There are lessons that can only be learned under the broom tree. The lesson St Paul gave to the early Christians in Greece about the reality of being shipwrecked and experiencing daily struggles in life is critical in our age. God is searching for men and women who will surrender their lives in love to Him, no matter what happens. Often, it takes the depletion of all of our own efforts and resources before we are willing to give up - and then to give in - to Him. But when we do - the life of true faith begins. It is there, we learn to hear the God of surrendered love in the whisper of the wind. It is there that we learn to be shipwrecked and live under the broom tree. Prayer Changes People and People Change Things.
Elijah under the broom tree
CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - Lately, I have been helping some dear Christian friends who are not Catholic through a series of traumatic losses, painful experiences, economic loss, and personal tragedy in their life together as a married couple.
Sadly, some contemporary Christians teach a Gospel without the cross. My friends have been victims of this error. They were struggling with the real stuff of life, facing the existential questions which are a part of every truly human life - and teetering on a crisis of faith as a result.
Because we share a love for the Bible, I used the life of St Paul and a familiar story out of the Old Testament to communicate the truth about suffering and struggle in the life of a Christian to my friends. Let me share them with you.
My friends agreed with me that St. Paul was a Christian who accomplished great things for the Lord as he responded daily to his calling to build the Church and change the world. Yet, he was not always "prosperous", from a financial perspective. I read to them what St Paul wrote to the early Christians in Greece about his own life experience:
"I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need" (Philippians 4:12).
I then shared with my friends Paul's "boasting" to the Corinthians when he was challenged by the errant teachers, the "super apostles" of his own day who made similar claims to what they had heard. The false teaching that struggles, loss and difficulty are a sign of not being close to the Lord was as wrong then as it is now.
St Paul asked the Corinthians: "Are they ministers of Christ? I am still more, with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, far worse beatings, and numerous brushes with death. Five times I received forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, .on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers."
"Dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure. And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led to sin, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness." (2 Corinthians 11:22-29)
I pointed out to my friends that Paul's ongoing relationship with this Jesus who had called him in the desert enabled him to cultivate the interior strength he needed for his own struggles. That the kind of living faith the Apostle demonstrated comes from living a life fully surrendered to the Lord - and that they can experience it.
I then suggested that the Lord who called Paul in the desert encounter recorded in the Book of Acts (Acts 9) had only begun to change him. This was the beginning of a life of encounters with the Risen Christ wherein Paul was invited to exercise his human freedom and respond to the ongoing grace of conversion. We are all called into the same process of conversion.Paul's transformation in Christ continued as he learned to empty himself - of himself - so that he could be filled with the very life of God.
Paul was given the grace to offer his suffering, struggle and setbacks to God by joining them to the Cross of Jesus Christ. I quoted them one of my favorite spiritual writers and saints of our age, St. Jose Maria Escriva: "The great Christian revolution has been to convert pain into fruitful suffering and to turn a bad thing into something good. We have deprived the devil of this weapon; and with it we conquer eternity." (St. Jose Maria Escriva, The Furrow #887)
I told them that in our own lives, we will suffer, we will be misunderstood, betrayed by friends, "shipwrecked" (at least figuratively), and experience the instability that often accompanies the struggles of daily life. This was new to them. I suggested that Paul shows us how to choose the better way, the way of discipleship, the way of love.
I encouraged them to make that choice Paul made. It would help them find the path to contentment and true freedom. In short, it is not the circumstances that change.. It is us! I suggested that the bumper sticker adage "Prayer Changes Things" was limited. I offered a revision - "Prayer changes people and people change things."
Because we had connected in the Bible, I also offered a story out of the Old Testament to illustrate the same truth. It was taken from the life of the Prophet Elijah: "Elijah went a day's journey into the desert, until he came to a broom tree and sat beneath it. He prayed for death saying: "This is enough, O LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers."
"He lay down and fell asleep under the broom tree, but then an angel touched him and ordered him to get up and eat. Elijah looked and there at his head was a hearth cake and a jug of water. After he ate and drank, he lay down again, but the angel of the LORD came back a second time, touched him, and ordered, "Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!" He got up, ate, and drank; then strengthened by that food; he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb." (1 Kgs. 19:4-8)
In the 18th chapter of Kings Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He was seeking rest. He had learned of the threat upon his life from Jezebel. After that confrontation with the false prophets of Baal, this mighty man of God was so distraught that he prayed for death. This moment of complete fatigue became an invitation to deeper faith.
Retreating to a desert to die, under a broom tree, Elijah encountered the Lord through a messenger. That is what the word "Angel" means. His surrender to the voice of God, though reluctant at first, shows us how to hear the voice of God in those difficult times in our own lives. Like Elijah, when we reach the end of ourselves, we find the beginning of authentic faith; we surrender to the Lord.
The early Christians referred to death as falling asleep. It was the point of complete surrender into the loving arms of a loving God. In the experience of his weakness Elijah encountered the Lord in a different way. There, under the broom tree, he is fed a hearth cake and water, a Eucharistic symbol.
"He got up, ate and drank; then strengthened by that food; he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb." (1 Kings 19:8) There he was prepared to hear the voice of God as He passed by, not in a mighty wind, an earthquake, or a fire - but in a gentle whisper - the kind that can only be heard by one who has a surrendered ear to hear. Humble - not haughty.
"Then the LORD said, "Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by." A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD--but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake--but the LORD was not in the earthquake."
"After the earthquake there was fire--but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, "Elijah, why are you here?" (1 Kings 19:11 - 13)
Finally, I brought it all back to the New Testament in which the Old finds its fulfillment. I told my friends that millennia later, God came as a Man. He spoke on three mountains. On the first, He gave the new law through which His followers could call down the fire of love to consume the world through living their lives of poured-out-love after his Ascension.
On the second, He was transfigured before the eyes of three of his disciples in the presence of Elijah and Moses, fulfilling both the law and the prophets and showing them the future glory for all who walked in His way. And on the third, He spoke in a whisper - "It is finished" - and give himself up in complete surrender to redeem the world that had rejected His love.
There are lessons that can only be learned under the broom tree. The lesson St Paul gave to the early Christians in Greece about the reality of being shipwrecked and experiencing daily struggles in life is critical in our age. God is searching for men and women who will surrender their lives in love to Him, no matter what happens. Often, it takes the depletion of all of our own efforts and resources before we are willing to give up - and then to give in - to Him.
But when we do - the life of true, living and enduring faith begins. It is there we learn to hear the God of surrendered love in the whisper of the wind. It is there that we learn to be shipwrecked and live under the broom tree. Prayer Changes People and People Change Things.
I spend a lot of time under the broom tree as I grow older. The shipwrecks have now become something I expect. I have come to see struggle as a holy place, a place of invitation, in an unfolding loving plan of God.
It is under the broom trees and in the shipwrecks of daily living - when I feel the least able to continue the struggle - that I learn the joy of surrendering myself to the One who always sends His messengers. The One who always makes sure that I find the sustenance I need for the journey of life. There I continue to learn the way of living faith which opens the door to eternity.-----
Deacon Keith A. Fournier is Founder and Chairman of Common Good Foundation and Common Good Alliance. A married Roman Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, he and his wife Laurine have five grown children and seven grandchildren. He is a human rights lawyer and public policy advocate who served as the first and founding Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice in the nineteen nineties and has long been active at the intersection of faith and culture. He serves as Special Counsel to Liberty Counsel. He is a senior contributing writer to The Stream.
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