About this time last year, I stumbled upon a story I’d never read in the Bible before. It’s about a grieving widow from a town called Nain. Luke writes (chapter 7 if you want to read for yourself) that Jesus is traveling with His disciples and a crowd, passing through Nain when a funeral procession walks out of town. The woman leading the procession is burying her only son and, Luke notes, she is a widow.
Telling us the woman is widow is an important detail because according to the customs of the time, this meant she now had no one to care for her or protect her. And, unless the family was already wealthy, she was facing the unknowns of how to provide for her most basic of needs, made especially difficult because women ordinarily couldn’t earn an adequate income in the society of that day.
Luke continues the story, writing, “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited his people!’”
I’m well acquainted with the story of the girl that Jesus raises from the dead in Mark 5 and also Lazarus in John 11, but this story? These six verses eluded me until maybe just the moment I needed them.
That last part that Luke adds about the crowd stuck with me for days — “Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited his people!’” The Message (which, sidenote, isn’t a Bible translation but more like a paraphrasing that I enjoy referencing for its often gobsmackingly beautiful language) says, “They all realized they were in a place of holy mystery, that God was at work among them. They were quietly worshipful — and then noisily grateful, calling out among themselves, ‘God is back, looking to the needs of his people!’”
That phrase, “holy mystery,” really stuck with me. It was probably in part because we were at the beginning of a new year with seemingly a million possibilities ahead. (Oh, what we didn’t know!) It was also close to my birthday, a personal new year, as well. Something about those two words, “holy mystery,” summed up much of my experience with God. He comes so close and makes Himself known to us through Jesus and the Holy Spirit — but He is still God, always holy and often mysterious in the whys and hows of life.
Then life started to quickly change and I held on to the phrase even tighter as a reminder that God is at work.
The pandemic unfurled across my life.
My plans changed again and again.
Streets around the world filled with protests and my eyes opened to see issues of race in a way I never had.
Our country rocked with political tumult.
And again and again I turned that phrase over — holy mystery — as I asked God what was going on. It became a reminder that God is at work. I may not understand it, but He is at work and just like with the widow of Nain, He will not simply pass me by.
For all of us, the hows and whys of so much that we experience seem shrouded with mystery. The answers elude us, but we can trust that God is at work. The Bible tells us this much in story after story — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Ruth, Naomi, Esther, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, Paul, Lydia.
So much of life is a wild, holy mystery, isn’t it? There’s a scene in the Disney movie “Aladdin” (yes, I’m about to tie Aladdin to this story — I’m a millennial and this is how we do) that I always think of when it comes to mystery and following God. It’s a pivotal moment in the movie where Aladdin shows up on his magic carpet and Jasmine, the princess, is clearly intrigued but trying to play it cool. You can tell she absolutely wants a spin on the runaway rug but isn’t sure … it’s a flying carpet, after all! And right then Aladdin leans out, extends his hand and says (millennials, say it with me), “Do you trust me?”
We do not have all the answers to how God is at work in the world and in the details of our lives, but the widow of Nain is a reminder to me that He is and that I can trust Him.
What are you rebuilding or starting from scratch this year? A relationship? A dream project? Your trust in God’s promises? Hope? Maybe it’s a rebuilding of the way you see, hear or understand something. A matter of faith, justice or your neighbor next door. Wherever, however you find yourself rebuilding this year, I hope you’ll remember the truth that however mysterious the hows and whys feel, God is at work and He’ll meet you right where you’re at for this new year and season.