Night Watch PT 1

Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. -1 Peter 4:7

“God put this verse on my heart today, and I’m not quite sure why.” I wrote that in my journal on March 9, 2020. I was sitting in a chair next to the window overlooking the streets of Brooklyn. In just a few minutes, my family would wake up, grab our bags, and take a cab to the airport. We had a much needed (and much anticipated) week of vacation to look forward to. I’d gotten up early that morning, to sit in that chair alone & listen to God. “What’s your invitation to me as I go away this week, Lord?” Honestly, I had an agenda. I was looking for something along the lines of, “Come away with me & you’ll find rest for your soul,” (Matt. 11:28). You know, something like that to coat the plans I had already made with a spiritual gloss. I didn’t find what I was looking for. What I got was: Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. (1 Peter 4:7) In The Message, Eugene Peterson paraphrases it as, “Stay wide-awake in prayer.” God put this verse on my heart on March 9, and I had no idea why.

The following day the news started trickling out on the major outlets, & by that Sunday, the Coronavirus pandemic had covered the globe like a blanket. We cancelled all of our church services, got a flight back home, & arrived to a New York City on lockdown. I was standing in the C Town Supermarket on Manhattan Ave. and there wasn’t a grain of rice left on the shelf—that’s not hyperbole, not a single grain of rice. “Stay wide-awake in prayer.” “This is my invitation. This is how I’m calling you live.” I had no idea what that meant then…I do now.

The Mountain of Prayer: In 1 Kings 18, Elijah prays & fire falls out of the sky. That turned the city upside down & turned him into a wanted fugitive, but fire wasn’t really what they needed. This was a society facing a pandemic of their own—a drought. 3+ years without rain is an absolute crisis in an agrarian society without free trade. And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go, eat & drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain.” (1 Kings 18:41) Ahab is the king. Elijah is looking at the ruler of a starving nation & saying, “Go eat & drink because God is about to give you cause for celebration.” So Ahab went off to eat & drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground & put his face between his knees. (1 Kings 18:42) Elijah, the prophet who prayed fire out of the sky, climbs a mountain & begins to pray for rain.

3 Stages of Crisis: I read an article from a sociologist near the beginning of the pandemic that gave language to what I experienced in the weeks that followed. Here’s the heart of it: When a community experiences crisis together, there are typically 3 stages— Heroic, Disillusionment, Hope.

Heroic: The human instinct to rise to the occasion, which is mostly willpower. The only trouble with willpower is that it’s a depleting resource. That’s why it’s easier to say no to a donut in the morning than a bowl of ice cream in the evening. The long day has worn down your willpower to live out your good intentions. So, inevitably, the heroic gives way to… Disillusionment: Grief, numbing out, turning inward, judgment, anger, paralyzing levels of empathy— there’s an endless array of the expression, but at its core, disillusionment is honestly admitting, “I want out. I never chose this, and I’m not enough to rescue us. I’m helpless, and I’m stuck. I want out.”

Hope: From that place of brokenness, when we’ve reached the end of ourselves and finally been brutally honest, God can rebuild us in hope. But hope only comes to those who patiently, fully experience the first two stages.

I Want to Hear You Say It: When Elijah calls fire down from heaven, & when he climbs the mountain to pray for rain, he’s battling disillusionment. It’s easy to overlook, but he comes right out and says it—more than once. “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left…” (1 Kings 18:22) If you read on in the next chapter, he repeats the phrase two more times. He names all of his fears, unfiltered venting to God, and then with his last breath says, “And I’m the only one left.” You know what’s interesting? That’s not true.

A few verses back in the same chapter, Obadiah, a devout believer with a job in the palace, tells Elijah there are 100 prophets of Yahweh in hiding he’s keeping safe. So fear, disappointment, grief, and anger at God’s slowness to rescue has clouded Elijah’s perspective. It’s re-written his memory. Emotions like those tend to have that effect. God fathers Elijah through the disappointment. He doesn’t correct him or rebuke him. He doesn’t point out the flawed logic or remind him of Obadiah’s message. In 1 Kings 19, he says, “You need some sleep, then he miraculously provides some bread and water.” Then he says, “Get some more rest, now have more to eat.” Rest. Eat. Rest. Eat. Recover yourself. Regain your strength. There’s a lot more journey still ahead of you. Finally, “Tell me again what’s bothering you, Elijah.”

Why does God ask questions? He’s God! He knows the answer. It’s like God is saying, “But, I want to hear you say it. I know what happened, but I want to see it like you see it. I want to know your unique brand of disappointment, fear, anger, and grief. I want to hear you say it.” That is prayer. “I’m the only one left!” God doesn’t correct him. This isn’t about an accuracy. It’s about grief. Elijah’s found a shorthand way of saying everything he thinks he’s not allowed to say beneath the surface: “You failed me. Then you left me! You want to hear me say it? There. I said it!” Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. (Psalm 126:5)

You don’t get to live in the resurrection story unless the story you were writing in your imagination dies first. You don’t get to dance on a grave unless you’ve wept in a garden first. Elijah’s grief leads to a greater outpouring of power, but you can’t get to hope without walking through disappointment...

Tyler Staton. Lead Pastor Trinity Grace Church Williamsburg