Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Worshiping on Sabbatical

Laurel-covered cliffs atop Mt. Le Conte.
Thankfully, our church has a policy allowing full time ministry staff to take significant time for rest and restoration every seven years. I am very grateful. I've been at Providence 21 years and am surprised at how much I needed this break. We went to the beach first, then we came home for a week to start building a new house (crazy story about how/why we moved—maybe later!) and then left to go camping in Miss Daisy. We just got back. I've been away long enough now to shed some anxiety that I didn't know I was living in. Do fish know they're in water when that's where they live? And THAT'S why we have sabbatical.

One of the activities I have gotten to do again (in addition to blogging!) is to worship with Christians other than those at Providence Church. So far, I haven't gone to any big hip or happening churches about which everyone is all abuzz. That's what I usually do so I can learn about what new stuff they are doing. Instead, among those I've attended are a small church in Port St. Joe Florida, Providence Jefferson City (a church we planted years ago), and a service at the campground amphitheater led by a college student with A Christian Ministry in the National Parks (ACMNP) at Elkmont. All these worship experiences have been great for me and I could write a post on each of them. But I want to say a little bit about the latter.

Friends, family, and dogs just behind our site.
It rained for parts of most of the days we camped, and Sunday was no different. It had already showered Sunday morning when the student with ACMNP passed by our site while we ate breakfast and told us about the service. We had already talked about going, but hadn't seen any signs that services were happening. We walked to the amphitheater for the 10 AM service and there was only one other camper there, so we took a seat on our raincoats. Then others trickled in—people from New York to Mississippi—about 20 total (not counting the big dog someone brought). The sun peeked through the clouds. Emily, the college student who invited us a couple of hours earlier was the only leader. She welcomed everyone, passed out worship booklets, strapped on a guitar and invited everyone to stand and sing with her. It was a contemporary hymn by the Gettys. No microphone, lights, projector... nothing. We did some responsive reading, sang another song, and she seated everyone asking us to turn to 1Kings 19. She read the familiar passage about Elijah fleeing from Jezebel after defeating the prophets of Baal, and then hitting a wall of exhaustion and discouragement. He just wanted to die. God provided an angel to prepare food for him and told him to eat "for the journey is too great for you." Elijah then walked 40 days to "the mountain of God" and hid in a cave where God finally spoke. "What are you doing here, Elijah?" God asked.

As soon as I read this along with Emily, I almost broke out in tears, which caught me by surprise. The rest of the world went away and [in my heart] God asked me the same question. "What are you doing here, Chad?" It's amazing, the power of God's word, especially when read with other believers gathered to hear from God. I realized God was speaking to me. I, like Elijah, was tired, discouraged, and even after experiencing some ministry success, felt despair after difficulty has come my way. I felt like a failure and I hadn't even acknowledged it. "What AM I doing?" I thought. For that moment I didn't have an answer.
A little wooden bridge across the Little River near Elkmont.

Elijah then spoke for me. “I have been very jealous [some translations: "zealous"] for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” Now, obviously, no one is wanting to kill me (that I know about!). But despite zeal for Christ I have experienced unrivaled spiritual warfare in my life over the past year. And it is lonely. And everything in me has wanted to give up at times. And sometimes it can feel like no one understands. And God doesn't seem to be acting.

God told Elijah to step outside the cave, and we know what happened next:
 And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.         
1Kings 19:11-12 
Then God asked again, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" Elijah answered just as before, yet perhaps this time (I have imagined) much more softly and contemplatively. I too thought about his [and my] answer more. It seems shallower and more self-focused this time. Here is God who had graciously called Elijah [and me] to serve him. Here is God who had showed up before the prophets of Baal showing his unmistakable presence and power. Here is God who had used Elijah, promoted Elijah, hidden Elijah, and fed Elijah (just as he has me). Now God, like a gentle Father spends time with Elijah reminding him of his power yet speaking to him with tenderness and concern.

Emily's message was much more a devotional than a sermon. It was reminiscent of the kind of talk I've heard numerous times from students who were fairly new to the faith and the Bible. She gave some brief context and then simply shared her take on the story, meshing it with her own journey. She reminded us that sometimes when we experience hard times in the busy-ness of life it takes getting alone with God on the mountain to hear him whisper. Yeah, it was that simple...and great. We sang another song and cited a creed. Darla and I greeted some worshipers (and the dog) and walked back to our camp site. I remembered the rest of the story. Elijah left that experience with specific instructions from God to anoint new kings for Syria and Israel, and anoint a prophet to replace himself. God was about to move by replacing the current political and religious leadership. And things weren't as bad as Elijah thought. God told him, “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” Effectively saying, "I've been at work, Elijah. You're not alone, and the story doesn't begin or end with you." Elijah did much more before God took him into heaven in a whirlwind with chariots of fire—one of only two people in human history who never died physically.
Dara and I on a climb.

Yes, ministry is taxing—thank you God (and Providence) for some needed time at the "mountain of God"—the journey IS too great for me. Yes, it's easy to be self-focused instead of God-focused which results in stress and loneliness. Yes, God is at work, whether we see him or not.  And yes, God cares for his children as a loving and gentle Father: whispering, encouraging, reminding, strengthening, and using us for his glory.

Ha! I guess I needed four "so whats" for myself.

I miss worshiping with my Providence family. It is always one of the hardest things about being on sabbatical because I LOVE Providence. I love listening to the podcasts of the services. But God is using my time away in many ways including speaking through different gatherings of Christians and his word to me.