There is a lot to be said for the ‘Presbyterian work ethic’ or ‘Protestant work ethic’ as it is also called. A sense of hard work and conscientiousness within Christianity was as much at the core of my upbringing as Bible stories and prayers each evening, translated very efficiently by my grandmother into a weekly list of chores which her grandchildren would subscribe to unquestioningly. My allotted chore was cleaning the kitchen floor and scrubbing the steps at the front door, all under the watchful and somewhat critical eye of a woman who had raised her only son (my father) single-handedly through huge adversity and poverty. That same woman was to now turn her attention to raising her four young grandchildren who had lost they mother too young.
My grandmother often jokingly teased that I was the ‘dreamer’ and my sister was the ‘hard working one’. Maybe she was right. I was the thinker, the introvert, the reluctant floor cleaner. My grandmother loved deeply and worked so very hard, but she didn’t understand the limits, nor the dangers of the ‘Protestant work ethic’.
It’s fair to say that I lived and breathed this same ethic for most of my life, till it finally stopped ‘working’ for me. Burnout is debilitating and life changing, but among the good things in life since then is that God has been teaching this rather independent minded, goal setting, ‘Presbyterian’ about interdependence. Letting others minister to me; allowing people to peep into the closed space of my thinking; realising that God’s provision often comes from or through others – and that perhaps God even had this in mind!
As many of you will know who follow this blog, I am steadily reading and thinking my way through the book of I Kings in the Bible. It’s not what I would call an ‘easy read’ – grim in places, somewhat repetitive (why did so many of those Kings get it all so wrong) and certainly not a lyrical narrative, but it was a joy to come across the story of Elijah the prophet, and how God provides for him in a national drought through wildlife (ravens), then later through an unknown widow woman. The story is simple, beautifully so. No complicated plot, just the raw details of an incident which describes God inspired interdependence between people rather well.
The story of Elijah and the widow woman could have been written for a young audience. The meaning of the story is as explicit as the words on the page. I really don’t think that social interaction among individuals was any less complicated then than it is now, it’s just that (as is the case with much of the book of 1 Kings) the communication between God and people in these Old Testament stories is almost deliberately exaggerated for emphasis. We read about a God who answers questions freely, frequently, promptly and elaborately. God isn’t present in the sub-plot, He is the main character! If the reader is at all familiar with Scripture, he/she will have been able to predict the ending. God always keeps His promises. He is good. He provides faithfully for our needs.
As I read Scripture, slowly and thoughtfully, God is laying down a ‘template’ of who He is and how he will act in the ‘story’ of my life. This ‘template’ is my tangible evidence of God. These stories are God’s conversation with me and about me. Faith is when I begin to map my experiences deliberately onto this template and believe that God will keep His promises to me as He did for Elijah and for so many other biblical characters in different ways, even when my story seems (to me at least) a whole lot more complicated and I don’t have God showing up at frequent intervals with personal advice.
If I had been in Elijah’s position, I think I could have handled being fed by ravens easier than being asked by God to persuade a poor widow woman and her son to part with half their last meal on my behalf. But this is exactly the story. Elijah learns humility, the widow learns trust. Elijah can only offer God’s promises, she offers a physical sacrifice of food. Both are blessed with daily bread.
For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’”
I Kings 17,14
Before long, Elijah is able to repay the woman, when her son becomes seriously ill, and Elijah intercedes to God on his behalf for healing. God’s economy is indeed one of mutual interdependence with others, giving and receiving, cycles of grace.
Like many, I find giving easier than receiving, but God is teaching me that I need to do both. I need a different work ethic, one which works from a position of God’s provision, a healthy and wholesome interdependence on God and God’s people.