When we were shopping for a house in Rockford, Illinois, we visited a huge old place. The big garage out back had once housed horses and a carriage or two. Then we learned that some years ago the owner was walking through the backyard and his foot sank into the ground. That’s when he discovered that his house had been a station on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves in the mid-1800s, and there was a secret room under that garage connected by a tunnel from the house.
Churches are like that. Our buildings and programs don’t tell the really good stories. You have to dig a little to discover the important stories beneath the surface of our songs and suppers, our affection and history. Our church, for example, is about 142 years old and now includes a Burmese congregation. The very first missionary those Swedish Baptists supported in 1880 was to the people groups from Burma now represented in our congregation!
We all go back further than that. Take the little house ekklesia, Bethlehem Fellowship, way back in our history. It started with just three people. One was a woman who, by rights, had no business being there at all. Frankly, she shouldn’t have even been in the country. Another woman was joyless, ground down by grief and hopelessness. She said it herself: “Just call me Bitter.” Then there was as Christlike a man as you’ll find anywhere in the Old Testament, Boaz by name. Oh, and eventually a very promising baby named Obed. All of them, our kin; all related to the people in your church and mine.
The book of Ruth could be subtitled, “The Book of Hesed,” because that unique little household was a textbook example of covenant love, both God’s and his people’s. The Hebrew word appears four times but it is the theme of the whole story. To translate hesed requires a seven-hyphen English definition: covenant-loyalty-faithfulness-kindness-goodness-mercy-love-compassion. That’s the divine bond that still holds our spiritual households together. That is the story beneath the surface.
Ruth may not have even known the word hesed when she embodied it to Naomi in 1:16. “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay,” she said. “Your people will be my people and your God my God.” When embittered Naomi heard Ruth had encountered Boaz, God’s law of hesed stirred her first glimmer of hope: “Now Boaz… is a relative of ours… He will tell you what to do.” When Ruth told Naomi how Boaz responded, Naomi’s faith finally found its footing: “The LORD bless him. He [the LORD] has not stopped showing his kindness [hesed] to the living and the dead.”
When Boaz, stirred by hesed, met the town fathers at the city gate he proposed to redeem at his own expense both his relative’s property and his widow, regardless of cost. And the elders blessed him for it: “May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem” (3:11). Hesed has it’s privileges.
That’s still the story of your church and mine. Our beautiful, beneath-the-surface stories are still about outcasts who find a family, broken and embittered people who discover that the Lord hasn’t stopped loving them, and covenant-committed people of God who pay the price to love their spiritual kin. All of us bound by the love of God in Christ.
Pastors are covenant connectors and Boaz impersonators, binding ourselves in loyal love to the people our Kinsman-Redeemer has entrusted to us. “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.”
Be ye glad!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.