A Tale of Two Women
A Tale of Two Women
In the days when the judges ruled over the land of Judah there came a famine to the land. So a man from Bethlehem together with his wife and two sons went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man's name was Elimelech. His wife's name was Naomi, and their two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah, but they went to Moab to live there. But Elimelech, Naomi's husband, died, and she was left alone with her two sons. They both married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other named Ruth. And after they had lived in the land for about ten years, Mahlon and Chilion also died. And so Naomi was left without her two sons and without her husband.
Well, when Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people back in Judah and provided them with food. She and her daughters-in-law prepared to return there. And together they left the place they had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah. But on the way Naomi stopped and said to her daughters-in-law, "Go back, each of you, to your mother's home. May the Lord show kindness to you even as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that you find rest, each of you, in the arms of another husband." Then she kissed them and said good-bye, and they all wept aloud. "We will go back with you to your people," they said. But Naomi replied, "Return home, my daughters. Why would you want to come with me? Am I going to have any more sons for you to marry? Return home, my daughters. I am too old to have another husband. And even if I thought there was any hope for me, even if I had a husband tonight and gave birth to sons, would you wait for them to grow up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters, return home. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord has turned his hand against me." At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye, but Ruth clung to her.
"Look," Naomi said, "your sister has gone back to her people and to her gods. Go back with her." But Ruth said, "Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from you. Where you go I will go. Where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die and be buried there. May the Lord deal with me ever so severely if even death separates me from you." Well when Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her she stopped urging her.
And so the two of them went on the road that would take them to Bethlehem, and when they arrived in Bethlehem the whole town was stirring because of them. And the women of the town exclaimed, "Can this be Naomi?" "Don't call me Naomi, the pleasant one," she said. "Call me Mara, the bitter one, because the Lord has made my life very bitter. When I left here my life was full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me the pleasant one. The Lord has afflicted me. The Almighty has brought misfortune on me."
And so it was that Naomi returned to Bethlehem from Moab accompanied by her daughter-in-law Ruth the Moabite. And they arrived in Bethlehem just as the barley harvest was beginning (Ruth 1:1-22).
Do you have a friend like that, someone who will call at just the right time with just the right words—someone who can find you where you are and gently lead you to a better place? Apparently many of us don't have a friend like that. Seventy percent of Americans say they have few close friends. Forty-three percent say they have only one person or no person they can confide in. Now, there are all kinds of reasons for this decline of friendship in our society: longer working days, constant job relocation, technologies that isolate us, woundedness from childhood that cripples our relational abilities. But knowing the reasons doesn't change the reality. Most of us don't have enough friends or any friends. And that's not good, because when we go through life without friends, it's not just the experience of life that's diminished; we are diminished. We're less than we could be. We're less than we were meant to be, because we were meant to be in relationships with people.
God said from the beginning, "It's not good for a man to be alone," and he wasn't just talking about marriage. "Two are better than one," the Bible tells us. "If one falls down, a friend can help him up, but pity the person who has no one to help them up" (Eccl. 4:9-10). Jesus had a friend named Lazarus, and when Lazarus died Jesus wept. Paul wrote to his friends in Thessalonica, "You are my glory and my joy." When we go through life without friends, it's not just our experience of life that's diminished; we are diminished. We are less than we could be, and that's especially true for Christ followers, because God uses friends and friendships to shape us into the people he created us to be.
And that's the premise behind the series that we are starting this morning. We're calling it "Living Close: Fostering faith-shaping friendships."
For the next several weeks we're going to see what the Bible has to say about friendship, but not just any kind of friendship. We're talking about spiritual friendships. What we're going to do is simple. We're going to shadow friends that we find in Scripture. Now, some of them probably come to mind right away: Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, Paul and Timothy. But some of them might surprise you. We're just going to sit in the shadows and watch and listen and see what we can learn about how God uses friendship in our lives. Why are friendships so important? What is the role of a friend? Where can I find a friend? How can I be a better friend? And what makes a friendship "spiritual" anyway? So that's where we're headed the next several weeks.
Friends are on a journey of faith
So why don't we begin our journey with a tale of two women. We heard the beginning of their story a few moments ago, but let's look a little more closely at their story and then at the rest of the Book of Ruth to see what we can learn about friendship. One of the remarkable things about this book called Ruth is that it's written entirely from a woman's point of view. In the first five verses, all the men are cleared from the stage. You've probably seen the commercial of the spaceship that takes all the men up from the earth, and the women watch as they disappear in the sky and they pause for a moment and then they let out a cheer. So maybe contemporary women fantasize about a world without men. But in the ancient world, a woman without a man in her life was in desperate straits. She had no protection. She had no provision. She had no voice.
Now you pick up some of that desperation in verse 5 of chapter one. Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband. It's an awful feeling to be left—left behind, left out, left alone. Here's Naomi. She's a foreigner, first of all, living in Moab in search of food. Not before long, her husband dies. She becomes a single mother. Then her sons go and marry Moabite women. It's not exactly what every good Jewish mother dreams of. But at least she'll be provided for in her old age. At least she'll have grandchildren to carry on the family legacy. But then both sons die, and all three women are left widowed and childless. It didn't get much lonelier than that for a woman in the ancient world. In a time when a woman's mission in life was to produce children, Naomi's life's work had just been wiped out. Her only real option was to return home to Bethlehem. Maybe some relatives would watch out for her.
So she and her daughters-in-law prepare to go back. They set out on the road that will take them back to Bethlehem. But on the way, Naomi stops and thinks better of her plan. She tells her daughters-in-law to go back, go home. They're still young. They'll find someone else to marry. They can still make a life for themselves. It was a kind and courageous gesture on her part. And with tears in her eyes, one of the women, Orpah, goes back. But Ruth clung to her mother-in-law. And then Ruth offers one of the most profound expressions of friendship found anywhere in all of literature. "Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from you. Where you go I will go. Where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God" (1:16).
There on that road those two women decided that they would make the journey of life together instead of alone. Wherever the road led, whatever was waiting for them, they would face it together. They would no longer be just mother and daughter-in-law bound together by marriage or fate; they would be friends. And out of that friendship God would shape their lives and lead them directly into his purposes.
That's our theme for today's message and really for the entire series. Spiritual friendships turn the journey of life into a journey of faith. They lead us to God and his purposes.
Friends accompany one another
David Benner is a psychologist and a spiritual director. He's written a wonderful book on this subject entitled Sacred Companions. In the opening chapter he sets out a few important lines for us. He says,
The essence of Christian spirituality is following Christ on a journey of personal transformation. The distant land to which we are called is not heaven; it is the new creature into which Christ wishes to fashion us, the whole and a holy person that finds his or her uniqueness, identity, and calling in Christ. Spiritual friends accompany each other on that journey.
And that's exactly what Ruth and Naomi do for each other. They accompany one another. They don't just go through life. They go through life together. And on the way they become whole and holy. They become fully themselves and they serve God's purposes. As we're going to see, it's not because of some remarkable skill or wisdom that one of them brings to the relationship. It's not because of some heroic act that one of them performs for the other. It's simply because they choose to make space for each other, and because they make space for each other, God is able to enter into that space and meet them there and work his healing.
Isn't that how it works according to Jesus? "Where two or three are gathered in my name there I am in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20). When two people are there for each other, it creates space for God to be there as well and to do his redemptive work.
Look again at the final verse in this chapter, verse 22: "So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law." It's an interesting word, accompanied. When a soloist asks a pianist to accompany her, she's not asking her just to bang out some notes on the piano while she sings. No, she wants her to play in tandem with her, so that the piano helps to carry the tune along, so it brings out the beauty of the song, so it heightens the impact of the song. In the same way, when you ask someone else to accompany you spiritually, you're not just asking them to kind of tag along and stay in sight. You're asking them to enter into life with you, to share the experience, to help carry you along, to bring out the beauty, to heighten the impact. Accompaniment. That's what the spiritual formation experts call it, the ministry of accompaniment. And anyone can do it.
So let's take a closer look at this accompanying relationship here, and let me pull out five characteristics of a spiritual friendship.
The first characteristic is mutuality. Spiritual friendship is not like discipleship, where a more mature believer nurtures a newer believer. It's not like mentoring, where an expert passes on wisdom to a protégé. It's not like counseling, where one person offers advice to another. Friendship is reciprocal. It's a two-way street. The wisdom and the strength flows back and forth. Friends relate to each other as peers, as fellow travelers, even if one of them happens to be older or wiser or stronger than the other.
That's the remarkable thing about this friendship between Ruth and Naomi. Naomi is older, and that's a big deal in that culture. Naomi is the mother-in-law, which can be intimidating. Naomi is the Hebrew, one of God's chosen people. Naomi holds all the clout in this relationship, and yet they relate to each other as peers. And as we make our way through the story, we're going to see how they take turns initiating. They take turns being the strong one. They take turns offering wisdom and insight.
When someone needs to provide food for the household, Ruth goes out to glean in the fields after the harvesters and picks up the barley that they left behind. And when she goes out and does that and finds kindness from a landowner named Boaz, it's Naomi who helps her understand that Boaz is a relative of theirs and explains how the customs work and encourages her to continue working in Boaz's field. And that's how it goes throughout the story. They take turns.
Have you ever gone skiing or golfing with someone who's either way better or way worse than you? It's really not very much fun. Either you're frustrated, because they can't keep up, or you're embarrassed, because you stink. It's one or the other. The first time I went skiing, my so-called friends took me to the top of the mountain and said, "Take this trail. You'll love it." I didn't love it. I quickly found other friends to ski with. Now, unfortunately I forgot that lesson the first time I took Karen to the top of a mountain.
If you're in a relationship with someone and you're always the one who makes the phone call, you're always the one who asks the question, you're always the one who listens carefully, you're always the one who drives, you're always the one who picks up the tab, after awhile it doesn't feel like a friendship anymore. It feels like counseling or care giving or babysitting. Now, that may be okay. That may be the kind of relationship one or the other of you need right now, but it's not friendship, because friendship is reciprocal. It's back and forth. You take turns being strong and being in front.
And that same principle applies to the journey of faith. Spiritual friends give each other the gift of mutuality. Even if one of you knows the Bible way better, or the other is really good at sharing his or her faith, that's okay. Friends take turns being strong, being wise, and showing the way. Is there someone like that in your life, someone traveling about the same speed you are, someone you're comfortable sharing the journey with, because you're not dragging them along and you're not struggling to keep up? That person could be a spiritual friend.
The second characteristic is honesty. Friends need to be able to tell each other what's really going on. Friends need to be there true selves—no pretending, no posturing, no fibbing, no image control. Notice how honest and vulnerable Naomi is with Ruth. "I am too old to have another husband." "It is more bitter for me than for you because the Lord's hand has gone out against me." This is not a happy person. She is not in a good place right now, and she wants these women to know that because if they throw their lot in with her they need to know what they're getting. But she feels free to be honest.
Is there someone like that in your life? Someone to whom you can admit your failures and your fears and your disappointments and your hurts, even when they're not flattering, even when they don't sound Christian? That person could be a friend.
Now later on in the story as Ruth goes off each day to glean in the fields and as she begins to develop a relationship with this landowner named Boaz, she comes back home each night, the text tells us, and she tells Naomi what happened. And one day on Naomi's advice, Ruth goes out and she asks Boaz if he might be willing to exercise his rite as a kinsman. He turns out to be a distant relative of the family, and he has the legal privilege of redeeming the land and rescuing the legacy of the family. And so Ruth asks him to do that. She also finds the courage to communicate her affection for him by uncovering his feet. Now we're not going to get into all that this morning. Okay? It's kind of the ancient equivalent of posting on e-Harmony. It's like, "I'm available, in case you were wondering." Alright?
Anyway, after that whole conversation, chapter two, verse 16 says that Ruth comes home: "When Ruth came to her mother-in-law, Naomi asked, 'How did it go, my daughter?' Then she told her everything Boaz had done for her." Can't you see the two of them leaning into the candlelight? I imagine that they talked like a couple of schoolgirls at a sleepover: "Tell me everything that happened. What did he say? And what did you say?" That's what friends do for each other.
Is there someone like that in your life, someone who will ask you, "How's it going? I really want to know." Is there someone in your life to whom you can tell everything, no matter how mundane it is or how personal it might be? That person could be a friend.
But in order for honesty to work, there has to be acceptance; that's the third characteristic. Acceptance means I'll receive you where you are, as you are. Naomi wasn't a happy person to be around. If you were looking for a traveling companion, would you choose someone who describes herself as a bitter old widow? Imagine her Facebook profile. Status: widowed. Likes: none. Interests: being left alone. Friends: none. Naomi does everything she can to push people away from her. You don't want to be around me, she says, you're likely to get struck by lightning. But Ruth accepts her anyway; she refuses to leave. In fact, she pledges never to leave.
Notice something else: Ruth doesn't try to fix Naomi. She doesn't try to cheer her up. She doesn't say, "Come on, Naomi, you're not so old." She doesn't try to correct her bad theology: "God is good, Naomi, all the time." She just says, "Why don't we walk together for a while and see where the road takes us." David Benner says that "spiritual friendship is a place where others are accepted as they are for the sake of who they can become." Accepted as they are for the sake of who they can become. To be sure, Ruth didn't want Naomi to stay bitter for the rest of her life, but it wasn't her job to fix Naomi. It was just her job to create some space, some relational space in which God could work some healing.
The acceptance is working both ways here. Remember, Ruth is a Moabite. She worships other gods. She's an enemy to the people of Israel, but Naomi welcomes her into the family. Now, I'm sure that Naomi was eager for Ruth to come to know Israel's God, but she doesn't try to force it on her. She just invites her to make the journey back to Judah with her.
Is there someone like that in your life, someone who accepts you right where you are right now? Is there someone who wants the best for you but doesn't try to force it on you? That person could be a spiritual friend.
Right about now you're probably wondering to yourself, Is this all that spiritual friends do for each other, hang around and say, Yeah, whatever? There's one practical thing spiritual friends do for each other. They pay attention. That's the fourth characteristic, attentiveness. Attentiveness means focusing on the other person—their needs, their questions, their struggle, their mood—instead of focusing on your own. Attentiveness means listening to what the other person says without thinking about what you're going to say next. Attentiveness means watching and listening for what God might be doing in another person's life and circumstance.
Ruth was attentive to Naomi's need for companionship, and so she said, I'll go back with you. Ruth was attentive to Naomi's need for provision, so she said, I'll go glean in the fields. Naomi was attentive to the fact that God had brought Boaz into their lives, and so she encourages Ruth to pursue the relationship.
In the video we saw a few moments ago, Rachel's friend called her from out of the blue to see how she was doing. That was being attentive. When Rachel listened through the evasiveness in her friend's answers, that was being attentive. When she offered to come and eat Ramen noodles, that was being attentive. That simple act was enough to communicate to her friend that she was loved and valued by somebody. And if she was loved and valued by somebody, then maybe she was still loved and valued by God. And that's all she needed at that moment.
Is there someone like that in your life, who pays attention to you and to what God might be doing around you?
And that leads to our final characteristic of spiritual friendship: spirituality. I know, that seems pretty obvious, but that's what distinguishes this from all the other kinds of friendships. Spiritual friendships point us toward God. They introduce us to God. They restore us to God. They strengthen us in God. Sooner or later, God becomes part of the conversation. God becomes a companion on the journey. "Two are better than one," Ecclesiastes says. "But a cord of three strands is not quickly broken." Could the third strand, the third person, be God?
The friendship between Ruth and Naomi was spiritual right from the start. Do you remember how it began? "Your God will be my God." Now, that wasn't the case at the time. Ruth was a Moabite. She worshiped other gods. But by the time they get to the end of this journey, Ruth has not only come to believe in the God of Israel, she has been welcomed into the community of faith in Bethlehem. She has married a fine Jewish man named Boaz, and she has given birth to a little boy named Obed, a Hebrew boy, who will carry on the family name. That's a pretty good journey. And what about Naomi? Naomi, who was far from God and bitter in spirit, is restored to her relationship with God, little by little. And in the final scene of the story, the once bitter Naomi is bouncing little Obed on her knee—a grandson. Her life's work wasn't a waste after all.
And then, as if that's not enough already, the narrator tells us in the final verses, with a wink in his eye, that little Obed would become the father of Jesse, and Jesse would become the father of David, and David, we know, would be the forerunner of Messiah. How's that for a journey? Two women—widowed, childless, far from home, far from God—find their way to God and to each other and deep into the very purposes of God. That's the journey of transformation, of friendship.
Some years ago a woman from our church, named Lois, found herself in a challenging season of life. She was raising a houseful of boys. Her husband was working long hours, and she was grieving over the recent loss of first her sister and then her mother. Now, Lois happened to be part of the women's Bible study group here at Grace, and she was very grateful for the leaders and teachers and mentors that she had, but she felt like she needed someone else in her life, someone she could just talk to, someone who could relate to what was happening in her life. She needed a friend. So she asked God to show her one, and she began to look around. One day, looking around the Bible study, she felt drawn to a woman in the group named Charlotte. Charlotte was about her age and had a godly spirit, but that was all that Lois knew about her. When the Bible study was over, she took a little risk and asked Charlotte if she wanted to have coffee sometime. Charlotte said yes, and they quickly discovered they had a variety of things in common: both were raising kids, both were eager to grow in their faith, both wanted to pray, and both had husbands who were not very spiritually engaged. And so they began to meet every week to pray. They became friends, spiritual friends. That was thirty some years ago, and those women are still friends today. In fact, here they are, Lois Farrel and Charlotte Dimitri. Some of you know them; you have seen them around. They're still active in ministry here at Grace and still very much friends.
I spoke with both of them this week, and they told me about how this friendship has shaped their faith. One of them said of the other, "She's brought healing to my life." The other said, "She's helped me grow as a friend, because I didn't have that kind of a pattern." Each of them said in separate conversations, "I can't imagine my life without her." When I asked them what made the friendship work, they said things like "We listen to each other," "I can say anything to her," and "We made a commitment never to let go." And along the way, they've not only grown in their faith, they have seen God do remarkable work in their husbands' lives and their children's lives and in the lives of many, many others they have served here over the years.
But as I talked with them, I kept pressing them for some dramatic breakthrough in their relationship, some remarkable thing that one did for the other, some tear-jerking story I could finish my sermon with. But they said it wasn't like that. "Mostly what we did," they said, "was talk and pray and have coffee. But it was about God from the start," they said. "And he's used the friendship to shape our lives."
And so let me conclude with the question I began with. Do you have a friend like that? Statistics report that many of us do not. So where do you find one? Is there a website you can go to, e-mutuality.com? Try it, someone. See if it works. Is Grace Chapel going to launch a new ministry, Friend Finders? No. We're not. If you're looking for a friend, do what Lois did. Ask God, look around, and take a risk. Look at the people you're around right now, the people in your life community or your Bible study. Put yourself in a place where you'll meet some likeminded people. Join a ministry team. Go on a mission trip. Go on the marriage getaway and meet some other couples. Women, come to Faith Lift. There will be hundreds of potential friends here, women who are eager to grow in their faith.
Remember, you're not looking for a mentor. You're not looking for a role model. You're not looking for a counselor. All you're looking for is someone to talk to, someone to be with for this season of your life. And when God puts that person on your heart, take a risk. Ask them to have coffee. Invite them to sit in church with you. Ask someone to go skiing, maybe. But I am hoping and praying that dozens of Grace Chapel folks, even hundreds of Grace Chapel folks, will take a risk and find a friend this winter, because spiritual friends turn the journey of life into a journey of faith that leads us right to God and his purposes.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.