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The Gospel of RuthLoving God Enough to Break the Rules
By Carolyn Custis James
ZondervanCopyright © 2008 Carolyn Custis James
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLooking at God from Ground Zero
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"So much for your God."
Those scornful words were aimed at a friend of mine as she stood with coworkers around the office television watching the tragic events of September 11 unfold. The unexpected barb came from the business colleague next to her, a man with whom she had shared her faith on numerous occasions, all to no effect. His words-uttered as the second World Trade Center Tower collapsed-verbalized what a lot of horrified people (including my friend) were thinking.
In our post-9/11 world, we've watched Christian leaders confronted by journalists who want to know, "Where was God on September 11?" It's a fair question, whether we like it or not. Still, I always cringe when I hear it because I'm not sure how to answer the question. It doesn't cause me to doubt God's existence, but it does force me to admit there's a lot about God I don't understand. To simply say, "His ways are not our ways," doesn't ultimately satisfy or soothe a wounded heart. The consternation we all feel is the price we pay for life in a fallen world.
Yes, September 11 troubles me. But there are other troubling days on the calendar-not just the ones that make the evening news, but also the ones that end up in my journal. Thumbing through the pages of my private reflections, I come across entries written in the middle of sleepless nights, when anxiety took over and robbed me of rest. When my personal world is falling apart and something or someone precious is at stake, it is frightening when God doesn't show up to hold things together, especially when I'm begging him to come. No voice calls out from heaven to calm the troubled waters. There's no miraculous healing or change of heart. No unseen army of angels shields me from disaster. Instead of getting better, things are only getting worse. My mother used to tell me, "Things always look worse at night." For the most part, I believe her. But some of the troubles that keep me from sleeping look just as bad in the morning.
Christians are great pretenders. We tell ourselves it's not supposed to be this way for Christians, and so we resort to a cover-up. For the sake of the gospel, we don't want to let on (especially in front of a watching world) that things aren't working out so well. We try to smooth things over for God, send in our best damage-control team to deal with these embarrassing questions, and polish up God's reputation. We feel it's our Christian duty to look our best. We can't afford to show our flaws. Let's give the world (and each other) the airbrushed version of ourselves as proof that the Christian life really works.
God won't and doesn't participate in this kind of masquerade. If the Bible tells us anything, it is that this world is fraught with perils and hardships. Eugene Peterson is candid enough to tell us the truth: "No literature is more realistic and honest in facing the harsh facts of life than the Bible. At no time is there the faintest suggestion that the life of faith exempts us from difficulties.... On every page of the Bible there is recognition that faith encounters troubles." We are broken ourselves and can't escape the brokenness and loss of our fallen world.
An honest reading of the Bible reveals a God who does not shy away from awkward questions. In fact, he almost seems to welcome them. The ruined lives of Job and Naomi pose disturbing questions about God without censorship-a surprising indication that the disconcerting questions journalists are asking about God are not off-limits for us either. An honest reading also reveals a God who doesn't explain himself. He didn't tell Job about his earlier conversation with Satan and he didn't give Naomi three good reasons why her world fell apart. Both sufferers went to their graves with their whys unanswered and the ache of their losses still intact. But somehow, because they met God in their pain, both also gained a deeper kind of trust in him that weathers adversity and refuses to let go of God. Their stories coax us to get down to the business of wrestling with God instead of chasing rainbows and to employ the same kind of brutal honesty that they did, if we dare.
A Female Job
So what was Naomi thinking as she sifted through the ruins of her life and contemplated the God she had believed in since she was a child? Did she mutter a "So much for your God" to herself? What did her two Moabite daughters-in-law think after witnessing the tsunamis that swept away Naomi's world without a whisper of interference from her God? Not only were they eyewitnesses of their mother-in-law's losses, they were caught in the tidal wave of her sorrows and were drowning in grief themselves.
The collapse of Naomi's world did not happen in a day but was spread out over years of heartache and tragedy. There were no heroic rescue workers rushing in to carry her to safety, no grim-faced news anchors choking back the tears as they reported a relentless sequence of disasters that sent her into shock, no half-mast flags or weeping nation to grieve her losses. Naomi's grief was a long time coming, the buildup of years of major disappointments, setbacks, and losses retold by the biblical narrator as cold facts in five short verses, without so much as a sigh or a tear.
I never connected emotionally with Naomi's losses until I heard her compared to the legendary sufferer Job. That got my attention. Until then, her sufferings seemed to serve as props to set up the real drama-the love story between Ruth and Boaz. In my eagerness to get to the part where Boaz enters the narrative, I stepped over a shattered Naomi and, in the process, missed the real power of the story-a story of a woman's struggle with God.
Glossing over Naomi's agonies comes at a high price, for by minimizing Naomi's pain, we inadvertently minimize our own. We owe it to Naomi and to ourselves to stop and contemplate the collapsing towers in Naomi's life-to sit with her for a while at ground zero-for without a better grasp of her sufferings, we will miss the impact of her doubts about God and the power of the Gospel of Ruth.
Entering Naomi's World
Naomi's sufferings didn't begin in Moab but started back in Bethlehem with a famine-a frightening humanitarian crisis that is difficult for prosperous, well-fed America to fathom. When the average American says, "I'm starving," it is a prelude to a midnight raid on a well-stocked refrigerator or a sudden trip to the nearest fast food restaurant. Sometimes we starve ourselves in a determined quest for fashionable thinness. It says a lot about us that we are able to pass over the word "famine" in the biblical text without at least pausing to shudder at the horrors this word implies. Prosperity puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to comprehending the devastating conditions that drove Naomi and her family from famine-ravaged Bethlehem-which means "house of bread"-to Moab (today's Jordan), where there was food.
A documentary report of a bone-weary Somali woman brought me closer to the true face of famine. Barefoot and hungry, she trudged for ten days over hot dusty roads to reach the UNICEF mother-and-child clinic in Waajid town. Back home, two of her six children lay in small shallow graves, victims of the famine still threatening the rest of her family. Moaning listlessly at her breast, her emaciated one-year-old was too weak to nurse and in desperate need of medical attention. When the ground hardens and cracks under blistering skies, parents will do anything-even move to Moab-to save their children's lives.
Naomi's famine came during a notoriously dark period in Israel's history-the days when the judges governed. The book of Judges is an appalling letdown after the glory days of Moses and Joshua, where we read to our dismay that the following generation "knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel" (Judges 2:10). God raised up judges to rescue them from the trouble they brought on themselves and to lead them back to Yahweh. Biblical writers tell us the people habitually did "what was right in their own eyes" (17:6; 21:25, NRSV), which is just another way of saying they turned their backs on God. From there, it was a short step for the Israelites to start worshiping the idols of their neighbors and to embrace their pagan ways. A terrible downward spiral ensued. Catastrophic judgments followed, taking the form of military invasions, government collapse, foreign oppressors, and famines.
Just as the rains fall on the good and the evil, so God's judgments on an adulterous Israel fell on the faithful as well. Indications seem to place Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, in this latter group, which makes their suffering all the more pitiable. Famine drove Elimelech's family from their home. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow. I can only imagine Naomi's thoughts as she plodded along the dusty road to Moab with her husband, their two boys, and other famine refugees. "Promised Land? House of Bread? Chosen people? If God loves us so much, why doesn't he help us?" But famine was only the beginning of Naomi's troubles.
Excerpted from The Gospel of Ruth by Carolyn Custis James Copyright © 2008 by Carolyn Custis James. Excerpted by permission.
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