I’m in the middle of reading a very absorbing novel at the moment. I expect some of you have also read it. It’s called “Life After Life” and it is by Kate Atkinson. It’s the life story of a woman born in 1910, or rather it is her life-stories, because the novel tells multiple different versions of her life. Each life is different, shaped by the choices she and those around her make. The first version is very short. Born during a snowstorm with the cord wrapped round her neck, she dies at birth because the doctor can’t get to her through the snow. So we start again. This time the doctor makes it through the snow, and she survives, only to meet another fate a few years later – I won’t give you any spoilers. The story restarts again and again – it sounds tedious, but it isn’t – and each time we travel down a different road with her. It’s a fascinating exploration of all the “what ifs” of our lives.
If you haven’t read this book you might have seen the film “Sliding Doors”, which plays with the same sort of idea. A young woman either just catches or just misses a tube train, and we see the two different courses her life might have taken as a result.
Of course, in reality we only get one life– if there are parallel universes in which other things happen we never get to find out about them. But I’m sure we’ve all sometimes wondered how our lives would have turned out if we hadn’t been in a particular place at a particular time, or if we made a different choice at some point that later turned out to be crucial. It’s not always easy to spot that vital moment when it comes. It’s often only in hindsight that we recognise it.
The stories in our Old Testament and Gospel readings today are both about chance meetings turn out to be really significant. They are also both about widows who have lost their only sons. In the Gospel, a widow happens to be coming out of the gates of the town of Nain at the head of her only son’s funeral procession just as Jesus arrives. Jesus sees her, has compassion for her, and restores her son to life. She is filled with delight, but what if that funeral had been just a little earlier or later? How she must have rejoiced that she happened to be there just at that moment!
The story of the widow of Zarephath from the Old Testament is rather more complicated – we just heard the end of it today – but it too depends on what must have looked to her like a random encounter.
Zarephath was a Phonecian town , to the north of Israel. A drought had hit the whole region, and everyone in Zarephath was starving. One morning this widow happened to be outside the walls looking for firewood when a ragged, hungry looking stranger came into view. He was obviously a foreigner, not her responsibility, so when he asked her for food she was taken aback. Anyway, how could she help him? She only had a handful of meal and a tiny amount of oil, enough for one last meal for herself and her son. After that, she told him, they were going to die. There was no food to give away. But this strange man told her that if she fed him, his God would make sure she and her son survived – God had sent him to her, he said.
There was no reason she should believe him, but she did what he asked anyway – maybe she thought she had nothing to lose - and to her amazement she found that each day after that there was just enough meal and just enough oil to keep them going. If Elijah hadn’t wandered into her life when he did, they would both have died. She had been in the right place at the right time.
But what looked like a happy ending, turned out not to be the end at all. Disaster struck. Her son - her only son – having been saved from starvation, suddenly died of some random disease anyway. She railed against Elijah in the passage we heard. She wished she’d never met him, never fed him, never heard of him.
Elijah in turn railed against God. What was he playing at? Was this any way to treat someone who’d shown him welcome? That apparently chance meeting outside the walls of Zarephath didn’t seem wonderful now. It seemed more like a cruel joke, an awful mistake, something which had ended up inflicting even more sorrow.
Elijah wasn’t having it. He pleaded with God and God restored the boy to life.
It all turned out right in the end, but what a toll it must have taken.
In both these stories, God was at work, and people realised it in the end. “A great prophet has risen among us! God has looked favourably on his people!” said the crowd at Nain. “The word of the Lord in your mouth is truth” said the widow of Zarephath . The God who brought life and hope was present, working through these terrible situations, but no one was expecting him to be. This morning’s Psalm hits the nail on the head. The Psalmist says, “When I felt secure, I said ‘I shall never be disturbed. You Lord, with your favour, made me as strong as the mountains’ Then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear.”
When trouble strikes we tend to assume that God has deserted us. “Where is God in all this?” is a cry that most of us have given voice to at some point. It may have been a cry of anguish in a time of trouble or sorrow. It may have been spoken in bafflement when we are trying to find our way through complex choices, with no idea of the way ahead. We may have whispered it into the darkness, when we’ve felt our prayers hit the ceiling, and wondered if there was anyone there to hear us at all. It’s sometimes a question which we can’t help asking, but it’s a good one to ask at any time though. In fact training ourselves to look for God day by day, to pay attention to the deeper tides and currents of our lives is probably the best way to make sure that when those hard times hit us we aren’t left floundering.
God’s guidance isn’t just for emergencies; we need it every day, so that when choices come we can make the right ones. We need to be used to asking “what is God calling me to, nudging me about today? Where are the places in me that need his life-giving touch?” The widow of Zarephath said “Now I know that … the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth”, but are we used to listening for the ring of truth in the words we hear? Would we recognise that the scruffy foreigner asking us for food is God’s messenger, or that the travelling carpenter has the words that will bring us to life again? How do we discern God’s voice among all the other voices that chatter away in and around us?
There are all sorts of answers to that last question. One of them is prayer – not the kind of prayer that just presents God with a shopping list, but the kind that involves silence and waiting. Even an odd few minutes here and there can make a difference, giving us a chance to reflect and take stock before plunging on. The Bible too, can be a kind of mirror in which we see ourselves reflected back, recognising ourselves in the lives of those who’ve gone before us.
Often though, this kind of discernment is easier done in company – within a home group or with friends, or even with your friendly local parish priest…Helping people to discern where God is and what he’s up to is a big part of my job, and one of its greatest privileges and joys. I’m involved in various national and diocesan processes of discernment for those exploring ordained ministry, not just asking whether people have the skills to be priests, but whether that’s what God made them for. I get the chance to explore people’s lives with them when they are preparing for a marriage, baptism or funeral, too, or when they are dealing with some personal crisis. I can’t fix things for them. I don’t have the answers. But we can look for God’s presence together, spot the green shoots of life that hint that his Spirit is at work. I sometimes call it God-hunting, and it’s one of the most satisfying things I do.
That’s why I’m currently specifically inviting anyone who would like to, to come and chat with me. I have been tapping some people on the shoulder, but you don’t need an invitation– just phone me, email me, or collar me after a service so we can fix a time. It doesn’t matter what age or stage you are – an old hand or new in through the door. The questions are the same for all of us. “What’s God calling you to? Where is he on the move in your life?” I’ve had some really fascinating conversations already – there’s a lot going on under the surface in this church. It doesn’t surprise me, but it does excite me! I’d love to have a lot more conversations, though, so don’t wait for a crisis, and don’t think it’s only for those who feel called to some specific churchy ministry. It’s for everyone.
I started out by thinking about the one life we each have, a life full, at every stage, of possibilities and promise, of choices and challenges, of moments when we might be able to welcome God, or might miss his presence completely. Let’s make sure we take the time to pay attention to our lives, to spot God at work in them, as he comes to us to raise us up with his life-giving touch, and bring us the food that satisfies our deepest hungers.