Those of you who drop by and read this blog might notice that I rarely comment on the lectionary readings or regurgitate the sermon preached on the preceding Sunday as a means to posting regular blog posts. However, I’ve been reading the story of Ruth and Naomi again and a number of things have struck me about their story in chapter 1 which I think have poignancy and enduring relevance to those who find faith in God and life difficult and wonder, ‘where is God in all this?’
We all know the charming and beautiful story of how Ruth meets Boaz; they marry and it is from this union that the greatest king in Israel’s history is descended. But, I would like to ask you to have another look at the first chapter. Naomi and her husband Elimelech leave Bethlehem due to a famine and move to the country of Moab, the area south east of the Salt Sea (Dead Sea). Not always a good move because the land tends to be more marginal than the hill country of Bethlehem, but they manage to scratch out a living. Adversity again strikes the family: Naomi’s husband dies. The hope of food security collapses when the head of the family dies. The text seems to imply that this was shortly after arriving in Moab. Then Naomi’s two sons marry Moabite women. Not a wise choice for an Israelite as the Moabites were prohibited from participating in Israelite worship and hated for their refusal to allow Israel to pass through their land during the exodus (Deut 23:3-6). In a case of things going from bad to worse, Naomi’s two sons then die leaving her with the two daughters in law. She left with hope, now she has nothing except two Moabite daughters in law who will not be welcome in polite Israelite company. Naomi then receives word that conditions back in Bethlehem have improved and given how bad things have turned out, makes the decision to return. Then, just as she is leaving, Naomi attempts to persuade her daughters in law to return to their own family’s houses. The older of the daughters in law (implied by their name being first in the text), does this, but Ruth refuses.
Ruth then makes the beautiful promises which are occasionally read out at a wedding. They are in fact, the words of a covenant and have the echo of God’s promise to Israel (‘you will be my people and I will be your God’. (Compare Ruth 1:16 with Jer 30:22, 31:33, 32:38, and Ezk 36:28, 37:23.) Ruth is demonstrating love, faith and hope by entering into this covenant with her mother in law. It is also a covenant of grace and like all covenants of grace, it is initiated by the stronger (Ruth) and entered into with a weaker, vulnerable people, in this case Naomi. Ruth is a good picture/image of what God does for Israel and also us as well, a children of the new covenant. Then narrator devotes one verse (Ruth 1:19) to cover the month long trip back to Bethlehem but then gives Naomi the space in the story to report her response to being away for ten years.
“Call me no longer Naomi (meaning pleasant)
Call me Mara.” (meaning bitter)
for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.
I went away full,
but the LORD has dealt harshly with me,
and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me.” (NRSV)
When I compare the length of Naomi’s statement of how she feels to Ruth’s glorious promise of commitment to Naomi, they are about the same in my bible, the NRSV. But what a difference! The two stories stand in contrast and highlight the different ways people will respond to the same circumstances in adversity. Yet I will postpone any criticism of Naomi for her response for reasons which will be revealed shortly. It is not a matter as some would suggest, that it is her lack of obedience or faith that has led to her situation. Something deeper is being played out which neither Naomi or Ruth know, even though they have made different responses to the shared situation they find themselves in.
For some of you reading this, Naomi’s story will be your experience as well. It is certainly mine. My family moved from country Victoria a southern state in Australia, to Queensland when I had just turned 16 yrs old. Our furniture was severely damaged being transported there. When I arrived in Queensland, on the Gold Coast, a place for holidays in the sun and surf beaches, I felt as if I didn’t belong with its superficial culture of beach, crass commercialism and conservative state politics. Within months of arriving there, a flood destroyed what remained of our furniture and personal affects (photos, books, letters, etc) which were being held in storage while we looked for a house to buy. Then my parent’s marriage broke up and I eventually chose to live with friends. I had lost my friends down south, all my memories in the flood and my parent’s marriage. I disliked the tropical heat and the politics of this northern state. So I moved back south – but this time to Tasmania. On arriving in Tasmania, I felt like Naomi.
In recent events here in Australia, we have had a horrific bushfire two years and a half years ago in Victoria, a particularly destructive cyclone last summer in Queensland and extensive flooding down the east coast of Australia associated with the La Nina weather pattern which follows the El Nino pattern. Normally, summer in Victoria it is hot and dry: this year it was cool and very wet. Thousands of people have lost everything by these events: homes, businesses, crops, farms and for some, the death of family members. Many marriages will not cope under the strain imposed by these unusual circumstances. There will be many like Naomi.
Those of you who offer spiritual direction will probably recognise the Naomi’s who come to you as well. And here is the question: how do we offer hope to those who have no hope? Naomi blames God for what has happened to her. Many of those who suffer adversity blame God for their circumstances and then seek to regain control over their lives by embarking on religious promises and practices which are designed to get God’s favour again. And they blame themselves.
Just in case that we, the reader of the story, don’t miss the point of the racial and religious difficulty confronting Ruth if she goes into Israelite society, the narrator highlights in last verse of chapter 1 by the order of the words, that Naomi returns with “Ruth the Moabite” – who is her daughter in law. What she has returned with (a daughter in law) is not the most promising thing to bring back with her.
A feature I see in Naomi’s story is one I have encountered many times in recent years. It is the person who has undergone a deep trial in life and now wants to rename themselves as a way of claiming a new identity. In Naomi’s case, it is not a particularly positive image of herself, but this is what she wants to do. I’ve met several who have changed their names. One task of the spiritual director (SDr) is to sit with them and listen to why they want to do this – not to persuade them otherwise, but to validate their story that it really happened to them and affected them to the degree that it has. One person wrestled with this issue of name changing due to the associations their name had to their past life which they found oppressive. In the end, they were able to live with who they were now and their name from their past. In some ways, this was their reconciliation with the two halves of their life.
The spiritual director is always asking themselves and occasionally the directee the question, ‘where is God in all this?’ In the text there is a glimmer of hope: it is the beginning of the barley harvest. The chapter begins with famine (crop failure), now it ends with harvest, there is abundance in returning home. And as we know, but Naomi didn’t, it is Ruth’s going out into the harvest to gather what she can that will provide not just food, the introduction to a new future which will open up. Like the narrator, we are privileged to know the outcome and the enduring legacy with which Ruth gave to the nation. That Matthew records her in his genealogy (with the other women of disreputable backgrounds), highlights amongst other things, God’s gracious way of using those who would normally be rejected and bringing them into this salvation plan. This confounds the religious types who want things tidy, respectable and have distorted views on what constitutes holiness. Throughout the story, it is God who is the main character, shaping events and people to fulfil a greater purpose of which they are unaware of. He is not obviously seen, but the story reeks of grace, grace and more grace, God’s grace. It is not just a story about Ruth and Boaz, but God’s love of Israel, it is a universal story against which we place Naomi’s confession that she no longer believes in God’s goodness or purpose for her life.
As spiritual directors we often sit there, stuck, wondering what might come out of the place of our own Naomi’s who come to us: darkness, death, and despair. We silently begin to pray that our directees might be given the eyes to see where God is at work in their lives when the evidence is to the contrary. Often they and us, see the hand of God in the people God has put alongside them to support us. Ruth is God’s gift to Naomi in her adversity, but at this stage, because it is the early stage of her interior journey, she is unaware that this is the case as she returns to Bethlehem.
How does one bring the word or sign of hope to our Naomi before us when they say, “No longer call me Naomi, but call me Mara”? How do we support our directees, when they blame God for their situation? I think it is at this point we must hope, that by holding them in our hope, that they will eventually be reborn in a new sense of God’s wondrous presence with them. It is our hope in the overall purposes of a good God, and most of all, faith in the surprising gift of the Spirit that he brings hope so that a ‘spring’ of types occurs, a shift, a movement within their heart toward hope. That we as directors are prepared to sit with them in their darkness yet not give way to their grief and despair (as much as we feel its weight and as much as that it touches our own despair), is in itself, evidence of our hope, that there is a future even if we do not know what exactly that future looks like. We sit with them with the assurance to offer them, to use Julian of Norwich’s term that, “All will be well”, even if we do not explicitly say this out loud. Our hope and presence are not just our gift, but more particularly God’s gift to the directee at this point. We hold within us the treasure that hope is the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out. We will be hesitant and provisional in naming what the ‘it’ might exactly be, but we have the sense of expectation nevertheless. Henri Nouwen said of hope that it is “the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.”
Finally, I must recognise that Naomi is still in the first stage of what will be three stages of recovery. At the moment, she is the victim of circumstances, feeling crushed. But there will come the time when she moves on to become a witness, a witness of God’s work within her hopelessness and eventually to agent: being able to make choices according to her perceived needs. As directors we are given the privilege to know that the current situation is not the final one and that this place of death is not the final answer. We live in the hope of resurrection in the midst of death and that given time and care Naomi will move on. Meanwhile we will offer her the grace and mercy of giving her the space as the narrator does in the Biblical account, to tell her story uninterrupted and authentically, honestly even if it challenges my own theology (the Almighty has done this: my God is not like this I hear myself saying. But it is her experience that matters.)
Somehow I must control the urge within to offer the platitudes, to hasten over the raw honesty which embarrasses me and disturbs me and maintain the position of a fellow traveller who is there to support her on her journey from Moab to Bethlehem. Whilst I recognise that Naomi has no ability to imagine any other world than the one in which she has constructed for herself, I must remain patient while we identify together what she hopes for. This will take time, and extended period of time. None of us live in a ‘real world’, but the world which we have constructed for ourselves. This will require the use of my imagination in the sense of being slow to admit that all the facts are in; all the doors tried. Our imagination gives us images which speak to us. At this time, Naomi has few to choose from. But SDrs have caught a glimpse of an alternative to the reality of which Naomi speaks of: the reign of God. Chapter 1 is not the end of the story, but marks the beginning of God’s grace in this women’s life. At the moment she just can’t see it.
What I think we want when we have lost everything is the return of the goods stolen, a new house for the one burnt in the bushfire, the wife who has left us, the child who has died. It takes months and more commonly, years before we dig down deeper through our despair and grief to discover that what we really want (our deepest desire), is life, a good life, or a life which is whole again – with our without the thing we have lost, because to have this ‘life’ is one of freedom from the pain, despair and the past which will no longer have control over us. The director is one who sits alongside nurturing, waiting, living in the hope that given time, they will discover this treasure hidden in the field, their lived life.