“When I attempted . . . to describe our spiritual longings, I was omitting one of their most curious characteristics. We usually notice it just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends, or as the landscape loses the celestial light.”
“For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance. We may go when we please, we may stay if we can: ‘Nobody [notices] us.'”
“A scientist may reply that since most of the things we call beautiful are inanimate, it is not very surprising that they take no notice of us. That, of course, is true. It is not the physical objects that I am speaking of, but that indescribable something of which they become for a moment the messengers.
“And part of the bitterness which mixes with the sweetness of that message is due to the fact that it so seldom seems to be a message intended for us, but rather something we have overheard. By bitterness I mean pain, not resentment. We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret.”
And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.”
Elijah was the hero of the story that provided the backdrop for a sermon on faith and fear at Ginger Creek Community Church where I attend. The sermon series contrasts faith and fear, but I believe the Holy Spirit nudged me in a different direction. The message about faith and fear was a good one, but the disappointment of Elijah is what caught my attention.
For context, Israel was experiencing a 3-year drought and famine. Ahab, the notoriously corrupt and ungodly leader, was king. The entire nation was enthralled with worshiping foreign gods, and especially Baal, the Canaanite god of weather and fertility.
Baal was maybe a natural choice for them in the midst of a severe drought and famine. The popularity of Baal in Elijah’s culture was at an all-time high, but Elijah remained true to Israel’s covenant God, Yahweh.
Yahweh was Israel’s traditional God. The claim from ancient times was that He was the only true God, but it was no longer popular to worship Him. People still clung to a semblance of traditional, cultural practice, but other, foreign gods were much more popular, so, Elijah challenged them:
“How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21)
The brashness of Elijah’s faith in God is hard for us to appreciate, perhaps. We get a clue from the fact that there were 450 prophets of Baal, and Elijah was the only prophet in the bunch who remained loyal to Yahweh. Elijah proposed a challenge that would put his life at stake. He said,
“’Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.’” (I Kings 18:23-24)
The loser(s) in this challenge would be put to death, which was the penalty for false prophets at the time. Elijah put everything on the line for God.
If the gambling industry in Las Vegas existed in Israel at that time, the odds were stacked heavily against Elijah, but Elijah wasn’t intimidated in the least. Elijah even let the prophets of Baal choose the bull they wanted first and offered to let them go first. (1 Kings 18:25)
The other prophets set to work. They prepared the bull of their choice, and they called on Baal.
From morning to noon, they called on the god of popular culture, but there was no response. (1 Kings 18:26) When Elijah mocked them, they cried louder and cut themselves until they bled, but nothing happened. (1 Kings 18:27-29)
When it was Elijah’s turn, he invited the people to help him rebuild a small altar to Yahweh that had been torn down (a symbolic gesture no doubt). He prepared the remaining bull and stacked the wood.
Then he did the unthinkable: he upped the ante by having water poured over the offering – not once, but three times – until it was thoroughly soaked. (1 Kings 18:30-35) When Elijah was done, he prayed:
“O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” (1 Kings 18:36-37)
Elijah’s wanted to demonstrate the power and authority of Yahweh, to vindicate himself, to renew the covenant between his people and God and turn their hearts back to Yahweh. He was so confident God could do these things, that he put his own reputation and his very life on the line.
Of course, we know the story: God showed up. God’s fire didn’t just consume the offering; it consumed the bull, the wood, the stones on the altar and even the dust, and then the fire “licked up” the water left in the trench around the altar. (1 Kings 18:38)
There are few demonstrations of faith in the Old Testament as bold or powerful as this one. Elijah stood against all his contemporaries. He stood against the king, himself. He was the only prophet still faithful to Yahweh (as far as he knew). He put it all on the line, and God showed up in a powerful way!
The people fell on their faces and acknowledged God. (1 Kings 18:39) Elijah was vindicated, and his prayers were answered. His expectations were met. Or so it seemed.
This isn’t the end of story, though. The rest of the story is where I want to pick up.
For Black History Month 2021, I was more intentional than I normally am to listen to the voices of black people in America and to learn a little black history.
I have appreciated the voices of many people, including Rhiannon Giddens, formerly of the musical group, Carolina Chocolate Drop. Throughout Black History Month, she posted many biographies, and I followed her daily posts during the month.
So it was that I came across a project she created with a group of female, African American banjo players that was just released to the public. Yes, all banjo players, all female and all African American.
She set out to do an album of Americana music from the perspective of black history for Smithsonian Folkways. She put out a call for banjo players, like her, but she didn’t originally intend to gather together a group of four African American female banjo players: Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla, Amythyst Kiah and Rhiannon Giddens.
They met at Cypress House Studio in Breaux Bridge, LA, an old Creole cabin with “stories in the walls”. Dirk Powell, a longtime collaborator with Giddens, owns the cabin that houses the studio, and he produced the album.
They set out to reinterpret an existing canon of Americana music as part of the black narrative in the Americas, but they found their own voices and creativity in the process. The creative force of their shared history and experience led them to produce mostly original music for the album in the genre of Americana.
Part of that shared experience is the history of the minstrel banjo and slave narratives that are common to their collective ancestry. Giddens discovered her own history through her love for the banjo, which was an instrument brought to the Americas by the African slaves. Giddens commented:
“African American history is American history. It is important to know who the founding fathers were, and it’s also important to know who built the White House…. [I]it’s important to know who built the railroads; and it’s important to know the nameless people….”
Thus, Giddens found her own voice in the process of collaborating, writing and playing music for this project. In telling the African American story through Americana music, the group says the hope to prompt people to ask, “What can we do to be better as a society and as humans?”
The writer of Ecclesiastes asserted boldly many thousands of years ago that “there is nothing new under the sun”. The ancient date of that statement has always been a poignant reminder to me that we aren’t as wise as we think we are for all our modern sensibilities. We struggle with the same basic issues that are common to humanity, despite our scientific and technological advances.
God stands enthroned over all of His creation. From His vantage point outside of space/time, He watches as His purposes unfold, including the groaning of creation as some of His crowning creation “seek Him, feel their way toward Him and find him”. (Acts 17:27)
We fit into His purposes by doing just that – to know God and to grow in the knowledge of God is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s purpose for us.
We easily get mired in the mundane concerns of daily life. Our future planning is often limited to the benefits we can obtain in our years in these jars of clay we call our bodies. We often fail to give full room for the eternity God set in our hearts. (Ecc. 3:11) We fail to allow the Holy spirit to have full sway in our hearts and our lives.
We are easily distracted and easily preoccupied by lesser things than our relationship with God the Father and His purposes.
I am forever grateful for the grace He has shown to us in the sacrifice He made for us that He has made a way for us to come to Him despite our frailties and sinful tendencies, and to continue coming to Him who receives us in Christ. I am more indebted to His mercy and grace now than ever before. His lovingkindness is truly new every morning.
As we watch the time closing out on 2020, looking backward, and straining forward, I am borrowing from another writer for my own ten reflections on 2020:
We have seen a lot of violence in the last few weeks as the American world has been stirred to protest over the death of George Floyd. His death, following on the heels of the death of Ahmaud Arbery, are the two most recent examples of the extreme results of racial attitudes in the US. The roots of these attitudes go back centuries.
Sometimes in our lives we all have pain We all have sorrow But if we are wise We know that there’s always tomorrow
We’ve seen many videos of police violence posted on social media. We’ve seen many videos of rioting and looting in response. These constant reminders in the news fixate us on the violent side of humanity. In the meantime, we continue to wrestle with the isolation and fear of COVID-19 and economic recession.
If they make us uncomfortable, that’s probably good thing. If they stir up fear and anger, not so much.
The violent videos remind me that violence is not the answer. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was clear on that (though he warned that violence would continue as long as racial injustice continued). Darkness cannot drive out the darkness.
Long term light and love is what we need – the light of understanding and the love of God who made us all in HIs image.
Lean on me, when you’re not strong And I’ll be your friend I’ll help you carry on For it won’t be long ‘Til I’m gonna need Somebody to lean on
Violence, fear and anger beget more of the same. Once the fire is lit, there’s no telling what will be destroyed in the process. Controlled fire can be used to our advantage, but fire burning out of control and uncontained does not discriminate in its destruction.
Just as violence destroys, love builds up. Love and understanding is something we can build on.
I was thinking about these things as I was listening to NPR on my way to a legal aid clinic I supervise once a month. The topic of discussion was the life of Bill Withers, the great songwriter of the 1970’s.
Bill Withers died recently at the age of 81. His inspiration behind the song, Lean On Me, is what inspires me today in light of what is going on in the world.