Monday, June 6, 2016

Speaking across the gap

He cried out to the Lord, "O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?"  I Kings 17:20

For me, the biggest surprise of my trip to Zambia in April was having dinner with the Archbishop of Canterbury.  It wasn’t at all planned.  I’d been given a banquet ticket at the last minute, and when the waiter went looking for a seat for me, it was the first one he spotted, right at the front, beside the spiritual head of the world’s 85 million Anglicans.

I was delighted, of course.  I am a great admirer of Archbishop Welby’s.  I pray for him every morning, and I believe that God has given him to us as the leader we need at this challenging time.  Given a few days’ notice, I could have formulated any number of appropriate anecdotes for a casual evening or profound questions for an interview.  But I was not prepared, on a few seconds’ notice to make small talk to him for an hour or so.

I wasn’t really afraid I would use the wrong fork or the wrong title.  It was dark enough to conceal the flatware and the menu was traditional Zambian.  I’m not sure that the archbishop knew how to spear pan-fried caterpillars any better than I did.

It was more the tone of conversation that had me worried.  Should I just let him do the talking and nod politely?  Was it appropriate to tell more about myself?  Was it pious matters only or would a few jokes be in order? 

I wanted to help the poor fellow relax a bit after what had been a rather grueling day of presentations and debates.  But I wanted to be respectful as well, to show that I appreciated the honor of sharing the meal with him.

Well, as people usually say about these sorts of things, it turned out just fine in the end.  I can’t say too much about our conversation, because I was in Zambia as a reporter, and the Archbishop’s press man came over to me soon after I was seated to make me swear it would all be “off the record.”  The archbishop was as I would have hoped him to be: thoughtful and engaging, with lots of questions about my family and about interim ministry, which they are beginning, on a trial basis, in the Church of England.  He laughed at my jokes.  I left dinner just as impressed with him as I was at the beginning.  There was no mistaking, throughout our time together, that I was a very ordinary parish priest and he was the Archbishop of Canterbury.  But we were able to connect, to share.  There was real communication across the gap.

In years of talking with people about their prayers, I know that many struggle with how to communicate across an even broader gap.  We find it hard to know just what to say to God, what words we should use in our prayers, what tone we should take, what topics might be off limits.  I’ve often been asked something like— “This sickness, this bereavement, this struggle to find a purpose in my life is really hard.  Can I really talk to God about it?”  “Is it disrespectful to complain?”  “Does God really care about my trouble?”  “Sometimes I feel really angry with God.  Is it okay for me to feel this way, or even to say this when I pray?”

These are not foolish questions.   God is the Creator and Ruler of all things. He is the One to whom we must finally render an account.  He is holy and we are not.  We do well to know our place before God, to speak with God in a way that acknowledges His authority and wisdom.  We call speech that is mindful of that existential gap between God and ourselves reverent. 

The author of Ecclesiastes urged reverence in this way: “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore, let your words be few. For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.”[1]

What Ecclesiastes is saying is that we shouldn’t babble on aimlessly when we speak with God.  We shouldn’t boss God about like our own personal lackey.  God knows far more than we do about the meaning of the events in our lives and what is truly best for us.   To speak with God, and to know that He hears us is perhaps the highest privilege of a believer.  We must choose our words carefully, recognizing that privilege and showing respect and gratitude.

But reverent speech should also be direct and honest, even about the things that are most difficult for us.  I don’t think that God is like Emily Post or your tenth grade English teacher, waiting to catch you out for some error in what you say or how you say it.  Jesus assured us that God delights to give good gifts to His children when they ask Him.  God wants us to draw near to Him, and a profound relationship with God as with a human being requires that we be truthful about our struggles and our pain.

Today’s Old Testament lesson describes one of the most dramatic incidents in the story of Elijah.  Elijah is the first and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, the one who was called simply “the man of God.”  Like all Biblical prophets, Elijah revealed God’s Word.  He also worked miracles, and through them God revealed that his message was true. Most of Elijah’s miracles, like this raising of the son of the widow of Zarephath, came through direct and honest prayer.  The Book of James in the New Testament actually holds up Elijah as a model for the prayer of Christians, saying that his witness proves that “the prayer of a righteous man is mighty in its effects.”[2] 

Elijah is called to prayer by the honest doubt of a faithful woman.  Months before otherwise nameless widow of Zarephath had welcomed Elijah, a foreigner who was in her land fleeing the long arm of the law.  In the midst of a severe famine, the widow made a cake for the man of God from her last bit of flour and oil.  For her faithfulness, God had sent just a little more of each thing every day, so that the barrel was never emptied and the cruet never dry.  She took the prophet into her home, made him a little room on the roof, and she grew to trust in His message.

But then, unexpectedly, her only son had died, leaving her without a provider, alone in the world.  The widow comes to Elijah, in deep distress, angry at him and angry at God, desperately searching for an answer, as we all do at such times.  “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”

She doesn’t pray to God herself.  Perhaps she doesn’t think she can, or that God wouldn’t be ready to hear what she’s feeling.  But Elijah prays for her.  He doesn’t correct anything she’s said, in fact his own words to God echo the widow’s almost exactly: "O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?"  The great man of God is angry also, you see.  He’s saddened by the death of the young man who he had also come to care for during his time in the widow’s home.  Has God actually killed the boy?  Elijah didn’t know why he had died, but at that moment, after such faith and sacrifice, it certainly felt that way.  He didn’t hide this from God.  He was honest, and then he was direct: “O Lord my God, let this child's life come into him again.”

And in response to such honesty, such plain and direct speech, God acted directly.  “The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.”  It is the single greatest miracle of the Old Testament, a person brought back from death.  It would happen just one more time, in the ministry of Elijah’s successor, Elisha;[3] until centuries later when the Promised One would come and bring back to life another widow’s son.  “A great prophet has risen among us,” they would say then of Jesus, “God has looked favorably on his people.”  That miracle at Nain would point ahead to the greatest wonder of all, yet to come, when this great prophet would Himself be risen from the dead, conquering sin and opening eternal life to all.

But remember where it all began, in a word spoken out of doubt and fear, an honest word, a direct request, out of just about the worst imaginable situation.  I hope that none of you will never need to pray for the life of your own child or to ask for God’s help as you hold a loved one dead in your arms.  But whenever you feel deeply frustrated, or fearful of the future’s hazards, know that you do not need to hide your feelings from God.  God loves you.  He wants you to turn to Him for help.  We speak to God across a great divide, to be sure, but He is ever leaping across it to bless, heal and save.

[1] Eccl. 5:2,7.
[2] Jas. 5:17.
[3] II Kings 4:18-37.

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