Monday, March 22, 2010

When "All Hell" Breaks Loose in our Lives

“All Hell Breaks Loose: Discovering the ‘Who’ in the Story”
Ruth 2
Greenville College Chapel
Monday, March 22, 2010

This is the woman with whom my wife is occasionally in competition for my attention (display picture of Queen Elizabeth in gold gown). Unfortunately, when I am engaged in research and writing, good Queen Bess oftentimes receives more of my time than does my beloved. I always try to remind Darlene, however, that it’s rather unseemly to be jealous of a woman who’s been dead for over 400 years! My particular interest in the “Virgin Queen” centers around her role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. When she wore this particular hat, she was always careful to position her public self in a posture of private piety (display picture of QE at prayer). Unfortunately, this particular side of public self has little appeal to most biographers today, so this is the way that we have come to think of her, as in this recent Hollywood portrayal by the sensual and seductive Australian actress, Cate Blanchett (display Cate Blanchett as QE). In any event, it is clear that this rather charismatic figure from the past continues to exercise a certain magic even after so many centuries have passed. How did such a woman come to hold so much power over our imagination?

It was late in the morning of the seventeenth of November, 1558, that Elizabeth Tudor was proclaimed Queen of England, France and Ireland, and Defender of the Faith. In the years preceding, she had been held a virtual prisoner by her sister, Mary, and was now inheriting a kingdom riddled with debt, deeply divided, and ruled by a pervading uncertainty. A young woman in her mid-twenties, well-educated, whom most believed would soon be married to a proper king, she faced the daunting challenge of setting the agenda and determining the course the bereft island nation would sail in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Probably no one on that day would have believed what would actually happen over the course of the next 45 years. The development of the young queen in her role as a wise and strong monarch was to prove decisive in providing England with a long stretch of peace—what some would later look back to and proclaim as a “Golden Age”—during which some of the country’s greatest preachers, poets, and statesmen would come of age. And the way that this child of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn would accomplish that task is by putting one foot in front of the other each and every day and, slowly but surely, transforming the fortunes of a third-rate nation-state into one of the greatest empires in human history.

One of my favorite theologians, Woody Allen, has quipped that “80% of success in life is just showing up.” In my experience as pastor and teacher over the past thirty years one of the lessons I have learned is that success is not always determined by promise. Oftentimes, it comes about by sheer doggedness—the willingness to work hard, day in and day out, without immediate reward towards a simple goal. Today’s text from Ruth reminds us of this important lesson that when “all hell breaks loose” in our lives, the single most important thing we can do is get up and be about the business of the routine. The challenge for us, in the midst of a culture that lives for the spectacular, is to learn to embrace the seemingly ordinary as the primary place where we work out our own salvation.

Kathleen Norris speaks boldly of this in her wonderful little book, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work.” Norris is able to elevate the meaning of what we think of as menial work to a place of holiness and sacrality. She writes, “we want life to have meaning, we want fulfillment, healing and even ecstasy, but the human paradox is that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we wish we were. We must look for blessings to come from unlikely, everyday places—out of Galilee, as it were—and not in spectacular events.” Having arrived back in Bethlehem, Ruth knows that the survival of the little family constituted by herself and Naomi is dependent on her getting up and going to work. Now a “theology of the spectacular” would suggest that what Ruth needs most here is a miraculous in-breaking of the Holy Spirit into her mundane existence. But God is not to be found on the mountain in this story. Instead, God is hidden in the interstices of normal, everyday life in Bethlehem. And so, Ruth does what women have done throughout time: she gets on with the everyday necessities of simply surviving.

For the first time in this short story, we are introduced to a man who does not die off within a few verses—one, Boaz. And, there is no question but that Boaz, operating out of a patriarchal context, wields the power in this second chapter, carefully looking over Ruth, the foreigner, and seeing that she has opportunity to at least not be openly molested or harmed. But, as Phyllis Trible points out in her book, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, while Boaz exercises patriarchal power, he does not have narrative power in the story. “He has authority within the story but not control over it,” (178). It is Ruth, the inferior foreigner, who has by her own choice to get up and do what needs to be done, created this situation. As Trible suggests, “Her deference results from her daring; it is derivative, not determinative. . . The favor that Boaz gives her is the favor that she has sought. Therefore, she, not he, is shaping her destiny,” (176).

The narrative framework of this second chapter further reinforces Trible’s point. The feminist nature of this patriarchal narrative comes through clearly by the circular design which surrounds the episode with Boaz. Today’s text begins with two women, the younger taking the bull by the horns to go work in the fields, and ends with the same two women engaged in critical reflection on the events of that day. Naomi even seems to perk up a bit from the ashes of her bitterness to proclaim, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness (the Hebrew word, HESED) has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Yet, it was Ruth’s dogged determination to provide for them that had set the entire set of events in motion.

In his little masterpiece, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Fr. Henri Nouwen engages in a powerful critique of the temptations which so often surround us. During the season of Lent in which we currently find ourselves, one of our tasks is to carefully evaluate the layers of cultural lies which so often enmesh us and prevent us from denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus. Nouwen points out that the three temptations which confronted our Savior continue to haunt us: the temptations to be relevant, to be spectacular, and to be powerful.

These temptations are fueled by a culture that presents to us a false picture of life. We are encouraged to believe that if we are not enjoying great food, experiencing great sex, and making great money, that somehow we have missed out on the American dream. The church has, all too often, been sucked into a spiritual version of this secular vision, proclaiming that God is primarily to be found where there is health and wealth. But all of these promises are devoid of the message of the cross and claim that God is not in the everyday and the mundane, but in the spectacular.

The result, Nouwen maintains, is that when you look at today’s church, “it is easy to see the prevalence of individualism. . . that, if we have anything at all to show, it is something we have to do solo. You could say that many of us feel like failed tightrope walkers. . . most of us still feel that, ideally, we should have been able to do it all and do it successfully. Stardom and individual heroism, which are such obvious aspects of our competitive society, are not at all alien to the church,” (55-56).

Nouwen, himself, experienced this temptation to be someone and something spectacular and found the privileged college yards at Harvard and Yale to be deadening to his own soul. On a trip to Central America, he rediscovered the joy of life among simple peasants who shared their modest meals with him in a true spirit of love and peace. Henri’s work with the mentally handicapped at L’Arche, just north of Toronto, helped him to recapture his faith as he bathed, fed, and prayed over those marginalized by our society. There, he had to find a way of reclaiming the everyday, the ordinary, as a means of working out his own salvation.

One of the places that I came best to understand this principle was in the conversations I had among the elderly during my ministry in London. Most of you, I trust, are familiar with the efforts of the German Luftwaffe to bomb England into submission during the summer and autumn of 1940. Day after day and night after night, young men would climb into their small aeroplanes to combat the Messerschmidts that rained down fire from above. But less is told about those who carried out their duty below. Donald Purr, a retired accountant, would oftentimes join me for tea on Mondays. Well into his eighties, he would regale me with stories of the London Fire Brigade, called out to do battle with the conflagrations that threatened to render the capital into one giant ash heap. Purr, himself, was given the job of taking up a station near the dome of St. Paul’s, from whence he could watch the fireworks both above and below. His assignment was to stand prepared with sandbags and fire extinguishers in case of a fire on the roof of Wren’s cathedral. A direct hit on the dome, he told me, would have carried he and his men into the very pits of a fiery inferno below, along with the remnants of the German bomb. Why did they do it, I wondered? Donald would invariably get a twinkle in his eye and with that wry sense of British humor that I came to love say, “Because it simply had to be done. There was nothing else for it. It was either climb up there every night and wave our fists at Hitler’s planes or give in; and we damn well weren’t going to surrender to that bastard!”

I came to admire Donald’s pluck and stiff upper lip and he helped me to better understand the response of the London congregation where I worked. As the war was winding down in the early months of 1945, a new menace came to haunt the populace: the sound of the deadly V-1 and V-2 rockets launched from Penemunde. The last of those rockets came winging its way across the English channel on a Saturday night and landed in the West end right on top of the shops that lined Tottenham Court Road, taking with it Whitefield’s Victorian Chapel. By the next morning, Palm Sunday, the congregation no longer had a structure in which to worship. They did what folks did in New Orleans a few years ago, they didn’t stand around waiting for a miracle but dug right in to try and reclaim what was left and to rebuild what wasn’t. They decided to get on with life as they knew it, in order to render life as they yet hoped it might be.

An ocean away back here in Greenville, during the same era, the college had had to adjust first to the Depression and then to the loss of students to the Armed Services. Dr. Long, the President, had insisted that the atmosphere of the classroom must be to enable students “to face life squarely and come to grips with it,” (Tenney, 314). A scholar of chemistry by profession, H. J. never met a challenge he didn’t think hard work and prayer couldn’t solve. It was through his efforts that Greenville came to achieve that all-important accreditation with the North Central Association which propelled us into the next chapter of our history and created a campus that could accommodate all of those returning veterans from the recent war.

One of those veterans was John Strahl, whose name would eventually come to embody all that was best in Greenville College athletics. As a young soldier the age of many of you freshmen and sophomores, John found himself at the Battle of Anzio in Italy in early 1944 watching his buddies being killed and later having to scoop their body parts into bags for shipment back home. Such an experience surely shapes one so young. Like the young captain John H. Miller depicted in “Saving Private Ryan” by Tom Hanks, Strahl simply wanted to get through the hell of war so that he could return home and get on with life. But in order to do so, John had to learn to put one foot in front of the other and to do whatever that day demanded. For he and countless other soldiers like him, war wasn’t about heroism or the spectacular; it was about survival and getting home. And when he got home, he decided to make his life count, not by doing something extraordinary, but by giving himself over to the mundane day-to-day existence of a coach and teacher, carefully carving out lessons in life from the everyday and the ordinary.

This same attitude can be seen in today’s story. It would have been quite easy for Ruth, this young Moabitess, to give in to despair or to prostitution. Her situation was grave and there was no one any longer to look after her. Like many of you today, Ruth may well have wondered what the future held for her and where God was in the midst of her crisis. All hell had broken loose in her life and no miracles seemed to be in the offing. With a bitter old woman at home and having taken up residence in a foreign land, like numerous migrants who have come to this country looking for something different, all she knew to do was to put on her work clothes and to get on with the business of survival. So, she rolled up her sleeves and set to work. And from that decision came all that was to follow.

Now, my friends, I want to tell you that I am concerned this morning that some of you have opted for a very different approach to life—one which flies in the face of the mundane existence suggested to us by Ruth. Some of you believe in a god who ropes off the ordinary and is to be found only on the extraordinary and the ecstatic. And so you spend much of your time searching for the next spiritual high, like a crack cocaine addict in search of a fix, working yourself up into an emotional frenzy in hopes of discovering a spiritual buzz that will get you through the day. You live a divided life, a Gnostic one, in which the sacred and spiritual exist in two separate compartments and “never the twain shall meet.” You aren’t here for an education or to ask hard questions about God and the nature of the world in which we live, but for two things: a degree and a spiritual high. You are convinced that God is like some Santa Claus in the sky and that if you can only speak the right magical words, lay claim to the right spiritual gift, or reclaim the right frenetic music and lyrics, that you can escape all of this muck and mire of normal existence and attain some spiritual nirvana.

And then there are some of you who are so enslaved to the gods of consumption that you find yourself in an almost untenable condition with less than half a semester to go. You stay up late playing computer games or surfing the Internet and haven’t read much at all for your classes. You are a thorough believer that a semester’s worth of work can be done in the last ten days of the semester and that a paper is best written the night before it is due. You won’t admit it to yourself, but your life is thoroughly out of control and you have no discipline whatsoever. Your attitude is to enjoy life, to live in the present, and to expect that God will work a miracle at the end of the semester converting your “F” into at least a “C,” if not a “B,” through the good graces of my colleagues who will have pity upon you.

Both of these are essentially unbelieving, ill-informed approaches to life. For those in the first category, there will come a day, if it hasn’t already happened, when there will not be a spiritual high and the realities of everyday existence will strike you right between the eyes. Your best friend will be hit by a car or your dad will come down with cancer and, try as you might to pray for a miracle, none will be had. And then the temptation will be to think that there was no God there in the first place. And for those in the second category, you may manage to limp through life for a little while with your lackadaisical attitude but, sooner or later, your “sins will find you out” and your lack of discipline and unwillingness to do what needs to be done will result in a self-precipitated crisis, a crisis of your own making. And, as you struggle to work yourself out of a near-impossible situation, you will be tempted to blame it all on God. After all, if God is a god of miracles, why isn’t he helping you out?

In their recreation of the Ruth story entitled, Compromising Redemption: Relating Characters in the Book of Ruth, Danna Nolan Fewell and David Miller Gunn describe the heroine’s approach in this chapter like this: “Ruth gleaned every day in Boaz’s field. She tried not to think of what would happen once the harvest was over. She simply worked as hard as she could, taking advantage of every dropped sheaf, so that they could store as much grain as possible for the coming winter,” (39). Ruth, in short, gave herself over to the ordinary and from her commitment, from her faithfulness to Naomi and to the task before her, God wove an extraordinary story—a story of faithfulness in the midst of tragedy and pain.

I want to invite you in this Lenten season to not only begin to see yourself in Ruth’s story, but to ask what it would take for you to rise up and to discover yourself and God’s will for your life by simply doing what you know needs to be done: by putting one foot in front of the other and being faithful to your calling as a student. It is only when “all hell breaks loose” that we begin to discover the character of which we are made. That character isn’t magically forged when you leave home and depart this campus, it happens each and every morning when you make simple choices about how to spend your time, where you will, and what you will do. This day marks a new opportunity for you to be stripped of the veneer of spirituality which so far has sustained you and to get serious about life at Greenville College. My colleagues and I welcome you in joining us in creating this beautiful tapestry of life and encourage you to talk with us during this advising week, not only about your classes for the coming year, but about the changes you want to make in your intellectual and spiritual life in learning to become more like Christ.

Now, I know that Ruth’s story can seem quite bland compared to glitz and glamour held out there by the culture. But the reality is that most of life is not glamorous but is made up of everyday plodding. Our calling is to remain faithful in the little things and, by so doing, to allow God to spin a story beyond our imagining. This is our challenge as we begin the shorter half of the semester this morning. This is God’s invitation to you and our firm belief that, by so doing, you will discover the God who stands behind all things and the person of character He has created you to yet become.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Once Upon a Time. . .

“’Once Upon a Time’: All Beginnings are Hard”
Greenville College Chapel Address
Ruth 1
March 1, 2010

Word of my colleague, Dr. Kurasha’s injuries sustained last week brought back to me the memories of similar, sometimes, tragic automobile accidents. None was more difficult than the call I received literally weeks before leaving my pastorate in Toronto to come back to Greenville and teach now some 17 years ago. My Australian friend, Peter, was exploring the Ontario countryside with his wife, daughter, brother and sister-in-law. Within a matter of seconds, apparently, they were all dead or terribly injured. (As best as I can remember),while I sped to the hospital to identify the bodies and tend to the living, my associate hurried to a local high school to tell Peter’s daughter that she was now an orphan without a father, mother, or sister. Later, I would have to meet up with her dead sister’s fiancé to inform him that his bride-to-be was gone and there would be no forthcoming wedding. Over the six years of ministry in Canada, I wound up burying a dozen babies, infants, children, and teenagers, along with a score of more typical, though no less tragic, adult funerals. At times, it seemed that everywhere I turned, there was something of the pall of death in the air, and this was certainly not the way I had imagined concluding my years of ministry in the adopted city I had come to love amongst a people who had taken me and my family to their hearts.

But, unfortunately, of such painful stories are our lives often made. Life is oftentimes a mess, filled with, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “the daily round of failed plans, disappointed relations, political despair, accidents and sickness and neighborhood bullies,” (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 137). And into this mess walks our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. For, as the gospels remind us, the story of Jesus, “is not a happy story, not a success story. What it is is a salvation story,” (137). Peterson’s contrast is absolutely essential to help us understand the scriptures, our lives, and the world in which we live: our narrative doesn’t begin on an oasis of safety, but in the muck and mire of everyday human existence. And what we are called to is not a life of success, but a life of faithfulness. It is this message that lies at the heart of the Lenten season.

Perhaps no biblical narrative conveys this quite so powerfully as this little book of Ruth which, in the space of five short verses, plunks us down in the very vortex of human misery. In today’s text, we are introduced to most of the major characters in the story, three of whom are dead within a matter of a few sentences. In these opening lines, the narrator is concerned to establish both a context and a dominant mood for all that will follow. We are presented here with landscape and feeling one might expect in a Thomas Hardy novel. The country to the east of the Dead Sea was fertile, but produced primarily grain crops as opposed to the orchards and vineyards of Palestine. Like the plains of Oklahoma which I remember well from my adolescent years, Moab was known as a land where the wind blew constantly and was relatively unimpeded. Across this barren landscape emerges a family in search of a better existence. They are leaving behind all that is familiar, pulling up their roots, and heading into this dark, foreboding land.

Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, are fleeing the certain famine of their home, like the Joads in Steinbeck’s American version, and going in search of a better life for their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. For all of us who are familiar with the realities of moving, it is a painful scene. No matter how much they may have looked forward to the new challenge ahead, the prospect of leaving behind friends and family, familiar faces and established ties, brought with it a sense of loss and anguish. Anyone who has ever moved without knowing what awaits on the other end, knows the special dread and sense of trepidation that must have accompanied the family of Elimelech during those days of transition. In leaving behind all that was familiar, they were consigning themselves into the hands of God, facing their new life without the help of the support system they had left back at home in Bethlehem.

And, as if moving and uprooting their family were not enough, they were journeying into a foreign country. This is an experience difficult to describe to those who have never been through it. When one crosses the border into a different country, one immediately becomes at best a “landed immigrant,” or at worst, a “resident alien.” There are at least a few of you sitting here today who understand something of the culture shock of which I speak. Gone are the familiar customs and language of home; every day brings with it new reminders that you are an expatriate. No matter how much you may love your new homeland, as my wife and I loved both the United Kingdom and later Canada, you can never forget that you are somehow different, an “outsider.” The adjustment can be a difficult one. I’ve seen those who never quite adapt, who hide themselves behind four walls and pine for home. But for this family, the adjustment became even more difficult, as their situation went from bad to worse.

First, Elimelech died, leaving Naomi with no visible means of support. In those days, and even for many today, this was the worst possible scenario. In the patriarchal culture of the ancient Near East, a woman was totally at the mercy of men. There was no possibility of a job for her, for all the jobs were filled by men. So, she might choose from three possibilities: prostitution, slavery, or professional begging. But apparently Naomi was fortunate in that her two sons were old enough to make their way in this foreign land and somehow manage to provide for their mother as well. They were, in a very real sense, her salvation, and the only elements which stood between her and desperation.

These young men somehow adapted. They settled down, found themselves wives, and set to work building for their families a new life in a new land. Their new spouses were natives, and probably helped to form a link between them and the land that their mother would always consider a “foreign country.” What kind of a life they lived we do not know—it isn’t important to the main story line. What we can surmise is that the wounds of the past now began to recede into their memories, and they had a chance to heal in the company of their new-found mates.

But before much time had passed, the final calamity struck. This was the most horrific possibility imaginable for Naomi—a bad dream from which she would never fully recover. Her two sons, the pride and joy of her life, died as well, leaving behind no male heirs to continue the family line, but only two defenseless brides. If the plight of this family had been desperate before, it was almost hopeless now. Where would they go? What would they do? If the landscape of the setting is bleak, the predicament of these three women is equally somber. The storyteller’s task is set: How will he rescue this family from almost certain destruction?

The spotlight is now thoroughly centered on this woman pummeled by the vicissitudes of life. Naomi calls forth our sympathies. Battered, beaten, and bitter, she decides to make for the only place in which she had known any real happiness—her home in Bethlehem. In this little Judean village she had probably played, worshipped, and met the man whom she would marry. Bethlehem had been the home in which she had set up house and given birth to two happy sons. In the midst of all of the calamity that now surrounded her, perhaps it was only the pleasant memories of those days in what would later become the city of David which provided for her any sense of solace. Now her mind could think of nothing else but getting home to Bethlehem.

But before she left, she had one final duty as matriarch of her now disintegrating family: to charge her two daughters-in-law to return to the homes of their childhood, as well. This scene literally drips with pathos and, as it was being told, the storyteller must have verbally leaned into the narrative. According to the laws of that day, these women had nothing any longer which bound them together, except a common memory embedded in a family story. Since Orpah’s and Ruth’s husbands had died, their responsibility was to return home where their parents would receive them, probably somewhat grudgingly. Yet, even though there was no law that bound them to this bitter old woman, there was something even greater—those common memories and the strong bonds of a love forged from shared difficulties. Through the fires of mutual trials, they had each earned the other’s respect and with all of their men gone—the only gender that counted in those days—Naomi was now their leader and their only tie to what they thought of when they remembered back to what had once been their sense of “home.”

What is even more incredible than their lack of common blood is that these women come from different nationalities—they don’t even have the bonds of culture to bind them together. And yet Ruth still persists, remaining adamant in the face of leaving behind all of the familiar landmarks. I’ve often wondered to myself: How many of our ancestors must have seen in this strong young woman a hero and exemplar as they crossed seas, plains, mountains, and deserts? While Naomi cried out, and perhaps rightfully so, against the heartlessness of God, here in her midst stood one who represented to her the love, care, and commitment of the deity against whom she remained angry and bitter. While she had lost all that she regarded as safe and homelike, here stood one before her who reminded her of the foundation on which a home is built.

It is little wonder that Ruth’s words of response have become a standard epithet in Christian weddings. This willingness to go, to love, to stand beside, remains the ideal for the married couple and can be seen in the archetype presented for us in the gospels of the Christ who mirrors exactly these same qualities as he ministers to the needs of others. But in this story it is not Jesus but a Moabitess who is modeling an extraordinary life of faithfulness. According to our scriptures, the Moabites were a cursed clan who owed their origins to an act of incest that took place between Lot and his daughters. As such, this woman was the consummate outsider, a non-entity amongst “true Jews” who were probably some of the first hearers of this tale. Like other women in the scriptures, Ruth could in no way be branded here a “good girl” who acknowledges Naomi’s authority—one owed her by virtue of her age. Instead, she chooses to stand over against all accepted protocol and to leave everything familiar behind in order to set out on a journey to an unknown land.

Good storytellers know that how and where one chooses to begin a story establishes whether folks will continue to listen. Although the bulk of this story is yet to come, something is already becoming abundantly clear from these opening verses: the picture of life that is being portrayed in this book is not one that is necessarily pleasant or happy. In a time in which the barriers between fantasy and reality remain as unclear as ours, the picture here is one of stark reality. In a time when folks are consumed with self-indulgence, chasing after beautiful bodies, and always believing that compiling a few more things will lead to comfort and security, the storyteller here presents us with a picture of life that is minimalist in all its aspects. This narrator has the audacity to suggest that we can expect difficulties and unanswerable questions in life—in fact, that they are inevitable. This runs counter to many of the myths which make up 21st century America.

Growing up in our sometimes isolated ghettoes we are told a different story. In a time of uncertainty and in a climate of fear, we are encouraged to look for strength in security. As Pax Americana stretches out her wings below whom all are called to bow, we naively believe that where we go, we take with us primarily freedom and liberty—all of which falls largely on the deaf ears of others who view our actions as both paternalistic and full of hedonistic self-interest. Here at home, we are told a story which posits consumption and competition as the highest values. All that we aspire to in life has behind it the singular goals of economic and political power. Many, if not most of us, may have even been lured here, to this place, not for an education, but for a degree. And the reason we need a degree is so that we can get a good job, so that we can make more money, so that we can accumulate more stuff, and thereby, discover our primary purpose in life.

Or perhaps we have fallen prey to a different narrative which circulates in the evangelical subculture. Here, we are promised health and wealth this side of eternity and eternal bliss the other side if we will simply “come to Jesus.” Having said the sinner’s prayer and displayed Jesus on the bumper stickers of our cars, we somehow believe that if we work hard, give occasionally to Christian causes, and fill our lives with Christian rhetoric (or, Jesus-speak), we can expect good things to happen to us in life. We are warned not to get too caught up, however, in the pleasures of this life, but to learn to live cautiously and pray for those poor bastards who are unlike us. Just maybe, if they listen to our words of warning, recognize that we are the true messengers of God, and come to Jesus--even they can find a place in heaven and a life filled with lots of good stuff this side of eternity. And, more importantly, they can be assured of a “get into heaven” pass via a direct rapture while all the rest of the world goes to hell in a handbasket.

The Bible unmasks both of these narratives for what they are—blatant falsehoods, facades of the gospel. Instead, the Christ who walked the way of the cross is better seen in the death and destruction of today’s story in Ruth. This story literally drips with irony and would have caused its original hearers to have suffered a bit of religious shock. For here, the story of God’s people lies suspended by a thread that is both foreign and female. God’s salvation history hangs precariously on the faithfulness of a woman who will risk everything she has and, as we will see later, by so doing provide one of the crucial links that leads inexorably to Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. To a world which clings to a narrative freighted with power and prestige, the shocking reality to which we are introduced in this little book has the potential to turn the world upside down.

And that’s just what good storytelling does. It insists on beginning in a way we might not expect and in a place far removed from our own and, by so doing, shocks us out of the lethargy of our current comforts. This biblical story, this story of salvation which confronts the opposing story of success insisted on by our culture, claims in Peterson’s words, that, “salvation is not a one-time stand,” (147). For the Hebrews, this could be summed up in the word HESED, which was most often attributed to God. Sometimes simply translated with the word, “kindness,” the roots of the word are probably better expressed with our term, “faithfulness.” What is being represented is long-standing commitment, no matter what the cost. This is a word of relationship which refuses to reduce one’s connection to another to issues of blood, contract, or economic benefit. HESED means a willingness to die with or for another, even if one cannot see or understand the reason for doing so. HESED is what led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to not flee the German prison at his first opportunity, but to remember those who were imprisoned with him. HESED is what a man demonstrates when the doctor tells him that there is no hope for his wife, but he refuses to leave her bedside. HESED is what the best soldiers demonstrate whenever a comrade has been wounded and, at the risk of their own lives, they stay behind not knowing whether there will be any other opportunity for rescue.

And HESED is what Ruth demonstrates at the end of this narrative to Naomi who has now chosen the name, Mara, to represent her bitterness and loss. In the midst of her grief, the matriarch of the story cannot even see the grace of God made manifest in this young woman who refuses to leave her side. The story concludes on this single thread of hope in which the emptiness of the older woman is set alongside the HESED of this foreign, powerless, child of incest. “Ruth the Moabite has chosen Naomi the Judahite. Ruth the daughter-in-law has chosen Naomi the mother-in-law,” (Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 174). On such a choice hangs the outcome, not only of this particular narrative, but of God’s larger salvation story. This is no one-night stand. This is a commitment almost beyond comprehension.

Of such a beginning are great stories made. Into such a world came Jesus Christ. Out of such bitterness and through such faithfulness will emerge hope for all people, of all ages, and of all nationalities. And that, my friends, is a story worth telling!