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 This is the latest in a series of small group studies that I have written for the church we attend. The assignment comes from the book of Ruth.

 

Uncover

 

Ruth: Week 4

Begin by reading Ruth 3:1–18

My Old Lady

I was really proud of being a teacher, so when I found myself at home in my pajamas on the first day of school in September, I felt like a nobody. I had lost my identity. I was profoundly lost—with no number 2 pencils. I had never had a September without number 2 pencils.

I had quit my teaching job too early and moved to a new town too soon. We thought our adoption would be completed that summer and I would become a full-time mom, but it didn’t happen. Now I was in a new town with no job. I dealt with this loss by playing video games, calling old friends, and listening to sermons online in our basement. Basically, I became a hobbit. If I couldn’t be a teacher or a mom, I might as well go live underground.

But then I met my next-door neighbor, Dorothy. Dorothy’s husband had died over the summer. After sixty years of marriage, Dorothy also felt profoundly lost.

My first visit with Dorothy lasted three hours and she cried the whole afternoon. From that moment until we moved two years later, we talked every day, sometimes several times a day. Not only did we talk, but she called our home often asking for small favors, chores, tasks. I changed lightbulbs. I cooked simple things. I reached things on high shelves. We went to breakfast at McDonald’s once a week. We went grocery shopping once a week. We priced items for her estate sale. We went to get her an eye prescription and new glasses. I listened. And listened. And listened. And listened.

Dorothy wore me out.

I was so generous to Dorothy. I would dutifully put on some jeans and go fix things in her house as if I were a benevolent fairy helping the poor widow next door. But it turns out, when I wasn’t helping Dorothy or listening about life with her husband, I was moping about not having an identity anymore. I was missing school life. I was smelling school supplies at Walmart. I was practicing my new life as a hobbit. I felt pathetic.

Later we moved again, we finally brought home our son, and my sense of loss returned. Parenthood didn’t save my from my identity crisis. Dorothy did. As soon as she was gone and I was a mom, I began searching for a new identity. and once again, I felt pathetic. I had thought I was saving Dorothy, but all along Dorothy was saving me.

Ruth the Moabite is a pitiful figure. She is from the wrong side of the tracks, she is a widow, and she has no wealth to her name. And she is bound to her former mother-in-law. This girl has baggage.

Boaz stands in utter contrast to Ruth the Moabite. He has assets, he has the right bloodline, and he has a good reputation. From here the story reads quite simply. Ruth presents both her loyalty and her great need before Boaz. He chooses to take up his responsibility as kinsman-redeemer with great respect and adoration for this poor woman. Boaz saves the day and the rest is history.

When we focus on the acute details of Ruth’s life, this appears to be true. Ruth and Naomi will not survive well without a kinsman-redeemer. When Ruth presents herself to Boaz and uncovers him, she is executing a cunning, strategic, desperate plan. This act of vulnerability is a cry for help in a frightening situation. Ruth does need a savior.

But take a step back. Examine the story as part of the beautiful narrative of redemption that the scriptures paint for us. An extraordinary series of events occurs, bringing a foreigner into Boaz’s bloodline. Ruth the Moabite, this outcast, this widow, becomes part of Israel’s story. Ruth comes to Israel and says, “Take me in,” and a King is born. How does this happen?

Her redemptive work begins with Naomi. She pledges to journey with Naomi away from her homeland. She commits herself to Yahweh and Yahweh’s people. We’ve explored the idea of hesed, calling it “the kind of love given at great cost to the one who gives it. Hesed is love that willingly puts itself at risk for another.” Ruth gives us a small glimpse of the kind of love we will see when Jesus arrives, hundreds of years later. She gives up the life she knows to become an alien in a foreign land. Much like Emmanuel “God with Us” of the New Testament, Ruth promises to be with Naomi until death separates them. Naomi now has a companion and a hope for the future.

When Ruth and Naomi hatch the plan to secure their place with a kinsman-redeemer, the story begins to get murky with nuance and subtlety. Scholars debate “Did they or didn’t they?” in shelves of commentaries and sermons about the Hebrew story of Ruth. Did “feet” really mean “feet”? Were “wings” really “wings”? Would moral and chaste Ruth have truly given sexual favors in exchange for a kinsman-redeemer? Was this old guy able to have sex at all? Some scholars and students of the book of Ruth feel compelled to defend Ruth’s honor. Many commentaries devote several pages to defending Ruth’s chastity. Not Boaz’s. Just Ruth’s. They say that this pure, sweet woman never would have lowered herself to fornication, that the night was a lovely picture of restraint and unconsummated passion. She is a heroine of the Scriptures. She could not have seduced Boaz that night.

But the language is sexually charged and explicitly ambiguous. We know that Naomi and Ruth were in a desperate situation. We know that Ruth was loyal and devoted to Naomi and would sacrifice her life for this friendship. We know that Ruth had no male relatives to defend her honor, which left her vulnerable, but also made her a free agent.

Carolyn Pressler writes, “Unlike Boaz’s ancestress Tamar, who risked capital punishment for the sake of perpetuating her husband’s lineage, Ruth was not in danger of legal punishment. Biblical law defines sexual offenses as violations of the rights of a woman’s father, husband, or in certain cases, father-in-law or brother-in-law over her sexuality.” Ruth has no father, husband, father-in-law or brother-in-law. But in spite of the ambiguous language and cultural context, we still don’t know what happened between Ruth and Boaz that night.

But it doesn’t really matter. Sex is a distraction from what is happening here. Her story does not depend upon her chastity. Her story does not depend upon her gentile-ness. Her story does not depend upon her beauty, her wealth, her femininity or her class. Her story depends upon her willingness to be vulnerable and loyal in the face of great fear and instability. She knows that Boaz might deal with her harshly. He might take advantage of her. He might rescind her gleaning privileges. Her life is at stake. But she humbles herself, peals back his “covering,” lies at his “feet” and takes refuge under his “wings.” We don’t know exactly what she does that night.

But we do know that she is very brave.

Saved by the Saved

In this act of self-exposure, Ruth offers herself up to Boaz’s mercy. But he is not the only savior in this story. Ruth has brought hope to Naomi’s household. Naomi praises new hope in the form of Ruth’s first-born son:

“Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a family guardian. May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.”

Now the hero shifts one more time. He is not Boaz. He is not Ruth. He is a tiny baby. And in this new spring of life we find resurrection. We find hope. We find salvation. For the hearer of this story, they don’t picture a helpless, crying, probably annoying baby, but they see the grandfather to King David.

The story of Ruth is bathed in the larger narrative of all of scripture. Helpless savior, hope of the world. When we read chapter 3, full of all of its sexual tension and steamy romance, we must remember that Ruth may be a humble, desperate maidservant, but she will also embody a powerful message that underscores the story of God: Love knows no outsiders. This idea weaves  itself seamlessly into the lineage of King David and therefore, Jesus, pronouncing to Jews and Gentiles that we are all God’s children, all part of the grander story. It would be hundreds of years before Peter would see the sheet of animals lowered before him in a vision in Acts 10, hundreds of years before Jewish Christians would worship alongside Gentile Christians. Hundreds of years before Pentecost, when the languages of the nations became one under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Yet if we dig deep into the lineage of Jesus, King David, and the story of Israel, we see a woman who proved the ever-expanding love of God. Ruth was the good news before the good news arrived.

My two children are adopted—both from faraway countries. Although their birthmothers were living, they were unable to provide for their children’s needs, so they relinquished these children to orphanages. We adopted one in 2007, one in 2011.

Often when people encounter our family they say things like,

“Oh, she is so lucky to have you.”

“He is so blessed to have you two as parents.”

“What you do is a real ministry to those kids. Imagine what their lives would have been like without you.”

I know why people think this way. My children come from desperate situations, surrounded by disease and destitution. The 143 million or so orphans on earth right now suffer most often from a lack of nurture, a lack of education, a lack of basic food, water, and shelter, and a lack of identity. Abandoned because of AIDS, poverty, war, famine, drug abuse, and/or cultural pressures, these children need homes. We adopted our children because we felt that the great need gave us no other choice.

How naive.

This is no one-way transaction. In fact, we are often surprised by the realization that these powerless, victimized, institutionalized kids have the power to save us. They are Jesus in bare feet with parasites and big, beautiful eyes. We are the lost ones. As I spend my days wiping noses, changing diapers, and being as therapeutic as I can, I often forget that they have come to bring the good news of resurrection and hope to our home. Without them we would be adrift in a sea of self-centeredness and navel-gazing.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that he will come to us incognito:

“‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”

The very people we seem to be saving are actually saving us.

Ruth the Moabite may seem like an unlikely ancestor for the Messiah. But the common thread of hesed links the stories of Ruth and Jesus more powerfully than any bloodline ever could. Ruth the Moabite left her homeland so that she could walk with Naomi and help her find a new life in Israel. Emmanuel, God with Us, made himself weak in order to walk among us and show us the way. Paul described Jesus in a beautiful poem in Philippians 2:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a human being,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death—

even death on a cross!

Ruth was not perfect. She was not Jewish. She was not married. She was not wealthy. She was a woman. But she was made from the same dust as we all are. She will live and die breathing the same air that we all breathe. In spite of her lowly place in this ancient tale, she bravely places herself in a defenseless situation out of love and devotion. And she risks her safety and reputation for the salvation of her family.

When we find ourselves valuing people by their assets, their background, their rank, their gender, their sexuality, or their citizenship, we find ourselves in contrast to the narrative of Scripture. Boaz could have looked at this poor Moabite and rejected her, based on all of these qualifications and his own Jewish upbringing. But he recognized the eternal spark in her, the hesed, that reflected the very image of Yahweh, the God who loves an underdog. God’s story regularly takes a weaker vessel, a “least of these” candidate, and saves the world. Who is saving you today?

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Being stuck is exciting.

  • Battlestar Galactica: A few thousand people stuck on a fleet of starships after robots take over the worlds.
  • Ender’s Game: Hundreds of children stuck in a battle school, preparing for an alien invasion.
  • Star Trek: Stuck on a ship.
  • Star Trek Voyager: Really stuck on a ship.
  • Survivor: stuck on an island with other attention-seeking Americans.
  • The Office: stuck in a dead-end job with nut jobs.
  • The Hunt for Red October: stuck in a submarine.
  • Crimson Tide: stuck in a submarine.
  • K-19: The Widowmaker: stuck in a submarine.
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: stuck in an asylum.
  • The Poseidon Adventure: stuck in a sinking ship.
  • Moon: stuck in space.
  • Inner Space: stuck in a person.

So, do you have any suggestions for my list?  This is pretty important stuff.

 

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Last year I wrote this little thought when I was thinking about submitting daily devotionals to a popular magazine. I changed my mind, so now I share this with you:

Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.

–Zora Neale Hurston

I left the playroom to throw some clothes into the washer. Just steps away from my two-year-old, I listened for her voice as she played with her dollies…

She came home to us from Ethiopia already a toddler, so we have spent every waking moment within a few feet of each other, working on our bond. Mabel has known no other caretaker on this side of the Atlantic, besides my husband and me. We do everything together. Everything. 

Our hearts swell when she chooses to get closer to us, and they collapse when she raises her arms up, asking to be held by strangers. One day at the park, she befriended an older gentleman and his two large dogs. Within moments I was coaxing her out of his lap. More bonding. We need more bonding. So my husband and I don’t go on dates. We don’t hire babysitters. The grandparents aren’t allowed to hold their grandchild yet. We’re bonding.

So today as I was flinging clothes into the washer (Little girls add a LOT of laundry to the household!), I strained to hear her babble. I didn’t hear anything from the playroom so I turned to check on her.  At my feet, I found Mabel.  And two dollies and a blanket.  Curled up next to the washer, just being with me.

The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.

–Mother Theresa


voyagerCrew

I love Star Trek. Here are the first 10 reasons that come to mind. Trust me, there are many more.

1. You can face any entire planet with an “away team” of three to five people.

2. The Borg, the greatest enemy known to the Federation, is a bunch of people who think exactly alike and have no individuality.

3. There is a constant, pleasant hum of beeps and whirs in the background of every scene.

4. Diversity of aliens. Inter-alien cooperation. Inter-alien romance.

5. You can make food by telling the computer what you want.

6. There is an endless supply of Shuttlecraft in the cargo bay. They never run out. Count them.

7. You can go see the captain whenever you want.

8. All problems can be isolated to anomalies, tachyon particles, warp core breaches, or someone taking over the computer system.

9. Vulcans, androids, holo-characters. The comic relief.

10. By the time you get through all the hundreds of episodes, they all seem new again.

 

How about you? What do you love/hate about Star Trek?

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I just attended a large group event, a church service. Our speaker spent twenty minutes congratulating us on how open and diverse we all are. How we accept people from all walks of life.

That sounds great. I want to be in that church. A church that truly accepts everyone and values diversity? Sign me up. That just doesn’t happen to be the church I attended today.

I looked around the room and saw very little diversity. No one on staff looks like my kids. No role models for them on stage, in the band, in their classrooms. The majority of speakers, music leaders, announcement givers, pray-ers, all young white men. Until diversity is reflected from the stage, we cannot expect it to be reflected in the  congregation.

Every week I feel less welcome, not more welcome.

Martin Luther King, who wasn’t mentioned in this sermon on diversity and acceptance, used to say that “eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour and Sunday school is still the most segregated school of the week.”

Until this isn’t true, we have little to congratulate ourselves about. There is a lot of work to do.

 

Enders-Game-Movie

My mom didn’t have a television as a child. She made weekly trips to the library and devoured dozens of books every month. But she read one book over and over again, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Little Women brought peace and comfort to her little world. Even today my mother loves to relive that story in book and movie form.

In many ways I take after her. But the book that brings me peace and comfort is full of aliens, battle school, bloody fights, and intergalactic war. Sorry, Mom.

Of all the science-fiction, defend-the-planet-from-alien-invader stuff out there, one book is set apart. In the midst of a classic set-up (powerful alien beings are returning to destroy Earth), an author embeds a profound understanding of human nature and a compelling story of redemption.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card tells the story of a boy-genius who becomes the hope of mankind in a war against an alien race that threatens humanity. This is an old story. What distinguishes Card’s version of this archetypal plot is his complex understanding of the inner-workings of people. The dynamics between Ender and his siblings, his teachers, his friends, his enemies, his parents, and the aliens, are so palpable that I must listen to the audio book regularly to soak in all the reality that is in this novel. When I finish a chapter, I have such a grasp of the emotional climate of the scene, that I feel like I could just jump in the book and play a role myself.

Secondly, I am challenged by Card. This book is about war. Orson Scott Card doesn’t let that be simple or easy. The two series that follow Ender’s Game (Ender’s Shadow series, Speaker for the Dead series)  unravel the consequences of war, and I come away from the story with a profound sorrow for the violent wars I see in the world today. Most pulp science-fiction glorifies the technical side of war. Orson Scott Card lets the impact of war cry from the page. These are not gory books. The impact is felt in the soul. War destroys people. I will never see war the same way again.

Nor will I ever see “aliens” the same way again. Book one is about the defeat of the fearful alien race. Speaker for the Dead turns this notion upside-down. Card finds a way to make this cold, empty group of distant aliens appear more human than those who sought to destroy them. I find this to be challenging to my faith and my own ability to love my neighbor. There is always a deeper story to what is going on under the surface.

Thirdly, Ender is a hero that I relate to. Yes, I find myself in this boy-genius who will save everyone. That may expose a dark side of my ego, but it also says something about the writing of this novel. I don’t find myself in Superman or Neo from the Matrix. They are too perfect. Ender is tortured. Ender loves and feels pain. Ender almost suffocates under the pressure to fulfill what he is called to do. Ender kills. I read the book over and over because I am Ender.

FYI:

There are two spin-off series that I mentioned above. I prefer the Ender’s Shadow spin-off series, but most prefer Speaker for the Dead and the books that follow it.

An Ender’s Game movie is in production. These are the ways they could ruin it for me:

1. Cast kids that are too old to play the characters.

2. Emphasize the action of the battle school and battle games instead of what is going on inside the characters. The whole point will be lost if they do this.

3. Add humor. The book is virtually humorless. The kids take themselves very seriously. If they add humor, it will be a Hollywood gimmick.