A reflection 1 Kings 17:8-24, for Proper 5C
In the early evening, as the temperatures were cooling from a hot June day, the family arrived. Clamoring out of the van was the mother, young and very tall with a beautiful face. Following her were five children, four boys and a girl, ranging in age from 17 to 4, and the grandmother, an elderly Islamic woman. This elderly woman was the mother of one of the three different men who had fathered the five children. They made an odd, rag tag group of international travelers if there ever was one. But more than what comprised them as a family, what I remember most is the look in their eyes.
These fourteen pair of eyes were tired, worn weary by too much despair, loss, and probably violence.. The eyes told me of a pain so deep that to survive these people had shut down all feeling. They were simply going through the motions of unloading the few pieces of luggage; all that remained of their material lives. And most likely the suitcases, and what was in them, had been given to them by the refugee resettlement agency, whatever they once owned was long lost or stolen. All they really had was each other.
Originally from Rwanda, over the last 48 hours or so the family had travelled from a refugee camp in Cameroon, to the Sudan where they flew to Paris and then to Chicago. The house they were to live in on the south side of Chicago was not yet ready and so they ended up, at the last minute, at my church. Because it was summer all of our Sunday School classes had ended, we had an entire upper level of our church building available for them. From these we created bedrooms and a living room, a television, bathrooms with showers, and downstairs, a full kitchen stocked with food. But before our tour of the space was over most of the family had crawled into bed and gone to sleep. Only the eldest daughter and mother walked the tour as the translator explained how to use the stove and oven – my biggest fear being that they’d blow themselves up in the process of trying to make dinner. After all they’d been through that was the last thing I wanted.
It appears the family slept straight through until late the next day when I heard the kids out playing on the playground and parking lot. I remembered the translator telling them to not go in the street, that cars move fast and will kill them and also to not eat the bunnies or birds that live on the property. Obviously they were not in Africa anymore and an understanding of cultural norms could not be assumed.
A little while later I got a phone call from the refugee agency. The 11 year old boy had an injury, an infected finger, could I take them to the local urgent care center? Of course, and so I gathered the mom and the boy and my husband, and off we went.
The urgent care center, despite the fact that the family had not been here long enough to get their medical papers, took them in immediately. The boys’ finger was badly infected and the doctor had to lance it. The doctor was fabulous, talking the boy, who understood a little English, through the process. Nonetheless the boy screamed out in pain as the doctor lanced and cleaned the wound. I held his other hand and comforted him.
The mother sat motionless on the other side of the room, her eyes turned away, listless. I didn’t know what to make of it. Was it a cultural norm for her that her son was supposed to be strong, to suck it up and deal with this on his own?
Or, was she so overwhelmed by despair and pain and suffering that she had nothing left, not even a word of comfort or a caring hand for her son? I don’t know the answer – we didn’t speak the samelanguage; I do know that I have never seen anything as empty as the look in her eyes.
I imagine Elijah encountered this same empty look in the eyes of the widow of Sidon and her son. Worn down by endless challenges with no prospect for relief, the widow was preparing to die. Really, what difference would it make if she shared the last little bit of flour and oil with this stranger, there wasn’t enough food to go around anyway. This last meal wasn’t going to provide substance or sustenance for anyone anyway. It hardly mattered, feed one, feed three, who cares, they were all going to die anyway. And even dying no longer mattered. So what. The bottom of the barrel, the bottom of the ditch, the end of the rope, the end of the line. This was it. There was nothing. Nothing more.
We used to think, those of us in this country who were born after the depression, that this level of despair belonged to other people in other countries. But that’s not so true anymore. For some of us, it’s never been true. Farmers facing the loss of crop and land. Factory workers facing loss of job. Oil riggs that sink. Oil spills that ruin fishing waters. Teachers being laid off. All around us foreclosures, empty retirement funds, bankruptcy. You and me, and all around us, people with that look in their eyes, a look that says I can’t take anymore. I’ve shut down. I’m deplete of even the ability to feel despair. I’m empty.
But maybe that’s the point our reading from 1 Kings is leading us toward. Desolation, despair, emptiness – these times, these feelings, are part of human life. None of us is exempt from feeling these feelings. So pervasive and profound are these feelings that Christian mystics have written countless books calling times such as these “the desert” – a lonely empty time when even God seems to have abandoned us.
The refugee mother, by the end of the procedure on her sons’ finger, was a little better. She came to life, a bit, as we tried to explain the need to clean and apply antibiotic cream, and rebandage the wound. As if she finally had a purpose and something she could do. Like the widow making bread, a purpose, something to do.
Slowly, over the next week as this refugee family lived in our church and spent time with us the mom came to life. She began to smile, she became engaged with her kids, she relaxed. Maybe, I thought, she finally found a sense of hope.
Somehow, no matter how desperate, how desolate, how much despair, there rises within us something else. Hope. Where does it come from? Who knows? Grace, probably. Grace from the God who loves us constantly. Grace from a God was broken too, broken on the cross, broken open, despair becoming love, flowing out in blood and water. Grace from a God who abides with us through our darkest moment and knows that our deepest fear is the loss of all hope.
For the widow, Elijah becomes her hope. Elijah says simply, do not be afraid. One way God makes God’s self present in the world is to come to us through another person – someone who shows us hope. Someone who, for whatever reason and in whatever way, shows us how to put one foot in front of the other. Perhaps this person is for us just a hope for hope. But in that hope for hope, God is present. In that hope for hope, comes the God who is broken with us, the God within whose very being is the will to sustain us.
And so, sometimes it’s just the hope for hope that keeps a person going. A hope that somehow there will appear a way through this. A way, like endless flour and oil, to make bread, or a wound to clean and bandage, a way to keep going, to be sustained, until hope really is hope. And life is made new again, and wholeness comes.