Burnt out under the Broom Tree
SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST 23rd, 2019 1 KINGS 19:1-15
I remember my first professional football match. My dad took me. I was five years old. And it was magical. I was bewitched, ensnared by the world’s most loved game – raw in its passion, beautiful in its simplicity.
We lived in North London and our nearest top-tier club was Tottenham Hotspur, and that day they played Coventry City. I was not a fan of either of these teams, but that didn’t matter. I was going to a match. With my dad. We walked up the steps to the back of the terraced stand. In those days, crowd safety was not a big consideration and there were no seats in the part of the ground we had tickets for. Fans squeezed and pushed and shoved to get a good view from the terracing. I felt swamped by a tsunami of emotion – joy, tinged with fear, confusion, exhilaration, all mixed together with the excitement that floods the brain of a five-year old when he’s anticipating the greatest day of his short life.
Because I felt like a visitor from Lilliput, my dad lifted me to his shoulders, and I became the tallest giant in London. From there – the best seat in the house – I saw Tottenham’s first goal, and I thought I’d be swallowed up by the roar. I feared the roof would collapse; I was petrified. But I was other things too – bewitched, changed, and in love.
My first concert was very different. Everyone remembers the first concert. Mine was by my favorite band. But I was an awkward teenager, lacking in confidence and I didn’t know whether to sit or stand, and if to stand whether to dance or to clap, or nod in time to the music, or just feel self-conscious. I chose the last of these. The band was from my hometown. They weren’t very famous and they weren’t as cool as the bands the other kids at school liked. But they did have a couple of top 40 hits, including one in the US. Their name was as cryptic as most band names, and I never understood its meaning. That is until years later when I attended a Bible study. It was on today’s Old Testament lesson – First Kings 19. ‘After the Fire’ was the band’s name and they were Christians. Because the still small voice of God is not in the earthquake, not in the whirlwind, and not in the fire, but after the fire.
God is not in the flashy show, the cosmic rumbles, the disturbing phenomena. But when the hurricane has blown itself out, when the blaze has consumed its fuel, and the ground has stopped shaking, when there’s silence, and calm, and nothing – then the voice of God is heard.
And how Elijah needs that soft, gentle, healing voice. You wouldn’t know it from the passage, but Elijah is a mighty prophet, perhaps the greatest. He’s been speaking God’s word to King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel, cruel rulers whose reign was marked by disregard for God and for the people they ruled over. The royal couple had presided over the oppression of the people they been called to serve, and Elijah was not backward in telling them so, despite the obvious threat to his life. And on top of that, when we pick up his story, he has just confronted the prophets of a religious cult that did not preach a God of love and did not encourage ethical lives. So now, having spoken truth to power, he has run away, and why not? Ahab and Jezebel are out to get him.
And here he sits, under a broom tree, and prays that God will kill him. Of course, he could easily fulfil his own prayer, and just go back to Ahab and Jezebel. They would be delighted to answer it. But instead Elijah sits under his broom tree and hurts, and grieves, and bleeds in his soul.
I wonder if you have broom tree. I wonder if you go there sometimes, sit under it, and submit to the demons of despair like Elijah. I wonder if you too have done great things for God or for humans; exerted yourself, stepped out in faith, put your time and energy on the line, achieved amazing results, and then crashed. Do you know that exhaustion that doesn’t just melt away with a good night’s sleep but that attaches to your body, mind and spirit, and like a creeping vine strangles the hope out of you? I wonder if you have been so low, and so unable to see a way up that you have even uttered Elijah’s prayer.
I have a broom tree. It’s my bed, at 4am. That’s when the demons of doubt and despair rise up and overwhelm me. The perspective from under my broom tree is so skewed and so out of focus, that the challenges of life take on a size that makes them seem invincible. From where I lie, under my broom tree, my resources are so puny that there’s no way I can survive the onslaught of the demons. I lose faith in my ability to do the simplest things. I believe the most absurd and dangerous lies that, a few hours later, when I’m fully rested and nourished, I know are false. At 4am under my broom tree there are no pigs to drive those demons into, unlike in the Gospel lesson. This isn’t every night, it’s not even most nights, in fact it is quite infrequent. But it lurks in the corner, never too far away, waiting for its moment. It’s my broom tree, and I wish God would cut it down and burn it.
God has a prescription for those of us who suffer under broom trees. I’m going to call it Tortoise Therapy, and I hope someone will write a book about it, and make me lots of money for inventing a new branch of psychology.
I’m naming it Tortoise Therapy after the desert tortoise, who lives in some of the harshest environments on the planet, notably the Mojave Desert, which reaches temperatures of 140 degrees. Now, these plucky little reptiles may not look like God’s tiny miracles, with their prehistoric faces and their snail-paced plod, but they are. And here’s why – they can survive for a year or more without water. And there are secrets to their success, which coincidentally, are the same that God whispered to Elijah when the prophet was burnt out under the broom tree.
First, the desert tortoise gets a lot of sleep. She hibernates. She goes to bed at the sensible hour of November and awakens ready to start the new day in March. Elijah doesn’t have the luxury, or the body chemistry to sleep for four months. A chance would be a fine thing. But did you notice in the reading, that he does lie down and fall asleep? Turns out Elijah’s broom tree and mine are refreshingly similar – when we’re tired, and especially in the evening and in the small hours of the morning, we lose perspective. The demons lie and we listen. Oh, how convincing they are – you can’t cope with this, you don’t have what it takes, that thing you need to do tomorrow – you’re going to fail, you’ll end up making things even worse. The fears chew on our brains and there are no pigs to send them into. And to Elijah, and to me, and to you, too, God says, “Do yourself a favor and look after yourself – get some sleep.”
The second secret of the desert tortoise’s success is that he can find nourishment in unlikely places. It does actually rain in the Mojave – every year or two, and from February to May the desert comes alive, giving birth to dandelions, primroses, and succulents. For a few weeks, it’s like Old Country Buffet for tortoises. Each tortoise stores the liquid from the plants he’s eaten in his body; and I mean all of the liquid. Nothing is passed. Eventually his bladder grows until it forms 30 percent of his body weight. And he just holds it in, so that all of it is reabsorbed by his body. Elijah is woken from his sleep when an angel taps him on the shoulder and says, “Get up and eat. The journey is too much for you.” There’s bread baking on a hot stone and cool water in a jar. And God says the same to you and me – the journey – the one we’re making through this life is too much for us. Eat and drink. Eat and drink – in a sacramental sense, receiving the nourishment of Christ’s body and blood regularly; but also drinking daily from the streams of living water that Jesus provides us in prayer, meditation, and Bible reading. “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,” he says.
And the final secret to her success is that the desert tortoise can regulate her internal life in response to external conditions. So, when her body temperature, pH level, or water and salt concentrations become unbalanced, her body does something miraculous to restore the balance. Inner balance. Now, isn’t that a holy grail? To experience hostile environments and stay inwardly calm, mentally level. No drama, no panic, keeping perspective, thinking clearly, not reacting. If you can do this, then the earth is yours and everything in it. At this moment Elijah is despised. The royals, with all the armed forces at their disposal, are trying to kill him. All his prophet co-workers have been executed. He’s alone. In the desert. Talk about hostile environments – this makes the Mojave look like an oasis. But he regains his inner peace so much that he can hear the still small voice of God after the earthquake, after the wind and after the fire.
And God says, “Yes, Elijah, I know it’s harsh out there; I see what you’re going through; I literally feel your pain, but I’m with you and I have a job for you. Elijah, I am not going to answer your prayer – I will not take your life, because it has meaning and a purpose, and I have a grand task for you. I need you, and so do your people.”
If you’re sitting under the broom tree today. God gets it. But your life has meaning. You have a task. Climb out from under the broom tree, don’t listen to the demons that lie, listen to the Spirit of truth. After the roar of the crowd, the shaking of the stadium, the howl of the wind, and after the fire – hear the still small voice of calm. Get up. We have work to do.