Bethlehem means house of bread. The story of Ruth opens without a crumb left on the table; not an ear of corn growing in the fields. The sound of grinding millstones had all fallen silent.
In Bethlehem there isn’t a morsel on anybody’s lips. Bethlehem knows only famine.
Her name was Naomi, which means beautiful. She was married to Eli. Bethlehem was their town. But when the town ran out of bread they decided it was time to go somewhere else for a while. So they readied their boys Mahlon and Kilon, tied the furniture with rope to the van, kissed their relatives goodbye and backfired their way out of town.
Just until the famines over. Then we’ll come home. They drove to Moab. Eli and the boys found work and they made the best of their move.
It was a sudden, unwelcome surprise that had Naomi turn from wife to widow.
Left with 2 boys to sort out she offered up prayers to Israel’s God.
Naomi found good wives for them among the Moabite women. She still had a voice as a mother, still had a role, still had the protection of two sons. And life went on…until she could hardly believe it had been 10 years since they left Bethlehem: the house of bread.
She would return there again but not as she’d planned, not with her children and grandchildren like riches around her. Not now.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. It never is. When Mahlon fell sick and then his brother Naomi was left in a house with no one of her own kin: no husband, no son, no one who remembered Bethlehem, the house of bread. No longer a wife. No longer a mother. Who was Naomi now?
She heard God had put bread back on Bethlehem’s table. It was time to return. She thought about bringing her daughters in law but what would Bethlehem hold for them?No house, no family, no men to be their safekeeping.
I’m going back my daughters – in Law -No you can’t come with me. I’ve not the strength left to look after your interests. There is nothing I can do for you now. Go home.
But Ruth would not go home. Would not leave her and resisted the sad logic Naomi tried to explain to her. The morning Naomi walked back into town the woman of Bethlehem saw her come.
Is that is that Naomi? It had been 10 years or more -Naomi is that really you?
Don’t call me Naomi, she said – for what beauty there was in my life has abandoned me. Call me Mara – call me bitter -because the almighty has dealt me a bitter blow. I left here a wife and have come back a widow; I left here a mother and come back alone. Tell me women of Bethlehem who am I now? God has brought me back with what? Nothing but the clothes on my back. Why would you call me Beautiful? God certainly does not. The almighty has ruined me.
And the whole town stood silent as Naomi’s anguish and anger accused God of her misfortune.
Fast forward to here, Law, the village of one syllable that people feel the need to add the definaite article to: the Law. Fast forward to here and now: How are you doing?
I think if we were to ask each other that then do you know what the answer would be:
Aye fine – no bad – getting there -hanging together with a strong thread.
But what lies behind fine, no bad, getting by? The wound we will not publicly show? The struggle to make sense of what’s happening when it was never meant to be like this? The exhaustion of being powerless to do something for someone we love?
How are you doing
Why do we hide our hurt? I think it’s because to tell the truth about ourself would feel like losing control of the little we are left in control of. I think we are afraid of that. Afraid of losing control. Is thats why we apologise for tears in someone’s company?
We are not sure where honesty about who we are, what we are going through, would lead. It feels too exposed, too naked. It might mean admitting to the world my life has become a confusing mess.
How are you doing?
Is that how Naomi answered the question? Naomi, who like most of us had never seen God in a burning bush, never heard God speak like Moses, never seen the parting of the red sea or bread fall from heaven, but in the blessings and wound of everyday life, tried to make sense of who she was and who God was in the ordinariness of living.
But now she has lost everything she was, everything that gave her a place in the world. No longer a wife or mother, she is an accumulation of pain and she has to witness to it:
Call me bitter – because God’s been bitter to me.
Naomi tells the truth she feels.
My life’s become a mess and God it’s your fault.
Is that an empty gesture or even a blasphemy? You would only ever think so if you had never read the psalms, like psalm 88:
I cry to you for help, Lord;
Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?
From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
You have taken from me friend and neighbour
darkness is my closest friend.
The psalmist knows how telling God the truth about how we feel is an act of daring faith that has to be risked, because truth is the only place where healing begins to grow. When Naomi stands and says: this is my life – and it feels like its God’s fault -telling God the truth about her deepest feeling, the truth about her deepest fear, that’s not blasphemy -that’s true faith, because we only do that if we trust we are in a genuine relatiohsionship. Telling the truth about ourselves to God is the first step on our journey, sometimes a long journey towards hope and healing.
Loss, bitterness, God-damned – that’s how I feel Naomi says. And Bethlehem is a faithful friend because it doesn’t challenge what she says.
I have heard many times the question: Why is God doing this to me? Please understand that’s seldom a question looking for a theological answer. In fact its less a question than it is an expression of anguish or confusion, an expression of disorientation and pain. Why is God doing this to me: not a question to be answered, or a moment to defend God’s reputation but a thread of pain to follow, all the way to where it lives.
How are you? Maybe you could answer that this morning:
I struggle with…
I’m tired of…
I’m grateful for…
I’m hoping that…
I’m angry with…
I’m in a mess about…
You might want to tell me about that. You want to tell God about it. And that’s what we will try to do in the song we now sing….here me dear Lord,