Naomi said: Turn back, my daughters, go your way…
Then they wept aloud. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law
The old polish ladies sit on the sidewalk in their patio chairs. All afternoon they sit there, only moving to reposition themselves in the shade of the sycamore. Jean always has a lollipop in the pocket of her floral housedress. She produces one and gives it to Isabel as we walk up.
“Here you go Honey
“Say thank you to Jean.”
“Thank you, Jean.”
“Your welcome, Honey.”
“I guess I’ll be sending you her dentist bills.”
Jean smiles. She’s an old timer in the neighborhood— forty years. She worked down at Colgate back when the plant was over by the river.
“Phil told me you’re moving out,” she says, inspecting me carefully.
“Yes it’s true.”
“It’s not gonna be easy on the little one.”
“Go tell that to her mother.”
“You young people…”
For a moment, in the heat of the June afternoon, the old ladies eye me with a gentle, but solemn disapproval.
“It’s always the same,” says Marian. She is talking to Jean. “Did ya think it was any different nowadays?”
They grimace knowingly at each other.
Jean shrugs. “Ah, well…” She gets up and clambers up the stoop. “I gotta switch over my laundry anyway.” She unlocks the front door of the building and disappears into the darkened hallway.
“Goodbye Jean,” Isabel says.
Here at the United Church or Jaffrey we talk a lot about love.
This is intentional.
I try to set before you as many kinds of love as I happen to come across, so that, well-versed, educated, informed, inundated in the many ways that we can know love, we have the tools to grow together as a community of Christians.
I am fortunate to be tasked, in this vocation, with the interpretation of stories that often stumble headlong into love.
But the Biblical stories that lead us to love are often strange ones.
If you thought that all this talk of love meant that coming to church is like watching a romantic comedy, you would be sorely disappointed.
The Bible leads us to love, but it is not a romantic comedy.
The Bible leads us to love, but it is not the easy love that you find in an afterschool special.
The Bible is not prancing ponies and butterflies, because life isn’t prancing ponies and butterflies – or, I suppose it might be, but not without a healthy dose of irony.
It’s true that love can be beautiful and delightful, but it’s equally true that love is the most difficult and potentially painful thing about living a human life.
I don’t need to tell you this…
You know what I’m talking about…
Sometimes it works out…. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Naomi said to Ruth: ‘
See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ But Ruth said,
‘Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
111 Grace Street was just off Kennedy Boulevard up toward the Union City line. Grace Street edged down the hill in a broken halting way, and when I followed it one day, it led me to a chainlink fence and a derelict yard behind an auto parts outlet. It wasn’t much, but it was a street that was named for hope, for forgiveness, and for recovery, and I was affected by this—this awkward belief that a place with a good name could bring me peace. It was the second time we’d separated, and it was much worse this time. I just wanted it to be done.
So I took the place.
The house was painted an ancient green and was separated from the sidewalk by a black wrought iron fence. It was partially hidden by a pine tree that tickled the second floor with spiny fingers and shed needles to carpet the yard. I was on the top floor, and when I opened the window, my bedroom filled with the smell of that pine so that it seemed perpetually to be rounding the corner on Christmas.
The landlord, who lived downstairs, was a middle-aged good old boy, a gym teacher type with a shock of thick blond hair.
“This house is on the historical register,” he told me. “This hill was once a farm, and this was the farmhouse.”
So there was a time when this place was not just the outskirts, a time when the vegetation meant more than the futile archipelagos of weeds that broke the cement and caught the litter frayed by the wind. There was once an old farmer and a farmer’s wife too. Was I sleeping in their master bedroom? Did they put up the “Little Bo-Peep” wallpaper in the nursery where I kept all my empty cardboard boxes? Had they dressed the walls in deep mahogany wainscotting? I fancied that I felt their disapproving glances when I opened the fridge and saw the month old Chinese take-out left there to mold.
Naomi’s story is a hard one.
But it is a common one. The fact that it is unfamiliar to us, is a fluke of fate — we were dealt a strong hand, born at the center of empire. Most of the world’s people live like Naomi
Stricken by famine.
This is a story of climate migration.
Naomi and her husband Elimelech and their two sons travel to Moab in search of a better life. After they arrive her two grown boys inter-marry with local women. But tragedy strikes, not once, but three times – her husband and both of her sons die.
Naomi is left alone with the two women who had married her sons: Orpah and Ruth.
Naomi has nothing to offer them, so she sends them on their way.
But Ruth remains with Naomi.
The young woman is faithful to her mother-in-law.
She loves the old woman.
Neither of them has anything.
Or rather, they have nothing except each other…
They have each other.
But what about Orpah?
Ruth said to Naomi:
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
My clock radio woke me at 6:15 AM every morning. It was set to 1010 WINS all-news-all-the-time. In the darkness of my room, the radio was more a texture than a sound. It introduced the headlong strain of the city—the mill of traffic, the grind of the trains, the passage of commuters pushing into and up Manhattan. I ran the dog around the block and hightailed it into the city.
By 8 PM when I got back, Sophie would be frantically scratching the doorsill. When I opened the door, she came out leaping, a skinny flash of red and brown bounding down the stairs and through the alleyway to the frontyard where I could not stop her from doing her numbers. On weeknights when I managed to escape work early enough, I took Sophie for long walks that would end at an embankment above a baseball diamond. Usually there was a group of neighborhood boys hitting a ball around. We sat as the afternoon collapsed over the jagged industrial horizon, and in the dusk air the yells of young boys rang out and glistened in the air like minnows in the shallows. The lights went on in the kitchens all over the neighborhood and pretty soon the boys broke up and headed home.
I wished, then, that I was also going home, and not to 111 Grace Street. I felt that I had failed as a father, and that I was the puppet to some basic flaw that made me seek love, but also ensured that I was perpetually lonely. On those evenings when the kitchen lights went on, I wished I was a boy again, before I knew enough to want intimacy—when it was not a desire, but an act, as simple as going home at my mother’s beck. I longed for the rattle of the back door, and the smell of the kitchen, and the sternness of my father’s short grace. A time when there was no thought of whether it was right or wrong, or if things were going to work out in the long run.
Ruth said to Naomi:
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
I could not resolve myself to that loneliness. I thought that Isabel’s birth had changed everything – that it was no longer possible to be so lost. When she appeared, it was as if eternity itself suddenly fit within the logic of simple shapes, and understanding was only a matter of connecting, through myself, the arc that moved from past to future. I suddenly knew myself, in simple terms, as a part of a far greater whole. A child had been born! My life made sense.
One night I woke up to the deep grumble of thunder. It was well past midnight, and the lightning that flashed through the leaves of the trees cast delicate shadows on the wallpaper of my empty room. Sophie nudged my hand at the side of the bed and I sat up to comfort her. I walked through to the back and turned the porch light on and watched the heavy rain falling. The storm crept away across the ridge and out past the blinking lights of the factory stacks. The resonance of the thunder, though, crept through my skin from the abysses of night, and in the naked porch light I watched as the remnants of the rain fell from the leaves drawing the patterns of my isolation upon the rotting wood.
Ruth said to Naomi:
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’