Grace Unexpected

Cheers, © 2015 Lynn Abbott Studios, Used by Permission

© 2015 Lynn Abbott

The catchy theme stuck with me even though I rarely watched the program.   I had a heavy work schedule, and for me, beauty sleep called.  Yet, something about the “just-after-Primetime ” lyrics haunted me.

As I drifted into dreamland, the folksy tenor resonated, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name/And they’re always glad you came/You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same/You wanna be where everybody knows your name…” (Where Everyone Knows Your Name, Portnov).

Actually, the song probably speaks for most of us.  Finding a safe, authentic place of rest and reflection with people I love becomes increasingly important the further down the road I go.  Listening to those nostalgic lyrics, I think of Old English Inns and Public Houses.  People congregated there for food, friendship…as well as the exchange of ideas.  There, they formed an encouraging community.

C.S. Lewis described that kind of camaraderie: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”

Indeed.  You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same.

Lewis and Tolkien shared their literary and spiritual journeys at an Oxford Pub known as The Eagle and Child. 

And in fact, when my husband and I lived in England in the early 1990s, the neighborhood pub was a common gathering place.

After work, he and I would typically walk our dog,  stop to sit in a creaky old Pub booth, and eat our evening meal. Of course, my outgoing husband visited with all our neighbors.  And during those evening repasts, many a problem, concern or need found resolution.

Thus, when my husband’s best friend, the lead pastor of a vibrant, university town congregation, decided to host weekly gatherings which he called “Theology on Tap” at a local pub, I heartily applauded.  It Cheers (brighter), copyright 2015, L. Abbott with watermarkseemed a natural place to reach people.

That’s right.  Like the apostle Paul on Mars Hill, our friend didn’t wait for people to attend an evangelistic meeting.  He met them where they were.  He kicked back in an informal setting and discussed theology with anyone there who wished to engage in conversation.

But he went further than just talk; he also served in the community whenever opportunity arose.

People were often surprised when they discovered he was a pastor.

But that’s what you do when you love as Jesus loved.  You move beyond your own four walls and seek out those He loves. You love with unexpected grace.

My husband’s friend takes a proactive and seemingly unusual approach to community; yet, he truly reflects Abba’s heart.  After all, Jesus mingled with everyday, ordinary people.

In fact, He intended for the church to become that place where “everybody knows your name/And they’re always glad you came… where you can see our troubles are all the same…”

When the apostles mobilized in Acts 2, beautiful buildings were not part of the plan.  People were.  And believers gathered together, sharing joys and troubles, (Acts 2:42-47).  No pretenses. Just doing gut-wrenching, real life together… walking it out side-by-side.

Of course, the religious leaders of the day were shocked by Christ’s choices.  They could not comprehend that Messiah would sleep in a stable or do lunch with a greedy tax collector.

Nevertheless, love compelled Him to leave heaven and to seek His beloved prodigals (Philippians 2: 5-11).  Yeah… count me in. I’m grateful that grace found this lost sheep.

Sometimes, circumstances, family, friends or hurting people in the world around us require you and me to leave our comfort zones as well. How I respond when I face such challenges says a great deal about the authenticity of my faith.  And yes, for me, it always comes down to my willingness to reflect God’s grace, (Philippians 2:4).

Uh, huh.  Abba’s gracious love is the hallmark of His Spirit’s work in my life.

That’s actually the back story for the book of Ruth.  Circumstances and family had taken Naomi on a journey far from home.

I think it unlikely that she would have chosen to move to Moab.  Its culture was less than ideal for a good Jewish family.  However, when famine depressed the Israeli economy, Naomi’s husband decided to make a “temporary” move to prosperous Moab.

Was Moab part of God’s perfect plan for Elimelech and family?  I think not.  However, God allowed Naomi’s husband to go his own way. And poor Naomi got dragged into her husband’s mess. It happens even in the best of families.

Frequently, because of others’ choices–both the good and the bad– you and I land in unanticipated places.  As we walk alongside those we love, we share both their troubles and heartaches.

Naomi may have objected to Moab move. Scripture doesn’t reveal the discussion that took place in Elimelech’s home prior to relocation, but I can well imagine that Naomi was reluctant to support to her husband’s dubious scheme.

I can almost hear the pointed advice Naomi received from extended family members. Committed Hebrews had nothing good to say about their pagan neighbors.

Things went from bad to worse. After Elimelech and Naomi settled in Moab,  their sons married Moabite women.  Like many mothers, Naomi probably worried about her boys and their relationship with Yahweh.  I suspect she prayed that her boys would not compromise their convictions for the sake of domestic peace. It’s likely that she also prayed for her daughters-in-law.

Despite the obvious concerns, she received Ruth and Orpah into the family with love.  How do I know? Well, quite honestly, few would love a prickly mother-in-law the way Orpah and Ruth loved Naomi.  Naomi inspired extraordinary loyalty.  And with good reason.

As I study the first chapter of the book of Ruth, Naomi made the best of a less than desirable situation.  Scripture suggests that she responded with grace to all that she encountered in Moab; in Hebrew, her name means “pleasant” or “gentle; beautiful.”

From this I gather that she did not complain. Although she must have recognized her husband’s mistake, she responded with godly grace, (2 Peter 3:1).  She practiced positivity; she met her Moabite neighbors where they were.  She gently encouraged and remained upbeat as she served others.

And this inner beauty spilled into all her relationships.  Cheers (brighter), copyright 2015, L. Abbott with watermarkI’m sure her gentle courage surprised her Moabite neighbors.

But her story doesn’t end in Moab. When her husband and sons died, Naomi faced her biggest challenge.  Elimelech’s short-term Visa had been exchanged for a long-term green card. But without husband or sons, she was adrift in a foreign land.

A less godly woman would have crumbled in a self-pitying heap. But not Naomi.  She thought practically and even though it likely been many years since her immigration to Moab, she nevertheless decided to return to Israel.

When they heard her plans, Orpah and Ruth,  volunteered to accompany her.  No kidding.  Two Moabite, young women were willing to leave their biological families and follow their mother-in-law to an unknown country.

Wow. Just wow.

That Naomi must have been quite a lady.

Orpah and Ruth’s willingness to follow their mother-in-law suggests that Naomi loved them as her own.  Believe me, no daughter-in-law would leave her country and family to follow a mother-in-law with a biting, critical tongue.

Undoubtedly,Naomi had loved with all her heart.  While living in Moab, she had obviously demonstrated grace, kindness, optimism and selfless compassion. Ruth and Orpah’s love for her testifies of her goodness.

Of course, Naomi wasn’t perfect.  But she was the real deal.  If anyone understood that, Orpah and Ruth did; so, they packed their suitcases.

At first,  Naomi simply responded with humble gratitude.  Their company comforted her as she made her way home.  Yet, as the three women approached Moab’s border, Naomi considered the long-term ramifications of their decision.

Unselfish, she could not allow her beloved daughters-in-law to sacrifice their futures for her present comfort.

For this reason, she leveled with Orpah and Ruth.  While Naomi trusted God, she certainly didn’t view life through an unrealistic or dreamy-eyed haze.

Naomi didn’t hide the truth nor did she simply hint of the difficulties awaiting the young women in Israel.  Both authentic and brave, Naomi put it all on the table.

She said, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house.  May the LORD deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me,” (Ruth 1:8).

At first both Orpah and Ruth objected.  Naomi, however, was adamant. It would be nearly impossible for the two young women to remarry in Israel.  Prejudice against Moabites ran high.

Ultimately, Orpah acknowledged Naomi’s arguments, and turned back to her biological family’s home.

Ruth, however,  stood her ground.  God’s loving-kindness, demonstrated by His beloved child Naomi, had transformed Ruth’s life.   Ruth valued God’s grace above all.

Her choice answered the apostle Paul’s question in Romans 2:4, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?”

Cheers (brighter), copyright 2015, L. Abbott with watermarkGrace wins hearts.

When loving-kindness gently takes up residence in Moab,  Abba’s light quietly transforms the dusty spaces in people’s lives.

Complaining and criticizing fail.  Pious lectures fall flat.  But grace captivates.

Without a doubt, there are times when, because of our love for others, we must step out of our comfort zones.  And we find ourselves in “Moab.”

Naomi’s faithfulness blossomed fully that day on the road home.

Sure, Orpah turned back.  And Naomi gently pressed Ruth to do the same.

“Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return after your sister-in-law,” Naomi said.

But Abba’s gentle goodness embraced a young Moabitess.  Grace triumphed.  Authentic, godly love resonated.

Like so many of us, Ruth longed for authentic community. And Naomi lived it.

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name/And they’re always glad you came/You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same…

Ruth looked for more than Moab’s economic security could offer.  Despite her mother-in-law’s selfless protests, Ruth chose to walk with grace-filled Naomi through gut-wrenching, grief.

Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge.  Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God,” (Ruth 1:16).

Clearly, Naomi walked gently alongside those that Abba loved.  She probably wouldn’t have chosen Moab; yet, once there, she shared Abba’s love and grace.

Naomi obviously knew that God’s loving-kindness draws people to Him, (Romans 2:4; 1 John 4:19). Cheers (brighter), copyright 2015, L. Abbott with watermark

As I reflect on Naomi’s life, I find that like Ruth I long to better know our Savior’s grace.  I want His love to shine through me while I pass through “Moab.”  After all, without love, I am a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” (I Corinthians 13:1).

John encourages, “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth,” (I John 3:18).

And James challenges my comfort zone, “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘God in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” (James 2:15-16).

Moab isn’t home.  Nor is it always pleasant. Yet, as we faithfully extend His grace to all, Abba illuminates lives.

Indeed, because of Naomi, Ruth found that place where everyone knows your name/ And they’re always glad you came…

Exactly.

Abba’s family may not be perfect, but it’s real.

And if any doubt about the transforming power of God’s grace still remains, one brief read of Christ’s genealogy settles it.  Yup, Ruth made that all-star list.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law,” ~Galatians 5:22-23