January 29, 2017

Naomi's Sons Marry in Moab

In our journey through the Book of Ruth, we come to the pivotal move to Moab. On January 16, we saw that “there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.” Now we learn a little more, “The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth.” (Ruth 1:2-4)
In what we may think is our familiarity with the story of Ruth-how she was faithful and left her homeland of Moab to come to Bethlehem with Naomi-we might skip over the surprising, perhaps even shocking implications of Elimelech’s decision to uproot his family and move to Moab. If you look at an Old Testament map, you will see that Moab is located on the east side of the Dead Sea (or Salt Sea as it was called in ancient times). To get to Moab from Bethlehem would have been at least a 30-mile trek to the Jordan and then a river crossing. Once in Moab, this Hebrew man and his family would have needed to find a place to live. We are not told what town in Moab Elimelich settled in, so we don’t know how far into this foreign country they went. 

It can be difficult to determine how to live in the midst of a culture that is not like you are accustomed to. While it does not compare to moving to a foreign country, I moved many times as a child. Each new home was a chance not only for new friends, but also to experience a slightly different lifestyle. The big city school and friends gave way to a small-town grade school where it was hard to make new friends because everyone knew everyone already. By the time I entered High School, 3 schools later, I had to make the conscious effort to be outgoing and try to meet new friends. I’m glad I did because one of those new friends had a brother, who I later married.
Changes in our life circumstances can affect our faith and relationship with God. In my book Naomi’s Joy, Naomi is concerned that they are sinning by leaving Bethlehem. Eventually she becomes content with the new life she and her family have found in Moab. It is strange in some ways, but the longer they live there the more familiar it becomes. The family works hard to maintain the ways taught by Moses. There is real soul searching when her sons want to marry Moabite girls. Elimelech struggles with the reality of their new life far from other Jews.
“Naomi, I must think,” the man held up a hand before I spoke. “I have to consider the future of my sons and my heritage. Our possessions have multiplied. Mahlon is right to say that unless he marries a Moabite the lineage of Elimelech will die.”
“The god of Jacob has blessed us. You have said that is proof of blessing.” I sought to ease the torment by reminding the man of his own words.
“Dare I disobey the word of Moses?” A big hand ran through his hair until it stood up in front instead of lying in neat square bangs similar to all the men of Moab.
“My husband,” kneeling beside the man I tried to smooth the hair. He pushed me away. “Ruth wants to know more of our ways and leave the gods of this land.”
“Do you know that?” Hopeful eyes looked at me across the short distance.
“Yes,” I did not know if he could see my nod in the meager light of the sliver of a moon rising in the east.
The man made no reply.
“She has prayed to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” I hoped the girl would forgive any breach of confidence. “It was Ruth who helped with the Passover. She hung on every word of the story.”
“I will think on it,” still my husband did not sound convinced.
“Moses himself wed a foreigner,” I whispered softly as a final argument.
“Be silent,” Elimelech flung himself onto the pallet with his back to me.
As we know from the Biblical citation, the sons of Naomi and Elimelech do marry Moabite girls. In my novel, Naomi prays that they will bear children.
Truly we are the chosen of God,” I marveled, at peace with the Holy One. “I see that you do bless us here. You heard my prayers and have brought wives into my sons’ homes. My daughter will find a husband and I will hold grandchildren in my arms. May Ruth and Orpah be fruitful in your eyes.”
Naomi’s prayer does come true, but certainly not in the way she expected, as we will see as we venture deeper into the story of the family and Ruth’s faithfulness to her mother-in-law.
As you look back over your life and faith journey, are you able to see the Hand of God in the various changes along the way?
Have you ever had to stand up for your faith?
How can we remain true to the faith we have been taught and believe when our neighbors do not believe and the world belittles religion?

Next time, we’ll see how Naomi fares when God seems to strike at her heart in the death of those she loves

January 22, 2017

Naomi's Marriage and Sons

We saw last time that Naomi, found in the Bible Book of Ruth, could have grown up during the Exodus wanderings in the wilderness. This isn’t found in the Biblical record so we must use our imagination to figure out the timing and the possible events. In my Biblical novel Naomi’s Joy, I postulate her childhood and how she meets her husband Elimelech.
In my book, she encounters Elimelech after rescuing one of his newborn lambs and the ewe from a flooded wadi. Months later the man approaches Naomi’s brother Isaac and the betrothal and marriage are arranged.
“Finally I found my voice, “Elimelech…me.” The two stammered words were all I could force out.
“Yes, Elimelech spoke to me after the Sabbath prayers,” Isaac could no longer contain the secret…
“The betrothal will be sealed this Sabbath,” Mother interjected. “After the Passover we will hold the marriage feast.”
“So soon?” My sentence was brief when I considered how rapidly my life was changing.
“It is a shorter betrothal than many,” acknowledged the woman. “The man is lonely. He has admired you since before you rescued his sheep.”
She did not acknowledge the thought that immediately came to my mind. As soon as I was wed to Elimelech he would be responsible for my family.
Naomi is wed in the fashion of the people of Israel. In my book, she is 14 years old, a normal age to be wed. Soon she is pregnant and hopes for a son, who is born in due time. This delights her husband. In her marriage, Naomi finds the love she lost when her father died, and even starts to trust in God a little more, but not for long.
“I have a son!” Elimelech entered the tent grinning with delight. “Let me see my son!”
“He has fallen asleep,” I cautioned, holding the newborn carefully so his father could see him.
The man dropped to his knees beside my pallet. One finger stroked the soft cheek. His hand looked huge next to the tiny head.
“You have given me a son,” my reward was a kiss on the forehead.
I was happy. My husband sat beside me. Together we watched the sleeping baby.
“The great God is wonderful,” at last the man spoke. “See how perfectly my son is made. I must offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving. Our son will be blessed.”
Naomi’s son is a sickly child, in fact his name Mahlon means ‘sickly’. Naomi pours her love into the baby and later his brother Chilion. When the new baby is weak, the family fears that they have sinned.
Like Mahlon, at first the infant was slow to thrive. He was lethargic and slept much of the time. Elimelech offered a goat as propitiation.
“It may be that we have sinned somehow,” he pointed out, “and God is punishing us with weak sons.”
I wracked my brain for some trivial or large transgression. The only thing I could identify was my secret jealousy against my sisters.
“God of Israel, I am sorry that I have envied Hephzibah for her beauty and desirability,” it was a private conversation with the clouds on Sinai just before the congregation moved on toward the summer pastures in the north.
“We can no longer claim Chilion is failing. Look how plump he is.” I rejoiced with my husband only a moon turning later. “Mahlon is stronger, too. God has heard me.”
The fear that her failures bring about bad things in her life haunts Naomi for much of her life, in my book. We, too can get caught up in trying to figure out how to appease the ‘angry God’ when things go wrong. In my family, my own mother often felt she had to earn God’s love. She feared that the results of things she did, or didn’t do showed that God was angry with her. Only much later in her life does Naomi learn that God loves her and has not been punishing her at all. My mother, sadly, only had brief times in her life when she felt truly loved.
Have you ever felt that you did something to make God angry when things have gone wrong? What helped you discover that God is love, not vengeance?
For many generations women and girls were constrained by societal mores to plan on being wives and mothers first. In many cases that was the only avenue open to them. They handled household things. Men were responsible for crops and herds and business. Women who stepped outside of the norm were looked at suspiciously and sometimes labeled as harlots or ostracized. That is much less true today, which gives young women many more options. In fact, many women feel the pressure to do both career and home, and to do them perfectly. Now, those women who stay at home to care for children and husband are looked at with suspicion. Some may even be the subject of gossip that says ‘she’s just lazy’ or ‘she has no ambition’. Anyone who has raised children knows that is totally false.
As a child in the 50’s and 60’s, I found myself caught in the whirlpool of the Women’s Rights movement as I came to young adulthood. I found myself torn between the ‘good old’ attitude that being a home-body wife and mother was best, and the ‘new’ understanding that a woman could be anything she wanted. I opted for the traditional role and only gradually eased into the workplace. However, my choice was not without some soul searching and ‘what if’ questions to myself.
Look back at your own teen and young adult years. Were you influenced by societal expectations to marry? Did you have the option to choose career or marriage? Have you felt pressure to do everything to have the approval of family and/or society?
Next time, we will meet Naomi both in the words of the Book of Ruth, and in the novel Naomi’s Joy as she and her family move to Moab. There Mahlon and Chilion will find wives. 

January 15, 2017

Naomi's Childhood and Faith

Today we are starting a new series. For the season of Epiphany-from now until the end of February, we’ll be studying the Book of Ruth in the Bible. I’ll also be using insights I gained while writing my book Naomi’s Joy.
The Biblical Book of Ruth comes right after the Book of Judges, and is set “in the days when the judges ruled”. We don’t get much ‘back story’ because the Book of Ruth jumps right in to tell us “there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.” So, for the first couple of weeks, we’ll have to depend on our imaginations to fill in the blanks that the Bible author didn’t think were important.
In my novel, Naomi’s Joy, Naomi’s childhood takes place during the Exodus wanderings. Because the Judges of Israel were the leaders of the people after the Exodus ended with the Conquest of Jericho and Canaan, it seems logical that she would have grown up during the 40 years of travel. She experienced the annual visits to Mt. Sanai and the nomadic life of the people as they moved their flocks and herds from pasture to pasture.
In my story, her father is one of the ones who dies when the people rebel and are bitten by the snakes. (Numbers 21:5-9) Naomi says, “Some were saved by that bronze image. Still, for many more, like my father, it was too late. We left their graves behind when we moved on. Care of my siblings fell to me. My mother was too broken by her grief to tend us. Even though I never dared tell anyone my secret, I knew that the hand of God was against me.”
We are formed by our childhoods. In my novel, Naomi is 12 years old when her father dies. After seeing her father’s death, she turns to attempting to earn God’s favor by complete and fear-filled obedience.
Are there things in your childhood that affect how you view God and faith? Some of us have a problem with identifying God as ‘Father’ because of poor or abusive parenting by their own father. Some cannot trust anyone, even God, because of betrayals in their childhood. Others have no difficulty trusting and calling God Father, or Abba or Daddy. They were blessed with a supportive and loving human father.
My own childhood was secure under the control of my father. However, he had issues with church and trust because of his own upbringing. That resulted in very little church attendance as I grew up. My grandmother, however, showered me with Bible story books, so I gained an undergirding of those stories even without Sunday School. I was an avid reader and devoured all the books she sent. Years later when I was asked to teach Sunday School myself, I was fast friends with the characters and stories and easily translated them into flannel board and puppet lessons for the Pre-schoolers. Still later, those same stories became the root of the Biblical novels I write.
Take a little time to remember your own childhood faith experiences, or lack of them. How did God find you and how did you find God as a child, or later? Can you see how your experiences as a child might influence your relationship with God and the church and faith?

Next time, we’ll enter Naomi’s world as she becomes a wife and mother. 

January 8, 2017

When you have to Search for God

Since Advent 1, way back at the end of November (seems like long ago, doesn’t it, with all the holiday busy-ness in between), we’ve looked at how God interacted with some of the major players in the Nativity drama through the lens of the ‘Vias’ of Creation Spirituality. There was Zechariah & Elizabeth who discovered God does answer prayers, even seemingly impossible ones. We met Mary and Joseph who responded in faith to God’s surprise. Around Christmas we considered the response of the innkeeper and the shepherds. Last time, we saw how the prophets Simon and Anna recognized Jesus in the Temple. Today we come to the final actors in the drama-the 3 Wise Men or Magi.
In the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew we learn, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’” One wonders how ‘wise’ these travelers were if they were unaware of the unsavory reputation of Herod. To visit the titular king, who was known to be paranoid and dangerous, and ask him about a new king, seems unwise. They had seen revelation in the star of the new Via Positiva-they understood that God was again calling all things good and seeking to bring all creation back into relationship. Then on the way, they somehow lost sight of this and decided that a ‘king’ must be born in a palace.
We might ask how they had lost sight of the wondrous star that led them to start this journey, until we consider how we often lose sight of our own goals and dreams in the day-to-day work and concerns. We discover that we no longer have a vision of our Via Positiva and may even wander into a time on the Via Negativa where we feel that God is no longer present.
Stop and Think: Have there been times when you lost sight of the goals and dreams of the Via Positiva in your life and stumbled along the Via Negativa feeling that God was no longer showing the way? It is easy to do when we don’t keep our eyes fixed on the guiding light of our Lord.
In losing sight of their path, and stumbling onto the Via Negativa of separation from God, they set in motion a great deal of consternation. And we learn, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” It is interesting to hear that ‘all Jerusalem was frightened’ because of the king’s fear of an unknown replacement. What upsets the ruler, causes concern in his subjects because they do not know how he will react. However, Herod can be crafty, he “secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’”
Perhaps grateful to escape with their own lives, the Magi “when they had heard the king…set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.” The Magi rejoiced when they saw their guiding star had returned. They followed that light, probably wondering at its direction southward toward the small town of Bethlehem and remembering what the priests had told Herod. “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” (Matthew 2:1-12) The Magi saw in Jesus the incarnation of the new Via Creativa and knew that he would be the ultimate reconciliation, the Via Transformativa, for and of the world.
Their visit to Jerusalem had taught them to fear Herod and so they returned home by ‘another road’. That stop in Jerusalem had consequences, though. “After they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’” (Matthew 2:13-15). The Holy Family became refugees. So many others have been forced to flee their homes ahead of war and destruction over the centuries, and even today.
The fear of a rival caused Herod to act as leaders have done so many times over the centuries. “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’” (Matthew 2:16-18) Herod retaliated and tried to destroy his perceived rival, and children were killed. This can call to mind Aleppo and so many other tragedies over the millennia.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the well-known Christmas carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day during the Civil War. There are 2 verses rarely heard that speak of the Via Negativa of that, and every, conflict, “Then from each black, accursed mouth/The cannon thundered in the South,/and with the sound/The carols drowned/Of peace on earth, good-will to men! It was as if an earthquake rent/The hearth-stones of a continent,/And made forlorn/The households born/Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” But Longfellow concludes by saying “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:/"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;/The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,/With peace on earth, good will to men."
We are grateful when we refocus and find our path again. We feel that we can again live into our gifts and participate in the Via Creativa and Via Transformativa of God’s work on earth. However, we live in a world broken by sin where children and other innocents are still killed and wars still rage.
Stop and Think: How are you called to live out the new Via Transformativa of reconciliation? What can you do to make a difference and bring hope to the hurting of today?

Next week will start a new series for the season of Epiphany. 

January 1, 2017

When God Arrives Unexpectedly

Very often we skip right from Christmas to the Feast of Epiphany without much pause for a big milestone in the life of Jesus and his family. Every Jewish boy baby is circumcised at eight days old, following the Law of Moses (Leviticus 12:2) The Holy Family dutifully complies with this. In the Gospel of Luke we learn, “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21). This is celebrated as the Feast of the Holy Name on January 1, but gets overshadowed by the secular celebrations of the New Year!
There is more to the story, though. After 33 days, a new mother had to offer a sacrifice for her purification (Leviticus 12:4). The new parents dutifully went through this ritual, which was part of the original Via Positiva. Luke tells us, “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’” (Luke 2:22-24)
Mary and Joseph carried the infant into the Temple and became part of the long story of two faithful worshipers. This man and woman probably felt like they were stuck forever on the Via Negativa and that God would never hear their pleas to see the promised Messiah.
We first meet Simeon, a man who “was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (Luke 2:25-26) The only thing Simeon could trust in was the promise of the Holy Spirit that he would see the Messiah of God.
Like Simeon, Anna had long traveled the Via Negativa. Luke says that she was a prophet. Remember, a prophet is not someone who foretells the future. A prophet is someone who points to things that need change. The Old Testament prophets, over and over, tried to redirect the people of Israel when they strayed from following God. People like Martin Luther King, Jr. point out what is wrong with the status quo. 
Anna was “the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher”. At a rough guess from the information we have in the Gospel, she had probably lived in the temple for at least 60 years. Luke says, “She…lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” (Luke 2:36-37)
Both Anna and Simeon were expectantly waiting for the new Via Creativa. They knew that God was going to do something new and unexpected, yet I’m sure that they were beginning to lose hope that it would happen in their lifetime.
Then Mary and Joseph enter the Temple with their month-old infant. This is probably not at all the way either Simeon or Anna expected Messiah to appear. However, Simeon recognized God in the baby. Luke says, Simeon was “Guided by the Spirit…and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’” (Luke 2:27-32)
Via Transformativa was announced by Simeon and Anna in their prophecies. Anna "came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem." (Luke 2:38) We can announce the way of Transformation in our lives as well. Rabbi Heschel says “There is the grain of the prophet in the recesses of every human existence.” Do you ever think of yourself as a prophet?
Most of us make New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps one resolution this year could be to be a bearer of Light and Peace to the aching world. One of my favorite poems/hymns is In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti. She asks, “What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
Stop and Think: How can I be a prophet in 2017 ‘poor as I am’, to declare the new life of the Via Creativa and the freedom for all on the Via Transformativa?