Have you ever felt like a square peg amidst an array of round holes? As a woman in ministry, I continue to struggle with the temptation to simply 'fit in' rather than be myself as God created me.
Growing up with such fairy tales as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, one can get rather confused with a message conveying that bliss that comes as you find a man who will love you if and only if the shoe fits; you happen to be drugged up by that infamous shiny apple or you are too comatose to enjoy the kiss any way. And this -- we are told -- is what will lead us to a "happily ever after."
On the other side of the spectrum are the Asian films where in general the women struggle and fight for their livelihood, but most of the women characters die before the end of the film.
It is no wonder many of us amidst every day life can come to feel rather heavy burdened. It's not just that the expectations we face are high Downsizing and working with small staff and budgets continue to be the trend. It's not just that the demands to be a mother, grandmother, aunt, daughter, wife, sister, neighbor and friend, as well as have a professional career are so stressful. It is perhaps that many of the expectations placed on us are in fact mutually exclusive. And such incongruities leave us running from one situation to another. We are to be: In our office at all times, yet out visiting the community. Dynamic and articulate, yet soft spoken emulating social grace. Capable and tough, yet able to submit at the drop of a pin. Of great wisdom and experience, yet still look as cover girl. Organized with long range goals, yet able to go with the flow! A success in the real world, yet have dinner ready when the "real" breadwinner walks in the door and the children fed, bathed and tucked nicely in bed.
It is no wonder we can feel overwhelmed. And then we hear the words, "therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every burden and the sin that clings so closely. And let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us--looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith." Hebrews 12:1-2a.
Given our heavy hearts and a real longing for relief, we can often look to quick and easy answers. But I am not so sure it is that simple. So I hope we will continue to be gracious with one another as we seek to move towards oneness in God's creation. Despite all the baggage and extra weight we each come with and that which has been passed on to us, we dare not assume we can on our own lay aside every burden. We need God and one another.
The difficulty in laying aside every weight and burden would be to imagine we are told we are going on a long journey and you are allowed a limit of five pieces of baggage. But, as you approach the plane, you are told you can bring one, and must leave four behind. How difficult it is to stand before each other in the presence of God as vulnerable human beings.
I share this with you for to even begin laying aside every weight and acknowledging the good and not so good baggage we each come with, certain assumptions we hold fast to need to be questioned, if not broken down.
So knowing that we do need God and one another, whether we come to admit this or not, how do we begin to build genuine, trusting relationships with each other? Very carefully, and with grace, for it is not easy, but rather quite difficult.
It is unfortunate that society and all too often the mass media lift up just the opposite message -- competition, "us and them," win or lose -- leaving people feeling betrayed, overwhelmed, objectified, exploited and silenced once more.
Can we embrace our brokenness, yet move towards a real and liberating healing? And how do we dare to find the courage to let go, if it is at all possible, of our baggage, knowing that a free sparrow is often more alive in the unknown than a secure, beautiful bird caught in her own cage.
As a woman of faith, a daughter, granddaughter, sister and aunt and a person longing to build community seeking the common good, I share with you my thoughts knowing they are my thoughts from my own life experiences which means at time -- yes, I do not have it all figured out. Many times in life we are not in control, but by God's grace we are called to share what we know in hopes that other people will in turn find their voice to do the same.
In my longing, struggle and vision to build genuine relationships and thus community, I have come to know of my own need to know who I am, so that others will not define me. To know I am loved and have been loved and therefore am capable of loving. And to know I am surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses and not alone in my journey. To know who I am, to know I am loved and to know I am not alone.
As the African people in their wonderful concept of community say "I am because we are." You are because we are.
In our text today, let us look to Naomi and Ruth -- two witnesses who dared to inspire and give us a clue -- two square pegs in a culture dominated by round holes. Ruth and Naomi grow together in their journey but it did not start out that way for they were very different women -- two strangers. Naomi was an older Israelite (Hebrew) woman. Ruth, a young Moabite, when Moabites were still particular enemies of the Israelites. Naomi, her husband and sons were open to a different people They move from Bethlehem in Judah to Moab when the situation in their native land shows signs of death and that of a foreign land. Promise of a sign of life, Ruth, later reveals she too is open to a different people, as she chooses to move with Naomi from Moab to Judah.
After the husband and sons' death, the main link Naomi has is to her two daughters-in-law. She says. "Go return each of you to your mother's house." But Ruth and Orpah respond, "No, we will return with you to your people." Naomi says it a second time - Go, return --for she sees no other alternative amidst her despair. And the three women -- alone, yet together -- lifted up their voices and wept.
Orpah kissed Naomi and making her decision returns home. Orpah, in leaving, ironically had followed her mother-in-law's plea. She had done what was expected. Then Naomi turns to Ruth and tells her a third time to return. But Ruth, the text tells us, clung to Naomi. Ruth did the unexpected.
And in the words shared between two women, though often misunderstood or misinterpreted, we hear:
"Entreat me not 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 will be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die. There will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me and more as well, if even death parts me from you."
Well, Naomi and Ruth make their trek together from Moab to Bethlehem in Judah. Ruth now has no words. Instead she is simply present amidst Naomi's grief, loss and despair. Ruth's love and friendship (persistence) gradually leads to healing. Ruth never denies Naomi the right to grieve.
Gradually (here is where patience comes in) each woman, in her own way and in her own time, reached out to the other. (Beyond the superficial facade/surface.)
Through love and forbearance, time and patience, we see two women, who once were strangers, become real friends. And sometimes, as Benita Weems shares a friend, a sister in a time of need, can make all the difference.
As Ruth is there for Naomi, Naomi clues Ruth into the ways of living. And the beauty of this relationship and friendship is that when Ruth and Boaz connect, Naomi is not left out in the dust. Ruth does not take Naomi for granted. "Their love for one another did not diminish their ability to love others." One woman's good fortune does not lead to another woman's misfortune. Ruth and Naomi share great joy when either or both are blessed! What a gift from God!
To care about the quality and dignity of another woman's life. -- another human being's life. To respect each other's choices. To allow for each other's differences. To refuse to be forced to choose between two people or two good relationships/friendships. Specifically, one with a man and the other with a woman.
Persistence, perseverance, patience and promise is what Ruth and Naomi give us. May we never leave a sister or brother behind.
Upon reflecting on a close friend and colleague in faith and the vast gifts my friend and others bring, I wrote these words:
I can see from your eyes the need to be loved, but I do not know how to show you that I love you and the words, though they may make one feel good for a moment, hardly touch but the surface of your very protected heart.
I can see from your eyes the need to be held, but I do not know how to hold you the way you need to be held, so that you will feel safe as God would hold you in the loving arms of a gracious and merciful God.
I can see from your eyes the need to be heard, but I am not very good at listening, for it is so easy for me to get caught up in my own pain and the need to be healed that I grow incapable of hearing your silent scream to make a difference.
I can see from your eyes the need to laugh and to have fun, but I take myself so darn seriously and God not seriously enough. Do I dare enjoy you as a gift from God?
I see from your eyes the need to be touched, but the culture we live in has taught us to sexualize our relationships leaving little room for genuine and authentic friendships to blossom and grow.
I can see from your eyes the need to understand the gifts of a different race and culture, but racism is so prevalent in society that to break the walls of hate and oppression require more than human strength. Indeed, it calls for repentance, forgiveness, and God's Spirit.
I can see from your eyes the need to be present for each other, but I grow impatient believing that somehow I can fill the empty space, only to humbly discover that it is God alone that can fill that sacred space.
Though, I see these things in your eyes, I see the need within myself as well. Knowing that in everything God works for good, you and I can learn as our friendship grows to be for each other what God wants us to be. For God does love, hold, hear, have fun, touch, understand and is present with us. In time my friend, in God's time. I thank God for you.
May you see God's gift to you and the love of God in the people God sends you.