He came to a broom tree, sat down under it, and prayed that he might die (1 Kings 19:4).
I was trying to figure out what to do with my life and I needed some help.
I attended church, but I really didn’t know my pastor. Right about that time Mercer University, where I was a student, had brought on a new Pastor to the University and he seemed to be a very thoughtful and trustworthy man. I made an appointment to talk with him.
Looking back, I don’t remember the details of my conversation with Dr. Welton Gaddy. What I remember now is the way he listened, his total lack of interest in trying to “recruit” me for the ministry, his comfort with my angst and his counsel that didn’t tell me what to do. If you could look up ‘non-anxious presence’ in the dictionary you’d probably find his picture there.
Not long after that conversation I moved to Texas to attend seminary. Years later I came across a book he had written. That in itself wasn’t such a big deal. He had authored several books by that time. However the title of this one provoked my curiosity: A Soul Under Siege: Surviving Clergy Depression.
Isolation and Fatigue
A quick glance at the back cover summarized the story. This man whose counsel I had sought and whom I admired for his wisdom and pastoral sensitivity had hit a wall in his personal and professional life. He had admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital to get help with his depression. The book is confessional and reflective, telling the story of a public persona that didn’t square with some deeper inner realities. After living that way for a long time Gaddy, like Elijah, found himself by a broom tree. That’s when the time in the hospital happened.
Thankfully, he was willing to talk about it. Far too many of us spend our energies avoiding the broom trees or pretending that we’ve never spent time in the shade of one. What we learn from Welton Gaddy, and from Elijah, is that broom trees are where we find a peculiar kind of mercy.
A death-threat from Queen Jezebel had sent Elijah running for his life (2 Kings 19:2). When he stopped running and dropped exhausted beneath the broom tree things weren’t going so well. He was a full day’s journey into the desert and he was alone, having left his servant back in Beersheba. Isolation and fatigue, mixed with fear is a lethal combination for any soul. Under the broom tree you begin to think you’d be better off dead. At least that’s what Elijah prayed for.
Our Myths Exposed
A broom tree is the place where myths are exposed. The idea that one experience of a spiritual high means immunity from future spiritual lows is exposed as a myth. And self-sufficiency is exposed as a myth. The broom tree is a place where we are brought to the end of ourselves. Then and only then do we discover the true meaning of grace. Elijah prays a desperate prayer under the broom tree – but God does not answer with rebuke or lecture. The prophet is simply told to get up and eat. This is followed by a long nap, and then another meal.
Broom trees appear in a variety of forms; we find them in different places. The period of unemployment, the month after the funeral when meals no longer arrive at your door, the first day after the divorce is finalized – broom trees all. Our inclination is to minimize our time there, rush off to the next mountain as quickly as we can manage. But God meets us under the broom trees in ways we don’t experience elsewhere. God sustains us there and gives us what we need, getting us ready for the next leg of the journey. We sleep and eat, and eat and sleep again.
Do not resent the broom tree. Don’t look for detours around that place or try to cover the tracks that led you there. The broom tree is not a sign of your failure and weakness. It is a part of your formation as a person created and called by God.
Where have the broom trees been in your life?
We give you thanks, O God, for meeting us in places we’d rather not go. We thank you for the way you lead us to those barren places and then give us what we need in order to move on. Thank you for the simple gifts of grace that sustain us from day to day. Meet us in this day and keep us faithful in our journey with you, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.