Friday, October 25, 2019

How God Loves


The love I have for you
goes deeper than skin to skin.
I have given you my heart
and there is nothing that means more to me
than that you have freely given me yours.
You are never far from my thoughts;
you are the apple of my eye.
When the colors of nature
catch your breath,
I stop in wonder with you.
When you don’t know which way to turn,
I am right by your side
so you can always turn towards me—
I will hold you,
go where you go,
lay beside you when you need rest,
lend you courage when you feel weak.
There is no one like you.
You don’t need to prove yourself to me.
I cherish every part of you.
I have no greater joy
than our life together.

……………………..

How God loves
by troy cady
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Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Bread of Presence in Times of Crisis


The Bread of Presence in Times of Crisis

reflections on Ruth and Naomi
based on the book of Ruth, chapter 1

by Troy Cady


For the past two weeks I have felt like the world has been spinning out of control. For starters, I felt helplessly indignant as our President refused to cooperate with a Congressional impeachment inquiry.[1] Meanwhile, I learned that this fall the Supreme Court will hear a case in which it’s expected they will rule to expand gun ownership rights,[2] though U.S. citizens already own 227,000,000 guns (far outstretching any other country in the world).[3] And this is from the same legal system that goes easy on a white person for killing a black man in his own home but would throw the book at the perpetrator if those roles had been reversed.[4]
But, wait: there’s more. Just last week it was reported that in the past year one million people were apprehended on the southwest border of the United States,[5] clamoring for entrance.[6] Many of those are children who have been separated from their parents.[7] And, as if that is not enough, the situation in Syria worsened as Turkey cleared out thousands of vulnerable people. There were already at least 25.9 million refugees around the world[8] and now there will be even more.
Ruth, Naomi and Orpah by Markham Kyra
In times like these, it is easy to feel hopeless. It’s as if the whole world is caving in and you’re trapped, gasping for air, craning to catch even a sliver of light. And that is the situation thrust upon us in the text from Ruth 1 where, in the opening lines, we read about a famine and a family with two sons leaving their home to live in Moab where there is food. By the end of verse 3, the husband and father dies so, the text says, Naomi is “left with her two sons.”[9]
But all is not lost: Naomi’s sons get married and this is cause for celebration--but don’t get your hopes up, yet: her sons also die.
So, Naomi is left without her husband and two sons in a foreign country. She’s old and can barely take care of herself, let alone these two women who are not blood relatives. At that point, there is at least a little hope: she hears that the famine has passed back home, so she decides to return. Because she couldn’t possibly ask these two women to leave Moab, she tells them not to worry about her but to return to their own families who will be able to take care of them better. So, after much weeping, Orpah returns to her family—but Ruth decides to stick with Naomi. And Ruth’s words at this point sound like sublime poetry:

“Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.”

In the midst of unimaginable suffering, we finally have a sense in this story that something good is going to happen. To be sure, they have no idea how it’s all going to turn out, but they do know this: they will have each other and they will have Naomi’s God.
Speaking of God, the book of Ruth is striking because God is hardly mentioned and when God is spoken of by Naomi at the end of chapter 1, it sounds like she’s itching for a fight. In contrast to Ruth’s uplifting poem, Naomi utters a lament of tired and bitter resignation, if not protest. When the women of Bethlehem welcome her back, she replies:

“Call me no longer ‘Sweet’,
call me ‘Bitter’,[10]
for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.
I went away full,
but the Lord brought me back empty…”

I’ll be honest: reading that makes me want to say, “Umm, Ruth: you might not want to stand that close to Naomi right now because I’m afraid lightning’s about to strike.”    

Ruth as more than a romance novel
I love the story of Ruth because it’s honest and we can relate to it. It reflects how we experience life—all of it: the good, the bad and the ugly all mixed in together. That’s why I think it’s a pity this story has been treated essentially as a romance novel too often. As I think back to college, I recall one of my professors who interpreted Ruth this way. In his lecture, he felt compelled to point out that, as Boaz and Ruth were still “dating”, Naomi told Ruth to bathe, change her clothes and put on some perfume so she would smell nice and pretty for Boaz who would surely come to her rescue if he found her attractive enough.[11]
While it may be true that Ruth is a love story, when we look at it closely it doesn’t reinforce the literary trope of most romances where some dude with ripped abs and a chiseled chin saves a petite damsel in distress. For starters, the story recounts how God comes to the rescue through the primary agent of Ruth—who is, of course, a woman who comes to the rescue of another woman.
The title of the book alone focuses our attention on Ruth’s salvific role, but, in case we would miss it, the author of Ruth connects her story with the epoch that precedes it: the book of Judges. In Judges, we hear mostly about a cast of male leaders but, in every instance, it is only a matter of time before the country loses its way again. The book of Judges underscores this theme by repeating a certain phrase throughout: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.”[12]
It’s against that backdrop that Ruth is presented, and it’s as if the author wants us to notice three things. 1) If no Israelite will lead rightly, God will choose someone outside of Israel to lead. 2) If no man will lead rightly, a woman will show what’s right. and 3) Ruth leads not by might, like the judges of previous generations, but by compassionate concern and selfless service. Ruth, thus, brings to a close the time of the judges and sets up what follows when David will be king.[13]
Yes, Ruth is so much more than just a romance novel. In fact, interpreters of Ruth see in it not just a single story but a story of several stories that occur before and after it.

Ruth and God’s promises to Abraham
First, the story of Ruth is connected with the story of Abraham. Recall that in Genesis 12 and 15, God promised to Abraham a land, a people and a blessing.
What’s interesting about Ruth is that the author presents the gift of the land in light of Israel’s exile from it and return. Chapter 1 serves as a kind of echo chamber for this theme of return as that specific word (“return”) appears a total of 12 times in 22 verses.[14] That’s one “return” for every tribe of Israel. Between Naomi’s family and the figure of Ruth, we catch a glimpse of what Israel experienced as a nation overall: the Israelites were exiled and returned to share the land with foreigners.[15] In this light, Ruth’s story has some challenging things to say to evangelical Christians today about the question of Israel sharing the land with others.
In addition to the land, there are some equally interesting outcomes regarding how God would constitute the people of Israel. Notice what Ruth says: “Your people will be my people and your God my God.” The story of Ruth surprises us by telling us that even Israel’s great king David would be born through a foreign people. Israel was, thus, always to be understood expansively, as inclusive of non-Israelite people.
And that is how God would fulfill the promise to Abraham that all nations on earth would be blessed. In this vein, Ruth 1 includes both blessings and curses, echoing the language of Genesis 12 that also speaks of both blessings and curses. Observe how this plays out: as Naomi intends to move back home, she blesses the two Moabite women to return to their own families. But, when Ruth replies, she calls down a curse on herself should she ever forsake Naomi. It seems that Ruth, more than Naomi, understands what the truly blessed thing to do is.
Thus, it is through Ruth that God’s promises to Abraham (concerning 1. the land he would give, 2. the people he would make, and 3. the blessing they would be) develop in ways we would hardly expect.

Ruth and the story of Job
But the story of Ruth doesn’t stop there. There’s another story here for us to see as Ruth is also a retelling of the story of Job with an interesting twist. Recall that the story of Job is about a man who, early in the narrative, loses everything but his faith in God. Shortly after, some of Job’s friends show up and they have a dialogue about the meaning of suffering in which Job’s friends don’t really help Job a whole lot.
In Ruth, Naomi serves as the Job figure as the writer very quickly relates how Naomi loses everything. Then, the first chapter concludes with her lament, which sounds a lot like something Job would say: where once life was sweet (that’s what “Naomi” means), now it is bitter (that’s what “Mara” means); she went away full and came back empty. Everything has been stripped away.
But, then, here’s the surprise: in contrast to Job’s companions, Ruth serves as a true companion—for Ruth does more than accompany Naomi back to Israel, she sides with her in every respect, up to and including the adoption of Naomi’s God.


a. compassion and physical need

As we consider how Ruth's story is connected to the story of Job, there are some important lessons for us to notice regarding how the church can be a healing presence in a world filled with suffering. The first lesson deals with the importance of tending to the physical needs of those who are suffering. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann alludes to this by playing on Friedrich Nietzsche’s assertion that “God is dead.” Over against that, Moltmann challenges the church to remember that, to the poor, God is not dead; rather, “God is bread.”[16] The text in Ruth 1 underscores this truth by repeated use of the imagery of bread. As Naomi and her family leave Israel because of a famine, it is significant that the town they leave is Bethlehem (or Beit-lechem), literally “the house of bread.” Then, in verse 6, Naomi is prompted to return when she hears that the Lord had given them food. The word in Hebrew there is even more specific than “food,” however. The text literally says the Lord gave them “bread” (lechem). Thus, in verse 19 Naomi and Ruth return to the “house of bread” (Beit-lechem) and in verse 22 we learn the barley is ready to be harvested in Beit-lechem. In the next two chapters, Ruth then works to take care of Naomi who is too old to work—and God provides beyond their need through the generosity of Boaz.
This is something I love about the church in which I serve: we understand that one of the best things we can do to ease suffering is by tending to the physical needs of others. That’s why I love that our little church runs a food pantry. Through such a ministry of compassion, we are saying to our neighbors: “God is not dead; God is bread.”


b. companionship and the essence of the church

Ruth not only tends to Naomi’s physical needs, she also tends to Naomi’s emotional and spiritual needs. On this front, it's important for us to notice that Ruth does this simply by being with Naomi. In 1:16 Ruth expresses it this way: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge.”
At the church where I serve we’ve been exploring what it means to live “missionally” and “incarnationally”, both personally and collectively. The expression is a fancy way of saying that just as the Father sent the Son to dwell among us so the Triune God sends us to be fully present to the world. And Ruth exemplifies this perfectly. Observe this dynamic in her language:

“Where you go, I will go.”
Ruth is sent.

And “where you lodge, I will lodge.”
Ruth intends to be fully present.

The irony is: it is only in leaving her home that Ruth finds her home.

At any rate, in learning from Ruth's example Christians do well to keep in mind that as we move out of our comfort zone, we will truly be a blessing to all and find ourselves more at home in the world.


c. compassion, companionship, and justice

In the middle of all this, there beats a heart of justice. In chapter 1, Naomi blesses Ruth by saying she hopes the Lord will “deal kindly” with Ruth as Ruth has dealt kindly with Naomi (since Ruth tended lovingly to Naomi’s husband and sons when they died). The story goes on to show how Naomi’s blessing comes to fulfillment in Obed’s birth, the grandfather of King David. But, prior to this, we get a foretaste of God’s fruitful blessing on Ruth, when she avails herself of a provision in Jewish law that instructs landowners not to harvest all the way to the edges of their field but to leave some crops for the poor to glean. Through this distinctive Hebrew custom, God reminded the people that it is just, right and good to care for those who are unable to care for themselves.
The word used to describe this orientation is “hesed.” Like “grace” or “love” it is one of those words that means so much. It can be translated as lovingkindness or mercy, but it also connotes faithfulness and goodness. One scholar translates it here in 1:8 as doing or showing “good-faith.”[17] “Doing right by others” is another way of putting it.
What’s interesting about the text in Ruth is that usually the term hesed is used to describe how God treats us but here the term is used to describe what Ruth has done.[18] Ruth did what was right in God’s eyes, unlike those in the time of the judges when everyone only did what was right in their own eyes.
The text commends to us some lessons regarding social justice. Too often today working for social justice equates to thinking the right things or saying the right things regarding matters of equity. But Ruth shows us that justice goes beyond words; it is about action. And the action is up-close and personal. Ruth’s brand of social justice is incarnational. It puts us in contact with people. It’s so much more than “taking a stand” for something on Facebook.
And the story is even more fascinating because in the Hebrew Scriptures we would expect Naomi, the Israelite, to be cast as the one who resembles Israel’s God—yet here it is the foreigner who mirrors God’s hesed. Centuries later, Jesus would reflect this theme in a parable about a good Samaritan where Israel’s finest do NOT do what is right in caring for the beaten man but an outsider does. Just as Ruth reveals something to Israel about their own God, so the Samaritan outsider reveals something to the insiders about who will really inherit eternal life.
I encourage Christians to let this reversal challenge us afresh today in our own setting. We Christians often assume that we are the ones who are in and others are out. To break down this divide, we try various ways to help “outsiders” feel they are welcome with “us.” But the story of Ruth reverses this scenario and casts the outsider in the “welcoming” role. Notice: it is through Ruth that Naomi’s faith is restored. So as we think about extending a warm welcome to outsiders, I encourage us to take a step back and consider how it is that we can know God better as we are welcomed by “them.” And, of course, what God really wants is that there will be no more “us” and “them.”

Ruth’s story as a New Creation story
As we live this way, we are essentially cooperating with God in making a New Creation story. Beyond the stories of Abraham and Job, the book of Ruth reaches back into the creation account itself as Ruth and Naomi find true rest in clinging to one another and clinging to God. What’s significant about Ruth’s pivotal poem is that it comes on the heels of Ruth literally clinging to Naomi (in verse 14) after Naomi tells Ruth she wishes her to find “rest”[19] (in verse 9). Those images of “rest” and “clinging” echo the creation story in Genesis 2 where we read of God’s rest[20] and of the first humans clinging to one another.
Here the story of Ruth shocks us yet again by casting Ruth in the role of the man as we notice that in Genesis 2 the text says the man will leave his family to cling to his wife, thus making a new family. Yet, in Ruth 1 it is a woman who leaves her family to cling to Naomi, another woman—and together they find rest as they make a radically new family made of both Jews and Gentiles. Galatians 3:28 echoes this narrative as it says that in Jesus a new family is created where distinctions between male and female, Jew and Gentile no longer matter. Ruth’s story gives us a new understanding of family and it is through this new God-creation that we find true rest.

Conclusion
Thus, the story of Ruth is more than just a sentimental romance. Ruth can turn us upside-down as we follow her example of leaving our comfort zone and making a home with others, ministering compassion, mercy and justice, breaking down dividing lines of in and out, and becoming a new family by a continual openness to be re-made through the hesed-love of God. In times of crisis, this is just what the church needs to be: the very bread of the presence of Christ in the world. Amen.



[1] On the extent to which this presents a genuine “constitutional crisis” see https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/10/9/20905503/trump-white-house-letter-democrats-impeachment
[4] Though Brandt Jean’s offer to forgive Amber Guyger for murdering his brother Botham is inspiring, many feel justice was not properly served as they grieve the light sentence she received and observe that punishments for black people are often harsher than punishments for white people. See the wrap-up of this case at https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/03/us/botham-jean-amber-guyger-trial-wrap/index.html
[6] For annual comparisons and a month-by-month breakdown of apprehensions along the southwest border see official data published by the United States Custom and Border Patrol at https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/sw-border-migration
[7] About 80,000 children under the age of 18 were unaccompanied by an adult and were among those apprehended during fiscal year 2019 (which ran from September 1, 2018 to August 31, 2019).
[8] According to a briefing published by Exodus World Service, accessed 10/17/19. The briefing notes that over half of the world’s refugees are under the age of 18. See the briefing at https://exodusworldservice.org/why-refugees/
[9] This essay follows the NRSV translation.
[10] My translation, see the explanation later in this essay.
[11] To be sure, the scene described occurs in Ruth 3:3. Still, we tend to read modern (Western) notions of romance into the story. As I observe later in the essay, the story of Ruth addresses other interests that would have been more important to the original audience.  
[12] Most modern translations render “every man did what was right in his own eyes” in gender-neutral language. For example, NIV renders the text as “everyone did as they saw fit.” Even the NRSV renders the phrase as “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” But the subject in the Hebrew text is “ish”, a word translated as “man,” literally. Its predicate is: “in his own eyes,” a third person masculine singular expression. Biblical scholar Stephen E. Fowl asserts it should be translated as “each man did what was right in his own eyes.” He explains: “Although the NRSV opts for a gender-neutral translation, ‘all the people did what was right in their own eyes,’ this translation misses something important about both Judges and Ruth. Judges is full of stories about men doing what is right in their own eyes in ways that often result in disaster for women.” See Fowl, “Ruth 1” in Judges and Ruth (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018), 217.
[13] This is to observe simply that Ruth as a text is positioned between Judges and I Samuel in our canon. Later in the essay, I note why many scholars date the writing of Ruth to the post-exilic era. Still, thematically, the text of Ruth takes us from the time of Judges to set up the time of the kings, of whom David serves as exemplar.
[14] The Hebrew word is “shub” and it appears in verses 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 15 (twice), 16, 21, and 22 (twice).
[15] This is one reason many scholars date the writing of Ruth to the period after the exile. Another factor in this determination follows from the supposed interest of the writer to address the question of inter-marriage between Jews and Gentiles, which was a distinct concern in the book of Nehemiah that records what happened to the Jewish people after the exile. See Bruce Birch, et. al. “New Life, Renewed Community, New Crises” in A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 452.
[16] “In a global view, we are all working in a circle which is making the rich nations ever richer and the poor nations ever poorer. From this circle there is emerging a world nutritional crisis which will spell starvation for millions. For the poor and starving in this vicious circle, ‘God is not dead—he is bread.’ If, with Paul Tillich, we define God as ultimate concern, then for them his concrete presence takes the form of bread.” See Jürgen Moltmann. “Bringing Peace to a Divided World” in The Experiment Hope, trans. M. Douglas Meeks (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 180-181.
[17] Stephen Fowl. Judges and Ruth (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018), 220. “Moreover, although to show hesed clearly requires an inner capacity for mercy and kindness, hesed is primarily displayed in a pattern of action (hence, ‘do good-faith’).”
[18] “The book makes clear that both God and humans can be agents of such love. Naomi asks that God act in such a fashion toward her daughters-in-law (1:8)…However, humans can act that way as well, as…Ruth demonstrates in her loyalty to Naomi (1:16-17).” See Bruce C. Birch, et. al. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 452.
[19] The Hebrew word is menuhah. NRSV translates it as “security” but it would be more accurate to translate it here as “rest.”
[20] Hebrew scholars note that on the seventh day God created rest (menuhah).

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

helicopter seeds


when helicopter
seeds fuse
they form
a mirrored
symmetry
two buds
attached
in the center
wings poised
northwest
northeast
like a bird

but joined pods
flop when blown
they drop
without spinning

sometimes
life’s balance needs
a little imbalance
like the light
twirling flight
of a maple seed,
a lone heaviness eased
by an air-lifted lighter reed

………………

helicopter seeds
by troy cady
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Friday, October 11, 2019

making music in the morning


the sky tapped her fingers
on the roof this morning
a reminder
she wakes early
patiently waiting for me
to come to the table
and start the day
with a short simple visit

she is silent now
the rain has stopped
and she holds her breath

the irony
(i see now)
is that i’ve been
holding my breath, too—
waiting for a voice
from heaven
while she
has been waiting
to hear mine,
tapping a beat
hoping i’ll add the tune
and a lyric
to mirror
the colors of her face
the dawn whose beauty i trace

………………………..

making music in the morning
by troy cady
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Sunday, September 22, 2019

road trip


We captured our moments alone
on the highway this time—
the journey, my arrival.
We revisited
the old places
where the road tripped
us up, past burial plots
outside unknown churches—
hidden traumas
under trimmed hills,
the headstones askew.

At night we drove silently
through a crop of fog
taller than the walls of corn
that lined the narrow streets,
feeling our way slowly home.
That morning we spoke
of hard-fought forgiveness
as we trusted that
the unseen part
of the road that rises
does not also bend.

I knew you
in a new way—
I heard you say
words on the way,
words only I would hear
of the tears and God’s grace,
thicker than the radio’s silence,
greater than the world’s neglect.

My two hands were on the steering wheel
as you held my heart,
long miles I would never trade,
long miles with you,
the love I knew
in a new way,
Christ’s joy remaking
the old shame.

………………………

road trip
by troy cady
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Saturday, August 31, 2019

grace and ungrace

Photo by Ross Elder via Unsplash
Creative Commons License
It is through lack of grace that destruction comes. How easily we can write off others: how quick we are to judge and how slow to wonder. We can find many reasons to push others away but it only takes one reason to justify our judgment. We think of one person as greedy, and another as self-absorbed. Or: “That man is attention-grabbing” and “His wife is driven by image.”

We can label others as stubborn or hypocritical. When we encounter a new idea we might be prone to classify someone as heretical. We think, “That family is too busy” or “I wish they took better care of their yard.” If someone finds a new job, the boss may call them disloyal. We get irritated if we think someone is disorganized and we can feel smug about ourselves if someone is, according to our standards, incompetent.

And the list continues. In a culture of judgment we could line up ten people and come up with a label for each one:

  1. disrespectful
  2. superficial
  3. thoughtless
  4. eccentric
  5. too pushy
  6. too passionate
  7. too talkative
  8. too quiet
  9. too blunt
  10. too nice

The problem with this is that judgment only compounds more judgment. Once ungrace gains a foothold, it opens the door wider for more ungrace to make a home in us. It becomes easy to welcome only those who measure up to our liking and dismiss those who do not. In a household of ungrace the standard of perfection is determined by personal preference. In ungrace, the basis of friendship is arbitrary, so even those who are welcomed for a time can easily become unsure how long they will be welcome.

In a household of grace, nobody is expected to be perfect and we are freed from the slavery of appearing to be so. In grace, we do not need to be thought of as smart or well-spoken. We do not need to impress others with our connections to famous, wealthy or powerful people. We do not need to impress by our degrees, career, or accomplishments. We do not need to be thought of as right all the time, creative, helpful, wise, fun, or easy-going.

In grace, there is an indifference to what others think but this indifference is neither smug nor dismissive of others. Instead, it is an indifference that is also (paradoxically) open to critique.

Ungrace says, “Screw you and leave me alone! I am who I am and if you don’t like it, tough.”

Grace says, “Well, I am who I am…imperfect, still growing. I hope my imperfection doesn’t drive you away, but if it does, I hope that one day you will find your way back to accept me as a friend again, imperfect as I am.”

In grace, we can be anonymous. Others do not need to know if we are generous or kind. It’s not about us.

In grace, we do not attack others if they say something that seems “off.” Instead, we approach them gently and ask them to tell us more, to help us understand, to wonder about the very thing they said that rubbed us the wrong way. In grace, we try to see things from the other person’s point of view. Grace is humble, open and gentle. Grace gives others the benefit of the doubt, looks for common ground. Grace inclines itself to accept, to welcome, to make room for others. Grace is expansive; in grace, our hearts become wide open spaces, vibrant, filled with life.

Grace and ungrace: the difference between life and death. May we grow in grace.

……………………

Grace and Ungrace
reflections by Troy Cady