A New Community Pt 1: Pull it One More Mile
Updated: Apr 23, 2021
Ross Taylor took a photograph in 1917 that he believed illustrated the "American way of life" and titled it, "Pull it One More Mile.” The photograph depicts a blind horse pulling a heavy cart in an underground mine shaft (most horses that lived in that kind of darkness became blind). For Taylor, and for many others, the photo has served as a source of motivation, a reminder that anyone can succeed if they just keep pushing, just keep trying. If we can search within ourselves and find that inner strength like Eminem describes in ‘Till I Collapse,’ we can overcome any obstacle.
Last year was a devastating mess, and it’s hardly over. I won’t get into the laundry list of situations and crises that need attention and repairing, the aspects of our world that need a miracle. I’m certain many of us can relate to this horse - we’ve been pulling too much weight, navigating our way through the darkness for so long that we can no longer recognize the light. Pull it one more mile? We can’t even pull it one more step.
In the Bible, the author of the book of Kings describes a story of a widowed woman who amidst a terrible drought, struggles to survive. I’m not sure why, but I usually picture widows in the Bible as a little old woman hunched over a cane carrying butterscotch candies in their purses. When in reality, men died young in their context. This widow could have been quite young, even in her 20’s, vivacious and daring. But, without a husband to provide for her, she had very little resources and most likely lacked community support. Devoid of privilege and honor, she wasn’t waiting around for people to flock to her aid or expecting any fancy dinner invitations. In an honor-based society largely sustained by unspoken rules of reciprocity, why would anyone help a widow who couldn’t return the favour? When the drought fell upon the land, her situation turned from difficult to bleak. The story takes place in an agrarian context, meaning if there is no water, there is no food. Day after day she gets up, curses the sky, forces a smile on her face for her son while trying to bury her fear and despair - she knows she can’t keep her son or herself alive much longer.
Around the same time, God had been caring for the basic needs of the prophet (or spokesperson for God), Elijah. God led Elijah to a brook for drinking water, and sent him ravens who brought him bread and meat twice a day. (I can only hope that one day God will make food appear out of thin air for me). Eventually, the brook dries up. Remember, there's a drought, which means no rain and no water. At that point, God instructs Elijah to go find the widow - not a king, not someone with wealth or status, but the widow.
When he finds her (remember she's a total stranger), he asks her, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” (1 Kings 17:10b) I can almost hear the hesitation in his voice - asking for water is like asking for toilet paper during a pandemic. Following his request, the text reads, “As she was going to get it, he called, ‘And bring me, please, a piece of bread.’” (v. 11)
Notice how he waits until she walks away to ask for more. Was he uncomfortable, afraid of rejection, or worried that he was asking too much? Maybe he started to think that she needed the food more than he did. The widow responds and assures him that she doesn’t have any bread, she only has a handful of flour and a little olive oil in a jug that she planned to use to make a final meal for her and her son before they die. Elijah’s ask now carries even more weight - in the middle of a long drought, Elijah is asking a widow, a total stranger for her and her son’s last meal.
We might resonate with Elijah’s hesitancy as we imagine how uncomfortable the situation is. In modern Western culture, where we idolize and celebrate self-sufficiency, the thought of depending on others might terrify us. In fact, it causes so much discomfort we (as a society) often turn a blind eye to people who remind us of how insecure life truly is - sometimes we can’t even make eye contact with people who have immediate needs. Those of us who have learned to be independent know how vulnerable it can be to rely on others, how uncomfortable it is, how small one can feel. We know how much energy we have to muster up to convince ourselves that we aren’t a failure or burdening the other person. We know how small insignificant things can feel heavy and overwhelming once it involves the help of another. We love relishing in the lie that we convince ourselves to be true: that we ‘made it’ on our own. Asking for the widow’s help reveals Elijah’s confidence in God, his humility, self-leadership, and deep trust in self and in her.
Elijah doesn’t let the widow leave, he tells her not to be afraid, and to make him a small loaf of bread before she makes something for her and her son. This is what God has said, he tells her, “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.” (v. 14b)
The widow, not paralyzed by anxiety or overly concerned about her needs, trusts Elijah’s (again, a stranger to her) words and trusts God. She does what Elijah said, and the food lasted. There was food every day for all three of them.
Where is the miracle in this story? The small amount of flour and oil lasted and continued to feed three people - that’s impressive. God also made food appear out of thin air, and I don’t know anyone who can do that. But, I find other details more remarkable - the incredible amount of trust, vulnerability, and generosity between two strangers. Elijah trusted God enough to ask a stranger for help and was vulnerable enough to receive it. And the widow was willing to trust God and Elijah with everything she had left, even her last meal.
While praying for a miracle and waiting on God to dramatically intervene, we can miss how the Spirit invites us into a radical community of interlocking needs and assets. Something remarkable, one might even say transcendent happens when we acknowledge our need and welcome others into it. It’s when we embrace our humanity and meet others in theirs that we become conduits for the divine; when we ask for help and graciously receive what others have to give, we access the abundance that God has promised and entrusted us with.
More than once, I’ve stood in the way of a miracle. More than once, I’ve cried out to God in unbearable darkness, indignant and angry that he wouldn’t take away my pain or fix my situation. When I look back at those moments, I can almost hear God’s voice crying out back to me - “Grace! I am trying to do something, but you won’t ask anyone for help. Why do you keep suffering in silence?”
In the same way, I can’t help but wonder how many miracles pass us by because we give too little - we give out of our excess because we’re too afraid of being in need, of sacrificing our comfort and enjoyment. In The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Alan Kreider describes how the early church responded to people who were hungry and in need: they would fast for days and give away the food they would have otherwise eaten (pg. 142).
No matter how small the need is, asking for help can feel like asking a widow for her last meal during a drought. We find it far too easy to pretend we can survive on our own, when we truly cannot. My Canadian friends understand this better than Americans, and maybe that is because Canadians know what it’s like to shovel snow alone. As soon as our car breaks down, we need to pack up our house and move, or we have something stuck in our teeth, we realize how interdependent we are.
Sometimes, trusting God looks like trusting people. Receiving provision from God often requires a shift in perspective; the ability to see your need not as a burden, but as a gift or opportunity for someone else to participate in a miracle. We limit the miraculous work God can do through his people when we suffer silently. I stood in the way of a miracle because I wouldn’t ask for help; because I took pride in my own ability to endure it, only to find myself crashing face first into my pillow weeping and wailing that everything was too much. I was too afraid to trust that someone might respond with practical help. At one point in history, the creative power of God worked miracles through Jesus (in the church, we refer to this as incarnation), and he continues to work through people who are willing.
This is not the time to pull it one more mile. This is the time to be vulnerable, to give sacrificially, and to journey through the dark together.
If you’re a praying person, continue to pray for a miracle. More importantly, consider praying for the perspective to see where God might already be inviting you into one, the courage to acknowledge and voice your need, and even the willingness to give your last meal.