Women of the Gospels: “Martha, Martha” by D.L. Mayfield

'[ B ] Pieter de Bloot - Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1637)' photo (c) 2012, Playing Futures:  Applied Nomadology - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Today we continue our Women of the Gospels series with a guest post from an incredibly talented writer I only recently discovered. D.L. Mayfield—who blogs here and contributes to Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency (read this one!) and Deeper Story—writes about her adventures in following Jesus with consistent wit, vulnerability, color, and grace. Along with her cute husband and cute baby, she is currently on an experiment of downward mobility, seeking the mercy of God and grace in the community. She is learning to be more gracious with her thanks, even when she is served goat liver. Follow her on Twitter here.

Today she takes on Mary’s sister Martha. Enjoy!

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As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
- Luke 10:38-42

Transient

When I was young, I was quiet, introverted, longing to be alone. I had two wild, fierce sisters who overshadowed me in every area: artistic abilities, physical strength, social graces. I found my identity in being quiet, unseen, deeply spiritual. I read books, immersed myself in worlds of fantasy, daydreamed. I prayed to Jesus, all the time.

In college, I came out of my shell in a burst, all the books and travels and thoughts I had spilling out  in paragraphs, full of more certainty and emotion than I was even aware of.

After college, my ideas turned into practice, and life marched on in a series of how to be the best possible Christian, with a social justice flair (eschew money, buy fair trade, advocate for social justice causes, create programs for the needy in my neighborhood). As I started to find my identity in these ways of living, I discovered a hidden truth: it feels awesome to live a righteous life on paper. Living in low-income housing, teaching free literacy classes to refugees, setting up basketball camps for bored inner-city kids: all of it had a few costs for me personally, sure, but the holy buzz of pats on the back from friends and church people, and the feeling that I was the only person really getting what Jesus was saying--this more than made up for doing without. 

This is sustaining, for a while. We can all be clanging gongs, marching around doing the work of the kingdom without grace, living for a very temporal affirming reaction. But eventually, the accolades go away, the people you were intending to save dismiss you, the volunteers you mobilized drop out, and you find yourself, alone, in the kitchen, cooking a meal for Jesus that tastes like ash in your mouth.

Oh Martha, I became you, when I thought I was being Mary all along. I imagine you, imagine myself, exerting our savior complexes on the one and only actual Christ. It would almost be laughable, if it weren’t all so tragic.

I know what happened Martha, because it happened to me too. I see your desire to single-handedly fix all the problems (feeding the disciples, cleaning the sheets, acquiring health permits, doing volunteer background checks), your deep-down desire to do good. How this desire, left on its own, morphed into a series of programs and activities that ultimately kept you from Jesus. I see how we got confused about it all, and took the easy route of fixing problems instead of becoming engaged with the lives of those around us. How we found our safety and security in doing, and eventually became brittle with the loneliness of trying to become the savior, instead of listening to him.

I do find comfort in this: Jesus doesn’t shame you. He calls you by name, twice (“Martha, Martha”, the first time cutting through your heart, the second time healing it). He gets to the root of all your existential angst, and he shows that there is no need for the amount of space you carve out for anxiety, worry, righteous indignation. 

Instead, paradoxically, it turns out we find Jesus when we sit down, when we fall at his feet and listen. This is, he says, the very best thing, and it can’t be taken away from us unless we do it ourselves. The busyness of the savior complex, our quick-response culture, even our desire to do good with the limited amount of time that we have--can take Jesus, his love and his grace,  away from us. But he wants us, Martha, and he likes us even when we aren’t saving anyone. We are just his children, the ones he knows by name, and he wants to be with us.

We also find him when we sit with others. When we stop being “missional” and “incarnational” and instead fully engage with those around us. This means less programs, Martha, and more time letting people cook for you every once in a while (and being gracious with your thanks). If you are anything like me, this will be very hard for you. Your life won’t look good on paper any more, you won’t have very many concrete jewels in your proverbial crown to grasp. But I can promise you this: when you stop trying to fix everything, and when you allow the words of Jesus to find you, affirm you, gently bring you back to him, you won’t be lonely anymore. 

You won’t ever be in your kitchen, alone and miserable, saving the whole world, ever again. You will choose the best way, and you shall be free.

***

Subscribe to D.L. Mayfield’s blog.

Check out the rest of our Women of the Gospels Series:

Elizabeth, A Curious Woman (by Enuma Okoro)
The Widow’s Mite (by Laura Turner)
The Whole, Bloody Truth (by Addie Zierman)
The Widow of Nain (by Julie Clawson) 
The Fab Four (by Carolyn Custis James)

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Women of the Gospels: Elizabeth – A Curious Woman (by Enuma Okoro)

Transient

Today we continue our Women of the Gospels series with a guest post from the amazingly talented Enuma Okoro.Enuma writes from Durham, NC...until she can relocate to Paris full-time! Her spiritual memoir, Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert's Search for Spiritual Community (Fresh Air Books, 2010) was a winning finalist in the 2010 USA Best Books Award and received the 2011 National Indie Excellent Book Awards Winning Finalist in “Spirituality and African-American Non-Fiction.”

Enuma is also co-author with Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, (Zondervan, 2010). Her writing has been featured on ABC’s Good Morning America, The Huffington Post, Sojourners, Her.meneutics, the Christian Century and more. Her next book ,Silence, will be released this September 2012. She blogs at Patheos. Follow at Tweetenuma

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“After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived , and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’” 
- Luke 1:24

Elizabeth, what a curious woman. 

We usually flicker past her storyline as the old barren woman who gave birth to John the Baptist; the convenient character that propels the drama in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. 

Elizabeth, what a curious woman. 

She’s the gray-haired pregnant lady whom Mary went to visit after the Annunciation, after the Angel Gabriel said his famous lines about virgin births. 

Elizabeth, she is a descendant of Aaron. She is the wife of Zechariah of the priestly order of Abijah. 

We read of her always in relation to someone else. We pick up her story only when it is pertinent to the storied lives of other seemingly bigger characters.

We easily forget that she was a woman with her own full and complicated narrative. We forget that she was a woman who knew something about unceasing prayer, about unmet desire, about humiliation, about deep sorrow and pain. 

We forget she was a woman whose body couldn’t seem to perform in the most significant way women’s bodies at the time were relied upon and given any public affirmation of worth. 

We forget that her barrenness caused her time and again to painfully question whether or not the God she worshipped had chosen to curse her.

We forget that when Elizabeth prayed she did so in her barren body. She prayed with that which she yearned for God to bless and touch. She could not confront God without being bodily reminded of God’s silence.

We forget that we do not know the details of the years in which Elizabeth was barren. To be barren does not simply mean to be unable to conceive children. It is rarely that clean and sterile. The truth is we do not know how many, if any, miscarriages Elizabeth had. We do not know how many times she endured the pain and sorrow of her own lifeblood being discharged from her body. We do not know of the messiness of her pain.

Elizabeth, what a curious woman.

Her own “thorn” was lack of children but who knows what her undocumented experience might speak to so many women today with their own respective “thorns.” 

I have always wondered about Elizabeth; what it was like to live that long with her unanswered prayers and still cultivate the sort of faith that made her “righteous before God.” 

I have wondered how her prayers bore open her heart to God in deepening vulnerability, and what she did with her longing each time she failed to conceive.

I have wondered what shape the practice of lament took in Elizabeth’s life. 

I have wondered what was happening each exact morning, or evening of afternoon in which she decided to drop her hands and let her tattered threads of hope flutter to the floor. “She was getting on in years.” Surely she had dropped hope and picked it back up more than once.

I have wondered about her inner dialogue the minutes after she discovered she was pregnant. I have wondered if she was thankful for the months of silence, when her mute husband could not interrupt her own thoughts and musings. 

I have wondered if Elizabeth cultivated a “room of her own” long before Virginia Woolf made it popular. 

I have wondered how long it took for Elizabeth to trust that this pregnancy would actually take. 

I have wondered if she kept a quiet but firm grip on a thread of commonsense in her pocket with each day she left foolish hope grow just a little more.

Like so many women today, Elizabeth’s story is only partially told. You have to dig for the whole truth, and even then you come up short. 

You have to look behind the seemingly happy ending, and remember that she was a woman whose life was probably shaped by sorrow, discomfort, doubt, pain and yearning. 

But who wants to hear that part of the story? 

Isn’t it great that we get the happy ending? Isn’t great that we get the woman barren woman who is suddenly pregnant and we hear her praising God?

Who wants to catch echoes of any painful refrains, of any “Hannah-like” sobbings except without the answer, of any midnight bargaining and heart-wrenching pleadings? 

Who wants to know what it did to seasons of her marriage, to seasons of her identity as a woman?

Who wants to know about the envy or angry or guilt and possible repentance after each new announcement of some other woman’s pregnancy? 

Who wants to know about the complicated details that added up to somehow making Elizabeth the kind of woman who when we do eventually meet her in Luke 1 can grasp after hope one more time after years of bitter disappointment. 

The complicated details that add up to making Elizabeth the kind of woman who can speak of God’s favor when her prayers are finally answered long past her own convenient timing. 

Who wants to hear about the complicated details that add up to making Elizabeth the kind of woman who after years of wondering if God hears her, if God cares for her, If God has even cursed her, can still name her child,  John; “God is Gracious.” 

Who wants to know about the strength, the fortitude, the courage and the incredible resilience of a God-fearing woman? 

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Want more? Check out Enuma's blog.

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Women of the Gospels Series: The Widow’s Mite by Laura Turner

We continue our series on the women of the Gospels (now on Saturdays) with a guest post from the delightful Laura Turner.   A graduate of Westmont College, Laura lives in LA with her husband Zack.  She is pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction writing at Seattle Pacific University, and is passionate about Church life.  Laura is a fantastic writer, with a background in publishing, so I recommend subscribing to her blog sooner rather than later. You can also follow her Twitter. Enjoy! 

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"Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, 'Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” 
- Mark 12:41-43

***

Transient

“Spend it all. Shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place…give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things will fill from behind, from beneath, like water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life 

Annie Dillard is writing about writing here—about the tendency writers have to hoard clever words for a rainy day when we might need them—but ever since I first read this bit, I cannot help but hear an echo of the story of the widow’s mite in Mark 12. 

We enter the scene with Jesus and his disciples in the treasury, the place where religious people gathered from far and wide to make their donations to the temple. The treasury was in the inner part of the temple, and the coffers placed around the room were shaped like trumpets, each with a different purpose for contribution. According to tradition, some of the trumpets received sin-offerings of burnt pigeons and turtledoves, some for contributions for incense, and some for general, voluntary offerings.  (I kind of wish it was still encouraged to burn pigeons for sacrifice. Stupid animals.)

“Many rich people threw in large amounts.” But this story is not the story of many people. This is not the story of large amounts of money, or of someone doing something flashy and noticeable. This story is about one of the least noticeable things in the entire New Testament. There are no angels winging around the throne of God; no demons being cast out into a flock of pigs or man being lowered down from a roof to receive healing. There is this woman – this small, unnoticed, uncared-for woman who hardly counted as a person in her society. And there were two coins. 

‘Mite’ is not the actual name for what the coin was. It was a term in use when the King James Bible was being translated in the early 17th century, and it was the equivalent of a few minutes’ work. ‘Lepton’ would have been the word used for the smallest copper coin in Israel at the time; this is the story of the widow’s leptons. And this story was probably going unnoticed for years.

We don’t know how long the widow had been going to the treasury with her two coins, but we can assume that when her husband was alive, she would have had more. Not much more, necessarily, but she would have had resources to live on. Poor and without resources or power, she came to the temple and walked among the crowd who gave a lot of money mostly to increase their sense of stature in the community.  And she came with the most meager of amounts to drop in the trumpet, and she did not draw attention to herself as she gave, but her story lives on as one of the most powerful examples of generosity and radical trust that we know. 

Because Jesus saw the treasury then, and he sees it still today. Jesus knew this simple truth: How we behave in the treasury is a direct reflection of the internal reality of our heart. This woman was a hero of our faith. This act of giving was not foolish and was not undertaken lightheartedly. She gave all that she had because there was no other way for her to give, so convinced was she of God’s faithfulness to her and his character. There is a beauty and strength to his care for us that goes far beyond our comprehension, but still we can absorb it and be transformed by it.

Where am I giving from, and what am I holding back? Am I giving from abundance? And if so, why I am I holding on to so much when I know that everything I hold back from God is exactly what separates me from him? All of these people, these rich people giving large amounts of money, they were all holding something back in their abundance. The blessed life is the life of the widow, the life of she who gives, and she who trusts.  

Hold nothing back, and everything is yours.

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Women of the Gospels Series: "The Whole, Bloody Truth" by Addie Zierman

We continue our Women of the Gospels series today with a guest post from the talented Addie Zierman, one of my new favorite bloggers.  Addie is the creative mind behind “How to Talk Evangelical,” where she blogs about the language of spirituality and her own faith journey. She is working on a coming-of-age memoir by the same title, and is represented by the Carol Mann Agency. Addie lives in Minnesota with her husband two young son. You can find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. Enjoy!

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“And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, ‘If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed...’” 
– Mark 5:25-27

Transient

This is what last ditch effort looks like: a woman’s frantic grab at a stranger’s cloak. 

He is walking by, and she has heard of him: whispers of healings, echoes of prophecy, murmurings of one who carries healing powers in the tassels of his robe.

Who can say what it feels like to bleed for twelve years, to find yourself perpetually on the wrong side of the line in a culture where there is Clean and there is Unclean? 

She has tried it all –their remedies, their cures. Persian onions. Cumin and crocus and seeds, all of it boiled into wine. She knows the bitter taste of hope because she has swallowed every last drop. She’s felt it wash down her throat and disappear.

There are so many people around that day that she can only see him in glimpses. She can barely hear him for all the voices. And this is what desperation looks like: a reaching. One bold arm among dozens of others; one hand brushing the soft edge of the fabric.

And who can say what it feels like when healing travels down through your fingers, fills your entire body with light? Who can love the word “dry” like the one who has been spilling over for more than a decade?

The Rabbi stops. Turns. “Who touched my clothes?” he asks, and they who have been pressed in tight around him are not sure who he’s talking to.

But she knows. She comes forward, falls at his feet, tells the whole bloody truth. And when she has finished, when she’s spoken it out into the world, he tells her she is healed. He tells her to go in peace and be free.

***
 

I always hate to tell people about what I write. Memoir. The story of my own small life. I say it, and they purse their lips and nod, unsure of what to say next.

And it’s because there is this misconception about memoir: you write because you’ve had some kind of unusual life. You write a memoir because you are Somebody or because Some Big Thing has happened to you, and this is how we end up with tomes by the Kardashians and…Snookie.

But the truth – the thing I love about the genre – is that in its purest form, it’s exactly the opposite. I tell my story not because it is particularly thrilling, but because if I tell it right, it will tap into your story, into the collective story that we all live in.

The whole truth is in the details, the landscapes, the parts of myself that hide in the shadows of my memory. To dig for these pieces is an act of faith all its own; to assemble them into art, into story, is an act of healing.

It’s a shift in thinking. In the world of my evangelical youth, we learned to tell it small, to shrink-wrap our stories into three-minute testimonies. We crafted bite-sized portions of redemption, easy to hand out in a crowd. We gave the truth…but the sanitized version. The condensed version. A parody, a Before-and-After.

The whole truth is harder to speak. You have to talk about the bleeding in a society much too polite all that. You have to remember what it felt like to be drained, to walk into a church and feel alone, to wake day after day to more spilled blood.

To really tell the whole, damn thing, you have to describe the bitter taste of the cures that didn’t work. The margaritas. The men. The nights you were drunk and driving anyway.

You pick up the shards, and they cut your skin, but you keep working. You arrange them and rearrange them until they make something beautiful. Something with the power to touch someone else’s unspoken pain. And this…this is memoir.

***

On the other side of time, there is a woman. She stands in a crowd and tells the whole truth. 

She tells it loud, tells it trembling, and if you are quiet enough you can feel it reverberate here in your own bloodied soul.

She talks about pain, about desperation, about reaching.

She could be talking about you.

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Women of the Gospels Series: The Widow of Nain by Julie Clawson

'Roman Beggar' photo (c) 2009, Sarah Moody - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Our Women of the Gospels Series continues today with a creative and beautiful retelling of the story of the Widow of Nain from the talented Julie Clawson. Julie is one of those women who never fails to challenge me with her wisdom and insight. The author of Everyday Justice and The Hunger Games and the Gospel, she blogs at JulieClawson.com, and will be speaking at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina  this week.  Enjoy!

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Transient

"Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him.  As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town.  When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, 'Do not weep.'  Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, 'Young man, I say to you, rise!'  The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.  Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, 'A great prophet has risen among us!' and 'God has looked favorably on his people!' This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country."  -  Luke 7:11-17

At first I thought it was strange that the town gathered to mourn my son. All these years later and I still feel like an outsider, not really one of them. Granted, I grew up just down the road from here in Endor. I saw the same solitary dome of Mount Tabor looming in the distance when I would go to fetch water from the well there as I do here in Nain, but still it is different.

It was a difference I felt sharply when my husband first brought me here as his young bride. What I had always thought was a short walk to the neighboring town when I would accompany my father on the journey, suddenly became the other side of the world. Not that my husband mistreated me or that I protested our marriage, just that I knew I was no longer home. The other women in town knew each other already. They would walk to the well together or spend the morning pleasantly chatting as they gathered to do the wash. I was the inept young bride who didn’t even know how to fashion a new needle when my old one splintered. Oh, the mending I had to do once I finally got a new one!

It wasn’t until my belly started to swell with child that I began to feel a part of the community. It’s hard for the women not to get involved when they see that one in their midst is expecting – especially when it is her first. At first it was casual – someone dropping by with a handful of herbs she had happened upon that were supposed to help with the incessant nausea or backaches. Soon it became long chats as each and every one of them felt it was her duty to tell me the gory details of her birthing experiences. Goodness knows why any woman would ever want to have children after hearing all those stories, but somewhere in the midst of hearing Miriam confessing that she thought she was giving birth to a demon instead of baby and Hannah warning me for the fourth or fifth time to make sure the child suckles on both sides if I didn’t want to be crippled with pain – I became one of them. In the camaraderie of women’s shared experience Nain finally accepted me as one of their own.

It was that acceptance that later allowed me to survive. My son was a healthy young lad, a blessing to our house, but the two daughters I bore since never made it through their first winters.  It was that long winter that took our second daughter that claimed my husband as well. And once again I felt utterly alone. The horror stories of childbirth were nothing compared to this. The very act of putting food on the table became a near insurmountable task. As the bitter winter raged on and death surrounded us all, for the first time I understood why those women with the ragged clothes and hollow eyes would dare defile themselves with man after man. Yet somehow it never came to that for me. I don’t doubt that I would have done anything to feed my son, but the women of Nain wouldn’t let one of their own starve.

Granted, nothing was ever again the same. I wasn’t like them anymore. Instead I was the one to be pitied – but at least we survived. My son, young as he was, always found there was a stable to be cleaned for a coin. And the women who I once would laugh and share stories with were always willing to pass on their mending to me in exchange for the occasional jar of oil or loaf of bread. Once again I was an outsider of sorts, but it mattered far less that it had before. Making it through each day became my goal.

When my son was finally old enough to learn a trade, I began to breathe a little easier. Once he could earn a living, we wouldn’t have to live in constant fear wondering where our next meal would come from. I say I trust in the Lord to provide, but despite the generosity of Nain, the question always remained as to when that well too would dry up. It is hard to have faith when despite the pity and the charity, you feel so alone. So it wasn’t until my son was able to work that I dared have hope again. It was more than just knowing we would survive. With his support, I wouldn’t be just a widow anymore, but perhaps could spend time with the other women instead of just taking in their mending. 

So when he too was taken from me my world came to an abrupt end. Now I was completely alone. I think I might have laughed when some of the women once again stopped by with herbs for his body and they told me to muster up the courage of Jael to face the difficult road ahead. If only survival was as easy as driving a tent peg through the head of the enemy commander fleeing down neighboring Mount Tabor.  Perhaps the women who have never had to question if they belong here can find strength in the tales of old, but I doubted even faith could sustain me now.

So when the town gathered to help me bury my son it felt odd to be surrounded by those to whom I must now entrust my life. We had managed to survive before, but now without the boy to feed I wondered if they would be so eager to provide for me alone. The loss of my beloved son compounded by these fears consumed me with grief. As his body was carried out of town for burial, I could not help but wail in despair and angry.  How could God forget me so? Was I as much of an outsider to God as I was in Nain?

Yet even as my faith crumbled in the face of my grief, something amazing happened.

We had just carried my son’s body outside of the town gate when we encountered a traveling teacher and his disciples. I doubt I would have noticed them, but this teacher came right up to us, halting our progress. And then he commented on my grief. Someone must have told him I was a widow who had just lost her only son, for he seemed to genuinely care about my plight. I half expected him to offer some hollow words of comfort or press a coin into my palm without quite looking me in the eye like a few others had done.Instead he looked at me and seemed to understand – not just my loss but it almost seemed like he knew how utterly alone I felt. And then with deep compassion that went far beyond awkward pity, he told me not to weep and he walked over to my son’s bier and touched it.

A few people gasped at how seemingly oblivious he was to the purity laws, but their concern was quickly dwarfed by what happened next: For the moment he touched the bier, my son sat up and started talking to him!

I was too stunned to speak, my sobs caught in my throat. One of the bearers nearly dropped his side of the bier breaking the tension of the moment. The teacher, laughing, then helped my son down and brought him over to me. All I could do was embrace my son, weeping all over again - this time with tears of relief and joy. Everyone was in awe of this teacher, calling him a prophet and proclaiming that he had brought God’s favor among us. But no one understood the magnitude of that favor more than I. My son and my ability to survive were restored to me – surely I had been blessed.

Like Hagar cast off into the wilderness, God saw me in my isolation and looked with favor on the lowliness of even one like me. I wasn’t forgotten or merely treated with pity, God accepted me even in my grief and despair. I finally felt like I belonged.

***

 Don’t forget to subscribe to Julie’s blog!

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