The ambivalence of Elisha

Anybody who thinks that the bible is easy and shallow hasn’t actually read it or hasn’t thought very much about it.    I love how deeply I can find myself immersed in scripture.   Each time I come back, it’s got something new for me.

Tomorrow, it’ll be my privilige to speak at Fellowship Church about 2 kings chapter 2.  This is the point when the prophet Elisha takes over from the prophet Elijah.   I’m focusing on how Elisha seems to grow up as his mentor leaves him.  And as I was preparing to speak, I just got blown away anew by how conflicted Elisha seems to be.  You don’t have to look very deeply to see how intensely he seems to feel in two quite opposite directions.  It’s simply brilliant writing.

“As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and J went up to heaven in a whirlwind.”

It begins with them alone together, presumably preparing for Elijah’s departure.  The things that jump out at me from this verse is the word “together” from the first half, and the word “seperated”  in the second half.  The two opposites really intensify each other, in a way.   It’s also pretty amazing how simply and quickly it all happens: Blam!  They come down!  Wham!  They are gone.  Scripture continues:

12 Sh saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Sh saw him no more.

By calling him father, Elisha emphasizes how close they are.  But he focuses on the fact that they are the chariots and horseman of Israel: these are not the messengers of any random God, these are the soldiers of the God who has declared himself Lord over the people of the two Elis.  In a way, it’s like Sh is saying, “We are so close, and I will miss you, yet I am with joy because of who is coming to get you.

Scripture says:

Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them apart.

13 He picked up the cloak that had fallen from J and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 Then he took the cloak that had fallen from him and struck the water with it. “Where now is the LORD, the God of J?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.

The bible is filled with people who tear at their clothes to show their sorrow, rage, and distress.  But this is a fairly unique riff on that theme: tearing at clothes, and then putting some one else’s clothes on.  Sh’s old identity no longer fits him.  The person he was is left in the past.  He is stepping into the role that J was grooming him for.

And what a profound moment.  Underneath the question, “Where now is the LORD, the God of J?” is the question “Is the Lord, the God of J, still with me?”

As the waters part, Elisha recieves his answer.  He walks through parted water.  Not only in the way he did a few minutes before, when Elijah parted the water, but also as his ancestors did, all those generations before, when Moses lead them.

(A note on the title: in the technical, psychological sense, ambivalence is not when a person does not care one way or the other; on the contrary, ambivalence is when a person experiences intense emotions in two opposite directions at the same time.)


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

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