Thursday, January 6, 2011

Juniper Tree Syndrome

In I Kings 19, Elijah the prophet does something that seems out of character. Up to this point in the narrative, he’s been a wild and bold man. He’s predicted a drought that would end only when he said it would. Check. He’s gone off to live at a brook and be fed by ravens, then gone to a town where a widow fed him. Double check. He’s been a real thorn in the side of Ahab, Israel’s king, finally challenging the prophets of Baal to a contest on Mount Carmel. Major check.
The prophets agree that the god who accepts the offered sacrifice by igniting it will be the true god. Baal (the god of fire) doesn’t answer, but Yahweh does. Jezebel, Ahab’s queen, is so angry she threatens Elijah with death. And this man of God, who has feared nothing, goes on the lam.
            Who can tell what will be the last straw for any of us? Worn out afer running to the capital ahead of Ahab’s chariot and then into the desert, probably dehydrated, and hungry, Elijah sits down under a juniper tree and prays to die. I love this story, the humanness of Elijah. How often I have sat down under a metaphorical juniper tree myself! Though I’ve seldom been ready to plead for death, I too have felt Elijah’s despair—everyone else is false, I am the only true prophet left, and my work doesn’t matter. I could have been doing better things with my time, my life. Woe is me!
            What’s equally instructive is God’s response to Elijah. Twice an angel shows up to provide food and water, to make sure the prophet has enough fuel to keep going. He ends up in a cave, asking once again for God to kill him, repeating the litany of his supreme uselessness. This, mind you, from a man who has just been publicly vindicated and slain hundreds of false prophets. If he is useless, what chance do I have?
            When God shows up to meet with Elijah outside the cave—Elijah caved in—he ignores all the expressed despair, offering action as an antidote. Get up, go anoint Elisha as your successor, go anoint the next king, get on with your work.
            As a high school graduate, I began working at Lawson’s, a convenience store that was the precursor to Dairy Mart. We had milk, ice cream, a deli counter, and basic groceries. My boss, Georgetta, saw at once that I was the moody type. One day she looked at my face as I came in and promptly led me to the ice cream freezers. These were low, open chests in two rows, with a center shelf running the length of the freezers. On these shelves were stacked jars of ice cream toppings, maraschino cherries, and marshmallow fluff.
            “I want you to take everything off the top, wipe it down with bleach water, dust the jars, and put them all back,” she explained.
            This directive did not improve my mood.
            I did as I was told, however, and by the end of the job, I was happy again, for no real reason, just as I suspect my bad mood had no real cause.
            Certainly there are situations that call for rest, for medication, for withdrawal for a time. Sometimes, though, overly sensitive types like Elijah and me just need to get busy.

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