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Our road to Zarephath

One spring day in 1976, Henrietta Van Der Molen woke in her suburb of Chicago to find herself a widow. Her husband of nearly 40 years was dead of a heart attack at the age of 59.

What Henrietta did next merits study in our "Age of the Selfie," our culture of the "Big Me."

With the youngest of her six children on the cusp of leaving for college, she had options. A savvy businesswoman who built a waste disposal empire with her husband, she could play the financial markets. Attractive and healthy, she could court one of the widowers who soon would come knocking. She loved to travel, and her bucket list could keep her active for leisurely years to come.

Long ago in a small town on the Mediterranean coast of today's Lebanon, another widow lived with her son. They had comparatively little: some odd jobs, enough income to scrape by.

Far to the east, in Jordan, the word of the Lord came to His prophet Elijah the Tishbite, instructing him to seek this widow of Zarephath. It seemed pointless, but he got up and began to walk.

Henrietta was stuck. She went through the motions as a busy single mom by day, but by night she shut her door and wept and raged.

"Grief is grief," she wrote in a notebook. Every room in her home was soaked in decades of memory.

"People who are angry with themselves," she wrote with typical reserve, "are very often angry with others." As the eldest daughter of an alcoholic and physically abusive father who abandoned his family in the Great Depression, Henrietta knew anger.

Elijah arrived in Zarephath. The widow was gathering wood near the gate and saw the foreigner, but kept to her work. Another lunatic, she muttered.

He begged her for food. Just like the rest of them, she thought. The protective mother resisted. Elijah pleaded, mumbling something about "the Lord will provide."

Henrietta kept putting one foot in front of the other: 1977, 1978 … She paid the bills on time.

"We should have no anxiety," she told herself in a notebook. "Don't speculate on how God answers prayer … just pray." The only big decision she allowed herself was the move to a new home.

Another dim Christmas seemed to near in 1979. The national mood darkened as interest rates topped 15 percent, but suddenly the embers flared. Henrietta was praying the Psalms one night when she read, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps 139:23-24).

The widow of Zarephath nearly seethed as she threw together a quick meal for the homeless man. Her son was hungry. She resented this interruption. But as she poured some of her precious olive oil from a jar, she gasped … the remaining oil only seemed to increase.

Henrietta decided that Psalm 139 would be her prayer for 1980.

"It's a risky prayer," she wrote. "If we ask God to search our hearts, He's going to show us some stuff that needs changing. And there's no point in praying that prayer without a commitment to obedience for what the searchlight turns up."

All through 1980, she allowed the searchlight beam to turn up more stuff: her too-oft critical spirit, her tug toward emotional aloofness, a certain lack of tenderness.

"I need repentance," she wrote. And suddenly the introvert who rarely cooked or hosted resolved in her notebook "to dedicate my new home in a special way to the Lord."

Elijah moved in. In her poverty, the widow hosted the servant of God for more than three years. The flour and oil never ran out.

For her final 25 years of life, Henrietta's home became a haven for prophets. Forty-six pregnant, at-risk teens and young women eventually would bring their babies to term in her home. Some two dozen Jewish refugees fleeing the Soviet Union would find their footing under her roof. The borscht never ran out.

We wake up each day to collect wood near the town gate, and like the widow, we each get to choose: to host an unpopular prophet, a surly teen, an untidy refugee - or to hunker down and manage our already overwhelming lives.

Henrietta - who was my loving grandmother and next-door neighbor throughout my childhood - chose to host. Her road to Zarephath took her from death to miraculous birth.

Where will our road take us? Search us, O God, and know our hearts.

This column is based in part on Elizabeth Foss' recent piece, "In Every Guest, we See Christ."

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's special assistant for evangelization and media. He can be reached on Twitter @Soren_t.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015