Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Trust, obedience, and the power of a widow.

In my preaching class this morning, one of my classmates gave a really nice sermon on stewardship and used the story of the widow at Zaraphath in 1 Kings 17. It's part of a larger narrative that starts out with Elijah calling down a famine on Israel as punishment for their various indiscretions, after which God speaks up and commands him to go and live off a little halfway dried up creek. Elijah obeys, but once the creek fully dries up, God sends Elijah out where he runs into a widow. He wastes no time in asking her to make him some food, to which she replies, "Hey dude, I'm gathering up sticks so that I can bake the last of my flour and oil and then die, but that's cool, I'll make you some cake." But she does it, because God has commanded her (note: she is not a Jew). Elijah reassures her that her flour and oil will not be used up as long as there is drought, and trusting this word from a random stranger in the wilderness, she obeys. Unfortunately, her son soon becomes ill and dies, and Elijah commands God to raise him. Surprisingly, God obeys.

The sermon I heard on this, and most sermons on this text, highlighted the trust piece. The widow has no reason to trust this stranger in the wilderness, but she does, and because of that trust, her oil doesn't run out, and even once her son dies, he is revived. Trust is not an unimportant theme here, but it's not the only theme. Mark Throntveit, professor of Old Testament ar Luther Sem would say this passage is actually about obedience. Elijah acts of his own accord, God commands him, he obeys. Then God commands the widow, and she obeys. And then, believe it or not, the same Hebrew word is used by Elijah when raising the widow's son from the dead. I think this text is actually about obedience and how it nourishes trust.

The preacher did a nice job of connecting the message of trust to stewardship. Rather than clinging onto our money, things, effort, etc, we are called to give those gifts to God and to others in order to serve our neighbors. But this is hard in what we hear described as "uncertain times." Most of the people I know are being slowly crushed by the weight of student debt and credit card debt. Many of us have obligations to children, parents, or financial institutions that leave us feeling very insecure. The preacher's message was that we need to trust God that the "jar of oil will not fail." In other words, God provides for us. But the reality is that there are people who don't have enough and sometimes all the trust you can muster doesn't mean you can buy health insurance or have security in your old age. While I applaud her for highlighting this word of promise, actually trusting is really hard. I found myself wanting to know, not just for my congregation, but for myself. There are areas in my life where I don't fully trust God's word to me, and I'd really like to know how!

God sent Elijah to dwell by a little wadi that was probably not spilling over its measley banks, but despite the logical conclusion that this foray into the desert might kill him, he does it. I'm not sure trust had a ton to do with it, at least at the beginning. Likewise, the widow seemed pretty sure she was going to die sooner rather than later if she fed the rest of her food to the random wadi-dwelling Hebrew fellow, but she did it anyway. She had no reason to believe his word, but she did what he and God said. In fact, I suspect that obedience might be a means toward getting to a point of trust. If the trust is never proved, how can it manifest? In other words, saying "just trust God" is not particularly helpful to people who are facing real doubts because the world has kicked the crap out of them or their future looks very uncertain. Trust isn't something that you can just flip on and off--it's something you have to practice. So I got to thinking about how to practice trust, and here are three suggestions I came up with. These are just my personal opinions on this matter, but I think there might be something here that a better theologian than I could flesh out more thoroughly.

First, look for the places where God has already demonstrated faithfulness to you. Even if you've had a life full of suffering, there are probably places where God has shown up unexpectedly. Just recently, my husband and I were doing some worrying about money. I have student debt, and we're trying to save to make sure we have money to take care of P's mom if/when she comes to this country. We bought a house in the spring and I'm still a barely-employed student. We manage, but we could be more comfortable. Not two days after another conversation about money, a friend of mine e-mailed me and asked if our little basement apartment would be available for rent, like, yesterday. She was planning to move back to town and needed a cheap place. Oh, hi, God! Thanks! That's been the story of my life. God HAS provided for both of us, maybe not everything we would want, but even in times when my family was really struggling, we always seemed to get by somehow from help from neighbors or whatever. I say this from a relatively privileged position, but weirdly, in my experience, people who have very little are people who praise God most graciously for what they do have, because they know that God is providing spiritually if not physically and God will provide for all our needs in the fullness of God's promised future.

Second, pray. I speak from my own experience here, but I find that Lutherans, and a lot of mainline/intellectual Christians highly under-utilize prayer. I'm not saying that prayer will always get you what you want, but the only way to get something is to ask for it. If you need trust, you can't just will yourself to have it, God needs to give you a way to experience that faithfulness. Some people are not good at praying. I stink at structured prayer time. But I have a friend who I describe as a spiritual powerhouse. When she prays, you can feel it, and I regularly ask this friend of mine to pray for me and my husband because prayer is powerful. It changes the pray-er and the subject of the prayer. Enlist the spiritual powerhouses in your life to pray for you, and pray for yourself. Heck, pray it for others if you don't feel comfortable praying for yourself. I don't really understand prayer, but we are told to ask, seek, and knock, and a relationship of trust is based largely on communication. So talk to God, for heaven's sake!

Finally, whatever you have been asked to trust in, don't just try to will yourself to trust in order to make the move. Do it even though you don't trust yet. Do it not because you are confident but because you are scared shitless but you've been called to it. It doesn't matter what that is. If your issue is worry about money, practice giving even if it's overwhelming. If your issue is insecurity, practice putting yourself in situations that challenge those insecurities. If your issue is fear of change, change things up and watch how God walks with you through the transition. It's only in doing it and seeing that God carried you through that you can really trust. The obedience is what brought Elijah and the widow to a place where they really could trust God and then have the audacity to demand fulfillment from God. Trust is not an easy thing, but it's really important. If we can't trust God on the small things, how on earth can we trust the greater promises for our future?

Friday, November 1, 2013

With Every Act of Love

I've rarely heard a more succinct theological statement about what we're doing when we love others. I'm a huge Jason Gray fangirl because his theology is just so damn great and he uses amazing images (and has a super inspiring personal story to boot). So listen to this song and enjoy!

P.S. Jason, if you happen upon this--you're welcome for the free promotion. Feel free to thank me with free tickets and backstage passes. ;) (I kid, I kid... kind of.)