I once read about a study that was comparing my generation with the previous two generations (i.e. my parents and grandparents), and one of the things they examined in the study was how people in my generation feel about the passing down of material things. A couple generations ago, people owned things that they intended to pass down to their children and their children’s children and might even have had things that had been passed down to them by their parents and their grandparents — family heirlooms, homes, furniture, antique wardrobes, sets of silverware and fancy dishes, etc. People’s homes were filled with material things that were built to last and cared for meticulously with the expectation that they would be passed down to the next generation.
In my generation, they found an increasing number of people who didn’t care for those things. This can cause tension between people in my generation and their parents and grandparents because we aren’t as interested in the things they have for us and aren’t sure what we want to do with things that get passed down to us.
Parents and grandparents might say, “I saved these things for you, so I expect you to care for them.”
People in my generation might say, “I don’t want the responsibility of caring for things that were valuable to you but mean nothing to me.”
It’s interesting to see the way those things play out in the Church, albeit often in less material ways. There are things people want to pass down, such as traditions, theologies, and doctrines, and younger generations are increasingly saying we’re not interested in what’s been preserved, because it often fails to connect in meaningful ways with our own lives. Or, worse, it causes harm to us or people we care about.
A Church in Transition
We find ourselves in a transitional place in Christianity, and that’s been a big part of my own story — struggling with that tension between innovation and tradition, between the people who want to press forward into something new and the people who want to preserve what has been meaningful to them. Perhaps that’s a normal part of all traditions for every generation. I don’t know, but I’m at a place in my own life where I’ve seen this tension cause real harm to people and felt its effects for myself.
When communities aren’t equipped, or if they refuse, to manage the tension between innovation and tradition, more and more people will feel like they’re without a place in the Church. We find ourselves wandering in a desert place, a dry season of faith, purpose, and/or belonging. Too often, this comes as a result of older generations insisting on the preservation of what they are handing down while younger generations feel like it has little to no value to them. Too often, this leads to the disenfranchisement of Christians from their communities/congregations.
That’s what I want to talk about: finding ourselves in the wilderness after having been shunned by communities for not wanting what they’ve preserved.
Elijah, the Prophet
In 1 Kings 19, we find Elijah having just confronted priests of Baal who have come from Jezebel. It didn’t end so well for those priests, but it seemed to end well for Elijah. That is, until Jezebel hears what happened.
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”1 Kings 19:1-2, NRSV
In other words, it’s a death threat. Jezebel makes a vow, of sorts, to kill Elijah within 24 hours.
Hopefully, you’ve never received a death threat like this. I haven’t, but I have been given ultimatums where you either conform to what people expect of you or you get ousted. I’ve seen this a lot in congregations and workplaces, and I’m not talking about company policies. Obviously, if you don’t abide by the rules of your workplace, you’ll probably get fired. I’m talking about expectations of doctrine and cultures. I’m talking about the sorts of expectations where there’s no room for questions, doubts, what if’s, or uncertainty. You either look/act/believe like us, or you get out.
That’s what’s happening to Elijah. He made his choice, and because he’s not going to conform to Jezebel’s expectations, she’s going to kill him. (Spoiler: he runs away before she can do that.)
Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
But he himself 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.1 Kings 19:3-5a, NRSV
If you’ve ever experienced the trauma of being ousted by your own community, you know what Elijah feels like, here. It’s important to remember that the reality of our situations doesn’t always inform the way we feel about our situations — how we perceive our situations. When we find ourselves ousted by our own communities, when we find ourselves alone, when we find ourselves out in the wilderness, the desert places, of our lives — that’s when we might find ourselves thinking, like Elijah, “I’m done with this.”
Wishing for Death
Elijah says, “Just take my life; kill me now.” You might be thinking that sounds extreme, but consider for a minute the suicide rate in America, alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in 2019, “suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 44,” and “there were nearly two and a half times as many suicides (47,511) in the United States as there were homicides (19,141).” According to LifeWay Research’s 13 Stats on Mental Health and the Church, posted in 2018, “76 percent of churchgoers say suicide is a problem that needs to be addressed in their community,” and “32 percent of churchgoers say a close acquaintance or family member has died by suicide.”
These statements suggest that Elijah’s thoughts and feelings toward his situation reflect those of many in America, even more so if we extended the consideration to include other mental health diagnoses, such as clinical depression. Yet, many Christians are still unaware of how much Elijah’s cry for death resonates within our communities. We’re still ignorant of the suffering amongst our own, let alone the struggles of those who have been pushed out.
Consider the way that being pushed out of congregations and Christian communities often results in trauma. Consider the fact that spiritual counseling for Christians and ex-Christians has become a commonplace topic on “Christian” social media. Elijah’s cry isn’t far-fetched by any stretch of the imagination in America. In fact, we would have to blind ourselves to the things that are happening in Christian communities, today, to think that this is far-fetched, which is what many people do. For some people, this is so much closer to reality than we want to believe. We feel isolated and alone, because Christian communities have pushed us out, and Christian communities are pretending we don’t exist.
Jezebel Wasn’t a Woman of God
Why are we talking about Christian communities if Jezebel wasn’t a woman of God? I’ve been talking about Christians being disenfranchised by their congregations, but Elijah was chased away by someone who worshiped other gods. Wasn’t that the crux of the confrontation in 1 Kings 18?
First, to the latter question, the issue when Elijah confronts the priests of Baal is that the Israelites were being lukewarm about their trust in God.
Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word.1 Kings 18:21, NRSV
Second, even if we only consider the former question (i.e. about Jezebel’s allegiance), that’s part of what makes this so poignant. Jezebel wasn’t a woman of God, yet we find this same dynamic happening among people of God. The Israelites were trying to half-heartedly worship God while functionally giving their allegiance to Jezebel.
I’m using this metaphorically to talk about what’s happening in Christianity, today. Remember, I started this by mentioning that theologies, doctrines, and traditions are being passed down by Christians who expect them to be cared for, upheld, and passed on, but too often, what we’re receiving from Christian leaders doesn’t speak to our lives or resonate with what we experience of, and believe about, God. More than that, American Christians are sometimes so devoted to those traditions and doctrines — so insistent upon their perpetuation — that those things have become idols.
In the same way that the Israelites in 1 Kings 18 were “limping with two different opinions,” many Christians today limp between Christ and some other “god” — Christian nationalism, Christian capitalism, White Christianity, Christian supremacy, etc. They aren’t disenfranchising their fellow Christians because of “right doctrine.” They’re doing so because they’re obsessed with worshiping their traditions over nurturing relationships with God, and those of us who believed in the God of Jesus aren’t welcome anymore in the temples of “Christian” idols.
The same can be argued for the Israelites whom Elijah rebukes in 1 Kings 18. He called them to stop being lukewarm about their faith in God, and they refused to say anything. It’s just like in Mark 3 when Jesus questions the religious leaders and they remain silent. In both cases, their silence was a refusal to participate in what God was doing, and that meant abandoning people who were trying to participate in God’s Mission (e.g. Elijah, Jesus). More than that, it means also abandoning (disenfranchising, shunning, even demonizing) those who would benefit from our participation in God’s Mission (e.g. in Mark: the man with the withered hand; in 1 Kings 19: Elijah).
Keeping the Faith
Notice that Elijah hasn’t abandoned God. That is to say, he hasn’t stopped believing in God. God is still the one upon whom he calls when he’s in distress, because it was never his relationship with God that was on the line. He still opens his heart to God and wants God to know what’s happening in his life, but he’s had enough.
The word we use for this is “weary;” he’s tired in his soul, in his spirit, in his mind. He’s had enough. When he reaches that point, he cries out to the only person he thinks is left to him — the only person he still believes in.
Many Christians feel this way when they’re abused and pushed away by the Church. We believe in God, and we believe in Jesus, but all our lives, we were taught that worship and faith are made manifest in traditional congregations and worship services and Bible studies. When we lose those things, along with with all the people who are supposed to call us brothers and sisters in Christ, we feel like Elijah laying under that bush: all I have left is you, God; just let it be over.
No Better Than Our Ancestors
I don’t want us to breeze over this phrase: I am no better than my ancestors. It’s one of those things I used to just move past — “Oh, ok, Elijah…neat” — but consider what I opened with about my generation and previous generations — the way we consider material things.
Sometimes we look at previous generations and think, “I don’t want to be like them,” or “I’m not like them.” It’s not necessarily disdain, either. In my experience, it doesn’t usually have anything to do with how we feel about them. Maybe we just don’t have room for that antique armoire, or maybe that family home isn’t in the city we dream about. Maybe we fell in love with a vocation that keeps us on the move, or maybe our experiences have taught us different values. Unfortunately, we usually wake up one day and realize that despite our differences, we’re more like our parents than we thought, and when that realization sets in, we may come to a place like Elijah: “All those things I didn’t want to be, I’m just like that.” We may start to feel the guilt and the shame of that.
Elijah was a prophet of God. He was supposed to be better than the Israelites who came before him, and there he was, running for his life from Jezebel, even after God protected him from hundreds of Baal’s prophets, and he’s thinking to himself, “I’m done. I’m tired. I’m weary. I’m in the wilderness. I’m by myself. I fled when I should have stayed. I didn’t do what I thought I should do. Maybe I don’t trust in God as much as I should. I’m no better than my ancestors who came before me.” Perhaps shame overwhelmed him, and he laid down under a bush and gave up.
I’ve seen a lot of theories about why younger people are leaving Christianity, and I think most of them are ignorant of these moments — moments when we have to wrestle with those parts of ourselves that look disturbingly like those who came before us. Is it really so surprising that many of us decide to shed the labels and traditions that seem to bind us to abusive communities? Is it really so surprising that when we feel like Elijah under that bush we would choose to walk away?
I think Elijah expected to die in the wilderness, alone, but then in the next part of verse 5, it says,
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 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 19:5b-8, NRSV
This has been my experience, that when we find ourselves in the desert place, too weary to go on — when we feel like we’ve had enough and we just want God to make a drastic change to take us out of those feelings — God comes and feeds us.
There’s no expectation from the angel. He simply says, “You’ve got a long way to go, so eat some food.” He eats some food and drinks some water, and then he rests. The angel wakes him again and says, “Eat some food and drink some water,” and the implication here is, “You’re not done, yet, Elijah, but you need to be sustained.”
The trouble is that it’s not usually the physical sustenance that weighs heaviest on our hearts. Elijah has been physically sustained, but he’s still weary in his heart, yet God pushes him forward: persist a little longer. Elijah then journeyed for forty days and forty nights.
This is important: forty days and forty nights signifies a time of trial. In this case, his trial culminates in experiencing the grace of God and in a spiritual renewal. This is my hope for everyone who is being pushed out or choosing to leave their Christian congregations and communities — everyone who finds themselves in the wilderness with Elijah. Eat some food, and drink some water, because you may be on the eve of a journey that culminates in renewal and grace.
I know the weariness this can cause. When Elijah arrives at a cave after his journey, that wasn’t where he hit his wits end. He hit that in the wilderness when he laid under the bush. He was already at the end of what he felt he could handle before he started his forty day/forty night journey to the mountain of God.
This is one of those things where we think it couldn’t possibly get worse, and then things seem to get worse. We couldn’t possibly be more weary, but then we discover we didn’t know what weary really feels like. That’s where Elijah finds himself: the bottom of the barrel.
Why Are You Here?
At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”1 Kings 19:9-10, NRSV
Elijah had nothing left. I’m honestly surprised that he answered God, at all. This is the second time he’d tried to lay down and die — the third time, if you count him laying under the bush for two nights. God asked, “Why are you here, Elijah,” and that’s a question I have asked myself, repeatedly.
As we go through this experience of transformation — as we go from the things we were taught and the things we thought we believed into a place where we feel alone and rejected by our communities, the places that were supposed to support us, and the places to which we thought we were called — as we question and deconstruct, we might feel like Elijah: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.”
If you look around at Christianity, today, especially in America, you might feel this reality speaking to you, that the “safe places” where you thought you were going to be for the rest of your life seem to have rejected the covenant they made with God, to have torn down God’s altars, and to be putting to death all the prophets who came bearing the Gospel. They’re not life-giving anymore. They’re not safe anymore. They traumatize us and abuse us, and we find ourselves in these desert places wandering through times of trial. We fall on the mountain of the Lord, and we hide in these caves, because we are the only ones left, and they want to kill us, too.
It’s not really an answer to God’s question. It doesn’t say why we’re here, and it doesn’t say what we’re doing here, and I think that’s fitting. We may think we’re only here because we were rejected by our communities, and we may not have any idea what we’re doing here. Why are we here? What are we doing here? That’s what God wants to help Elijah answer.
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”1 Kings 19:11-13, NRSV
Elijah’s story as a prophet of God is filled with epic moments. He raised people from the dead, called down heavenly fire, predicted draughts, and confronted kings, but in this moment, he’s reminded that those things don’t define his relationship with God. He recognizes God’s presence in the sheer silence, in the still, small voice, in the quiet whisper. Elijah encounters God’s presence as a reality, not an event. God is, and God is present.
A second time, God asks the question, “What are you doing here?” I don’t believe this is an accusatory question. I think this is a reminder to Elijah that he has arrived here for a reason, and I think that this time Elijah discovers something about himself.
He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”1 Kings 19:14, NRSV
God doesn’t respond to that. Instead, he immediately gives Elijah instructions, and I think the reason is because Elijah answered the question rightly, not for God but for himself. When we find ourselves in these desert places, when we find ourselves driven from our communities because we can’t be there anymore, when we find ourselves traumatized and weary and we want to give up and we say to the Lord, “I’ve had enough. Please make it stop,” it’s not because we rejected God; it’s because we have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty, and the “Israelites” have rejected their covenant.
So many times, especially now, people who have been abused and traumatized by the church have the fingers pointed at them as though they’re the ones who abandoned God. Elijah first said it in despair, but then I think he said it with conviction. He realized he was there because he was zealous for the Lord and because they abandoned the covenant and because they are trying to kill him. That’s why he stood on the mountain of the Lord, and that’s why God can say to him, “Now go back.”
Elijah was ready, because Elijah realized that these things he said in despair at first are actually the reality into which he was living. They’re the reality into which he was called. We find ourselves in the desert place because we took God seriously, because we took the covenant seriously, because we took the altar seriously, and because we took the prayers and the prophets and the scriptures seriously. We outgrew those places that didn’t take it seriously. We outgrew those places that tore down the altars and abandoned the covenant and rejected the prophets. They didn’t drive us out because we were falling behind; they drove us out because we were too far ahead, and our very presence convicts them of the reality that God is moving and growing in the world — that God is transforming and creating a new creation. When you want to be safe and comfortable, that reality is unacceptable.
Elijah doubles down on his conviction that he is very zealous for the Lord God Almighty, so God sends him back for one more task.
Passing the Torch (Or Taking It Up)
Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”1 Kings 19:15-18, NRSV
Notice that when God sends him back, he sends him back with a mission. He says, “Go back to work, because now you understand why you are here,” but he doesn’t send him back without an end. This is a part that I think a lot of people miss, especially if you find yourself in ministry, but in any community that you’re a part of.
Elijah has a way out. God didn’t ignore him when he said he’d had enough. God sends him back to do one last thing: pass the torch. Elijah names his successor and anoints new kings, and then God takes him away, and he lives the rest of his life not as a prophet of God.
The story of Elijah reminds us that God is a compassionate, present God who feeds in the wilderness, who guides us to the mountain of God, who’s with us through the time of trial, who reminds us of the conviction that brought us to that place to begin with, and who ultimately gives us an end to the work that we do to help us pass the torch to the next generation. After all, isn’t that last part the missing link in so many Christian communities — the failure to pass the torch? Isn’t that desire to hold on part of why many Christians have abandoned the mission of God?
So, now we’re faced with these questions:
Where are we in this story? Where are we as communities of God? Where are we as individuals of God? Where are we as a people of God? Where do we find ourselves in our journeys? Is it time to pass the torch, or is it time to double down on our conviction and take up the torch that was abandoned? And for those of us who are coming in behind and taking up this mantle: what does it look like for us to take this torch? What does it look like for others to pass this torch to us? What will it look like for us to then pass that torch to the next generation? Because that’s as much a part of Elijah’s journey as any of these other things?
Participating in the Work of Love
I sincerely hope that if you find yourself in the wilderness, you’ll continue to toward the mountain of God. I hope you don’t let those who have forgotten their first love cause you to despair. I think it’s likely that you’re in the wilderness because you took God seriously, and they didn’t. I hope you’ll continue to take God seriously, even if the mountain of God ends up being forty days and forty nights out into the wilderness away from the communities that rejected you.