Monday, January 17, 2011

Relating to Elijah: Dealing with Bad News, Feeling Like Giving Up, and the Steady Provision of God

Last Tuesday morning, the news in my world that I faced as I got out of bed was not particularly good.

I went to work out at the Community Center. While walking the treadmill, the TV monitor was on, and I got to soak in all the wonderful economic news our region is dealing with.

And by "wonderful," I am being extremely sarcastic.

First, it was the top headline here in Chicago: In the wee hours of the morning, the lame-duck Illinois Legislature had approved what is ostensibly the biggest tax increase in our state's history. The Illinois income tax is going up 67 percent. Worse is the business/corporate taxes. The combined federal and state business taxes males Illinois one of the most expensive states in the US to do business in.

For those of us living, earning, and doing business here in the southern suburbs of Chicago, its as if the Legislature has thrown a drowning man an anvil instead of a life preserver. This is extremely frustrating. I understand the need to try and close the gap on the State's budget deficit. I understand that the State needs to pay its bills. But this really misses the mark. I don't want this discussion to get too political, but the major beneficiaries of this tactic are special interests like the state employee pension plan. There are promises of money for education, but the legislature refused to pass the increase in the cigarette tax, the one concept that guaranteed increased funding for education. And by not going the whole way to the proposed 75% increase, the entities that depend on state funding to survive (like nursing homes that provide care to Medicaid recipients) will not be getting the money promised to them. The practical reality for this region is this -- we are already hemorrhaging. Our unemployment rate is two to three points above national averages. Businesses are closing left and right. And right across the state line, in Indiana, is a much more palatable business environment. Businesses and jobs will be leaving the state in droves. Local commentator John Kass has wondered if the legislature has included the cost of the razor wire fence that will be needed to keep businesses in the state.

Then, as the news progressed, there was a round-table discussion about the economic forecast for the coming year. It was dire. Unemployment to reach new heights by the spring. Record numbers of businesses closing. Record numbers of bankruptcies. Real Estate continuing to decline. It was, to be blunt, a pretty dismal discussion.

Then I started my workday. Business has been pretty slow for me lately. Combined with increased frustration relating to office equipment and my own sense of foreboding as I tackle project after project dealing concepts I have never done before, or haven't done for over ten years, and anger and depression begins to set in. I feel like I need primal scream therapy as I try and sort out bad internet connections, trying to installing software on my new laptop when I'm not sure what I'm doing, having a "smartphone" that should be renamed the "not so smart phone." More frustrations than I can shake a stick at.

And then the depression sets in. Like a black cloud. All this effort. All this capital. Every fiber of my being invested in this concept of being an "entrepreneur." Trying to make a living. For what? There is hardly any business. What little business I have produces an income that is a mere fraction of what I used to make. I've been at this now for two years, and nothing seems to change. And then with this news, it seems pointless to continue.

Many of my friends try to encourage me by reminding me that God is good. Look at all the blessings he's provided for me. God has given me obvious successes. Things may seem tough now, but they'll turn around. I recognize that, but sometimes, this heaviness, the fallout from the day to day struggle is just so hard to resist. It is like a deep darkness that settles over me, and I feel like I'm disappearing. As I keep figuratively banging my head against the wall, I get tired. Very, very, very tired. I want to pull the covers over my head and disappear from existence. I just want to give up.

And then, as i cracked open my bible, and read about a man who was having a similar day to mine.

My devotional reading took me to 1 Kings 19. Its the middle of an extended narrative about the life of the Prophet Elijah.

Elijah was a prophet who was always on the run. He confronted one of the most vile, evil regimes to rule Israel in those times, King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. Ahab's father Omri had sought to cement an alliance with the northern kingdom of Israel and the surrounding pagan powers by pairing his son with a foreign princess, the daughter of the King of Sidon who was also a priestess of Baal. When she came to keep house with Ahab, she brought with her a huge entourage of priests and prophets of Baal and Ashteroth, the most popular pagan deities of the time. The worship of Yahweh was forced underground. Elijah, by standing up for who God was, was truly counter cultural -- preaching the truth to a society that had rejected God. Indeed, Elijah's name means "Yahweh is my God."

Elijah appeared out of nowhere to confront the King and his sin. He boldly predicted the drought that would grip the nation. He was forced into hiding, but God miraculously provided for him -- he lived in the wilderness, fed by ravens. Through him, God had miraculously provided oil for the widow of Zarephath, and raised her son from the dead.

Then came what is ostensibly his greatest triumph -- the confrontation on Mt. Carmel. The story is well known. Two altars were built -- one for Baal, one for the Lord. Elijah's challenge was simple -- the followers of each God would pray for fire to fall from heaven and consume the sacrifice on that God's altar. When the fire fell, it would prove which God was real.

The priests of Baal danced, sang, prayed, and even cut and mutilated their own bodies for blood to flow on the sacrifice. All day, until the sun was setting, they continued. Of course, there was no response. After ordering the Lord's altar drenched in water, Elijah prayed, and the fire fell from the sky, consuming the sacrifice. Elijah seized the moment, declaring that the prophets of Baal should be killed on the spot, and prayed for an end to the drought, and the rain began to fall.

This would seem to be Elijah's moment of greatest success, yet, it doesn't turn out that way. Here's what happened next:

"Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God." (1 Kings 19: 1-8)

Its an amazing story, yet, one I easily identify with. Elijah had indeed just experienced a great triumph. His blessings were many. The success God had brought to him were clear. But, this was also the first time he had been confronted directly by the evil Queen Jezebel. She promised to kill him, with a solemn oath. He had been living "life on the run," and had been getting by with very little. Considering the track record of how often the King's administration, or even the people generally, had embraced or even bothered to pay attention to what he was saying, well, discouragement was probably his usual reaction. So even in the wake of a heady victory, when trouble reared up, the difficulties overshadowed the triumph.

Indeed, the contrast is striking. As soon as this threat appeared, as soon as trouble showed up, Elijah lost sight of the victory and the blessing, and was consumed with discouragement and depression. I am sure the death threat was just he topper to a series of discouragements that became a weight to him, so that even in that glorious triumph on Mt. Carmel, the constant drip of rejection and disappointment was too much for Elijah to bear.

Its as if he was thinking, "See? Even when good things happen, the pattern of my life continues." I so identify with this. I have experienced so much of God's blessings during the last two years, yet, getting smacked in the face over and over again with discouragement and uncertainty causes me to lose heart. Our psyches and souls can be so very, very fragile. I can't tell you how often I have felt like Elijah -- sitting under that tree after another disappointment, wishing I could die.

But the greatest encouragement in all of this is the way that God deals with Elijah after he falls asleep beneath the broom tree. God doesn't rebuke him. Elijah is not rejected. God does not consider Elijah unusable. Indeed, God doesn't say anything at all. God understands where Elijah is at -- He understands how spiritually bone-weary Elijah is. So he kindly and gently provides the thing that Elijah needs the most at that point. A meal. And he allows him to rest. Then, he makes sure Elijah gets a second helping.

Because we know what is going to happen next, we see what God is doing here. God knows there's a lot of work to be done. God knows the enemies are powerful and numerous. God knows the journey will be long and hard. So He sends his angel to Elijah to make sure he has not one, but two helpings of a nourishing, home cooked meal, so he can be ready for the journey ahead. God met Elijah right were he was -- discouraged, hopeless, too tired to continue -- and provided just what he needed to be revitalized.

I can't tell you how many times I have in a place like Elijah's broom tree in the wilderness, and God has brought me angelic provision. It sometimes has been miraculous, like an anonymous gift to meet a financial need. Sometimes its been the support and encouragement of our friends. Sometimes its that phone call from a new client, just when I thought there wasn't going to be enough business to make it. Sometimes its just the Lord, shining his light of truth into my brain like he did here. Even in the midst of abject discouragement and bone weary tiredness, God is there to take my hand.

Philippians 4:19 says "my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus." I often perceive that my needs need to be met according to my own design. But when my body, mind, and spirit are tired and sagging, God graciously provides the nourishment I need. My own resources are limited. Dare I say, bankrupt? Yet God, in His grace, supplies me with bountiful resources that are more than sufficient.

Like Elijah, I am on a journey. I suppose I will continue to have "broom tree" episodes. I will face bad news, discouragement, and threats again and again. I will again feel like giving up. But God will be there, providing all I need -- according to the riches of his glory.

It doesn't make the bad news any better. But it does give me strength. And hope. Hope that I can also continue to have Mt. Horeb episodes (see 1 Kings 19: 9-15), where I meet the Lord face to face, and hear what he has for me.

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