When I was very young, my grandfather died in a car accident. Well, that’s not entirely true. He actually survived the car accident. But he did not survive the medical care that followed. There was some talk, to my understanding, that there were grounds for a medical malpractice suit. However, I know for a fact there was a great deal of talk about him having gone much too early.
I don’t have very many memories of my grandfather. Really only one (though it is a good one.) But I am told he called me Lord Byron, that he gave me cans of pop to carry around, and that he was one of the best men that those who knew him had ever known. And when he was gone, he left an enormous hole.
The book of Ruth opens in a desperate but hopeful journey: in the midst of a vicious famine in his homeland, the Israelite Elimelech gathered his wife, Naomi, and their two sons and traveled to the faraway land of Moab. Though they were strangers in that land they settled down and began to build a home for themselves. The two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, fell in love and married local Moabite women: Orpah and Ruth. But then, tragedy struck. Elimelech died, leaving his family to fend for themselves. They were all devastated, though none more so than Naomi. But the family pressed together, and they continued on for another ten years.
One could think that this family had been through enough pain, but it was not to be. In what could be seen as a terrible twist of fate both Mahlon and Chilion died, leaving the three women widowed and alone.
Naomi was beside herself with grief. First her husband, but now her two sons as well? Realizing Moab held nothing else for her, Naomi gathered her few possessions and decided to set out for her home of Bethlehem, in Israel. She sent her daughters-in-law back to their homes, bidding them tear-streaked farewells. Orpah fell on her mother-in-law, kissed her on her cheek, and prayed she have a blessed life. But Ruth staunchly refused. “May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you!” she declared. Naomi shook her head, but she did not have the energy to fight her. So the two women set out.
I learned this week that a friend of mine, a dear lady named Bev Marshall, had died a day or two earlier. I was shocked. We had never met in person, but we had corresponded every week or two for the past six months. We had been going through this cancer thing together. And then she was gone.
My loss, though, is nothing compared to those who knew her deeply: her husband, her family, her dearest friends. That citadel she had built as her life imploded in one final breath, and those who shared it with her are now left picking up pieces that will never fit together properly again.
The journey was long and trying. But eventually Naomi and Ruth made it back to Naomi’s homeland of Bethlehem. There she was initially greeted with joy, but that joy faded when her friends and acquaintances saw that Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion were all conspicuously absent.
“Do not call me Naomi (which means pleasant); call me Mara (which means bitter), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me,” Naomi replied when they greeted her. “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
And so Naomi and Ruth settled in Bethlehem penniless, hopeless, and husbandless. Two widows, one a foreigner in a strange land, both broken people whose worlds had been fractured beyond repair. There were no pieces to even pick up: there was only the wearied tenacity to press on.
How often do we find ourselves picking up the pieces? How often does home just not fit us any more? Or, even worse, doesn’t exist any more? When it seems that all we have worked for, all we have striven for, the life we have so carefully erected, has come crashing down like or own personal Babel? When that person who defined us, who upheld us, who gave us strength, who loved us, isn’t there any more? The absence can be so palpably heavy that it can crush us.
In the ruins it can be so easy to see only the bitterness. To be overcome with the overwhelming weight of Loss. To pronounce yourself Mara. To think over and over again “Why?”, and to feel cursed by God. It is even easy to curse Him right back.
Near Bethlehem there lived a man named Boaz. He was a distant relative of Elimelech, as well as a virtuous, honorable man. He took notice of Ruth, and the brave, kind deeds she had done for Naomi. And he treated her with kindness in return: he heaped food on her, enough for the two women to eat for weeks. Ruth worked in his fields until the end of the harvest, gathering, and she saw how this man operated. And something bloomed inside her.
At the end of the harvest Ruth came to Boaz in the night, and took a bold gamble. She asked him to marry her, and to redeem her family. Boaz was taken by her, and honored by the fact that she had not just sought out men of her own age. So he sought the approval of the elders and the other family members.
The next time Ruth saw Boaz, he had news. He told her that she was to be his wife, and that her family would be redeemed from poverty and tragedy. They were married, and they had a son. Ruth gave the baby to Naomi, and Naomi saw in that baby’s face the smile of her sons, and the piercing gaze of her husband. And at that moment she knew, as tears rolled down her face and laughter bubbled up from her belly, that God had not left her, after all.
We each have ruins in our hearts, our minds, our memories. We each have the arid places of desolation: where once there had been life and happiness, but now there is only char and wreckage. Sometimes those ruins are all we see. Sometimes they’re all we will allow ourselves to see. And so often the question arises, “Why?”
“Why God? Why me? Why her?”
The desolate places wrench our heart and break us and sometimes trap us in grief. But God can restore even that which can never be. God can build metropolises out of our ruins that bring in others who would never have been invited in otherwise. He can use our ruins to send us on a journey that will change us and everyone else around us forever. (Ruth’s son was the grandfather of David, after all.)
Or perhaps He will only use that painful, hulking wreckage to grow a single rose, just for you. A tribute to the things and people you’ve lost, and to the person you have become. We might not even see the rose for a very long time: years, perhaps. But, oh, when we do finally see it, how beautiful, how magnificent that rose will be.
- The Book of Ruth
Image (c) Dollar Photo Club, 2014