Unfamiliar Territory

by admin on November 5, 2012

The Well at Springfield 32206This week, we began exploring the Old Testament book of Ruth together.  Moving through the initial chapter of Naomi and Ruth’s journey, we asked the question, “where is God when we find ourselves where we never planned to go?”  Here is the message from yesterday’s worship gathering.  We will discuss the passage further tomorrow night during our dinner gathering…

Unlikely Companions in Unfamiliar Territory (Ruth 1:1-18)

This week, Bob, Amy and I had the opportunity to travel to Nashville, along with some other groups from different faith communities.  We were there to hear and discuss ways we can discern together how God is at work in and through our church.  The campus of the Scarritt-Bennett retreat center where we stayed was a beautiful mixture of Fall-colored trees and architecture that dated back to the 1800s.  Surrounded by colorful flowers and trees was a stone-marked labyrinth, a space set aside to guide participants into prayer.  Labyrinths like this one first emerged as a way to journey mentally and spiritually toward the holy land, once physical journeys became unsafe for travelers.  Using their imaginations, weaving through the ins and outs of the maze would draw spiritual people into a deeper sense of God’s presence.

At first, we studied the design, and then we entered.  It took several minutes as we walked slowly, thoughtfully and prayerfully making our way to the center.  There were more twists and turns than we expected.  Several times, we thought we were there, then another turn back.  We finally made it to the center, and afterward we reflected.  This wandering through the windy circle reminded us of our own life’s journey – so unpredictable at times, so seemingly far from where we want to be at times, and yet God is somehow present.  In fact, God seemed most eerily present as we were forced to move in an unexpected direction.

Ups and downs, ins and outs describe most of our journeys.  We can be on the mountain one minute and down in the valley the next.  Scripture is a collection of such journeys, and the Book of Ruth draws us into the journeys of two women, Naomi and Ruth.  Naomi is introduced as the central character at first.  We do not know anything about her to this point in her life, but this chapter begins with the tragedy of famine, a not uncommon occurrence in the southern deserts of Israel. As a result of the famine, her typical Israelite family of four is forced to leave their home and move to Moab, a tiny place east of Bethlehem, across the Dead Sea, and higher in the mountains.

The hardship of a lack of food is soon matched by an even more personal tragedy. Her husband and the father of her children, Elimelech, dies, and she is left a widow, a fearsome thing to be in a patriarchal world. Still, she has her two sons and thus is somewhat protected by their male presence. They soon marry Moabite women. But after some further time, both sons die, and what remains are three widows, two of whom are foreigners. The famine is no longer just a physical one.

Is everyone suddenly feeling a little better about their lives?

Maybe not.  Maybe you don’t need this story to remind you of circumstances as tragic as these and how it feels to turn around and find yourself in unfamiliar territory, forced to move into places that we would rather not be.

Tragedy can move us into that place, but so can moving into a new stage or age in life,
so can new and different jobs,
so can bankruptcy or foreclosure,
so can moving back home at a completely different place in life,
so can moving to a different home.
We can feel like strangers in a foreign land, completely lost and alone, unhappy with our lives.

We can imagine how easy it must have been for Naomi to become bitter.  She is so certain that God has forced this destruction on her that in the verses following these she literally asks that her name be changed to mean “bitter”.

You may or may have not have noticed something different about this story and its mention of God’s involvement.  There isn’t much mention of God.  Unlike many other stories in scripture, there is not much God talk, and we are left to listen for how and where God is involved in the events and circumstances of these women’s lives.

Where is God?  Where is God when Naomi finds herself in unfamiliar territory, in a new and undesirable place in life?   Where is God when we enter new and sometimes unwanted stages and places on our journeys?  Where is God in the aftermath of a terrible storm as people pick up the pieces of shattered homes and lives?  Where is God when relationships fall apart or loved ones are lost?  Where is God when a nation is split into heated debate and disagreement during another election?  Where is God when we are forced to journey where we did not want or plan to go?

In Jewish tradition, the Hebrew concept of “hesed” or loving kindness, referred to the willingness to commit one’s self beyond the boundaries of law or duty.  It was seen in the covenant God initiated toward God’s people and it found its way into Naomi’s life in the abiding presence of her daughter-in-law.

Ruth has every reason to leave, and really no reason to stay.  She is much younger than her widowed mother-in-law.  Naomi has no more sons that can be the source of a new family and a new future for Ruth.  Ruth is a Moabite, and Naomi is from Bethlehem- they may not even speak the same language, and they most certainly have different beliefs and traditions.  They are different people from different walks of life.  Yet, while Ruth and Naomi’s other daughter-in-law, Orpah both show initial concern, Ruth will not be talked out of leaving.  She is relentless in committing herself to Naomi.  And her persistence and the covenant that is created would plant the seeds of hope needed to move them toward fulfillment.

In this wonderful story, where is God?
God is a Moabite widow that will not leave her widowed mother-in-law alone.
God is there in the place we did not even think to look – in the stranger, in the one who patiently walks the journey with us, in the person and the presence that will not give up on us. God does not just show up in laws written on stone tablets.  God does not just stand far off blessing and cursing.  God is with us, and not in the way we expect.  God is in the widow, the stranger, and even in the dark places on our journeys, the places we would rather not go.

This story of an unlikely companionship in unfamiliar territory would serve as a major turning point in Israelite history.  The location of the book in our Bibles gives us a clue, and reading it verifies that this story is pivotal in the transition between Israel being ruled by Judges and Israel being ruled by Kings.  It would set the stage for the anticipation of the Messiah.  The beginning of it all was here in the pain of a grieving widow and in the willingness of her widowed daughter-in-law to stay and to live out a loving kindness that transcends the limits of law and duty.
Where is God when we find ourselves in a place we never planned to go?
God is found in faithful human relationship – the kind we are blessed to receive and the kind we are invited to extend to others.

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