connect with Holy Scripture in a healthy and consistent rhythm of hearing God and responding back to him.  It is most necessary that our perspective of both the past (Christ’s cross and resurrection) and the future (Christ’s return and reign) is formed through regular spiritual practices which remind us of what is most important in life, not to mention how these spiritual resources can sustain us through dark times.

To survive the desert, one must walk through it – not around it, not going backward away from it, and not sticking our spiritual heads in the sand.  To make the trip, we must deliberately walk with others who will remind us of healthy ways of seeing ourselves, our past, and our coming future.  Faith, hope, and love are the practical necessities which need to be in our backpacks as we go forward.  They will be our food and our drink.

Travel well, my friend.  May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you as the Spirit hurls you into the desert to experience the love of God in new and profound ways.

Mark 12:18-27 – Go Ahead, Ask Jesus Anything

q & a

Sadducees, who deny that there is a resurrection, came to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a widow but no children, the brother must marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.  Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman; when he died, he left no children.  The second married her and died without leaving any children. The third did the same.  None of the seven left any children. Finally, the woman died.  At the resurrection, when they all rise up, whose wife will she be? All seven were married to her.”

Jesus said to them, “Isn’t this the reason you are wrong, because you don’t know either the scriptures or God’s power?  When people rise from the dead, they won’t marry nor will they be given in marriage. Instead, they will be like God’s angels.  As for the resurrection from the dead, haven’t you read in the scroll from Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God said to Moses, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?  He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living. You are seriously mistaken.”

Okay, let’s just dive right in with the observational lessons:

  • Don’t be a dip-wad and try and trip up Jesus with philosophically ethereal questions
  • If you like being rebuked by Jesus as being ignorant, mistaken, and wrong, just try and be in control of how a conversation with him ought to go
  • Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus are all alive – Sadducees, not so much
  • Jesus will take the time to listen to you close enough to give you feedback – and maybe the kind you weren’t looking for
  • What we get hung up on, Jesus doesn’t – and what Jesus sticks on, we act like Teflon about
  • Do you really want me to keep going….?

To deny resurrection is to deny Jesus.  He died.  He’s now alive.  Hence, there is a resurrection.  More than that, because Christ lives, others live.  This is the Christian’s hope.  I fully understand that plenty of people don’t believe in resurrection.  Fine.  I would simply point such a person no further than their own mind and heart.  “Search your feelings,” as the Jedi would say, “What do they tell you?”  The evidence you need, you already have.

And this was the penultimate lesson of Jesus to the inquisitive Sadducees.  They already had the answer to their question for Jesus.  It was right under their noses the entire time.  They just didn’t see it.

You already have everything you need for life and godliness in this present evil age.  One of the great sages of the last century, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, wisely said:

“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.  Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

Resurrection has always been there because God has always been around – even when we don’t see him, perceive him, or acknowledge him.  It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to procrastinate the inevitable end of life scenario that awaits us all.  Anytime is the right time to do a bit of personal funeral planning.  But if we mire it all with the esoteric hypothetical questions about what would happen in the most far-fetched of scenarios, methinks God is big and smart enough to see through our puny charade.

Better to ponder what is truly within your own soul, and how Jesus might already be present without you even knowing it.  A good place to start in peering within is to give a straightforward honest reading of the New Testament Gospels and discover what resonates deeply with you about the person and work of Jesus.

Feel free to question him about anything you want; just brace yourself for what kind of answer you might receive.

The Power of a Name

jesus and mary magdalene

It is more than ironic that one of the most powerful emotions on the planet is a feeling that is simply overlooked and often not recognized: the sense of being forgotten.  I’m not talking about rejection, but just being looked past by another, neglected, or an afterthought.  The sense that you are on no one’s radar can be more than disappointing – it can be devastating and destructive.  Yet, there is a way in which you and I can push back on this reality for the benefit of others and ourselves.  And on the other side of it, there is immense joy and satisfaction.

Notice that I didn’t mention the feeling of rejection along with the sense of being forgotten.  Rejection is certainly something you don’t like to experience.  It’s not a pleasurable emotion.  But it isn’t the same as being overlooked.  At least with getting a repudiating brush-off you are acknowledged by another.  That is, someone noticed you enough to even give a rebuff your way.  But with being neglected and forgotten, there is nothing.  If you have ever gotten the silent treatment from a parent, a co-worker, or a parishioner, then you likely know that getting any kind of words, even harsh ones, can seem better than being ignored altogether.

Sometimes neglect is a life and death issue.  There was an occasion when Greek-speaking widows in the book of Acts were overlooked.  They were not given their share when the food supplies were handed out each day (Acts 6:1).  When this came to the Apostles attention, it was a serious enough situation to warrant a major overhaul to the ministry system.  Deacons were formed, roles were clarified, and a group of women received much needed food.  In our society today, elder abuse is real.  Sometimes we might forget (again with the irony) that leaving senior citizens alone and ignoring them is also a potent form of abuse.

Then, there is the situation of Mary Magdalene.  She had a “past.”  This Mary was immoral and influenced by the darkness (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2).  She was only a nameless person to be used for the benefit of others.  Then, she met Jesus and her world changed.  The darkness turned to light.  Jesus treated her like no other before.  Mary was as much a follower, maybe even more, than the twelve disciples.  It was she who poured the expensive perfume on Christ’s feet and applied it with her hair and her tears (John 12:1-8).  If there was anyone who loved Jesus, it was Mary.

So, you can imagine Mary’s grief when she saw her Lord tortured, crucified, and dead.  The one person on earth who looked at Mary and saw something more than an immoral woman, who looked beyond the infiltration of demonic influence and observed a woman who needed to be seen and truly loved was now gone.  But the story doesn’t end there….

“Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot.  The angels asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’  She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?’ Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni’ (which means Teacher).  Jesus said to her, ‘Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, ‘I’ve seen the Lord.’ Then she told them what he said to her.” (John 20:11-18, CEB)

Take note of how Jesus dealt with Mary.  He asked her two questions: “Woman, why are you crying?” and “Who are you looking for?”  Jesus didn’t ignore Mary.  He didn’t immediately get on with the business of prepping for ascension and overlook her grief.  Jesus also didn’t talk down to Mary.  By asking questions, our Lord entered her grief and was present to Mary in her sheer lament over not knowing where Jesus was.  What Jesus did instead is, I believe, one of the most powerful things which can happen and is clearly the antidote to all feelings of being overlooked, forgotten, and neglected.  Jesus said one word: “Mary.” He said her name.

Nameless people are forgotten people.  But those with names are real.  Saying someone’s name acknowledges, recognizes, and even validates another person.  That’s why when we are upset and mad at someone, we often don’t like to say their name.  Instead, they get referred to with some other moniker such as “his mother” or “that pastor” or “some guy.”  But when we use a name, it opens to us all a realm of grace, love, and compassion.  It’s easy to ignore another if they have no name.  Knowing a name and using it is the secret superpower which is available to everyone.  Even those without academic degrees and special training have ability to change the world with only the knowledge of one word: a person’s name.

Mary’s immense grief was turned upside-down in a moment to exuberant joy – through the power of her name being spoken by the Lord who cared enough to say it.

Jesus knows your name.  What’s more, he is pleased to say it.  Even now, Jesus sits at the right hand of his Father in heaven interceding for you by using your name.

If there is a skill which is worth developing, it is the ability to know people’s names and to say them.  Sometimes folks remark to me that they can’t believe my memory with names.  Um, not so much.  My memory is not really very good anymore.  It’s just that, if I want to know someone’s name I use it as often as I possibly can without sounding weird about it.  Repetition sinks it into my pea brain, not intelligence or some gift.

Which gets us back to the feeling of being forgotten, unnoticed, and/or ignored.  Acknowledging a person through using their name shoos away those negative feelings for others as well as helps give us connection with others.  In other words, it’s more than good sense to use people’s names – it is the very stuff of healthy relationships.  Relations don’t sour because of differences; they go south when we stop using given names.

Those who care don’t have a special caring gene.  They just know the power of a name.  And it matters to them to liberally validate others with the grace which comes with knowing and using another’s name.  And speaking of names, the Scriptures tell us that there is only one “Name” under heaven by which we are saved: The Name of Jesus (Acts 4:12).  There is such power in naming, that it is truly a life and death affair.  In the name of Jesus Christ there is no overlooking, no neglect, no being forgotten.  With Jesus, there is connection, relationship, attention, and remembrance.

Discovering Yourself in the Bible

Elijah

The Holy Scriptures are timeless.  All kinds of people throughout the ages have been drawn to discover it.  One of the reasons we are interested in the Bible and become tethered to its contents is that we often resonate deeply with many of its characters.

A good and healthy spiritual exercise is to connect and project yourself into the pages of God’s Word.  To relate, express, and find a common human condition with ancient believers is a means of strengthening your faith, uncovering your own spiritual journey, and paying attention to the soundings of your soul.

Let me demonstrate what I’m talking about through speaking of my own life and the life of a famous biblical character….

I feel like Elijah.  Elijah was an Old Testament prophet who acted with unusual faith, single-handedly took on the ungodly Queen Jezebel, sparked a national revival, fell into a dark depression, allowed God to extend him pastoral care and comfort, learned to not journey alone in his faith through mentoring another great prophet of Israel, Elisha, and was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.

As far as prophets go, we have a great deal of information on Elijah in the biblical accounts.  Our introduction to him goes as follows: “Elijah was a prophet from Tishbe in Gilead.  One day he went to King Ahab and said, ‘I’m a servant of the living LORD, the God of Israel.  And I swear in his name that it won’t rain until I say so.  There won’t even be any dew on the ground.” (1 Kings 17:1). And it happened just as Elijah said it would.

I’m a believer in making simple observations of the Bible.  What stands-out to me foremost is Elijah’s solitary behavior.  He initiated and acted alone.  Elijah saw the systemic evil of Ahab and Jezebel’s reign in Israel and he boldly spoke truth to power.  Whether Elijah had thought through the consequences of his words or not, we don’t know.  But we are aware that this was understandably not received well, at all.

If Elijah was alone before, now he is driven to a life of solitude with only ravens for company (1 Kings 17:5-6).  I resonate deeply with Elijah on this.  I tend to think in organization and order.  When I see systems in place which oppress, hurt, and damage people instead of helping them to succeed, thrive, and flourish, it disturbs me.  Elijah was a solitary kind of guy, that is, until a system of injustice was in power.  Then, he used his speech to agitate for what is right.

In many jobs I have had throughout my life, I’ve had a kind of “Elijah” experience.  I see systemic issues which keep marginal people on the outside. Meanwhile, those on the inside enjoy the perks of power.  Sometimes I’ve been fired for calling-out corporate owners and vice-presidents, church elders, and denominational leaders for their exclusive policies and procedures which only benefit themselves.

This might sound commendable, except for the fact that I almost always acted alone on my own initiative without building a coalition of other concerned people.  Instead, I tended to think that I was the only one who cared and stepped forward, making myself a target that people couldn’t miss.  I wonder if Elijah, like me, was thoughtful and introverted with a close relationship with his God, yet with a fear of human relationships.

The event in Elijah’s life which defined him as a great prophet was the showdown with the four-hundred fifty prophets of Baal, of whom the Israelites had religiously prostituted themselves.  You don’t get any more John Wayne than one person versus four-hundred fifty.  In one of the best sarcastic statements you’ll find anywhere, Elijah said to the prophets of Baal who spent the entire morning trying to get their god to respond: “Pray louder! Maybe Baal is daydreaming or using the toilet or traveling somewhere.  Or maybe he’s asleep, and you have to wake him up.” (1 Kings 18:27, CEV)

Elijah on Mt Carmel

Elijah statue on Mount Carmel

Sometimes, for me, it seems easier to confront four-hundred fifty people than have an intimate encounter with one person.  I often find it more effortless to preach to thousands of people (of which I’ve done many times) than to connect meaningfully with one of them.  To me, Elijah sometimes seems like a contradiction, having within himself a great capacity for faith along with an equally large expanse of fear.

This bundle of contradiction is seen in the aftermath of the national revival Elijah helped to spark.  Through a miraculous display of the living God responding to Elijah’s sacrifice, the prophets of Baal were done away with (literally) and the worship of Israel’s God was immediately returned.  Queen Jezebel, the chief architect of establishing Baal worship in Israel, was not having this revival of Israelite religion.  A deeply symbolic heavy rain came with it, ending three years of drought, which only made Jezebel angry and on a mission.

Jezebel got a message straightaway to Elijah: “You killed my prophets.  Now I’m going to kill you!  I pray that the gods will punish me even more severely if I don’t do it by this time tomorrow.” (1 Kings 19:2).  The prophet who took on an entire establishment and saw the miraculous done right in front of his eyes had this response to the wicked queen: he was afraid, ran away, and said to God, “I’ve had enough.  Just let me die!  I’m no better off than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:3-4)

Elijah was, in contemporary terms, burned-out and exhausted – and he became terribly depressed.  It’s as if Elijah had identified himself with taking down the establishment for so long that when it happened, he was lost.  Who was he now?  The scaffolding of prophetic witness was gone, and Elijah was left face-to-face with his naked self.

I feel Elijah’s pain.  I know the sense of laboring to do good and being spiritually and emotionally spent to the point of just wanting to die and be done with all the brokenness of this old fallen world.  I have felt the awkwardness of identifying with a role, and when that role is gone there is only my true self and the God I serve.

But God, the ultimate spiritual caregiver, sent his angel to help Elijah in his broken state.  He fed him, let him sleep, and sent him on a sacred journey to growth as a transformed person.  Rather than exhort Elijah in his penchant for solitary action, God simply asked him a question: “Why are you here?”  After listening to Elijah express his narrow thinking on how the world works, God simply asked him again: “Elijah, why are you here?” (1 Kings 19:9-14)

That simple question lingered with Elijah and changed him.  From that point forward, Elijah seems to move with a quiet confidence that doesn’t come from a place of acting alone.  He doesn’t carry the world on his shoulders.  He isn’t quick to identify himself as a prophet.  His zeal for God remains yet is focused into including others.  Elijah goes from his sacred encounter with God and finds Elisha, who, by all appearances, is just a plain non-descript Israelite farmer.  No longer does Elijah walk alone.  His protégé, Elisha, is with him until the end of his life here on this earth.  And when Elijah is gone, Elisha inherits a double-portion of his mentor’s spirit and goes on to be a powerful prophet in his own right.

One of the best decisions I ever made in my life was, after going through a debilitating depression, I made it my aim and goal to mentor others in the faith.  I never went for a solo pastorate, always looked to build into the lives of younger ministers and found the value of traveling with companions in my pilgrimage of faith.

Unlike Elijah, I’m still on this earth and not likely to be swept up in a chariot of fire anytime soon.  I’m still figuring out who Tim Ehrhardt really is underneath the academic degrees, ministry successes and failures, and all the roles and responsibilities in my life.  There’s both faith and fear wrapped up in it all.  I still struggle with the old lies that my identity is in what I have, what I do, and in the attention and accolades of others.  I continue to wrestle with the compulsion to reform church and society and find it difficult to savor what is already present.

I see Elijah as a prophet with a deep faith that influenced everything he said and did. Yet, at the same time, he was a flawed man who was often characterized and paralyzed by fear and maybe acted from a place of self-righteousness more than he realized. What is clear to me, however, is that Elijah saw himself transformed as he allowed his God to care for him in ways that changed his life forever.  And that is the kind of spirit I’d like to inherit from my spiritual ancestor.

Easter

Empty tomb

One of the best things about what I do as a Pastor and a Chaplain is that I hear lots of stories.  As I sojourn in and out of hospitals, nursing homes, and churches, the many rich accounts of people’s lives continue to amaze me.  Some are profoundly sad, some are incredibly joyous, all include relationships of love and some of hate.  The narratives underlying the daily existence of many people is often an alchemical mix of genuine altruism and mindless neglect.  Since we live on this fallen planet with its strange combination of amazing beauty and severe conditions, it only makes sense that the people of the earth experience the wide range of emotions and experiences from grief to joy.  No matter who I speak with, wherever they are from, we all need hope.

Earl (not his real name) had brain surgery.  It effected his speech.  Earl labors to speak and communicate.  Indeed, he struggles so much to do so that I can only pick out bits and pieces of what he is trying to say to me.  The work of talking is made even more frustrating with the fact that Earl was once an extroverted pastor who made his living talking and speaking and offering words of hope.  Now he can barely get a sentence out his mouth.

Punctuated throughout most of our conversation were swear words of which he apologized.  Instead of poo-pooing this wonderful older minister for his imprecations, I invited us to swear together.  For several minutes, what must have looked kooky crazy to any angels looking on, we sat and swore.  Earl and I expressed our anger, disappointment, and tears over the loss of a precious gift.

Then, after we had a good session of lament, I read the timeless story of a person who conquered everything that is wrong and unjust in this world.  Jesus suffered like no other before or since.  He felt loss.  He knew grief firsthand.  He died.

But death could not hold him in the grave.  The power of God raised Christ the Lord to new life.  Now, the life of Jesus is my life, and Earl’s life.  I didn’t read the glorious story of Jesus to change Earl’s feelings or even to try and make him feel better.  I read the story because its real, its true, and it is the Christian’s hope.

I believe the words of 1 Corinthians 15:20 are right:

“Christ has been raised to life! And he makes us certain that others will also be raised to life.”

Every hope, each promise, and all expectations for Christians everywhere are completely and totally realized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Easter, or more aptly, Resurrection Day, is the highest holy day of the entire year for followers of Jesus.  One of the great things about Easter is that it is not only one day in the Christian Year – it comprises 40 days leading to the day of Pentecost and the giving of the Spirit.  That means we celebrate the truth “Jesus is alive!” for six wonderful Spring weeks.  We purposefully take a good look at our hope.

The somber reflection of Lent with its emphasis on confession of sin and repentance now flowers into the exultant joy and celebration of new life.  The call and response of Christians in the glorious season of Easter is “He is risen!” “He is risen, indeed!”

If there ever was a time for the church to give testimony to the redeeming and saving work of Jesus, it is on Resurrection Day and throughout the Easter season (often referred to as “Eastertide”).  Now is the appropriate time for fellow believers to hear from their brothers and sisters in Christ, how he has brought them renewal – a new outlook and perspective; a new way of relating to others; a new purpose; a completely new life.  We are so tied and in union with Jesus that his resurrection is our resurrection.  Christ’s rising to new life gives us hope.

Earl has hope.  I have hope.  You have hope.  The effects of the fallen world will not always have its way on the earth.  Christ is crucified.  Christ is risen.  Christ is coming again.