Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Female Version of Job

When a famine ironically caused a food crisis in Bethlehem (a house of bread), Elimelech packed up belongings and family and sought a better place to live. He and his wife, Naomi, and his two sons Mahlon and Kilion settled in the country of Moab, about 50 miles from Bethlehem. Tragedy struck the family when Elimelech died leaving Naomi a widow with little to no social standing or earning power. The task of finding wives for her sons also fell upon her, since her husband could no longer fulfill this traditional role.

Her sons married Orpah and Ruth. After ten years this family unit experienced even more sadness when both sons died, leaving no heirs. That’s when Naomi chose to return to Bethlehem, a city which had stores of food again because “the LORD had come to the aid of his people” (1:6). At first, her daughters-in-law planned to also go to Bethlehem, Judah. Obviously from the text, these women respected and loved each other. Barely out of town, Naomi stopped and urged these women to return and “find rest in the home of another husband” (vs. 9). Naomi kissed them, and the younger women wept. After more urging, Orpah returned to her family.

However, Ruth adamantly refused to go back to her childhood home, and instead stated her decision with passion. Her lyrical speech has become a celebrated pledge repeated by many: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” Ruth even made a forever-statement to enforce her promise: “Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me” (vv 16-18).

Upon their return, word spread quickly the kindness this foreign daughter-in-law showed in caring for Naomi. Their bond of love caused Naomi to refer to Ruth as “my daughter” (2:2). Under the law, if a man died leaving a widow, then a brother or the nearest kinsman (called a redeemer-kinsman) purchased their land and brought the widow into his household and the firstborn son carried the deceased husband’s name.

Enter Boaz. There was one redeemer-kinsman nearer than he, but after negotiations with that man and the city elders, Boaz accepted the responsibility of taking care of Naomi and Ruth. Boaz told Ruth that he’d heard about her kindness of leaving her birth family, of traveling with Naomi, and he saw her gleaning the fields day after day to find food. (The Lord had commanded farmers to leave the corners of the fields for the poor to glean. They only gathered other crops once, not a second time. Leftover were for the poor.)

Ruth didn’t seem to mind the stigma of being poor, of working hard. She did what she could to provide for Naomi and her needs. Today, we recognize her as marginalized because she was a woman, foreign, widowed, and poor. But God chose the industrious and kind Ruth to become the wife of Boaz, a prosperous farmer from the tribe of Judah. The Lord “enabled her to conceive” and she later presented Naomi with her first grandchild. Only grandparents know the incredible love that deluges their souls when those tiny babes are first placed in their arms.

In four short chapters the life stories of these two women unfolds – their stories a blip on the timeline of the greatest story ever told. They lived during the period in history when judges ruled the Israelites and when “everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25). But isn’t there always the exception to the rule. In the book of Ruth, we meet those exceptions as one after another, we learn more about Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. Naomi had fortunes and family restored, this female version of Job. At a time when women had practically no standing in society, God elevated to a place of honor, the obedient Ruth, her name forever linked in the lineage of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:5).

Her story impacts us and will influence the world until the last day. When little Obed arrived, the women of Bethlehem showered Naomi with blessings, and they foretold how her little grandson Obed would sustain her in her old age. Their words mention the kinsman-redeemer. We also rely daily upon one born in Bethlehem, Jesus the Christ. Come, Bread of Life, allow us to place our feet beneath your table.

Index Card Scripture for Week Eight: Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer” (Ruth 4:14).


Friday, February 18, 2011

One Word

A few of my friends and I centered our New Year’s resolutions on single words. We each looked at our goals, current circumstances, and needs and then chose individual words to express our desires for 2011.

Terra Hangen, from California, wants to “shine” for the Lord this year. Leslie Wilson, from northeast Texas, wants to “abide” in the Lord. Trish Berg, from Ohio, wants to remember that all of life is “worship.” I coined a word, “minute-grace,” as I try to live in the current moment each day, reflecting God’s care. Brenda Nixon, from Ohio, wants to be “salt,” backing up her choice with Jesus’ words, "Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth." (Matthew 5:13, The Message).

This week, as I studied the Bible book of Judges, I was reminded about the word “obey.” If only the Israelites had chosen to focus their lives on the word “obey,” life could have been easier. Did you ever tell any children, “Just do whatever is right in your own sight. No rules. No boundaries.” God knew best when he gave the Israelites good commands, commands that would guard their souls.

If I’d been told, do whatever pleases you when I was in junior high, I’d not have done homework. I would have eaten Sugar Babies, Junior Mints, and drank Coca Cola until my heart raced from glucose gluttony. And I definitely wouldn’t have cleaned my room.

What would happen in our communities if each person did just as they pleased? What if your family members took care of only their needs and didn’t consider any others in your home? Chaos would reign. And your household would steadily slide into a murky world of selfishness.

That’s the gist of what happened to the people of Israel after the godly leaders Moses and Joshua were gathered to their fathers. Moses had set up a system of judges for the Israelites. So that rule was in place, and during the 300 hundred years when judges ruled, God also appointed specific judges to direct the Israelites.

When each of those appointed judges died, the people “returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their fathers, following other gods and serving and worshiping them.” And, “they refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways” (Judges 2:19). A summation of those recurrences is seen in these words: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25).

Joshua had led a generation to follow the Lord, and he challenged them to “fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness.” He further charged them, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” gods of stone and wood or the living God. Then Joshua declared allegiance to God, “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:14-15).

When I read the book of Judges, I read with deeper understanding now that I’m an adult. As a child, I heard the stories of Israel’s judges: Samson, Deborah, Gideon, Ehud, and others. Full of meaning, their stories were too complex for full understanding when I first heard them in Sunday school.

Such as when the tribe of Judah captured the enemy king Adoni-Bezek and Judah’s soldiers cut off his thumbs and big toes. As a child, I only considered the horror of that dismemberment. But, there’s more to the story than that. Even the wicked king who now lacked toes and thumbs saw the justice in what has happened to him, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them” (Judges 1:7).

The book of Judges records a song of Deborah after her win over an enemy. In that song she gives a formula for victorious living: godly leaders doing their job, and people willing to follow. Leaders, shoemakers, bakers, business owners, and parents – all adopting one word “obey.”

That’s when songs abound. Will you sing along with the ancient and godly Judge Deborah? Will you join Brenda Nixon in her quest to bring out the “God-flavors” of the earth as she lives as “salt”? If so, your days will be filled with potency and power like never before.

Index Scripture for Week Seven: “May they who love you be like the sun when it rises in its strength” (Judges 5:31).

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Did God become a Christian?

When I was five, my grandmother, Margaret Turner, kept my sister and me for a week. She and my grandpa lived in a rambling old farmhouse, where many childhood memories originate.

For breakfast, she usually served us oatmeal with farm fresh cream and butter. We also had home processed bacon, homemade biscuits, and milk gravy. And in the middle of the table set a bowl of stewed prunes. They weren’t the pitted kind found on grocery shelves today. They weren’t wrapped individually in cellophane, nor did they have the essence of orange squeezed into their wrinkly bodies. These were plain prunes with pits.

Grandma Turner didn’t pamper us by removing the large seeds. After all, we’d seen adults eat prunes and spit out a seed into their spoon or napkin, and then place it on their plate rim. Grandma must have assumed we had watched and assimilated the information and knew how to eat prunes.

One morning, my little sis, Sherry, and I sat at the kitchen table on the bench seat. Grandma laid out breakfast for us, serving four prunes each. After blessing the food and God who supplied it, she left the room for a few minutes. Maybe she went to make beds. Maybe she just needed a few minutes to herself to nurse her cup of coffee, away from the early bird chatterboxes.

There we sat with our special plates in front of us, Sherry had a ruby red one, and I ate off the blue willow pattern. I still remember the particular day. When my grandmother walked back in the room, she heard me say to my younger sister, “Sherry, you’re too little to swallow the seeds. You got to spit them out.”

In horror, Grandma looked around my plate – all four of my prunes were absent. No pits in sight. I can hear my grandmother’s voice today, edged with concern, “Oh, honey, you don’t swallow those big old seeds, either.” I don’t know how my tiny throat managed to get those rough pits down when I now sometimes struggle to swallow a calcium supplement.

This week’s scripture verse comes from the book of Joshua, which tells the history of him leading the Israelites to conquer lands God commanded for them to possess. Long before Joshua, God promised Abraham that his descendants would inherit certain mountains, streams, and deserts. Joshua’s advance fighting men accepted the courage God willingly gave them to accomplish the conquering of these lands. Hand-to-hand combat required understanding, strong minds, and bodies.

Stories from the Old Testament confirm that when both the chosen Israelites and foreign nations descended into self will and ignored God, God often used invading enemies as a measure to bring about justice and allegiance to God’s will.

Today, one of the reasons some say that they don’t believe in God are those long ago battles against indigenous peoples. A third grade boy in a Tyler, Texas Sunday school, sat in on a similar discussion about the perceived harshness of punishing those who forsook God. After much thought, the lad came up with his own satisfactory explanation, “I think in Old Testament times God wasn’t a Christian, yet.”

Both the Israelites and pagan nations knew of the miracles God performed in Egypt. But people in both camps dismissed the miracles. Many Israelites gradually grew to trust God. And even some of the pagans came to belief and repented, such as Rahab of Jericho, and much later, the Assyrians, who lived in the capitol of Nineveh, heeded Jonah’s preaching and repented.

If we continue to learn about God, he reveals his nature and myths are dispelled. The swallowing of the prune seeds actually put my mind to rest about watermelon seeds. When I was a child, an adult had teasingly told me that vines would sprout from my tummy if I swallowed melon seeds. Low on knowledge, I had taken the gardening myth as gospel. Grandma Turner assumed I knew how to eat prunes, but granddaughter and grandmother both had some learning to do.

As I reread Joshua this week, it was difficult to read about the battles. But I have faith that infinite God remains wiser than my human ways and thoughts. His plans are perfect, he teaches us what to swallow about him and what to discard as myths. All our lives, we do best when we put aside assumptions and remain teachable and open to learning.

Index Card Scripture for Week Six: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Moving Right Along

How many times have you moved to a different home? When I was a child, we often moved. My dad, a metal lather, had to find work in larger cities than Prescott, Arkansas. If a job was scheduled to last a long time, Dad moved his family. A short term job such as the Galveston stint had him working through the week, but home on the weekends.

Later, my husband, Dave, would mention a Texas city -- Longview, Beaumont, College Station, Bay City, and Houston – and I’d reply, “Oh, I lived there.” The list of physical addresses of my youth is long if all the Arkansas and Louisiana towns we lived in are mentioned.

By my fourth year in school, we settled permanently in Houston. Today’s parents worry about the effect multiple moves have on school aged kids. But my siblings and I turned out okay. I scream when I hear the rattle of a roadmap, but otherwise I’m pretty sane.

The Houston move enabled Dad and Mom to purchase our first home. The house wasn’t new, but it felt palatial compared to previous rentals. Dad came home to family every night. Mom painted her new kitchen a fashionable chartreuse green to match her new Fiesta dinnerware. We had our first pets and made longtime friends – friends with whom we still stay in touch.

No matter where we moved, one constant traveled with us -- God. Dad and Mom found time to share Bible stories with us, and find a church home where we could worship on Sundays and midweek. The unshakable God, Alpha and Omega (beginning and end), remained the cornerstone upon which my dad and mom built their mobile family. No permanent address required. Their main need was a constant God.

I believe that’s the overall message of Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of Old Testament law. From a Hebrew word, it means “second law.” Jewish sages refer to Deuteronomy as “Mishneh Torah,” The Repetition of the Torah.

Over a forty year span the Israelites were a mobile clan, wandering in deserts and around mountains, a purposeful journey which led them away from idolatry to the worship of one God. It was a time consuming process, and generation consuming. The mamas and papas died off during that period. That generation of grumblers and whiners did not inherit the promised homeland. Who did -- a younger generation, who found faith through God’s unrelenting love and provision.

The book of Deuteronomy contains three major addresses by Moses. He reminisces and recaps their history of travels. Moses warns against idolatry, and he repeats the “Thou shalt not” and the “Thou shalt” commands. In one address, because God allowed Moses to know his departure from this earth was at hand, Moses commissioned Joshua as the next leader (31:7-8).

Young Christian families consider many things before making physical moves: what schools will our children attend? Will our new salaries meet family needs? Will the new house be adequate? Is the area prone to harsh weather? How far will we be from extended family? The best information is that God’s residence is where they will move. He will be present as they pack and travel. God remains mobile.

In Deuteronomy, Moses emphasized the priority of the “Shema,” a declaration of belief in one God: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (6:4). One ministry leader (A Pocketful of Change) runs all her decisions through the merits of the Shema. Will her decision/s further her love for God, with all her heart, soul, and strength?

This week, test your decisions by the Shema. In the fifth book of law written so long ago, Moses reminded parents to teach their children about God’s love and care, about his laws, about the joy of obeying. Remember, God is on the move as you are on the move.

Index Card Scripture for week five: Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:7).