Ruth and Naomi

Only the Lonely

Loneliness is an American epidemic. Just a couple of weeks ago, Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times wrote about this. According to his research, a fourth of Americans live alone. That means that almost 82,000,000 people are lonely. That staggers me. Loneliness can be a factor in failing health and early death. Several countries are trying to fix the problem. Britain even has a minister for loneliness to offer societal alternatives to feeling alone.

Anecdotally, I know this is a problem in the American evangelical church as well. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve recommended or given away Vaughan Roberts’ little book. And, I’m happy to say, the Bible actually has some wonderful examples of deep and abiding friendships. Perhaps, if these stories were imitated, the Church could begin to model something helpful to the culture. The picture of friendship in Scripture shows me that it is at least possible.

I want to spend some time on this blog talking about friendship, both in the Bible and in the careful meditations of Christians over the last 2,000 years. Christianity has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to resources that can combat loneliness. I’d like to explore a fraction of them and see if this can be of help.

A Tale of Woe

The book of Ruth might be one of the greatest love stories ever told, but it’s not a romantic love story. Or, at least, it’s not mainly a romantic love story. It begins with and is sustained by the love between a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law. 

A man from Bethlehem leaves his homeland of Judah because there’s a famine. He takes his wife, Naomi, and his two sons and they seek refugee status within the land of Moab. The narrator tells us that Ruth was written “in the days when the judges ruled,” referring to the book of Judges. At that point in Israel’s history, there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in their own eyes. And in those days, Moab was a constant threat to Israel.  

While Naomi and her husband are in Moab, the husband dies. Naomi’s two sons take Moabite wives and then, a decade later, both of her two sons die. This family is acquainted with grief. One of the wives, Orpah, goes back to her people, but Ruth, the wife of Naomi’s other son, decides to stays with Naomi. She goes back to Bethlehem with her and commits to love her mother-in-law unconditionally.  

The rest of the story is a beautiful story about Boaz, the man who redeems (buys) their land and marries Ruth to keep both Ruth and Naomi from coming to utter ruin. But take some time to read Ruth 1:6-18

Stuck on You

In verse 14, notice that Ruth “clung” to Naomi. It’s the same Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:24 to describe a man “clinging” to his wife or in Prov.18:24, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend that clings or sticks closer than a brother.” It’s to be voluntarily glued together in love. This is super glue friendship.  

By gluing herself to Naomi, Ruth also glued herself to God. “Your God shall be my God.” This almost looks like wedding vows! One writer called this a “wedded friendship.” But it’s committed, God-honoring friendship. And it’s deeper than most relationships we come across today that parade as “friendship.” 

Ruth was voluntarily committing to Naomi across ethnic lines, cultural boundaries, religious differences, and clan ties. There’s no real reason for Ruth to stay with Naomi. There’s nothing in it for her. There’s no obligation. We can’t really blame Orpah for heading back home to what’s familiar. It  was reasonable for her to go back to your biological mother and your home culture. But Ruth commits in love and friendship to her vulnerable mother-in-law and stays with her.  

A Christmas Friendship

Before we leave this amazing commitment between Ruth and Naomi, look at the last chapter of Ruth. In 4:18-22, we read about Ruth’s son, Obed. Obed was King David’s granddad. Ruth was David’s great-grandmom. And 27 generations after David, who was born? Jesus Christ, lying in a manger. 

Ruth was a foreigner, someone who had nothing to do with the God of Israel, and now she’s forever enshrined in the genealogy and ancestry of Jesus Christ. Why? She glued herself to Naomi. As one scholar said, “Here, friendship is seen as the means by which the Davidic line is established.”  

At the risk of overstating what is admittedly not the main point of the text,  you never know how God is going to use the friendships that you have. The Messiah of the world obviously isn’t going to be the byproduct of your friendships because that already happened, but God has shown over and over through the course of history that he delights in using friendships to change the world, sometimes centuries downstream.  

One last note: what was Ruth doing when she was clinging to Naomi in 1:14? She was weeping with her. Orpah kissed her, showing respect and affection. But Ruth clung to her and they wept. Friend-love is a call to weep with those who weep, to enter into the suffering of another person, to bear another’s burdens. When they hurt, you hurt. That is the natural, emotional reaction of true friendship. Friendship, on the Christian understanding, is all about giving up yourself for the sake of others, dying to yourself so that you might put the interests of others ahead of your own.  

That’s what Christ did for us, after all.

Advertisements

To Love as Humans Do

Sometimes we think we love too deeply. Billions of hearts are broken and reformed and rebroken every year. The silver screen and mp3 pour out the tears and the tears refill them. There is such much riding on the girl next door, the spouse in your bed, or the friend across the table. We are so desperate for closeness and so tired of loneliness (beggars, all of us) that we make each other the whole world in paraphrase.

“You’re the moon.”

“You are my everything.”

“You have my heart.”

“One soul inhabiting two bodies.”

Deep, thick, resilient love is a wonderful thing. But it can also be the most fragile thing in the world. In my job, I’ve learned that if the roof is too vast, it cannot support itself. It needs to be sustained by structure, by unyielding steel. Otherwise everything will collapse around our ears. And until the end credits roll, what is more unyielding than death?

The bored graves gnaw down every one of our friends. All our loves eventually will blend into the dirt and the dark. And our hearts, worn once on our sleeves and perpetually held by all those irreplaceable people, will fray like flags in a thunderstorm. Who can withstand that weight? What soul can stand up under the immeasurable banner of another human creature’s love? O Lord, what can we do?

An African Wolf of Wall Street was once ambushed by the living-again Lord of his mother’s homespun and simple faith. But before the wolf could live again himself, he lost his beloved friend (Confessions, iv/7-x/14). Augustine had to leave the city to escape his friend’s memories that were attached to the streets. He was afraid of death because to die would be to snuff out all that was left of the departed.

Flipping through the pages, years later, Augustine recognized that he failed to love his deceased friend humanly. He had loved his friend as if he were immortal, as if his shoulders were immovable and the burden of life-giving love as weightless as sunlight. In Rowan Williams’ excellent study on the church father, he discusses that we need to learn how to grow in our capacity to bear loss and absence. That’s what it means to love as humans. We are leaves in autumn and we love each other’s beauty because we know that winter is coming.

“Our great temptation,” Williams says, “Is ‘inhuman’ love, loving the finite for what it cannot be, loving people or things for magical symbiotic relation they have to my sense of myself, my security and self-identity.” Tom Cruise, telling Renée through tears, “You can complete me,” is beautiful, but ultimately an inhuman love. It’s a hope for an eternal autumn without bare branches. Augustine, latching onto his friend and splitting asunder when his friend died, loved outside the bounds of his own creatureliness, his own humanity.

Sometimes we think we love deeply. But perhaps we only love too wildly, like fire spilling out of the fireplace. But when we remember that we are like grass, that we flourish like day lilies, love finds its parameters. And love finds its depth.

Will September Ever End?

September is mostly an exercise in patience. It’s a month of waiting. I think of Anne Shirley’s lovely line about a world in which Octobers exists and can’t muster any similar enthusiasm for Septembers. There’s probably only one good song written about September.

But the ninth month has always felt unremarkable and transitional to me. It’s a steppingstone, a “Steptember stone”, worn smooth by the rush of pumpkin spice lattes and bonfires and scarves.

When I was small, it was a month at the hinge of a new school year. I had settled into my classrooms, but who knew what the remainder of the calendar held? Poor grades? Adolescent romances? Musical competitions? Worth the wait? Sometimes.

As a baseball fan, September is the waiting month for post-season. Will my team swoon? What will the Fall Classic look like? Can we hold off our rivals? Or will this month be the final stab in the throat of our playoff hopes? Worth the wait? We’ll see.

In 2013, I asked my girlfriend to marry me. Miraculously, she said “yes.” And then we waited. Six months of dating. Six months of engagement. The waiting is the worst part. But it’s been infinitely worth it.

Yet when it comes to the Church year, the waiting is the best part. That’s what Advent is about. September is good practice for Advent. We’re not quite done with ordinal time, but I can smell the apocalyptic hope wafting down from heaven around this time of year. And Christmas is only one hundred days from now. Worth the wait, I believe.

And when will the leaves turn? September is a waiting game with respect to autumn. On September 23, we begin the long descent into the darker months. The earth’s axis tilts perpendicular to the sun’s rays and the trees blush themselves to death. This, also, is worth the wait.

I wanted to post this sooner, but I had to wait. Enjoy your September while it’s still here. And may it be worth the weight of all thirty worn-out days.

Do We Need Rome to Truly Be at Home?

I love my Roman Catholic friends and family deeply and I disagree with them sharply. And I think that’s a classically Protestant stance to take. After preaching a sermon in which I called Roman Catholics “our friends,” a good brother in the church took me aside and mildly rebuked me for that phrase. It might communicate, he told me, that we don’t have many great differences with them, that we’re one big family that occasionally shouts across the room at each other. But again, I think I can hold deep love and sharp disagreement in both hands. And I think I’m well within the Protestant and catholic (“universal”) stream of the Christian faith in doing so.

When you read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, he takes a rather generous approach to Roman Catholics (even if does call the pope “Anti-Christ”). While he wouldn’t go so far as to call the Roman Catholic church an actual “church”, he concedes that there are vestiges of God’s Church that remain in those parishes.

Book IV, chapter two, of the Institutes is one of the clearest and most elegant defenses of the oneness and wholeness of the Church. There are certain Roman Catholic doctrines that I simply cannot hold to (their Mariology comes to mind). But Calvin shows us that the Reformers actually stand rooted in the Great Tradition, and it was Rome that took the wrong turn at Albuquerque. As a result, I don’t feel the need to swim the Tiber and go “home to Rome.” As a Protestant, I never left home.

Nevertheless, Calvin thought that Roman Catholics could very much be true Christians for two reasons. First, he believed Baptism and the Lord’s Supper remain what they are, despite the people administering or receiving them. But secondly, besides the “marriage rings” of the covenant promise we have in the sacraments, his own strong providence keeps his people from completely perishing from Roman Catholicism. When buildings are torn down, the foundation can remain. In the Protestant Reformation, God “allowed a fearful shaking and dismembering to take place.”

So, there are genuine believers in Roman Catholic churches. But Calvin went further than most evangelicals are willing to go today. He thought that there were entire Roman Catholic parishes that were made up of true Christians. Just as in apostate Israel, there were faithful groups of Jews (Israelites from the heart), so in Rome there were true believers, even whole churches. God deposits his covenant people all over the world and in places ruled by other religions. In other words, just as Christ has his elect among the Muslims and the Hindus and the Jews, he has his beloved Church scattered among the Roman Catholic church.

In one word, I call them churches, inasmuch as the Lord there wondrously preserves some remains of his people, though miserably torn and scattered, and inasmuch as some symbols of the church still remain—symbols especially whose efficacy neither the craft of the devil nor human depravity can destroy. But as, on the other hand, those marks to which we ought especially to have respect in this discussion are effaced, I say that the whole body, as well as every single assembly, want the form of a legitimate church” (IV.II.xii.).

So, whereas a devout Roman Catholic might look at me and sadly declare me lost, I would look at a devout Roman Catholic and think, “Yeah, you could be my brother or sister.” So, I have no need to cross over to Rome. I just need to love them and wait for my God to claim his own within Rome.

Calvin knew that he stood in the Great Tradition of the catholic (meaning, universal) Church when he resisted papal authority and conceded salvation to any of God’s elect under that papal authority. And in doing so, Calvin wasn’t in danger of breaking the unity of the Church.

Calvin knew the fathers well, and followed Augustine in saying that Church unity was held together by two chains: agreement in what sound doctrine and brotherly love. As Augustine put it, heretics break the first chain with false doctrine and schismatics (dissenters, stirrers of strife) break the bond of unity, even as they hold the same faith. But the point is that united love must reset upon united faith.

This is right in line with the apostle Paul (Eph.4:5; Phil.2:2,5). Cyprian, the 3rd century bishop of Carthage, put it beautifully:

The church is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strong trunk grounded in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although a goodly number seem out poured from their bounty and superabundance, still at the source unity abides undivided.…So also the church, bathed in the light of the Lord, extends its rays over the whole earth: yet there is one light diffused everywhere. Nor is the unity of the body severed; it spreads its branches through the whole earth; it pours forth its overflowing streams; yet there is one head and one source.

All members of Christ’s Bride have this connection with each other, whether they were saved by grace in a Protestant church or a Roman Catholic church. So, I don’t need to be a Roman Catholic to be at home in the Church. The Church persists, whether God places her people in Rome or elsewhere.

Light sunlight through a prism, branches from the tree, and like streams from the spring, the one faith of the Church unites us in Christ. And the Church is then able to spread light and fruit and water to those who hunger and thirst in darkness.

“I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”

*Clarification: I believe that salvation is contingent upon repentance. True Christians come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone. Protestantism stands in concord with the early church in proclaiming this.

Looking Differently

Our pastor encouraged us to regularly be in the New Testament book of Philippians. It’s a letter to the church in ancient Philippi from St. Paul, pleading with them to find their joy and unity with each other through the joy and unity they commonly have with Christ Jesus. I got snagged on verse four of chapter two this morning:

Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (KJV).

I took some time and cradled that word “look” in my arms for a good while. It’s the Greek word skopeîn (σκοπεῖν) and Paul uses it twice in Philippians. In 3:17, he commands the church to “keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (ESV). In other words, notice carefully what we do, he says, and imitate us. The other use is here in 2:4- “let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (ESV).

Yes, we get our English word “scope” from this word, but that doesn’t mean Paul was telling the church to scrutinize the needs of others as under a microscope or get the big picture as with a telescope. As Don Carson has told us, that’s just silly. It’s a root word fallacy. You can’t work backwards from how a word is used today to better understand how its ancestor word was used back then. The two don’t necessarily draw such a straight line.

But we can see in Philippians 2:4 is that the way Paul uses it is in the present tense, in an active voices, to more than one person, and in a participle form (those –ing words). A participle is a verb masquerading as an adjective. All that to say, Paul is encouraging this Christian church to look out for others as an active, ongoing way to live out the fellowship we have with Christ and each other (see Philippians 2:1-3). “For one another” is actually an adjective, suggesting that the way we look carefully should be in an “otherly”, others oriented manner.

How can we be concerned about others in an ongoing default way? Two ideas come to mind. And both of these ideas sting as I think about how I don’t and how I could implement them.

  1. Through love. By learning to take a genuine interest in the day to day living of other people, I become genuinely interested in the people in my day to day life. As Uncle Jack said, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did, As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”
  2. Through prayer. If the show Cheers taught me anything, it’s that it’s nice to be where everyone knows your name. It’s good to be a regular in some places. If you make someone a regular in your prayers, they soon become a regular in your heart. Prayers for others keep them in front of our eyes.

How can you look differently at those who look differently than you today?