Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Broom Trees

He came to a broom tree, sat down under it, and prayed that he might die (1 Kings 19:4).

I was trying to figure out what to do with my life and I needed some help. I attended church, but I really didn’t know my pastor. Right about that time Mercer University, where I was a student, had brought on a new Pastor to the University and he seemed to be a very thoughtful and trustworthy man. I made an appointment to talk with him.

Looking back, I don’t remember the details of my conversation with Dr. C. Welton Gaddy. What I remember now is the way he listened, his total lack of interest in trying to “recruit” me for the ministry, his comfort with my angst and his counsel that didn’t tell me what to do. And he was no-nonsense: He basically told me that if I thought being a pastor was some kind of ticket to a life of holy bliss I’d be sorely disappointed. Now, twenty-three years after my ordination, I get it.

Not long after that conversation I went to Texas for seminary. I’ve only encountered Dr. Gaddy one time since then, and very briefly at that. It was during my doctoral work that I came across a book he had written. That in itself wasn’t such a big deal. He had authored several books by that time. However the title of this one provoked my curiosity: A Soul Under Siege: Surviving Clergy Depression.

A quick glance at the back cover summarized the story. This man whose counsel I had sought and whom I admired for his wisdom and pastoral sensitivity had hit a wall in his personal and professional life. He had admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital to get help with his depression. The book is confessional and reflective, telling the story of a public persona that didn’t square with some deeper inner realities. After living that way for a long time Gaddy, like Elijah, found himself by a broom tree. That’s when the time in the hospital happened.

Thankfully, he was willing to talk about it. Far too many of us spend our energies avoiding the broom trees or pretending that we’ve never spent time in the shade of one. What we learn from Welton Gaddy, and from Elijah, is that broom trees are we find a peculiar kind of mercy.

A death-threat from Queen Jezebel had sent Elijah running for his life. When he stopped running and dropped exhausted beneath the broom tree things weren’t going so well. He was a full day’s journey into the desert and he was alone, having left his servant back in Beersheba. Isolation and fatigue, mixed with fear is a lethal combination for any soul. Under the broom tree you begin to think you’d be better off dead. At least that’s what Elijah prayed for.

A broom tree is the place where myths are exposed. The idea that one experience of a spiritual high means immunity from future spiritual lows is exposed as a myth. And self-sufficiency is exposed as a myth. The broom tree is a place where we are brought to the end of ourselves. Then and only then do we discover the true meaning of grace. Elijah prays a desperate prayer under the broom tree – but God does not answer with rebuke or lecture. The prophet is simply told to get up and eat. This is followed by a long nap, and then another meal.

Broom trees appear in a variety of forms; we find them in different places. The period of unemployment, the month after the funeral when meals no longer arrive at your door, the first day after the divorce is finalized – broom trees all. Our inclination is to minimize our time there, rush off to the next mountain as quickly as we can mange. But God meets us under the broom trees in ways we don’t experience elsewhere. God sustains us there ands gives us what we need, getting us ready for the next leg of the journey. We sleep and eat, and eat and sleep again.

Do not resent the broom tree. Don’t look for detours around that place or try to cover the tracks that led you there. The broom tree is not a sign of your failure and weakness. It is a part of your formation as a person created and called by God.

Where have the broom trees been in your life?

We give you thanks, O God, for meeting us in places we’d rather not go. We thank you for the way you lead us to those barren places and then give us what we need in order to move on. Thank you for the simple gifts of grace that sustain us from day to day. Meet us in this day and keep us faithful in our journey with you, we pray. Amen.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Questions and Answers

And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9).

In his cave of despair, hiding and afraid and eaten up with doubts, Elijah was questioned by God. Not coddled. Not comforted. Questioned.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

The question is ambiguous. The meaning of the question can be changed by playing with it, putting the emphasis on a different word with each asking.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Was God’s questioning a rebuke: An implied accusation that the prophet had abandoned his calling and lost his nerve? Or was the question an invitation: A chance for Elijah to examine his faith and learn again the meaning of his own name – “The Lord is God.”

Maybe it was both. The truly interesting thing about this question is that God asks it twice. The first time it is asked, Elijah answers with lament and self-pity. God responds to that with the “still small voice” we spoke of yesterday.

And then God asked the question again. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” We might expect that by now Elijah has a different answer. He’s covered his face at the sound of God’s whisper. Now he’s seized with a Holy awe and ready to re-engage the godless Ahab and Jezebel. Now Elijah knows who he is and what he’s called by God to do.

Not so. Elijah gives the same pitiful answer. He’s still complaining, still feeling like God has dealt him a bad hand, still consumed with dark emotions.

And this time God simply says “Go back the way you came.” Get up. Get going. We’ve got work to do. God gives no explanations and offers no apologies or assurances to Elijah. God gives instruction and asks for obedience. So it is in the life of faith.


I’m feeling somewhat defensive on God’s behalf today. The images of destruction and suffering coming from Haiti have set me back on my heels a bit. Things like that can do that to me. I wish they didn’t but they do.

I believe the meaning of Elijah’s name. I believe “The Lord is God.” God is ruling all things, changing seasons and counting the hairs of our heads and keeping track of the smallest sparrow that falls from the sky. He never slumbers nor sleeps. He never gets caught off-guard as if he didn’t see something coming, whether earthquakes or bank failures. Our God reigns – unhindered and absolutely sovereign in all things. I believe that.

But I wouldn’t mind some help in making sense of massive suffering. Like Elijah, I’d welcome a word of reassurance, a sentence of explanation, a promise of future good to which all things inevitably lead. Just a word will do, even if it’s whispered and seizes me with a holy terror. I’ll take it anyway. Maybe you would too.

We won’t get it. As best I can tell from Elijah’s experience on Mt. Horeb and from other stories - the suffering Job and the indignation of Jonah – God will not provide footnotes and explanations to his ways in this world. We might feel like we’ve got some questions for God. But it always God who questions us.

What are you doing here?

In the family you belong to, in the company you work for, in the city where you live, in the church you attend . . . what are you doing? The question may carry rebuke: there’s something you should be doing that you aren’t. The question may be invitation: have you discovered what God has for you?

But in the end, as with Elijah, it always calls us back to simple obedience. Get up. Go back. Get to work. As for Haiti, get on your knees and pray. Get out your checkbook and give. If you feel led, get on a plane and go. Leave the cave of despair, let go of the need for explanations, and obey in radical trust and faith.

What are you doing where you are right now and what will obedience look like in your life today?
Almighty God, you call us to lives of obedience and faith. Living this way is sometimes hard for us as questions get in the way – things we can’t understand, things that make faith difficult. Meet us as you met Elijah and call us from the cave of fear and doubt to bold acts of obedience. In places near and far away, “your kingdom come” we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tested in Blessing

For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry . . . (1 Kings 17:16)

Once his water supply was exhausted he knew he would have to go somewhere else. Elijah had hidden by the brook because that’s where God told him to go. It was not a place of his own choosing. Hiding by the brook was an act of obedience. And now the brook was dry.

Is this how God rewards obedience?

The providence of God is strange to us. We would like to think that obedience leads to reward. What we see in Elijah is that obedience simply prepares us for the next act of obedience. God used the dry brook to send the prophet to Zarephath in the pagan region of Sidon – again, not a popular destination for a Hebrew prophet.

Whereas Elijah had been fed by ravens by the Kerith Ravine, a widow would feed him in Zarephath. As promised, Elijah met a widow at the gates of the town. When he asked her for a piece of bread she made it clear to Elijah that she had enough for one meal, and that meal would be for her and her son. After that they would likely die soon. The prophet was on his own.

But God spoke through the prophet, inviting an act of trust on the part of this widow. She used her meager supply of flour and oil and fed Elijah first. Seeing a miracle sometimes means taking a risk. Having used what she had to feed Elijah this widow discovered a fresh supply of oil and flour every day.

Some of the best known stories in the pages of the Bible are bread stories

As Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt and through the wilderness, God provided bread from heaven every morning. The people were to gather what they needed for that day. Trying to stockpile bread for tomorrow ended in rot and decay (Exodus 16:4).

Jesus replicated God’s gift of wilderness manna when he fed a multitude with a few loaves of bread and some fish. Gathered in a desolate place, thousands had more than they could eat (John 6:11-12). Later Jesus would say that he himself was the bread of life, the bread that comes from heaven and gives life to all people ( John 6:35).

And then there’s Elijah and the widow discovering the daily deposit of oil and flour.

The wilderness manna, the oil and flour, the multitudes fed with fishes and loaves: we naturally regard these things as gifts from God, great blessings that speak of God’s love and grace. But in Deuteronomy 8 we learn that often God uses blessings to test us.

Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Deut. 8:2-3).

God does not test us solely in trouble an affliction. Testing does not come in the form of loss and grief, in illness and death, in physical pain and mental distress. Such things test us, to be sure – but just as often God tests us in blessing. The blessings and gifts reveal the posture of hearts as much as the suffering does.

When we wake up every morning and find fresh oil and flour, the test is this: will we love the oil and flour? Will we depend on bread? Or will we love the God who meet us daily with more grace and sustains us in wilderness places?

How have you been blessed today – and what does the blessing show you about the affections of your heart and the object of your hope?

“Break thou the bread of life, Dear Lord, to me; As thou didst break the loaves beside the sea; Beyond the sacred page I seek the Lord; My Spirit pants for thee, O Living Word” (Break Thou the Bread of Life, The Hymnbook, p. 219)

Saturday, January 09, 2010


After a while the brook dried up because there was no rain in the land (1 Kings 17:7).

I can’t wait for next week. I’m feeling more anticipation for January 13 or 14 than I did for December 25th. By the middle of next week our daytime highs will reach the 40s and overnight lows will only be in the 30s. At least that’s what my favorite meteorologist reported last night before I fell asleep.

People who live in the North, or who live down here and grew up in the North, think we’re a joke when it comes to winter weather. Sure, we tend to overreact at times. The slightest mention of winter precipitation sends us in a panic to Home Depot for a generator, followed by a stop at Kroger for bread and milk, lest our children perish. Go ahead all you transplanted Yankees. Laugh all you want.

But understand our context here in the Sunbelt. Winter means slipping on a windbreaker when you jog at 6:00 a.m. Once we live through a few spells of nighttime lows below 20 and a possible ice or snow event, we’ve paid our dues to old man winter. He’s like an annoying relative who makes an obligatory annual visit and then goes home, not a moment too soon.

So next week. Bring it on. I’m not asking for balmy. I just want bearable.

Most of us can endure almost anything if we have a sense that eventually things will change. We can tolerate the intolerable for a while. We can put up with the unbearable if we see daylight at the end of the tunnel, something that assures us that the unpleasant present will inevitably give way to future blessing.

In matters far more serious than a wave of cold weather, we are willing to suffer and believe that God is at work in our affliction. What erodes faith isn’t the suffering, but the sense that the suffering won’t stop: The absence of a finish line, the lack of a horizon on which we see a shelter, a refuge, relief.

When Elijah told King Ahab that there would be “neither dew nor rain” the declaration was open-ended. No long range forecast was given to indicate how long the drought would last. The Elijah stories in 1 Kings 17 and 18 don’t give clear indications as to the length of the drought. The book of James in the New Testament says it lasted three and a half years (James 5:17). As best we can tell, not even Elijah knew when it would end. He just lived through it and in it until God gave rain.

One of the greatest challenges to a life of faith is living in the midst of a barren place and barren conditions without the slightest sense that things will ever change. Such conditions have a way of exposing us and the deepest affection of our hearts. They reveal the substance of our faith.

A life of faith doesn’t merely endure the present drought. Faith embraces it.

The tendency, shared by all of us, is to place our hope in a forecast. This has a subtle way of replacing our hope in God. We want to know when: when will I get better, when will the economy rebound, when will I find my soul-mate, when will the company recognize my talents and skills? A good forecast makes faith unnecessary.

But God doesn’t give us forecasts, at least not often and where it most matters. God invites a daily walk in the conditions we have right in front of us. That’s where God’s glory gets revealed. Fire falls from heaven; a small cloud promises a downpour (18:45). And a demonstration of God’s glory beats a forecast any day.

I will embrace the conditions of this day, O God, not as a test of endurance but as an invitation to faith. Give me eyes to see your glory and recognize your work – especially in the unlikely and unwanted details of this day. Amen.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Claiming Exemptions

“As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1 ESV).

Running from a fight had never been his style. Hiding was never his preferred strategy for dealing with trouble. Hesitation and reticence were alien to him. Once given a word to speak for God, Elijah itched to speak it like a thoroughbred being held back at the start-line of a race.

Thus his terse message to Ahab: “it will not rain until I say so.” The moment was confrontational. Elijah was going head to head with Israel’s faithless King and that King’s false god. Few Kings will tolerate that kind of thing; they will not lose face when treated with shameless disrespect.

So God told Elijah to hide in a ravine on the east side of the Jordan River. Elijah was to stay there, out of the way, removed from the action. He had said what needed to be said. God would take it from here until further notice. In the meantime, the prophet would survive by drinking water from the brook and being fed daily by ravens.

For a while the water in the Kerith ravine ran freely and wide. Elijah drank at will, quenching his thirst and washing down the food that came by ravens every morning and evening. But soon the flow of water narrowed. As God kept his word and confirmed Elijah’s message, the daily supply of water diminished to a trickle. One day, even that had stopped.

The brook dried up.

Many of us live with an unspoken rule, a silent expectation. We quietly carry the conviction that being in the center of God’s will is a “safe” place to be.

We assume that if we will be obedient to what God commands and seek to live life in a way that pleases God, we will somehow dodge the varied troubles that are visited upon the disobedient and the self-indulgent.

We claim exemptions: We will seek to know God’s will and live in it, and the cancer will not find us or those we love. The accident will miss us. The lay-offs will not impact us. We may not be exactly where we want to be. Life won’t be picture perfect. But, like Elijah, we will be fed daily and drink freely from the brook.

Sometimes, however, the brook dries up. Even for bold prophets and ordinary faithful people, the stream narrows to a sliver and then stops altogether.

As we keep company with Elijah in the coming weeks we’ll see that the promise of God for a new year does not include exemptions. This doesn’t mean we should expect the illness or the lay-off or the accident. We can live the coming days knowing hat God wills our good.

The story of Elijah reminds us that God accomplishes that good in the midst of circumstances we would choose to avoid. God is purposefully at work by the diminishing brook. God uses deprivation in one place to move the prophet to a new place where grace is discovered anew. God still works that way.

As we seek to discover what it means to live well in this New Year Elijah will be our guide. We begin not by claiming exemptions but by recognizing our need for grace. Brooks and creeks diminish. God’s faithfulness doesn’t.

Too often, Lord God, our faith grows small as we see the brook running dry. We feel cheated or deceived. Teach us through the prophet Elijah to look to you rather than flowing streams, whether of water or money, good fortune or good health. In the coming days of this year accomplish your purposes for us, reminding us that you work for our good in all things. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.