……… I was leading worship at a Partnership service in the church in Wooler. It had become clear that the theme of identity was crucial in this area. An identity shaped by history and tradition, by isolation from the bigger centres of population and by the distinctiveness of small areas within the larger one. Such an identity can make us insular or it can give us the security which we all need to identify with wider issues and different situations.
The lectionary readings for the day included one from 2Kings chapter 2 which tells the story of the end of Elijah’s life, leaving Elisha to take up the mantle. It is a story of two prophets, journeying on a circuitous route from Gilgal to Jordan via Bethel and Jericho. There are interfering prophets and miracles, chariots of fire and horses and there is a journey into the unknown made possible by parting the waters by striking them with a rolled up mantle. There are promises about the future and mystery and hiddeness in the present. It is not an obvious story to try to link with the identity of people in small churches in North Northumberland or anywhere else in 21st century Britain.
But it is a story about endings – Elijah has reached the end of his life and his service. Recognising when it is right to end something is as important as deciding on a beginning whether that is about individuals or about church families. Maybe it is time for some piece of activity or some form of service ‘to be taken up into heaven by a whirlwind’ even if only metaphorically.
It is about journeying, Surely many of us can identify with that tendency to make circuitous journeys as we have listened for God’s call, maybe following someone or some group which is powerful or persuasive, longstanding or sparkly new and innovative or maybe it is merely about loyalty just as it was with Elisha.
It is about the crunch time. Elijah and Elisha made a journey across the Jordan – an unknown crossing leading to crunch time, handover time and uncertainty about whether Elisha would inherit Elijah;s spirit. There followed despair and an acceptance of the need to carry on in the confidence that God is leading. Even when, like Elisha, despair overwhelms us, we discover we have skills beyond anything we have known before and so can move on to serve God.
There is so much in this story with which we can identify wherever we come from and whatever our experience. For Elijah, Elisha as well as each of us are a part of God’s plan and share the experiences which responding to his call. If we are wise we share too, the lessons learned from generation to generation as we try to do his will.