The story of Elijah’s fleeing into the wilderness, which Ernie just read for us, follows one of the many “texts of terror” that we find in the Bible. Elijah has just finished a “pray-off” with the prophets of Baal, the god whom Queen Jezebel worships and which King Ahab has wimped out into worshiping. In the sight of the people of Israel, Elijah challenged the prophets to lay an altar to Baal with a slain bull upon it and then to pray to Baal to set fire to the offering. Hour after hour, the prophets cry out to Baal, and hour after hour, there is no response, until the men can barely limp around the altar. Finally, Elijah says it’s his turn. He lays an altar, complete with slain and cut up bull, digs a trench around it, and has the people pour water on the offering and to fill the trench with water. He prays to God, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God.’”
All of that is impressive, awe-inspiring, even a little grisly; but then the real terror comes. “Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the river bank and killed them there.” 450 prophets of Baal slaughtered by the hand of the prophet of God. Yes, Queen Jezebel had tried to kill off all the prophets of God–hundreds of them–and yes, something big and dramatic was needed to impress upon the people of Israel the need to turn back to the true God, but wouldn’t the spontaneous combustion of the water-soaked altar have been enough? Hadn’t God answered Elijah’s prayer? Where in the Divine Response did it say to massacre the prophets of Baal?
Queen Jezebel rises to the bait and vows to kill Elijah, to perpetuate the cycle of violence. “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow,” she vows. So Elijah flees for his life into the wilderness. Time out.
Time out. Not only in fear for his life, but, I think, after one has killed 450 of one’s fellow human beings, it’s good to take time out.
“Cutting Loose,” is the title of a poem by William Stafford. It speaks not only to Elijah’s flight into the wilderness, but also to the need for us, occasionally, to “cut loose,” to take time out from business as usual, especially this week, as we mourn and ache and reel from yet another and another act of hatred and violence.
Sometimes from sorrow, for no reason, [Stafford writes]
you sing. For no reason, you accept
the way of being lost, cutting loose
from all else and electing a world
where you go where you want to.
Arbitrary, a sound comes, a reminder
that a steady center is holdingall else. If you listen, that sound
will tell you where it is and you
can slide your way past trouble.
Certain twisted monsters
always bar the path—but that’s when
you get going best, glad to be lost,
learning how real it is
here on earth, again and again.
As Quaker author Parker Palmer says, something about this poem is haunting…”accepting the way of being lost,” which is how we can feel in a world that seems so arbitrary, so relentlessly out of control, so overrun with hatred.
And then, that “sound comes, a reminder that a steady center is holding all else.” When Elijah was called out on the mountain to stand before the Lord, it was not in the violence of the wind or the earthquake or the fire that God came. Violence was not the response to violence, but rather “the still small voice,” the literal Hebrew meaning “a thin whisper,” “a faint murmuring sound.” “A sound comes, a reminder that a steady center is holding all else. If you listen, that sound will tell you where it is [where that center is] and you can slide your way past trouble.”
And of course, “certain twisted monsters always bar the path.” How easily we could fill in the blanks to identify the “certain twisted monsters”–the shooter of the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, ISIS, Syria’s Bashar el Assad, the killer of British MP Jo Cox; so many candidates for the term. “But that’s when you get going best,” Stafford writes, “glad to be lost, learning how real it is here on earth, again and again.”
“Just remaining quietly in the presence of God,” Thomas Merton wrote, “listening to [God], being attentive to [God], requires a lot of courage and know-how.” We don’t do it easily or often. We don’t even listen to ourselves deeply enough. “What are we willing to feel?” columnist Courtney E. Martin asks. Do we simply numb ourselves with activity or stuff or alcohol or drugs or food or anything else we can find to not feel what we are feeling? Martin tells of an exercise that is common in pre-natal classes, which is to get into an uncomfortable position and hold it–”an experiment in relating to your own physical discomfort,” as she says. [OnBeing, 6/16/16] “What was Omar Mateen [the killer in the Orlando massacre] willing to feel?” she asks. It appears he was a conflicted young man. “How many hatreds bloom from a seed of self-loathing? And how many of these blooms become incomprehensible violence?”
Time out. What are we willing to feel? Sadness? Anger? Frustration? Hatred? Compassion? Determination? Inspiration? Love? Hope? A little boy accompanied his grandmother this week when she came in to our church to get a $10 voucher for Willy’s. As we talked, the boy said to his grandmother, “Now you’re looking sad again.” “Do I look sad?” she asked him, and she acknowledged that she was sad, discouraged with the struggle to feed her grandchildren, to watch her daughter struggle on parole after being imprisoned on a drug charge. She didn’t wallow in it, but I admired her for talking so openly with this little boy about her feelings and acknowledging that sometimes she feels sad. She was modelling for him the ok-ness of feeling sad.
“Now is the time for clergy to deliver sermons about emotionally arid men,” a guest columnist in this week’s Bennington Banner said, “thirsting for waters of connection and the sunlight of compassion.” Did you hear the psalm for today? “As a deer longs for flowing streams,” the psalmist says, “so my soul longs for you, O God.” Not that I usually take my preaching orders from guest columnists, but this is the assigned psalm for the week; and I daresay that all of us, men and women, thirst for waters of connection and the sunlight of compassion. We must not become emotionally arid, or dry. We must become communities where love and compassion are taught and embodied, where all feelings are acknowledged, where questions are welcomed, even questions about one’s sexual identity or orientation. I learned this week that the “Q” in LGBTQ not only stands for “queer”–a self-claimed term for those who do not fit into the “normal” categories that our society has deemed acceptable. But it can also mean “questioning”–sometimes 2 Q’s are used to describe this community–LGBTQQ. Imagine if Omar Mateen had been part of a community where “questioning” was acceptable? [There are Muslim communities where it is.]
Time out. What are we willing to feel? What about the owner of the gun shop where Mateen purchased his weapons of destruction? Ed Henson is his name, and he said the shooting was horrific. He also said, “He’s evil. We happen to be the gun store he picked.” I wonder if Mr. Henson is willing to feel at all complicit, able to remotely entertain the possibility that he is part of a system that provides weapons for angry, unstable people. If the shooter is merely “evil” then we can put him in that box. Alas, as Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, “In Christ, there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave or free,” no divisions that exclude us from one another. We are all one, in this together.
Of course it’s not just gunshop owners who might consider their complicity. If I am honest with myself, I wonder if I have done enough, have I advocated for gun safety legislation enough, have I simply given up on government or given up on meaningful conversation between gun owners and those of us who don’t own guns? Have I made assumptions that are not true? Have I done enough to stand beside our Muslim brothers and sisters, to welcome them into the community of the United States of America? Have I been honest enough about my own violent thoughts and feelings, toward myself sometimes, let alone toward others? Maybe it’s time for me to embrace “the way of being lost,” for a while; a time out to listen for that sound, that reminder that a steady center is holding. Courtney Martin, that woman who was encouraged in her pre-natal class to experience physical discomfort, to be willing to feel it, concludes, “Like birth, I must surrender to the burden and blessing of being a person awake and feeling in a violent world capable of change.” (Op cit.)
So in these next minutes, and in these days to come, I invite you to take some time to “get lost,” to feel what you feel, to listen for the sound of that murmuring whisper that reminds you that a steady center is holding. We mustn’t stay lost forever–we must work together to create a better way forward– but for this time, receive this blessing from the Terra Collective, printed in a book called “Life Prayers from Around the World’–
“May our eyes remain open even in the face tragedy.
May we not become disheartened.
May we find in the dissolution of our apathy and denial, the cup of the broken heart.
May we discover the gift of the fire burning in the inner chamber of our being — burning great and bright enough to transform any poison.
May we offer the power of our sorrow to the service of something greater than ourselves.
May our guilt not rise up to form yet another defensive wall.
May the suffering purify and not paralyze us.
May we endure; may sorrow bond us and not separate us.
May we realize the greatness of our sorrow and not run from its touch or its flame.
May clarity be our ally and wisdom our support.
May our wrath be cleansing, cutting through the confusion of denial and greed.
May we not be afraid to see or speak our truth.
May the bleakness of the wasteland be dispelled.
May the soul’s journey be revealed and the true hunger fed.
May we be forgiven for what we have forgotten and blessed with the remembrance of who we really are.”
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark