I still remember the first time I heard the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, when I was about three years old. I was in the den of the parsonage where we lived, the house provided by the Baptist church my father pastored, and my father read the story to me. I heard that they were preparing their last meal, and gathering sticks, and I thought they were going to eat the sticks – that's how my three-year-old brain worked. My father was not amused.
It's a very odd story on a number of levels. First, Zarephath, in Sidon, was not part of Israel, so it was strange that God sent Elijah not to an Israelite household, but to one outside of Israel, to live until God lifted the drought they were experiencing. Second, she was obviously very poor, since she was preparing what she thought would be her last meal for herself and her son. Why would God not send Elijah to a wealthy benefactor? If you read the stories of Elisha, his successor – and they are some of the most entertaining stories in the Bible! – he had wealthy benefactors. And then there was the way the miracle went down – there was never much meal or oil, yet they never ran out, and there was always enough to eat, until the drought was over, and the rain came again.
In our modern-day culture, we are taught to plan ahead. Days, weeks, months, years, and – in the case of retirement planning – decades. You've probably heard the saying "To fail to plan is to plan to fail." And that advice has much merit in the secular world.
But it is not so with our spiritual lives, as much as we may want it to be.
Instead, God provides us with what we need, when we need it. Not what we will need for the next 30 years. What we will need for today.
Which can be frustrating. Our spiritual journey is not mapped out for us – it is something that we must make our way forward on each day, only going where God leads us. When the Israelites were in the desert, the pillar of cloud (by day – pillar of fire by night) would rest on the tabernacle – they would only leave and move forward when it raised up and led them. They did not know from day to day when this would happen, or where they would go next – not even Moses, Aaron, or Miriam. Similarly, they were fed with manna – and they could only gather one day's supply at a time – it would go bad otherwise (except on the day before the Sabbath, when they were to gather for two days).
Similarly, Elijah, the widow, and her son were given what they needed each day. I'm sure the widow found it nerve-wracking at the end of preparing each meal, wondering if the miracle would continue. But it did.
We are given the spiritual sustenance we need each day – through scripture, through the Eucharist, through prayer, through our fellow human beings. We may want more, but we are called to sustain ourselves with what God gives us each day, and do the tasks God sets before us, not worrying about tomorrow.
With our finances, yes – we should plan for the future. And in our career. But in our spiritual lives, let us find the courage to trust that God will provide, and that the meal and the oil will not run out, but will continue to feed us until God sends the rain.