RUTH Chapter 1 (begin by reading Chapter 1)
The first chapter of Ruth is a story of famine and migration, one of journeying, death loss and inter-marriage. There are powerful examples of people searching for a sense of belonging, experiences of embracing new cultures as well as feelings of bitterness and emptiness. The family unit of the widow Naomi and her two widowed daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth is quite an unusual family unit. Your own experience may reveal that the relationship between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law can often be tense and strained. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs spoke on “Thought for the Day” recently about the story of Ruth and said it was essentially about kindness. It is a demonstration of the Hebrew word “hesed” which we tend to translate as loving kindness in English which is manifested in deeds rather than romantic or sentimental displays.
Ruth travels with Naomi back to Bethlehem and finds kindness. So, in order to get inside the issues of the story of Ruth, I wonder if you have much experience of moving to a new place. Have you ever moved to a new place? How did it feel to move from the familiar to an unfamiliar place? I have often moved during my life and being a Methodist minister has meant I have lived in five different circuits in the last 29 years. But this is nothing compared with some people.! My grandmother (albeit in in a very different time in the 1920’s) moved about nine times in her long life and this included moving three times in three years to different farms as her husband, my grandfather, took tenancies on ever slightly larger farms. It wasn’t just the two of them moving, it was with an increasing large family of children also. They did eventually settle at a farm of 119 acres for about twenty years before my grandad retired from farming at the age of 76. Most of the moving was within two neighbouring parishes of Egton and Glaisdale in the North York Moors, so there were not cultural challenges as far as I know!
Sometimes moves for people involve different countries and cultures. My aunt, who married a Warrant Officer in the RAF in 1940, a few years later sailed by boat to Singapore with two young children which took weeks to get there. She had a house-maid in Singapore. A couple of years later she moved back to the UK with three children and on to numerous RAF Stations until her husband came out of the RAF and they settled in York!
Traditionally the history of the world often involves women and children moving due to the man in their life changing jobs. I have a cousin who as a child moved five times in the first seven years of her life, as my uncle moved from farm to farm finding sometimes annual work. The story of this area involves many migrations of people from Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and other parts of the UK to work in the coal mines of the Durham Coalfield. Often people were moving as industries declined, in their home areas, in search of better prospects. Contact with family in the old place was often only possible by letter in those days.
Mass emigration from Commonwealth countries to the UK in the 1950’s and 60’s is a story of often not finding a welcome. “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs” was a common sign displayed in boarding houses that did not wish to rent rooms to certain people. The Windrush generation was not welcomed with open arms here in this country. It was all too often a story of discrimination and racism. Kindness has not always been shown to everyone. The events of the last week or so in USA following the death of George Flyd in Minneapolis have sparked much outpouring and tension over racial discrimination in the US. It would seem that the old wounds of the 1960’s and segregation, which many naively belived were overcome, are still endemic within that society. Many of the deep issues of racial justice seem not yet to be resolved. Whilst we do not live in the US, issues of racial justice and the related issues of welcome and belonging may well be concerns that our own society has not fully addressed. And the Covid19 pandemic has revealed we are not all equally susceptible to the virus, but black and Asian citizens are at a higher risk of being infected by the virus.
So, let us think about that sense of belonging that is a powerful force. What makes you feel you belong somewhere? I don’t just mean a geographical place, I also mean to a group or organisation, perhaps the church.
Ruth decides to move with her mother-in-law Naomi back to Bethlehem, “where you go, I will go”. How good are we at welcoming those who come among us from other places? All too often we might give the impression that new people must become like us when they join in our group, and that they must leave behind their roots. A better way would be to see what they bring and allow those qualities to enrich the community they become part of.
In the life of the Church belonging is a very strong emotion. It is often more powerful than believing. People feel a strong sense that they belong to a particular church community and this often comes before they really grasp what it is that that particular denomination’s doctrines are. It may be to do with the relationships with other people, or the style of worship. Sometimes we might give the impression that new people are welcome but there might be a slightly hidden agenda that to fit in the new people must become just like us, think like us, share all our views and even prejudices. For some it might be the only church they have ever known, whilst others choose from a range of options. People sometimes talk of feeling they have come “home” even if they have never been there before! (sometimes our roots might be in a particular place even if we have never lived there ourselves but our forbears may have and we feel attached a place because of family members who we visited there in the past. In an ideal world, church should give us a sense of belonging as well as the community in which we live, whether we were born there or not. It does however take effort to get to that position.
Moving on and making changes is not always easy. Perhaps the Coronavirus has enabled many of us to engage in new hobbies. If you believe all you hear from people like, Kirstie Allsop and Grayson Perry, we are told that many people are crafting, sewing, creating and discovering or re-discovering talents they either never knew they had, or are bringing out what has laid dormant.
It may well be the case that some expressions of kindness have laid dormant within us. We may need to find them and demonstrate them more fully and effectively. We may well be inter-acting with our neighbours in a new and deeper way.
I wonder what issues from Ruth Chapter 1 you have discovered.
“Be kind” is a phrase I have heard often during recent weeks. Be kind when shopping so as not to take more than we need, mindful of those more vulnerable than ourselves. Being kind by being more aware of our neighbours perhaps and their needs, checking they have all they need. Being kind by being more aware of those in our communities who are in need. These are some examples of that outworking of the Hebrew concept of Hesed, loving kindness. We are going to sing a hymn about kindness in terms of Jesus hands and our hands, that some of you will remember from times past
Jesus hands were kind hands.
And another hymn about thanking God for people friends and others who help us, challenge us, shape us and transform us as we journey through life
Thanks for friends….