1 Kings 18: 20-40. 1 Kings 19: 1-18.
What do you do when you just can’t be bothered anymore?
What do you do when life is just hitting you again and again and again?
When it seems that everything you touch turns to dust?
That even when life gives you a success, that I doesn’t seem to last long, that it seems that it is just a way to lull you into a false sense of security so that you fall even further.
I see it in teachers and nurses who are just fed up of yet another ‘initiative’ made up somewhere by someone who seems never to have worked in a classroom or ward.
I see it in family members who struggle with someone they are caring for that seems to be in a self-destruct path.
I see it in politicians that wonder how they could spend a lifetime trying to make things better and yet they still end up getting the blame for society’s failures.
I see it in church folk who wonder what they need to do to keep their organisation or church going. That they feel they are running as fast as they can just to stand still, and if they ever stop it will all just fall apart.
I think, if we are human, we all go through times in our life where we wish we could just escape from it all.
And for some that may lead to depression, or burn out, or whatever phrases you want to use.
I think the Bible, and this passage in particular, is a case study in how we could move towards wholeness again.
Now before I start, I don't want to decry the work of psychiatrists and councillors. I think what they do is not only valuable, I think for some people it is essential. In the same way that I think there are physical illnesses that are so serious that we need professionals who have studied these ailments and dedicated their lives to cures, so in mental illness there are professionals who have dedicated their lives to helping people and seeking cures. So what I am saying here is not to stop you from going to doctors and seeking medical advice if you need it.
My hope would be that maybe knowing what to do before hand could prevent us from getting so depressed that we need the services of a doctor or councillor. That this would be preventative medicine, that this might be part of a spiritual health regime in the same way that we do regular exercise to keep ourselves physically fit.
OK so the background...
Elijah has had a great success; he thought this would sort out his problems once and for all. And he did succeed, but the problems didn't go away. Jezebel put out an order that Elijah should be hunted down.
So point 1. ‘Elijah was afraid, and fled for his life; he took his servant and went to Bathsheba in Judah.’ No one is immune to feelings of depression and failure. This is a guy who managed to pray so well that God reigned down fire in a show of strength. I think that our life would be better if our prayer life was better, that we were spiritual giants. Imagine that you could pray and you were so spiritual, so close to God’s heart, that God answered those prayers, wouldn’t you feel confident?
Well that person was Elijah, and he felt as insecure as we do.
I know it is a small point. But I am amazed at how many people get more depressed than they should do because they also lay on themselves the guilt that they are depressed. As if they are the only failures in the world. They have somehow let themselves down or let others down. Everyone struggles at some time.
It’s part of life.
It’s not about whether we will get down at some point, it is about how we respond when we feel those feeling start.
Point 2. ‘Leaving his servant there, Elijah walked a whole day into the wilderness.’ Take yourself out of the problem area. The one smart thing that Elijah did was realise that he was struggling and didn't try to work through it or carry on and if nothing was happening. He got out of there. He may not have known what to do. But he did know that carrying on doing what he was doing was just going to make things worse.
Point 3. ‘Suddenly an angel touched him and said, ‘Wake up and eat.’ Look after yourself physically. The thing about feeling low is that often it just paralyses us. We just stop having any energy for life. We don't want to do anything, we want to hide. It is as if we know that we have failed doing something, so the best way not to fail is to do anything. If everything we do turns to dust then maybe don't touch anything. We lose confidence in ourselves and our ability to make decisions. And not just major decisions, any decisions, like what to eat. And the truth is that if we are to get better, then we need to have the physical energy to get better. So we need to look after ourselves physically.
Eat well, do some gentle exercise, go for walks in the country.
There is a hormone in the brain called serotonin. When we exercise the brain produces that hormone and we feel a bit better. For me that is squash. My squash partners know when I have had a bad meeting, because the next day I am in that squash court and I am hitting that ball as hard as I can. I am not imagining that ball being anyone at all; I am just getting my serotonin levels up so that I feel a bit better about life.
Point 4 and 5. Elijah got up, ate and drank, and the food gave him enough strength to walk forty days to Sinai, the holy mountain. The original point that was going to make was to go somewhere where you had met God before. And that is an important point. Sometimes we need to go backwards to go forwards. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of better times, to put things into perspective. I know of one elder that has a certain walk. And when he is feeling a bit low he will go on this walk because he knows he has met God there before. It reminds him that things have been bad in the past, and he has got through those times, so even though things may feel bad now, he can get through them as well.
The sea does that for me. Sitting listening to waves for half an hour can recharge my batteries in ways that other things can’t. For my wife that would never work. She needs to sit with friends for a night just talking away with a bottle or two.
With others it might be a walk up the mountains. For others sitting alone in the church, or maybe going to a special place like Iona.
That was the main point I was going to make at this point, but then another one came. Be realistic about how long it will take you to heal. Elijah travelled forty days to get to Sinai. I think that was part of the healing process.
I probably took a long time to get ourselves in the psychological mess that we are in; a couple of tablets and a week off work aren’t going to cut it. So we shouldn’t feel bad when we seem to take longer than we think to feel better.
A year ago I took two heart attacks. So in September I was out of it, it took till the April before I had physically got to the place where I was as fit as I was before the damage was done. But emotionally I am still recovering from what happened, and that is over a year since the incidents.
I regularly talk to people who were married to someone for 20, 30, 40 years, and then seem to be surprised that a year after the death of that spouse they are still struggling. How long do we think it would take to recover from loosing someone who was such an integral part of our life for so long?
I know we live in a very fast paced world, I know that we live in a very rushed matter.
But we need to give ourselves time.
And that is essential for the next part.
Point 6. ‘Go and stand before me on top of the mountain.’ Then the Lord passed by and sent a furious wind that split the hills and shattered the rocks—but the Lord was not in the wind. The wind stopped blowing, and there was an earthquake—but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire—but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, there was the soft whisper of a voice,. When Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
The still, small voice is not a healing. The still small voice is a sign that we are on the road to recovery. All the rest has been preparation for this part. And it isn't that God didn't want to heal Elijah earlier, it was that Elijah wasn't in a place that he could be healed earlier. God was always speaking in a still small voice to Elijah. God was always whispering those words of advice that Elijah needed to hear. But the noise of his life, the clamour of his worries, the thunder of his struggles was drowning out God’s voice. The trick is not to hear God's voice; the trick is to create a space in our life that we can hear God's voice.
Look at Jesus. How many times do we hear the phrase, ‘And Jesus went off by himself to pray.’? Here was someone that literally had the world’s problems on his shoulders. The fate of the souls of every person in the world was in his hands. If he mucked things up then we all suffered. I have one meeting about the future of the Church of Scotland in Clackmannanshire and I’m struggling to work out in my head how to work through the next ten years. Jesus had thousands of years of humanity to worry about. And he coped with it all by giving himself space with God, to listen to how the father wanted him to act, to put things on perspective, to realise that it was not about what he did that mattered, it was about how he was loved, and how he loved, that mattered.
In the end that is what our long term spiritual and emotional and physiological health comes down to...realising how much we are loved and cared for. For if we know that and feel that, then we can get through anything, because nothing else matters.
Point 7. And you’ll be glad to know this is the last point. The Lord said, ‘Return to the wilderness near Damascus, then enter the city and anoint Hazael as king of Syria; anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet.’
So healing comes when we realise that we can return to our life and face it. We are not trying to escape from it or avoid it. But this time we face our life stronger, and we are stronger because we realise that we are not alone.
God is with us, and God has put others in our lives to help us, and he has put us in others lives to help them. We are not isolate and vulnerable, we are community and our strength comes from being part of a community.
So to summarise...
Don’t be surprised when you find yourself struggling, it is part of life.
Take yourself out of problem areas if you need to and don't neglect looking after yourself.
Go to a place where you can recharge yourself, a place you know heals the soul because you’ve felt that healing before; a place where you can meet God.
Give yourself time to heal and space where you can hear God.
And more than anything else realise that you are not alone. Just as you were put in this world to help others, others were put in this world to help you.
You, we, are deeply loved, we are deeply cared for, and if we know that we can cope with anything.