Sunday, July 5, 2009

Just as we are - God uses us all

It is the very fact that some Bible stories have a larger than life feel to them that gives them their appeal. The story of Jonah and the Whale is one of those larger-than-life Bible stories that packs an enormous punch and makes you think differently about the world at large.

Other Bible stories have a very different feel to them. Down to earth, it is that true-to-life feel that gives them their appeal. Maybe it’s because the story of Naomi has a true-to-life feel to it that it speaks to us at a very different level, at a much more personal level, at a very real down-to-earth level.

Naomi’s story is told in the book of Ruth and it is a tragic story. Growing up in Bethlehem Naomi marries into a family that has land and is able to live more than comfortably. Naomi and her husband Elimelech have two sons Mahlon and Chilion and they are comfortably set up.

And then everything goes wrong.

Famine strikes and no matter how much land you have it’s not much good if it bears no crops.

So it is that Naomi and Elimelech flee from Bethlehem. They become refugees and make their way down through the wilderness, over the River Jordan as it comes down towards the Dead Sea and they make their way up into the mountains of Moab seeking refuge and asylum.

They are fortunate and are taken in by the Moabite people who are kind to them. Then it is that tragedy befalls Naomi.

Elimelech dies.

Mahlon and Chilion marry Moabite wives – something of a mixed blessing for Naomi.

The prospects of her return home are gone. She is dependent on her sons, they in turn have become part of the Moabite community. She is far from home.

Then her two sons die.

Her loneliness is more marked than ever.

She decides to return home.

There must be something about Naomi that is kind and loving and has made its mark on the two Moabite women her sons have married. Orpah and Ruth accompany her.

Naomi gently explains to them that they will be better off in their own homes.

With sadness in her heart Orpah returns. But Ruth won’t leave Naomi. As she clings to her Ruth says those wonderful words of commitment

Where you go, I will go,

Where you lodge, I will lodge,

Your people shall be my people

Your god, my God.

The two return to Bethlehem.

And Naomi touches rock bottom.

“Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara [that’s the word meaning Bitter]

For the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.

I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty,

Why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me,

And the Almighty has brought calamity upon me.”

It is a debilitating feeling of God-forsakenness that brings Naomi so low.

The focus of the story turns now to Ruth and a member of Elimelech’s family, Boaz. Boaz takes Ruth under his wing.

He is responsible for the fields still in the family’s possession, but he recognises the Moabitess woman is at risk. At great risk.

You touch the underside of a community that is concerned only for its own. Now Ruth is the refugee – the one fleeing from Moab, seeking refuge with Naomi. And she is at risk from the predator males of the community who see her as easy picking.

Boaz offers a different way.

Boaz sees in Ruth someone different.

He sees in Ruth the person who has actually stayed with Naomi through those times of terrible and terrifying bitterness. Not only has she supported Naomi, but she has been prepared to sacrifice the security of her own home to accompany Naomi as she has returned home.

Boaz sees the God he believes in as one who has the capacity to take Ruth under his wings as she comes to him for refuge.

As the story unfolds the different mix of people in Bethlehem interact with each other, until at the end Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife and they have a son.

Then it is the women of Bethlehem who celebrate the restoration of Naomi

Blessed be the Lord who ohas not left you this day without next of kin

May his name be renowned in Israel!”

He shall be to you a restorer of life

And a nourisher of your old age.

There is a final twist in the tale, of course, as the Moabite Ruth’s son Obed in turn has a son, Jesse, who in turn has a son David who becomes the great King of David.

It is one of the great ironies of the Old Testament story that the great king David is desceneded from a Moabitess woman.

What strikes me about that story is that so many different people have a part to play as the story unfolds. So many people make a difference.

There courage of Naomi and Elimelech and their two sons to become effectively refugees and seek a refuge in a foreign land.

The welcome given them by the Moabite community. The willingness of the Moabite families to take Israelite men into their families.

Ruth’s courage as she accompanies Naomi; but also Orpah’s very different kind of courage as she returns home to be with her family. Each commended in their own way.

The courage of Naomi when feeling at her weakest to make the journey home, not knowing what lay in store for her.

The welcome given to the returning Naomi in her moment of deepest despair, and the welcome given to Ruth by Boaz and the family … in the face of the threat of those who were so opposed to receiving a refugee, a foreigner in their midst.

Each is making their own contribution all the way through.

There is a sense in which everyone is helping everyone else. There’s a wonderful interaction going on between so many people.

Among all of those people Naomi stands out.

Naomi is one of the tragic figures of the Old Testament. She loses so much. Her home, her husband, her sons, her safety. She loses her faith in God. She loses her self-esteem. She calls herself Mara – bitter.

Yet even at that point she too is interacting with others and what she does is impacting for good on them – Ruth may be helping her, but she too is helping Ruth, though one senses at that point of lowest ebb she doesn’t recognise it.

The great thing for Naomi is that people stick by her. It is through their support and the agency of those other people, together with the things that she herself does that impacts on those around her that God ultimately becomes to her ‘a restorer of life, a nourisher of old age.’

What a story.

There is a wonderful message there. No matter who we are, what kind of a person we are, God has a part for us to play. There is something for us to do: God will use us as the people we are.

It is not that he wants us to change so that he can use us. He uses us as we are and then change comes.

During the week Rob Lacey forwarded me a link to a piece that appeared in the Daily Mail telling the remarkable story of Nick Vujicic. Rob described it as a humbling story ... it is the story of someone born with no arms and no legs who has come to see that God treasures him as the person he is and has great things for him to do as the person he is.

Life without limb-its: The astonishing story of the man born without arms or legs... who plays golf, surfs, and swims

You can see Nick's video on YouTube by clicking here

Thinking of the life of the church here at Highbury at the moment we are asking questions. What are you passionate about? What gifts do you have? The idea is that we harvest the things we feel passionate about, and draw on the gifts we can share with each other.

In doing that we also need to recognise the people we are. And accept who we are in the knowledge that God can use as we are. There are all sorts of ways of recognising the people we are …some people were helped by the the Willow Creek Network course we did when we asked the question Who are we?

People prefer to interact with people and tasks in different ways. Some of us are more task-oriented and some of us are more people-oriented.

At the ‘task’ end of the scale are people who are energised by doing things. Task people are comfortable working with people who share their commitment to the task, and sometimes get frustrated or feel awkward with a lot of relational activities. In a church context their focus will be on accomplishing tasks that serve people.

At the ‘people’ end of the scale are those who are energised by interacting with people. They measure results in terms of relationships, and prefer to work with other people in a ‘team’ setting. They will focus in church on people and relationships.

That’s not to say that those who are people-oriented are not concerned with task accomplishment, or that Task-oriented people are not concerned with relationships. It is more a matter of priority and approach.

Another way to understand ourselves is to realise that some of us are Unstructured and some of us are Structured.

At the Unstructured end of the scale are people who prefer to have lots of options an d flexibility. They tend to enjoy moving between a variety of activities. The kind of service they share in church should be generally described, and their relationships with others will be spontaneous.

At the structured end of the scale are people who prefer to plan and bring order to their lives. They tend to seek decisions and closure. They are detail-oriented. What they do in a church context should be clearly defined, and relationships will tend to be consistent.

You can then bring those two together – some are people focused and structured; some will be people focused and un-structured. Some will be task-focused and structured, some task focused and un-structured.

And somewhere between.

Where do you locate yourself? Be the person you are. And play your part in the life of the church as the person you are.

And we need to affirm and value each one of us.

That’s the good news at the heart of our faith.

Once we accept that we are accepted that will open up all sorts of new possibilities for us.

Who are you like? What kind of a person are you? Where do you fit on the story line of Naomi?

Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself … there’s one Psalm that speaks to each of us …

Psalm 139

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

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