Where Does Real Courage Come From?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Hear My Prayer

                                                           Reflections on Ruth 2:19-3:9

He said, "Who are you?" And she answered, "I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer."
                                                                        Ruth 3:9 (ESV)


All day, he didn’t whisper a word. Ruth doesn’t know. As she walks home that night, she still doesn’t know. If she did, it would have changed her story. When she asked him mid-morning, “Why have I found favor in your eyes?” Boaz could have told her then. He could have said what the readers already know. 1

“Ruth, we are family.”

But that’s not why he chose to speak to her. It’s not why he promised to protect and provide for her. It’s not why he lifted her up and sat her near him at mealtime. No, not because she’s family. And not because it’s his family duty.

But because she’s worthy of honor. She has excelled in all the ways she has prized Naomi above her own well-being. This love, this sacrificial love, is the reason Boaz heaps blessing on her. That’s what he wants her to hear.

Not the other. Not for now.

But that night, Naomi pressed Ruth. She has to know the man’s name: “May he be blessed who has blessed us!” When Ruth tells her, Naomi bursts into song for she knows God has done this. He has not withdrawn His kindness from them, nor her dead husband and sons. For this man is not just a wealthy, Law-abiding Israelite showing Ruth mercy and honor. This man is family!

He, according to the Law, has power to be their redeemer.

She tells Ruth but she doesn’t explain it. It’s enough for Ruth to accept Boaz’s invitation to stay in his fields. And Ruth does, gleaning every day, week after week, for the two months of the barley and wheat harvest. Does this mean he had her sit near him every mealtime? Were there more conversations between them? And what about the reapers -- were they as generous to her as they were that first day? If so, Ruth would have enough food for an entire year. 2

And for her, this would have answered all her prayers.

But not Naomi. She dreamed for more.

At just the right time, she explained everything to Ruth. All that’s written in the Law. All the customs and traditions of their day. What to do, how to do it, and when to do it. So, when the time came, she’d know how to ask the question.

And make it her prayer to God.

She follows Naomi’s instructions. She washes, anoints herself with perfume, dresses in the best of her dresses, and sneaks out into the night, the dangerous night. Alone. She makes her way to the threshing floor and, like her mother said, he’s there. She sees him but he doesn’t see her. No one sees her. So she hides in the dark until he’s finished eating. Till he finds a quiet place to sleep.

She waits a little while longer. Then she goes to him.

According to tradition, all she has to do is uncover his feet and stay there. This small act will tell him why she’s there and what she wants. But he sleeps. As the night passes, he suddenly startles. He sits up, knowing someone’s there but not knowing who. Too many shadows. He says it in a whisper, “Who are you?”

She speaks her name. She holds his uncovered feet in her hands. But still, lest the night’s sleep rob him of understanding, she says it in words. In a whisper back.

“Come, my redeemer, and hear my prayer.”

*       *       *

“Nelson, I gotta go,” I said, soon after he introduced me to Blake. He nodded slightly and I knew I’d guessed right. He needed time with Blake and Blake needed time to get re-acquainted with his daughter.

“Call me sometime,” Nelson said and I told him I would.

As I made my way to the car, I noticed two women passing by the house.  They looked familiar but I didn’t know why. As I got to my car, I saw Eddie across the street talking on his cell phone. I knew him from Pastor Adam’s Saturday afternoon Food Pantry. When he saw me, he waved.

I crossed the street, shook hands, and waited for him. As soon as he got off the phone, he smiled at me and said, “Hey, how you doing?” We talked a while before I asked, “So what’s going on. What brings you here, Eddie?”

“Same as you,” he replied, pointing to Angel’s house across the street.

“You’re going in to see Nelson and Laqueta?”

“No,” he said emphatically. “We’re here to pray.” And then it clicked. I looked down the street and saw the two women now on our side of the street walking toward us. Eddie told me the one on the left was Alberta. The other, Gracie. “Can’t do this work without prayer. You know what I’m talking about?”

“Yeah,” I responded quickly.

“What you just saw? Blake showing up? That’s what I’m talking about. That’s the power of God answering prayer. It’s why we do what we do.”

I watched him put his phone in his back pocket.

“Few years ago, I went to Pastor Adams,” Eddie started. “I told him The Naomi Project was in danger of becoming a Good Works Club. You can see it on T.V. The news channels love to show off do-gooders. Somebody doing something for somebody else. So I ask Pastor, ‘What makes us different? ‘Cause if the kindness we give is the same as the kindness they give – something isn’t right.’

“So Pastor says, ‘Say what’s on your mind, Eddie.’

“And I told him. ‘You send a team to do something, you send the military with them. You can’t do kindness like God does kindness without the power that comes through prayer. We’re the secret forces doing battle for souls. We’re covering the teams going out and praying Jesus to bring victory. You want to see the kindness of God change lives, then do it His way. Send out the military!’

“Pastor Adams, he just stands there. I can’t tell what he’s thinking. Finally, he says, ‘What’s got you so fired up about this?’

“I say, ‘My Mama.’

“He looks at me funny and I figure I got his attention now. So I tell him, like I tell you, when I was twenty-five I was no different than Blake. Nobody got in my way. I ran the drug scene. I did jail time. I was out for me. Till one day, I was layin’ on my living room floor, drugged out. No idea I was near dyin’. I open my eyes and there’s Mama praying over me.

“’Lord, don’t You take my boy now,’ she says. ‘You can have him when He knows You. I’ll give him to you myself. But Jesus, Lord Jesus, not now. Don’t take my boy now. I ask You to bring him to Yourself. Change his sorry life. Free him from the devil’s power. Lord, hear my prayer. Save my boy.’”

Eddie shook his head. Just the memory took his breath.

“That prayer changed my life,” he finally said. “From that day on, I never looked back. The power Jesus Christ gives to save came into my life. And you know when Pastor Adams heard that, he said, ‘We’re never becoming a Good Works Club. You got that Eddie? If the Holy Spirit isn’t in charge, if what we do isn’t done in prayer, we’re not doing it. You’re heading up the military.’

“I told him I would. The rest is history.”

From behind me, Alberta and Grace came up alongside.

“You see that?” Alberta said.

Eddie and I looked over at the house. Nelson and Laqueta were standing outside the front door. Blake was sitting on the steps in front of them. Next to him, his daughter Angel, with his arm gently wrapped around her.

“That right there,” Eddie boasts, “is the power of God answering prayer. The Lion is lying down with the lamb.”

“Come on, Eddie,” Gracie pushed. “We’re not done here.”

“No we’re not,” he volleyed back and the three of them started walking. Eddie asked me to join them. And as I did, I heard Gracie asking the Lord to protect Angel’s heart, rescue her mother from addiction, and save her father’s soul.”

“Cover them, Lord,” Alberta urged, “and spread Your wings over this family. Be their Savior and Redeemer.”

Eddie, song-like and a little too loud, said, “Amen. Lord, hear our prayer.”

“Shhh,” Gracie said, poking him.

And on we walked. The secret forces. Quietly pushing back the powers of darkness in prayer so that every act of kindness in Jesus’ name would have the power to change lives.

1 In brilliant storytelling, the reader learns that Boaz is family at the start of chapter 2. Ruth learns his name on her first day gleaning but doesn’t find out he’s actually family until Naomi tells her in 2:20.
2 See Hubbard, p. 191

Friday, February 14, 2014

Under Cover

                                                       Reflections on Ruth 2:11-18

May the Lord reward your work, and your wages be full from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge.
                                                                        Ruth 2:12

It’s like he can’t see her outward appearance – not the old clothes, the dirt on her hands, the sweat on her Moabite face. Not her youth, nor her beauty, not even the obvious signs prolonged hunger has left on her physical frame. All he sees is honor. As if a crown sparkled on her head in the sunlight.

As if she’s clothed in the radiance of all that she’s done.

He’s heard. He knows she stayed with her mother-in-law. Even after she buried her husband – she clung to Naomi in love. She chose to leave her parents, her country, and belong to a people she doesn’t know – tucking herself under the wings of the Almighty.

Choosing then, choosing now as she works the fields, the way of kindness. 1

This, he’s always known, is God’s mark on the soul of His people. The God of “hesed” (kindness) making His people a people of hesed. And this is her! He tells her it’s all been reported to him. Because of it, under his cover, she will be safe. “May the Lord reward you,” he prays, “and make you whole and complete!” 2

But it confuses her. She’s nobody. She’s not worthy to be counted among the most menial workers. Why then does he lower himself to regard her? To comfort her like this? Why reach out and gently – ever so gently -- lift up her head?

“My lord,” she whispers, staying low where she belongs.

He wants to do more for her. At meal time, he goes to her again. “Come and eat some food!” Not with the other widows. But at the head table – with the reapers, the foremen -- near him. The highest place of all. How is she supposed to do that? Walk there? Sit there? Was she trembling? Did she keep her head down, her eyes to the ground, awkward and embarrassed?

And what was it like, out of nowhere, to suddenly have a plate of food placed in front of her? Piled high! More food than she eats in a week! She turns to look at who gave it to her. Who’d do that? Who’d serve somebody like her?

A servant? A reaper? A foreman? No.

It’s him. 3

Lifting her head again. Inviting her to eat again. And she does, she eats until she feels what she hasn’t felt in so long. She’s full, she’s satisfied. When she’s done, she’s told she can even take the leftovers home. A cooked meal or two for later.

She hears them call him Boaz.

She figures he must have said something to the reapers. The afternoon work isn’t like the morning. They treat her differently -- kindly, practically throwing stalks of barley down in front of her. By day’s end, as she beats out what she gleaned, she has more grain than she ever dreamed possible. 4

And nearly skips her way home. Naomi is there, standing at the door, waiting. One look at Ruth’s happy, tired face and she knows her prayers are answered. She’s safe -- unharmed. Her arms are full of harvest. As she comes near, putting it all down, Ruth holds out the most precious gift of all. The one Naomi needs and needs now. Not the raw uncooked barley.

But the cooked leftovers. She takes it.

She’s hungry beyond words. She starts eating -- to the full! It’s the first sign that God isn’t against her and that He’s doing what she thought He’d never do again.

Ever so gently -- lifting her head to His.

*       *       *

Inside the workbook, Pastor Adams had scribbled, “Request two: Laqueta” followed by her phone number. I assumed this was the same woman on the DVD who’d gone to see Angel in Juvie. I was thrilled to have my first interview.

“Nelson here,” a man answered.

“I’m calling for Laqueta,” I started.

“She’s not here right now. Is this Pastor Barnum?”

“How’d you know?”

“Pastor Adams said you’d be calling.  We figured we could meet you tomorrow, about 4:15, at 365 Maple. That work for you?” I told him I’d make it work and thanked him. His name wasn’t familiar and, the next day, when I got to the house and saw him sitting on the front steps, I knew we’d never met.

“Laqueta’s inside,” he said, after we talked a while. I soon learned this was Angel’s house. She comes here after school to spend time with her mom.

“She can’t take care of her right now,” he told me. “So Angel stays with us. Who knows for how long? Her mother doesn’t have a good track record getting off drugs. So another family at church helps her.”

“From The Naomi Project?”

“Yeah. Pray for her. She needs the Lord to do what she can’t do for herself. But in the meantime? We do right by Angel.”

“So, how’d you become part of The Naomi Project?” I asked.

“Blake,” he said, looking straight at me. “I’m hoping you’re about to meet him.”

“Who is he?”

“Somebody I’ve hated since I was a kid.  We were teenagers on the street.” He pointed to a scar over his left eye and spitted out his name. “I was 22 and ended up with a concussion. We’ve always had it out for each other. Couple of years ago, I gave my life to Christ and did my best to stay away from him.

“Then, eighteen months ago, he gets in a car wreck. Totaled it. No idea how he survived. That’s when it started for me. I tried praying for him and I couldn’t do it. I went to Pastor Adams, he heard me out, and told me to get there on Wednesday nights. Laqueta was already going.”

“Did it help?” I wondered.

“I needed an attitude change. If God worked in me, I knew I could pray for him. So, six months ago, it happens again. He gets in a car wreck and nearly dies from it. So again I start praying. But this time, God says, ‘No!’


“He’s not listening to me. And I know He won’t listen till I get myself down to that hospital and tell him about Jesus. And that’s exactly what I did. ‘I don’t want you dying without Jesus,’ I say. ‘Two times you’ve had these wrecks. You ready to face God?’

“He says to me, ‘What do you care?’

“I say, ‘I do care and I’ll prove it.’ From then on, I’ve done what Pastor Adams teaches. I’ve gone out of my way to show kindness. When he was sick. When he got better -- and I didn’t stop. Even now, though I know he hates it. He wants nothing to do with Christ or with me. At least, not yet.”

I look at him, confused. “So why’s he coming here?”

“’Cause two days ago I found out something about him. So, I go to his house last night. He takes one look at me, and tells me to go away. I say, ‘Not this time, Blake. You’re gonna wanna hear what I got to say. There’s business between us now.’

“’What business?’ he says, coming out the door, getting right in my face.

“’It’s time you do right by your daughter,’ I say.

“’What I do, what I don’t do, has nothing to do with you,’ and then he pushes me. I tell him I’m not fighting him anymore. Not since Jesus came into my life. He knows that about me now. Then I land the news on him.

“’I know you don’t have custody.’

“He says, ‘So?’

“You know her Mama’s not doing well. Till she gets back on her feet, she’s got Laqueta and me taking care of your daughter. You got that? She’s with us now. Under my protection. If you want to see her, if you want to be the dad God called you to be, the kind of dad she needs, be at the house tomorrow at 4:00.”

“What did he say?” I asked, wide-eyed.

“Nothing. He turned around and slammed the door. But, for me, I couldn’t let him find out any other way. It had to come from me. If he won’t lift Angel’s head up high -- I will, so help me God.”

Then I heard it. A car door close. I turned and saw a man coming toward us, peaceful and calm. Nelson stood.

Nelson said, “I hoped you’d come.”

The man said nothing. And everything. As his hand and Nelson’s met mid-air.

1 In Ruth 3:10, Boaz describes all that Ruth did for Naomi (described in 2:11) as “kindness” (or, hesed).
2 Hubbard, p. 165
3 Again, in Hubbard’s commentary, he writes, “Indeed, he served her!” (p. 175) How perfectly this portrays the incarnation of our Lord who came not to be served, “but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) See also, Luke 12:37, John 13:5, and Philippians 2:5-11.
4 Hubbard argues the normal take for a worker in that day was about “1-2 pounds per day.” An ephah “weighed “about 29 (U.S.) pounds” which means Ruth brought home “the equivalent of at least half a month’s wages in one day.” p. 179.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

You See Me?

                                                          Reflections on Ruth 2:3-10

How does this happen that you should pick me out and treat me so kindly — me, a foreigner?
                                                                        Ruth 2:10 (MSG)

There was no plan.

Why didn’t anyone – neighbors, family – give Naomi counsel? “Don’t send Ruth to these fields. It may be dangerous for her there. But here would be better…” Why didn’t Naomi remember from her past? Why did she allow Ruth to go out into the morning with no sense of where is safe, who is safe, and who is not?

All she knows is to follow the workers into the fields.

And then, protocol. She must go to someone in charge and ask, in accordance with the Law of Moses, “please let me glean.” She has to tell them that she’s a foreigner and that she belongs to Naomi. That should be enough. And it was.

All because God’s heart favors the widows, aliens, and poor.

The morning passes without incident. She’s not like the others. Does anyone talk to her? Is she welcomed or is she pushed aside by the women gleaning with her? Is their talk? Banter? Unkind things said about Moabites? Or is it the opposite? Is it like she’s invisible, unseeable – so even the young men aren’t teasing her?

She stays to her work. Focused, driven.

Near midday, she hears whisperings around her. The owner of the fields has come. She hears where he’s standing. Who he’s talking to. How he’s dressed. No doubt, the reapers in front of her increase their pace. She does too. She stays to her work as if this news means nothing to her. But then, one last whisper before everyone goes silent. The man – he’s coming. He’s walking towards them.

She doesn’t look up. She doesn’t stop.

“My daughter,” she hears. The timbre of his voice, pleasant and lovely. Still she doesn’t stop. There’s no room in her mind for even the slightest possibility…

He’s talking to her.

He’s seeing her.

She hears it again and freezes, dropping everything in her hands. The other women do not stop. Nor do the reapers. They keep on working as she stands there, still bent over, her eyes fixed on the ground beneath her. “Listen carefully, my daughter,” she heard him say. And then come the unforgettable words.

            “Do not glean in another field, nor leave this one.
            Stay with my maids. Let your eyes be on these fields
            Where they reap – reap! and go after them.
            Have I not charged my young men not to touch you?
            And when you’re thirsty, go, drink to the full!”

She can no longer stand. The weight of his gentleness, his kindness, is too much for her heart to bear. She falls with her face to the ground, bowing as a servant before her master. No not that. She feels less, much less that that – maybe, as a dog quieted at his feet. Why does he care for her? Protect her? Provide for her?

From somewhere quite unexpected, courage rises to speak.

“You give me favor? But I’m a stranger. I’m a Moabite.

“Yet you see me?”

*       *       *

I asked Pastor Adams for three things: 1- to attend the monthly meeting; 2- to interview people from The Naomi Project; and 3- to meet with him again soon. He grunted, handed me a workbook and DVD and said he’d think about it.

I took that as a yes.

Two days later, I sat at my office desk, put the DVD in my laptop, and realized I had my first request. Last month’s meeting was filmed. Up on the screen came the same words on the front cover of the workbook:

The Naomi Project: A Laboratory
Changing Attitude, Building Character, Impacting our World for Christ

I quickly learned the format for the night: 1- Worship and Bible teaching; 2- Accountability and prayer in smaller groups; and 3- Reports from the past month, testimonies of answered prayer, a listing of the most pressing needs facing them, and then a strategy session on how to meet those needs.

There must have been a couple of hundred people there that night.

In my journal, I wrote an excerpt from the pastor’s Bible teaching. It was stunningly interactive between him and the people.

   Pastor:          From Psalm 136, we learn God is good. It’s who He is!
   People:         His lovingkindness is everlasting.
   Pastor:          And when He created the heavens and the earth, how did He do it?
   People:         His lovingkindness is everlasting.
   Pastor:          When He stretched out His strong arm to redeem the children of
                        Israel from the bondage of slavery, do you know why He did it?
   People:         His lovingkindness is everlasting.
   Pastor:          Verse 23 says He remembers us in our low estate. Psalm 107:1-2 says the
                        redeemed of the Lord knows why He rescues us in our times of troubles.
   People:         His lovingkindness is everlasting.
   Pastor:          So tell me why He came to Bethlehem. Tell me why He went to the Cross.
                        And tell me why He came to you when you cried out for Him to help you.
   People:         His lovingkindness is everlasting.
   Pastor:          So how can we hear the cry of others and do nothing? Are we not to treat
                        them with the same kindness as He has treated us? So I ask you -- Are we
                        doing what He did for us with our elderly? Our spouses? Our kids? Those
                        in our family? Our friends? Our brothers and sisters in Christ? And what
 about the people suffering in our community tonight? Right here on our streets? If we can but hear their cry, what will we do?
   People:         His lovingkindness is everlasting!

And with that, the congregation stood to their feet and applauded. From that moment on, the pastor dealt biblically, practically, with how anger derails the work God wants to do in building His character of kindness in our souls.

“Turn to one another now and hold each other accountable,” Pastor Adams instructed the people when he finished teaching. “It’s time to let Jesus deal with the anger that takes root in our hearts.”

The DVD was not edited.

For the better part of forty-five minutes, the place erupted in conversation and prayer. I fast forwarded the video until a man rose to the microphone and called the place to order.

“I’m brother Johnson,” he began, waiting for people to come to order.

“Last time we met, we told you a fourteen year old girl we call ‘Angel’ went missing down near the corner of Main and Maple. That’s all we had. We told you to fight for her in prayer. We figured she’d been trafficked. Three families from The Naomi Project made Angel their focus this past month.”

Two men and a woman came up alongside Johnson.

“We found her house but nobody there,” one of the men reported. “We did our research and learned her mother was staying upstate with her brother. We drove up and talked to her but she was too drugged out and had no idea what happened to Angel.”

“We then took to the streets,” the other man said. “Drug houses, pimps, people in the know. We also went to our inside police connections. Ten days ago, we found her being held in a Juvie Detention Center right here in the city.”

Just knowing Angel was found made people erupt in praise.

“We got permission from her mother to go and see her,” he went on, but the woman next to him moved toward the microphone.

“Angel was trafficked but it’s only God who rescued her,” she said. “The place she was staying was being staked out by the police already. They raided it, got her out, and put her in Juvie. Last weekend, sister Laqueta and I went to see her and I want you to hear what we found.”

Laqueta came up next to her.

“Oh, she was skin and bones something terrible,” Laqueta lamented. “She couldn’t even look us in the eyes at first. She must’ve thought we’d come to hurt her somehow. But all we did was love on her.”

“That’s right,” Pastor Adams affirmed.

“And we told her God loved her and, from now on, the sun is going to shine down on her. Everything’s going to change for the better. She’s gotta a new family now who love her, pray for her, and will stand with her through thick and thin. She’s a Naomi girl now. Yes she is!”

Again the place broke in applause.
“’Course she didn’t know what that meant!” Laqueta smiled. “But we promised her a safe home where nobody would ever hurt her again. And I’m telling you, it was the saddest thing we ever saw. Angel looked right at us with sad eyes and said with a small, broken down voice…”

“Why’d you come? Nobody cares about me. Nobody can even see me.”

+ + +

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