The Call of Elisha

I love this story.

19 So [Elijah] departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and cast his cloak upon him. 20 And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” 21 And he returned from following him and took the yoke of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the yokes of the oxen and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him. (1 Kings 19:19–21 ESV)

Elijah has just fled into the wilderness, after vanquishing Jezebel’s prophets of Baal (Elijah was no slouch, and after defeating them in a battle of burnt offerings, he slaughtered them all at the brook of Kishron), after Jezebel threatened to do the same to Elijah. This man of God, unafraid to confront 450 men and their false god, unafraid to soak his burnt offering three times, fears the wrath of Ahab’s queen. He ran for his life … into the wilderness.

There, in the wilderness (a journey of 40 days to Horeb, the mountain of God), Elijah meets The Lord. Not in fire, or wind, or earthquake, but in the gentle whisper. And Israel’s God tells Elijah to “return to the wilderness of Damascus” and anoint as new king over Syria (Israel’s enemy), and a new king over Israel.

And a new prophet to succeed him.

Like so many of these call stories, God finds Elisha at work, minding his own business, plowing the field, unaware of what God has already planned for him.

Elijah doesn’t even talk to him. There’s no “follow me.” Just a draping of his cloak (אַדֶּרֶת, from אֶדֶר which means majesty, glory, or splendor, and it is the same cloak Elijah hides behind earlier in chapter 19 when he finally perceives the Lord in the small whisper) upon Elisha and an automatic understanding on Elisha’s part what that means. He knows he’s been called. He knows he must follow. He knows — Elisha knows — he has no choice.

Elisha looks back, and Elijah gives him leave to look back. It is one of the Bible’s testier exchanges, and in complete contrast to the words of Jesus in Luke 9:57–62, which end with Jesus saying “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Whether Elisha kisses his mother and father goodbye we don’t know, because scripture doesn’t explicitly say. But it does say that Elisha takes the tools of his trade — and very likely the sustenance of his family and maybe even his village — and destroys them. He sacrifices the oxen, twelve of them, and cooks the meat on their shattered yokes, to feed “the people” (עָם).

Elisha abandons his family, his people, and he appears to leave them with no visible means of support. His call, to follow — to assist (שָׁרַת, literally to serve or attend or even minister to) — comes first, apparently, and nothing else matters. He goes from being the master of his fate, and likely his family and his people’s wellbeing, to being a mere servant and attendant to a not particularly well-liked prophet of God.

Elisha doesn’t really come into his own, however, until Elijah is taken up into heaven. At which point, he asks for and receives a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit, which gives Elisha the power to raise the dead and make a tiny bit of oil fill many jars, and even make a poisonous meal safe (giving us one of the Bible’s best quotes:

“O man of God, there is death in that pot!” (מָ֤וֶת בַּסִּיר אִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים)

But he is called, and he knows it, and he leaves his people,. He destroys everything, celebrating his call maybe, before he leaves. He says goodbye to the people he has lived with, labors with, possibly loved with, to walk into the wilderness with his newfound master Elijah. Elishah, the son of Shaphat (שָׁפַט) — the judge, the lawgiver, the ruler, the vindicator — is walking away from everything, and quite possibly leaving his people without a way to care and feed themselves. (Though his family may have been quite wealthy and 12 oxen and their tack may have been nothing to them.) To follow a man who found him ploughing a field and cast his glory upon him. To follow a man who angrily asked, “What have I done for you?”

Because it’s a thankless call, holding the powerful of Israel accountable, caring for the poor and hungry in the midst of drought and war, leading the Assyrian army around blinded and delivering it into the hands of Israel and then demanding mercy for the very people who came to attack and kill and plunder. Witnessing in a vision the evil that a Syrian general will do to his very own people and yet proclaiming God’s healing upon that general and anointing him king of Syria.

It’s God’s call for Elisha. It’s God’s call for some of us, this “hard thing” that Elijah says we will be given when we see him ascend. But it is also one way the church is called into the world, to stare violence and desolation in the face without flinching, to wander the wilderness, feed and comfort the hungry, raise the dead, and heal the enemies of God’s people so that world may know “there is a prophet in Israel.”

Jesus Can Take It

Recently, I had a conversation with a pastor about a possible pastoral position in a small, urban church looking to do mission outreach. There was a lot to like about the prospect, but my conversation with them also convinced me to stop looking for ministry calls, or at least stop answering church adverts.

Mostly, I have learned that the churches placing adverts on indeed.com (or elsewhere) are likely to be much more theologically and doctrinally conservative than I am. And I’m okay with that. A number of them are Baptist in orientation, which is a church culture I’m not familiar with (and I know how important culture is to how we do church, and to doing it successfully, or failing at it miserably), and so it’s just as well they have warned me off. I’m much more “catholic” in my understanding both of church and worship. All of these are importance concerns, and ones I cannot fault anyone about.

But the pastor also expressed some concerns about this short blog entry I posted some time ago (caution, the language and sentiment is pretty foul):

Hello all. I have an essay mostly completed that I started Saturday. But it is not finished, and I just don’t feel like finishing it right now. I just noticed someone who started seminary after me got approved, called, ordained, and has just bought a house. Yet another person moved along smoothly and happily in the process.

And here I am — unemployed, impoverished, and nigh near homeless.

I blame Jesus. Truly. I hate Jesus right now. I hate the fact that Jesus called me to follow him, gave me no real choice, set me in the midst of insular, skittish, easily frightened people who did not know what to do with me and judged me harshly — who condemned me — for it. I don’t want to follow Jesus anymore. I hate Jesus. I hate this call. I hate the gospel. I almost think the gospel itself is a lie. And if not a lie, at least a great cosmic joke, a way for God to get a good giggle at the expense of pathetic losers like me. “Ha! I’ll say you’re forgiven but I’ll also make it clear that being forgiven doesn’t really matter because no one will treat you like it!”

And clearly, no one who really matters can be bothered showing me anything remotely resembling grace.

I wish I could be done with all of this. I wish — I really, really, really wish Jesus would just stay the fuck dead. And leave me fuck alone.

I can understand why someone might have a concern about what I write here. It’s harsh, especially in our Jesus-loving culture, to say something like “I hate Jesus.” That’s a statement of disbelief, or it begins a diatribe on why God doesn’t exist.

But at the same time, I do not understand why anyone would have a concern over that. Essentially, the pastor said such a sentiment suggested — especially if read all by itself, without looking at anything else I’ve ever written — I was not ready for a position of leadership.

And that … THAT I don’t understand.

Life is hard. Unpleasant. Sometimes unending suffering and misery. Frequently, our lives feel pointless, empty, and without meaning. Eventually, we all die, some of us slowly and painfully. We have to, as pastors, as followers of the crucified and risen Jesus, be able to look into the face of the suffering of the world, of its misery, its violence, its seeming inherent meaninglessness, and hold out hope. Not platitutdes, but real hope.

A couple of examples. I have been doing an online ministry with teenagers — it began by responding to posts on an app called Whisper — that has allowed me to walk with and be present for some amazing but incredibly troubled young people.

One young woman, just barely a teenager, had been regularly and repeatedly abused by a foster family. After escaping from that situation, she was abducted and held captive for a little more than 48 hours before being found by the police and freed. (It is, of course, a great deal more complex than this, but I don’t want to reveal too much.) I have gotten to know this young woman a bit, and she has a remarkable faith. But after being freed, even she asked:

Why didn’t God protect me?

Now, I was able to engage her in a bit of ocnversation, because I knew she had a faith. I don’t know why God didn’t keep you safe from harm, I said, but Jesus was there, suffering with you. Because that’s what Jesus does — he suffers with us. She eventually did decide that God did protect her, that God was there, with her. And that was good.

Another young woman, not yet 18, who has been the recipient of much violence and abuse in her life, just lost her baby, who had gotten sick with pneumonia and was in the hospital. The conversation that night was a stream of broken hearts and crying, of wailing and the metaphorical ripping of clothes, of profanity and pain and hopelessness. This young woman does not believe, and when I asked if I could pray, she wailed:

THERE IS NO GOD!

And I wasn’t going to argue with her. I was going to sit, in silence, with her, holding her sorrow and her anger and her despair. Because silence sometimes is all we have. And silence, sometimes, is all we need.

I’ve been told a lot, mainly by people who have been wounded by the church, that I have a very grown up faith. I do not seek answers, meaning, or even much solace in biblical platitudes. Yes, God has got it, and I have a future, and the Lord knows his plans for me and my life, knew me even before I was born, and Jesus is the truth and the truth has set me free.

But I also know we live in a world of real pain, of real sorrow, of real doubt, of real, gripping, life-numbing despair. “My God, My God, why have you foresaken me!” Jesus says from the cross, feeling that very human sense of despair and abandonment, a feeling that must be real or the whole crucifixion, including Jesus’ death, is all an absurd game is which nothing is really risked and therefore nothing is really gained.

He had to wonder whether God would really raise him, he had to not know how it would end, he had live with the fear that maybe death really is the final answer we think it is. Jesus, on some very important and very real level, had to not know.

Like we don’t know.

So, okay, maybe I’m not leadership material if church leaders need to have happy faces, perfect faith, and all the answers. If the expectation someone will look to me to see if life is going to be okay, well, my life isn’t quite the best example of God materially blessing one’s faithfulness. I wouldn’t, at 48, be sleeping on a mattress on a floor in someone else’s apartment if God really did materially bless everyone’s faithfulness. I’d really and truly be the failure I’m sometimes convinced I am.

I have found, however, that too many pastors do not know what to do with such despair, such pain, such suffering, and even such hopelessness. (Mostly from personal experience, sad to say.) This is what the happy face gets us — clergy who cannot handle the suffering of the world, who retreat to the nonsense of piety and lectures on doctrine because they cannot look upon that suffering without flinching.

Without doubting.

I have never doubted. Even the words of that blog entry — I wish Jesus would stay dead — betrays my real understanding. Because I know he isn’t. Because I do trust in the resurrection of Christ. That’s my hope. It is the only hope I know is true. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. I know this to be true. And whatever happens to me in life, I know that Jesus rose from the dead, and in him, I shall rise too. We are already dead, and therefore, already risen to new life. I know I’m part of that, in baptism, in my call to follow and feed sheep.

Even if that leads me … well, nowhere.

That feeding sometimes includes letting people know faith is tough, painful, and in this world, sometimes doesn’t end well. But Jesus can take our anger, our pain, our rage, even our lack of faith. As Shusako Endo wrote in his novel Silence, about Christians in Japan, when a Portuguese priest refuses to walk upon an icon of Christ, Jesus tells the priest:

“Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

Jesus can take it. Which means we can too.

What it Really Means That Christians Are Sinners Too

A reader asked me about my post, Toward a Biblical Sexual Ethic,

I do appreciate your panoramic treatment of the Scripture story when you deal with issues. It’s refreshing, totally. However, in the spirit of “what would you do if…” questions – what happens if you are brought to a position of leadership in a local church where there is congregational support to ordain to leadership a non-celibate gay or lesbian? Where would you come down on that matter? Just trying to figure out where your “gray” becomes “black and white”.

I’m not sure I answered well. I’m not sure this is going to be much of an answer either. Continue reading