February 26, 2017

Naomi and Obed

Throughout Epiphany we have traveled with Naomi of Bethlehem to Moab and back. Last time we saw her working behind the scenes to ‘help God’ bring about a good outcome to the years of sorrow and disaster. Her scheming pays off. Boaz and the widow of Naomi’s son are married.
Love and God are triumphant. God, however, isn’t quite done yet. Boaz and Ruth were married. And she became pregnant. The women of Bethlehem celebrate, They “said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ After this "Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse." In the fullness of God's timing she can claim a new child. "The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” (Ruth 4:14-17).
We might wonder why (how) Naomi becomes the baby’s nurse. Did Ruth die in childbirth? Did she just claim the boy as hers in place of the sons who died? The Biblical record is silent about those details. What we do learn is that the son of the foreigner from Moab, Ruth, and the good Hebrew man, Boaz, are the ancestors of David (and much later, of Jesus). 
The Book of Ruth closes with a genealogy that goes back to the grandson of Jacob, patriarch of Israel. The genealogy in the Book of Ruth starts with Perez, who was the son of Judah, one of Jacob's 12 sons. Interestingly, Perez is Judah's son through his relationship with is daughter-in-law Tamar.  In Genesis 38 we learn how Perez was conceived through some trickery on the part of Tamar to make Judah live up to the levirate duty of raising up children for his [dead] sons. The same genealogy is listed in 1 Chronicles 2:5 and at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. 
Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.” (Ruth 4:18-22) It never fails to amaze me that in that lineage at least two non-Hebrews are hidden-Rahab and Ruth. (And Tamar herself was likely not a Hebrew either.) 
Salmon was one of the spies who came to Jericho who Rahab hid. When Jericho was attacked, "the spies went in, and brought out Rahab, and her father and mother and brothers and all that belonged to her; and they brought all her kindred, and set them outside the camp of Israel." (Joshua 6:23) Salmon later married Rahab, and their son was Boaz. (While the marriage of Salmon and Rahab (harlot of Jericho) isn't specifically stated, we can extrapolate their marriage from the Matthew genealogy that says "Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab...") And of course, Ruth married Boaz, and bore Obed the great-grandfather of David.
God is not exclusive. God is extremely inclusive! What does that tell us about how we are to interact with the ‘stranger in our midst’? How does that change who we perceive as our neighbor? As Jesus points out in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, our neighbor cannot be labeled by their nationality or religion, nor by the color of their skin or their accent.
After telling the parable, Jesus asked, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? “The one who showed him mercy,’ replied the expert in the law. Then Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” (Luke 10:36-37)
How can we show mercy to those who might not at first glance be considered ‘neighbors’? What is your definition of neighbor?

Lent starts on Wednesday with, for many of us, the ‘Imposition of Ashes’. We are reminded to take a hard look at our lives during the 40 days of Lent. Come back and meet some of the Women of Lent over those weeks. 

February 19, 2017

Naomi-Love is in the air

We now come to the romantic heart of the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament-which is in fact the heart of our loving God. We’ve been following the life of Naomi, mostly in our imagination of what could have been, from her childhood and marriage to the family’s move to Moab to escape famine in Bethlehem. Last time we saw that after the death of her sons and husband the bereft Naomi returns to Bethlehem. One of her widowed daughters-in-law also comes with her. Ruth, the Moabite, is now the foreigner in the land of Israel.
Naomi returned to Bethlehem hoping that she would be treated kindly because of the command by Moses in Leviticus 19:9-10 which says, ‘When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest. Also do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God. She planned to live by scavenging the leftover grain at the edges of the field and survive.
As you read the Book of Ruth, try to put yourself into Naomi's sandals. She left Bethlehem as the wife of a competent husband with 2 sons, she returns a homeless widow, with only her widowed daughter-in-law as companion. How would you have felt? How would you have coped?  
In chapter 2 of the Book of Ruth we learn “Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz.” Cue the dramatic music. This gives us a hint of what may take place. Older than the Law of Moses is the tradition that a brother, or other kinsman, should marry a widow so that the family line continues. You can see this in Genesis 38 in the saga of Jacob and his sons. Judah’s son Er dies. “Then Judah said to Er's brother Onan, "Go and marry Tamar, as our law requires of the brother of a man who has died. You must produce an heir for your brother." There is hope whispering on the wind…
We learn that “Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.’” And by coincidence, or God’s guiding, or maybe a nudge from Naomi, ”she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech.” (Ruth 2:1-3)
Boaz sees the stranger gleaning. Cue the soft music. “Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, ‘To whom does this young woman belong?’ The servant…answered, ‘She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. She said, “Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.” So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.’” (Ruth 2:5-7)
Boaz said to Ruth, ‘Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women...’” This is above and beyond the Leviticus ordinance, and Ruth knows that Boaz is singling her out. “She fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, ‘Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?’ But Boaz answered her, ‘All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me…May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!’ Then she said, ‘May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants.’” (Ruth 2:8-13)
It is clear that Boaz is intrigued by this young woman from Moab who left her own family to risk life with her mother-in-law in a strange place. The strength of Ruth’s love for Naomi makes her truly a daughter even if not by blood bonds.
In the Biblical story we see Boaz making a special effort to see that Ruth is taken care of. “At mealtime Boaz said to her, ‘Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.’ So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain…Boaz instructed his young men, ‘Let her glean even among the standing sheaves…You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean...’” (Ruth 2: 14-16) Boaz may have told himself that he was just being a good kinsman to aid his kinsman’s widow, Naomi, by helping Ruth. However, you can read between the lines and see his budding romantic interest in the young widow.
Ruth does very well with her gleaning, thanks to Boaz’s instructions. ”She gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley…Her mother-in-law said to her, ‘Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.’ She [said], ‘The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz.’ Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, ‘Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!’ (Ruth 2:17-20) Naomi senses Boaz’s interest when Ruth tells of her adventures. When she learns that Boaz invited Ruth to stay with his men throughout the harvest she advises, “It is better, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field.” (Ruth 2:20) Naomi starts to think about the possibilities for future stability.
In Chapter 3, Naomi decides to take concrete steps to further the budding romance. She instructs Ruth to do something that seems, to 21st Century minds, to be both tricky and a bit risqué. Naomi says, “Now here is our kinsman Boaz…he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing-floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing-floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.’” (Ruth 3:1-4)
Ruth does as she is told. “She went down to the threshing-floor…When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came quietly and uncovered his feet, and lay down. At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman! He said, ‘Who are you?’ And she answered, ‘I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.’ He said, ‘…I will do for you all that you ask.(Ruth 3:6-11) Boaz then notes that there is one potential problem, (cue the dramatic music) “there is another kinsman more closely related than I…in the morning…If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin for you, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you.’” (Ruth 3:12-13)
When morning comes, Ruth “got up before one person could recognize another; for he said, ‘It must not be known that the woman came to the threshing-floor.’” Boaz gives her a gift which she takes back to Naomi “saying, ‘He gave me these six measures of barley, for he said, “Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.”  Naomi is satisfied with the success of her plan and replies, “Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today.”
Sure enough, Boaz heads for the city gate where business was transacted. Along comes the other potential kinsman redeemer. Boaz proceeds to play it cool, inviting the other man and 10 of the city elders to confer. “He then said to the next-of-kin, ‘Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech. So I thought I would tell you of it, and say: Buy it in the presence of those sitting here, and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not, tell me, so that I may know; for there is no one prior to you to redeem it, and I come after you.’”  Ruth 4:1-4.
Seeing a bargain, but not seeing the trap, the other man says, ‘I will redeem it.’ It is only then that Boaz explains, ‘The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.’ Just as Boaz planned and hoped, “the next-of-kin said, ‘I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.’” Cue the romantic theme music.
We then get a little peek into the customs of Israel. “To confirm a transaction, one party took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel. So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, ‘Acquire it for yourself’, he took off his sandal. Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, ‘Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.’ Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, ‘We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem; and, through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.’ (Ruth 4:7-12) This elaborate wording and blessing was the sealing of the contract, which was not written because writing was still a very young art. There is little likelihood that anyone in Bethlehem even knew that there was such a thing as writing, much less could have drawn up a written contract.
God is on Naomi's side to bring good from the disastrous events of recent years. It has not been an easy life for Naomi, but now it looks like everything is going to come out alright. The story of Naomi and Ruth reminds us that God loves us through thick and thin! Can you think of times in your life when God helped turn what seemed bad into a blessing?

“Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife.” Naomi’s plan worked, and they all lived happily ever after. But wait, there is more to the story that we’ll get to next time. 

February 12, 2017

Naomi, named 'Mara'. Ruth named Friend

Now we come to the part of the story that nearly everyone is familiar with. We meet Ruth, the Moabite woman, whose unconditional love helps bring God’s right-ness and righteousness into the broken situation. Naomi is a bereft widow in a foreign country 4000 years ago. She has no reason for hope and decides to return to her old home in Bethlehem.
In the first chapter of the Book of Ruth we hear, “she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had had consideration for his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.” (Ruth 1:5-9)
At first the women resist her suggestion, “They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.” (Ruth 1:10-14)
Even though her friend Orpah returns to her home, Ruth refuses Naomi’s continued urging. “So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’ When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.” (Ruth 1:15-18)
I would suspect that Naomi is glad of the company. She is returning to the place that was her home, but her circumstances have changed dramatically. She really doesn’t know what sort of welcome awaits her. The Law of Moses provides for the care of widows and orphans, but Naomi doesn’t know if that will be true for someone who left the tribe.
Naomi’s bitterness is obvious when she comes to Bethlehem. “…the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’ She said to them, ‘Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’ So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.” (Ruth 1:5-22)
Naomi is being showered with friendship by Ruth, and welcomed back to her hometown by her neighbors. However, she cannot find joy in the friendship or welcome. Sometimes, when life just seems too hard, it can seem easier to simply close out the world and pull the covers over your head. I think Naomi was feeling so battered and grief stricken after the deaths of all her family in a foreign country, that she just couldn’t summon any joy.
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt so angry and upset at the world in general that you couldn’t accept a simple offer of friendship or welcome?
What has helped you find happiness?

The last line of the chapter might not seem terribly important, just an afterthought or a notation of the season of the year. However, as we’ll see, the fact that it is harvest time is very important! 

February 5, 2017

Naomi Loses Hope

When we left Naomi last time, it seemed that all was going well in the new home in Moab. Elimelech took his family and left their newly settled homeland of Israel because of a famine. Remember, the Children of Israel returning from Egypt had not been in their new homeland very long. We can sometimes forget, because it’s an entirely different book in the Bible, that the time frame between Exodus and Judges and Ruth is not really that long. In fact, in my novel, Naomi was a child during the time of the Exodus.
We know that Elimelech took his wife and sons to Moab, where the sons grew up and were married to Moabite girls. But he died there, and “when they had lived there for about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons or her husband.” (Ruth 1:4-5)
Naomi is now a widow in a foreign land. There is no man to provide protection or financial security. She is in a precarious position. Her daughters-in-law could return to their families, but Naomi really had very few options.
Tragedy and grief can cause you to doubt God’s love and goodness. When you are confronted with the pain of loss, it can be easy to blame God. If you feel that there is no hope, you can easily despair. In the times when it looks like all doors are closed and there is nothing good, you can become angry.
Have you ever had a time when you were angry at God because life seemed to have taken a turn for the worse and you couldn’t see how it could be made right again? Maybe it was grief, or perhaps it was losing a job, maybe you felt like you had lost your identity along with your job.
That is what happened to me when I was asked to step down from the Director of Religious Education position. My identity had been wrapped up in being a ‘super’ Sunday School leader, and I found myself both at loose ends and rather angry with God. I felt like God had pulled the rug out from under my feet; or at least had allowed it to be jerked away.
There is a current Christian song Thy Will by Hillary Scott which states my thoughts during that time in my life. She sings “I'm so confused I know I heard you loud and clear. So, I followed through Somehow I ended up here. I don't wanna think I may never understand That my broken heart is a part of your plan. When I try to pray All I've got is hurt and these four words: Thy will be done…Just trying to make sense Of all your promises Sometimes I gotta stop Remember that you're God And I am not..” 
Eventually I was able, like Scott to say, “I know you see me I know you hear me, Lord Your plans are for me Goodness you have in store…Good news you have in store So, thy will be done…”
Sometimes it can take a long time to come to terms with the death of dreams, or the death of a beloved husband and sons like Naomi. In my book, Naomi’s Joy we see her turn even against God as she loses hope.
My heart was empty of anything except hatred for the God who stole all I cared for. Even grief did not touch me…Bit by bit the dowry I was so proud of as a girl vanished. The necklace Elimelech brought me from Ai was first to go. It turned into flour and cheap barley beer and cheese. Even though we practiced great economy the coins disappeared gradually.
[One] night I walked out of our house. My footsteps took me in the direction of the graves of Elimelech and my sons.
“What am I to do?” I asked the barren ground. With my teeth gritted I looked up at the starry sky. “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have I not been chastised enough? I obey all your commands, even in this foreign land. You take from me all that I love and now you make me abandon those I love as daughters. In order to spare them death from poverty, I must leave so they will look for new husbands to care for them. Do you offer no hope?”
There was only silence in the night. Far away a dog barked. My heart was empty. I did not have the courage to walk away from my home into the barren desert even to spare Ruth and Orpah. With plodding steps I turned from the graves. At the edge of town I paused. A trader’s camp was set up ready for the morning business.
A tiny hope flickered in me. “I will do it.”
For the rest of the night I sat outside our small house. My jaw was set. There were no tears, only a cold resolve fueled by anger at the God who abandoned me. My course was set.
We may think that situations like Naomi’s have no place in the ‘modern’ world where women have rights and are not dependent on husbands for security. We may think this is true in America. However, there are families and children who go to school hungry, who sleep in cars, who struggle from day to day.
Around the world, the situation is even graver in some places due to war, drought, famine, and insensitivity. There are women and children at risk and dependent on the hospitality of others for life itself. Our God calls us to look around and respond in ‘loving our neighbor as ourselves’. 
What can just one person do? There are organizations like Heifer Project and Episcopal Relief and Development, Unicef and Bread for the World, to name just a few who work to make these situations less dire. Communities have food banks and organizations, too.
Each of these is an opportunity to give hope to someone who has lost it. Each is a chance to be the hand and feet of God, and perhaps restore someone’s faith. Is there something you can do right now to offer hope?