Loaves and Fishes in Abundance
I am always surprised where I will find something about hunger and how we are called to help bring it [...]
Date posted: Friday 21 August 2020
The Bible is full of stories of testing and discernment. Stories of famines, natural disasters, personal set-backs, forced migration, and oppressive occupation by foreign empires thread through the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. While we offer daily laments and soft-spoken complaints about the toll of the current pandemic, our faith tradition teaches us to see this as common fare for people of faith.
This summer I have been studying the account of Elijah reckoning with his own despair in I Kings 19:1-8. You know the story. Both King Ahab and Queen Jezebel are out to get the prophet. On the heels of the successful contest at Mount Carmel, Elijah is filled with fear and flees for his life. His is a legitimate fear. After all, it was at his hand that his opponents, the prophets of Baal, had been killed. When Jezebel vows to do the same to Elijah, he makes a fast retreat to Beersheba.
Getting out of harm’s way is a strategic decision. Most of us have spent the last five months making strategic decisions. We have closed our church buildings and learned to work from home. We have acquired new skills for recording worship digitally, religiously followed the daily updates from the governor’s office, and learned new appreciation for the colleagues with amazing skills for using social media to enliven the work of the church in the midst of this pandemic. We’ve guided families through grief at a safe social distance. We have made the most of Zoom calls and phone contacts, encouraged staff colleagues, and participated in virtual youth events. In recent weeks, we have created outdoor worship formats and small group meetings. All along we have worried that our own pastoral activities may bring the coronavirus home to our families.
Realistically, we know that these new ways of gathering and being church will extend through the fall and maybe well into the coming year. And if pandemic agility were not enough to test our leadership mettle, the killing of George Floyd on May 25 and the social unrest that ensued, has convicted us that we must address our own racist ideas and practices if our church life and our pastoral leadership is going to have integrity in this new context of accountability and racial equity.
In I Kings 19:3 we read that a servant accompanied old Elijah as he fled the Queen’s death threats. This summer I found myself reflecting on how much of the life-sustaining work during this pandemic has been made possible by those with fewer choices than the ones you or I have. I have been praying for the frontline workers – hospital staff and grocery store clerks, bus drivers and first responders – all those, who don’t get to shift their work to a spare room at home. They have worn their masks, washed their hands and kept what social distance they could so that the rest of us would have more choices for how to keep ourselves safe and healthy. Day after day, they have embodied vocation and sallied forth amid their own fears.
But in I Kings we read that Elijah leaves the servant in Beersheba and goes forth into the wilderness alone. The prophet traveled a day’s journey, which is far enough to have time to reflect on one’s life and future; long enough to make a deliberate plan. And the great prophet’s plan was this – “(he) sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’” (19:4)
Have we had enough already? I’ve had my moments of frustration and weariness and bet you have, too. There is a lot to anticipate in a climate ripe for change but there are also experiences of being church that I miss.
The month of May came and went without the familiar reunion called the synod assembly. Congregational singing, a joy for me, has been banished for the foreseeable future. No matter what anyone else says, preaching to a camera in my study at home and uploading a sermon that will be posted days later, is not the same experience as preaching in the midst of a living and breathing congregation. While there is a lot to like about Zoom, the fatigue that comes after the fourth scheduled meeting in a day is real. You have your list of woes, too. Add in the gatherings of family and friends that have been cancelled and the shade of the broom tree looks inviting.
Now, I trust you know the story. If you can’t remember what happened next, stop reading this and go read I Kings 19:5-8. It is one of the clearest portrayals of God’s grace in all of scripture.
Elijah wants to call it quits and with that confession on his heart he falls asleep. A friend on Facebook recently referred to this Biblical passage in terms of the restorative power of “a nap and a snack.” The author of I Kings put it more elegantly, writing – “Suddenly an angel touched Elijah and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” (19:5b-7)
Have you tasted holy cake, baked on hot stones, this summer? Have you taken time to get away from your work and worries, so that the natural rhythms of Sabbath rest can restore your body, mind and spirit? Have you reached out to colleagues to spell you so that vacation days are enjoyed even in the midst of a pandemic? I have and pray that you have, too.
These current months are as fertile a context for strong, wise and loving leadership as any I have experienced in four decades as a pastor. Whether you serve as a deacon, a pastor or an elected lay leader, you have already done many things well. Give yourself some credit. Thank the people around you – including your family. Thank God for keeping you healthy and giving you so many privileges in a time when life is difficult and precarious for many in the global community. And then, get ready. Your call to ministry is not at an end.
We know that when the pandemic is no longer a worrisome and life-threatening concern we cannot simply return to our old ways of being church. Too much has happened and this crisis time is too precious to waste as an opportunity to be a faithful church in a new way.
In a recent blog1, Erik Gronberg, who serves as the Bishop of the Northern Texas – Northern Louisiana Synod of the ELCA, posed five questions for going forward into that new reality. Based on those, here are my five questions for you:
All of this is to say that we still have work to do for the sake of God’s church and world. We will be remiss, if a year from now, we and the contexts in which we serve do not look, sound and act differently than we did in mid-March 2020. That’s how hope works. It grows out of weary prophets, parched ground, and times of crisis.
Old Elijah learned that, too. “He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.” (19:8). Even that isn’t the last we hear of the prophet but this portion of Elijah’s story is enough for now.
We may feel like quitting but we won’t. We may want to stay in the shade of the broom tree, remembering the hard things we have endured but God keeps sending us on. We may tell God we are out of gas, weary and running on empty, but God has a way of replenishing our strength and setting us on our feet again. And for that we give thanks.
Bishop Patricia Lull
July 25, 2020