‘A fine June evening’, declared the bishop, ‘no better time to welcome a new Rector’; those from the four corners of Ireland who packed the church in Inistioge agreed. For a moment, it conjured memories of a similar experience in Co Down in June 1989.
Standing listening to the speeches, I wondered if Martin, the new Rector was an experiencing an Elisha moment. I remember such a moment on that night twenty-two years ago.
In the second Book of Kings in the Old testament, Elijah has been teaching Elisha and the time has come for Elisha to start out on his own, but Elisha doesn’t want to know about it.
Elijah tells him three times, “Stay here” and three times he says to Elijah, “As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.”
His friends tell him twice that Elijah is to be taken away “Do you know that the LORD is going to take your master from you today?”
“Yes, I know,” Elisha replies, “but do not speak of it.”
Elisha realizes that the time has come for him to take the lead, that the initiative is now with him, and he doesn’t want to let go.
Taking the initiative yourself is sometimes not easy, sometimes it is painful, sometimes it is frightening.
It was a wonderful summer evening on that distant night , the countryside around looked perfect, the view across the sea to the Mourne mountains was something from a picture book. At about 11 in the evening it was still daylight, most of the people had gone home and I was left standing in the parish hall with the two churchwardens. They were cousins, big countrymen of few words, who called me ‘Mr Poulton’, (seven years later one of them still called me ‘Mr Poulton’, he could never quite adjust to the idea that a clergyman might be addressed by his Christian name).
Standing there, I realized that I was 28 years old and I was on my own in looking after this small rural community. I remember feeling almost a sense of fear and panic at about what I was taking on and a great sense of loss that I would no longer be with the rector who had been so kind and helpful during the previous three years.
My feelings would have been no more than a tiny fraction of what Elisha would have felt when Elijah was gone. But what happens to Elisha is a lesson to us in getting up and getting on with things. “He picked up the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. Then he took the cloak that had fallen from him and struck the water with it. “Where now is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.
The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.”
Elisha could have stood, as I did in June 1989, and felt bewildered and lost that he had been left by himself. Elisha could have made numerous excuses as to why he couldn’t continue. If he had been a church leader now he would probably have first organised a memorial for Elijah; then perhaps he would have held seminars on what Elijah’s legacy meant; and perhaps, after a period of reflection, there would have been a conference on moving forward without Elijah.
Elisha does not sit and ponder, he takes the cloak of Elijah and he gets on with the work that God has given him.
It is a lesson I have had to learn many times in the past two decades.