The Broom Tree Prayer

Elijah just experienced a great spiritual victory.  He challenged 450 prophets of the Canaanite storm god Baal and 400 prophets of Baal’s consort, Asherah to a contest to determine which god is the real God – Baal/Asherah, or YHWH, the God of the Hebrew people.  Baal and Asherah just happened to be the preferred gods of the evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.  Elijah made the contest simple:

“Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the LORD, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” (1 Kings 18:23-24 ESV)

Elijah let the pagan prophets go first, and even though they spent half the day cutting their bodies and crying out to their gods of sticks and stones, the sticks and stones didn’t answer.  Then it was Elijah’s turn.  He made it even more difficult by dowsing the burnt offering and wood three times with water, until the trench surrounding the altar became a moat.  Elijah didn’t cut himself nor pray half the day, but simply uttered these words of faith:

“O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” (1 Kings 18:36-37 ESV)

You probably know the result:

Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there. (1 Kings 18:38-40 ESV)

What a showdown!  What a victory!  After this, Elijah must have been flying high and emboldened to take on all comers wanting to steal God’s glory!  But, no.  The next chapter finds Elijah cowering in fear because Queen Jezebel threatened his life.  Afraid, he runs away and exhausted, sits under a broom tree and asks God if he might die.  “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” (1 Kings 19:4 ESV)

How can this be?  The mighty prophet is not suicidal.  He knows that only God has the right to end human lives.  Yet, he wants to die.  He feels that in spite of his great ministry success, he is no better than his relatives already in the grave.  He is obviously clinically depressed, which commonly happens after a great emotional victory.

God answers the prayer, just in a different way than Elijah expects.  The first thing that God gives Elijah is the gift of rest.  “And he lay down and slept under a broom tree.” (1 Kings 19:5 ESV)

God gives His prophet another gift.  He sends an angel to minister to Elijah’s physical needs.  The angel awakens Elijah and offers him food and water.  Elijah, still being exhausted, then takes another nap before being sent across country to his next ministry assignment.  That angelic lunch empowered him for the next forty days!  Heavenly food is better than a Red Bull and Power Bar.

Notice that at no point does the angel bring a message from God for Elijah to repent of his lack of faith.  He doesn’t scold Elijah and tell him to “buck up.”  He simply lets Elijah get some needed rest and provides some incredible food.  Are you suffering from discouragement and depression?  I have been lately, and there is nothing more exhausting.

If you have ever been depressed, you realize that perhaps the worst part about it is that your friends and loved ones just don’t know how to handle it.  Some, if they are religious, tell you to confess your sins, claim the promises, rebuke the devil and be thankful for your blessings and it will all go away.  To them, depression is just a spiritual problem.  Other friends encourage you to see a psychiatrist and get some medication.  To them, it is just a biochemical, physical problem.  To others, depression comes from emotional and relational wounds, so some sort of therapy is encouraged.  Each of these elements are true.  Depression (and other mental health issues) are caused by each of these things, most often in combination.  Confession, claiming, rebuking, being thankful, meeting physical needs, and talking to a trusted friend or counselor can all help.  But, mental health needs are rarely caused by just one of these things.  We, humans created in the image of God, are a unique blend of the spiritual, emotional and physical.  We cannot separate one from the other, and what impacts our bodies, will impact our souls, which will also impact our spirits (and vice versa).  We cannot compartmentalize these things and truly deal with the problem.  We must deal with such things holistically to see true results.  And this is the value of true Christianity.  Jesus Christ, and what He accomplished on the cross for us to bring us true shalom (wholeness), is the remedy for all we face – spiritually, emotionally, and physically.  Christians have the true answer for all the things we face, because we know that answer is Jesus.  So, if you are struggling, deal with the spiritual, emotional and physical issues you face.  Come to Jesus for them all!  And sometimes you need to start by taking a nap and having a good meal.

What Are We Calling Them To?

I have been reading the book of Acts lately and have been impressed by the sermons preached after the Holy Spirit came and filled God’s people with power to be witnesses of Christ.  Peter’s masterful sermon on the day of Pentecost was a Christ-centered history lesson that showed how the God of history brought the King of Kings into the world to save men from their sins.  3,000 people were saved after hearing and responding to these words.  In Acts 3, after a man lame from birth was healed in the Name of Jesus, Peter again preaches, explaining how this man was healed, but again putting the focus on Jesus as God and King.  (It is interesting that in both messages, Peter blames his listeners for killing Jesus – not exactly the best way to endear yourself to the crowd.)  In Acts 4, Peter and John are called before the religious leaders and Peter again preaches about Jesus.  In Acts 7, after Stephen is arrested by the religious leaders, he preaches another historical review that culminates in another clear proclamation of who Jesus is.  The result?  He is martyred.

Here are a few observations I have as I compare these messages to what is being preached today:

  1. These messages would be considered too “boring” for our western churches today. Too much history, too little humor and engaging stories.  Too much teaching, too little catchy principles for living.  Try to read these sermons word for word at our gatherings this weekend – see how many people remain interested.  Yet, look at what the Holy Spirit did through those words.
  2. These messages clearly lay out the track of redemptive history and the theology of who Jesus is before calling anyone to a response. Today, after hearing messages about how we can live better lives, preachers then give a quick invitation to “come to Jesus.”  My question is, if Peter and Stephen felt led by the Spirit to clearly lay out the historical context for who Jesus is before they called people to respond, and their audience was vastly religious, how much more do we need to lay this groundwork as we communicate to a largely biblically illiterate and post-Christian culture today?  When we don’t tell our audience who Jesus is, and then we tell them to “come to Jesus” – what are we calling them to?  Maybe a better question is, “WHOM are we calling them to?”  Is it to the biblical Christ, or the popular, tolerant, nice moral teacher Jesus of modern culture?  I think that one of the reasons many people “fall away” from following Christ today is because the Christ they accepted was a caricature, not the real Christ.  No wonder they fall away – a cartoon Christ cannot radically transform anybody.

To Leaders of Large Churches

Dear brothers and sisters in large churches,
As a pastor of a small church, I dare not try to speak for all small church pastors and leaders, but I do think a few of my small church brethren might share some of my sentiments. So, please allow me to write down a few thoughts that have been heavy on my heart.

First of all, can I say a big “thank you” for all you do in our community for the sake of our King and His Kingdom? I agree with Paul when he wrote to the Philippians, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:3-6, NIV)

When I think of you and what God is doing in and through you, I rejoice! You see multitudes of people pass from darkness into light as they are transformed by Christ and His amazing grace. I join the angels in heaven, as they rejoice over these souls that are saved. I am filled with joy when I think of addicts being set free by the Holy Spirit, wounded partners in marriage finding forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ, and the poor in our community receiving not only a cup of cold water in Jesus’ Name, but also hope and healing in that same Name. Your army of workers for the sake of the gospel make that possible. Thank you for all you do!

Thank you for having a God-honoring voice in the community we all love. Sometimes someone needs to speak up for the sake of righteousness, and you have a voice that is heard. Thank you for the times you courageously stand up for truth, as you at the same time extend Jesus’ love. Thank you for your servant-leadership given to all in our city, as you serve and lead both great and small. I appreciate you!

Thank you for bringing exciting, Christ-exalting events to our community. Because of you and your generosity, our entire city can enjoy wonderful music and gifted preaching, as you bring talented evangelists and musicians to town. Thanks for hosting these events, and thank you for inviting us all. This same generosity enables the wonderful, grace-giving, mercy ministries in our area to have the people and resources they need to make the big difference they make.
Thank you – a thousand times thank you – for all you are and all you do in Christ. I am thankful for you, and I do pray for you, because I see us truly as partners in the gospel.

I love the word behind that English word, “partnership.” “Koinonia” is translated in various translations as “partnership, communion or fellowship.” But this deep camaraderie is not just an enjoyment of each other’s company; it is “partnership for a purpose, communion for a cause, fellowship to further the Kingdom.” I enjoy our friendship. I am encouraged by you and your love. But I see our relationship as more than that – we are together to extend the good news of the gospel of Jesus to those in our community who do not yet understand who He is and what He came to do. Thanks for letting me work with you.

Can I also add a word of confession? While I am truly thankful for you, sometimes the green-eyed monster of envy rises up in the hearts of those of us in the small church. I admit that at times I have been jealous of your numbers, your budgets and your fame. Please forgive me.

Forgive me that sometimes those of us in small churches sometimes try to justify our bad attitudes. “They must not really preach the gospel in that church!” we might say. “They are a mile wide and an inch deep!” I know that over-generalizing tends to get us in trouble. As is true in our small churches, not all of your fellowships are deep or faithful. But many of you are. Thank you to those who are.

Can I make another confession? Small churches are small for a reason. Sometimes (and I use that word very purposefully)… sometimes our church families are small because God has called us to be small and to serve Him as such. Many times churches are small because they are not healthy, and sick bodies will not grow, but will over time shrivel up and die. As we pray for you, will you pray for us to experience fullness and health in Christ?

I wasn’t thinking of these things recently, but something happened that brought them to my attention. My daughter, who is in college being trained for Christian ministry, for some God-ordained reason, chose to serve her college internship in our small church. Some thought it was the easy route – that she wasn’t challenging herself enough by going home. I knew it would be the hardest thing she ever did.

She is an extremely gifted young lady who loves Jesus with all of her heart. She has been a “PK” all of her life, did not go through decades of rebellion, but has worked through a myriad of hurts and pains that go along with living in a pastor’s home. She has seen much and has a deep understanding of ministry, in spite of my efforts to shelter her. She has a heart to help the “least of these” by extending God’s mercy in very practical ways as she boldly proclaims God’s truth. I am very proud of her.

And I was extremely proud of her as she began to serve in our church. She worked tirelessly and put together a full week of camp for the children of prisoners. It was the best camp I had ever seen on paper! She worked just as hard developing our church’s first Vacation Bible School in years, with the help of her team, our church’s youth group – all three of them. Did I mention that of the three, two were her younger sisters? She did such a good job, and truly did it for Jesus!

And then the camp was cancelled. Just a few kids signed up, in spite of cards, phone calls, visits, and parents’ meetings. I tried to explain to her that she is learning a valuable lesson – that all of her service was not wasted if it was truly service to the Lord! Then we had the VBS – and our little team faithfully and lovingly served six kids over four days, in spite of hundreds of invitations being extended.

As all of this was going on, we would drive by other churches holding their own VBS’s with parking lots full and kids everywhere. Today, we went to a wonderful event where an incredible church in our town came into our neighborhood and at our local elementary school hosted an exciting festival for the children (and their families) that we had been loving and serving. Hundreds were there when we visited. We rejoiced. And we prayed for good fruit. And I saw something in my daughter’s eye that reveled something deep in her heart.

While she was happy with all that was happening, she couldn’t help but wonder, “Why?” Why did she work for months for one cancelled camp and a tiny VBS? And why did others seem to have “success” we could only dream of? After years of service in small churches, I have grown used to the hours of prayer, study and service for events that never happen or that have just the same few regulars attend. I have shielded my heart from such constant disappointment. I almost expect us on Sunday to have to sing acapella because no musicians show up. Even though I thought she had seen these realities over the years, she was shocked and told my wife, “I don’t know how you and dad do this year after year – I am struggling doing it for a few months.” I do not have answers for her. But it made me want to write to you. Can I share a few thoughts with you, brothers and sisters in the large church?

First, be thankful for what you have. You have been blessed in many ways. I realize that you have problems and disappointments that I could never dream about. But you also are experiencing blessings that some of us may never experience. God has indeed blessed you!

Second, people from our small churches will leave our churches to go be part of your church. I hate to say it this way, but here is the reality (at least in some people’s minds) – we cannot compete with the size, variety, excitement, and excellence that you offer. For better or for worse, many people desire what you have – few desire what we have. They will leave us for you much more than they will leave you for us. When they do, please check with them (or me) to see if they left my church on good terms. I will give them my blessing if they leave seeking health and life! But will you at least ask where they were and why they left? By the way, it would be to your advantage to know if these new people will be a help or a hindrance. I know you desire to grow through conversion growth, but the truth is, most who entered your doors exited mine. Check with me. I will do the same for you.

Lastly, continue to remember those of us in small churches. You are my heroes! I am so thankful for your incredible, fruitful ministry! But can I be honest? I hold those who serve selflessly and faithfully in small churches in even higher esteem. You are my heroes. Those serving in anonymity with constant disappointment are my super-heroes! Why not call up one these servants and invite them to lunch and thank them, too. Continue to invite them to your events, as full-partners and co-laborers in Christ. Return their phone calls and emails. Treat them like they are valuable members of the team, not as distractions from your “real” ministry. And please remember them in prayer, thanking God with joy for the partnership in the gospel that you have with these heroes.
Faithfully yours,
Brian Heinen