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October 1, 2020

The Pan

Okay, I’ll admit it. I like shopping.
6 min read

Okay, I’ll admit it. I like shopping. Not the kind you do at grocery or big box stores. That’s a chore. I like going to smaller, home-centered places where you can find a really cool lamp or a killer pair of shoes—all at a bargain price.

I’ve learned, as I push my mini-cart around, to exercise balance as I take my retail break. Low prices don’t justify me buying a staggering heap of stuff that I do not need. But if I see something I will actually use, I should snatch it up because it will not be there the next day. Merchandise turns over quickly in little outlets like these.

Case in point: a couple of months ago I was looking for frying pans to replace the aging pair in my kitchen. After winding my way around the footwear, sleepwear, and cosmetic sections, I got down to business and found two pans I really liked. The only problem was that one of them had a single handle, and the other had two side grips. I had really wanted a matching set to lay out on my table. After circling the aisles like a dazed goldfish in a bowl, I finally admitted defeat and bought the mismatched items. I told myself I’d check the same store one town over to see if it carried the pan I wanted. (Like I have time for these things. I can be really fussy about my cookware.) It didn’t.

Life marched on through the summer. Our family began an intensive, in-home therapy program for my 8-year-old autistic son. It involved two hours of behavioral work with him every morning, five days a week. It was a grueling way to start the day, but totally necessary. Besides experiencing disrupted sleep, my son was having intense meltdowns during waking hours that needed to be brought under control. All the services, routines, and activities that the pandemic had stolen from my near non-verbal boy were taking their toll. Honestly, I am amazed he coped as well as he did, as his life was wholly disassembled without any explanation he could grasp.

Not surprisingly, I was having a hard time too. Having my son at home more meant having less time to write. Also, my routine of prayer and spiritual study in the morning fell apart. (I did not rebuild it elsewhere.) On weekends, we were no longer able to attend church as a family because my son couldn’t sit through the socially-distanced services and his Sunday school had shut down. Deprived of these staples of my own existence, I felt myself quietly drifting away from God. Even as I grew increasingly numb to his presence, I could not summon enough energy—or emotion—to care.

With one exception.

Anger. I always had the wherewithal to be angry at God.

Even as I watched the evening news report horrors from which I was spared, I got angry.

Even as I watched friends struggle—physically­, emotionally, financially—while I remained insulated from their battles, I got angry.

As my son’s sleeplessness greatly improved with professional help, I got angry.

As friends and family emailed me words of wisdom and support, I got angry.

And, most of all, when a fellow believer gave glory or thanks to God in their speech, I got angry. Even if they were rejoicing over something I had specifically prayed about.

Rather than trying to psychoanalyze what’s been going on, I find myself turning to a woman in the Scriptures who strikes me as being quite justified in her anger, while I am not.

She is a widow living in abject poverty, whom God commands the prophet Elijah to visit. When he first encounters her, she is gathering firewood, minding her own business while her homeland suffers drought. Elijah has been informed by God that she is, all appearances to the contrary, someone who will help sustain him in the days to come. But she doesn’t know that.

The prophet asks her for a cup of water. As she goes to get it, Elijah ups the ante with: “And while you’re at it, could you bring me some bread too?” (1 Ki 17:11)

In my mind’s eye, I see her stopping, taking a self-regulating breath, and looking Elijah squarely in the face. Is this guy for real? Do I look like I have anything to spare?

Then she lets Elijah have it. Pulls the bowstring back on all her fury and lets it fly:

As the Lord your God lives, I have no bread, only a handful of flour in the bowl and a little oil in the jar; and behold, I am gathering a few sticks that I may go in and prepare for me and my son, that we may eat it and die. (17:12, NASB)

If it were me standing in the place of Elijah, I’d be saying: So sorry, wrong number. Backing away now. I’ll leave you to it. Because I abhor pressing into people’s pain without permission. Catching them off guard while I knock on their door, blithely assuming that I can somehow help them with my own life experiences or the vague input I think God has supplied.

But Elijah is no wuss. He ups the ante even further by acknowledging her destitution but insisting on his instructions nonetheless. Even more astounding, Elijah’s directions hinge upon his own needs being met first. Only after she satisfies the prophet’s hunger does the widow have permission to feed her son and herself:

Do not fear; go, do as you have said, but make me a little bread cake from it first, and bring it out to me, and afterward you may make one for yourself and for your son.

For thus says the Lord God of Israel, “The bowl of flour shall not be exhausted, nor shall the jar of oil be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain on the face of the earth.”

So she went and did according to the word of Elijah, and she and he and her household ate for many days. (17:13-15, NASB)

And so a miracle happens. And happens. And happens. Every day, a household of people eats their fill, ounce by impossible ounce. And I have to wonder, whether the obedient widow who so pointedly calls God “the Lord your God” when she first meets Elijah switches to “my God,” over time. Perhaps. All I know is that when we are in a tough place needing to make a huge transition, it often has to occur in bits and pieces, so that we are able to digest the truth God sets before us.

Remember, when Elijah directs the widow to feed him first, he requests only a small cake of bread. That seems significant, as if he knew the challenge of what he was asking her to do while her picture of God remained grim.

Speaking of pictures, my own image of God winked on and off like faulty Christmas lights, positive and negative, as the summer ground on. And then, a couple of weeks ago, while I was gathering sticks at my home décor store, a quiet marvel happened. As I shopped for shoes for my son, I came across a two-handled pan, sitting on a lower shelf, the only one of its kind. It matched the pan I had bought weeks earlier, fully believing I would never find its twin.

In my mind, I heard a voice say: I am not a withholder.

And because I had discovered a treasure as sacred and as silly as a pan, my heart said, Yes, Lord. Yes.

And then I began to understand that anger can sometimes take root when it seems like good is being withheld from you, however slightly, however subtly. The longer this sense of deprivation lingers, the more bitter and entrenched the anger becomes. Harder to see, much less root out.

When I was in college, I once called home to ask for an extra $30 to go on a retreat sponsored by a campus ministry in which I was active. My father took the call. As I have explained in earlier writings, he was as deeply religious a man as he was mentally disturbed, insisting on a strict code of conduct even as he flew into fits of uncontrolled rage. Apparently, I had caught him in a bad moment, because he flatly denied me the money and dressed me down for even asking. I will never forget how dirty the verbal exchange left me feeling, and how I vowed never to take money from him again if I could help it.

I think the thing that burned the most was that my father was a wealthy man, having spent many years working in finance. He could have so easily granted my request, but instead relished the experience of denying it to me. Growing up, there were too many incidents like this one—my father withholding what I needed as his child. Either because he couldn’t see what was going on, or because he chose to eat his bread first. To satisfy the angry fire within him that never really went out until he died some years ago.

Maybe I’ve been that widow over the summer, the one who feels she doesn’t have nearly enough to provide for her son. Maybe I’ve grown tired of going over the same ground, again and again, gathering the meager sticks that I can. Maybe I’ve let certain suspicions about God creep in, like snakes drawing near to a campfire. Maybe it’s time to chase them away. I may be tired and depleted, but I can still ask for prayer. For the snakes to flee and the oil and flour to flow.

Will you join me? I think it’ll be easier if I help you obey those seemingly obnoxious commands that are key to your breakthrough. You can do the same for me. Together we will give of what precious little we have, believing that we, and those whom we love, will be saved.