Saturday, 8 August 2015

The Pilgrim People of God Sometimes Need a Nap

Elijah went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and 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.’ Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him 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.’ 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. (1 Kings 19:4-8) 
Elijah is the prophetic superstar. He dried up the heavens, brought a boy back to life, beat the prophets of Baal in a sacrificing competition. He always wins. But he gets wind that Ahab and Jezebel are after his blood - unsurprisingly, as he's just had all their prophets killed - and he runs.

He runs into the wilderness, and he sits down. And he's had enough. And he wants to die.

There's a phenomenon best described as the Sunday Afternoon Clergy crash. It happens to ministers who've taken services on a Sunday morning.

We can describe it in a series of stages, like the effects of the Scarlet Pimpernel's poison in Black Adder III. Not all are compulsory every time, but go with it for a minute. The first you could describe as mild elation. The minister is still flooded with excitement from the services. Or at least you hope she or he is. If they've just come out the same as they started, then goodness knows what the morning's worship has done for the rest of you.

The second stage is desolation. The minister realises that they've missed a few pages while explaining the family life of the early Assyrians.  Or that they forgot to ask old Harold how his gout is this week - and if you don't ask Harold how his gout is in any particular week, he writes letters to the Church Times bemoaning the laxity of modern day ministry and how, in Harold's day, that nice Reverend George Herbert used to be round to see him every day at 9.15 precisely. Until George died of exhaustion.

The third stage - if they've had dinner, or a couple of glasses of wine, or just been up very early tidying up a sermon - is sleep. The minister will have a nice few hours of kip. And wake up convinced they're late for evening service.

And you could put all sorts of spiritual interpretations on these three stages. Or you could figure it's all down to physiology. The leading of the service - especially if preaching - gives an adrenalin rush. And then as it rushes in, what you've actually got is a form of exhaustion.

And that looks like Elijah here. He's given the performance of his life. He's taken everybody on and won. God has heard his prayer. And now - and now he's knackered. And maybe the biggest highs bring the biggest lows. Maybe that's why pop singers so often fall prey to drink and drugs - to extend the fun past when the natural high has gone. Maybe that's the risk some sports people have to cope with when the days of trophies have gone. And, as my friend Archimandrite Simon put it, even on a really bad Sunday most of us don't have to deal with people - even royal people - trying to kill us. No wonder he's down.

But if what happens to Elijah in his crash is natural, the way God meets him is both natural and divine. Elijah's out in the desert. He's desolate. "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors." He's shattered, and with the tiredness come the doubts - has he been good enough? What good is he now? And he passes into sleep.

He wakes and there's an angel, bringing him bread in the desert. Where's Elijah heard that before? He's being reminded - if he's no better than his ancestors, those are the ancestors that God met in the desert, and gave bread to. Elijah is enacting the wanderings of Moses and the Israelites in the desert - including the complaining! - all on his own. And he really does think he's on his own, as we find out later. Maybe that's another thing bearing down on him - the thought that the whole of faith to God depends on him - and he knows how weak he is himself. Elijah eats, and drinks. And goes back to sleep.

And when he's eaten and drunk again, he's ready to go - for forty days. Another reminder of the Children of Israel. And he's going to go to Mount Horeb, where Moses received the 10 commandments. And he's going - though he doesn't know it yet - to get another vision of God.

The temptation to do too much - the urge to get the kick of delivering something, of making a connection, giving a great sermon, writing a cracking blog post that makes the papers - that's so deep in the human soul. Not just in prophets, pop stars and local church ministers.

The worker who gets a pat on the head for working late one night - so it becomes a habit. The quiet words of praise from the boss, because you're there on Saturday - even though you could have had it sorted Friday if you'd been organised.

The urge always to be seen to be doing. The people I've known shattered, because "I've been in back-to-back meetings all day". They're always the same people who it turns out haven't got any actual work done - no thinking, no planning, no programming, whatever - because they've been in "back-to-backs". The scary thing that I've just used that term, and some people think that's a good thing. They're scared, I suppose, of blank spaces in the calendar. If you're not at a meeting - how can you be genuinely working?

And then the late nights, the early mornings, the siren call of the blackberry when you are just about to go to bed at half past 11. And so you fire off an email, to prove you're keen.

And then get one back, 30 seconds later.

And then, whether Christians work for money or not, they manage to fill up all their spare time as well. With things that are valuable, don't get me wrong. Or sometimes with meetings that may - or may not - have meaning. And then of course there's services. And sometimes, if you work really hard at Church meetings and church activities, you may never see your family, or your non-Christian friends. What's the matter with us? Are we scared that if we had a whole day with nothing to do we might start to wonder what we're up to? Do we need every minute filled with something?

Elijah's just had a great experience. And now he's shattered, and down. And, for a moment there, he wants it all to end. And he gets a rest - one sleep, good food that he didn't have to cook himself, another sleep, more food. And he's ready to go.

He's had a Sabbath. He's been met in need, by God. His immediate needs weren't actually spiritual - though it would have been easy to turn them that way, and he tried. He needed food and drink and sleep. He needs to look after himself. He needs the time to rest. When he gets to Horeb - then he can deal with the proper spiritual things. There's time for that. But, for now, what he really needed was a break.

There's a reason why God gave a Sabbath. We all need a break. And we don't need to fill that break with services, church stuff, meetings. In fact, if that's what your Sunday looks like, you probably need another Sabbath. We need a day to rest. To take our brains off the hook. To do some gardening, ride a bike, read a book - even one that's not improving. To watch the telly or even - more than we like to think perhaps - to sleep. If I fall asleep in the day, or have a lie-in because I'm tired, I can feel annoyed with myself for wasting the time. Maybe we need to know that there's a balance where sometimes a bit of extra rest is exactly what you need,

So Elijah goes on, and goes on to be seriously picked up at Horeb, and goes on to fulfil the rest of his calling. But he knows now that God's love and care for him don't depend on what he does. God has met him and cared for him in his tiredness, in his crash, in his hopelessness. And God has shown himself faithful regardless.

God gives us spiritual bread - the bread first given on a cross on a hill. The bread that the manna in the desert and the cake given to Elijah are just shadows of. And it means we grow, and it means we live and it means that, bit by bit, we are being made like the One who is that bread. And God gives us rest to go alongside, not to be replaced as if receiving the bread makes us supercharged. To give us time to contemplate, to think - but also just to stop.

If we've given ourselves in work or ministry, crashes are normal for all of us. And if you're tired, take care of yourself. If you've forgotten to care for yourself or family, then step back and remember what's important. If you're rushing around the whole time, then set yourself some time to stop. And if you can't stand the site of white space on your calendar - then fill one whole day with the word "garden" or "walk" or, if you're that kind of extravert, "friends." If Elijah needed it - and he was a great prophet - then so do you. And in the space, the quiet, the peace and the rest - God will be with you, caring for you. God likes you to take time off. God invented the idea.


  1. Having been to church in Italy on 9th August, I was intrigued to find that the Italian bible has Elijah being given, not just any old bread, but focaccia, bread enriched with olive oil, and sometimes with olives too. The bread God gives us in our time of need isn't just any old bread.


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