Companions for the journey

The Ruth and Naomi story

by Nancy Hastings Sehested

As people of God we are called to a journey. Sometimes we are pilgrims. Sometimes we are refugees. For the pilgrim, there is a choice. For the refugee, there is no choice. For the pilgrim, there is freedom. For the refugee, there is no freedom. The biblical story offers us Ruth, the pilgrim and Naomi, the refugee. Both step into an uncertain future.

In the days when the Judges ruled, chaos reigned. The times were severe. Famine devastated the land. Bethlehem, the name that means “house of bread,” had become an empty house. Elimelech and Naomi became refugees. They left their homeland of Bethlehem with their two sons. They found a way to survive in the foreign land of Moab.

They started over. After ten years in their land of adoption, it was beginning to feel like home. Their two sons married Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. Then the worst that could happen did happen. Naomi’s husband died. Her two sons died.

Three unbearable deaths.

Naomi was left a widow and childless. She had no relatives to care for her in Moab. How was she to live? Her two daughters-in-law could not help her survive. The economic reality meant that she needed a man in that man’s world—a father, a brother, a son, an uncle. She had no choice. She had to return to her homeland of Bethlehem. She was a refugee again. She was forced by circumstances to start over again. She was desperate.

She packed her bags and began her journey. Orpah and Ruth walked along beside her. They were loyal to her. They were family.

Naomi stopped them. She tried to reason with them. “Turn back! You can’t go with me. Turn back to your own mother’s house. You can start over in your own homeland. You can remarry and have a family. You have no chance with me. And may God show you the same loving kindness that you have showed to me.” Ruth and Orpah kissed Naomi and wept. They still wanted to go with her.

Naomi tried again, “Turn back, my daughters! I’m an old woman. I can’t birth for you two more sons. I am empty. There is no hope for you with me. I’ve been handed a bitter fate. The hand of God has turned against me. Turn back.”

They wept again. Orpah listened to the voice of reason. None of us can blame her. She returned to her home, a place that offered some security. She chose the reasonable path, but we don’t have a book of the Bible named Orpah. The book is named Ruth, the pilgrim who chose the risky path.

Ruth said to Naomi, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you, for where you go, I will go. Where you live, I will live. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die.” Whether she liked it or not, Naomi had a companion for the journey.

Naomi was silent. It was probably not a peaceful silence. Haven’t we all known times that we became silent because our words did not seem to matter?

After the long journey, they arrived in Bethlehem. The women of the town ran down the road to see who was coming. They were surprised to see a familiar face. “Is this Naomi?”

Naomi said, “Don’t bother calling me Naomi. The name “Sweetness” doesn’t fit me anymore. God’s brought devastation to me. Look at me. I return home empty. I left here full. I had a husband and sons. Now I am empty. So call me a more fitting name. Call me “Mara” for I am “bitter.”

“Mara time” happens to all of us. It is the time when life is not turning out like we thought it would, when tragedy crashes in upon us. The whole world seems to be in a Mara time. There is so much suffering and so much that is out of our control. It is a confusing time, a time when we are uncertain about what to do next.

There are times when we are Ruth, full of hope, possibility and courage. When I was a sixth grader at White Rock Elementary School only boys were the crossing guards. I didn’t think it was fair. I went to the principal’s office, sat across from his giant desk, and said, “Girls can be crossing guards too.” The principal said, “Oh, no. Only boys can do that.” I left his office thinking that the principal just needed to see it to believe it. We girls got organized. We convinced the boys to give us their neon strip belts. In return we gave them candy. All the children made it safely across the street. The principal changed his mind. Girls became crossing guards too. In the experience I discovered companions for the journey.

Sometimes we are Ruth, but sometimes Naomi, full of discouragement and despair. I’ve had times when you could call me “Mara.” It happened with my community of faith. A place of refuge became a place of storm.

Many years ago I was at the center of controversy in Baptist life. Some Baptists didn’t believe women should be ministers, quoting Bible verses against us. I’d quote Bible verses to support women ministers. I thought I could throw Bible verses in my enemy’s camp and the words would explode with new converts. It didn’t happen. The divide became greater. We both walked away from each other thinking we’d won the argument.

Hateful names were thrown my way. “Jezebel.” “Whore of Babylon.” “Destroyer of family.” I confess that my own heart went to war. I became like the enemy I hated. My soul became shriveled and my perspective distorted. It was “Mara time”, a time of bitterness.

But God sent me many “Ruths,” companions of hope and encouragement. Their grace for me seeped into my soul, and I even had times of releasing my enemies into God’s hands.

The church is called into the “Mara times”, the suffering times, the hopeless times, the times when life is falling apart. The church follows Jesus into a troubled and troublesome world.

Like Naomi, we can find that we are not alone. God sends us companions for the journey like Ruth to help us make it through the dark valleys. Ruth carried the hope for Naomi until she could carry it for herself.

In our story today, salvation came in the strangest of ways. A young woman full of hope joined an old woman full of sadness.

Ruth acted her way into hope. She started gleaning the fields for food.

Boaz gave Ruth permission to take what she needed. She carried a basket full of grain to Naomi. It was enough to open her eyes to hope. She had to see it to believe it. A once paralyzed Naomi was transformed. She started plotting and planning for the future. “Ruth, put on your very best dress. Go to the barley festival. When the harvest festivities end for the day, go to Boaz. He will tell you what to do.”

Ruth went. She said to Boaz, “Spread your wings over your maidservant for we are next of kin,” which is the biblical way of saying, “Boaz, will you marry me?”

And they did marry. Boaz used his power wisely. He did not simply offer charity to the foreign woman Ruth. He made her a part of the family. They were blessed with a baby.

And you know how the story ends? The women of the town got together to celebrate the new baby. They gathered around Naomi and the baby. The women praised God and said,

“Naomi, you came to this town empty-handed.  And now look! Your arms are filled with a new life. Ruth left everything to follow you. She is more to you than seven sons!”

When I was in labor to have a baby, I was in terrible pain. I cried out. I cursed. There was no sign that the baby would ever arrive. The midwife stood beside me. She said to me again and again,  “Breathe. You’re going to make it. Deliverance is on its way.”  She became my Ruth, my companion in the crisis.

She could not take away my pain, but her presence made all the difference.

Finally I held my new baby with great joy, but then a wave of regret came over me. I hadn’t been kind during the labor. I’d said things I don’t usually say out loud, some bad things. I apologized to the midwife. I told her that I hoped we could meet again under better circumstances.

She said, “What are you talking about? You gave with all your strength. And now look! You’re holding a beautiful baby! You’re holding new life!”

God’s Spirit is like the midwife, the Holy Hope whose presence makes all the difference. God is with us. Life. Death. Resurrection new life. It is our journey. It is the journey with Jesus.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. (Romans 8:22-24a)

My favorite Spanish word that I learned this week is Mira! — “Look!” Our name changes from “Mara” to “Mira.” Maybe that’s the word God wants to say to us. “Look! You have companions for the journey! Look! You are family, both the pilgrims and the refugees. Look! You’re going to make it. Look! Resurrection new life! Look! I am with you!”

I pray that in this season when we are laboring toward new life, that we see that we are companions for this journey, walking together with our God. And may we always see the gift and presence of the Companion, Jesus the Christ.

Mira! New life in Christ together!

Gracias a Dios! Thanks be to God!

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Nancy Hastings Sehested
Iglesia Bautista Fraternidad
Matanzas, Cuba
October 25, 2015