Tonight, as sore muscles from a new work out keep me up, I lie here thinking “why on earth do I do such things time and time again?” And this is what comes to mind:
I have been studying the book of Ruth for a class that I am taking and I am learning much about the subject of redemption. The book is riddled with references to the grace and blessing of God and the redemption of the widow Naomi. You see, Naomi left a famine in her hometown of Bethlehem (which, ironically in Hebrew, means “house of bread”) with her husband Elimelech and her sons Mahlon and Kilion to go to Moab “for a while.” While there for 10 years (!), she looses everything- husband, both sons and, with that, position, hope, provision and standing. She literally has no one. And so she, as a last resort, turns home. I have this image of her walking back to Bethlehem as a dog would return to its master, tail between its legs.
Israel is the people of God. And God has promised them that, if they keep the covenant, he will always provide, for they were to be an example to the nations. But, Elimelech pulls his family from their homeland and moves to their enemy nation- a sure sign of rebellion and distrust in my books. And so, Naomi returns and the whole town is stirred when they see her. “Can this be Naomi?” they ask. Not only has she returned, but she has brought with her a Moabitess! Historically, Moab and Israel are always at odds; in the time that the story of Ruth takes place however, they are experiencing an unusual peace.
Naomi is bereft. "God has brought me back empty," she claims and she changes her name to “bitter.” But God is not done with her yet. Her foreign daughter-in-law Ruth, who has already made bold claims such as this: “where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay; your people will be my people and your God my God” begins to take care of her. She goes out to glean in the fields- an allowance that God made for the care of widows without family. And the reader is reminded again of this elusive “Boaz, of the clan of Elimelech, a man of standing.” Why the author goes to such lengths as to elucidate on the family history, we are yet unsure, but we continue reading...
And God provides food for Naomi and Ruth- in excess! Ruth, humble, respectful, sincere Ruth, miraculously gains the respect of both the foreman and boss of this field. You can hear the note of respect in the foreman's voice when he says, “she's worked steadily from morning till now.” And Boaz also explains that he has heard much of her and all she has done for her mother-in-law. How both a commoner and a bigwig hear about such an insignificant creature as Ruth, we can only contribute to God and the speed of gossip, I presume. But this teenager, of an enemy country, has abandoned all she knows to serve a God that she has never met. She and Naomi have no standing in such a society- widowed, without a caretaker, without a hope ... But God provides.
By the end of the story we learn that, through Ruth and Boaz, Naomi is lifted up from her bitterness. She is given a son in her old age. And she again has reason to hope. Boaz cares for her beyond what custom dictates. Ruth loves her mother-in-law and quickly becomes an accepted member of society. Not only is Naomi redeemed through these events, but Ruth is as well. Ruth is accepted, only by the grace of God, into a society where her existence should not have been even a blip on the radar. She was, by all accounts, the lowest of the low. But God lifts her too from her knees.
These thoughts turn me to Elizabeth. I met Elizabeth this past summer in Kenya while taking some of my students to their check up at the HIV/AIDS clinic. We have been emailing since our one and only meeting and I am constantly reminded of God's redemptive work. Elizabeth is HIV positive. She had three children when she learned she was HIV positive. She became very sick and her entire village ostracized her to the point that they would not let her use the communal latrine for fear of catching her illness. Near death, and already having witnessed the death of her child, she was rescued by an AIDS worker and brought to this clinic. Her husband had abandoned her, her family left her to rot, and everyone turned their backs on her.
As I think about her story, and where she is today, I am reminded again of the incredible love of God. You see, Elizabeth is now a counselor at this clinic. Every day she works with patients who are struggling to live with HIV/AIDS. She is still HIV+, but the symptoms have now been brought under control. Not only that, but she has remarried. Her two children are HIV negative and so is her husband. Her life will never be easy yet she she lives her life in the hope of Christ.
Yesterday, I learned that Elizabeth has given birth to a healthy, beautiful baby girl named Leeval. She too is HIV negative. The thought of this woman receiving back her dignity, a husband and provider, a child and the ability to hope once again is overwhelming. Look at the redeeming work of God! Who would have thought that Naomi would have a son through the union of a foreign woman and one of the top men of the community? And who would have thought that Elizabeth would still be alive today, healthy, smiling, and all the while giving praise to God?
And so, dear reader, that is why I am riding Sea to Sea this summer. For people like Elizabeth and sweet, innocent children like Leeval. I am riding in the hope of redemption. I am riding so that others like Elizabeth will be redeemed through the work of God.
I hope that this story gives you hope for the lost and the hurting as it does for me.