The Spirit of Elijah

Elijah Cummings 1951-2019

“Mr. President, you’re now 70-something, I’m 60-something. Very soon you and I will be dancing with the angels. The thing you and I need to do is figure out what we can do – what present can we bring to generations unborn?” –  Elijah Cummings (recently recalling a conversation with president Donald Trump)

This coming Thursday and Friday, the U.S. Congress will be memorializing and honoring Elijah Cummings, The Democratic Congressman from Maryland’s 7th District, who passed away on October 17, much too soon. The sense of loss is deep and widespread, evoking memories of last year’s loss of Senator John McCain and former president George Herbert Walker Bush.

As was the case with those two gentlemen, this week’s heartache is also non-partisan, coming from both sides of the aisle. This might seem surprising, given recent political turmoil and its escalation over the past month or so.  But today’s quote reveals the man’s heart and values – his sense of responsibility toward future generations, and his sense that politics was and is about service to the American people – a service shared equally by both Republicans and Democrats.

Elijah.

Most given names – say, Jane, or Donald, or Bill – leave a bit of mystery, raise questions about the choice, the motivation, the significance. Why that particular label? Was the naming after this or that historic figure, an entertainer, a special friend, or a family member? What message or encouragement were the parents giving to the child when they chose that name? To learn the answer, you and I have to ask. Every person bearing such a name will offer a different narrative.

But that’s not the case with Elijah. The reference leads directly or indirectly to a single figure, the prophet Elijah of the Old Testament. To see the narrative Mr. Cummings was encouraged to live out, the example he knew every day of his life he was supposed to follow, you have only to go back to  1st and 2nd Kings. (And what more fitting tribute could we pay the man than to read or re-read this story sometime over the next few days?)

The Elijah of the Bible led an extraordinary life, demonstrating at every turn the power of his God. He attracted disciples or followers along the way. One of them stood out among the rest – Elisha. Elisha was singularly devoted – not just learning from his master but caring for him in his latter days. In addition to those two concerns, Elisha also wondered, who would God choose to be Elijah’s successor? Where would his spirit rest? The Biblical account tells us that he witnessed Elijah being taken by God up to heaven. According to 2 Kings 2:14, he then tested God:

14 He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah 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.

Elisha got his answer.

In the same spirit, most if not all of us might today be asking Elijah Cummings’ question of ourselves:

what present can we bring to generations unborn?

Turns out, of course, that those amassing the environmental intelligence needed for sustainable use of natural resources, building resilience to hazards, and protecting the environment and ecosystems have one possible answer. We know what present we’re working to provide. We’re trying to meet Greta Thunberg’s plea on behalf of children everywhere – bequeathing them a world that is at least as functional, as inviting, as awe-inspiringly beautiful as the world we grew up in.  

A closing thought:

Even this side of heaven there’s widespread appreciation and gratitude for those who craft such presents. One concrete form of recognition? The so-called Sammies – the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America awards made annually to federal civil servants. The 2019 awardees recently announced include Jamie Rhome, of NOAA, who:

Created a new forecasting model and warning system that more accurately predicts the deadly storm surge caused by hurricanes, saving lives by alerting residents sooner of the approaching danger.

Mr. Rhome is not the first NOAA scientist to win such recognition. In 2008 Eddie Bernard was cited for his work in creating:

a tsunami detection system that has dramatically increased warning times and decreased the risk of catastrophic loss of life.

Both Mr. Rhome and Mr. Bernard were careful to emphasize that their NOAA work represented a team effort, sustained by collaboration of many individuals inside and outside of NOAA over a period of many years. Truth be told, those working to benefit future generations comprise thousands of NOAA employees. Civil servants at DoD, DoE, EPA, USGS, USDA, NASA, NSF, and myriad other agencies. Their partners in private industry and academia. The practitioners who illuminate and motivate their work. Not just in the United States but worldwide.

So, today, if you’re wondering “where is the spirit of Elijah?” – you have only to look inside yourself.

Someday soon – sooner than we expect – each of us will be dancing with (both) Elijahs and the angels.

In the meantime, let’s all keep up the good work.

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