February 19, 2012

Picking up the Pieces, part 2

So last week we began a new series looking at the book of Ruth.  As we worked our way through the first chapter, it became apparent that this story did not have a very happy beginning.  In fact, I don’t know about you, but I was kind of depressed when we got to the end of things last week.  Yes, we were left with a glimmer of hope, but not any more than that.  I told you then that you were going to have to come back in order to hear the rest of the story.  Furthermore, I told you we were going to take a look at the story through the eyes of each of the main characters in it.  This morning, we are going to be begin to claw our way back up from the cellar of life in which Naomi and Ruth were sitting at the end of the first chapter.  Hear, then, the story through the eyes of one who experienced it…

Oh!  Hi there.  Do you have just a minute?  I have to tell someone about my day or I’m going to burst.  I mean, of course I’ll tell Naomi when I get home, but I don’t think I can wait that long.  Oh, my name?  I’m Ruth.  I know I don’t look like everyone else around here, but I’m Naomi’s daughter-in-law.  Who’s Naomi?  You’re not from around here either, are you?  What a relief!  I stand out like a sore thumb around these parts.  At least now we can stand out together.  Oh, right…my story…

Well, since you don’t know who Naomi is and you haven’t been around here long enough to hear all the rumors about me, let me give you a bit of background.  I grew up in Moab.  Moabites and Israelites aren’t exactly what you might call friends.  Our two nations have been at or on the border of war for years.  Sometimes the Israelites have gained the upper hand, sometimes we have.  I grew up in a day when the Israelites held it.  Our local priests told us the reason was that our god, Chemosh, was mad at us because we hadn’t been faithful enough.  He needed more sacrifices.  Animals, grain, wine, and even children.  Only when Chemosh’s appetite was sated would he be pleased and give our warriors the strength to throw off the Israelite dogs once again as our ancestors had done.  After all, they tried to remove us from lands our people had tended for generations.  The power of their God was unmatched in those days.  But his power has waned recently.  There’s talk of another rebellion in the works, but Chemosh must be pleased first.  As I grew up this is all I heard over and over again.  Work harder.  Harvest more.  Give to Chemosh.  I confess that by the time I was a young teenager, I was ready to be rid of Chemosh.  Perhaps the god of the Israelites wasn’t so bad, I thought.  Little did I know then that I would get my chance.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day I did.  I must have been about fifteen.  I was walking with my sister to get some water for father and our brothers when I saw him.  He was only a few years older than me and clearly and Israelite.  But there was just something about him that I couldn’t take my eyes off of.  Our conversation was fairly banal, but my heart was fluttering so badly the whole time I don’t think I could have said anything more interesting.  Eventually we were just kind of stammering and digging our toes in the dirt.  Finally my sister cleared her throat loudly and with an irritated roll of her eyes reminded me that the boys were getting thirsty.  I said goodbye to him, promised to be there the next time he came (I would have waited all day had I had to), and hurried home.  At the first chance I got I rushed over to Orpah’s father’s house to tell her what had happened.  She met me at the door and instantly we both knew what had happened.  We squealed like piglets and started talking over each other in our rush to get the whole story out.  Well, it wasn’t long before we were both married.  What a thought: best friends marrying brothers.  Now we really were going to be together for the rest of our lives.

Then things started getting hard.  In spite of plenty of opportunities, neither of us got pregnant in that first year.  Or the next.  Or the next after that.  Perhaps Chemosh’s displease was finally affecting us directly.  In any event, by the sixth and seventh years we resigned ourselves to barrenness.  Those were hard years as we four adjusted to a life with no children.  But the strain was most evident in Naomi.  She didn’t talk about the past much, but it was like she had this sense that something was going to happen.  Now, don’t get me wrong: we adored Naomi.  There was just something about her—a pleasantness that poured from her pores.  There was a loving faithfulness to her—I think she called it the chesed of her God showing itself through her—that earned near instant love and attachment from Orpah and me.  I would have given my life for her…I still would.

Anyway, eventually her sense proved right.  Both of our husbands died within weeks of each other.  When Mahlon died she didn’t grieve at first.  It was like she was waiting.  Then her waiting was over.  Chemosh struck down Chilion just the same as his brother.  I’ve never heard such a moan of despair come from a person as Naomi let loose on that day.  It gave me goose bumps.  All that remained was the three of us.  I can’t remember a time in my life when I’ve been more scared than that.  I don’t know about where you’re from, but life for a woman in Moab isn’t all that great.  Life for a single woman, particularly a widow, particularly a barren widow, is several orders of magnitude worse.  Sure you can live with your family as long as they can support you, but once they’re gone, you’re on your own.  No, you don’t understand.  People don’t help each other in Moab.  Maybe you have a culture where everyone is generally looking out for the people around them to some degree, kind of like it is here in Israel, but Moab isn’t like that.  When one person struggles her neighbors either look the other way or else plan how they can exploit her in order to take hold of what had belonged to her.  After all, Chemosh honors the strong, not the weak.  The weak must be purged from society in order that the whole tribe can survive.  Most women I’ve known in that situation have either gone to the great temple to become a vessel for worshipers (mostly men) to experience the divine or else sold themselves into slavery.  Some took their own lives rather than face one of those two options.  What a set of choices, huh?  Get used for your body until you are worn out and thrown out with the trash or head on out to the curb and beat the rush.  So you can see that my terror was both real and justified.

Well, when Naomi declared that she was going to return to the land of her God where her family resided, we naturally jumped to go with her.  Orpah and I were both hopeful as we packed.  Perhaps the god of Israel—they were a strange people who only worshiped one god—was kinder and gentler than Chemosh.  Oh his warriors were fierce, but from what I had learned of his law from Naomi, there seemed to be another side of him.  A side marked by tenderness and compassion for people in situations not so different from ours.  There was almost a lightness to our steps as we set out for this place.  The lightness lasted until we reached the fork which would have taken us back to our village.  Naomi suddenly stopped and told us she was going on alone.  She released us to marry again since we were still so young.  After many tears and protests, eventually Orpah rose to go.  As she did she took my hand, unaware that I had made a decision.  I was going with Naomi.  I couldn’t leave her.  I wouldn’t.  Besides, the life ahead of the two of us in Israel could not have been any worse than what waited for Orpah and me in Moab.  The look in Orpah’s eyes when I didn’t budge, but instead let go of her hand, burned me to the core.  My friend was no longer my friend.  I don’t think she’ll ever forgive me for that.  But I couldn’t help it.  I had to go.  After making as much clear to Naomi, the two of us set off.

All of that brings me to today.  We haven’t been settled for very long, but without any way to support ourselves, we are already burning through the kindness of our neighbors.  The law mandates they help us in some way, but many of them are not so inclined to obey the law when it is inconvenient or costly to do so.  Surely you see the folly of such an approach when you relate to your gods?  Anyway, while they were moved to some pity and compassion when they heard our story, I suspect they might have given more had I not been there.  They seemed to buy on the surface the story that I really was Naomi’s daughter-in-law, but the look in their eyes said that their opinion of her shifted when they realized that she had let her sons marry Moabite girls.  With our available well of help starting to run dry, then, it was time to figure something else out.  Our life was still in pieces and it was time to start picking them up.  I had come this direction, walked away from everything familiar to me, because I saw hope and life here.  I wasn’t about to let it get away.  Naomi had mentioned to me that the law of Yahweh mandated that when farmers plow their fields, they are to leave some behind for the poor.  Somewhere in the law it says, “when you harvest your land, don’t harvest right up to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings from the harvest…Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.”  I am both of those.

So, when I woke up this morning, I asked Naomi to let me attempt to glean in one of the local fields. At first she didn’t seem totally sold on the idea.  “After all,” she said, “a beautiful woman heralding from territory held by one of Israel’s enemies may not receive the most gentle treatment from the workers.”  And I knew that.  People don’t tend to think all that highly of a poor foreigner coming in to do jobs or take charity that in their minds should be reserved for the real members of their society.  Maybe you have something like this attitude in your tribe?  Do people look down on outsiders coming in to take charity and other help because of the hard situation they are in as a result of packing up their life in desperation and moving to a totally new culture where you’re from?  Yet Yahweh’s law, to which the people of Israel give at least some lip service, mandates helping people such as me.  I intend to work hard for the help I receive—harder more likely than some of the workers who can count on getting paid for their labors.  Surely there must be some Israelites who keep the law and would not look down on one such as me who is working hard to honor the law and gather enough for my family to live on.  If you were here, you wouldn’t do that, would you?

Anyway, after working on her for a while, eventually she relented and told me to go.  I promised her I would be careful to find a part of the community field whose owner showed me some favor.  I didn’t know how it was going to happen, but somehow I knew that Yahweh was going to help me.  Well, as luck would have it, one of the first fields I came to was owned by a man whose name I later learned was Boaz.  I approached the foreman of the workers with as much humility and deference as I could muster and asked if I could pick up the gleanings from the field in order to help feed my aging mother-in-law.  In spite of my attempts at humility, I think it was my boldness that caught him off guard.  I guess they probably don’t have very many Moabite girls coming to glean to support their Israelite mothers-in-law.  Thankfully his shock turned to compassion instead of hardness and he let me go.  I worked as hard and as fast as I could.  I didn’t want to waste this opportunity.

As I worked throughout the morning eventually I heard some commotion near the entrance to the field.  The owner of the field was arriving.  He greeted all the workers warmly in the name of the Lord.  His voice sounded strong and good.  The greeting, while pretty standard in its form, seemed to express more than the usual pleasantries.  It almost sounded as if he really, sincerely wished for the Lord to be present with the workers.  But how could this be?  How could one of the gods be present with mere mortals?  In any event, after he went through what was probably his normal routine, I could hear him asking the foreman who I was.  He told the owner everything he knew about me…including where I was from.  I winced as I heard him describe me as “the young Moabite woman.”  While he seemed like a generous man who would tolerate gleaners, I thought for sure that he was going to run me off when he learned my nationality.  Sure enough, when their conversation ended, I was summed to appear before him.

Up close I could see that he was several years older than me.  His eyes were slightly weathered, but they were soft and warm.  His smile was strong and inviting.  And he was a good deal more handsome than I previously thought.  All of that meant it was going to be especially painful to be turned away by him.  But then the words started coming out of his mouth and they shocked me.  He called me daughter—a term of caring endearment in this culture.  He told me I could not only stay in his field, but told me to stay close to where the young women bundling the sheaves of grain cut by the men were working so that I could gather more barley more quickly.  He even revealed that he had specifically instructed the men working in the field to leave me alone.  I no longer needed to fear the verbal and physical assaults so common among gleaners.

When he finished, I began speaking quickly.  I couldn’t help myself.  Perhaps it wasn’t customary for me to say anything other than, “Thank you,” but I had to know the reason for such kindness as this.  Instead of getting angry over my outburst as some of the men with him started to do, he smiled and told me how he knew of everything I had done for Naomi.  He knew of what I had left behind when I journeyed with my mother-in-law to Bethlehem.  Then he spoke a word of blessing in the name of Yahweh over me quite similar to the one spoken by Naomi over Orpah and me before we parted ways.  It’s almost like the followers of Yahweh think he responds more to kindness and sacrifice than to strength.  I was dumbstruck.  How could he know these things?  Why would he speak a blessing so similar in form to the one spoken by Naomi?  Yes, I had given up much to come here, but it was nothing compared with what Naomi lost in my country.  Could this Yahweh be involved in what was happening here?  Was it mere chance that I started my search with this field or something more?  In response to all of this I mumbled something about his kindness to me, a foreigner, and got back to work.  I was working hard, but I barely felt it.  I was in a daze.

What seemed like days later it came time for the day’s meal.  I was tired, but I had no intention of stopping.  He had given me an open invitation to his field for the future, but I wanted to make the most of my time here.  While this Boaz was willing to be generous, I would receive it gladly.  As I continued working, though, I suddenly saw a shadow on the ground in front of me and it was not mine.  Startled, I looked up and it was Boaz himself.  With that same inviting smile he reached out his hand and invited me to dine with him at his table.  I was certain my ears were playing tricks on me.  I still know only a little of the customs of Israel having been here for such a short time, but having spent a full ten years with Naomi I know they aren’t all that different from those in my native land.  An older, wealthy, landowner does not invite a poor, foreign, widow to dine at his table.  Those with everything have no dealings with those with nothing.  Then things got even stranger: he served me.  What kind of a man serves a woman such as myself who is separated from him at every societal measurement by an impassable chasm?   This was the same loving kindness that Naomi had always showed us.  This man was not just some random wealthy landowner.  He was a true servant of Yahweh.  His behaviors made no sense in any other context.  This fact was put on display by the utter shock and horror in the eyes of the other workers at the table.  How could their lord debase himself in this manner? they were surely thinking.  Didn’t he know who I was?  And yet he did what he did with boldness and loving intentionality.

Well, with his astounding generosity on display and my stomach rumbling from my labors this morning, I ate my fill.  When I had finished I headed back to work more.  As I started away, though, I overheard him giving instructions to the other workers at the table.  They were to drop more than they usually did for me.  I was even to be allowed to glean from among the already completed bundles in case grain was dislodged in the bundling process.  I went back to work marveling at the day’s events.  I left home this morning with fear and trepidation, wondering whether I would be able to find anything for Naomi and me to eat.  I’m headed home now with a full ephah of barley!  I’ve never heard of a paid worker taking in so much in one day.  I don’t know how all of this has happened, but I feel as if the clouds of the past few months are starting to lift.  The sun is breaking through.  Praise the Lord of the harvest!  I could keep talking about this for days, but I’m afraid I’ve already taken up too much of your time.  And Naomi is probably getting anxious waiting for me.  I’ll head home now and tell her about the day’s events.  She’ll be so excited.  Blessings as you continue on your journey!

Welcome back.  I hope Ruth didn’t keep you for too long.  I think I saw her as I was coming back in.  They must have dressed kind of funny back then.  She looked like she was wearing a suit like mine.  Anyway, it looks here like she told you most of the story of chapter 2.  I’ll just finish things out for her.  Ruth did hurry back home to tell Naomi all about her incredible day.  When she revealed the name of the landowner Naomi nearly fell out she was so shocked and excited.  As it turns out, Boaz was one of their kinsmen redeemers.  He was one of the few people who were legally obligated to help them.  If he so desired he could even take Ruth as his wife giving them an even better chance at life.  Their situation was not yet greatly improved, but the light of hope glimmering at the end of the tunnel was a good bit brighter than it had been that morning.  They were still picking up the pieces of their life, but God wasn’t leaving them alone to do it.  He was walking with them all the while.  Ruth talked about luck leading her to the field of Boaz, but the context makes it clear that luck had nothing to do with it.  Like the book of Esther, God rarely receives direct mention in the book of Ruth, but I defy you to find for me a book in which God is more obviously directing the events of the story.  God is the one who led Ruth to Boaz’s field.  He is the one who made Boaz’s heart ready to receive her.  He is even the one who enabled her to glean so much barley.  When Ruth and Naomi were picking up the pieces, God didn’t leave them alone.  Neither will He leave us.  When we’re picking up the pieces, God won’t leave us alone.

If you find yourself in a place where life has fallen in around you and you are trying desperately to pick up the pieces, know well that you are not alone.  It may not be obvious how He is there and what He is doing, but you can rest assured that He is.  Look carefully sometime at the reactions of both Ruth and Naomi to Boaz’s generosity.  Neither of them gives any obvious credit to God.  They treat it as a great stroke of luck.  We have the clear vision of hindsight here, but I suspect there are times—perhaps you are even in one—where God is actively at work, but your vision is so blurred by the haze of the recent collapse that you can’t see it.  Yet take heart.  When you are picking up the pieces, God won’t leave you alone.  Have the faith to keep looking forward because He’s right there with you.  When we’re picking up the pieces, God won’t leave us alone.  Sometimes, though, it will take some tenacity on our part to make it over the next ridge.  Even then, though, God won’t leave us alone.