Tuesday, May 24, 2011

when God comes in small things

The blog below is the story of Elijah from 1Kings 19 retold in “modern dress”. Elijah went from a high point in his life to a major low point within 24 hours. That sort of experience is something any number of us can relate to.

Elijah had just called down fire from heaven in 1 Kings 18. It consumed a sacrifice he had offered to God. He then had the priests of the false god Baal slain. He was trying to secure Israel’s calling as a holy nation before the one true God. But when Queen Jezebel said she’d kill him for what he had done, and when he saw that no one would stand up to defend him, he fled into the desert.

Not taking any food or water he was basically making a decision to go into the desert to die. “It’s enough now, Lord,” he says, “take my life, I’m no better than my fathers.” (1 Kings 19:4) He collapses under a broom tree where an angel gives him food and water. This rejuvenates him to the point where he is able to make his way to the mountain where Moses met God and received the Ten Commandments.

Elijah expects to see God come dramatically in the wind or fire or earthquake to meet with him. Instead God unexpectedly comes in a soft whisper. The Lord reaffirms Elijah’s call as a prophet by sending him back out of the desert to take care of a number of important matters – anointing two kings and also anointing a prophet, Elisha, to replace him. Despite Elijah’s sense that nothing was going right and that the enemy had won the day, none of God’s plans had been frustrated and everything was going forward as God intended. Elijah was not the only one in the world who had remained faithful. “I will leave 7000 in Israel,” God assures Elijah, “all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” (1 Kings 19:18)

At the start of 1 Kings 19, Elijah was worn out, frustrated, frightened and depressed. He had had enough of life and what it threw at him. He had had enough of serving God. Running from the reality of the world he lived in he would have died in the desert heat if God had not intervened. And it is surprising how God does intervene.
God does not yell at Elijah, shout that he’s a prophet and that he should have more faith and more courage. He does not condemn Elijah for his mental and emotional exhaustion, for his lack of spiritual fortitude or for the fear that has made him panic. Instead, right after Elijah asks to die and drops down under the broom tree, an angel from God touches him and wakes him and offers him food and drink. The angel does not kick him or shove him and tell him to get back on his feet and keep going. In fact, the angel tells him to eat more, drink more and sleep more because the journey is too much for him to take. In this way, Elijah is restored to the point he can complete the long walk to the mountain of God.

So God deals gently with Elijah in his burnout and offers small and simple and ordinary things to restore him – sleep, water, meals. Nothing big. Nothing spectacular. Things we take for granted – until we are denied them. At which point we realize the small things of sleep and drink and food are actually very big things in disguise and without them we would die.

God continues to renew Elijah in gentle ways and small ways. Once Elijah is at the mountain he expects God will appear in a big way. After all, Elijah is a prophet and he is the kind of prophet who is used to God making his presence known in an electrifying and explosive manner – such as sending fire from heaven. Yet again, as he did when Elijah collapsed under the broom tree, God surprises – he does not arrive in the fireworks. Not in the wind or fire or earthquake. No booming voice or thunder – God comes in the still small voice. (1 Kings 19:12 KJV)

The Lord does not chastise Elijah on the mountain anymore than he did out in the desert. He merely sends Elijah back to complete the work he’d been given to do, this small thing of finishing his job, which is also the big thing of fulfilling his destiny. He encourages Elijah by telling him many others have remained faithful. All is not lost.

Like Elijah, we often feel like quitting in a big way, of throwing it all over and stalking off. This feeling hits us when we are exhausted, depressed and demoralized. At such times we need to remind ourselves of how God treated Elijah when he was in that condition. Small things that were really big things: something to eat, something to drink, some sleep, a gentle touch, encouraging words, a quiet voice, a plan for tomorrow.

When we are in desperate situations we think the only way God can make a difference is if he comes to our rescue in a larger-than-life Hollywood blockbuster way. We even think that God coming in such a way is the only Biblical manner in which he does come. Yet Elijah’s story shows us that God often comes in small ways too. Sometimes ways that are so small we can miss him because we are too busy looking for the surround-sound big screen miracle or breakthrough. What if Elijah had eaten and drunk under the broom tree and thought, “So what? It’s just bread and water,” without stopping to recognize that a divine hand must have put those meals there for him and that God was taking care of him in the middle of his suffering? Small things that bless us say a lot about the big God who gives them to us.

Yet whether the way in which God chooses to come to us is in a big way – like sending down fire from heaven – or in a small way – like speaking to us in a whisper – what is most important is not the manner in which he comes but that it is God himself who is coming to us. Too often we think the Biblical teaching has God coming in a storm of power or on the wings of the wind or it’s not him. But that is only part of the story. He comes in the shape of a dove and in a still small voice as well.

Just as Elijah came to realize that God works in different ways, we need to realize God may very well be working in our lives through tiny but significant events. We look for a volcano and we don’t see it so we believe God has abandoned us. What we do not see is God has come in a spark or by means of the light of one thin candle. What if Elijah had not eaten the food or swallowed the water in the desert, saying such things were not big enough and that he needed something much bigger from God? He would have died. Suppose he had said, “No, I refuse to accept the still small voice. God doesn’t do that sort of thing. It’s the wind or fire or nothing.” Then he would have missed out on some of the most important words God had to say to him in his life.

We pray and stare out the window of our lives and look for the downpour of blessing that will bring everything back to life. What we do not see is God has come in a drop of rain or in a soft patter of drops. They have the capacity of refreshing us and restoring our souls if only we will see these drops for what they are and open ourselves to them – the very small and gentle touches of a great God, touches that can alter a universe or bring new hope and life to the human heart.

It may not have been Elijah’s call to be a prophet but I certainly felt God was at work encouraging me to spend a summer overseas in missions. And it was bigger than that. I had also spent more time in prayer than at any other time in my life and I was certain God was also calling me to serve him in the same way Peter and Paul did – leaving everything else behind and spending all of my days preaching and teaching the gospel.

So I had great expectations. I was confident the summer overseas would confirm what I felt. There was no doubt in my mind God would supply the finances I needed by the date I needed them. In my mind I was already in foreign cities sharing with others the love of God that was so evident in Jesus Christ.

I made my preparations, packed my bags, finished my final weeks at my job and was sure the extra money I had to have, even though it was a large amount, would arrive in the mail or on my doorstep or in the offering plate at any moment. My preparations included getting a series of inoculations from the public health nurses. Painful and numerous though they were I was happy to bare my arm because every needle brought me that much closer to the call to serve my God.

But the days and weeks went by and the deadline loomed and the money did not come in the mail or on my doorstep or in the offering plate. The heavens did not part and an angel did not come down with a check. Cash did not suddenly appear under my pillow with a note from Christ attached. It began to look as if my confidence that God had called me to serve him was misplaced and that this was going to be one of those dreams that never become real.

Very faintly I felt I should keep getting the inoculations. If by some miracle the money did come in and my needles were not up to date I wouldn’t be permitted to board the airplane. So I carried on with the shots long past the point where I still felt strongly that God was calling me overseas and to lifetime ministry.

I eventually reached a place where I was prayed out and worn out. Yet I kept up with the needles. It was a small thing but I kept on showing up at the medical clinic every week or ten days. Elijah had just enough strength to walk out into the desert. I had just enough strength of heart to take the bus to the clinic and roll up my sleeve. Some of the needles had no long-lasting effect on me but some left my arms throbbing for days. A series for the bubonic plague, should I wind up east of the African coast, made it too painful to straighten my arms so I went about for a day with my arms bent up like a praying mantis. Part of me asked: What is the point of going through this discomfort since you’re obviously not going anywhere?

With the deadline only a few days away I was depleted and discouraged. Like Elijah, I no longer believed my life was in synch with God in the way I felt it used to be. The needles were raindrops but I didn’t know it. I saw them as painful reminders of my failure. Instead they were a persistent and insistent reminder, one after another, of God’s faithfulness.

For Elijah, God eventually spoke quietly to him and sent him back to fulfill his mission. For me, I had my final needles and went back outside the clinic and sat on the bench to wait for the bus. The inoculation regimen was completed and I had nowhere to go but back to my house. Crossing the ocean for Jesus was pretty much a lost vision. I had no idea what God was up to and I did not know what to do next.

A young woman from our church youth group, a good friend, showed up and sat beside me on the bench and asked how I was, were the shots really finished? I greeted her with a weak smile and said I was fine and yes, the needles were finished. She hugged me and placed a small white envelope in my hand. I opened it and it was full of money, all the money I needed to go with the missions group overseas. I looked at my friend in shock. She smiled but shook her head before I could ask my questions.

“No,” she insisted, “I can’t tell you who it’s from. I promised. It’s a gift from God. That’s all you need to know. Just thank him and follow him.”

It took a long time for it to sink in. What God had prompted another to do to make sure I flew across the Atlantic astonished me. It was too good to be true but now I realized with God many things are too good not to be true. That summer did change everything and I did follow God’s call into a life and ministry dedicated to him.
But I understood that if I had not kept up with the needles, even with the white envelope in my hand, I would not have been able to go on the mission trip. Officials would have looked at my vaccination booklet, seen that the full set of shots had not been administered and all the money in the world would not have been able to buy my way on that airplane. A still small voice had urged me to carry on with the needles regardless of circumstances, to keep going even when it looked like they were a waste of time. But they were the raindrops, the tiny scattering of raindrops that always precede a heavier downpour. So small, so simple, nothing spectacular, not pleasant in even the least of ways, yet they were God’s indication that I had not been forgotten, that his plans for me were going to be fulfilled and that he was remaining with me day and night. As much as the money in the envelope, the needles were God’s gift, a promise hidden in something ordinary that all would happen as he said.

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