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From King Jehoash to Alton by way of Port au Prince

By November 27, 2015 One Comment



I may be wrong, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a sermon on that particular OT passage, something out of II Kings, a visitation King Jehoash makes to a wheezing Elisha. There’s nothing tender about this bedside visitation because the King is scared silly. The Aramites visit and kill and maim at will, and they’re in his front yard.

Elisha tells the King to pick up a bow and shoot an arrow out the window. Okay, more than passing strange but harmless enough. When Jehoash lets fly, Elisha says, “The Lord’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Aram!” making what he’d done into something of a sacrament, I guess.

So much for that.

“Now take the arrows,” Elisha tells the King, and “strike the ground.” Obligingly, the King does so, then looks up and wonders what the old geezer’s next absurdity will be.

Elisha throws a tantrum. “What?–just three times?” he says. “You should have done it much more often because now you’re only safe for a few attacks.” I think that’s the gist of jeremiad.

Then, in the very next verse, Elisha up and dies.

The forty spiritual lashes King Jehoash takes stem from his lack of faith. He’s plainly lackadaisical, as I would be, I’m sure, if some spooky octogenarian muttered, between staggered breaths, that I should whack the ground with a handful of arrows.

And, that Sunday, that’s exactly where the preacher wanted to take us in the sermon: Lack of passion. Lack of faith. Ours.

But right there, at the moment of moral application, I was airlifted to the crowded city streets of Port au Prince.

I remembered a night, outside, riding through barely navigable streets overflowing with men and women and children. In a climate as equatorial is Haiti’s, in the capital city whole families live outside, hundreds and hundreds, even thousands of people on the street, all the time. I’d never seen anything like it.

Just outside my window right now, several miles-worth of Iowa farmland stretches to the horizon. It’s early morning, no sign yet of dawn. Hwy 60 is right out there, a four-lane thoroughfare that slashes diagonally through four-cornered farmland between the Twin Cities and Omaha. But at this moment, no lights appear down the highway. Right now, I live here as if totally alone.

If economists want to be kind, they call Haiti “a developing nation”; others simply say it is “a failed state.” There’s little government, and what there is is distressingly shady. The city, as you can imagine, is a mess. In Port au Prince, hundreds of thousands of people walk the overcrowded streets at all hours, descendants of African slaves centuries ago.

I could spend the rest of my days just inside these big windows and never once see an African-American walk through our back yard on his or her way to somewhere else.

What I’m saying is the world I live in and the streets of Port au Prince could not be more different. But that night in the city what swept into my mind was an absurdity: that God almighty hears their prayers just like he hears mine and ours out here among the street scrubbers, just as he hears men and women and children around the world in suburbs and inner cities, small towns and farmsteads. He hears all of them–all of us–at the very same moment. He’s paying attention in Port au Prince and Pittsburgh and Princeton and Peewaukee, for heaven sake. Even Orange City. Even north of Alton.

In the middle of that sermon I found myself back in a world unimaginably unlike my own, but just as populated with pray-ers who were and are not a bit unlike myself, all of them. all of us petitioning, all of us calling on God’s name.

God hears all of us simultaneously. Millions and millions and millions? Get serious.

That’s what I thought. Someone’s got a bridge to sell.

How can any being listen to a gazillion prayers muttered at the very same moment all over the planet and know–get that? know–what’s good for every last one of the earnest petitioners? Pardon me while I go out and whack the ground three times.

Poor Jehoash, standing there like a stooge with a handful of domesticated arrows. I’m sure he meant well. The dying prophet tells him to strike the ground and he listens. He’s not a fool. He follows orders. . .three times–and then gets thrashed by a prophet who dies just one verse later.

It’s crazy, isn’t it? Faith, I mean. It’s flat out nuts and a whole lot easier not to believe.

But still we do. I do anyway, most of the time and probably not by choice.

I don’t know that preacher ever thought he’d take me to Haiti by way of a grouchy prophet ready to die, but he did. Amazing.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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