As I sat in my car this past August, in the rain, in a cemetery where I could not locate my mawmaw’s grave, I wept for this intense emptiness that had taken residence in my heart and soul. I felt it even in the pits of my body, manifesting in exhaustion and aches. Mawmaw has been gone for over a decade, and though I miss her, I was not mourning her death that day. I was mourning my inability to find her stone, which my mind had built up intensely as a homing signal for my roots. Surely, if I could find it, the emptiness would ease. Even as it rained hard, I had walked the rows, my eyes reading name after unfamiliar name, apologizing to each for my own disappointment in their presence. Finally, lightning had driven me back into the car, and I drove home.
Emptiness. I was carrying it everywhere I went.
Now there was a woman who had been married to a member of a group of prophets. She appealed to Elisha, saying, “My husband, your servant, is dead. You know how he feared the Lord. But now someone he owed money to has come to take my two children away as slaves.” Elisha said to her, “What can I do for you? Tell me what you still have left in the house.” She said, “Your servant has nothing at all in the house except a small jar of oil.” 3 He said, “Go out and borrow containers from all your neighbors. Get as many empty containers as possible. 4 Then go in and close the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all those containers. Set each one aside when it’s full.” 5 She left Elisha and closed the door behind her and her sons. They brought her containers as she kept on pouring. 6 When she had filled the containers, she said to her son, “Bring me another container.” He said to her, “There aren’t any more.” Then the oil stopped flowing,7 and she reported this to the man of God. He said, “Go! Sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what remains.”2 Kings 4:1-7
Even before the deep depression of my 2019, this story from Scripture was bothering me. I have lost track of when it first caught my attention, but I can safely say, for 2-3 years, this story has been nagging at me. I would return to it, read it, find nothing hidden there. I would read countless commentaries like those of Charles Spurgeon, in which it seems most people read this as a faith – then action parable: “She did what she was commanded to do: she did it in faith; and the result answered the end. God takes care to deliver his servants in ways that exercise their faith. He would not have them be little in faith, for faith is the wealth of the heavenly life.”
But that was not satisfying whatever itch was stuck in me about this passage.
Eventually, I learned about Ignatian Contemplation – thanks first to an interview on Fresh Air with Father James Martin. Ignatian Contemplation is praying with Scripture in such a way that you use your imagination to build the scene, place yourself among the actors, and see where your attention is called. For a quick crash course on that, watch this video over on Youtube.
So, I tried that with 2 Kings. What is God wanting me to look at?
Inside the scene, I heard anew, Elisha’s words: Go, get as many empty containers as possible from your neighbors.
And there I was, a harried woman, cooking supper. I hear several small children, playing somewhere out of the house. I hear them laughing and calling out. I am sweaty and hot but safe. The smell of roasting meat fills my home. There is a knock on my door, and there stands my neighbor’s sons. I know their names, call to them cheerfully. Yet, my heart is full with worry for them. I know their father has died. I know that the law allows these boys to be taken as slaves to pay his debts. I know that this loss will not only strike heartbreak into a woman already desperate, but will drive her further into poverty. These boys in front of me will be slaves, never growing into the men who can take care of her. When they ask earnestly for empty jars, why would I hesitate in gathering any and all that I had?
How would this miracle have happened if her neighbors had hidden away their extra jars? We don’t see them, but isn’t their gracious generosity just as crucial to this miracle as the other players?
Spurgeon goes on to say, “If she borrowed few vessels, she would have but little oil; if she borrowed many vessels they should all be filled, and she should have much oil.” I would counter – if she was given few vessels, she would have but little oil; if she was given many vessels they should all be filled.
Our culture often expects people to work for their blessing, but here Elisha says – go ask for help. And so – this miracle is a collective one, that required neighbors to give freely.
I wonder – Whose miracles are we divinely woven into? Are we seeing them? Can we hear the knocks on our doors? Do we see our empty hands as something to offer a neighbor, to hold theirs when they are in despair? Do we recognize our ears can lovingly receive the troubles of a friend? Does the empty passenger seat on our way to work or the grocery store belong to one of God’s children? Do we have empty hours and loneliness that we can give to some Kingdom work? Has the extra room in our house that hides all of the junk from our visitors been set aside for a foster child? A wayward relative? A person right on the verge of homelessness?
The story of Elisha and the widow sticks with me because I can’t let go of these questions: What emptiness am I holding onto that can be transformed by the miracles of our God? Whose fullness am I denying?
But then – what if your emptiness is of the existential sort? What if your emptiness is a darkness consuming you? In the pain of that, I found myself praying to God: Who could want these empty jars?
And then Easter approaches, and I remember what God does with emptiness, even the scariest, most confusing emptiness. I think of those first disciples, finding an empty tomb, dismayed and terrified. That dark emptiness must have crushed their already broken hearts. But what they would soon learn, and what we know, is that tomb’s emptiness would swallow death itself.
So here is my empty jar laid bare. The chemicals in my brain and the sadness of some situations emptied me out – to the very point that I no longer wanted to live. I could not find my roots. I could not imagine a blooming. I was emptiness itself. Every day, I would hand what I could of it to God: Please take this from me.
And then I started to whisper it to the people I trusted most, and they in return handed me their jars – mostly their time and their prayers and their love and their expertise. But every time I thought I might run out of hope, there was another text message or a hug or a joke or an appointment, and the oil kept flowing. And I’m here – living on what remains.
Ask for empty jars, friends.
And give them when you can.