By Ray Tetz—
There’s an odd story in the book of Second Kings. It tells of a wealthy woman who notices the needs of the itinerant prophet Elisha and generously shares what she has with him. She and her husband have a little rooftop room made for him, with a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp. It is a simple place for a holy man—a retreat. Whenever Elisha travels through her town, he stays there.
One day, motivated by gratitude, Elisha wonders how he can bless the woman, just as she has blessed him. He quizzes his servant Gehazi about her and is told that there is nothing she claims to need, nothing she wants. Gehazi points out, however, that she has no child and that her husband is already old.
Elisha summons the woman and she stands in the doorway of his room. “About this time next year,” Elisha says, “you will hold a son in your arms.”
“No, my lord,” she objects. “Don’t tease me.”
Perhaps we are supposed to infer that she is somehow less than complete without a son, but it doesn’t seem to be her focus—she truly seems content the way she is. She is happy with her circumstances. She has found ways to be generous with her life and to make meaning. She has created a physical space for Elisha, and perhaps we should see that as a symbol of her willingness to create space for God. Perhaps the whole story can be read as a sort of parable. Through Elisha’s intervention, God blesses her, just as she blessed Elijah. Spiritual quid pro quo.
Sure enough, the woman becomes pregnant, and the next year about that same time she gives birth to a son, just as Elisha had told her she would. Life is getting filled up, in unexpected ways. In good ways. Happy ways. Bouncing bundle of joy ways.
The boy grows up, and is loved by his mother, and loves to be with his father. Elisha is kind of a godfather to the child. Life is getting filled up, in good ways, expected ways. “Aren’t you getting tall?” ways.
And then the tragedy strikes. The scriptural account is so plain, so ordinary: “The child grew, and one day he went out to his father, who was with the reapers. He said to his father, ‘My head! My head!’ His father told a servant, ‘Carry him to his mother.’ After the servant had lifted him up and carried him to his mother, the boy sat on her lap until noon, and then he died” (2 Kings 4: 18–20, NIV).
There is no hint of this story being anything but real; there is no allegory here, no stylized parable of good and evil. Every parent can easily imagine the scene. While some might be paralyzed with grief or sadness or anger, this is a woman of purpose. She is galvanized. The story continues:
“She went up and laid him on the bed of the man of God, then shut the door and went out. She called her husband and said, ‘Please send me one of the servants and a donkey so I can go to the man of God quickly and return.’ ‘Why go to him today?’ he asked. ‘It’s not the New Moon or the Sabbath.’ ‘That’s all right,’ she said. She saddled the donkey and said to her servant, ‘Lead on; don’t slow down for me unless I tell you.’ So she set out and came to the man of God at Mount Carmel. When he saw her in the distance, the man of God said to his servant Gehazi, ‘Look! There’s the Shunammite! Run to meet her and ask her, “Are you all right? Is your husband all right? Is your child all right?”’ ‘Everything is all right,’ she said” (verses 21–26).
Of course, nothing is all right. Her son is dead. Her heart is broken. But she is not without God. This is her epiphany: that God is in every moment, even those moments that are battered and crushed and all but destroyed by sadness. It’s a paradox: sorrow and disappointment matched by hope and an unexpected confidence—the sense that even in this adversity God will be generous in His mercy and provision for her.
This is our epiphany: that God holds the universe in His hands with unbounded love and mercy. That our complex lives are always in His care. That, yes, actually, everything is all right.
A mother’s sorrow bubbles over when she finally reaches Elisha: “When she reached the man of God at the mountain, she took hold of his feet. Gehazi came over to push her away, but the man of God said, ‘Leave her alone! She is in bitter distress, but the LORD has hidden it from me and has not told me why.’ ‘Did I ask you for a son, my lord?’ she said. ‘Didn’t I tell you, “Don’t raise my hopes”?’” (verses 27–28).
The prophet acts—which is, of course, exactly what the prophet is supposed to do: “When Elisha reached the house, there was the boy lying dead on his couch. He went in, shut the door on the two of them and prayed to the LORD. Then he got on the bed and lay on the boy, mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands. As he stretched himself out on him, the boy’s body grew warm. Elisha turned away and walked back and forth in the room and then got on the bed and stretched out on him once more. The boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes. Elisha summoned Gehazi and said, ‘Call the Shunammite.’ And he did. When she came, he said, ‘Take your son.’ She came in, fell at his feet and bowed to the ground. Then she took her son and went out” (verses 32–37).
The woman did not give up. She lived with the tension between great sadness and great faith. Elisha did not give up. He lived in the tension between what he had thought would bring blessing and hope and the cruel reality of a world that pushes in and fills us up. The child was innocent—his whole life before him. His head hurt and he rested in his mother’s arms. He was asleep, and cold. He woke with a great sneeze, surprised to see his godfather standing nearby.
We live in tension between loving and loss, between being energized to act and paralyzed by loss or fear. But we live here. This is our time, our place, our journey. Angels quake to hear our stories. God bends His ear low to hear our prayers. Ours are only ordinary moments—but nonetheless filled with the potential for extraordinary life.
Ray Tetz is director of communication and community engagement for the Pacific Union Conference.