Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Time Out When We’re Out of Time

Time presents both opportunity and limitation, and in the course of our lives we experience it both ways.  Availability of time allows us to plan, and then carry out the plan.  Limitations of time constrain our plans and often shape our accomplishments. 

We react emotionally to both the opportunities and the limitations of time.  Conceiving and carrying out a plan is exhilarating.  Under its spell we often overlook the shortness of available time, and we overestimate the effect we are having on the world.  When the world reasserts itself, and we see the limited nature of our success, we sometimes feel humiliated or depressed.  It is then that we need to experience a “time out”, to step aside from the pressures and demands of clock-driven time, called chronos by the Greeks, and allow God to touch us with kairos, the holy time that underlies the whole creation.

There is an example of this in the nineteenth chapter of 1 Kings, where Elijah, the “Prophet of the Lord” confronts King Ahab of Israel with his faithlessness in allowing Jezebel his queen to import the fertility gods known as Baals from her native Phoenicia.  Incensed by Ahab and Jezebel’s persecution and execution of the priests of Yahweh, Elijah challenges the King to send the priests of Baal to Mt. Carmel, and there to enter a competition in the presence of the people of Israel.  Ahab agrees, and Elijah sets the terms of the contest: the priests of Baal will choose a sacrificial bull, prepare it for sacrifice, place it on an altar, and pray to Baal for fire to consume the offering.  Elijah will do likewise, calling upon the name of the Lord. 

The efforts of the priests of Baal prove fruitless, and their sacrifice is untouched by fire.  Elijah then prepares his offering, pours water over the animal and the firewood, and asks the Lord to consume it.  Fire descends from heaven and the offering of Elijah is burned.  In the sight of the people, the contest proves the power of the Lord, and the impotence of Baal.  Elijah then orders that the priests of Baal be put to death, and all acknowledge his triumph.

All, that is, except Queen Jezebel.  Elijah’s elation is dashed as he receives word that the Queen has demanded his head.  Elijah flees to the wilderness.  Going a day’s journey, he takes shelter under a broom tree, and asking the Lord to take his life, falls asleep.  He awakens when touched by an angel, who leaves him a cake to eat, and a jar of water to drink.  Elijah eats and drinks, and then goes back to sleep.  The angel comes a second time, telling him to eat and drink again, “lest the journey be too much for you.”  He eats and drinks a second time, and then goes without food or drink for 40 days as he makes his way to Mt. Horeb, the Mountain of God, where Moses had received the Commandments.

At Mt. Horeb Elijah comes to a cave, and lodges there, where the word of the Lord comes to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  Elijah tells the Lord how zealous he has been to turn the people away from Baal, and that he is hiding to save his life.  The Lord hears his story, and says, “Go, stand upon the mountain.”  Elijah obeys, and as the Lord passes by there is a great wind, but the Lord is not in the wind.  After the wind comes an earthquake, causing the mountain to tremble, but the Lord is not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake comes a fire, but the Lord is not in the fire.  After the fire comes stillness, and there is a small voice in the stillness, asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Once again Elijah replies that he has been zealous for the Lord, and that Jezebel now seeks his life.  And the Lord speaks again, “Go.  Go, and return now to the wilderness of Damascus.”

This story, set so long ago, is contemporary in its message.  Jezebel sends a message to Elijah:  “So may the gods do to me, and more, if I do not kill you by tomorrow.”  One Commentator, Davie Napier, paraphrased the encounter with Jezebel as follows: “If you are Elijah, know that I am Jezebel.”  It’s the same message, but there’s a little different emphasis.  “If you are a preacher, I am the Queen.”  “If you think you are something, I am Somebody.”

Napier points out that we have all dealt with this message all our lives.  “You may be Howard, but I am your mother.”  Do you remember that?  You did something that seemed pretty smart, you knew your mother wasn’t going to be happy, but you thought you’d gotten away with it.  There are other times as well: “You may be Howard, but I am your teacher.”  “You may be Howard, but I’m writing your pay check.”  Sometimes it’s less personal:  “You may be Joe, but I’m Unemployment.”  “You may be Jane, but I’m Cancer.”  Who you believe yourself to be suddenly runs into what the world believes itself to be, and the world usually has the power.

How do we react?  Usually we react the same way Elijah did.  The fundamental urge is to get out of town, and we want to do it fast.  We want to get to a cave.  Either literally or figuratively, we want to hide.  We want to shut down that force from outside that is denying our humanity, our worth, our insight and our goodness.  We experience “The World” in this sense in our parents, our children, our spouses, our employers, or employees, our friends, total strangers or even the community as a whole.  However we get the message, we want to protect ourselves.  So, like Elijah, we head for the wilderness.  We find our place of retreat, and we say, “Lord, why did you let me get into this mess?  Lord, just take it away - I don’t care how you do it.”  And we lie down hoping for the Lord to swoop in and carry us away.  If we’re far enough down we hope he’ll have the mercy to let us die. 

But what happens?  We wake up, and it is morning.  And there, if you’re alert to it, is a piece of bread and a cup of water.  As I remember the down times in my life, especially those that hit me as an adult, where the consequences were most serious, someone left me some bread and some water.  In the Old Testament, the word “angel” is often used of a person on a mission from God, and by that understanding I have known a good many angels.  Just when I think I’ve taken as much as I can take, when I’m on the edge of making some rash decision that’s only going to make things worse, there has been a little bread and a cup of water.  It’s never a banquet - just enough to get me through the crisis.  And if I have humility, and good sense prevails, I take it and allow myself to be nourished.

Then there is a voice in the stillness, that says, “Go a little further - let the Lord into this.”  At first I look for something spectacular.  Something wild like a windstorm arises, but the Lord is not in the wind.  Something frightening comes like an earthquake, but the Lord is not in the shaking.  The ordeal may be hot like a fire, but the Lord is not in the burning.  At length all this passes, and there is just silence.  Napier retranslates this moment in Elijah’s story, “Elijah entered the silence, and the voice of the silence was good.”

In the silence is the word that reminds us of who we are, and Whose we are.  In the silence after the storm comes the word that tells us, “All shall be well, but not right away - you’ve got work to do.  You’ve got to go back.”  God sends Elijah back into the dangerous land to do the dangerous work.  He doesn’t promise him that his life will be spared, but says, “In that work is where I am.”

Elijah’s is a story about God’s way of providing what we need, that we may use the time we have been given according to our calling.  When the world comes down on us we want to get away, and sometimes we need to get away.  And in those times there’s a little food and a little drink provided for that part of the journey.  The word of the Lord also comes at the moment when we’re ready to listen.  It doesn’t tell us it’s okay to forget it all and go away forever, but rather that if we can receive it, the days of our lives are for the glory of God.  There is a time for doing, for spending our energy and our time.  When our supplies are low, when the world hits back and leaves us wounded, there is a time to recuperate, to be restored.  And when we have fed on the bread, and quenched our thirst, the time comes to do and to spend our energy once again.

What makes the difference is our willingness to offer all the time we have to the God who is behind all the times there are.  Living within the sequences of chronological time, we may draw nourishment from the springs of Kairos time; the only condition being that while we draw breath we obey the command to “Return”, and offer our renewed time once more to God’s service in the world.

Howard MacMullen
© September, 2012

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