I Kings 19.4-8
It was time to go. He didn’t care where. As long as it was away.
He had bested the fiendish Queen Jezebel and her priests, calling down fire upon the altar soaked with water. But now the echoes of her screams pounded in his ears: “I’ll have you lashed to the top of that altar the next time the fire rains down. I will not rest until you pay for what you have done.” It took all of his energy to stay one step ahead of her and her soldiers.
So he didn’t care where. As long as it was away.
• Away from Mount Carmel as it slipped beneath the horizon behind him. But that wasn’t far enough.
• Away from the Northern Kingdom of Israel completely, and into the Southern Kingdom of Judah. But that wasn’t far enough.
• All the way to the southernmost tip of the Southern Kingdom, into the city of Beersheba. But even that wasn’t far enough.
• He left his servant there in the city, and disappeared further, into the wilderness. Until finally, under the shade of a lonely tree in an empty hellscape, he stopped running. Finally, he was far enough.
Far enough from Jezebel. Far enough from Ahab her husband. Far enough from the demands of the crowd. Far enough from another call, another voice, another mission, another miracle. He had finally made it far enough.
And under that tree, Elijah wept. And could not stop weeping. He wept until his eyes hurt, until his face was chapped by the wind and the sun and the tears that dried him out like an empty snakeskin on a rock. Through his tears, he cried out for God to take his life. He envied those gone and dead and in the grave. He looked up and wondered what it would take to end his life at the end of a branch of this broom tree.
But then, suddenly, he was asleep.
For the first time since he had fled Jezebel, he slept.
For the first time since he had bested the priests of Baal, he slept.
For the first time since God called his name and showed him who he was meant to be, he completely and fully slept.
Lily just drove. She had no plan, no agenda, no route. She didn’t notice that she didn’t even have her phone until she was passing the city limits. She must have left it by accident at the house. Perhaps not so much an accident after all. She just had to get away. It was time to go.
As the trees thinned and she found herself farther from town and farther out onto the prairie, she re-collected all of the reasons why she should be happy and hopeful and satisfied. Her children were honor roll perfect kids. Her husband loved her and supported her work. Her church had recently asked her to come onto staff because of the amazing ministry that she had done as a volunteer with the children’s program. Everything was right.
Nothing was right.
She had lost the will to do her ministry, lost the energy that it required, lost the love that she once had.
She held back the tears until finally, beside the last tree before the sky reached down to meet the prairie, she stopped. She parked the minivan and fell down beneath the tree.
And she wept.
She wept for all of the things that she had wished she had done or said or succeeded at instead of failed.
She wept for all the kids that she could not save, could not protect, could not hug tightly enough.
She wept for all the smiles that she continued to give, though it was clear to her that she no longer loved her ministry anymore.
And through the bleary eyes, she saw all the faces that seemed to mock her, doubt her, judge her, correct her.
And she prayed that God would take her life.
She was not ready for suicide, nor was she really ready to die. She would be too overwhelmed by guilt to let that happen. There was too much to do!
But she prayed that God would take away her…life.
Her life of expectations heaped on by others and herself.
Her life of busy-ness and the sleepless nights that kept her mind working even after the work was done.
Her endless cycle of cup after cup of coffee to accelerate in the morning and glass after glass of wine to decelerate at night.
And as the prairie wind whipped her tears dry, she lay down under the tree.
And she slept.
“Get up and eat.”
His eyes blinked, and he saw only the gloom that could have been dawn or dusk or an overcast noon.
“Get up and eat.”
Elijah drearily registered the jar of water and the warm, steaming bread. Confusion and starvation battled in his mind and body. He had to make sense of what was happening. No. He just had to eat. Starvation won out quickly and he inhaled the sustenance at his fingertips.
It seemed oddly familiar. As he tore into the bread, he remembered the starving widow for whom he had just performed a miracle. When she met him, she was gathering sticks in order to make a fire to bake her last bread so that she and her son could eat it and then die. But Elijah fed them, sustained them: miraculously creating and re-creating meal in a jar that never emptied and oil in a jar that never failed. They were sustained day after day, bringing joy to the household and glory to God.
In those days, it was he who fed the hungry.
Now, he was the one who needed to be fed.
As he drained the last of the water and scraped up the crumbs from the ground into his mouth, Elijah collapsed again.
“Are you okay?”
“I said, are you okay?”
Lily jumped up and wiped the sleep off of the corner of her mouth and out of her eyes as she heard and saw the monstrous combine looming beside her tree. The farmer who had clearly stepped down out of it to check on her looked like he was out of one of the books that she used to read to the kids. Overalls. Straw hat. He was just missing the blade of grass sticking out of his mouth.
“Just wanted to make sure that you were okay.”
Lily croaked out an affirmative and mumbled thanks as he climbed back up into the combine and roared off, radio blaring.
She checked her watch and realized that Daniel would not be expecting her from book club for another couple of hours, and since she had already called them to tell them that she wouldn’t be coming, she felt the freedom to exhale and sit down again.
She looked over in the dusk to see that the old man had left a couple of Slim Jims and a cold bottle of water. She smiled as she made quick work of both.
And as she sat down again under the tree, she felt eerily cared for and protected. For so long, she had not let anyone else take care of her. She was the caretaker. She was the responsible one. She was the one that everyone else relied upon; without her everything would surely fall apart. It was wearying. Exhausting. Maddening, even.
Every night she rehearsed her lines: “why doesn’t someone else do their part? Why do they always leave it up to me? Why are they so helpless? I know that they have gifts, too. Why am I the only one who uses them?”
But tonight, the resentful voices were silent.
All she heard were the voices of the children she had taught. Their clear tones singing VBS songs, learned by heart. Their laughter as they enjoyed an abundant life that they had never known at home. Their strong voices ringing out “Yes” when she asked them if they proclaimed Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, while the waters of baptism swirling around them both.
For once, the resentful voices were silent. All she heard was hope.
And as the combine switched on its lights and turned for the next pass, she knew somehow that she was safe.
So in the safety of the coming darkness, she nodded into a peaceful rest once more.
“Get up and eat, or the journey will be too much for you.”
This time, the voice had an urgency to it.
There was another steaming cake of bread and another jar of water, but this time, Elijah could tell that the nourishment was not to make up for the emptiness of the past, but instead for the pregnancy of the future. Like a mother-to-be, eating for herself and the baby inside of her, Elijah consumed. He ate for the present moment, and for the future.
As he stood to face the wind, he wrapped his mantle around him.
He knew now where he must go.
Horeb. The Mountain of the Lord. There, he would touch the mighty crag, hear the mighty wind, feel the rush of God’s flame once more. And so, he climbed down from his tree, and climbed up the Great Mountain. The mountain where Moses received the covenant. Where he struck the rock and water flowed. Where he saw God in the cloud. Horeb.
And there, Elijah heard the mighty wind.
He felt the mighty earthquake.
He cheeks were flush with the mighty fires of God again raining down from heaven.
But God was not there.
Suddenly, the old fears crept back into Elijah’s mind. He was in the wilderness again, under the broom tree, chased by the same doubts and fears and ghosts and expectations. But again, he received sustenance for the journey. For the still, small voice of God quieted his heart and cleared his bleary eyes. The “sound of sheer silence” made him catch his breath. For in that sound was the strength for the journey. It was time to go. But he would not go alone.
And so he followed the voice once more until it led him to a field, where a young man was turning his plow for the next pass. Elijah wrapped his mantle around him once more, but this time, he knew it would not be his forever. This young man before him would follow the same path that he had led. He would hear the voice of God and respond. He would replace him in the path of the prophet. And the sound of sheer silence would lead him, too.
God had gifted this young man – Elisha – with an amazing sensitivity to God’s Spirit and power to perform the work of God. But all he saw when he looked at his own hands were the calluses of a plow boy. It would take Elijah to teach him, empower him, show him who he was called to be. And in that teaching, he would replace himself, and pass his mantle to the next generation.
But Elisha paused. He was afraid to leave his predictable life. He had doubts about a journey that stepped out behind the oxen. He knew the loneliness that lay before him would be harder than to stay with his family. Elijah understood. For he had known fear and doubt and loneliness, too.
But with clarity and conviction, he told his young protégé, “It is time to go.” And together they broke apart the wood of the plow and built an altar of praise to God, and they slaughtered the oxen for a meal for the journey, and by the power of God, they were sustained for what lay ahead.
Lily stirred as she opened her eyes to see the combine heading back toward the farm house on the horizon. Fresh tire tracks and some more Slim Jims and water revealed that her angel had been back, and that she had clearly been sleeping soundly. Another check of her watch told her she needed to be getting home. But she did not feel the panic and shallow breathing that she knew whenever life sucked her back in from a moment of peace and rest. For this had been more than a distraction or momentary numbing. She had experienced a clarity and hope.
She popped the last of the Slim Jim into her mouth, as she thought to herself how famished she must have been, because those things taste terrible. She paused and smiled as she looked at the package in the moonlight.
She had been struggling with what to do with one of the high school boys who she could tell was gifted at children’s ministry. His friends made fun of him for doing it, but he loved hanging out with preschoolers and showed up every single Sunday morning to teach the pre-K class. She hesitated to give him much authority, because she kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: for him to get a car or a girlfriend or a spot on the track team, and disappear from the church like so many others had before. She had insisted on co-teaching with him, so that he wouldn’t drop the ball.
But now she laughed out loud as she stared at the package in her hand. The young man’s name? Jim. She looked up and rolled her eyes. “Seriously? Is this an episode of Touched by an Angel?” she asked out loud to the darkness.
As she drove back to town, though, she knew that some of her own resentment and stress and emptiness and hunger came from the fact that she was failing to replace herself, to care for herself, to allow herself to be fed as well as to feed.
The Spirit of the Lord gave her the strength that she needed, the nourishment that she longed for. It was right in front of her the whole time. But she was looking for the mighty and majestic and extraordinary. While God was busy using the ordinary to make a difference.
When she walked back into the house, her husband was on the computer, looking at hotels. He had been trying to get her to take a vacation all summer, and she had caught him daydreaming once more. But, of course, they couldn’t go. She wouldn’t let herself leave the church, wouldn’t let herself stop playing victim long enough to allow someone else to fulfill their calling in her stead. He closed the laptop quickly when he saw her…he didn’t want to get into the same argument once more. But without saying a word, she opened it back up, took a quick look at the dates and vacation spot he was daydreaming about, and she clicked “submit.”
She left him staring dumbfounded, as she went upstairs toward bed. At the top of the stairs she paused, and looked back. With more clarity than she had had in a long time, she announced with a smile, “It’s time to go.” And turned for bed.