Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Too much tea and sympathy?

Imagine the scenario. It’s the weekly drop in at church and she walks in, looking decidedly sorry for herself, and before long she starts to tell you the sad and sorry tale of how she became so down on her luck… the mistaken decision to relocate for what she and her husband thought were better prospects, the tragedy of his death as well as that of her two boys. And she sums up the story by telling you that everything that has happened has left her with ‘such a bitter taste in my mouth. God’s obviously got it in for me.’

Have you ever met people like Naomi? I was talking about her story on Saturday evening, whilst spending time with some old friends in Exeter and speaking at the excellent Andy’s Café. We discussed how lots of us know people who seem to suffer some kind of adversity in their life and how that then becomes the thing which defines them. As I’ve thought recently about the story of Ruth and Naomi one of the questions I’ve been asking myself concerns the moment when their fortunes really began to turn around. Does it occur when Ruth goes off to glean in the fields and the writer of her story tells us that ‘as it happened’ she found herself in fields belonging to Boaz? Does the change begin when she returns home and tells Naomi about the name of the farmer she’s been working for? Or does it happen in the moment when Naomi decides that she’s no longer going to be defined by the events of Moab and is going to take control and make sure, in no uncertain terms, that Ruth will attract the attention of her kinsman-redeemer?

Ruth’s story offers a compelling example of how God can work in astonishing and creative ways, even in the most difficult of circumstances. But it also appears to suggest that Naomi and Ruth couldn’t just wait passively for God to solve all their problems. The turnaround in their fortunes occurred because they were alert to a way might God choose to work on their behalf, demonstrating an ‘eye for the main chance’ which seems to characterise a number of Old Testament heroes of the faith.

So what is the message of Ruth? I realise we need to be careful not to overdo this interpretation of the text. To do so merely reduces Ruth to one more self-help guide. But I also wonder how many of our conversations in church err too much on the side of tea and sympathy, and don’t offer the challenge people sometimes need to be given to be more proactive in looking for the ways God might want to help them overcome their problems.

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