Surviving Famine

Jeffrey Metcalfe

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1 Kings 17:8-16

Psalm 30

Four dollars a pound.

Four dollars a pound, and you can barely cover your costs.

Four dollars a pound, and still, no one’s buying.

When we are dependent, as a community upon a single industry, four dollars a pound for lobster isn’t just the sign of a difficult season, it is the sign of a famine.

In the days when we gardened, when we raised our own animals, in the days when we produced more then we consumed, having a bad price, not being able to sell off your catch, might make things difficult, but it wouldn’t necessarily make you hungry—it wouldn’t be considered a famine.

Those days are gone.

We are no longer a famine resilient people.

We depend upon a cash economy. We need good prices to produce our heat and our daily bread, and without good prices, the entire island suffers. Fisherman, carpenter, hairdresser, restraunt owner, and priest, all of us are subject to the whims of the market.

And as anyone who has lived through a famine can tell you, the market gives very little consideration to the lives of the people and of communities it governs.

I wish we could chalk this up to some kind of economic screw up, some sort of temporary recession, or market fluke, but the reality is much more stark.

In the long term, four dollars a pound and no one buying, is not just our present, its also our future. The problem with famine in our age is that famines are no longer regional in scale: they are global.

Lobster is a luxury good, a food that rich and middle class people on the mainland buy when they feel like times are good, when they feel secure.

With massive layoffs, with stolen pensions, with diminished job forecasts, with falling housing prices, with the entire economic system of Europe on the verge of collapse, there aren’t a lot of feelings of security going around.

Even at four dollars a pound, who on the mainland would buy a lobster, when they may have to make a choice between paying their rent, or their groceries, between having a place to live, or having something to eat.

Worse yet, is climate change. For every part-per million of carbon we put into the atmosphere by burning oil, we not only increase erosion on the Magdalen Islands, we also raise the acidity of the sea. And, as the sea becomes more acidic, molting shellfish will be unable to harden their shells—killing many of them.

It will no longer matter that no one can afford to buy lobster, there will be no lobster left to buy.

And so, as individuals, and as a community, we have entered a time of famine. And there is no easy way out.

We are no longer a famine resilient people.

At a time like this, it’s easy for us to despair. Like the widow Elijah meets in a land ruined by famine, we look at our children, and we see no future for them here.

And so we go through the motions, picking up our sticks, preparing one more meal while we await the death of our community.

When [Elijah] came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand. “But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

These are the words of a woman beyond hope, a women beyond despair. The severity of the famine has brought her to the end of her rope.

She doesn’t rebuke Elijah for asking her to share the little she has left. She doesn’t laugh or even cry at the request. She simply states the facts: there isn’t much left, and what she has now, is the last of it before the end.

Hear how Elijah responds:

“Do not be afraid”

In a famine, the worst thing any of us can do, is to be afraid. When we find ourselves running out of cash, out of food, and out of luck, fear can take the little that we do have, and turn it into waste.

When we are panicked and afraid, we tend not to make good choices.

When we are panicked and afraid, we tend not to think creatively.

When we are panicked and afraid, we tend not to work together, to help each other.

Elijah calls us first of all, to not be afraid.

And then he calls us to turn our fear, into action:

“go” he says “and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.”

In other words, go, take what you have, and instead of just consuming it yourselves, think creatively, think about how the little you do have could become so much more, if it was shared with others.

Nothing kills more quickly in a famine then individualism, those who survive, survive in and as a community.

And there is more:

For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: when you do this, [when you work together, when you think creatively, and when you share what you have with others] the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.”

Elijah isn’t giving us a suggestion here, but a difficult promise.

Some day, the famine will end. It may not be for months, for years, for decades, but someday it will end.

Working together, as a community, we may not end the famine, but we can survive it.

The good news this morning is that there is a future for our children in this land.

The good news is that we can do more then pick up sticks while we wait for our community to die: we can survive, and we can thrive.

We may not be a famine resilient people now, but if we can pull together as a community like we once did, we can be again.

So go outside, and plant a garden. Raise some chickens, and go hunting in the fall. Can some lobster and some chow. Drop by a neighbour’s, and invite him over for a beer and a BBQ. And when he comes, take out the guitar and the fiddle and play some music. Dance.

Make survival beautiful.

Be the community you want to see.

For by doing so, we will find that the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.

The widow went and did as Elijah said, and she as well as he and her household ate for many days.

Jeffrey Metcalfe is the Incumbent of the Parish of the Magdalen Islands in the Diocese of Quebec. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.

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