Do you remember the first time you saw The Wizard of Oz? The moment Dorothy opened the door to the brilliant Technicolor of a new and foreign land? The strangeness of the houses and the munchkins’ clothing and speech–and the “Lollipop Guild”?
“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
I had an out-of-Kansas experience in my early twenties when I moved across the ocean to teach in a foreign land: China. There everything seemed unfamiliar. I looked different from everyone else–in fact, I was frequently referred to as laowai, “foreigner,” everywhere I went. I had no family there, no one I had known well for any serious length of time. I couldn’t read or write or understand the language. (Once I even put salt in my coffee simply because I couldn’t read the package.) I did not know my way around, did not understand the bus routes, and could not communicate with taxi drivers. I could not order food by myself, and when I finally got something to eat, I inevitably spilled most of it on my lap because . . . chopsticks. Most places had no set prices, and I had to haggle over every purchase–and struggle to recognize the coinage so I could pay. Holidays were not the same. I did not understand the customs. Even counting numbers one through ten on my fingers was different! (No, I’m not kidding.) It was as if my entire world, everything I knew had been ripped away.
One day when I finally looked down, it hit me that the only thing I recognized, the only thing that made any sense at all to me was the paint on the street. Two yellow lines. That’s it.
After I found a friend to help me purchase a guitar, I began writing songs about the experience. One began, “Dropped off in a world today, never felt so far away from all I know.” That song evolved into a prayer with this plea: “Show me the way, give a sign . . . when home shrinks down to thin yellow lines.”
Recognizing that one thing, praying through that one thing in its road-grimy simplicity became something profound. I remembered–
“. . . if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalm 139: 9b-10).
Sometimes life can feel like a tempest-tossed sea, a house throttled and transported by a twister, a frightening flight to utter unfamiliarity. Maybe it’s a pandemic. Maybe it’s job loss. Maybe it’s financial despair. Maybe it’s a broken marriage, a shattered family. Maybe it’s a diagnosis. Maybe it’s a loss. Maybe it’s depression, anxiety. Maybe it’s a realization of numbness, a lukewarm spirit.
Sometimes the shock comes more quickly and horribly than the taste of salt in your coffee.
Elijah, one of the great heroes of the Bible, had a moment when things were so terrible that he wanted to die. Queen Jezebel had already slaughtered God’s prophets and promised the same fate for Elijah, so he “ran for his life.” He fled on a “journey into the wilderness,” where he sat down under a bush and “prayed that he might die.” He said to God, “I have had enough, Lord. . . . Take my life.” While he was weak and alone, an angel brought Elijah food, telling him, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” He finally recovered enough to travel alone “forty days and forty nights” to “Horeb, the mountain of God,” where he spent the night in a cave. In grief over his situation, he cried to God, “I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too” (I Kings 19:1-4).
The Lord responded, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
“Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave” (I Kings 19:1-13).
On a mountaintop in the wilderness, the Lord came in a whisper. As Elijah stepped out in humility and repeated his desperate cry, the Lord revealed His plan, led Elijah from loneliness and fear of death to faith.
When the world seems to crumble around us, sometimes God’s presence comes in a whisper. When all that is comforting and familiar is snatched away, sometimes He comes in lines on the street.
When the world seems bleak and foreign, “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it” (Isaiah 30: 21).
Whether it’s a clear “follow the yellow brick road” directive, a humbling realization looking down at the street, or a tender whisper, the Lord is there when the world falls apart–he is here. Always.