Emily Dickinson once wrote:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant-
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Her words came back to me as I thought about this amazing story of Elijah and Elisha. All month we’ve listened to the story of Elijah. First his contest with the prophets of Baal, then his protest of the injustices of King Ahab, and last week, his encounter with God after massacring the prophets of Baal. These stories prompted me to think about the ways we do Bible Study; to wonder how we can find life-giving inspiration in often difficult texts.
This Sunday we heard perhaps the most fantastical Elijah story yet. Nearing the end of his life, Elijah took his protege Elisha with him out to the wilderness to say goodbye. A flaming chariot pulled by flaming horses scoops down to pick him up. Elisha watched Elijah disappear into the heavens; then, grabbing the cloak Elijah left behind, he carried on Elijah’s work.
The story confronts us with the unbelievable - a chariot of fire, really? And yet Dickinson’s words come back to me, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
Perhaps more fundamental Christians don’t struggle with the mythical and the magical moments of the Bible. But I do. The world in seven days. Noah’s big adventure. Frogs overwhelming Egypt. Moses parting the Red Sea. 5,000 fed on leftovers. And on and on.
Liberal Christians like us have long handled these mythical moments by trying to deconstruct the magician's hat trick in the story. Take the feeding of the 5,000: some make sense of it by suggesting everyone had food hidden up their sleeves; they only brought it out once Jesus shared the meager food he had. Or the parting of the Red Sea as a rare weather event in which 60-mile-an-hour winds push water from one side of a shallow body of water to the other. But most often we tend to dismiss the magical as ‘the way folks thought back then.’
Neither accepting the face value of the miracle nor rationalizing it away does much for my faith. I’ve begun to wonder: what it would mean to embrace the magic of the story? Does the mythical tell the truth slant?
I’ve come to see the magical slants in the story of Elijah and Elisha as central to its meaning for me. In fact, to see the chariot of fire as one of the most realistic descriptions of grief in the Bible.
Elisha felt incredibly close to Elijah. I see them as the Batman and Robin of ancient Israel, two crusaders fighting corruption and villainy. (But the authors of the Bible probably saw them as more like Moses and Joshua).
Elijah was not just Elisha’s teacher, but the epic leader of a cosmic battle against evil. His everything. His Bruce Wayne.
These two friends went out beyond the river for a final goodbye. Elisha couldn’t bear to let his dearest friend go. He clutched at possibilities. “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” We know what he meant: don’t ever leave me.
Elijah answered cryptically. “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” What does he mean? What can Elisha perceive in Elijah’s death?
Even as he thought about that question, even as he reached after his closest companion, something happened. Death. “We were there together and then he was gone. One moment I felt the warmth of his hand and then the next, I knew. He looked at me, and then beyond me, and I saw in his eyes the blazing horses carry him away. Until the light faded and I closed his eyes. And the chariot of fire rode through my heart - scorching heat, searing hot, burned me in two.”
Only mythic language could capture the drama of what Elisha felt. It had to be a chariot of fire pulled by burning horses to separate teacher from student, Batman from Robin. Nothing else could name the intensity of loss, the slant of grief.
The grief came out, as it often does, in conflicting emotions. First, intense anger, demanding, “where is the God Elijah!” Elisha lived the psalm.
I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, that he may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan;
I meditate, and my spirit faints.
But even in the midst of his anger, he found Elijah’s spirit with him. Full of despair, he picked up Elijah’s mantle and threw it at the water. The river parted. Elisha would carry on the spirit of Elijah. And yet, true to grief, his pained question remained unanswered, “where is God?”
When my kids were little, our treasured dog Krista died. It was the first close death my kids experienced. Krista was a black lab, ever loyal, ever playful, a perfect dog for kids. Our vet first noticed the cancerous growth in her throat; we watched and waited as it slowly grew, making it harder and harder for Krista to eat; otherwise healthy, her energy remained, still playful. But we knew the end approached. Goodbyes rend the heart. David felt it especially. The day she went down, he took her collar and wore it around his neck; the mantle of Krista as he played. And so I know what Elisha reported is true - the grief-struck heart takes up the mantle of the departed and carries on the spirit.
In the Psalm, comfort comes only when the poet remembers the deeds of God. It’s through memory that a double portion of Elijah’s spirit came to Elisha. Through memory, Elisha came to tell his story slant, remembering what he’s learned, holding what he’d lost, and finishing the work Elijah first started.
Both Emily Dickinson and John Berryman speak to the way the work of memory happens in the dark. As John Berryman wrote:
I am obliged to perform in complete darkness
operations of great delicacy
on my self.
There, in the dark of our own soul, we learn to speak the truth slant, discover the mythical, magical way to tell our stories, coming to say more than “I lost a friend” but “a team of fiery horses carried him away.”
The slant in Elisha’s story of loss makes it feel all the more true to me. As if the truth of it couldn’t be told without a burning chariot. The magic, the myth, doesn’t make it absurd but rather the most believable depiction of grief in the Bible.
All of which makes me wonder: what would happen to our stories if we told them slant too? Giving it a divine slant? How would we tell the truth but tell it divine?
This last Wednesday I went to a funeral. But it wasn’t an ordinary one. Youth and young adults in MICAH - Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope - organized it. We started at Calvary Baptist Church and marched through the 53206 neighborhood to Incarnation Lutheran. Youth carried a casket at the front of our procession. People put into the casket all the negativity and oppression felt in 53206. (As you may know: 53206 is the poorest zip code in our state, with the highest incarceration and lowest employment.) And so people buried opportunity killed by a lack of resources, hopes ended in prison, dreams turned by the nightmare of violence. It went into the casket, and the casket buried, to symbolize what needed to end so life could flourish.
Now we could speak of this in the neutral terms of journalists. One of the channels covering it gave a good but limited report, saying, “dozens unite to reveal plan to improve crime-ridden 53206 zip code.” There were far more than dozens at the march, but I shouldn’t quibble when they did manage to name the specific demands of the youth to improve their neighborhood: “expanded ACT prep courses, a ban on solitary confinement for young people, and the closing of the troubled Lincoln Hills School.” But even as the newscaster got right the demands of the youth, he missed the power, the vibrancy, the magic of the moment.
I need to tell the truth slant. My kids and I came not sure what to expect. I saw more and more friends arrive; like a funeral, some I hadn’t seen in awhile; my friend Kathy came clear across the state. We looked like Milwaukee - people of every race, urban and suburban, straight and gay, young and old. But we also looked like a vision of Milwaukee I don’t see enough - standing together in solidarity despite all our differences. There are the march I saw who we are and who we could be. It’s why the organizer said, looking around, “I see hope.”
We followed the coffin up Teutonia Avenue, one side Union Cemetery, the other rundown houses; one side the dead who can’t be evicted, the other side families evicted from home to home; one side resting in peace, the other longing for a peace that seems never to come. We arrived at Incarnation to clapping and cheers. This would be a New Orleans style funeral.
My kids and I couldn’t stay for the rally. So we started to walk back to our car as the last of the march entered the churchyard. And then the heavens opened; a Biblical rain; and I caught note in the rolling thunder the straining voice:
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
I knew God heard the people’s cry. The divine heart wept over 53206. Or, did God see all our hopes for new possibilities in 53206 and decide to drench them with water so that they might grow into a bountiful harvest? Either way, I felt like a Baptist preacher had immersed me in the font til my heart brimmed grace and I knew God would led us on.
Elisha couldn’t tell his story without fiery horses. And I can’t tell mine without finding God in the rain. Because sometimes you can only tell your story with magic; only tell the truth with a divine slant.
Alleluia and Amen.