My closest friend Donna went on a vacation of a lifetime in Europe this past month. One of her stops included a visit to the only Protestant cemetery in Rome. It began in the early 1700’s and grew over time. She was showing me photos over coffee and then this one photo struck me.
It’s exquisite. Not only as a statue but mostly because we’re not accustomed to seeing angels like this. Sad, grieving, weeping, forlorn. We usually see them depicted as messengers, warriors, protectors, suppliers.
After Donna showed it to me, I couldn’t get it out of my head so I looked it up. It has a name. It’s called the Angel of Grief. And it was created and made in 1894 by the artist William Wetmore Story for the grave of his wife Emelyn Story. The statue's creation was documented in an 1896 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine: according to this account, his wife's death so devastated Story that he lost interest in sculpture, but was inspired to create the monument by his children. Today the image is one of the most copied in the world.
What makes it universally appealing is the feeling evoked. Anyone who has experienced death knows this all too well, so to see an angel suffering, you get the sense of a profound grief. Even angels grieve to the point of what looks like despair. And in this mornings passage, even prophets, maybe especially prophets, come to face despair in the face of opposition.
Elijah retreats to the wilderness and asks God to take his life.
For those who aren’t familiar with the story of
Here’s a summary paraphrased-
Elijah enters into a bet with the followers of
"My God’s bigger than your God," Elijah says.. "and to prove it, I challenge you Baal followers to a contest.
Here are the rules:
I'll build an altar over here- you build an altar over there...
I'll get a bull- you get a bull
I'll cut my bull in half and lay him on my altar- you cut your bull in half and lay him on your altar
Then we'll each pray to our God, and whichever God can send a flame first, wins!"
And the Baal followers agree...
And the contest begins...
Baal’s people start calling on their god... and calling on their god.... and calling on their god... and after a few hours of praying... there is still no fire.
Eventually, the (Baal prophets and followers) get frustrated… and in an attempt to show their sincerity and devotion to Baal, they start cutting themselves with knives and rocks… and finally, Elijah says.. "Enough!" And when the bleeding stops he motions to the followers of Baal to
“Come Close… Watch this…”
Elijah has his attendants soak his altar with water... and then he has them soak it with more water.... and then even more water! And then he stands back and…. the altar goes up in flames,
and Elijah calls for all the Baal prophets and kills them.
The problem was that the
And he sits under a solitary broom tree, one tree, by itself, which illustrates further what Elijah is feeling, isolated and alone.
Verse 4 “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.”
No better than my ancestors, if you recall last weeks scripture in Exodus, the Israelites are also in the wilderness, hungry and fatigued and begin to regret being freed from slavery.
Some interpreters say Elijah fled out of fear of being killed. But I don’t think that’s where this deep sense of despair comes. My experience of despair is that it’s often accompanied by fatigue. A kind of giving up. When Elijah asks God to take away his life, you have to look at the whole picture. He’s been to war essentially. That contest I described is a brutal and gruesome experience. One that Elijah won, but not without the scars of battle. I imagine Elijah asked himself if it was all worth it. Scripture tells us he killed other prophets. Scripture paints it as a victory. But anyone who has ever been to battle can tell you, you can win, but still, walk away scarred and damaged. But in our scripture, we don't hear that.
Some may call what Elijah was experiencing as PTSD. Others might call it depression. Either way, I’d call it despair. Elijah wanted to die. How many of us have been there? I don’t expect to see a show of hands because we don't live in a culture that wants to admit that.
Depression is an illness, a chemical imbalance, PTSD lives in the body, sometimes depression is situational and other times chronic, either way, it should be talked about no differently than the way we talk about broken bones, but many of us still whisper when we talk about mental illness. If the bible has taught us anything it teaches us that some of our greatest figures had moments of despair. Moses cried out to God, “I can no longer bear the burden of these people alone…it is too heavy for me…Please kill me, let me no longer see my wretchedness,” King Saul was overcome by a “bad spirit.” Job lost everything, Jonah wrestled with God, Jeremiah with loneliness and defeat, Jesus himself asks in the garden before the cross for God to find any other way, and eventually cries out from the cross that God had forsaken him.
Rabbi Stacy Friedman from Rodef Shalom in San Rafael gave a sermon in 2014 that focused on mental illness. From that sermon grew a Mental Health Initiative at the synagogue that has gone on to do wonderful things to reduce the stigma that is too often associated with mental illness. Approximately 1 in 5 people experience a mental illness in a given year.
In the sermon, Stacy writes about a story in the Talmud-
Even the Talmud, written 1,500 years ago, discusses depression and how best to offer support. In Berakhot, we read the story of Rabbi Eleazar who is ill, suffering from deep despair. When his friend, Rabbi Yochanan, visits him, he finds Eleazar alone in a darkened room, facing the wall. He cannot bear to see the light; even the light from Yochanan’s arm is too bright for his eyes and his soul. When Yochanan sees that his friend crying he asks, “Why are you crying?” Then Eleazar finally answers, “I weep because all light fades into darkness because all beauty eventually rots.” Yochanan, sitting beside his friend replies, “Yes, ultimately everything does die. So perhaps you have reason to weep.” Then Yochanan sat down with his friend and wept alongside him. After a while, Yochanan asked, “Does darkness comfort you? Do you want these sufferings?” “No,” he says. “Then give me your hand,” replies Yochanan, and he lifts Rabbi Eleazar up from his bed and out of his darkened room. Sometimes, the Talmud teaches us, the best way to help people who suffer is to just be present with them and accompany them in their darkness and into the light of day. Sometimes, the Talmud teaches us, the best way to help people who suffer is not to talk them out of their pain or tell them they will get better soon; it is to just be present with them and accompany them in their darkness.
So God sends an angel to Elijah to keep him company, in the wilderness, in a place where the darkness looms and hope fades over time. Depression or not, we know this place. Stay there for a moment.
And God sends an angel. And the angel touches. Maybe takes his hand. Get up and eat the angel says. That simple. Eat. I know you’re not hungry. I know you’re tired. I know you want to die. I’m here. Eat with me. The angel comes again, this time with a promise, Get up and eat or the journey will be too much.
That’s not a threat but care. Get up and do the next right thing. That’s something that was said to me after the death of my father. I’ve never forgotten it.
The phrase “Do the next right thing”, comes from Alcoholics Anonymous, but you do not have to be an alcoholic to know the impact that this has on your emotional and spiritual life. The actual verbiage in the AA book is “ask (God) for the right thought or action” but the variation that is often repeated is “just do the next right thing.” For someone suffering the desire to have a drink of alcohol when they know it’s the last thing they should do, (or for someone suffering grief or loss or trauma,) “the next right thing” could be something that might seem relatively simple to the rest of us. For example, the next right thing might be getting out of bed; watching the sunrise; calling someone; feeding the cat; making a healthy breakfast; going to work; going to church; taking a walk; etc. It doesn’t necessarily mean signing up for a mission trip to a third world country.
The point isn’t what you do, it’s that what you do is “the right thing to do.”
Later towards the end of the passage...God himself shows up to Elijah, and scripture here is making a point…God shows up not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire…God shows up in the silence. That’s where we show up for one another. Not in our advice, not in our desire to fix anything, but in our ability to just sit together in those moments when there is nothing to say.
But eventually God does speak to Elijah, God speaks and twice asks;
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
God sends Elijah on to do the next right thing. There’s work to be done anointing to be done, healing to do, repairing to do. And that won't get done if you're out here in the wilderness where there is nothing. And Elijah, resilient and having been nourished by God’s angel goes on.
But don't skip over this wilderness time. There’s an entire interim time of sitting up and eating, of doing the next right thing. There’s experiences of wind, earthquakes, fire and then silence- before Elijah is ready to do God’s work again, angels appear, silence is experienced.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” says Jesus.
Wisdom isn’t gained by rushing over our pain, shrugging it off and pretending everything is alright. In the words of Alice Walker, Wisdom requests a pause.
I invite you to pause- this day, the anniversary of Charlottesville. A day of shame for our country as it moved backward in time. A year ago this day human beings showed their ugliest of sides. There is no way to spin this. There is no such thing as a person being superior based on the color of their skin or bloodline. There is no excuse for hatred of others based on the same principle. But don’t take my word for it, take the word of God, take the words of our founders, all God’s children are created equal.
I may retreat to the wilderness from time to time and hang my head in despair over what people are capable of. But I won’t lose hope. Because through these difficult times we also witness human beings living out the redemptive values of God’s justice and healing. Because in every tragedy, in every moment of despair, as Fred Rogers said, we look for the helpers. We look for the angels, even the grieving ones, the friends, the ones who get us up to eat so we won’t tire on this journey. The ones who provide the food, the ones who are sent out by God to anoint us back into hope and back into healing. Wisdom requests a pause so that God’s anointed ones in baptism might turn to anoint others in love, in reconciliation and in hope that all God’s children would live as one.
 Feasting on the Word