Late in the afternoon, while reading the passage aloud while Robb took the kids to run errands, it finally came together. I had a moment that changed the way I think. And when you change the way you think, you change the way you live. This year, I will be living much differently than I did last year. For one, I'm blogging again. I make no promises about how often, but I am reclaiming how much I enjoy writing and working things out here, not to mention keeping track of what our family is doing and how we are growing and changing.
So here is my sermon, adapted a bit for you.
ELIJAH’s STORY: 1Kings 18 – 19.In brief, Elijah is a prophet during the reign of a bad king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel, in the middle history of the nation of Israel, long after David and long before Jesus. He has pronounced a drought in the land that has lasted for 3 years and Ahab and Jezebel have been championing the worship of a different god, Baal. Elijah has been in hiding but he comes to Ahab and proposes a challenge on top of a sacred mountain. They have a duel of sorts to prove which god is the real God. So 450 prophets of Baal try to get him to call down fire and burn up their offering on their alter and Elijah does the same thing with God. After hours of the prophets of Baal dancing around and cutting themselves to get their god's attention, nothing happens and Elijah makes fun of them. Then he steps up and says it is his turn. God promptly shoots fire down from heaven in a no contest TKO of Baal. Eljah kills the 450 prophets of Baal, demands that the people worship the true God, beats the king down the side of the mountain in a race wherein the king is in a chariot and Eljah is on foot, and finally, it begins to rain for the first time in 3 years...a gully-washing deluge.
The next day (or shortly thereafter) after his massive triumph, Elijah gets word that a furious Queen Jezebel is going to kill him. Elijah is terrified and takes off on a 200 mile journey to Mt. Sinai, only stopping along the way to ask God to kill him because he is completely overwhelmed and discouraged. Instead, God feeds him via an Angel-chef and gets him to the mountain where they have a little chat. God asks Elijah why he is there and Elijah answers succinctly. In response, God puts on a little demonstration: first a great wind, possible a tornado. But He is not in the wind. Then a fire. But He's not in the fire. Then an earthquake, but God isn't in the earthquake. Finally, God whispers. And God is in the whisper. He asks again why Elijah is there and Elijah repeats the same words he used before. God tells him to go annoint another prophet to work with him and reminds him that there are thousands of other prophets like him that are being faithful to God and that Eljah is not alone.
When I was a little kid, I heard this story in church. I think that as a kid I liked the part where Elijah calls down the fire and shows everyone that God is really God. I liked how big it was and how effective it was and how God just SHOWED them that he was boss. I liked the part where Elijah outruns the chariot and how he is like a superhero.
Now that I’m an adult, I think I resonate a lot more with the “Please just kill me” part.
Several months ago, I had a really unusual experience. I was standing in the back at the computer, running the slides. It was the Sunday after Labor Day and Robb mentioned in passing that it was Vintage’s 7th birthday. I think there was some clapping or some small acknowledgment and the service just went on as usual, but I mentally sort of checked out. I don’t know if other people are like this, but I struggle to be "in the moment." I think it’s because I am taking in a lot of details all the time and there is usually some kind of delay between my taking in those details and my organizing those details into some kind of usable information. I think that is why I like history a lot, because there is a lot of time to organize the details and interpret them in a way that makes sense.
In this case, it took me several hours to organize what happened in my mind at that moment. The service was over and we had had lunch and were at home, getting ready to Sabbath ( which is a fancy Sunday word for nap!) when I started to cry. Robb was holding me and I was trying to explain that I wasn’t excited about the fact that Vintage was seven years old. But the only words I could come up with were “We still can’t get people to work in the nursery.” Which doesn’t make a lot of sense to you all, probably because we have Hannah and she does an amazing job of running the nursery. But back when Vintage started, on our very first Sunday, we had NOBODY to run the nursery. We had contacted college ministries on campus and people who went to Fellowship Bible Church’s Saturday night service and put out emails begging all 10 of the people we knew in NWA to work in the nursery.
And then on the Friday night before our first service, we got invited to dinner at some people's house. They had seen our signs advertising the church and he checked out the website and invited us to dinner…pretty much without asking her. So she was all prickly and stand-offish at the beginning of the night and then miraculously, at the end of the evening, they agreed to help out in the nursery for just that week and never again….which was pretty much a miracle in our minds. (And we became really good friends to this day.)
Fast forward to that Sunday morning 7 years later, I think we had to scramble a bit because someone needed to switch or some small thing. A church nursery is just one of those things that can make such a huge difference if it isn’t working well. New people won’t come back if there is no nursery, the whole thing can take a church out of commission. It has to be perfect. Like a professional day care. Or so people say. I don't really believe that but who knows what other people think? What if this whole church plant FAILS because we don't have a Disney Land nursery?!
So I’m crying and trying to express how really vulnerable I feel. And Robb is nodding and saying “Yeah, I feel that way too.” And then I feel more afraid. Because if he is feeling vulnerable and afraid about how Vintage is doing, then I get really freaked out.
And then the worst part happened. I started to have this feeling of wanting to escape. To get out. To get away from Vintage. To not have to do it anymore. Just get regular jobs and do whatever we want on Sunday mornings. To not worry about how things are going in a church...just show up and smile and sing and eat their free bread and grape juice. To be free of the burden of caring about people. Which was terrifying. Because I’m the kind of person that once I start thinking about something, I’m probably going to do it. So much so that all I have to do is say to Robb, “I’m thinking about painting the kitchen….” And he will just groan and roll his eyes. Because once the idea is in my head, I can’t let it go.
So some of you are thinking “You got all this from the nursery?” What’s the big deal? People will sign up. It will be taken care of. To which I have to explain that it’s not just the nursery. It’s our life. For 16 years, we have been in this life. This strange life of ministry.
BACK TO ELIJAH'S STORY
So all that to say, I am feeling with Elijah. I am feeling this intense loneliness that he expresses over and over again. I know what he is saying when he says, “I’m no better than my fathers, kill me now.” I was overwhelmed with fear that I was going to burn out. And I don’t know what to do about it. Because if I tell people at Vintage, I might scare them. And if I don’t tell anyone, I’m just going to be fantasizing about getting out of here. I am afraid and Elijah is afraid. I am exhausted and Elijah is exhausted. But I don’t know what to do about it. Elijah runs away and I feel myself running away too.
I love the tenderness of God in the story. Elijah falls asleep and the Angel of the Lord cooks him a meal, wakes him up and feeds him. And then he just goes to sleep again. Can you even imagine how nice it would be just to go to sleep and have an angel bring you a hot meal and then tuck you in again?
And then Elijah travels to Mt. Horeb, which is pretty much the same place as Mt. Sinai. They don’t really know where it is now, but back then, it was a known place and Elijah went there and it took him 40 days and nights to travel there. I think he went there looking for some answers. So God asks him why he is there and he rattles off what is bothering him:
“I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”
He has wrapped his whole life around serving God. He feels alone. He feels ineffective.
I’ve wrapped my whole life around serving you, God. I feel alone. I feel ineffective.
So God tells him to stand out there and see all the big things…the wind, the earthquake, the fire and then the small voice. But God is only in the whisper. And the whisper asks Elijah why he is there. And what does he say? He says the exact same thing. He still feels the same way.
I have puzzled over this exchange for weeks now. I always heard that the point of the story was that God was in the whisper. But if Elijah still felt the same way as he did before, why was it so important? I think the answer is back at the beginning of the story when Elijah is fixing to call down the fire. Lets look again at verse 26:
Then they took the ox which [k]was given them and they prepared it and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon saying, “O Baal, answer us.” But there was no voice and no one answered.
Maybe he is showing Elijah through the wind, earthquake and fire that God is very strong, effective and powerful. That He is big enough and worthy enough to wrap our lives around. But at our core, where we feel alone, He is more than just a big powerful force, He is a voice to talk to. He is in a relationship with us. He cares about our eating and sleeping and feeling. This voice goes on to tell Elijah to go on. Go anoint a king who will wipe out Ahab and Jezebel. Go anoint Elisha, who will be his friend, assistant, companion. And oh, by the way, there are thousands of people who are in this with you Elijah. "There are thousands of people who are following Me too, Elijah. You aren't alone." He addresses Elijah’s fears and frustrations. He provides support. He relates.
I really, really, REALLY find myself in this story.
1. Elijah has a major breakdown when his expectations aren’t met. I suspect he thought that everything would be totally different after Mt. Carmel. Instead of everything being on track, he gets a death threat. I don’t know where I get my unrealistic expectations sometimes, but I know that when we started Vintage, there was this lofty idea that since Vintage was going to be a totally different kind of church, I would be a totally different pastors wife. I know I was scared when Vintage was getting started. So I took that "different kind of pastor's wife" thing to mean that I would not get hurt any more. But instead, I got hurt WORSE. In the last seven years, I have had my heart broken because of Vintage. I have lost people I cared about. Some people I trusted turned their backs on us. Relationships that mattered deeply to me have grown thin and evaporated. People have said and believed terrible things about the sweet husband I love and trust. And in tiny ways, people weren't there for me in ways I thought that they would be. The tiny things pile up. The big losses seared my soul. I didn't want to love or trust anyone anymore. Nothing felt safe.
2. Elijah was exhausted and lonely because he could only see what he was doing. He cognitively knew that Obadiah was working on his side and those other 100 prophets, but emotionally, he was so alone. In my moment of freaking out, I forgot or failed to see that there are so many of you that are faithful and serving. When I really paid attention to the ways that other people were being even more faithful than me, I didn’t feel nearly as alone. In fact, just spending a little bit of time being grateful for people and saying thank you really helped. The other thing I needed to do was to ask for help. When I did that, I got the support I needed.
3. Elijah needed a forty-day journey. That’s a common amount of time for various people in the Bible to experience a shift in their thinking and that’s why our Experimental Collectives are about that long. In my case, I was in the creativity collective at this time. My initial project shows me like Elijah, like a superhero, calling down the fire, making things happen. There is a part of me that really wants to be that super-hero, but then I’m crushed by how ineffective I am. I want to be the kind of pastor’s wife who wants to teach the kids and clean the church and be very administrative. I feel like I should be whatever is needed, whether I want to do it or not. Whether I have the skills or personality for it or not. If it needs to be done, I should do it. Because that’s being a leader, right? That’s the way to show I care about God and about you. Better to burn out than rust out, right?
It was a really big moment for me the night I did a self-portrait. I’d never done a self-portrait before. I’ve never had an art class. Never painted with anything other than little craft paints. There was something really freeing about just going ahead and painting. And that’s when it occurred to me that it would be a lot more interesting if God was to speak through me through my art. It’s not as obvious and effective as fire, earthquake, or being good at planning events, but maybe it’s the whisper, the still small voice that is needed. It seems like he is not worried about being effective as much as he is with being in relationship with us.
It took me all this time to figure out what my melt-down meant and why it happened. I took this story to help me understand how I had such crazy expectations. It took this story to really grasp the idea that God is fully capable of working through the big, obvious stuff, but he is also fully God in the whisper. And if He is ok with that kind of limitation, I can be too.
Vintage, go in peace....
So, 2013 is the year for me to whisper. For so long, I have been afraid to do things because they wouldn't be good enough, wouldn't be effective enough, wouldn't make a big enough dent. I was afraid to enter relationships because they might end badly. I was afraid to just be myself because maybe that wouldn't be important enough. I was afraid to say no and I was afraid to say yes. I was afraid to do anything good for the world because it wouldn't be enough. This year, I'm ok with whispering. I'm ok with being small and unremarkable. I'm ok with not being a big show. I'm ok with people taking me or leaving me (I might not actually be okay with that, but I'm working on it.)
I still think it is kind of crazy that God would make me this way instead of creating me with a passion to plan events, co-ordinate ministries, manage people effectively, teach the young and the old, host people in my home at a moment's notice, sing like Adele, play an instrument with any skill, or just generally get my ya-yas from doing any job that nobody likes to do at church. Instead, he strapped me with a reclusive, overly-analytical, introverted nature that is most often set free to worship when I am out in nature or covered in the dirt that only comes from "making stuff." I need things to be pretty. What good is that?
Apparently, it's good enough.