Today’s first reading was from the book of Kings:
“He himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.”
I am going to let it all out. Right now, I am under that broom bush with Elijah.
My next cancer scan is on Wednesday. If am cancer free, I will be one year in remission. If not, I will start treatment all over again. If the cancer has moved to my lungs, more likely than not I will begin the long, slow journey toward death that most people with this rare cancer finally face at one point or another.
I repeat this dread, this anticipation, this cycle, once every three months.
Then there is marriage. My primary vocation. Six years of marriage, six years of love. Six years of challenges that get more and more complicated. We have conquered arguments, jobs, bands, illnesses, births, even deaths, together. But as with every family, the pieces to be put together keep getting more and more intricate. The crowning challenge: navigating cancer with a new house, a new job, and a new baby. Then, learning to live a very new, very intense and very uncertain life as husband and wife all over again. I often feel like we are rebuilding our marriage from scratch, two new people who don’t know each other all that well. Except now we also have two small children together.
Our two beautiful young children, who demand our attention and care in the way that only very young children can. As every parent knows, I cannot lose my focus on them, even for a few minutes, lest they break something or hurt themselves or get hungry or need a change or wonder “why?” or need a drink or a hug or one of a million more sweet and tiny things. They don’t care about cancer. They don’t care about marriage. They don’t care about bills or chores or bands. They just want our attention.
In fact, I feel like I live in a whirlwind of worries and problems all screaming at once: “Pay attention to me! Now! Pay attention to me or I might hurt or cry or break or even die!”
It’s all important. It’s all exhausting. And if you think your life can’t get any harder, I am here to tell you that you are wrong. There is no earthly limit to how hard things can get. I am not suicidal. I don’t want to disappear or harm myself or die. But I am under the broom bush with Elijah.
“I have had ENOUGH, O Lord. Take my life. I am no better than all of my ancestors, or, for that matter, anyone else on this blessed Earth. What makes you think I can handle all of this? What makes you think I can do any of this? Why is this my mission? Surely you see how tired I am? Surely you see how worried sick I am about the present and the future? Surely you see this pain and exhaustion and fear? Surely you see what an absolute mess I’ve made of everything? I don’t want this. I am failing. Please, just let me lie down and sleep.”
When the prophet Elijah spoke those words, he was in fear for his life. He had disproven the idols of Baal. He had killed the false prophets with a sword. King Ahab was seeking revenge on him. Queen Jezebel swore by her gods to kill him. He had expended all his energy on the run to Jezreel, then Beersheba, then into the wilderness. He was without direction, exhausted, fearful, in pain, in the middle of the most intense and challenging of situations he had ever experienced.
I am glad to know I am not the only one who, when confronted with such obstacles, throws up my hands and goes to take a nap.
But the angel would not let Elijah sleep forever.
“Get up, and eat,” said the Lord’s messenger. “For the journey is too much for you.”
This is not going to be some sort of tidy tale about how Elijah ate bread and drank water and everything was all better. Similarly, this is not going to be a pious, saccharine story about how the Eucharist (the obvious parallel here) has miraculously transformed me into some kind of Supermom who has no trouble juggling cancer and marital stress and preschoolers and toddlers and finances and chores.
I still want that broom bush and that long nap. I am still at the place where I want to give up.
But my conscience, that little angel voice, forces me out of bed and into the pews or the daily trenches and basically force feeds me the word and the grace and the body of God. It’s sloppy and distracting and not at all pretty. I fall back asleep a lot and have to be reminded again and again that “this journey is too much for you.” I can’t do it alone. I can only do it with that angel, that bread, that drink. I don’t always feel like anything is happening, but I do feel juuust enough strength to keep on.
Why? Why in God’s name do I keep slogging through this? Why did Elijah?
Elijah continues to flee, and on his way he bumps right into God.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
“I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty,” Elijah says. I can almost here the overwhelmed whine in his voice, because it’s my voice too. “The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
“Lord, I have been through so much. I have worked so hard to do everything I thought you asked of me. But now it’s like everything in my life is out to get me, to kill me.”
Then The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
We know how the story ends. Elijah waits for the Lord in the earthquake and the whirlwind and does not find him there. Instead, a tiny whisper passes by the mouth of the cave. Elijah goes out and covers his head in the presence of God. Then, the Lord instructs him.
I am still bumbling through all this, I am still trying and crying and confessing and taking the Eucharist in faith because I believe sooner or later I will run smack into God. He will ask me what in the heck I am doing, and I will whine and plead my case, and God, the God that rises above every problem I have, MY God, will show me his presence. And he will instruct me. I shouldn’t expect it to be dramatic, or Earth-shattering. But it will be quietly profound. It will answer every question I have ever had, dry every tear, and plainly show me my mission and its fruits.
For Elijah, this encounter took place in life. For most of us, it won’t happen until we have crossed over until eternity. But that doesn’t mean we can give up and go to sleep. We have to keep running and eating and working and whining. We have to keep trying. No matter how hard it gets, no matter how tired we get. Do. Not. Give. Up. Keep your veil with you, and be ready, for the presence of the Lord is bound to pass you by.