Saturday, 20 February 2016

An Inconvenient Question

I drove to Balclutha just after breakfast. The weather was good and the roads clear, so it was a brisk trip. I was going south for a gathering of ecumenical parishes. The attendees were mostly Presbyterians and Methodists, but I had been asked to talk to them and be inspirational. No pressure or anything. I talked about Elijah, and then later about my own experience in Co-operating Parishes. I'm not sure whether it was inspirational, but, as often happens when I talk to people, it had a truckload of lessons for me.  Seems that lately, my past keeps coming back. Like my life passing before my eyes, but  not so much in a flash as in a slow dawdling conflagration.
I  can watch cricket live on my phone. I refrained from watching but did, as a noble act of ministry to others who wanted to know, occasionally peek at the score. I knew that Brendon McCullum was doing something pretty extraordinary at the Hagley Oval but didn't look until I got home. I think I did about 25+ days of Lent right there, all in one hit.
A couple of years back we planted a Peasegood Nonesuch. You can never buy those giant apples in shops and we both have such fond memories of them. Tonight we ate the first apple off the still spindly tree. Combined with our own rhubarb and yoghurt. Delicious.
Elijah was  prophet of the Lord. King Ahab, even though he was also a Hebrew,  was a disciple of the god Ba'al, who was the personification of power.  In a chance encounter, Ahab goaded Elijah into a contest, which was fought out on Mt Carmel, and which was a trial of strength. In other words Elijah was suckered into doing things in Ba'al's way: he tried to show that The Lord could outba'al Ba'al. It turned out badly for everyone. The priests of Ba'al were made to look foolish and then made to look dead. Elijah had to run for his life from the outraged Queen Jezebel, herself an even more jealous practitioner of Ba'alism than her husband,  and ended up suicidally depressed and cowering in a cave as far away from anybody as he could manage to go. And while he was sitting there feeling sorry for himself three powerful things happened: an earthquake, a fire and a mighty wind. But God seemed to be absent in each of these manifestations of power. Instead, God showed up in the utter silence which followed. And God asked one of the most profound questions in all of the Bible:
What are you doing here Elijah?
It's a question which comes to me, sometimes more frequently than is comfortable.
What are you doing here Kelvin?
How did you arrive at this place?
What is it that is occupying your time and talents right now?
What are you hoping to achieve by all this?
I have the uncomfortable sense that my past's propensity to poke it's head around the corner, grin, wave cheerily and say "Hi! Remember me?" with such inconvenient persistence, is God noticing that I have an uncanny instinct for avoiding the utter silence, but deciding to ask the question anyway.

What are you doing here?


Alden Smith said...

The question that men have put into the mouth of Elijah in the Bible is not a new one.
“What are you doing here?” is the question we all hear when we scratch the existential itch. It’s another version of the philosophical question - “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

The writer Annie Dillard in her book ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ asks it this way:

“........ We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence ........ “Seem like we’re just set down here,” a women said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.”

“What are you doing here?” is requesting an answer to the ultimate metaphysical question.

When a spiritual master was asked this question he answered by telling a parable:

“It's just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me... until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short... until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored... until I know his home village, town, or city... until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow... until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated... until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.' .......... The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.”

The spiritual master went on to say that the answer to the existential question lies not in verbal metaphysical explanations but rather in following all aspects of a spiritual path. The transformation of the individual along the path unfolds the answer.

Elaine Dent said...

It's helpful how you framed the power play on Mt. Carmel and linked it with the power of the earthquake, fire and wind, and then contrasted all that with the utter silence of God's presence. Yes, the arising question is a profound one---a good one to ponder this day. Thank you.

Kelvin Wright said...

Yes, Elaine. That's something I hadn't thought of until I'd read the story about ten thousand times. Elijah is suckered into doing things Ahab's way - that is, Ba'al's way. But God needed him to see something else, which he could only really get when his great power gambit had worked itself out and brought its inevitable harvest of death and destruction. Death and resurrection. It's what the universe is made of!

Kelvin Wright said...

I agree. Alden, that the question goes all the way down. But there's something else. Elijah at the mouth of the cave on Mt Horeb is a very evocative image for me; like a number of other Biblical images: Jacob sleeping by the stream of Jabbok, Moses before the burning bush, Amos standing in the sanctuary of the king and the whole extraordinary, wonderful little story of Jonah and the Great Fish and the plant and the slug. Somehow it's not the philosophical/existential import of the question,that seems most transformative for me, but the image.

I'm aware, in myself of the dynamic your parable warns of: of conversing about the great issues of life as a means of escaping from the great issues of life. God knows, my shelves are stocked with books which have been my means of doing precisely that. I guess the point of the story, of the powerful images, is that the eternal presents itself in the particular. That the ultimately real won't be found by my disappearing up my own fundamental orifice in a convoluted vortex of impressive sounding words, but by my paying attention to what is here. We want to find ultimate reality, well start with the bit of reality which we have access to. Understand what it is that we are beholding, and that isn't very easy. And the question to Elijah is an invitation to do that. What are you doing here?
Answer that at the most facile level and somehow the deep stuff starts to work itself out.