I’ve never been one to read romance novels, but this last week I actually read one. It’s in the Bible – it’s the book of Ruth. This particular romance novel is as appealing to men as it is to women. It is also true, rather than being merely fictional. Ruth is set in the land of Israel during the time of the judges. It was a period when, according to the Bible, “every man did what was right in his own eyes.” It was a chaotic time, but this incident gives clarity and light in the midst of the confusion and darkness. We see God at work in the lives of regular, ordinary people. On this Mother’s Day, the entire book of Ruth has a great deal of guidance for all of us. In particular for mothers it has a lot of direction. There is a time for mothers to be happy and to be grateful to God for all He has done. There is also a time for mothers to be sad, and to mourn people or things they have lost. There is nothing wrong with having an aching heart. On this special day, I would daresay that many of the mothers here this morning are grieving in one way or another. There is pain down deep inside. It is okay to feel that way – this story of Ruth gives us insight as to how to respond to grief as a mother. At the very beginning of this book, a man named Elimelech dies. He leaves behind his widow Naomi, a single mother in a foreign country. As a widow in that day and age, she had no way to provide for herself. She could only wait until her sons became old enough to care for her. It’s not exactly clear as to how much time passed, but the two sons took Moabite wives for themselves, Ruth and Orpah. Then, as if the loss of Naomi’s husband isn’t enough, her two sons die. It’s tough for us to imagine the emotional toll these losses must have taken on her. In addition to the emotions, there were the financial implications. Naomi was now financially helpless. There was no Social Security, she had no life insurance policies to cash — she is in a mess. She’s likely too old to marry, doesn’t have any grandchildren, and is still working through all the pain of two sons dying in addition to her husband. This mother has suffered loss in a number of ways, and she is doing what is natural to do – she is grieving. So for all of us here this morning whom may be grieving in some way, but especially mothers, this passage has much to say.
First of all, we see that a mother deals with her grief through choices. When we are grieving, whenever we are broken-hearted, sooner or later we have to make a decision as to whether or not we are going to move forward with our lives. This last week I read about Gerald Sittser, a professor at a college in Spokane, Washington. About ten years ago his minivan was struck by a drunk driver. In a moment’s time, he lost three generations. In the car with him were his mother, his wife, and his small daughter. They were all killed. He later wrote a book entitled “A Grace Disguised.” In it he tells of his loss and his experience with grief. He writes, “I felt like I was staring at the stump of a huge tree that had just been cut down in my backyard. That stump, which sat all alone, kept reminding me of the beloved tree I had lost. I could think of nothing but that tree. Every time I looked out the window, all I could see was that stump.” Some of us here this morning, some mothers here this morning, can only see a stump when you look through the window of your life. It’s a painful thing. Sittser however, doesn’t stop there. He later says, “The experience of loss doesn’t have to be the defining moment of our life.” Instead he says, “The defining moment can be our response to the loss.” In other words, he says that we do not have the ability to choose what will happen in our lives, but we do have the ability to choose how we are going to respond.” So how do we respond to crushing loss? How did Naomi respond? The first thing Naomi does is to make a choice. Verse 6 tells us, “Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food.”
“Then she arose….” She chose to get up and to begin to move forward. She didn’t have a lot of hope, but she had a little. With what little hope she had, she took a step forward. That’s important. Sometimes it is tempting to hold to the last remnant of our past and just remain frozen where we are. In our depression over the loss, we lack the will or the energy to do anything at all. We want to give up, we want to keep counting our losses, we want to wallow in our self-pity. Naomi here didn’t run from her pain – she still felt it. She did however choose to move forward in the midst of her pain. She made the choice to live and to receive again from God. We can make the same choice as mothers, and as people in general. The first step forward for you might be to see a Christian counselor – that’s okay, you’re not crazy. As a matter of a fact, if anything is crazy it’s when you are deeply troubled about something and you do NOT see a Christian counselor. The first step forward might be to attend church regularly again – never underestimate the power of meeting together regularly with God’s people. The first step forward might be just get out of bed or to get out of the house when you really want to withdraw. Whatever it may be, God will give you the strength to make the right choice, just as He gave Naomi the strength. A mother deals with her grief through choices.
Then, a mother deals with her grief through companions. When Naomi makes the choice to head back to Israel, she wants Ruth and Orpah to stay in Moab. They are still young, they could find husbands, life would be better for them there. Ruth and Orpah start on the journey with her. Naomi then basically says something rather strange, “Do you young women think I have sons in my womb that can be your husbands? Even if I found a man and conceived sons, you’d have to wait for them to grow into men before you could marry them. Stay in Moab!!” In other words, “You are from Moab, you need to stay in Moab – the chances of you finding husbands are nil if you return with me to Israel. What man in Israel is going to want a Moabite for a wife?” Her words persuaded Orpah, so she kissed Naomi and remained in her homeland. Ruth still wouldn’t leave her. God had given Naomi a companion in Ruth that refused to leave her side, even when times were hard and even when it would involve sacrifice to do so. Then Ruth responds to Naomi with what are now well-known words: “But Ruth said, ‘Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you’” (verses 16-17). Today we often hear these words as part of wedding vows, but initially they were spoken as words of deep friendship. Ruth is so attached to Naomi that she not only commits to stay with her, she also commits to serve Naomi’s God. Regardless of the hardships they both had experienced, Naomi had been blessed with a strong friend and mentor in Ruth. If we are going to survive times of loss and tragedy, we have to give and to accept this kind of companionship. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we cling to one another as Ruth clung to Naomi. The tendency is to isolate ourselves, but strength and recovery are found when we extend ourselves. The answer isn’t in closing ourselves off from from friends, but opening ourselves up to friends. So Ruth and Naomi, arm-in-arm begin making the journey across the mountains to Bethlehem. Verse 19 tells us of their arrival there, and the word spread quickly in such a small town. She had left with a life that appeared to be full – she had left Bethlehem with a husband and two sons. Now she returns with a Moabite daughter-in-law. Moabites were not well accepted in Israel, and they were not allowed to worship in the Temple. Still, Naomi had a loyal friend in Ruth. A mother deals with her grief through companions.
As Naomi talked with the people of the small town, they asked, “Is it Naomi? Could it be?” There isn’t any indication here they were mocking her – apparently they were really glad to see her. “She responded, ‘Don’t call me Naomi anymore. Call me Mara, for God has dealt bitterly with me.” A mother deals with her grief through confession. At first glance it may seem that Naomi is not very spiritual, speaking in such a way. She is being honest however, she is being transparent. This time isn’t the first or the last that one of God’s people vented honest frustration to God and to others. She’s in good company with Jeremiah, Job, Moses and David. God is more pleased with our honesty, and others are more touched by it, than any kind of plastic piety. When we are really close to someone, we share our feelings, positive and negative. We cross into sin when we rebel against God or lash out against others. Giving voice to our pain however, is something that actually can glorify God. Naomi said what she did about God because she was convinced God is in charge of everything, that He is sovereign. In verse 21 she says, “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty…” She thought God had taken everything from her, but that wasn’t the case. Verse 22 continues, “So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab.” She had Ruth with her, which was a treasure she didn’t have when she left. Naomi’s grandchild through Ruth was Obed, who was the grandfather of King David. Eventually Jesus the Son of God would come from her lineage. God was in control of her life, glorifying Himself, accomplishing His purpose and taking care of her. God is doing the same with your life today, whether or not you realize it. It is okay to vent to God and to be honest with others – just continue to trust in Him and realize He knows more about your situation than you ever will. A mother deals with her grief through confession, through confessing her own pain, and through confessing that God is still in control.
This morning on this Mother’s Day, how will you choose to respond to life’s hardships? Will you respond by pulling back from God, or drawing closer to Him? Will you pull back from the Christian friends God has given you, or will you draw closer to them? The first step is to know Jesus as the Lord of your life and your Savior from your own sin. The second step is to confess Him publicly through baptism. The third step is to be a part of a church family – all of us need a spiritual home. Will you respond to your grief in your own way this morning, or will you respond in God’s way? The choice is yours.