A Meditation on Elijah’s Encounter with the Widow of Zarephath
I Kings 17:8-24/ June 5, 2010
Today’s progressive and moderate Christians struggle with feelings of scarcity, despite the abundance of the universe. How often have you heard a group of progressive and moderate Christians succumb to closed-system thinking as we look at issues of budget and membership? Indeed, many congregational and denominational meetings become an exercise in “practical atheism” the minute issues of finances are raised. Thoughts of God, possibility, and creativity are often eclipsed by laments about what we don’t have and the way things used to be. Many of us struggle simply to get through the next year, buying time before we have to eventually close the doors. We’ve heard the widow of Zarephath’s mantra, coming from our own lips, all too often in our churches and institutions: “I am gathering a couple of sticks; so that I may go home and prepare a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.”
Now, an accurate assessment of our financial and personal situation is essential for the survival and health of institutions and families. But, we progressive and moderate Christians often believe “too little,” while televangelists and new age spiritual leaders “believe too much” when it comes to the resources available to us. Realism is essential in the spiritual journey, but realism embraces our current situation of perceived scarcity in light of God’s abundant universe. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted, opportunities are always present within the limitations of life.
Elijah’s encounter with the widow of Zarephath starkly presents two ways of looking at the world: through the eyes of faithful abundance and doubtful scarcity. While there are significant problems – not the least of which relate to its linear and omnipotent vision of the power of the mind and its disregard of issues of social justice – progressive and moderate Christians can affirm the the wisdom of the recent “new age best seller, The Secret: positive visualizations and affirmations can change our interpretation of life and may have a role in changing the events of our lives. Further, mind-body medicine has demonstrated that our attitudes, prayer life, and faith can be the tipping point between health and illness, and life and death. As Christians, we are called to affirm that God wants us to have abundant life and that God will provide for our deepest needs, and this includes the financial and spiritual needs of struggling congregations and families.
When the widow generously shares her meager meal with Elijah, she is connected with the bounty of the universe and, indeed, “her cup overflows.” She discovers in her risky generosity that the abundance of God will supply her basic needs. In our own lives, we find that while generosity does not magically change our bank accounts or reverse the hands of the clock, open-hearted generosity opens us to experiencing a generous universe in which we discover we have more time, energy, and money than we previously imagined. In letting go of our strangle hold on our resources, we discover that we are connected with the abundant resources of the God.
Like many progressive and moderate Christians, I find this story spiritually as well as theologically challenging. As a child, my family was thrown in poverty after my dad lost his job. We lived on food baskets from churches and the kindness of strangers. Consequently, financial issues have always been faith challenge to me. Yet, I have discovered when I, like the widow, open to be channel of blessing, I am less anxious about financial issues and future worries.
As a process theologian, I believe that God presents us with innovative possibilities in every moment of life. There is always a creative wisdom we can tap into, personally and collectively, if we open our hearts and minds. Spiritually, we need to open our whole lives, body, mind, spirit, to trust the dynamic energy of the universe; the energy that is still creating galaxies and still inspiring humankind.
The encounter between Elijah and widow is an inspiration and a challenge for today’s moderate and progressive churches and institutions: an inspiration to explore today’s perceived “impossibilities” in light of divine wisdom and to trust God enough to generously share with others, knowing that generosity connects us with the energy of the universe and the wisdom of God, which will provide for our deepest needs.
Bruce Epperly is a professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of an open and affirming emerging congregation in Lancaster, PA, Disciples United Community Church. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a progressive theological and spiritual response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. A Reiki master/teacher for over twenty years, he is the author of Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus (with Kate Epperly). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.