Humility as God’s Ho Ho

There is a wonderful, even magical, story in the Old Testament. It involves Elisha, one of the famous prophets in history, and the widow of one of his colleagues. (II Kings 4:1-7) The widow comes to him in crisis, telling him that a creditor was about to take her son as a slave because she could not pay her debts. In fact, all she had left was a small amount of oil in a jar.

Elisha, in what seems like an unusual bit of advice, tells her to ask all of her neighbors for empty jars, then take her two sons with her into her home, close the door and start pouring her small portion of oil into the jars. As she does what he asks, (I can only imagine what she was thinking to herself) the oil somehow increases until it has filled all of the jars. Since oil is a valuable commodity she now has enough oil not only to purchase her son’s freedom, but to support her family for the foreseeable future. It is a miracle story, one we would all like to claim for our own lives when times are hard and resources are thin.

I was pondering this story during my prayer time, letting the truths of it soak into my heart. At the time I was particularly grateful to God for letting me see a plan he was laying out for me to move from my condo and my current life style in a “happening neighborhood” to a simpler and smaller life style in a “green” development in a more racially and economically mixed neighborhood. It was a major move for me and reflected a change in priorities, values and commitments.

Yet, I was grieving this move from a place I loved, on the bank of the Mississippi River, with gorgeous views of the city. I was also going to miss the regular contact with the neighbors I had come to care about. And facing this new neighborhood brought its challenges too. I was a bit fearful of the potential for crime in a lower economic neighborhood, even though I had friends there and a welcoming church waiting for me.

But the unmistakable truth alongside the fear and the loss was the clear sense that God was calling me to this new home.  He had already provided human “angels” to help me make the transition. I had mentors and friends in this new place. I felt as if I was moving to a new way of being, feeling a renewed energy in my life, seeing a vision for my place in the world. I felt God paving the way, providing me with the people, resources, and a willing spirit.

So while I was reading this story, I could identify with God’s largess and could even see this move as a way for me to help multiply God’s love, like the widow’s oil in the story. I was praying for God’s guidance about how to share the abundance of grace—God’s oil—poured into my life. I felt much like the widow, that even though I was in a difficult transition and my future was unclear, God was supplying for me in generous ways. I felt so grateful and honored to be in this place of abundance with God.


In the quiet of my prayer I heard a voice from that place within me where God dwells. The voice chimed in, “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, my dear one. You are not the widow in this story. You’re the empty vessel.” The voice sounded light-hearted and gentle like it was singing a nursery rhyme or something like that, starting on a high note and descending like a slide. The message was clear and challenging, yet I could sense a chuckle behind the challenge.

Just like that. Few words. TRUTH. Humility. Loss of ego again. No gentle approval of my claim to be the widow in the story, just a gentle truth with a chuckle. And, of course, God was right. My ego would love to be the widow, the unsung star of the story, and I would love to identify with God’s largess for me. I’d love to have the small amount of oil in my own vessel multiply and be of great worth. I love redemptive endings and being part of them.

But God was clearly telling me that being an empty vessel was more closely attuned to my current state, or needed to be. The vessel represented the acceptance of my emptiness, my dependence on God to fill me, which was really my new calling.

Empty, waiting to be filled, unsure, dependent, surrendered; new words that I was not totally longing for, but now learning to live into. In the story, the empty jars were also a gift from God, a sign of hope for the widow, who must have been elated that her neighbors would give them to her, even though she was unsure what would happen once she got them. So I became a vessel, willing to be given, willing to be part of a miracle of love. I am of value precisely because of my emptiness. I was not moving to my new neighborhood to simply pour out my gifts but to be a vessel, willing to be, to learn, to receive, to love. We are all of immense value in our emptiness—an emptiness that God knows how to fill so much better than we do.

As soon as I heard those rhythmic words, “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. You’re not the widow; you’re the empty vessel.” I knew God was messing with me again, in that familiar way, gently nudging me off of my pedestal, bringing me to a richer, simpler and even more profound truth—empty vessels are more likely to be filled. It was what I needed to be—an empty vessel. I could feel the gentle humor, the loving nudge. It felt familiar. I could hear the chortling chuckle. I could imagine the twinkle in the eye, the sly smile that accompanied those words, “Empty vessel.”

One of my friends would call this experience one of God’s Ho-Hos. I like that. And, as a result of this God Ho-Ho, I felt a joyful sense of expectation in my emptiness.

End Note: I did not make that move to a different neighborhood, since I could not sell my condo in the economic environment of the time, but I felt the significance of being open, willing and eager to move. And the empty vessel image is still meaningful to me. several years later.

© Copyright, Janet O. Hagberg, 2009.


Reflections on this essay

Which figure or symbol from the story would you be?

How have you felt God leading you into a new direction that is unknown?

Where has God surprised you with a new truth about yourself?

How have you experienced being empty and then being filled?

What is one of God’s Ho Hos in your life?