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Finding God Under the Broom Tree

A sermon on 1 Kings 19:1-8 for a service of Healing for Mental Illness

(For an audio recording of this sermon, click here)

Given the focus of this gathering, I’m going to hazard a guess that many of us here have had the experience of everything being just a little too much to handle. Of getting overwhelmed by the pain in our lives or in our own heads, and of withdrawing from activities and relationships because that feels like the only survivable option.

And, I’m going to guess that when we have done that, when we have withdrawn into our pain, we might have heard some of these well-intentioned, but deeply wounding words:

“I know you’re feeling down, but what you need is a night out with the group. It will make you feel better!”

OR “You know, it’s all about your attitude. If you decide to be happy, you’ll be happy. If you decide to be miserable, you will be miserable.

OR “How do you expect to feel better if you shut everybody out? You’re just wallowing.”

The burden of mental illness is far too often compounded by the shame of social attitudes that tell us our pain is our fault, and by the frustration of people who care about us, but who can’t understand why we can’t just snap out of it.

This is why I love the story of Elijah under the broom tree. This is a story of withdrawal, even of running away. Elijah, the prophet of God, is overwhelmed and exhausted. He has gone from an incredible spiritual and emotional high – after triumphing spectacularly over 500 prophets of a false god – only to fall into the deepest depths of despair – when he is threatened by his queen with retributive violence.

And so, he flees for his life. He flees from the threat of death, but he also flees from his friends, leaving his companion in Beer-sheba to travel on alone. He flees into the desolate, isolating wilderness, and he prays to escape even from life itself.

According to popular wisdom, this withdrawal doesn’t make sense. If you are scared and despairing, so the standard thinking goes, why would you choose to go into the wilderness? The wilderness is a place of wandering and punishment. It’s a place of temptation and deprivation. It’s a place where all safety, and connection, and provision are stripped away, and we come face-to-face with our vulnerability and aloneness. In scripture and in culture, the wilderness is a recognized metaphor for struggle and isolation.

It seems like the very last place for someone grappling with fear, depression, and self-doubt. Looking in from the outside, it just doesn’t make sense to retreat into the wilderness. But the wilderness is exactly where Elijah goes when he has lost all hope. He isolates himself. He goes alone, a full-day’s journey into the wilderness. He withdraws until his exhausted body can’t take another step, and his defeated spirit can only pray for death. He goes to a place where no one but God can reach him.

And that’s exactly what God does. Just as God has met other wilderness wanderers in scripture, with a well of water, or a gift of food. Just as God has always been willing to come to the aid of those who have lost hope; For all the that wilderness seems like the very worst place to be in a time of despair, God comes to Elijah in the wilderness, where he is sleeping under a broom tree.

And when God comes to Elijah in the wilderness, lost in his despair, driven out of his sense of purpose by his fear, consumed by psychological pain and wanting to die… God doesn’t tell him to snap out of it. God doesn’t rebuke his defeated attitude. God doesn’t even cajole him into doing something fun to take his mind off things.

Instead, God makes it clear that the wilderness is exactly where Elijah needs to be, because God sends him what he needs to be sustained in the wilderness. To find healing in the wilderness. And that looks like taking care of Elijah’s most simple and mundane needs. God makes sure that he has bread to eat, and water to drink. And once he has eaten and drunk, God doesn’t try to hurry the healing along. God’s angel lets Elijah sleep again. Because he NEEDS to. He needs the space to be vulnerable. He needs the time to be weak.

I believe that one of the most powerful things our communities can do to nurture healing for those of us who live with mental illness, is to give us space to be vulnerable, and time to be weak.

During the times in my own life when depression has suffocated my joy and anxiety has robbed me of my peace, it is the vulnerability I have been taught by my faith that has been a healing balm for me.

In the weekly rite of confession, I have found myself surrounded by voices speaking the truth of the pain in my soul – the truth of brokenness, and helplessness, and of saying “I can’t be who I wish I could be.” And in that shared confession, it’s as though the whole church has walked out to join me in the wilderness. Reminding me that I am not actually alone, because I don’t have to find my way out of the wilderness to be with my family of faith.

And then, in the ritual of Ash Wednesday, I have found my furrowed brow smoothed with a sooty finger that accompanies words of rest: “You are dust.” Dust is all your Maker expects you to be. You don’t have to put on a show of perfection. You don’t have to pretend like everything is fine. You can lie in the dust under the broom tree without the guilt of thinking you are supposed to be somewhere else. It’s OK to just rest in the dust for a while.

And, most healing of all, in the Cross of Christ I find the nourishment of knowing that God’s way to heal the world is to show up in weakness. In a broken body, given for me. In a drowning of death, so that I can be raised to new life. Jesus joined me in weakness, in powerlessness, in pain, even in the despair of crying out to God “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”

No mighty conqueror could ever reach me in the wilderness of my affliction… but a Crucified Savior? Yes. He can be for me the bread and the water of life to sustain me in the wilderness.

There is a healing that can be found only in weakness. Only in the willingness to spend some time in the wilderness, and to lie down in the dust, and to receive the blessing of the bread and water with full awareness that we will die without it. Let us not be ashamed of our weakness, because in our weakness Christ is strong.

The story we read tonight doesn’t tell us how long Elijah spent under that broom tree. But it does tell us that one sleep, and one meal were not enough. He couldn’t be rushed. He slept, and then he ate, and then he went to sleep again. And then he was given more nourishment – because that was what he needed.

There’s no magic formula. Not timetable of how much rest we can take before we get back to work. Because the time under the broom tree isn’t a time-out from Elijah’s ministry. He is doing important work – healing work – under that broom tree. At least for me, this story has meant more than any of the accounts of Elijah’s mighty acts of power. Because it teaches me that God shows up in weakness.

But the ultimate hope in this story is not only that God shows up under the broom tree. It’s also that God doesn’t leave us there. God is with us in the wilderness, and also on the mountain top. And the journey between the two is one that we will probably take many times. I know I have.

And that’s OK. Because God gives us food for the journey. And however empty the wilderness might feel. We are not out there alone.

Thanks be to God.

[For an evening to engage this important topic of mental health through music, consider attending the Open Minds Save Lives event on Feb. 29 & March 1 by the Harmonium Choral Society]

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