A while ago when I was still in the States, I read an interesting article about a guy who tried to go to Kansas from Florida for the first time since he was a kid.
He had relatives in Kansas, so he tried to pay them a visit during his vacation. He actually didn’t take an airplane like many others do although it’s kind of a long way. He took buses, so it’s a long, long journey for miles with a couple of bus transfers. After hours of long, deep sleep on the bus, he finally arrived in Kansas and got off the bus. He was very drowsy when he arrived, but he was glad he finally reached Kansas.
But after getting off, he got surprised and puzzled because the area looked totally different from his memories from this childhood.
He visited his relatives before. He’d been in the town. He knew the streets and the station area. In his memories, there should be Main Street right here and Church Street over there. They should be there. But he saw none of them.
Wondering why the town looked totally different, he walked back to the bus station trying to ask the people. But before asking, he noticed he simplest reason when he saw the sign on a building saying,
“Welcome to Michigan!”
He was not in Kansas. He missed the bus transfer and he unexpectedly ended up in Michigan which is far, far away from Kansas. No wonder he didn’t find Main Street right here and Church Street over there. No wonder what he expected was not there. Much to his surprise, he just messed up and ended up in a totally wrong place.
Has your life ever ended up like this? Ended up in a place where you didn’t even wish to be?
You dreamed, hoped, wished, and expected something… Yet your life didn’t get there. You didn’t arrive in Kansas. Instead, you ended up in Michigan. That’s not where you wanted to go, but you were there anyway.
For Elijah, things certainly didn’t go as planned. Elijah, a prophet who was sent out for his ministries with blessings, is now utterly exhausted, so lonely and deadly scared. Now he doesn’t want to do his ministries anymore and just wants to run away from his vocation. “Too much burden, too little support. Can’t take it anymore. I’m outta here!”
Elijah was in constant conflicts with the prophets of the Canaanite god, a god of rain and fertility worshiped under the reign of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel.
1 Kings Chapter 18 tells us Elijah has just bested 400 prophets of Canaanite god in a public test of strength. During this contest, many of its prophets were killed. Who is to blame? To Queen Jezebel, it’s Elijah! Today’s passage chapter 19 opens King Ahab and Queen Jezebel hold Elijah responsible for their death. Jezebel becomes especially enraged, and declares against Elijah, “May the gods take my life if I have not taken yours by this time tomorrow. Elijah, you cocky little man! I will end you by tomorrow!”
Scary death sentence from the mean queen! When Elijah heard this, he “was afraid; he got up and fled for his life” (1 Kings 19:3). A guy who was known as a great prophet today – now got chickened out! Under tremendous fear, Elijah cries out to God: “I tried my best. But now I’m your only prophet left alive. Everyone was murdered, God! And now the king and the queen are trying to kill me!”
Elijah’s response might be surprising to some of you. Previously until this chapter, he has not hesitated whatsoever to stand against Ahab and the prophets of Canaanite god. But now he is fearful and tries to flee for his life. A brave, wise, and decisive prophet of God – the one who is often named as one of the greatest prophets along with Moses – is now too scared to walk as a prophet.
Elijah didn’t expect what he was facing. He was supposed to work with his fellow prophets. But they are gone. Killed. He left all alone in the midst of bloody conflicts.
Not only being alone, his life is now in danger. The king and the queen – the two most powerful figures – are trying to kill him. Where are his friends who are to fight against them together? Where are his teammates who are to support him? Nowhere. Nobody is there for him.
“What am I supposed to do!? Why this!? This is not what you meant when you called me, right!?” Frightened, despaired, and exhausted… Elijah didn’t reach Kansas; he ended up in Michigan.
So now let me ask you this again: has your life ended up in Michigan before?
Maybe your relationship – relationship with your parents, with your children, with your partner or with your friends. Or maybe your work life, school life, or daily family life you now endure, not enjoy. Or maybe your childhood dream, teenage dream, college dream… All of these sometimes just end up in Michigan, far far away from our hope and expectation.
It happens to all of us. Not only to Elijah, not only to me, not only to you. Happens to all of us…because we are not in control of our lives. You can’t control some things in life. That’s why your life sometimes ends up somewhere you don’t want to be. Your life is always full of unexpected – and sometimes unpleasant – events because you are not in full control of your life.
“The truth is, you don’t have life; life has you”, Victor Frankel, an Austrian psychiatrist, says in his writings. “Life has you. You are not in control of life because you don’t have life. You can’t control what you don’t own in the first place.”
We tend to think, “I have my life and you have your life”, treating life as if it’s something we possess. But according to Frankel, it’s vice versa. Life has us, embraces us and leads us.
There is no “right or wrong” on this. These are just different ways of seeing life, different ways of interpreting what we are experiencing. But I personally find Frankel’s way quite real. Life is embracing and leading us; not we are leading our own lives.
My life took me to live on the street for a while in fall 1999. It was the roughest year in my life and I was still 19. Grieved, frustrated, enraged, feeling a sense of tremendous loss after my ex-girlfriend died of leukemia, I lost grip on my life.
We were born in the exact same day. First girlfriend. We had a very rocky period of relationship after she was hospitalized, and eventually broke up while she was in treatment. She knew she would die but at the time I had little idea what is going on. Didn’t even know it is leukemia.
After her funeral, a bunch of “should’ve” and “could’ve” started haunting my head and I was not mentally mature enough to handle them well.
I left home and tried to be alone. I had a job. I had a little amount money to support myself, so I wasn’t worried about being too hungry to die. But under the cold autumn sky in northern part of Japan, life looked too rough on the teenage kid.
I was supposed to go to university that year if nothing had happened. But my mental immaturity didn’t let me focus on anything other than her disease and all the challenging things around.
Eventually I ended up not deciding what to do after high school, and my not going to college invoked lots of irony, sarcasm and criticism from my family. I was dealing with them well at all. It didn’t take long for me to realize I had to be away from them somehow. I tried to save every penny for college, so the only thing I could think of at the time was to live on the street.
“This isn’t the life I wanted. This isn’t the future I expected.”
Every single day I felt my life got messed up leading me in a completely wrong place. Every time I woke up in the morning, I realized I was in Michigan…a cold, unexpected situation where I didn’t want to be.
Especially in the cold, rainy morning, when I was standing in the middle of chaos, what my eyes saw before me was the world of resentment and frustration out there…what my eyes saw was only despairing and complaining spirit inside of myself.
I really wanted to cry out from time to time. “This is not where I’m supposed to be!” That was horrible. I mean, not living on the street. That’s not exactly what I mean. What I was shocked about most was how my way of seeing the world and myself changed. I lost smile. I lost joy in the deepest sense. I lost a heart of gratitude. My thoughts were full of cynicism and complaints. And I did notice it. I did. But I just didn’t pick up my strength to change the way I see the world and myself. Maybe I was soaking myself in self-pity a bit too much.
I guess for majority of the people living on the street is scary. I, too, was not an exception. At the time I was only 19. It was scary. But the most frightening thing I found was, we easily lose a sense of who we are when our life hits some toughest spots.
The scary truth is, it’s not just our life, not just our day ends up in somewhere we don’t wish. But also our very being – it withers away. In a place we didn’t wish to be, in the midst of emptiness, frustration, despair, we begin to become who we are not called to be.
Hearing Elijah’s frustrated, exhausted, intimidated spirit, God whispers to him. Running from Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah gave God a prayer to let him die rather than face any more nasty realities. But God says no.
“Return where you are called to be and do what you are called to do.”
Elijah is running away from more than Jezebel; he’s trying to run from his vocation as a God’s prophet. God doesn’t let Elijah die. Instead, God sends him back – back into the place where he has to face his enemies so Elijah is born again and become himself one more time.
A well-known French philosopher once said, “We are born twice, once to come out from our mother’s womb, and once to become ourselves.”
Probably this philosopher is right. But maybe not just twice. Maybe again and again and again, we are born to become ourselves. As God’s voice intervenes – however powerful, however small- and calls us back to who we are, whose we are, and what we are about, we are born again.
I love church. I love it partly because it often shows me a hint of strength within us, strength to become who we are, whose we are, and what we are all about. Even from here, I see a drop of strength behind your eyes. That’s the way how my faith sees you.
To be honest, I don’t know your life very much. But I’m sure tons of things happened in your life journey. Joys, laughers, smiles, happiness, celebration…and also challenges, bitterness, sadness, frustration, apathy, sense of loss – I believe all of these kinds of stuff are parts of your life. Most of you in this sanctuary has more life experiences, so maybe more than I did in the past you might have those.
I see strength behind your eyes because you dare to be a blessing of life despite of all. I’m sure things sometimes went so unfriendly and even brutal to you. But despite of all, you stand up and become a voice of praise to the people and to the communities.
Maybe you say you are not always like that. Maybe sometimes you get beaten down by the realities. Yet, you still know, in your heart, that’s not the end. You know your life calls you and grabs your hands, and lets you be a divine blessing. And you have answered…despite of all…in sharing joy and sadness with one another, in your smiling, in your hugging, in your giving, in your openness, in your loving and caring…here in this sanctuary, you have responded.
Even from here, standing behind the pulpit, I see your strength behind your eyes. You and I are not going to let it go. We will hold onto it and never ever let it go. Because when our life seems messed up, that’s the spot divine whisper begins to dance around.
Elijah has this strength. Hearing God’s whisper, he goes back.
Frightened, feeling fear and worries…yet despite of all, he returns to be a “prophet Elijah” again. He holds onto his strength to be who he is called to be once again…and throughout his life, Breath of Life has accompanied him. A man named Elijah, who cried out to God out of loneliness and despair and almost gave up becoming who he was called to be, is now known as one of the greatest prophets in Israelite history.
Our life and our very being…they sometimes end up in Michigan. But even in such a place, we can hear Life singing, “I’m still with you. In each breath you take, I’m right with you. So you may go. Go and return. Return to be my blessings to the people and to the communities. Be my song and make a joyful noise. Born again and again… And if……if you get too weary, then listen to my whisper one more time. I’m with you…wherever you may go.”
Life speaks to Elijah…and to us…
May our strength always embrace the whisper in our own Michigan today and always.
*Delivered at St.Andrew’s United Church in Ontario in 2011.