Five years ago, my granddaughter Norah was born…she was a beautiful baby but the doctors could not figure out why she was struggling.
It took a while (and two emergency medivac helicopter rides) but eventually it was discovered that Norah had an extremely rare genetic disease.
I asked Norah’s dad for permission to share his journal entry from five years ago with you…he said I could…
“I was fairly discouraged that God did not answer my staple prayer through Corrie’s pregnancy, that there would not be any complications with Norah’s fetal or natal health. Instead God chose to engage us so intimately as to accept and answer hundreds of prayers from numerous people. It would have been simpler, yes, if God had just answered my single prayer, but it is His will and much more beneficial that we all go through this. One unanswered catch all prayer gives way too many specific answered prayers and ultimately deeper relationship and understanding of his love for us.”
Last week on a family vacation Christy and I took one nights duty sleeping in the room with Norah, the alarms on her vent went off about 3 times per hour all night long.
Norah’s disease and all the corresponding difficulties and struggles were and are on the one hand a real threat…physical, mental, spiritual, relational threat.
It has been on the other hand great opportunity in those very same areas.
Norah’s parents, my wife and I, our entire family…have grown in ways we would not have had God answered Curtis’ first prayer.
Of course, we would pray the same prayer again that Norah would be born healthy…but we are learning in practice what we have known in theory…pray for what you want, trust for what God gives.
This has been a year of great threat.
Physical threat…disease, job loss, property loss, loss of life.
Mental threat…many have experienced great anxiety, depression, increased fears, confusion about society at large.
Spiritual threat…some have struggled with their faith as they have wondered where God is, or isolation has created a situation where they are able to be “divided and conquered” spiritually more easily.
Relational threat…the strong differences in how people think about and respond to these times have created barriers and have even ruined relationships.
And this has been a year of great opportunity.
Physical opportunity…I’ve talked to people personally (many in fact) who have formed new healthy physical habits this year.
Mental opportunity…I’ve also spoken with many who have developed good new patterns of thinking about their lives and the lives of others.
-Living patterns follow thinking patterns…healthy living requires healthy thinking.
Spiritual opportunity…Some have come to Christ during this time. Many Christians have grown in faith and love as they have leaned into the opportunity presented by the challenges.
Relational opportunity…Families and couples and friends have become closer. Many have realized how important relationships were and how they had taken them for granted.
I personally have friends who reconciled recently after several years of separation…I can’t describe what that has meant to me.
Bouncy, Breaky has not just been an attempt at some cute, kid stories and songs…physical, mental, spiritual, and relational health are all part of human thriving…there is no dispute about this.
And times of threat…attack us at those specific areas of vulnerability in our lives.
But times of threat are also times of opportunity as well…these same areas of vulnerability are the areas of potential growth.
As James wrote… “Consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds (threats), because this testing is necessary to bring about perseverance (opportunity), which is necessary to become mature Christ followers.”
Times of threat, times of opportunity…they are the twin tracks that human history runs on.
But human history is not just some mechanical train tracks laid out randomly by time and chance.
Human history is providentially and lovingly directed by our very involved God.
He is involved at the Macro (national/international) and the Micro (personal) level.
This year we have looked at Biblical wisdom…largely from Proverbs.
Today we look at a story in the OT that personifies Biblical Wisdom set in a time of great threat that reveals great opportunity.
This story demonstrates in a beautiful way how God’s work in human history on a large scale always shows up in individual small stories.
It also demonstrates the interplay between God’s providence and human choice.
I hope you will you will be inspired, encouraged and amazed.
I have been as I have contemplated these verses and the truth they tell.
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, 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 Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. And they went to Moab and lived there. Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
Let’s set the stage for this moving story...it is very important you read this as a real story, with real people…who were much like you and I.
It’s always important to read stories of others and realize they are much like we are. (even if they are different in many ways)
My personal experiences with people have revealed how much we are the same…whether it is a person from another country and culture…or the same country but living for decades behind bars…I have connected with people in deep ways though they would seem to be totally different than me.
Our experiences shape into very different people…but our shared humanity means we have many, many things in common.
So…we are separated from Ruth by a chasm of time and culture…but she would have felt and seen things in ways very much like you and I would.
*I say this so we will not put biblical characters into a different category than ourselves…we can respond much like they did if we will choose to do so.
- In the days when the judges ruled.
So, this is after Moses, and Joshua…after Exodus and the wars in Canaan.
They are settled in the land of promise.
But the people are fickle…unable and unwilling to consistently follow after God.
So, they suffer when their remaining enemies are allowed to attack and overcome them…they are rescued whenever God raises up “judges”…not as in courtrooms but more like military or mercenary leaders.
These judges are for the most part…very flawed individuals…but they are used by God to bring about his purpose.
The days when judges ruled is supposed to signal to us that the story, we are about to hear happens during…dark, difficult days.
So…we are to read “Days when judges ruled as”…times of great threat and opportunity.
- A famine caused the family to move to Moab
This tells us the level of threat is not just from human enemies but from natural ones as well…in this case drought and resulting famine (hunger)
The threat is so high it causes them to move to the place of their ancient enemies…Moab, home of the Moabites.
A people who had persecuted Israel and who historically worshipped god’s who required human/children sacrifices.
So, the threat was high and very real…it was life and death…starve or move.
- Next we find that the threat increases and expands into other areas of their lives.
The father dies so the widow is left with two sons who then marry Moabite women.
The sons marrying Moabite would be the equivalent of your child marrying someone from a religious background you believed to be absolutely terrible…a false and destructive belief system.
This would be seen as a real threat to your family…to your faith.
Being a widow in another country is a physical threat…now her sons marry into another religious heritage signaling a spiritual threat.
It gets worse…the sons die…leaving three widows.
- The return home
It’s so bad now that Naomi renames herself “mara” meaning “bitter”
Bitter is the opposite of blessed…this reveals the mental and spiritual threat she is enduring.
She believes she is cursed…unloved by God.
She returns home in shame…expecting to die known by all as one “cursed by God”
- Ruth reveals her wisdom
Ruth, unlike her sister, decides to go with Naomi.
Naomi tries to dissuade her knowing the prospects of a non-Israelite Widow are not good in Israel.
But Ruth holds fast…even making a confession of faith to follow not only Naomi but her God as well.
Ruth leans into the coming difficulty…shows love, loyalty and faith…and puts herself in a position of great opportunity.
If you read the book carefully…you will see that Ruth exhibits the attributes of biblical wisdom.
- The Fields of Boaz and the hand of God
Ruth shows herself to be industrious and humble…she goes to glean food in the fields of a relative named Boaz.
Boaz is known to be a man of “noble character”…another way of saying “Biblical wisdom.”
He makes provision for her…shows generosity to the immigrant and the poor even as the word of God requires.
It turns out that he is their family redeemer…a cultural practice where when if a man dies it his family redeemer’s responsibility to marry the widow.
Ruth asks Boaz to redeem their family and marry him.
Boaz knows he not some handsome, young catch…he understands what Ruth is doing and he calls her a woman of noble character (same term used of the Proverbs 31 woman of wisdom)
Boaz marries Ruth, the story concludes with a reversal of all the tragedy of chapter 1
God is not directly mentioned by the narrator…but his providence is clearly in view in the entire narrative.
Naomi believes she is cursed…but God is using day to day events, people with Proverbs character making good days to day choices…to bring about his purposes.
God’s purposes and will and human decisions and will…are woven together in a beautiful tapestry.
The book ends with a genealogy…from Ruth comes a child who will be the grandfather of Israel’s greatest King…David.
David, of course is in the lineage of the Messiah, King Jesus.
This amazing book tells a story…people making simple, non-epic choices that reveal love, faith and wisdom.
God takes those people and their choices…and weaves them into his epic story of redemption.
We are to see ourselves in this…that God is at work in the seemingly mundane events of our lives well.
Deism is a world view where an impersonal Creator made the universe, wound it up like a clock…then went on to other things of more interest to him and left it to run down on its own.
This view was popular early in our nation’s history…and it remains popular today if not in doctrine in practice.
Many believe there is a “higher power” or the “man upstairs”…but he largely leaves us to ourselves…he is not personally involved in the details of our lives.
The book of Ruth could at first glance seem to have Deistic overtones…again, the narrator doesn’t mention God directly….he just gives the various human choices being made in response to historic/cultural/natural events that are occurring.
But when you sit back and see the story in context…especially the larger context of the entire Biblical narrative you see this is far from a story of human activity without divine involvement.
God is at work in the choices of humans in the circumstances of history.
We are not to approach Ruth like a math problem… “How much of this is God’s providence and how much is human decision? 75/25, 50/50?
Well the math doesn’t work in theory but it does in practice…God is 100% sovereign and Humans are 100% responsible.
My choices matter and God’s choices will stand…therein is our hope.
So, during times of great threat…like right now…I must make the choices that wisdom makes…knowing that God uses people with this kind of “operational wisdom” in his epic plans and for his great purposes.
Keep a few things in mind about Ruth as we move to application, remember she is not that different than we are.
- Leaving her home for a foreign country after losing her husband would feel terrible and terrifying.
*Don’t gloss over this point…this happened to a real woman…she made this choice…and it was very hard.
-She arrived in Bethlehem from Moab…one dusty, difficult step at a time
-She was not going to get to go see her family and friends on weekends…no Zoom, no Facetime
-She was leaving it all behind…she made the hard choice to follow God…you can as well.
- Gleaning in the fields would be humbling and dangerous and boring.
-She could legally only pick up scraps after the regular harvesters had worked…she worked the edges.
Humbling: -You know the “wheat that grows on the highway side of the fence in Kansas”
Dangerous -Boaz had to give instructions for the men to not molest her. She had very few human rights if any…to protect her.
-She could easily have been abused and assaulted.
Boring:-God’s plan for her was long days of picking grain…not “self-actualizing meaningful work”
God’s purposes for her were difficult, dangerous, boring.
- So her choices that revealed her wisdom…held no guarantees.
-She didn’t know how things or if things would work out well for her.
-Clearly, she didn’t demand that God or Naomi give her some kind of guarantee before she did the right thing.
-It is in historical retrospect that we see that this non-Israelite woman was one of only 5 women who are in the genealogy of Jesus…the Messiah.
For us…we are able to look at the whole story and be astounded…for her she lived her story a difficult day at a time…just like we do.
*Faith is living with wisdom…not knowing exactly how things will turn out in this life.
APPLICATION: Let’s name our application “Operational Wisdom during times of threat and opportunity”
Why “operational wisdom”…I say this to distinguish it from as theoretical, or mere class room wisdom.
Wisdom put into operation in the context of real life.
You can get a degree in leadership from many universities without ever actually becoming a leader.
Operational wisdom is taking wisdom in theory and putting it in practice…the real test is during times of threat.
Three principles for operational wisdom:
- Focus on “right column” living.
-This is always wisdom 101…to live proactively in the right column and trust God in the left column
-What does that look like right now?
-In regard to COVID, and racial tensions…and all the other challenges and decisions you face.
What does faithful right column and faith-filled left column live look like for you?
Take action in the right…take the left column to God in prayer.
In principle it will be the same for us all…in practice it will look very differently for each of us.
- Don’t shrink back from your own calling to faithfulness just because others don’t have the same calling.
- Don’t judge others and believe them to be unfaithful just because they don’t have the same calling.
*This is a multi-front spiritual battle…in war some will work in factories, some the front lines…but everyone must be found faithful to Lord of Hosts (a name of God that indicates his “warrior/commander in chief” status).
Insecurity and pride create situations where we are unable to live out calling faithfully and let others do the same without judgement.
“How can you not march for social justice?”
“How can you not work for the unborn?”
“How can you not go overseas to unreached?”
“How can you not work in prisons?”
“How can you not adopt/foster?”
“How can you not pray long hours into the night?”
“How can you not mentor kids at risk in Wichita?”
Should I go on? How could you possible do all that needs to be done…you can’t?
Do what God has called you to do…do it with confidence and grace…let others answer to their commander for themselves.
- Don’t measure too soon.
We are prone to want to try and evaluate our course of action based on temporary outcomes rather than a more principled approach.
How do we tend measure if something is working?
Is my life easier, does it feel better, are others feeling more positive about me, what are others doing right now…and why is this taking so long to work?
Clearly, we should evaluate our strategies for dealing with life issues because we want to them to work.
But we have to lean heavily on principles…and stick with them even when, especially when things get difficult.
Earnest said several weeks ago that he had taken a principled stand in his heart and life in regards to race issues.
He is sensitive to current events but he is not blown around by them…he makes decisions based on enduring principles…his measurement for successful strategies are long term…eternal in fact.
If Ruth had measured the outcomes of her life at any given point based on how she felt or how hard it was…she might have easily taken a very different path than she did.
It seems that she was operating out of the principles of wisdom…put others first, live with humility, etc.
This is why Boaz recognized her as a woman with Proverb 31 wisdom.
- Think highly of God not self.
Ruth probably made one small road trip in her life…Moab to Bethlehem…about a 30-mile trip.
She likely lived in two very small towns her entire life.
Think of how small her life was in its scope…how simple…how small her world would have been.
Yet here we are discussing her life in Wichita millennia after her death.
Why? God wove her life into his larger purposes…most notably she was in the human lineage of the Messiah.
She would have been mostly concerned with day to day survival, with doing what she needed to do next.
I’m pretty sure she didn’t have the time or the mentality to worry about her lasting legacy, or what people outside a very small circle thought of her.
Operational wisdom is learning to think more highly of God and less highly of ourselves.
In the end…it won’t matter what people thought of you…it will only matter what God thinks of you.
We must become increasingly secure in who God is and what he is up to…and fix our gaze on him.
We are to live in line with the Great Commandment…Love God, Love people…there is great practical benefit in this kind of life.
It is the life of wisdom.
In this time of obvious threat…great opportunity.
Life proactively making choices and trusting God with outcomes.
It is going to be messy and difficult…and you will likely wonder if it is actually worth it…but persevere…because perseverance will lead to maturity…it alone will make you complete in Christ.