Before my Grandma Hetland’s funeral in 1984, the whole family gathered in the basement of our church while we waited for the pastor to come in and pray with us before we would be seated in the sanctuary. I was fourteen and in addition to me and my immediate family, there were tons of my cousins and aunts and uncles stuffed into that room – most of whom I had never met before. I had grown up living just down the road from Grandma. I spent time over at her house most days – talking at her kitchen table and usually eating something good she had just baked. I was very close to my grandma but since my cousins had always lived far away, I wasn’t close with them and I remember feeling strange gathered with them there. We were family, but we didn’t feel like family.
So we all sat in that basement room on the light green vinyl chairs and scratchy orange sofas and waited. The room was completely silent. Every now and then there was a sniffle. I could hardly bear it – the silence, the sadness. In the corner I heard a muffled sound that at first I thought was someone crying – but when I looked over I saw my cousin, Cookie, who was a few years older than me, was completely red in the face, her handkerchief pressed in a ball against her mouth, and she looked like she was about to explode. Her shoulders were shaking and as she wriggled uncomfortable it only took a few moments before I realized she wasn’t crying – she was desperately trying not to laugh. Her mother realized, too, what was happening and she was whispering at Cookie to behave and to ‘Shush”. But of course, trying to hold in a good laugh is about as easy as herding a group of cats – and within moments, Cookie burst into laughter. Even as she did it she said, “sorry, sorry, sorry…” but we knew she was a goner. The laugh had to get out. I looked at each of my cousins then, and bit by bit I could see each of them observing Cookie and trying not to smile themselves…but she really had become a funny spectacle, and one by one they started to giggle. Then the laughter spread to Aunt Vivian, then Aunt Marilyn, my mom, and suddenly the whole room was enveloped in laughter…and that is how Pastor Vetter found us, the grieving family, when he walked in the room.
There were two things I loved about that moment. First, as I looked at Cookie and her round face turning red and her robust laugh – I kept thinking about how she reminded me of someone when she laughed. In a moment I realized she looked just like our Grandma when she laughed. And second, I couldn’t help but think that if Grandma could see all of us in that moment she probably would have been pretty happy. To see the country cousins and the city cousins, the unfolding generations of her offspring just laughing together. It felt like such a blessing and a miracle, that laughter shared in that moment with our family.
How remarkable, I remember thinking, to be surprised by joy and laughter that day at my grandmother’s funeral. It blew into that sad room out of nowhere and helped us through that day – reminding us of things like possibility and love and peace that passes all understanding. I felt it then – Life as we knew it was changing, some things never would be the same, but still, God was near.
As we meander into these summer days, each Sunday now we get to witness miracles wherever Jesus goes. Today we read about how he came to a small village called Nain. There is a widow there whose son has just died. Likely for her it felt like she might as well die, too. We remember that during this time, women’s value depended a lot upon their relationships to the men in their lives and this woman no longer has any – a widow, so her husband is gone, and now her only son as well.
I don’t think it is any stretch to say that perhaps her hope is gone. Notice she doesn’t even ask Jesus for help. Why bother? What good could possibly come now? We don’t find any greater hope in the Old testament reading for today. Right before the place where our reading begins I Kings, as I shared with the children a few minutes ago, Elijah was told by God to go and stay with another widow. Her situation is terrible, too. Elijah comes to her, he asks her for something to eat and some water. She responds, “I swear, as surely as your God lives, I don’t have so much as a biscuit. I have a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a bottle; you found me scratching together just enough firewood to make a last meal for my son and me. After we eat it, we’ll die.”
It’s grim times for these widows – death and near death. Hope all gone.
But the story wasn’t over for either of them – because God can surprise us anytime God pleases. Because at any time, that which seems to be a dead end, can become the farthest thing from it. Not just for folks in Biblical times, but for us, too.
In the gospel, Jesus sees the widow, she might not see him, but he sees her and he says simply to her, “Don’t cry” and then his actions show her why. He raises her boy from the dead and he begins to walk around and talk.
In the Old testament reading, Elijah tell the widow to trust – that somehow, if she just shares with him out of the little she has, God will make sure she never runs out of that flour and oil. I can imagine her shaking her head as she puts together the ingredients and creates a little biscuit for him. “Who is this man to come and take the tiny bit we have left? And using God’s name to convince me to trust him? With a weary sigh, “Fine, then, take what we have, let death come even sooner to me and my son.”
But she finds that Elijah had spoken true words to her. She found that her jar of flour and the oil, they never ran out. God daily provided what they needed. Then, this widow receives an even greater sign of God’s presence with her when a short time later her son becomes gravely ill and dies. Now the first miracle almost seems like a cruel trick – why did God provide for them if only to take her boy now. But Elijah calls on God to help and God does – this boy comes back to life as well.
Surprised by joy again and again. God provides, God heals, God brings laughter in desolate times, unexpected friendships to inspire and strengthen us. Yes, we all know painful experiences – grief, illness, losses of so many kinds, but still, God has always been and is always still in the process of bringing about resurrection in our lives in the most surprising ways. In Jesus, there is new life always, always, always around the corner. Expect a miracle.
You remember that old saying, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
How do we live our lives?
In Texas, there was an elderly couple, Joe and Audrey. Inseparable – they were one of those couples who went everywhere together. At the grocery store – if you saw Audrey, Joe was around there somewhere. At church, they sat together in the third row from the back on the right. Neither of them were in great health by the time I met them. I was often visiting one or the other in the hospital, a couple times they were hospitalized at the same time and even then they shared a room. Everyone knew they belonged together.
Finally, Audrey became very, very sick and she died. It was the biggest, saddest surprise of Joe’s life that she died before him. He kept saying in the hours and days that followed, “I always thought I would be the first one to die.” I can still picture every step of the walk with the family from our little parish hall, outside and down the sidewalk to the front door of the church building as the funeral began. It was a sunny, warm autumn day. Joe was dressed up in his Sunday suit and walked in those church doors he had hardly ever entered without her. He leaned hard on his cane. His children and grandchildren filing in behind us. Every time I looked at Joe during the service, he looked as lost as I’ve ever seen anyone look. He didn’t know how to do life without her. Everyone knew the road ahead was going to be very hard for him.
The next week, I went to visit Joe to tell him I love him and pray with him, sit with him a while. As we sat in the front room of the house he and Audrey had shared for nearly all their married life, he began to talk about how they had met. This beautiful love story, one they had shared with me before, but I always loved to hear it. They had been in high school and right before Valentine’s Day of their senior year, Joe had told his friend Earl that he was going to marry Audrey. They hadn’t even been on a date yet but he said he just knew. Their first date was on Valentine’s day and by the fall of that year they were married. His face softened and the lines of worry on his forehead disappeared as he remembered out loud to me about fishing trips and raising their children together and how it had been such a good life with her.
Because it was good to see how the remembering looked like it was comforting to him, I said simply, Joe, you need to write all this down.
I don’t know why he listened to me, but he took this task to heart. He began to write and write and write – memories spilled out of him and he asked his daughter to type them up and each time I came over, he showed new pages to me and asked me to read them out loud. He added in pictures and this project of recording a lifetime of moments he shared with his dear Audrey became his priority. And something about his grief evolved during that time. I asked him about it some time later and he said thoughtfully, “I’ll always miss Audrey. She was my whole world. But I don’t want to spend the rest of my days dwelling on the sadness of losing her, I want to spend the rest of my life being thankful for the miracle that she loved me all those years.” He smiled slowly with tears welling in his eyes and said simply, “It was a beautiful life together.”
Joe chose to see the miracle. And every day, we get to decide if we will see the miracle in nothing or the miracle in everything. What will you decide today?