Where Does Real Courage Come From?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Unprotected



                                                          Reflections on Ruth 1:19-2:3


And Naomi said to Ruth…"It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, lest in another field you be assaulted."
                                                                        Ruth 2:22 (ESV)
           
            They arrive in Bethlehem.

But where do they go? Where do they stay? Is there family nearby to feed and care for them, provide shelter and protection? It’s not like they slipped into town unnoticed. Everyone’s talking: Is this Naomi? Did you hear her husband and sons are dead? Everything she owned is gone. All she has is a Moabite daughter-in-law caring for her and a name, a new name. She wants us to call her, “Bitter.”

Maybe for a night, or a week, they have provision and protection.

But it was the busy season of harvesting. And at some point, it was just the two of them again, alone. Maybe relatives gave them a place to stay and a few spare clothes to wear? But poor, widowed, childless and hungry, they were in need of something to eat – now, today, in order to live. Something had to be done.

For Ruth, she may have thought begging was the only option.

But Naomi knew a better way. God had given Israel a law for a time such as this.

            …you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the
            gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the
            alien (the orphan and for the widow). I am the Lord your God.
                                    Leviticus 23:22 with Deuteronomy 24:19 in parenthesis


That’s all Ruth needs to know. She asks her mother’s permission to go into the fields to get food. And to pray for favor. She needs a harvester to treat her kindly.

Naomi doesn’t go with her, why? Was she sick? Had the journey from Moab sapped her strength completely? Were her emotions too raw – everyone seeing her like this? Maybe she wants to go – for Ruth’s sake. It’s not clear why, but she can’t. She has to let Ruth go alone, early in the morning, no doubt hungry.

They need food.

Out there, the townspeople are hustling to the fields for work. The sun begins to bathe the land in light, driving the dark away. At least, most of it. There’s some still out there lurking – dangerous, overpowering – and she knows it.

She feels it. Naomi does too.

In that time, that culture, like it or not, women came under the protection of their husbands, fathers, or a male relative. Bearing their name made them untouchable and safe. Without that covering, there was risk – terrifying risk. Especially for the single, young, and beautiful.

And even more so, for a Moabite. She doesn’t even belong to the daughters of Sarah and Rebekah, Leah and Rachel. She is, of all women, the most vulnerable.

Still, she goes out. Knowing she has no honor or worth. Knowing she’s open prey to young men who will see her and possibly assault her – hurt her. She knows this – all of it – and still, she goes. It’s her choice to be kind now. She must care for Naomi more than herself. Her mother needs food. She needs food. Today.

Each step, a risk. Each step, a choice.

How hard it must have been for Naomi to let her go that morning. Harder still to pray; how does she pray when it feels like the Almighty has turned His back on her and afflicted her. Will He hear her now? In her bitterness and pain? Will He be kind to her daughter Ruth? Will He give the favorless any favor at all?

As Ruth slips out the door, unprotected.

*       *       *

I slipped in the side door of the church drenched from a downpour of rain and heard the sound of little children everywhere. Toddlers mostly. As I hung my raincoat on a nearby peg and started down the hall, peering into the classrooms, I realized I had no idea Pastor Adam’s church had a pre-school.

Or nursery care for infants.

Or, in one room, a class for older special needs children. As I passed by that room, I thought I saw Pastor Adams off in the corner. I stopped and went back. And there he was, sitting in a chair too small for him, holding a crying young boy in his arms. Maybe 8 or 9 years old.

When he saw me, he held up his hand, pointed toward his office down the hall, and I shook my head knowing he wanted me to wait for him there.

This was my doing. I told him I wanted to know everything about The Naomi Project. I even asked if I could attend the Wednesday night monthly meeting. All he said was, “Not yet. Maybe though.” But he did agree to see me. I found his office, sat in one of the chairs in front of his desk, and got my notepad out.

“You taking notes?” he thundered, walking into the room a few minutes later. Like always, I got a bear hug and a slap on my hand that made it sting.

“Yeah, you okay with that?” I asked.

“We’ll see,” he jabbed, moving toward his big leather chair behind his desk, and went right to task. “We started The Naomi Project twenty years ago.”

“Why Naomi?” I interrupted quickly.

“Because life was hard for her,” he said slowly, rhythmically. “Everything she had was taken from her. But even when afflicted, she chose a better way. Even when it felt like God wasn’t on her side, she put her daughters in the school of God’s kindness and taught them no matter what life brings, no matter what it costs us, we do for others. We always do for others.”

He looked at me like I should know these things.

“Why use the word kindness?” I blurted.

“Because it’s everything to God. When King David entered into covenant with Jonathan, they promised each other kindness. When Jonathan died in battle, David asked, ‘Who in his family can I be kind to?”1 From that day on, the King took Jonathan’s crippled son and made him his own. You writing this down?”

I wasn’t. I was still trying to take it all in.

“That’s what happens to us in Jesus. He took us into His family and promised us kindness. One day in glory we’re going to know ‘the surpassing riches of His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.’ 2 But for now, He calls us to live it. He puts us in Naomi’s school of kindness so we can learn it. So we can do it right here on the streets of our community. How else will people come to know Jesus?”

I wanted more. Like what happens on Wednesday nights.

But a boy was standing behind me, sniffling. The same one Adams was holding when I first got there.

“Come here, son.”

The boy, with a slight limp, came around the desk and folded into Adam’s  embrace.

“About two years ago, we found Hernando sitting outside the convenience store down the street belonging to nobody. Crying, scared, bruises on his face, like someone tossed him out of a car and just left him there to die.”

The boy turned to look me, his eyes moist and sad.

“Even to this day, we don’t know who his people are.”

The boy, rubbing his knee, said, “Papa, make it go away.” Pastor Adams put his hand over the boy’s and whispered a prayer in his ear. He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and gently rocked.

“There, there, it’s gonna be alright now,” he said tenderly.

A minute later, Adams went on with his story, “I stood in front of the church the next Sunday and told them we needed a family from The Naomi Project to step up. Every child deserves a home. No one goes unprotected or unloved. Somebody needed to show kindness today. Not just for a little while. It’s time to take this young child into their home as their own.”

He opened his eyes and frowned.

“One of the elders began to pray for King Jesus to open hearts for Hernando. As the church stood to sing and pray for this little boy, I looked over and saw my wife bent over in tears and I shook my head, saying, ‘No, Lord. You know what we need right now.”

I sat there quietly, trying to understand.

“We’ve got two kids grown and out of the house. Our youngest was a year away from graduating high school. My wife and I were dreaming of the day when we’d be empty-nesters and have some time to ourselves. But the Lord had other plans for us and I needed my heart changed. Isn’t that right, son?”

The boy giggled the cutest giggle ever.

“Better now, Papa” he said. “Better now.”



1 2 Samuel 9:1-3
2 Ephesians 2:7


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Naomi



                                                          Reflections on Ruth 1:1-18


She opens her mouth with wisdom,
And on her tongue is the law of kindness.
                                                                        Proverbs 31:26 (NKJV) 1
           
At first sight, we might get the wrong impression of her. She is troubled, bitter. But there is more to her than that – much more. If we would stop, look, listen.

            For when our world descends into the stormy seas of darkness     
                        With sorrows the heart cannot bear
                        What remains of strength, or courage, or life itself
                        Was built long ago

            Naomi’s story?

We know nothing of her past. Nothing of her days growing up as a child. Or her father, mother, siblings. The trials they suffered. The happiness they enjoyed. But there is one thing we know: It’s there! Etched into every fiber of her being. Crafted in the cradle of her family. Nursed by those in her community. It had to be because it’s there, strong and undiminished, in her darkest days.

And what is it? It’s the character of God’s kindness deep in her soul.

Back in ancient time, God entered into covenant – a legal, marital, binding relationship – with the sons and daughters of Abraham. He promised kindness, lovingkindness, would stand between them forever. It is the biggest of all words, reaching to the heights of heaven, for it reveals the very heart of God. It speaks of His goodness, mercy, faithfulness and incomprehensible, inexhaustible love. 2

To see, touch, taste, and know even the smallest part of it – all anyone has to do is meet one of His own. For He said, long ago:
                       
                        I will betroth you to Me forever;
                        Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice,
                        In lovingkindness and in compassion,
                        And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness.
                        Then you will know the Lord.
                                                                                    Hoses 2:19-20

This is Naomi. It’s there inside her – this lovingkindness.

There as the famine strikes; as they move as refugees to a foreign land; as the unthinkable happens – her husband, Elimelech, dies. All she has left is her two sons who marry and, no doubt, provide for her and protect her. But after ten years, death wields its sword again and both sons -- Mahlon and Chilion – die.

And what does she do?

She cares more for Orpah and Ruth, her daughters-in-law, than herself. On the day she heads back to Bethlehem, she urges them to go to their childhood homes and wait for husbands who will give them rest. It’s what’s best for them – not her. She will risk going alone. She has to – the lovingkindness of God is in her.

And kindness demands she care for them first.

It’s there in Orpah and Ruth too. They’ve known it – not from the pagan culture of their past -- but from the first day they entered into the life of this family. It’s what Naomi singles out in her prayer for them, “May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt kindly with the dead and with me.” It’s their way of life. It’s what they do. It’s who they are. And it will see them through life’s journey.

As Orpah returns to her home. As Ruth refuses to go.

And there, standing on the road to Bethlehem, Ruth gives back what Naomi first gave her. At great personal cost. With no hope of ever having a husband.

            “…for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge.
            Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”

This is it. This is everything. The kindness of God etched deep between them.

*       *       *

“You holding back on me?” I asked Pastor Adams. He didn’t flinch. I didn’t expect him to. It was a cold Saturday afternoon in late January. We were in the church basement at the kitchen counter getting some coffee.  The wide open space behind us was filled with round tables and fold-up chairs.

We were about fifty that day.

For as long as I can remember, Adams has run a Food Pantry out of his church on Saturday afternoons. It’s the one place that Christians from all over the city and suburbs can come together arm in arm and serve people in need.

“What are you talking about?” he belched, not even looking at me.

“I found this card in the bathroom,” I said, holding it up. On it, to the left, were two stick figures – one washing the feet of another. In the center, in all caps, were the words, “THE NAOMI PROJECT.” Underneath, in simple script:

The Character of God’s Kindness in the Christian Soul
Eight O’clock -- Second Wednesdays

“Louis!” he called out, as he stirred his coffee. Pastor Adams, a football player in his day, six foot four, at least two seventy-five, has a commanding voice. As we moved toward a table, Louis appeared. Adams put a hand on his shoulder, pointed to a seat, and said, “He wants to know about The Naomi Project.”

Louis sat down, looked right at me, and said, “Changed my life.” It surprised me. I’d known Louis for a while now and never heard him mention it. “’Bout ten years ago, I started coming here ‘cause of Charlotte. We started seeing each other. I wanted to move in with her, she said no. I put moves on her, she’d say no and tell me she was saving herself for the man God had for her.”

He leaned in and quieted his voice.

“I kept pressing and one night, when I had too much to drink, I tried again. She said no and I hit her. Then she tells me she’s done with me, so I hit her again and she runs out. Next think I know, next Saturday morning, a whole bunch of people from church are in my yard cleaning up and fixing things. I come out and say, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’

“Old man Freddie was around in those days. He’s with the Lord now but I’m telling you -- no one messed with Freddie. Not because he was tough but because he got in your face and shot straight. Am I right, Pastor?”

“That’s right,” Adams laughed, slapping his hand on the table.

“Freddie tells me, ‘Charlotte belongs to us. Just like you do, son. And we’re coming back here ‘til you either do right by her or you walk away.’ Then he gives me that card in your hand and says, ‘Louis, this is where it all starts, right here. You want to make something of yourself, you do this.’

“I’m telling you, it put me to shame. Everybody in my yard that day knew what I’d done to Charlotte. And still they came. They were there for me.” He leaned back in his chair as if he’d finished the story and said, “Rest is history.”

“So it’s like a twelve step program?” I asked.

Pastor Adams let out a long, guttural, “No.”

I look at both of them, confused.

“Pastor calls it a laboratory,” Louis said. “He only lets people come who mean business with God. You gotta want to follow Jesus, you gotta want to make a change in your life – or you’re out. Because what’s killing us in our community is how we treat each other. Our men cheating on our wives. Not caring for our youth. Neglecting our kids. Abusing our elderly. There’s no honor, no respect, no doing right by each other. And it’s not just our men.”

“That’s right,” Adams resounded, letting him go on.

“Who’s gonna help our community? Who’s gonna witness to our youth? If it’s not us who know Jesus, who’s it gonna be?”

I looked over at Pastor Adams.

“You know this story, right?” he prods. “It is the kindness of God that leads to repentance. It’s the kindness of God who appeared in Bethlehem and took that cross to save us. If we but taste the kindness of the Lord, if we do kind, be kind, as He’s been kind to us – we change our world. We save our kids.” 3

And just then, a little one appeared.

A little girl, maybe three years old, walked over to our table, dressed in tiny blue jeans and a pink tee shirt with words, “I’m a Naomi girl!” over her heart. She held her arms high, and squeaked, “Daddy!” Louis gave her a big smile, picked her up in his arms, and nuzzled his nose with hers.

“This is my baby,” he said playfully, making her giggle. “But where would she be, Pastor, if you all didn’t come that Saturday morning and bring the kindness of God into my life? You gave me a chance. You gave me Charlotte back.”

“That wasn’t us, Louis, you know that.”

“So you saying the Lord showed up and started cleaning my yard?”

“You got that right!” Adams roared. “Looking just like Freddie!”


1 In some Hebrew Bibles, the book of Ruth follows Proverbs. The “excellent wife” of Proverbs 31:10 is immediately seen in the lives of Naomi and Ruth (same Hebrew word in Ruth 3:11).
2 The Hebrew word is chesedh, best translated lovingkindness. It is the foundation of God’s character (Exodus 34:6-7), the promise given to us in covenant (Psalm 103), and the essence of how we are to conduct ourselves with others (Micah 6:8).
3 Romans 2:4; Titus 3:4-5; 1 Peter 2:3


John 15:1-11, the Vine and the branches. "Is He everything to you?