14-Feb-2021 / 2 Kings 2:1-12
The scene is repeated several times, until at last Elijah realizes why the young man won’t let him go: because there is something this disciple still needs from the master. “So ask me, [Elisha] — what can I do for you?” “Let a double share of your spirit come to me,” the young prophet answers.
What shall we make of this? Here we have the adolescent Elisha asking for something for which he knows not what he is asking. He is young, untested, inexperienced, adolescent- having been plucked by Elijah only a few passages prior to this one. His only qualifying competence is his spirit, his audacity, his faith in having left Everything behind for the call. Nevertheless, he knows NOT what he asks for. But that is the way of adolescence.
The word “adolescent” derives from the Latin verb adolescere, which is made up of ad, meaning “toward” and alescere, meaning “to grow”. The word speaks of human beings who are in the process of growing up. Adolescents are the ones who are on their way to becoming adults. Many of us were adolescents once although in moments of a raging battle between a man and a woman or husband and wife, it is often the woman who has the final say and as the result, the final laugh when she forecloses the entire matter by saying, “Oh Grow up.” I have been a victim of such jade’s trick many a times which would enrage me all the more. To the men this morning, has this ever happened to you? One of my friends said that before he was married, he was incomplete, now that he is married he feels that he is now finished. A lady did not help me with this joke.
Adolescents are on their way to becoming what adults, by definition, already are. It’s an important time. A life-shaping, life-giving time. A time wherein the next generation is shaped who will shape the FUTURE.
What I like about this etymology is that it gets us away from the sense of adolescents as a negative state of being. Far from saying “Oh Grow up” or “Stop being so adolescent” this etymology makes it a purely clinical term. For many of us this morning, our adolescence is many decades behind us. Many of your children are older than I. As my friends say, I was born middle aged and it was simply a matter of time that I grew into my 40s, having been in this condition for nearly 4 decades. In other words, I have no qualification for speaking about adolescence with anything like authority. But to call me an adult or grown up is an oversimplification at best and downright erroneous nomenclature at worst. I am not a past participle, even a dangling participle. As far as the world is concerned, my acne cleared up around 1994, but I feel very deeply that I am still very much in the throes of it all.
As pointed out by one theologian, if we can suspend the Latin accuracy for a totally inaccurate but worthwhile digression into the word, we may consider with TOTAL inaccuracy that the word adolescent is made up of the Latin preposition “ad meaning “toward” and the Latin noun “dolor” meaning pain. Thus as suggested by this theologian, the word adolescent becomes a term that designates human beings who are in, above all else, a PAINFUL process, more specifically those who are in the process of discovering pain, itself. Of trying to somehow to come to terms with pain, to how to deal with pain, not just how to survive pain but how to turn it to some human and creative use in their own encounters with it.
In this rather wholly incorrect yet imaginative endeavour of exploring the possibilities of the root meaning of words, I want to try to unpack what the young, adolescent Elisha was really asking for, or what he was not aware of what he was asking for. Elisha, in his unknowing, is like Adam and Eve in the process of tasting the forbidden fruit and discovering that in addition to good, there is also evil, that in addition to the joy of being alive, there is also the sadness and hurt of being alive and being themselves. The great truth that Elijah has discovered and Elisha has not yet discovered is that the double portion of which he speaks is that life is suffering, that at any given moment life can be lots of happy things too, but that suffering is universal and inevitable and that to face that reality and to come to terms with the reality is the beginning of wisdom and at the heart of what human growing up is all about.
Suppose you have a bride on her wedding day. Suppose she was all dressed up in her white dress and wedding veil, and then on her way to the church a car runs into her and she is killed. This is in fact an ironic situation not merely unfortunate or tragic. It is ironic because on the same day that she was starting out on a new life, her life stopped. And so it can be called more appropriately as a kind of a joke. Before adolescence one does not fully begin to grasp irony. That bad days happen and good days, too. The adolescent lives in the garden where the tree of the knowledge of good and evil grow, but he or she has yet to taste it.
Some years ago, after we had buried John Syme, I received an e-mail from a dear friend of mine who is also a minister and he wrote: “You have been a good steward of PAIN.” (For those of you who do not know, John Syme was our elder, church officer and my friend and to relive those tumultuous times in my head pains me, still. He kept me right as a young parish minister in his first senior post.) I did not hear my friend’s words as a compliment, although I suppose that is that is the way he meant them. I could take no credit for being a good steward of my pain, whatever that might mean, because I had no idea that, that was what I was being and had no intention of being it. But his words had caught me off guard and haunted me ever since. And then this lectionary passage hit me all at once, with all this double portion talk from Elisha.
I have always thought of STEWARDSHIP as a rather boring, churchy word that a minister trots out on Conservation Sunday or when launching the Every Member Canvas. I knew that a steward is a caretaker of some kind or other, the person who takes care of, takes care with, money particularly, or real estate, or the stateroom of a cruise ship. But what did it mean to take care of, take care with, the painful things that happen to you? How do you go about being the steward of, of all things, your PAIN?
So what does it mean to ask for a double portion of your spirit? Which I gather means the spirit of God that dwells upon Elijah’s mantle. I think it means simply this, as your spirit increases your pain too will increase. More the revelation, more the mystery. Take the church for example, take this church even. First when you came to St. Mungo’s, you were testing the waters. You weighed everything: the hymns, the friendliness or unfriendliness of the congregation, the Sunday school, the crèche, the minister’s sermon. And if these things or most of these things clicked, then you decided to attend regularly. Then after a while, you wanted more, something very much like a double portion of that Spirit, the blessing, whatever, and you became a member of the church. You officially and publicly proclaimed yourself to be a steward. You wanted it. For Heaven sake, you needed God’s Spirit desperately. You then became more involved, volunteering at the Christmas Fayre, helping out at the manse garden, sitting through committee meetings, making soup and sandwiches, and gasp, you even became an elder.
And as your spirit doubled, as you became more and more involved in the Life of the Church which is the Life of God itself, you began to see the cracks, the disagreements, the pettiness or even worse, the outright selfishness of fellow stewards JUST LIKE YOU who often put their feelings, their needs, their wants, and their pride before the COMMON GOOD OF THE CHURCH. Then you were no longer sure if this is what you signed up for at all. For you had no idea that doubling your Spirit meant doubling your PAIN. Does this sound familiar? All churches are dysfunctional, some more than others, yes. But we have not evolved much from the times of Corinth and Ephesus.
I look at my parents’ church which has 4,000 members and with 75% attendance on a Sunday. You cannot begin to imagine the amount of nonsense, stupidity and selfishness and shenanigans that accompany the number and growth of that church. I only know because my father is an elder and he feels the need to share this with me as I am a minister. How can a senior minister be down? he often says to me. I think, using my Presbyterian decoder ring, he is telling me to MAN UP because you are 44 years old and you have miles to go before you sleep.
I do not claim to have all the answers figured out. But all I know is that I am a minister. And as a minister, I am here to help you not fight our collective adolescence but come to better terms with it. To be an adolescent, which is something that exists in all of us, insofar as we live and we feel pain in this world, is that woven into the rich fabric of all of this, there are not just the sad things that happen, but there is SADNESS itself, the lachrymae rerum, as Lucretius puts it, the tear of things. Or as my mother puts it, adolescence is a form of mental illness.
Yet, adolescents are the ones who, whether 14 years old or 80 years old, are in the process of growing into that knowledge. And if they are ever to become more or less grown-up human beings at last, growing by means of it.
There have been seasons in my life where I got to have my cake and eat it too. And I thought God was saying to me, “That’s it? That’s all the cake you are going to have?” And there have been seasons in my life where I TRIED to have my cake and eat it too. And God said “That’s a lot of cake.”
But very much like the young Elisha, I did not know what I was asking for. And neither did you.
What does it mean to be a steward of your pain? It is at least one of the subjects I think Jesus himself is talking about in one of the strangest and darkest of the parables he told. Strange because it turns out so differently from the way we would have supposed, and dark because there is a note of such apparent harshness and unfairness in it. I speak to you about the parable of the Talents where the third servant, fearing his master, goes and hides the talent in the ground. When the master returns, all he has is harsh words for his servant.
If you remember, the third servant says that he was afraid. Like the third servant, we, all of us have good reason to be afraid because life is SCARY AS HELL, and I do not use that term lightly.
What distinguished the other 2 servants whom the Master calls “good and faithful servants” is that their goodness is their faithfulness. They took the talents they were given and “went and traded with them,” as the parable puts it. And the word trade seems to me the KEY to what Jesus is saying about them.
To trade is to give of what it is that we have in return for what is that we need. And what we have is essentially what we are, and what we need is essentially EACH OTHER. The 2 good and faithful servants were life-traders. We are never more in touch with life and each other than when LIFE is painful, never more in touch with hope than we are then, if only hope of another human presence to be with us and for us. Being a good steward of your pain involves all these things. It involves being alive to your life. It involves taking the risk of being open, of reaching out, of keeping in touch with pain as well as the joy of what happens, because at no time more than at a painful time do we live out of the depths of who we are instead of our of the shallows. LISTEN TO YOUR LIFE.
Like all of you, I am worn out by this second lockdown. What has made this second lockdown tougher has been the brutal Scottish winter. And the Scottish winter does not easily give up a creature. And I know that I am no longer a child because the mere talk of snow, the forecast of snow, the snow itself bring about a certain dread in me. Strange because I grew up in NJ where blizzards are common and I have lived in the great state of Alaska where the snow was the unvarying lay of the land during the winter. And we have had snow this week here in Scotland. You know that Christmas pop song, Let it Snow? Yeah…not a big fan.
The new battery in my car has died several times this winter because of the ice and the inability to take the car out for a long sustained, drive to charge the battery. When I finally got the car started this Friday, by the mercy of God, I knew that I would have to take it for a long drive so the battery could recharge. Wittgenstein and Ella joined me for the ride. As many of you know, Ella Likes to sing along to the music, which drives me INSANE. I have informed her that Rachmaninoff can speak for himself. It’s Rach! As we passed by Redwell Primary School, we saw children having a snowball fight. They were having a marvellous time. And they lifted me to an altogether higher place. They lifted the world to a higher place and I began to laugh. They would grow into those oversized coats in time. I was laughing so much that once we reached Cambus I had tears in my eyes. And I was glad. The children will become adolescents in time. Then they will become adults.
I think of adolescents in the ordinary sense of human beings in the process of growing up. What is perhaps most precious about pain is that IF it does not destroy us, it can confer on us a humanity that needs no words to tell of it and that can help others become human even as they can help us. To be an adolescent is to be a good steward of pain. So don’t stop asking for that double portion. Never stop asking for it. Not ever.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God.
14 February 2021