Slow Down (2 Kings 2:1-12)

Not long before the Lord took Elijah up into heaven in a strong wind, Elijah and Elisha were leaving Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “The Lord wants me to go to Bethel, but you must stay here.”

Elisha replied, “I swear by the living Lord and by your own life that I will stay with you no matter what!” And he went with Elijah to Bethel.

A group of prophets who lived there asked Elisha, “Do you know that today the Lord is going to take away your master?”

“Yes, I do,” Elisha answered. “But don’t remind me of it.”

Elijah then said, “Elisha, now the Lord wants me to go to Jericho, but you must stay here.”

Elisha replied, “I swear by the living Lord and by your own life, that I will stay with you no matter what!” And he went with Elijah to Jericho.

A group of prophets who lived there asked Elisha, “Do you know that today the Lord is going to take away your master?”

“Yes, I do,” Elisha answered. “But don’t remind me of it.”

Elijah then said to Elisha, “Now the Lord wants me to go to the Jordan River, but you must stay here.”

Elisha replied, “I swear by the living Lord and by your own life that I will never leave you!” So the two of them walked on together.

Fifty prophets followed Elijah and Elisha from Jericho, then stood at a distance and watched as the two men walked toward the river. When they got there, Elijah took off his coat, then he rolled it up and struck the water with it. At once a path opened up through the river, and the two of them walked across on dry ground.

After they had reached the other side, Elijah said, “Elisha, the Lord will soon take me away. What can I do for you before that happens?”

Elisha answered, “Please give me twice as much of your power as you give the other prophets, so I can be the one who takes your place as their leader.”

“It won’t be easy,” Elijah answered. “It can happen only if you see me as I am being taken away.”

Elijah and Elisha were walking along and talking, when suddenly there appeared between them a flaming chariot pulled by fiery horses. At once, a strong wind took Elijah up into heaven. Elisha saw this and shouted, “Israel’s cavalry and chariots have taken my master away!” After Elijah had gone, Elisha tore his clothes in sorrow. (Contemporary English Version)

“For fast-acting relief from stress, try slowing down.”

Lily Tomlin

In placing today’s Old Testament lesson of Elijah ascending to heaven in a whirlwind next to yesterday’s New Testament lesson of Christ’s ascension, the Revised Common Lectionary wants us to consider the relationship between the two.

What goes up, must come down. Two people ascending to heaven will eventually descend back to the earth.

But why all this elapsed time? If there’s something left yet to be done, why not just do it then? Or right now?

Ah, but there’s the issue. In asking such questions, I (we) betray our modern Western mindset of being governed by the god of speed.

The archenemy of faster is to be slow. And, believe me, slow is seen as a sin by most Westerners. For example, because I have a bum back, I tend to walk slow. More than once, I’ve walked from the parking lot into a store and had cars honk at me, and even some drivers swear and flip the bird at me – just for not hurrying along and making them wait a precious few seconds.

Or take the case of the stereotypical boss who is ready to pounce on an employee who shows up a minute late for work (of which I’ve observed a hundred times over my career). I’m sure you have your own examples.

In God’s kingdom, the slow will inherit the earth – not the speedy ones. That’s because God, at least from a human perspective, is slow. Yet, that’s more of a subjective matter and an issue of perspective. Christ ascended to heaven two thousand years ago. And still no Jesus, no Second Coming. What’s “up” with that? Because many people aren’t “down” with it.

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9, NIV)

Far from being a sin, slowness is actually a virtue. Spiritual maturity can only result with the element of time – lots of it. There’s no quick way to becoming whole and integrated. Bible Cliff’s Notes aren’t going to get you very far. Most things cannot be rushed – especially when it comes to our words. Running our mouths never ends well.

You must understand this, my beloved brothers and sisters: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for human anger does not produce God’s righteousness. (James 1:19-20, NRSV)

Elijah will come. So will Jesus. In the meantime, we need to embrace being an Elisha character who learns the unforced rhythms of grace and discerns the power in slowness.

We are to take time in learning from a trusted mentor… time in sitting with difficult emotions, like sorrow, and time in allowing God to be God so that untimely shenanigans like pulling up the wheat when trying to rid the field of weeds doesn’t happen.

People have a job to do while we wait – to bear witness of the things we have seen and heard. Power is given to those who await God’s gracious gift. Pentecost is just around the corner. Be patient.

Gracious and patient God, slow me down so that I may see you in this fast paced life. Give us all a listening heart and contemplative eyes, so that we might hear your voice may see you in our active world, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Crisis and Care (1 Kings 19:1-8)

Prophet Elijah by Mykhailo Boychuk, 1913

Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. (New International Version)

In a typical week, I see a variety of people. Here are just a few persons I’ve encountered recently:

  • A man who went for a routine doctor’s visit and was examined, then rushed to the hospital where he had his left leg amputated.
  • A woman who witnessed her son attempt to kill his wife by stabbing her multiple times.
  • A pastor’s spouse who is overwhelmed with the depth of human need and emotional trauma she sees every Sunday in her urban congregation.
  • A man who is bitter, refusing any sort of spiritual care or assistance at the end of his life.
  • A family who watches on, while their beloved mother and grandmother is slowly slipping into eternity.
  • A pregnant mother who is on total bed rest, downright frightened by not knowing what will happen, and if her baby will live or die.

We live in a fundamentally broken world. Everything is askew and awry, with people feeling the brunt of the things which are neither right, nor fair. The examples I highlighted are all, like the prophet Elijah of old, good people who have found themselves in the crosshairs of circumstances beyond their control. 

Their situations left them feeling a range of emotions: abject horror, terrible sorrow and sadness, shocking denial, sheer panic, and crippling shame. The sense of confusion, fragility, and powerlessness are palpable.

So, what in God’s name do we do when we are faced with trauma, either in ourselves or in people we care about? How do we keep going when it seems as if it takes far too much energy just to be myself and do the things I need to do?

A crisis or trauma turns our world upside-down. Things will never be the same again. Yet, it’s a unique opportunity for healing and growth. Whether you care for someone, or need care yourself, there are three questions that have arisen for me as I have gone through my own crises and talk with folks facing traumatic experiences.

Who are you?

It’s only human to question who we are whenever a crisis situation hits. Who is a man if he doesn’t have a literal leg to stand on? Who is a mother when her son commits an atrocity? Who is the pastor’s wife when she seems unable to meet needs? Who is the bitter man when his expectations are not met? Who is the family when their matriarch is gone? Who is a woman if she doesn’t have a child?

It’s not a simple question. And it can’t be quickly answered. Trauma throws doubt on who we thought we were before the crisis. It can expose the shadowy parts of our lives we didn’t know were there, or bring light to the reality that our lives were built on things which don’t last.

Suppose you are a caregiver, trying to offer help. If your goal is to make the person feel better, you’ll quickly find out that you are not God. You cannot fix people’s pain. Who are you if you can’t repair broken people and solve their problems? 

What do I do?

If you’re a caregiver, you take action – not by changing feelings – but through attending to the basic needs of the one in trauma. A crisis situation isn’t the time to explore emotions; it’s the time to feel them. 

While a person is experiencing grief on a monumental scale, offering thoughtful assistance with decision-making, organizing the mundane things of life, and handling necessary details, can be a loving way of bringing care and concern.

In our Old Testament lesson for today, God, the ultimate caregiver, was attentive to Elijah’s immediate needs by ensuring that he was able to rest and be well-fed.

For those facing a crisis or dealing with trauma, your task is to grieve. Allow compassionate people to do things for you. There’s no need of offering an apologetic for your emotions, tears, and troubles. If you’re the kind of person that’s been there for others, let them now be there for you.

How can I move on?

We move on through hope. We continue the journey of life with the confident expectation that it can be good again, even though it might not look like it now.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. (Revelation 21:1-7, NRSV)

Hope comes from a place of genuine care and not from the posture of trying to hurry yourself or another person along in their emotions because we are unsettled with such grinding grief.

Some people are uncomfortable with seeing their loved one or friend in a state of vulnerability. So they withdraw, or try and get them to short-circuit their grief and get over it sooner than they should. 

There is strength in weakness, and power in vulnerability. True love is a mystery. There are times when we must give up our analysis of events and people, and simply appreciate what is right in front of us. Letting go of control can open to us a whole new world of possibility, creativity, and hope.

Faith is the ability to look ahead and see hope on the horizon. When a community of people strengthen faith in one another through the spiritual means of listening, prayer, active compassion, thoughtful words, and healing presence, then that group of persons has discovered what it means to share the human condition and be a caring presence.

Dealing with Depression (1 Kings 19:9-18)

There he went into a cave and spent the night.

And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.” (New International Version)

The prophet Elijah was downright exhausted – so much so, that he became debilitatingly depressed.

After being alone for long stretches of time, always vigilant to watch out for those who sought his life, experiencing an intense victory against some truly evil folks, and then back to being on high alert, Elijah was done.

Depression is real. It isn’t limited to a certain personality trait, and it isn’t in itself sin. It just is. More than half of people in the United States with serious depression, and even more worldwide, do not receive or will not get adequate help. 

So, if you are reading this as a depressed person, or are wondering how to help someone you care for who is depressed, it is imperative that you get help immediately. A blog post on such an important subject can really only encourage you, and somehow inspire you, to take the brave and bold step of seeking the assistance you need. 

Severe depression is profoundly crippling and is as important to deal with as prostate cancer; both can kill you on the inside even though no one knows on the outside.

I myself have experienced two major depressions in the course of my life. I’ve also had a few kidney stones. I’m told the pain of a kidney stone is like childbirth.  I don’t know about the childbirth thing, but I do know that I would rather experience a dozen kidney stones, at once, than go through another severe depression. I got help, and it changed my life. 

Depression is exactly what the name implies: a depressing or a stuffing of feelings – particularly the emotion of anger. I was so good at packing down my emotions that one night, many years ago when our neighbor had a blow-out of a party at 2am in the morning, I actually felt no anger. Just so you know: that’s not healthy. I had an anger problem. Not the kind where you explode, but just the opposite – the kind where you stuff every negative feeling in the book.

Recovery for me looked a lot like what Elijah experienced. I needed to acknowledge what was actually inside of me and begin sitting with those unwanted emotions. And I need to tell you that what was inside me wasn’t at all pretty. 

Like a wound that needs peroxide, dealing with depression hurt like hell. But I couldn’t heal without it. I couldn’t go around it, or avoid it; I had to go through it. Eventually, I learned to not only identify my feelings, but to own them and take charge of them. 

I discovered I could choose to say how I feel without apology, and I could say it all in a way that helped others, as well as myself. Holy Scripture calls it speaking the truth in love.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.

Psalm 32:8, NIV

Waiting for the perfect time to deal with depression will only result in deeper despondency. You are not responsible for what others may say or do, and you cannot control other people’s decisions and responses to you – trying to do so is manipulative and only creates more problems. 

Elijah wasn’t alone in dealing with depression. David and Jeremiah went through some very difficult days of being depressed. Even Jesus became stressed and despondent. But none of them stayed there, and their experiences changed not only themselves but readers of God’s Word throughout history. 

It only makes sense to tell a trusted spiritual leader, friend, or relative how you are really feeling. One does not crawl out of the abyss of darkness that is depression without some sage people surrounding the person. They can offer wise counsel, focused prayer, and careful application of Scripture. 

This is one reason why church ministry exists, so let the church do its redemptive work. So, may the clouds roll away into the hope of a new tomorrow.

Almighty God, whose Son took upon himself the afflictions of your people: Regard with your tender compassion those suffering from depression; bear their sorrows and their care; supply all their needs; help them to put their whole trust and confidence in you; and restore them to strength of mind and cheerfulness of spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

What Must Come (Mark 9:9-13)

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.

And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”

Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.” (New International Version)

Christ’s disciples, bless their wondering hearts, always seemed to be a few steps behind in following Jesus. And, truth be told, so are we, much of the time.

Since we know the end of the story, it’s easy for us to observe how clueless the original disciples of Jesus were, and how slow to the uptick they were on what their Lord was telling them.

The disciples were confused about Christ’s transfiguration on the mountain; puzzled about why they needed to keep their mouths shut about it; and betwixt about what the heck “rising from the dead” even means.

As they scratched their heads, trying to get a handle on things, they ended up asking about something they thought they knew about: Elijah. After all, if you don’t understand something, like a student in class, maybe you can ask about something else in order to get the teacher diverted from the thing you don’t understand. But bringing up Elijah only muddled their spiritual distraction.

The beauty of Christ is that he takes any discussion, any question, and turns it toward what must happen, what we must come to grips with.

What goes up, must come down

The disciples had the incredible experience of seeing a glorified Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. There is a time for bright illumined mountain top encounters, but there is also a time to come down off the mountain and walk through the shadowy dark valley.

Christ’s exhortation to stay silent about the mountain top meeting may be a reminder that following Jesus is not all glory; it also involves the hard slog of dealing with adversity because of one’s spiritual commitment.

A fundamental truth about the nature of God is consistency and constancy, much like a mountain. And we can always look up, remember, and find strength in our time of need.

I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
    Where will my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
    the maker of heaven and earth.
God won’t let your foot slip.
    Your protector won’t fall asleep on the job. (Psalm 121:1-3, CEB)

What goes down, must come up

Just as life is not all mountain experiences, so it is not all about the valley. Jesus was letting his disciples know that they were about to face the darkest time of their lives. He would be rejected and suffer much – to the point of death. But the grave would not be able to hold him. A resurrection was coming; Christ would rise from death.

There cannot be a resurrection without a crucifixion – and the agony of the cross is not the final word. Resurrection, ascension, and glorification all result from the terrible suffering and ignominy of death. And since we have died with Christ, we will also be raised to life, as well.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:5, NRSV)

What goes first, must come last

Jesus linked the Old Testament prophet Elijah with John the Baptist. Just as Elijah put the Lord first and was God’s servant, so also John considered Jesus as first, and himself as last.

John testified concerning him [Jesus]. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me…

I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie….”

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” (John 1:15, 26-27, 29-30, NIV)

What goes around, must come around

I’m not referring to karma, nor to a circular view of history, but to the reality that suffering and death is a result of life, and paradoxically, glory and life come from death.

Christianity is, I believe, inherently paradoxical. The way up is down; in order to save our lives we must give them up; to be great is to be a servant; and the last shall be first, and the first, last.

We neither need to understand every jot and tittle of the Bible, nor have every word of Jesus fully comprehended in order to be a Christian and serve Christ’s Church. There is a great deal of mystery to faith, and so much yet to discover and learn. We will spend an eternity getting to know God and never plumb the breadth and depth of comprehending the Lord.

So, we need to learn to enjoy this awesome God and embrace the paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility so that we may worship, fellowship, and live in grace and freedom. In doing so, we are witnesses to a faith that transcends understanding, and allows us to serve within our churches, families, and communities without having every loci of theology nailed down.

All things shall eventually come back around to the Garden – a place of unhindered fellowship with God and one another without any sin or deceit to get in the way. Disaster, disease, and death are temporary; Love is permanent and shall come around to being the overwhelming and only force in this big universe.

We bless you, O God, for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

Give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts, we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever. Amen.