I’ve been silent here for a while. It’s been a ridiculous summer of changes: of the hard and scary kind of phone calls, of rummaging through childhood memories and deciding which to keep, of road trips across state lines, of saying the ambiguous “see you later” and “maybe at Christmas” to the most important people in my life, of packing, and of packing, and of more packing. Of new houses and new housemates and new patterns of life. Of a new job that threatens my sanity every single day. Of feeling unfulfilled and useless as news story after news story tells of death and desperation among the people I learned to love. Of empty arms and a longing heart and questions about what to do when my life isn’t what I planned it would be at this age.
And so I’ve taken a little time away from writing anything. I would love to tell you that the time was meant as an intentional Sabbath, a way to focus on priorities and being present with the people that needed me most. But if I’m honest, that’s total nonsense. The truth is, I’ve been busy and I’ve been avoiding this. Writing is my way to process- to keep my feet firmly in the truth of who God is and how he’s showing up in my life. And quite frankly, I have not been ready to process anything up until now.
I’ve been spending a lot of time with the story of Ruth and Naomi this year. If it’s new to you, here’s a brief summary with a bit of my interpretive flair:
Naomi and her husband are part of God’s chosen people, from the town of Bethlehem in Judea. However, times get tough and Naomi’s husband, Elimilech, has a hard time trusting that God will provide, so they leave the land God provided and immigrated to Moab, a nation known for idol worship. Naomi and Elimilech have two sons, who end up marrying Moabite women, in direct disobedience to God’s law. A while later, Elimilech and both of Naomi’s sons die, leaving her with only their two widows: Orpah and Ruth.
In her time of mourning, Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem and to her place among the people of God. Though she releases both Orpah and Ruth of their obligations to her, Ruth chooses to remain with Naomi, though she knows that she will not be welcome and will be considered a pagan and outsider among the Jewish people. It’s here that Ruth makes the statement that has been shared at many a wedding:
“Don’t ask me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go, I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” Ruth 1:16
I want to be Ruth in this story. I want to be the one who holds unswervingly to faith and says, "wherever and whenever, Lord." Someone for whom trust comes as easy as breathing. Some days I think I almost do this.
But a lot of the time, especially recently, I know that I have much more in common with Naomi.
Throughout the narrative, Naomi carries the weight of her grief and shame. Once returned to Bethlehem, she demands that those who knew her call her by a new name: Mara, which means bitter.
In that name I hear the lies that I know so well: This is my fault. I am responsible. I cannot trust a God who takes and takes and takes. I am forgotten. I am a burden.
I’ve been wondering about the journey that Ruth and Naomi must have taken back to Bethlehem. I’m wondering how Naomi felt as she walked the road for a second time, retracing the steps that she once took with her husband by her side. I imagine there was mourning, of course. Bittersweet memories of Elimilech and the fear of leaving home for the first time. Shame when remembering the lack of trust that drove them to Moab. I imagine she was afraid of returning home to face those who knew her before she lost everything. I also imagine she felt the mixed trepidation and joy that comes with repentance before one is sure of forgiveness. I image her anticipation to be among the people of God again.
I’ve also been wondering about the road itself. I’m fascinated by pilgrimage, which seems to play such an important part in this story. While reading a novel by Francine Rivers about Ruth (READ IT!), I was captivated by the way that that she described the route.
See, all along the way, Ruth and Naomi and Naomi and Elimilech, would have passed by altars and landmarks that tell the story of God’s relationship with the Israelites. They would have crossed the Jordan and seen the piled stones indicating when the priests carried the Ark of the Covenant across the dried up river into the Promised Land. They would have walked right by the ruins of Jericho, the impenetrable city that the Lord destroyed with some marching and a horn. They were walking in the same desert where a cloud and pillar of fire led the people of Israel and manna and quail rained to meet their needs.
At every step, they would have been reminded of the goodness and faithfulness of God to those he loves.
And I shake my head a little, because, what the heck, Elimilech!?! The reminders were right in front of you the whole time! How could you forget his goodness? How could you forget how God came through for you time and time and time again? Naomi, how could you follow him away? How can you still doubt when God has been so good to your people?
And then I stop.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it.
How often I forget.
Prone to leave the God I love.
Confession: in this season I’ve been warring depression and grief that I’ve never experienced before. I’ve been wearing heavy garments of mourning and silently screaming words that would make company feel very uncomfortable if spoken aloud. The enemy has been waging a war against my soul and has been pulling out lies that I haven’t heard in years and craftily whispering new ones. I’ve heard the accusations against me and they are damning. I’m daily fighting loss and doubt and grief and fear. I know Mara well.
In the midst of all of this, it’s so easy to forget his goodness.
When the doubt and fear take hold, it’s easy to develop some sort of amnesia to the countless ways that God proves his love over and over and over again. Or maybe it’s because of the amnesia that the doubt and fear take hold. Yeah, that’s definitely it.
I deeply believe in the importance of mourning and lament. I believe that ignoring pain and sorrow is toxic to the individual and the church. I work in mental health- I know the ins and outs of depression and grief. I don’t want anything that I write here to discount their impact.
But what I am saying is that it’s easy to develop a posture of lack- of missing what I want and turning blind eyes to the grace poured out on me every single day. And that’s what I’m confessing to you now.
At every single step of the way, Jesus has proven himself faithful to me. He has never dropped the ball. Never messed up. Never turned away, never said “this girl is too obnoxious.” Never left me alone to clean up the horrifying mess that I make trying to handle things on my own. Over and over again he has lavished blessing after blessing and surprise after beautiful surprise.
And in a season of change and the unknown, of feeling forgotten and useless, he gives this promise: I have been faithful and I will be faithful again. You may not see it now, but I have a plan here.
There’s hope for me and anyone else who now stands where Naomi stood.
There’s a lot of beauty in the story of Ruth and Naomi, but I love the end the best.
Because while Naomi felt bitter and far from God, he had already provided her with everything she needed. His love-note to her had been walking beside her the whole time in the form of Ruth.
In Bethlehem, Ruth cares for Naomi with a servant’s heart, working long hours in the fields to glean grain that the paid laborers left behind. She could do this because God had created provisions in the law for the poor, specifically widows and foreigners. (See??? Faithful!!!) In the law, there was also a provision for a kinsman-redeemer, a member of the widow’s family, to take the widow as his own wife to maintain the lineage of her first husband. Tada! This is where Boaz comes in! He’s an older cousin, full of virtue, who loves and fears the Lord, and as it turns out, owns the fields where Ruth has been collecting grain. I know. Naomi does some slightly scandalous match-making, and Ruth and Boaz are married. They later have a son, Obed, who becomes grandfather to King David, and super great-grandfather to Jesus. Yeah, him. Plot twist.
While standing on that mountain road with her face towards Bethlehem, I guarantee you that Naomi had no idea of the beauty of the story that God was crafting for her. She was full of doubt and shame and unspeakable sorrow.
But oh, the incredible mercy of God. He took what was broken and made it whole. He took mourning and turned it to dancing. He replaced the mantle of shame with a crown of gladness.
His story was so much better than Naomi ever could have written it. Seriously. There is no way she ever would have come up with something this great.
And so I’m choosing to remember. Remember where he has brought me. I’m choosing to build new altars so that when I walk back this way again I can tell the stories. The more we tell them, the less likely we are to forget.
And I’m choosing to trust. To trust that the author of Naomi’s story is the author of mine, and that his choice of plot line is better than mine would ever be.
I pray he heaps his mercy and grace on you and empowers you to do the same.