Thursday, December 14, 2017

Advent, day 13. The Whisper and the Voice

After reading Elijah's "lesson in might"--that God is not in the cataclysms of nature, but rather almost undetectable in His immensity--we have a powerful image of Elijah standing in the opening of the cave. The surrounding countryside is devastated: upheaved, torn rocks, gaping ravines where it had once been smooth, and fire-ravaged, charred tree stumps. The prophet stands looking out on the changed landscape. His reaction? 

He pulls his cloak over his face. This is totally beyond him. God of the gentle whisper has spoken. Elijah, the man who faced down 950 prophets in a holy power encounter, has deepened his awareness and appreciation for Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. He is subdued. (And I chose to make this poem less dense by lightening it with his own comic relief: he probably realised he was taking himself and life too seriously. Who of us doesn't now and then?)

Advent, day 13. The Whisper and the Voice.

1 Ki 19:13  When Elijah heard it (the gentle whisper),  he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Not in the wind, or earthquake, or fire
Spectacular dramas of strength!
Lord God, Almighty, no one is higher,
Why do You go to such lengths
To elude and confuse and muddle my brain?
I wonder some days if I am quite sane.

Feeling deserted, that I was a token
Of faith, who to Baal would not bow;
Your prophets all killed and your altars all broken,
The people rejected their vow
To You and to heaven. They followed their gods; 
I was one, overwhelmed by the odds.

But when a small voice whispered my name,
I knew all at once it was You.
My fear I forgot, I was back in the game—
Please show me next what to do.
Here I stand with my cloak pulled over my face,
Knowing now that I’m standing by grace.

I heard the voice at the mouth of the cave—
His whisper makes me feel brave.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Advent, day 12. Nine Centuries and Two Prophets

Today's poem reflects on Elijah's 40 day wilderness experience which concluded with God revealing Himself in a gentle way and how that contrasts with Jesus' 40 day experience which concluded with the devil tempting Him. Each man had three "confrontations" into the supernatural, so much to take in.

Advent, day 12. Nine Centuries and Two Prophets.

1 Ki 19:11 The LORD said, 
“Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, 
for the LORD is about to pass by."

Nine hundred years apart
stand two men
but the wilderness is the same:
sand and wind, scorpions and adders, silence and eternity
hang trembling
brushing the desert floor with fingers of desolation.

The Spirit drives one prophet out
The LORD calls the other near:
they both wait, expectantly.

To one: Go out and stand, I’m passing by.
The other bypassed.

Wind tears the mountains,
—tearing is for paper or cloth
how does one tear a mountain?
—shatters the rocks
gale force cannot shatter alone!
how does a wind, rip roaring, shatter stone?

Make those stones bread: feed authentic hunger
—see a need, embrace, it, meet it, be relevant
Make yourself useful.

Earth quakes and shakes,
crevasse jaws open wide,
maws swallow boulders,
teeth rasp trees with a smile,
gurgling borborygmus of the deep.

Jump those ravines
Leap from the heights and tall buildings:
know that you are safe,
protected by unconditional immunity.
You won’t slip because He doesn’t sleep.
Chill in the certainty of guaranteed spectacularity.

Petulant fire feasts on forests,
—licks her chops with blackened tongues,
relishing the conflagration
of her cooking:
the crust scorched to perfection
with the charred and lifeless creatures
baked inside.

Make it easy on yourself.
No need for theatrics,
skip the heroics:
A simple knee to the ground
is all it takes.
Merely a gesture of goodwill—
nothing changes,
nothing at all.

In the blink of eternity,
the faintest whisper.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Advent, day 11. Forty days and Forty Nights.

Now we enter into a strange part of Elijah's spiritual journey, but one with echoes throughout the Biblical narrative: his desert wandering for forty nights and days. This is a long period of time for us post-modern people to get a perspective of, especially when it involves no contact with other human beings and nothing to eat or drink. As Elijah ruminates in this poem, I imagine him mulling over other people's experiences (which he will have learned about as a boy) and attempting to bring some cohesion to it.

I have also fancifully played with a little prescience on his part: of things to come that he does not yet know. He is a prophet, after all. Above all, it is important to recognise that Elijah was in a frame of mind that helped him be receptive to God. That frame of mind was not a quick adjustment, but a quiet time of deep silence and solitude. Something our technology-driven life is in danger of losing altogether.

Advent, day 11. Forty Days and Forty Nights.

1 Ki 19:8 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.

Sustained by such angelic bread, I sojourn.
Into the desert—the distance
deeper, farther, more soul desolate than ever—

Forty days and forty nights to the Mount of God
a day for each wandering year
brought by fear
fear which birthed rebellion
rebellion to break the heart of God.
Treading shallow graves of centuries
—moments in heaven’s time
—ghostly flickers in desert dusk
—mirage faces mourning the lost chance.

—that number again—

++the days to cover the earth with water
“Oh, Noah, send rain. Dust is in my nostrils,
caked in my heel-cracks, searing my soles.”
I dream of drowning.

++the days Goliath rose to taunt the army of God
cowering in their tents
—but that sling-wielding shepherd boy took him down
day 41 he was silent.

++the days Moses entered the cloud and stayed on the mount
what does one do
alone with God
on a cloudy mountain-top?
waiting, waiting
while stone is etched 
—two tablets
—inscribed front and back
—top to bottom
in God’s own handwriting:

with ten perfect laws for life, 
offering perfection within grasp,
alas, perfectly impossible:
now smashed stone,
descending from unimaginable days.

while I would never presume such proximity
—or remotely long for it—
Moses returned for another forty.

++the days the twelve spies reconnoitred
the milky-honey promised place
and ten said: too risky

“Risky for what?” I wonder
and the stalwart risk-takers persevered,
wandering till the fearful dropped like flies
—and buried shallowly.

where centuries after I would tread
—catching glimpses of their haunted fears.

Now my forty days stretch
reflected in the past
mirrored in the future:

++the days Nineveh will watch a
man of acid-eaten flesh
criss-cross the metropolis
counting down the days 39, 38, 37 . . .

++the days another prophet of YHWH
will stumble into this wilderness
for infernal ambush and temptation
of blessings,
and honour,
and power,
and glory
all on the wrong terms.

Forty days and nights
Wandering to this Mount of God—

What’s this? a cave

—time to sleep.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Advent, day 10. The Broom Tree and the Bread.

After the spectacle and drama of victory in the LORD, the prophet begins to "come down from the mountaintop" figuratively. And his exhaustion weighs on him. His emotions reflect his physical condition. Depression is likely if someone does not take things in hand. Sometimes we don't have the wherewithal in ourselves. Sometimes we simply do not care any more.

Being used by the LORD is encouraging on many levels, but can cause our thinking to be hazy. Being with the LORD surpasses being useful to Him, and in the end, if we are not with Him, we become less useful. Thus Elijah's interesting restorative process is good for us to take to heart. God isn't finished until He's finished.

Advent, day 10. The Broom Tree and the Bread.

1 Ki 19:4b-5 “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life. I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under a tree and fell asleep.

“It’s the waiting—the not knowing—and the wondering if You’re there.
It’s uncertainty that suffocates my breath.
Beneath a curs├ęd broom tree, I cannot feel Your care,
And the desert is encroaching with my death.”

The prophet left his servant going deep in isolation,
Sheer exhaustion ripped his desperate soul apart.
What he never had expected was from God this separation—
Fuelling self-recrimination in his heart.

Distorting shame within him flamed, vicious and intense.
By hope forsaken, faith now shaken; despair’s in residence.
First he faces, then embraces his mortality:
Praying death with every breath, he sleeps beneath the tree.

Healing sleep is ever deep and soothes the wounded soul.
Angel-bakers brought him bread and water in a jar,
Touched his shoulder, made him bolder—helping him be whole.
He ate and drank, then slept again: next journey would be far.

Again the baker-angel wakes the prophet of the LORD.
“Come drink the water, eat the still-warm bread:”
Preparing for the training that his soul may be restored
Then forty days into the wasteland led.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Advent, day 9. The Prophet and the Queen.

Familiar are the sermons about Elijah which marvel that after such a power encounter atop Mt Carmel, Elijah could fear for his life from a vicious, God-hating queen. How could a man used so mightily by God then suspect God of letting him down?

What is this thing we call faith? Here the holy tension comes into play. Faith is a gift from God. No one would argue that Elijah was a man of weak faith, yet he wavered in his certainty. He knew the prophets of God were in the crosshairs and perhaps saw his work as over. The Mt Carmel victory would be a grand culmination to a miraculous career.

The very man who stood up to the king, demanded the attendance of 950 false prophets, and then supervised their massacre could by his very awareness of God's character, know that with the unknowable God his life was not guaranteed. He, Elijah, was not the author and he wasn't planning the timeline. 

Lord, help me keep in mind that my lifeline is written by Your Hand and help me be good with that.

The Prophet and the Queen.

1 Ki 19:3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.

Elijah knew his end was near, commanded by the queen.
Jezebel was adamant he not escape the scene.
With   heart  afraid and body weak, he sought elusive peace.
But nature-driven  and instinct-led, he sensed his faith release
His grip on hope; thus he ran to far and lonely places—
Through two kingdoms to Beersheba for safety from their faces.
One hundred fifty miles of running reinforced his strife—
Out in the desert, exhausted and low, he wearied of his life.

Advent, day 8. The Cloud and the Rain.

In the midst of all the tension of the heavenly war and the massacre of 950 men, which must have been a sure recipe for PTSD, there is a strangely calm interlude. Elijah waiting for the rain. He predicted the drought would end when the contest of the gods was over. But the sky was clear and bright. Whether he wondered about God's timing--which is a very constant issue in our century--we are not told. He simply kept sending his servant to check on the weather. The Mediterranean was easily visible from the mountaintop. Remember, breaking the drought was not Elijah's prayer; he was not awaiting an answer. Now he was verifying his own reception.

In this poem, I inserted a little of my own self-doubt: "O God, have I misread Your plan?" I don't know if Elijah had that thought or if he confidently persisted in spite of evidence to the contrary. He was definitely more sure of God than many of us are or hope to be. And the comic relief is palpable when the small cloud rises and he tucks his cloak into his belt and runs approximately a marathon distance and beats the king's own chariot.

Advent, day 8. The Cloud and the Rain.

1 Ki 18: The power of the LORD came upon Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran . . .

Elijah claimed the drought would break—
Then hell broke loose in the heavenly war—
And the priests of Baal lost all they’d staked:
The slaughter of them ran a river of gore.

Elijah told Ahab, “Go eat and drink,
For there is the sound of a heavy rain.”
Off in his chariot, quick as a wink,
While Elijah climbed the mount again.

With his face to the ground, down on his knee,
He waited and trusted, not sure of the plan.
Sent off his helper, “Go look toward the sea.”
But nothing was there, said the mystified man.

Go back, go back, go back again.
He told the servant seven times.
“Oh God have I misread Your plan?”
Lo, on the seventh, there was a sign:

The hand-sized cloud was the proof he felt
That the LORD was sending rain.
He tucked up his cloak into his belt
And he ran down Jezreel’s Plain.

The clouds bunched up like thick black cords
And Elijah was engulfed by the power of the LORD.
The deluge mired into such a muck
Is it any wonder if a chariot stuck?

For twenty-five miles, like a bird on the wing

The prophet afoot beat the chariot-king.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Advent, day 7. The Altar and the Sacrifice

A quick 21st Century observation of this altar story is: before you can use anything others have used, you usually have to repair it.

It's easy to pass over in the script that Elijah had to first repair the altar of the LORD before he could kill or prepare the sacrifice. The prophets of Baal had a functional altar on that hill, but the LORD's altar had been reduced to ruins. Elijah symbolically continues the pattern for altars established by Joshua when the Israelis crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. At that time, twelve stones were taken from the middle of the river bed and brought to the new land and a memorial to the LORD was built to remind themselves of the LORD's guidance.

Elijah reminds them that the twelve stones signify the tribes which were delivered from Egypt, the sons of Jacob. He reminds them that Jacob received God's promise when his name was changed to Israel. The promise first arrived in a dream about ladders reaching to heaven years previous to his name change. When that promise came, Jacob's response was a "If God will be with me . . . and watch over me . . .and will give me food . . . and clothes . . . so that I return safely . . .then the LORD will be my God." (Genesis 28:20) Jacob's accepting the promise of blessing was very conditional. His return journey was not that of a sceptical young man, but a man hardened by cheating others and being cheated. This time he spends the night in a wrestling match with God and his name becomes Israel: "wrestles with God." That wilderness-abraded man fathers the men who father the tribes represented by those very stones. A long and meaningful legacy for an altar.

Building an altar with specific requirements (12 stones) take more time than just throwing one together with materials at hand. When you have to do it yourself, you take time to reflect on who you are, what you are doing, and why you are doing it. Elijah, reflecting on his own wrestling with God, had time to ponder this business of being God's mouthpiece--the bringer of unwelcome messages. He surely recalled Samuel's stern words to Saul: "To obey is better than sacrifice . . ." and wondered if this process was going to have any impact. 

Advent, day 7. The Altar and the Sacrifice.

1 Ki 18: 30 They came to him and he repaired the altar of the LORD, which was in ruins . . .

Before a sacrifice is made, an altar must be built:
A solid structure which endures like stone.
It’s premature to kill the lamb and let its blood be spilt
If there’s no place to rest the flesh and bone.

The altar of the Most High God which stood upon this height
Was by the fearful pagan priests destroyed.
They scattered stones maliciously to cover-up the site—
Assuming thus its power would be void.

Now years have passed and once again the Holy takes the hill—
Restore the stones that once Your altar formed!
Alone I work to realign; Your vision to instil,
Return to rightful place each stone out torn.

A sacrifice is just a gift until there is an altar
On which to sanctify the living thing.
I muscle every stone in place, my energy won’t falter,
And search my soul to find my offering.

My heart becomes the altar as I reach a place of rest

Your love will kindle it to flame—I sacrifice the best.