What’s Next? – 8/15/21

Not knowing what happens next is a struggle for me.  Because I have always been a planner, I like knowing what may happen in the next days, months, and years.  Growing up and seeing super hero cartoons, I never wanted to be the one who could bend steel or throw cars.  While I liked Batman’s gear, his talents did not seem all that practical for my life.  What I really wanted to do was to be able to tell the future.  If I just knew what was going to happen, I thought a lot of my anxiety would be reduced.  There would be no need to fear what was going to happen next because I would know it was coming and could prepare for it.

Needless to say, I never got my desired super power.  But I did talk to others who professed they did. While I was in law school, I went to Atlantic City with a friend.  As we were walking on the boardwalk, I saw a palm reader’s booth offering to tell the future for five dollars.  I had never talked to someone who believed they could foretell what was going to happen, so I figured it was worth five dollars for the experience.

When she took my hand, she began by saying she could tell I was a mechanic.  When I told her I was not, she then went on to suggest I was a construction worker.  She said that I was married with children.  When I kept telling her she was wrong, the palm reader went on to discuss things I could not refute.  She said that she could tell that I was a woman with many children in a past life and that I was very happy.  With that our session ended.

My only other experience with a fortune teller was with a psychic in Champaign.  My friend Missy loved television shows about psychics like Long Island Medium.  So I decided I would get her a gift certificate to see a psychic for her birthday.  When she met with the psychic, she insisted I go with her.  The room where we met with this psychic was about what you would expect.  A little round table in the middle, dimly lit.  Various magical looking items strewn around the room, complete with a crystal ball.  And when the time for the reading began, the psychic pulled out her Tarot cards.

I expected the psychic would fill my friend with some generic good news.  She will be happy and successful, marry the love of her life, etc., etc.  But after looking at the cards, the woman had three predictions for my friend – that her parents would divorce, that her grandmother would die, and that her boyfriend would break up with her.  To make matters worse, the psychic said all of these things would happen within the next year.  Because my friend was a firm believer in psychics, I quickly realized this gift may not have been the best choice.  And seeing how upset she was by the news, I realized it may be better not to know what’s next.

This is the situation we find in our text for this morning.  This is the first appearance of the prophet Elijah in scripture.  Elijah comes on the scene in the midst of a crisis for the people of Israel.  Ahab had just become king.  And Ahab is described as doing evil more than all kings who were before him.  Ahab promotes the worship of Baal, the supreme god of the Canaanites who provided fertility to both the land and to the people.

As Ahab begins to lead the people to worship other gods, Elijah enters the scene.  Elijah’s first goal is to tell the people of Israel what is next, what will be happening in the wake of Ahab’s actions.  He announces that there will be a drought, that there will be neither dew nor rain, showing that it is not Baal who is able to bring forth the crops.

But his willingness to make this pronouncement has consequences for Elijah.  Not only would he endure the same drought, but he would also face the wrath of Ahab for spreading this word.  As he begins his ministry, Elijah himself is wondering what is next.  How will he survive the drought that will impact everyone else?  What will Ahab do to him for seeking to undermine Baal?

And as so often happens when we so much want to know what the future holds, when things are uncertain, the unexpected happens.  God tells Elijah to go east, to hide in a specific location.  God tells him that he will be provided for.  That he will drink from a dried-up riverbed, that birds would bring him food.  We read that just as he was told, the ravens brought bread and meat in the morning.  They brought it in the evening.  Elijah was able to drink from the riverbed which should have been dry.

This has always been one of my biggest struggles in my spiritual life.  Because I want to know what’s next, because I like to feel a sense of control, it is difficult for me to release that.  In making big decisions in my life, my concern over what was next causes me to be very resistant.  What if I end up not liking the change?  What if things don’t work out?  How will others react?  Am I really willing to give up something I love and care about?  I try to plot out every possible scenario, scenarios which in the end often do not include the reality which develops.

In much the same way, Elijah does not stay where he is, relying on the birds to bring him food until the drought is over.  Eventually the riverbed dries up.  And God spoke again to Elijah, telling him to go to Zarephath to live.  Elijah is assured that there he will find a widow who would feed him.  When Elijah arrives, he sees the woman God told him would be there.  But the drought has impacted this land as well.  When Elijah asks for food, the widow tells him that she has no bread, only a handful of meal and a little oil.  She says that she was on her way home to eat what little was left with her son and then to die.

But Elijah presented a different plan to her.  Elijah tells the widow to still make him some food, and to make some for herself and her son too.  He tells her to be comforted in doing this because God has told him that the jar of meal will not go empty.  Her jug of oil will not go dry either until the drought had ended.

I would imagine this widow was pretty skeptical of what Elijah had to say.  She was not an Israelite.  She was Phoenician.  She was not familiar with Elijah or his god.  She had no reason to believe that his god would provide for her as Elijah told her.  But she acts on faith.  Something about Elijah’s confidence inspires her to believe and to act out of that belief in what could happen.

And when the widow did as Elijah said, she saw evidence of this unexpected provision.  She prepared food for Elijah from her meager provisions.  And as she continued to do so, she saw that she never ran out.  The jar of meal was never emptied.  The jug of oil never reached its bottom.  Throughout the drought as provisions remained low for everyone else, this widow and her son survived.

What this story has come to mean to me is that we can never really know what is next.  But in every situation, no matter how dire, no matter how desperate, we can receive what we need, be provided a path ahead in a way we didn’t think possible.  This provision we experience often does not come in an expected way.  That path ahead is not one that we could have expected or planned.  But a path emerges, even if it is one we may not have initially chosen.

Often the provision we receive from the Divine comes through community, through other people, through being open to those who have been placed in our paths.  While Elijah initially received food and water from the ravens, it later comes through this woman he did not know.  Someone who had been a stranger becomes the person through whom the Sacred works, the person who is able to meet his needs, to sustain him and keep him going so that he can continue on the path before him.

We are entering a critical time in our transition at NCC.  Having now competed our past, present, and future discussions, we will be moving into some important decisions.  I haven’t shared the results of these discussions to this point because I didn’t want to influence the results.  But I do want to begin to share those results now so that you can begin thinking about how this information may influence your decisions moving forward.

I also asked all of you to complete a survey.  We received 30 responses.  Much like we learned from our future discussions, the majority of you indicated you wish to maintain a progressive Christian identity, with about 80 percent indicating this preference.  There was significant division over maintenance of NCC’s denominational ties.  About half of you want to cut these ties or have no preference, while the other half want to maintain them or see them grow.  In terms of ability to participate in new programming, 85% of you indicated you could assist with children’s and youth programming only on occasion or not at all, while that number decreased to 50% in relation to outreach events.

The discussions we held regarding the past, present, and future of NCC were also illuminating.  When asked to describe favorite times in the life of the community, most of you described educational groups and opportunities for social interaction – book groups, shared meals, the women’s retreat, noel nosh.  There was still significant division on the issue of campus ministry.  While many recognized its importance in the beginning of NCC, there was disagreement over the role it should play now in the life of the community.  Many expressed appreciation that NCC does not place significant expectations on its members, that financial giving is not emphasized nor is regular attendance expected.

In response to what the Bloomington-Normal community would miss if NCC closed, there were very few answers.  Most who responded pointed to the loss of a progressive Christian voice.  People consistently expressed concern over the composition of NCC – that we are an aging community, questioning our ability to attract newcomers particularly younger families.  Related to this were concerns about the willingness and ability of the community to sustain efforts to grow due to age.  These are just a few of the main points, but more information will be coming in the next weeks.

Beginning in September we will have some community meetings to determine next steps.  Obviously, the move remains an outstanding issue.  But before we get there, we need to take an honest look at our future.  Should our focus moving forward be on NCC’s growth or should our focus become NCC’s legacy?  Along those lines, should NCC continue as it currently exists or perhaps a new mode of being should be considered?

So what is next?  At this point, none of us know.  But maybe not knowing is exactly where we need to be right now.  To not be attached to any certain outcome or to any specific path forward.  Because this may open us to new possibilities, to provision in a way we never anticipated.