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Church Leadership Magazine, Issue 55, Autumn 2004 (CPAS)

 

Oasis

Life in leadership is a series of ups and downs – not a very profound observation. But maybe it’s worth noting that eight out of ten mountaineering disasters occur on the descent – the part the follows the success of the summit. Dr Pamela Evans offers a perceptive reflection on a prophet’s post-mountain top problems.

Coming down the mountain

‘I have had enough, Lord.’ (1 Kings 19:4)

Led by God, Elijah had initiated a potentially dangerous meeting with King Ahab. Without wavering, he’d faced frenzied opposition on Mount Carmel, trusting the Lord to answer first by fire, then by rain. Endued with power, he’d run ahead of Ahab’s chariot for miles.

So what went wrong?

Running scared

Post-mountain top, Elijah’s focus slipped from the Lord who had sustained him during years of drought (1 Kings 17); who had sent him (18:36); who had answered by fire. It shifted to Jezebel. Her enthusiasm for killing prophets left Elijah in no doubt that her curse (19:2) represented an intention to do him harm.

After fleeing, presumably without supernatural strength, Elijah was drained, emotionally as well as physically. Could God please save Jezebel the trouble and end it all (19:4)? `I have had enough, Lord.’ (How many leaders have said something similar?) Soon, Elijah’s focus was drifting towards his own inadequacies. He fell into an exhausted sleep.

Underlying thinking

Let’s break from the story to consider a significant glitch in Elijah’s thinking. Addressing the people on Mount Carmel, he had asserted that he was the only one left of all the Lord’s prophets, a claim he later repeated to God. He may have been the only one speaking publicly; he may have felt isolated, standing alone in hostile territory. But numerous other prophets had survived – and the faithful Obadiah had just told him so (18:13)!

Following the awesome display on the mountain, thousands of Israelites turned back to God. As the Lord later tried to tell Elijah, there were seven thousand people who had never worshipped Baal (19:18), so the bigger picture was even more encouraging. Elijah wasn’t helping himself, or others (18:22), by reiterating what was at best a half-truth.

God’s response

You could ask someone who doesn’t know the story to suggest how God might respond to one of his prophets who was ‘absent without leave’, sitting in the middle of nowhere, praying pessimistic, self-focused prayers. It’s my guess that most would expect God to be angry – or at least to do something seriously ‘spiritual’! How many would suggest providing plenty of food and water, and allowing further sleep followed by a long walk?

Eventually God asked Elijah, in a voice that I hear as conversational rather than inquisitorial, ‘What are you doing here?’ (19:9). His reply (19:10) gives further clues to his state of mind. If you’ve ever tried to impress upon God just how much you’ve done for him, how difficult it has been with no one to help, and how people are out to get you – well, you weren’t the first!

God’s response to Elijah (19:11-12) left his perspective unchanged (19:14). So the Lord directed him to retrace his steps, giving specific instructions for involving others: he was to anoint two kings, and to team up with Elisha, his successor. ‘Oh, and, by the way,’ God added, `there are seven thousand who have remained faithful to me.’

After the big event

We’re all vulnerable after ‘the big event’, be it a Christian conference led by others, a parish weekend, a family wedding or a triumphant Christian funeral. An international speaker with a ministry of inner healing commented that, after seeing God at work setting captives free and healing the broken-hearted, she can plummet into a weary self-doubt that denies that anything much happened and that God has gifted her for such work. At such times, it’s good to be part of a team. We need others alongside us who know where we’re vulnerable, and who will:
· Pray for us
· Encourage self-care measures such as food, rest and exercise
· Spot any undermining before we’re halfway to the pit.

I know that, in the after-glow of a big event, I’m capable of making judgments about pastoral situations that I later regret. Big-event euphoria can be as dangerous as exhausted depression: if we’re pumped up, with that ‘I can fly!’ feeling, we need those who love us enough to say ‘No, you can’t!’ We may need to be steered away from those who might either take advantage of our temporarily clouded judgment (and vulnerability to sexual temptation has to be mentioned here) or be hurt by our insensitivity.

We do well to know ourselves. Also, to take note of HALT, the acronym used by Alcoholics Anonymous and others, for Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired – conditions in which our usual vulnerabilities are magnified. At times, God does give supernatural strength, but that doesn’t make us super-human; everyone is tired after a big event.

Good practice

The physical (and other) limitations that are an intrinsic part of being human don’t surprise God the way they do us! We can choose to demonstrate acceptance of our humanity by:
· Booking commitments of a less demanding nature to follow planned periods of intensive ministry
· Protecting time off for recreational and family activities.

When pastoral or other crises of a particularly draining nature arrive unscheduled, the need for time out may be even greater. Again, this is a strength of team ministry, if all are willing both to acknowledge their own vulnerability and to be alert to the needs of colleagues.

Rehearsing speeches similar to Elijah’s (whether directed towards to God or others) about being the only one doing God’s work – or the only one doing it properly – is asking for trouble. We do well to pick up on repetitive self-talk of any sort, not least to ‘reality check’ it: ‘Is what I’m endlessly repeating to myself absolutely true?’

In practice, half-truths are more effective tools for undermining than outright lies, containing as they do enough truth to slip under our defences. It’s good to have brothers and sisters in Christ who will challenge us if they see us psyching ourselves into a downward spiral.

When wavering faith, self-doubt or anxiety flood our inner life, we need those who will stick with us. Yes, God is close by, as he was with Elijah, offering resources and pointing the way. But, if our thinking has become scrambled, we’ll need help with hearing and receiving. Repeat this prescription three times daily: ‘Willingness to accept help is a sign of strength, not of weakness’!

Postscript

Some time later, we find a rehabilitated Elijah, his usual courageous self, confronting King Ahab over the matter of a certain vineyard (1 Kings 21). Centuries later, he is seen talking with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Moses is there, too – another one who wanted to give up and die (Numbers 11:14 -15)! Proof, if any were needed, that bad times don’t lead inexorably to worse.