A number of years ago, I was asked to fill the pulpit for a friend in Middletown, Ohio. It was a small “town & country” church struggling through a transitional period. They was in a slow decline and wondered what to do next.
At the time, I preached a sermon called, “Stop the spiritual pity party.” Rereading it now in the middle of the COVID pandemic, it resonates with me on how God can speak to us in stillness. We need to take a step back from ourselves and ask “what are we doing here?”
The Power of Questions
Questions are wonderful things. Whether we want to or not, we answer questions almost automatically. I can ask a question like, “what is your favorite food?” and I bet a picture of it flashed in your head and your mouth may have even started watering. I can ask things like “Will the Steelers win today?” or “What is your favorite color?” and wham…you have the answer.
Throughout the Bible, God uses questions to focus our attention on what matters most. The first question God asks to humanity is “where are you?” It shows God’s deep desire to be in relationship with us and his willingness to chase after us.
Finding yourself in a tough spot
As we are in the middle of COVID-19, the story of the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19 is especially important to help guide us. Elijah found himself in a very tough spot and, in a moment of despair, just wanted to lay down and die.
Elijah emerges on the scene after the tribes of Israel split into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms after King Solomon’s death. Ahab, the son of the King of Israel (the northern kingdom) married Jezebel, a priestess of Baal, and the majority of the people of the north started worshipping Baal. Worshipping Baal often involved ritual prostitution, child sacrifice and other acts strictly forbidden by God.
To make a long story short, Elijah challenges Ahab to turn away from worshipping Baal, it stops raining for 3 years. Elijah strolled back into town and throws down a challenge between Baal and God. In the end, Elisha calls down a pillar of fire and it results in 850 extra-crispy prophets of Baal and Asherah. God shows his power in a mighty way.
Elijah just won a huge victory over Baal. God ended the drought he brought upon them because of their idolatry. Elijah now comes back to Jezreel, where he expects Ahab and Jezebel to repent, surrender or accept defeat.
Elijah should be on the mountaintop. He just showed that God is God and Ba’al is not. The people of Israel start turning away from Ba’al and back toward God. Roll credits, the movie is over right?
Nope! Instead, Jezebel threatens to kill Elijah, Elijah runs away, hides, wants to die and gives up hope. He goes out into the wilderness to die. In verse 4 he says, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
Elijah’s pity party and God’s desire for renewal.
Some would say that Elijah was in a funk. I would say that Elijah was having a spiritual pity party. He basically believed that everything he did was useless. He believed God couldn’t do anything with it. He lost faith and hope that God could work through it.
He gave up.
You see, the story could end right here. God could abandon Elijah and pick another person to carry on his mission. He could have said, “OK, you give up. I’ll go find another prophet.” But he didn’t. God sent an angel (or in some translations, a messenger) to care for him and take care of his physical needs. He gave him food, water, and even a safe place to go so he could get refocused on his mission.
God took him on a journey for 40 days and he ended in a cave on Mt. Horab. God provided for his physical needs and isolated him so he would be willing to listen to God instead of his own self-pity.
Hearing God in Silence…
Now, Elijah was ready to listen to God. Elijah does not hear God in a windstorm, earthquake or fire, but it a sheer silence.
And God comes back with a question…”What are your doing here, Elijah?”
This question forces us to examine our intent. We are forced to answer what we stand for and what we are about. We are forced (almost automatically) to think about the WHY we are where we are and WHY does it matter.
It is only after Elijah answers this question, that God can give him instructions and he can get back on track.
Bringing it to the present…
You see, Elijah’ story is not unique. We all go through periods of depression, loss of hope and even personal pity parties. We become overwhelmed with what life has thrown at us and we are ready to give up. We want to throw in the towel, call it quits and go live in our own proverbial cave for the rest of our lives.
Our time in a cave
We all experience the highs and lows in life. It is much more a matter of how we handle it. Kim and I felt this when my wife received her first-time solo appointment. During her time as a young associate pastor, we were part of an amazing ministry that grew from 250 people to over 800 in less than 3 years. We felt like we were serving God in powerful ways and could not wait for our next adventure.
We had very high hopes for based on what I saw with other pastors in the same situation. She was seen as an “up and coming” successful pastor and paid her dues. My expectations, based on my corporate experience, would be that we would be placed in a nice congregation out in the suburbs as the next logical step in her career.
February, March, April all came and went. May finally rolled around and I lost hope. The District Superintendent finally called and told Kim her appointment. She was sent to East Price Hill in Cincinnati to a little church called Elberon United Methodist Church. It was located in a very rough part of town nicknamed “Crack Hill” and the church as near death.
Elberon UMC had about 35 people in attendance each week, all over the age of 65. The youngest member of the congregation was retiring from teaching that year. Their finances were a shambles. The building had plenty of issues and the church was only open one hour a week for worship. In my estimation, the church had about six weeks to live.
I was mad. I was upset. I thought we got ripped off. Other pastors got better appointments that Kim deserved and I was torqued at God. I was mad at the United Methodist system for sending us to a dying church with no hope of survival. I tried to be upbeat about it, but we came home after the first Sunday and cried. It felt hopeless. I think Kim was determined to make it work, but I was not really on-board.
In other words…I was having a full on pity party.
God had other plans. Much like Elisha, we ran away. We already had a vacation scheduled and for three weeks were saw amazing sites in Egypt, ate great food and had tome to reconnect as a family. We were all a little overwhelmed with the transition, and this gave us all an opportunity to get recharged and listen to God outside of the busyness of our lives.
While we had some downtime on our trip, I was reading my bible and asking God why he sent us to Price Hill. The emotion was out of it, but I wondered what his purpose was in this situation.
I ended up reflecting on my favorite verse in Psalms 46:10 “Be still, and know that I am God.“ I had to ask “What are we doing here?” Was I here to serve God or glorify ourselves? Was I here to have an easy ministry or to serve the least, the last and the lost?
It led me to question if I was willing to let God be God and trust him to help the church be the church. It wasn’t about my or my wife’s ability to make things happen. It was about listening to God’s still small voice, and being willing to following the instructions as they are given.
We came back and God did amazing things at that little church. The church grew from 35 to almost 150 in two years. We held outreach events where over 1,000 people came to the church parking lot. We served hundreds of meals a week to those who were hungry. We taught hundreds of kids the stories of the Bible and how Jesus loved them enough to die for them.
God answered our question of “what are you doing here?” We were bringing hope to the heart of Price Hill.
What about you?
Think about yourself for a minute. When have you been in a spiritual funk? When have you been scared, retreated from the world and wanted it all to go away? The current pandemic has stretched us all to our limits.
The political unstability and the constant fighting has wearied all of us to a point of hopelessness.
When that happens, are you willing to take a step back and feed yourself physically and spiritually to recharge your batteries so you can listen to God? Are you willing to ask yourself the question, “what are you doing here?”
We all go through spiritually valleys in our lives. It is up to us if we want it to be a time to rest, recharge and renew our commitment to God or stay stuck in it for a long period of time.
What about your church?
We have been involved with hundreds of United Methodist Churches across the conference and the nation. Almost 75% of United Methodist Churches are in decline. Before the pandemic, many blame the changing culture, mega-church movement, or people busy schedules on why people do not come to church. It was a bad pastor or set of pastors. People cast blame and believe there is no way they can grow again.
The COVID-19 pandemic now is amplifying this decline. David Kinnaman, president of the prominent Christian research organization Barna Group, as many as one in five churches could permanently close as a result of shutdowns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic in an interview with NPR in August 2020. As the pandemic stretches on, some researchers think that up to 40% of the churches could shut down in the next few years.
Sorry to say, I think it’s a cop-out, a pity-party and an excuse.
Over the past 2,000 years, the church has survived persecution, paganism, massive shifts in technology, plagues, wars, and direct attacks by competing ideas. Through everything, the church has survived and thrived and grown to be the world’s largest faith. HOW? By staying true to its call.
Whether is was the early church that saved 3,000 people in one day, Paul’s church plants in very hostile environments (called Gentile cities in Asia (now Turkey and Greece)), missionaries in Africa, or Saddleback Church (which started with two people), they grew in pretty foreign or hostile places to the Gospel. Why? It wasn’t because they had a ton of money, hit the “demographic” lottery or had a rock-star pastor. It was because they focused on God and God’s calling. In other words, they answered God’s question “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”
Sometimes, we need to take a time out and get refocused on “what we are doing here?” Are we here to be a country club or hospice for the saints or are we here to serve the community? Are we here to be a small, comfortable country church where we all know one another, or are we actively seeking out and inviting in all those who need God’s grace and love in their lives?
Which one do you think God is calling for this church to do in a still small voice?
We sometimes need to take advantage of “the land between” to recharge and determine how we can most effectively follow God’s call. But we can’t stay there forever. We need to leave our cave and go back into the world, so we can save it. We need to get clear on our church’s unique calling by God to serve our community. We must be willing to sacrifice our own preferences, desires and comfort for the sake of others.
So …”Are you willing to do it?”
If we are, here are a few questions to help guide you: