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Barbara Brown Taylor, a most perceptive theologian and a wonderfully talented preacher, in her column in the current issue of Christian Century,(1) likens the change to that which often accompanies a serious illness or injury. She writes,
All of a sudden, someone who ran a small business (or a large household) cannot walk to the bathroom unassisted. Sitting upright in a chair for two hours becomes a full day's work, and tomorrow's goal includes eating solid food. The simplest mechanics of staying alive require heroic effort. Without all kinds of help, no one could survive.Barbara continues her musing as she widens the view of her philosophical lens:
On September 11, thousands of Americans died violent deaths, while millions of others were scared to death. In the weeks since then, we have seen some awful things. We have also seen some remarkable ones - true heroes at Ground Zero, interfaith alliances across the land, lawyers' associations declining lawsuits, Hollywood producers yanking blockbuster films - in short, an entire country engaged in a revolution of values.Interesting thinking. With that in mind, I have a story for you this morning. It is based on one written years ago by Leo Tolstoy. This too is about a revolution of values. It is called "Elijah and Orpah."(2)
In the state of Wyoming there was a man by the name of Elijah who farmed with his father. Shortly after Elijah married, his father died, leaving him a modest amount of land and cattle. Elijah was a good manager and a hard worker. With the help of his wife, Orpah, Elijah was able to increase the amount of land he owned and the size of his herd until he had more than anyone in the entire county.
Elijah developed a reputation for hosting large parties. People came from long distances just to say that they had been at the home of Elijah. He was famous for serving western style barbecue as well as the finest fancy dishes. No matter how many people came, there was always plenty for all.
Orpah and Elijah had two sons and a daughter. While the family was poor, the sons worked diligently in the fields with their father. When they became wealthy, the young men became headstrong and cultivated dangerous and expensive habits. One developed a serious drinking problem, and the other was killed in a brawl. The oldest, the drinker, had an unhappy marriage and often beat his wife. One day his father made a cash settlement with him, and the two parted company.
Shortly after the departure of his son, problems arose. In the spring the cattle were struck with a curious ailment, and most of them died or had to be killed. Most of his cash crop was lost during the worst drought they had experienced in decades. During the fall robbers stole all of his prize horses. Suddenly, with most of his livestock gone, and his cash crop decimated, Elijah was forced to sell everything he owned. All that remained was an old junk car and enough personal items to furnish a small house.
By this time they had lost contact with their son, and their only daughter had died. Elijah and Orpah were too proud to apply for welfare. They were in their early 70's.
A neighbor who admired the couple visited them one day and invited them to live with him. "Elijah, there is always plenty of machinery that needs fixing, and you are still an excellent mechanic. You need not do the heavy work. Orpah, you can help feed chickens and be in charge of my large garden in the summer. I will provide you with a simple cottage and ample food to meet your needs."
Elijah and Orpah thanked their neighbor and began immediately to live and work as hired laborers. At first the work was hard, but they soon adapted. The landlord was pleased for they knew what needed to be done and worked without prodding.
One day guests arrived at the ranch of the landlord. Elijah was asked to supervise the slaughter of a young calf, and Orpah to be in charge of the barbecue. The guests were gathered under a large tent top to shade them from the hot Wyoming sun. As they ate and drank, Elijah, just finished with his work, passed by in the distance, on the way to his cottage.
"Do you see that man?" the owner asked the group. "He was once the richest man in this section of Wyoming. Perhaps you've heard of him. His name is Elijah."
"Of course I have heard of him," said one of the guests. "I have never met him, but his reputation has reached far beyond the county."
"Today he is penniless," the owner said. "He lives with me as a laborer."
"Life is like a ferris wheel," one of the guests said, "lifting some people up, and dropping others down. Tell me, is the old man sad?"
"He does not appear sad. He lives quietly with his wife and is a very hard worker."
"Could we speak to him?" another guest asked. "It would be interesting to learn about his life."
"I will call him, but be careful. He is a proud man." Walking a few paces toward the cottage, the owner shouted, "Elijah, bring Orpah and join us for a drink!"
Soon Elijah and Orpah came. They greeted the guests quietly. He stood on the edge of the circle of men, and she found her way to where the women gathered.
"Tell me, sir," one of the guests began, "is it hard for you to look at us enjoying ourselves? Does your present life pain you?"
Elijah smiled. "Ask my wife. She is the speaker of the family concerning these matters."
Directing his words at the woman, the guest spoke in a loud and brazen voice, "Can you speak of your former happiness and your present misery?"
Orpah remained sitting and answered calmly, "For 50 years the old man and I lived, seeking happiness and never finding it. Now, in our second year here, when we have nothing left, and we live as hired laborers, we have found true happiness. We need nothing more."
The guests all stopped speaking and turned their attention to the old woman who now stood straight and tall. She smiled at her husband and spoke again. I speak the truth. We sought happiness for half a century and while we were rich we never found it. Now that we are poor we are content.
"What makes you happy now?" one of the women asked.
"When we had land and cattle the old man and I never knew a moment's peace. We had no time to talk to think about our faith or to pray to God. We had so many worries--how shall we serve the guests, what will people think, will the hired men cheat us? We did not sleep well at night for fear that animals would attack the new calves or robbers would steal the prize horses. We argued over finances and that is a sin. I thought we should invest one way and he preferred another."
"Now the old man and I wake in the morning and talk to each other with love and respect. We have nothing to quarrel about, nothing to worry about. Our only concern is to serve the owner well. There is time to talk, to listen, and to pray to God. After 50 years of looking for happiness we have found it."
The guests began to turn away from Orpah and snicker but Elijah broke in. "Do not laugh, dear friends. My wife and I used to be foolish and we cried at losing our wealth. God has disclosed a new truth to us and we share this with you for your own good."
One of the guests broke the long silence and spoke quietly to the old couple. "What you say is simple biblical wisdom. To many people it appeared that you lost the whole world, but actually you have gained your souls."
1. Barbara Brown Taylor, "Back to Normal," Christian Century, November 7, 2001, p. 26
2. William R. White, ed., Stories for Telling, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), pp. 103-106