The story of stone soup (below).
Stone soup has been on my mind this January. I remember as a child reading a book where a few weary soldiers heading home from a war stop in a village. I guess they were short on money in the story, because they ask the people in the village to give them some food. All the villagers refuse. The hungry soldiers eventually come up with a plan. They find a large cauldron and start putting stones in it. As the villagers come by, they ask the soldiers, “What are you doing?”
The soldiers answer, “We’re making stone soup. Want to help?” Then they explain that they’re making a soup out of stones, but really you can put anything you want in stone soup. One villager says, “Oh, I have a few carrots. We could put that in!” Another says “Wait, I have a turnip!” Soon, the villagers, caught up in the idea, bring more and more things to put in the pot. Eventually, they have a huge pot of delicious soup, made of all the things the villagers put in. Everyone enjoys it together.
I’ve always thought this was a story invented by a children’s author, but apparently it’s actually a folktale told in a number of cultures, and there are a vast number of children’s picture books based on it. I don’t think I’ve found the one I read as a child yet, but it seems appropriate that this particular story has inspired many books, a folk music group, and a magazine of creative writing by children. Now that I know it’s a folktale, it’s easy to believe that it’s a story lots of people have identified with in lots of times and places.
I’m wondering if many academics identify with it too, maybe especially with the weary travellers at the beginning of the story. Sometimes the academic life can feel defined by scarcity. Maybe you’re in graduate school, and you’re wondering when you’ll have more influence, more time, or more financial resources. Maybe you’re on the job market, and you’re thinking about the scarcity of tenure track jobs in your field. Maybe you have more adjunct jobs than you want, but a resulting scarcity of time to write your next journal article. Perhaps you have tenure, but wonder how you’ll have enough energy left over after your workday to support friends or family or fellow church members.
Stone soup is a great reminder that a little ingenuity, creativity, and cooperation can go a long way toward making scarcity into plenty. Side note: An ESN writer who is in the social sciences recently told me with a twinkle in his eye that Stone Soup isn’t actually addressing a problem of scarcity. The people in the story have the resources, but don’t want to use them, so it’s actually a problem of collective action. I’m sure he’s right, but I study storytelling, so with a twinkle in my own eye I’m indulging in a little poetic license.
When the travellers show some creativity, the village is able to respond with enthusiasm and generosity they failed to muster before. The resulting collaboration produces a nourishing meal, and potentially the beginnings of a community. That’s a story that would seem to have plenty of application in academic life, where a course can be made profoundly richer by the generous participation of students, or a research project that would be impossible alone can be successful in collaboration, or one creative idea can inspire a host of creative responses from colleagues and students.
But there’s an even better epiphany that I can point to. If the ingenuity and creativity applied in a situation are God’s, the results are even more amazing. And if He in His endless grace invites us to cooperate with Him, who knows what is possible?
Unlike the soldiers in Stone Soup, God doesn’t need to make much out of little. He can make bread from stones on His own if He wants. He made the cosmos out of nothing, so He’s hardly in need of collaborators. Yet again and again in Scripture, God does two things: He makes much out of little, and He invites us to join Him in doing it.
In fact, God seems to love working with scarce resources or unlikely candidates. He chooses Gideon, hiding in the winepress for fear, to lead an army. He picks a motley crew of fishermen and tax collectors and political dissidents and women, likely doubted by the society around them, to start the Church. Where most people would look at a handful of flour and a bit of oil and say, “Why bother?” He makes a way to sustain a household for months on end.
That’s the God we follow, and the Kingdom He calls us to. This year, let’s ask Him to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think. Let’s collaborate with Him, because He’s invited us to. And let’s celebrate abundantly at the feast He spreads for us, and welcome all the travellers we can find.
Where do I see scarcity in my life or academic vocation right now? How can I ask God to transform it, and trust Him to do so?
Where do I see God unexpectedly giving me abundance right now? How can I thank Him more meaningfully?
Oh Lord, You really can do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power of Christ at work within us. We ask that You would spread a table for those who hunger, and that we would heed your invitation to serve with You. We ask that we would celebrate the richness of Your feast, and that we would honor You the Giver. Now to You be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.