Overton park sings a tune

Verdant canopy
towering trees
singing birds
cool breeze
this forest sings a tune
to her king
awake o earth
arise you creatures
make a glad song
to your maker

What a widow's olive oil has to say to us today

There was a widow once who ran up to Elisha the prophet and laid out her story: "My husband is dead. He was a Godly man who worshiped Yahweh. But he was in debt and his creditors have come and threaten to throw my two boys into the labor camp." 

How does the prophet respond? What does a man of God do in this situation? 

Does he condemn the woman for being in debt? Does he write her a check? Does he invite her to the sanctuary for prayer?

"How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?" he asks.

Hmmm. Not the response I'd expect. Funny timing on this passage from 1 Kings 4:1-7 because in the past two weeks since arriving in Memphis I've had several men come up to me to ask for help and for money. I've been caught off guard after living the past four years within the world of campus ministry. But I suppose I had this happen in that context, too. Maybe it was, "I just failed my exam. My mom is not listening to me. I feel so alone. Help!" But, here in Memphis, I've had people approach me with tangible needs and I am sad to say I've felt full, no room for compassion. My knee jerk response is not compassion and mercy, but rather, "not now." 

So at work today when we opened this story from the pages of God's Word, I recognized the helpful timing of this story. 

Elisha genuinely wants to know how he can help, but he doesn't help in the way we'd expect. He first wants to know what the woman already has. It's a response which affirms her dignity as a woman made in the image of God. She is not a sorry charity case. She is a woman with faith, with poverty of spirit, with something already in her hands which God can use. 

"A small jar of olive oil."

Okay, God can work with this, Elisha thinks. He commissions the widow to turn around and go to all of her neighbors and ask for help: "Please, do you have any extra empty jars I could have?"

Wow, that's vulnerable. Go to my neighbors? Ask for help? Well, God's man told me to do it, and by golly, I've got nothing to lose! 

There's part of my problem. I have so much to lose, or so I think. I don't want to look undignified. I don't want to lose my time. I don't want to get used. Lord, help me. It's so much easier to feign ignorance, incapacity or to just fork over some change. 

So, the woman obeys. She collects jars. Her dearth of olive oil transforms to an abundance. 

Of course, Elisha is not the hero and neither is the widow. It's the God of Elisha and the God of the widow. The God who always has enough to go around, especially for a widow of faith who doesn't want to fall under the tyranny of injustice which threatens her sons freedom, her own well-being and the last shred of her dignity.

But, we can learn from Elisha and from the widow. Stay calm, focused, remembering that we worship a God who wants to act on behalf of widows. Don't be too quick to offer a casual handout of charity. Remember that God can involve the recipient of our "help" to use what they already have. He'll take it and multiply it. 

The Unexpected Neighbor

Knock. Knock. There stood my neighbor, dressed in his starch white Naval uniform. He had just completed his duties at a military funeral and returned earlier than usual. He didn't have a key to his house, which actually isn't his house. He and his wife and children are staying with in-laws for the time being. They just had their fifth baby and are in a time of need. His wife had the key and wasn't home yet, so he kindly asked if he could sit down and wait until she returned home in a few minutes. Of course, of course. Do you want anything to drink? Have a seat, have a seat. We began to converse and learned more about our neighbor. We learned that he has worked 300 funerals in a short period of time, in order to earn extra money to support his family, each funeral an optional opportunity for a reservist. He shared his history in the Navy and the current economic pressures he feels as he waits to see if he will be granted an extension to finish out his career in the reserves. If he is not, he will be forced to find another job, another job he confesses which he knows will pay very little. He shared about his concerns for future generations and the moral decline which is so pervasive everywhere he looks. He courageously asks if we will pray for him that he would be granted the extension so that he can finish out his career in the military and will be able to retire. He knows that any other job, with his age and level of education, will not allow him to provide for his family - especially a family which just introduced another newborn into the world. I am struck by his humble plea for prayer. This aging father, who has served in multiple war zones came to us and asked boldly for prayer believing that God would hear our prayer. He offered his hands and we joined ours to his as we stood in our living room, praying. He exited our home to greet his wife. I know that it was a privilege to be able to pray for this man, to stand beside my brother in his time of need.

What's this? What's this?

Have you seen Nightmare Before Christmas? Like a bear waking from his winter cave, the song "What's this?" stirred and stretched and sauntered out of my memory yesterday. Looking around at my new environment - new house, new neighbors, new city, new community, new colors, sights and sounds - my heart began to stir with a wonder and excitement I haven't felt for some time. I suppose all of this newness awakened the song, somewhat appropriately for this occasion as I look around at this place I now call home.

Unlike the "Christmas town" which Jack discovers where people are singing and throwing snowballs in the expectant dawn of Christmas, I am in Memphis, Tennessee. Certainly no snow here. But my eyes and ears are thirsty as they drink deeply from my new surroundings. My heart, too. I've been tired and restless of late and this move seems to be stirring me from a slumber. No, moving is not a quick fix. Our hearts are much more complicated than that. But I'm learning that sometimes you do need change. Not change for change sake, but change which turns on the hinges of something more solid and enduring. Something like a bigger vision of living life under the good and loving reign of Jesus Christ. His holy love transcends my undulating obedience and temperamental devotion. Thankfully, as I enter into this season of change, I can trust that he is bigger than the possible failures or fickleness which may be incipient in this change. I cling to the hope of his transforming grace which calls me out of the suffocating fears which threaten to numb and deaden me.

My prayer is that this "What's this?" perspective will not just be a temporary gust in my sails, but a threshold by which I cross over into a new way of living in the kingdom. May wonder and awe at my Father Creator grow within my soul like a spring ivy. May I think less about my changes and my perspective and more about what Jesus is doing around me.

Speaking of what he's doing around me, I look forward to sharing a brief story about a neighbor in my next post.