1/7000: Addressing the Isolation of Understanding

1/7000: Addressing the Isolation of Understanding

Maybe it’s because Bruce Springsteen taught me much of what I think about work, or maybe it’s because I live on an unpaved road in the country, but it endears me to Elijah the Prophet to know that he’s a rube, a real working man’s hero. The Tishbite—that’s what they call him. No translator knows for sure what it means, if it’s a place or a job or a status, but everybody knows what it implies. Elijah the prophet is a homesteader. A sojourner. A farm boy who crosses state lines looking for work.

Of course, Elijah the Farmboy does more than that—he throws down with foul kings, and disappears into the desert, and raises the dead, and, on more than one occasion, despairs.

Once you know that Elijah’s an outsider, a working man in the city, it’s easier to understand that despair, and something that happened at a decisive moment in his story. Here’s the context: Elijah announced a drought (1 Kings 17). The drought arrived and became severe. If you’ve ever lived through a drought, in California or Colorado or some other desert, you know the psychological toll they take. The grass withers; eventually, it’s trampled to dust. The creeks turn to mud and then sand. The fires begin. There’s an urgency in the air that’s hard to ignore. Elijah’s drought was like that, and when God announced that it was time to end it, Elijah challenged the sibilant prophets of a god called Baal to a showdown. It was epic, a story for another time, but God delivered in a dramatic way. Elijah was on the winning side, no doubt about it.

Which makes it hard to see why, right after that, Elijah the Squatter ran into the desert and prayed to die. “I’ve had enough,” he said, “take my life,” and curled up under a bush.

Except, you know Elijah was an outsider, and it hurts to be an outsider. It hurts to see something no other person sees. It’s hard to be a sojourner. In fact, it wearies the soul to the point of exhaustion.

That’s what’s up with Elijah that day, and we know that’s the case, because even though he crawled out from under that bush and traveled to Horeb, his pain remained—in a conversation with God Elijah lamented “I am the only one left” (1 Kings 19:10).

And God gave him some instructions and comforted him and says “no—I have 7000 others. You’re not alone.”

That’s an encouraging thing to say, and it bears on our time.

If you’re here, exploring Mount Vigil, then you probably think that something important is going on, and you’re probably having a hard time belonging.

I was reading recently, looking for more orientation to our shared situation, when I discovered Peter Turchin. Turchin’s attracted a ton of attention recently because he predicted 2020 as the start of a widespread societal collapse. He’s a mathematician and an ecologist turned historian; he uses math and ecological principles to study civilizations, and his point is, we’re at the start of a long hard time, and there’s no stopping it.

Obviously, it didn’t feel good to read Turchin’s books. I don’t like hard times, I don’t think bad things are good, even if they provide dramatic restorative opportunities. But mostly, I didn’t like knowing something most of the people around me didn’t know. And I don’t just mean my friends and my church. I mean the people in Costco and on the highways, the people picking out Christmas trees. Shouldn’t we be living differently? Shouldn’t there be a rallying cry in the Church? Wasn’t it Herodotus who said “Of all men's miseries the bitterest is this: to know so much and to have control over nothing”?

Or this one: in the early 1970s, a group of sustainable development researchers created a simple computer model to see how resource limitations might effect human populations. The news was not good, not if you believe in infinite progress, and the model’s turned out to be accurate. Guess what year the model suggested the death rate would start to rise? Cough...circa 2020. That doesn’t feel good to know, either. Not only because it’s discouraging news, but because I don’t really belong with environmental activists or with academics; I don’t really belong with preppers, even though I live on a homestead and like hunting and hand tools; I don’t really belong with social justice activists, even though Jesus is opposed to all forms of oppression.

It’s hard to know what to do when it seems like I only have two options: A, try to convince the people in my city that we’re living in a significant time, or, B, throw in with people who are already convinced but who aren’t responding in the way I think they should, meaning, they aren’t responding with allegiance to Jesus and self-offering love.

It’s hard to belong.

But here’s the lesson of Elijah the Homesteader: there are others. Elijah doesn’t meet any of those 7000 people, not that we hear about, and he doesn’t learn what they’re doing, and he doesn’t see their part in God’s salvation project. But he knows that they’re there, and that liberates him. It’s not up to Elijah to save the world, to do the work of 7000 people, to become the General Secretary or the King or the President. It’s up to Elijah to do the work in front of him.

Which still isn’t easy, by the way: he trains his successor (1 Kings 19:19). He condemns the injustice of monarchs (1 Kings 21:19). He chats with God (1 Kings 21:29). He sees a lot of fire come down (2 Kings 1:10). It’s never a gravy train.

So. What’s that mean for us? Well, you don’t get to belong outside the followers of Jesus. Not even if your coworker sees politics the way you do. Not even if you find a virtuous, considerate tribe of men who like hunting or shooting guns. Not even if one of your siblings reads the same books you do. All false belonging will cheat you in the end.

And you don’t have to persuade the people around you. You don’t have to get your neighbor to see that it’s terrible for people to die from COVID, and that it’s terrible to create a global police state, and that those things are true at the same time.

You do what Elijah did. You look for the immediate way of Jesus. You pray. You speak to the heart. And yes, you call a spade a spade. You call evil evil, whether it’s evil in your political party, or not, or in your church, or not, or in your country, or not.

In fact, that’s a decent order. First, we need to experience God. We need to see him. James K.A. Smith wrote a great book on a simple premise: we become what we love. That’s true, and we can only love who we see and know. Then, we pray. Not like the spiritual straw men many of us saw a long time ago in church, but like Elijah. With ardor. We want to see God’s Kingdom come. And the people around us? We address the heart. The heart is the core of the issue. We ask questions. Why are you angry? Why are you afraid? Tell me what all this means to you. Recently, my wife and I asked a friend, a leader in our church, to tell us his story of COVID. What did it cost you? We heard a story of specific disappointment and unique loss and individual pain. What did we say back? Well. We talked about the gospel of Jesus. We talked about Jesus as the friend who never abandons anyone. It opened up amazing opportunities for Jesus to change the world.

That last part, straight talk, can be the hardest. But it’s easier when you realize you don’t have a dog in the fight, that human power isn’t your plan to save the world. The people who mock Trump or Biden or Boris Johnson or António Guterres or Dr. Ghebreyesus aren’t scorning you, and they’re not going to destroy the world, even if they do have an imbalanced view of reality. An inaccurate view, if they don’t see the world through the story of Jesus. You can let it go, or laugh, too, and ask Jesus to show you the cunning, loving, surprising way to respond.

But do guard your own heart. This loneliness is real. The exhaustion of understanding—it wears on you. Elijah wanted to die. He really did. He needed to hear from God. And so do we. The Kingdom is still advancing. Jesus is still saving people and overthrowing spiritual evil and restoring the world. There are many out there allegiant to Jesus. May we be among them.