Broom Trees

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.

Tested in Blessing

For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry . . . (1 Kings 17:16)

Once his water supply was exhausted he knew he would have to go somewhere else.

Elijah had hidden by the brook because that’s where God told him to go. It was not a place of his own choosing. Hiding by the brook was an act of obedience. And now the brook was dry. Is this how God rewards obedience?

The Next Act of Obedience

The providence of God is strange to us. We would like to think that obedience leads to reward. What we see in Elijah is that obedience simply prepares us for the next act of obedience. God used the dry brook to send the prophet to Zarephath in the pagan region of Sidon – again, not a popular destination for a Hebrew prophet.

Whereas Elijah had been fed by ravens by the Kerith Ravine, a widow would feed him in Zarephath. As promised, Elijah met a widow at the gates of the town. When he asked her for a piece of bread she made it clear to Elijah that she had enough for one meal, and that meal would be for her and her son. After that they would likely die soon. The prophet was on his own.

But God spoke to this discouraged and despairing widow through the prophet, inviting an act of trust. She used her meager supply of flour and oil and fed Elijah first. Having used what little she had to feed this God-sent stranger, the widow woke the next day to discover a fresh supply of oil and flour. Sometimes seeing a miracle means taking a risk.

Bread Stories

Some of the best known stories in the pages of the Bible are bread stories

As Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt and through the wilderness, God provided bread from heaven every morning. The people were to gather what they needed for that day. Trying to stockpile bread for tomorrow ended in rot and decay (Exodus 16:4).

Jesus replicated God’s gift of wilderness manna when he fed a multitude with a few loaves of bread and some fish. Gathered in a desolate place, thousands had more than they could eat (John 6:11-12). Later Jesus would say that he himself was the bread of life, the bread that comes from heaven and gives life to all people (John 6:35).

And then there’s Elijah and the widow discovering the daily deposit of oil and flour.

The wilderness manna, the oil and flour, the multitudes fed with fishes and loaves: we naturally regard these things as gifts from God, great blessings that speak of God’s love and grace. But in Deuteronomy 8 we learn that often God uses blessings to test us.

Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Deut. 8:2-3).

The Gift or the Giver?

God does not test us solely in trouble an affliction. Testing does not always come in the form of loss and grief, in illness and death, in physical pain and mental distress. Such things test us, to be sure – but just as often God tests us in blessing. The blessings and gifts reveal the posture of hearts as much as the suffering does.

When we wake up every morning and find fresh oil and flour, the test is this: will we love the oil and flour? Will we depend on bread? Or will we love the God who meet us daily with more grace and sustains us in wilderness places?

How have you been blessed today? And what does the blessing show you about the affections of your heart and the object of your hope?


“Break thou the bread of life, Dear Lord, to me; As thou didst break the loaves beside the sea; Beyond the sacred page I seek the Lord; My Spirit pants for thee, O Living Word” (Break Thou the Bread of Life, The Hymnbook, p. 219)

Bearing the Unbearable

After a while the brook dried up because there was no rain in the land (1 Kings 17:7).

When you tell people in Atlanta, Georgia that you’re about to move to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania they invariably offer an observation about the winters, often noting the obvious. Something along the lines of ‘It’s cold up there,’ or ‘They get snow.’

Yes, I’m aware. And to be perfectly honest I’m a little intimidated by what awaits us there between November and April (please God, not October to May).

I’m sure people who live in the North, or who live down here and grew up in the North, think Southerners are a joke when it comes to winter weather. Sure, we tend to overreact at times. The slightest mention of winter precipitation sends us stampeding to Home Depot for a generator, followed by a stop at Kroger for bread and milk, lest our children perish. Go ahead all you transplanted Yankees. Laugh all you want.

But understand our context here in the Sunbelt. In Atlanta winter means slipping on a windbreaker when you jog at 6:00 a.m. Once we live through a few spells of nighttime lows below 20 and a possible ice or snow event, we’ve paid our dues to old man winter. He’s like an annoying relative who makes an obligatory annual visit and then goes home, not a moment too soon.

The Absence of a Finish Line

Most of us can endure almost anything if we have a sense that eventually things will change. We can tolerate the intolerable for a while. We can put up with the unbearable if we see daylight at the end of the tunnel, something that assures us that the unpleasant present will inevitably give way to future blessing.

In matters far more serious than a wave of cold weather, we are willing to suffer and believe that God is at work in our affliction. What erodes faith isn’t the suffering, but the sense that the suffering won’t stop. The absence of a finish line, the suspicion that spring will never come, the lack of a horizon on which we see the promise of relief.

When Elijah told King Ahab that there would be “neither dew nor rain” the declaration was open-ended. No long range forecast was given to indicate how long the drought would last. The Elijah stories in 1 Kings 17 and 18 don’t give clear indications as to the length of the drought. The book of James in the New Testament says it lasted three and a half years (James 5:17). As best we can tell, not even Elijah knew when it would end. He just lived through it and in it until God gave rain.

Embrace the Present Drought

One of the greatest challenges to a life of faith is living in the midst of a barren place and barren conditions without the slightest sense that things will ever change. Such conditions have a way of exposing us and the deepest affection of our hearts. They reveal the substance of our faith.

A life of faith doesn’t merely endure the present drought. Faith embraces it.

The tendency, shared by all of us, is to place our hope in a forecast. This has a subtle way of replacing our hope in God. We want to know when: when will I get better, when will the economy rebound, when will I find my soul-mate, when will the company recognize my talents and skills? A good forecast makes faith unnecessary.

But God doesn’t give us forecasts, at least not often and where it most matters. God invites a daily walk in the conditions we have right in front of us. That’s where God’s glory gets revealed. Fire falls from heaven; a small cloud promises a downpour (18:45). And a demonstration of God’s glory beats a forecast any day.


I will embrace the conditions of this day, O God, not as a test of endurance but as an invitation to faith. Give me eyes to see your glory and recognize your work – especially in the unlikely and unwanted details of this day, I ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

When the Brook Dries Up

“As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1 ESV).

Running from a fight had never been his style. Hiding was never his preferred strategy for dealing with trouble. Hesitation and reticence were alien to him. Once given a word to speak for God, Elijah itched to speak it like a thoroughbred being held back by the start-gate at the beginning of a race.

Thus his explosive and terse message to Ahab: “it will not rain until I say so.” The moment was confrontational. Elijah was going head to head with Israel’s faithless King and that King’s false god. Few Kings will tolerate that kind of thing; they will not lose face when treated with shameless disrespect. Elijah was persona non grata in Israel, an enemy of the state.

So God told Elijah to hide in a ravine on the east side of the Jordan River. Elijah was to stay there, out of the way, removed from the action. He had said what needed to be said. God would take it from here until further notice. In the meantime, the prophet would survive by drinking water from the brook and being fed daily by ravens.

For a while the water in the Kerith ravine ran freely and wide. Elijah drank at will, quenching his thirst and washing down the food that came by ravens every morning and evening. But soon the flow of water narrowed. As God kept his word and confirmed Elijah’s message, the daily supply of water diminished to a trickle. One day, even that had stopped.

The brook dried up.

Claiming Exemptions

Many of us live with an unspoken rule, a silent expectation. We quietly carry the conviction that being in the center of God’s will is a “safe” place to be.

We assume that if we will be obedient to what God commands and seek to live life in a way that pleases God, we will somehow dodge the varied troubles that are visited upon the disobedient and the self-indulgent.

We claim exemptions: We will seek to know God’s will and live in it, and the cancer will not find us or those we love. The accident will miss us. The lay-offs will not impact us. We may not be exactly where we want to be. Life won’t be picture perfect. But, like Elijah, we will be fed daily and drink freely from the brook.

Sometimes, however, the brook dries up. Even for bold prophets and ordinary faithful people, the stream narrows to a sliver and then stops altogether.

A Plan Beyond the Brook

If we will keep company with Elijah and pay attention to his life, we’ll see that the promises of God do not always include exemptions. God’s promise to be faithful to us is not a guarantee to spare us from trouble. This doesn’t mean we should live our days nervously expecting the illness or the lay-off or the accident. Rather, the story of Elijah reminds us that God wills our good and often accomplishes that good in the midst of circumstances we would choose to avoid.

God is at purposefully at work by the diminishing brook. God uses deprivation in one place to move the prophet to another place where grace is discovered anew. God still works that way.

You may be in a place right now where you’re watching the brook dry up. What had seemed to be God’s provision is now failing you. The life-giving water grows shallow and thin and your fears rise, their current swift and strong. Why is this happening? And what’s next?

As with Elijah, God has plans for you beyond the brook. You were never meant to get too comfortable there. We move forward not by claiming exemptions but by recognizing our need for grace, daily trusting God to give it.

Brooks and creeks diminish. God’s faithfulness doesn’t.


Too often, Lord God, our faith grows small as we see the brook running dry. We feel cheated or deceived. Teach us through the prophet Elijah to look to you rather than flowing streams, whether of water or money, good fortune or good health. In these days accomplish your purposes for us, reminding us that you work for our good in all things. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Ten Years of the ‘Daily Devotional’

Over the past few months I’ve heard this question or some variation of it more than a few times:

“Are you going to keep writing devotionals?” The short answer is ‘Yes. Absolutely.’ They’ll be showing up occasionally through the summer months here on this blog.

It hardly seems possible to me, but ten years have passed since I first started writing daily meditations on the Bible for the congregation of the Peachtree Presbyterian Church. Writing the so-called ‘devos’ has become an important part of my vocation and my spiritual life. Now that fourteen years of ministry there are ended I’m in a reflective frame of mind, remembering how all of this came to be a part of my life and work.

A Summer Writing Gig

In the summer of 2006 Marnie and I had been on the pastoral staff at Peachtree for just over four years. The ‘Peachtree Daily Devotional’ had already been going out via email to our congregation each morning. The idea was to take the text from Sunday’s sermon and tease it out further throughout the week, inviting our people to a deeper dive into what they had heard (or missed) on Sunday.

A colleague of mine had been managing the content for the devotional since its inception. She was doing a great job, but she also carried a hefty load of other duties and by the summer of 2006 she needed a break. In late May our Senior Pastor and my boss, Vic Pentz, called and asked if I would be willing to do the daily devotional for the upcoming sermon series on Ecclesiastes.

Churches are much like other organizations. When the boss shows a willingness to entrust a task to you, you step up and do it gladly – and with confidence. Once I had said yes, however, a mild panic set in, a low-grade freak out. How would I ever come up with something to write day after day for the whole summer?

My first ‘daily devotional’ went out on June 5, 2006. Week after week, day by day I opened my Bible and lingered with a text from Ecclesiastes. With each morning the manna lay on the ground, just what was needed for that day. Rarely have I been able to ‘get out ahead’ when it comes to writing these meditations. God has been kind to give what is needed. Yes, as the archives have grown over the years I’ve allowed myself to edit and ‘recycle’ some of the reflections. And whenever I’ve put down words when I really had nothing to say, the fault for that has been entirely my own.

Lessons from a Decade of ‘Devos’

I’m stunned that ten years have slipped by since that summer series on Ecclesiastes. God has been faithful. Readers have been both tolerant of my weak writing and generous in affirming what they found helpful. And I have been blessed to partner with gifted colleagues on staff, particularly Len Wilson, an author who loves words and has an eye for the way images can bring the written word to life.

With the passing of time I’ve become convinced of two things that I’d like to convince you of as well.

First, the Bible is an inexhaustible book. As Hebrews 4:12 says, it is indeed a ‘living and active’ word. God continues to speak to us through scripture, and because God is always speaking we’ll never scrape the bottom of the barrel when we search the Bible. The Psalmist rightly marveled at the vast sum of God’s thoughts (139:17). If the Bible is an ocean depth, I’m still standing on the shoreline with waves just covering my feet when it comes to discovering what this book has to say to us. I want to be a better student of the Bible and I want to get better at sharing what I find in its pages. I’ll spend the remainder of my days doing this.

Second, anyone can do what I’ve been doing in these daily meditations. That’s not to say that everyone will want to write short (or not-so-short) reflections that explore a biblical text – but anyone can tell stories and all of us have stories to tell. What’s more, all of those stories can point us in some way to the God revealed in scripture. Read your Bible. Pay attention to your life and to your world. Find the places where one touches the other. There are plenty of them to be discovered.

All of that to say . . .

I guess I’ve shared all of this to get to the purpose of this blog. Marnie and I are moving to a new ministry this summer. Someone else will assume responsibility for the Peachtree daily devotional. But I’d like to keep reading the Bible and writing about what I read. If you’re reading this now I hope you’ll come back and keep reading. Better yet, I’m shameless enough to ask you to subscribe to this blog so that the content will come directly to you.

The thoughts of God “are more than the sand” (Ps. 139:18). There’s much to be seen in God’s word. From time to time as we ponder it there will be things to say. So let’s stay at it together.

Here we go.

A Familiar Friend in Dark Times

The Lord is my shepherd . . . (Psalm 23:1).

Once again the nation is reeling, staggering from a blindside hit. We’re nauseous and concussed from the repeated violent blows that have come hard and far too frequently.

For many people Psalm 23 is associated with death and its accompanying darkness. People who hardly ever step foot in a church have some familiarity with Psalm 23 – but the depth of their familiarity often corresponds to the number of funerals and memorial services they’ve attended. That’s about the only place where many people hear these words.

The Confrontation that Brings Comfort

The 23rd Psalm is to the graveside what First Corinthians 13 is to weddings. When a couple stands at the wedding altar we expect to hear about how love is patient and kind and doesn’t envy or keep a record of wrongs. People getting married (and those attending the wedding) need to hear that kind of thing.

And as death draws near, and once it has arrived, we expect to hear that “The Lord is my shepherd.” We need to be reminded that even though we’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death we have nothing to fear. The words of Psalm 23 are a familiar friend in such moments.

If comfort is what we seek from Psalm 23 we will not be disappointed. There’s no shortage of comfort to be found in the trusty 23rd. But before we can bask in the comfort we’re faced with a confrontation. The guidance and courage and overflowing cup of Psalm 23 will not be ours until we can get past that well known first line.

“The Lord is my shepherd” sounds comforting at first – but it is an affront, an all-out assault on our self-sufficiency. And if there’s  one thing we seem to cherish as a people, it’s our self-sufficiency. “The Lord is my shepherd” is an implicit declaration of dependence. This is hard for us. The comfort of the Psalm remains elusive until we come to terms with the fact that we truly need a shepherd. All of the shepherding tasks that God does are ours as we admit that we cannot secure or accomplish those things for ourselves.

Needed: A Shepherd

In the mid-1500s John Calvin commented on Psalm 23 with these words:

It should be observed that God is a shepherd only to those who, touched with a sense of their own weakness and poverty, feel their need of his protection, and who willingly abide in his sheepfold, and surrender themselves to be governed by him. David, who excelled in both power and riches, nevertheless frankly confessed himself to be a poor sheep, that he might have God for his shepherd. Who is there then amongst us who would exempt himself from this necessity ? (Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 4, page 392).

Roughly 300 years later the British preacher Charles Spurgeon echoed Calvin in one of his sermons when he stated that “No man can say . . . ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ until he has given up every idle notion that he can control himself, or manage his own interests.”

And in a much more contemporary voice, Max Lucado paraphrased Psalm 23 for those who simply will not admit their need of a shepherd.

I am my own shepherd; I am always in need

I stumble from mall to mall and shrink to shrink, seeking relief but never finding it.

I creep through the valley of the shadow of death and fall apart.

I fear everything from pesticides to power lines and I’m starting to act like my mother.

I go down to the weekly staff meeting and am surrounded by enemies. I go home and even my goldfish scowls at me.

I anoint my head with extra strength Tylenol.

My Jack Daniels runneth over

Surely misery and misfortune will follow me, and I will live in self-doubt for the rest of my lonely life. (From Max Lucado, Traveling Light, p.25-26 )

There’s plenty of comfort in Psalm 23 for those who know they need a shepherd. Until we know we need a shepherd, the opening line of the Psalm is just something nice we read at the time of death in the hope that it will make us feel better.

Saying “The Lord is my Shepherd” won’t do much for us unless we know we need a shepherd . . . and until we know the shepherd we need. Jesus, the source of all comfort.


Gracious God, you confront us with these familiar words. May they be true for us – the source of deep comfort because we know that you will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Confront us with your shepherding love and teach us to trust you above ourselves or anything we have done or anything we own. Be our shepherd in these dark days, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.