We are all familiar with picture graphs. Imagine if our life experiences were mapped out, as individual graphs, plotting the mountain top highs, the valley lows, and the static flat lines of the days of our lives. Would it then matter how accomplished we are, how educated we are, how much wealth we have acquired, how privileged or positioned we are? Would the plot lines changed based on these elements or would we have much more in common because, as the daughters of God, the changes we all go through in life, especially as women, are more about our common humanity than anything else that affects us?
Case in point: Perhaps one of the most iconic and accomplished women of the globe just made the following revelatory comments about the state of her own emotional health: “There have been periods throughout this quarantine where I just have felt too low,” Mrs. Obama said, adding that her sleep was off. “You know, I’ve gone through those emotional highs and lows that I think everybody feels, where you just don’t feel yourself.” I know that I am dealing with some form of low-grade depression,” she added. “Not just because of the quarantine, but because of the racial strife, and just seeing this administration, watching the hypocrisy of it, day in and day out, is dispiriting.”
It is notable that Michelle Obama chose the word, “dispiriting.” This word literally means: “tending to lower the spirit or enthusiasm; depressing, discouraging.” As we acknowledge the indisputable fact that First Lady Obama has more options, more resources, and more privilege and power than any one of us can hope for, she too has confessed that the “Selah” moment of our current common state is like a sustained low, flat song for all of us, including her.
So, what do we say to these things? How are we suppose to move through this current state of affairs to come out on the other side sane, secure, and whole? Once more, we can open the pages of our bible to see that there is NOTHING new under the sun. God has the answers for us and it comes to us by way of our sister, “Mara.” Emphatically, she demonstrates to us, the contemporary daughters of the Most High God that: “Every woman has a story AND every woman’s story matters to God!”
Definition of “Selah” (occurs in Scripture 73 times, mostly in the Book of Psalms)
“The word “Selah” is mysterious at best, found mainly in the Psalms of the Torah and a few other places in the Bible. Its use in the Psalms may indicate a musical interlude. It has been translated [from Hebrew] to mean “to pause” or “to stop and listen” or “to give attention to something heard.” For us “Selah” represents the space between words, the heart of silence, the space for contemplation.
It is a simple and sacred word that invites us to pause and ponder.” (https://selahcenter.org)
And now, THE WORD from Our Sponsor…………….. (Ruth, Chapter 1: 19-22 – NAB)
“So they went on together till they reached Bethlehem. On their arrival there, the whole city was astir over them, and the women asked, “Can this be Naomi?” But she said to them, “Do not call me Naomi. Call me Mara, for the Almighty has made it very bitter for me. I went away with an abundance, but the Lord has brought me back destitute. Why should you call me Naomi, since the Lord has pronounced against me and the Almighty has brought evil upon me?”
We have studied the story of Ruth and Naomi before; however, we will look at this narrative from a completely different perspective. The book of Ruth traces the sojourn of primarily two women, who are not blood relatives, but their partnership is so profound, moving, and emotional, the words Ruth uttered to her mother-in-law, after Naomi advised are daughters-in-law to go back to their homes, are often used in marriage ceremonies: “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you for wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge, and your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Wherever you die I will die, and there be buried.” This heartfelt declaration from Ruth signals the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship that was so much more meaning than their initial connection by way of marriage.
At this point in the story, what the reader has yet to glean, as we move through the text, is the creative redemption process of God at work in the narrative. The harsh reality of survival of these two and the nature of the pandemic- like famine that drives them back to Bethlehem, as two starving, destitute women, and the lack of male agency for support, is a distraction from what God was doing behind the scenes for Naomi and Ruth. Well before the end of the story, Ruth echoes God’s redemptive intent for the pair: “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you for wherever you go I will go [with you]. The pair, working their way through a pandemic, cannot see the hand of God in their lives, until the blessings are fully manifested; but, God was always there. As the audience, we are acutely aware of God in their story, or are we?
The story informs us that when Ruth and Naomi reach Bethlehem (the birthplace of Naomi) the women of the town come to greet her: “Can this be Naomi?” they inquire of each other.
And then scripture records: “Do not call me Naomi. Call me Mara, for the Almighty has made it bitter for me.”
Here, for Mara, Ruth is strictly an afterthought. We are not even certain Mara introduces Ruth to the Bethlehem greeting party. Ruth temporarily becomes wallpaper in the narrative, as “Mara” presents a bitter diatribe to her female audience about her circumstances.
Naomi in Hebrew means “pleasant or sweet.” Mara in Hebrew means “bitter.”
IT BEGINS WITH INNER DIALOGUE – BUT IT MAY NOT BE WHAT WE THINK
The tragic circumstances of Naomi’s life has made her “bitter.” She was caught up in her grief and to add insult to injury, she and Ruth were engaged in the fight of survival. Famine was in the territory and the reality of their circumstances was dire. What was there to be happy about? Mara refused to hide behind a veil of denial to save face. “Be real” her inner voice told her. “Tell the whole truth!” “Girl, you are suffering from low-grade depression. Your new name is Mara!”
While Mara may come across as a rather an unattractive figure in the story, there is something admirable about her directness. Mara faced her circumstances head on. Mara ACT [ed]! – Acknowledges/ Admits – Confesses/ – Transitions/Transforms
First, Mara ADMITS AND ACKNOWLEGES HER CIRCUMSTANCES.
We might say, “Mara was in her feelings,” but her feelings were real and valid. The admittance of her “low grade depression” allowed Mara to identify her authentic feelings, unpack the emotions of grief, depression, confusion, and anger (towards God) and deal truthfully with her situation. While Naomi might have sweetened the tea for the crowd, and put on a “pleasant” face, Mara presented the truth regardless of how it played to the women who came to meet and greet her.
Secondly, Mara CONFESSES HER EMOTIONAL STATE
Mara said to the crowd: “The Almighty has made it bitter for me.” She openly confessed her anger and confusion against The Almighty. Her frank statements about her feelings for God may cause us to shutter: “The Lord has pronounced evil upon me.” Whether we agree with Mara or not is secondary. Her courage to shake her fist at God, at first glance, seems borderline disrespectful, even slightly blasphemous; BUT, here is the real deal: GOD CAN HANDLE OUR ANGER. The Bible says: “Because I kept silences, my bones waxed old, from my crying all the day long.” (Psalms 32:3) Mara groans and moans to the gathering formed a communal confession. “I am angry with God,” she seemed to say. “God has forsaken me – God has left me.” How human is this? Jesus uttered the same thing on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken (forgotten) me? (Psalm 22:1). We have heard it said that “confession is good for the soul” and it is.
Here’s what Pastor Richard Foster (author of “Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth” ) says about confession: “Confession is both private and communal. It is a wonderful truth that the individual can break through into new life through the cross without the aid of any human mediator; but, if we have not experienced release from the sins and sorrows of the past by means of private confession, we have not exhausted our resources, nor God’s grace.”
As Protestant Christians, communal and even private confession is often foreign to us. We are taught to mistrust confession to any individual except God. Oftentimes this religious admonition keeps us stuck in a place of denial and self-deception. Our spiritual density and growth is stunted because we will not “confess with our mouths.” While Mara seems embittered, her willingness to work both sides of the spiritual discipline of confession (giving her confession and allowing the community to hear it), helps her to move beyond her pain, grief, and anger towards her situation and towards God.
Lastly, Mara (“bitter) TRANSITIONS and ultimately TRANSFORMS back to Naomi (“pleasant”).
“Nobody told me the road would be easy, I can’t believe He brought me this far to leave me.” This great hymn of the Church demonstrates the road to redemption is never an easy one. Ultimately, the story of Ruth and Naomi is about redemption. Both women are redeemed, yet, despite Ruth’s pagan background (she is a Moabite), Naomi was most in need of redemption. Mara lost her way, but God’s creative redemption finds her and shows her the way back to The Almighty. The means by which God accomplishes the action for Mara seems profoundly painful and inexplicably unnecessary to us. However, “God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.” This is the quintessential definition of theodicy. (Why bad things happen to good people and the mysterious nature of God’s involvement in the process).
The irony is apparent. Ruth represents, in the the text, the faithfulness of God. Ruth is the change agent whose devotion and love for Mara/Naomi reflects God’s faithfulness to God’s children.
Mara, once a bitter sour patch, has found her sweetness again. Mara slowly transitions, as she stretches to help Ruth navigate her way through the cultural maze of Bethlehem to find and marry Boaz. There is a sacred interconnectivity that ensures Ruth and Naomi’s survival. Their dependency and support of one another is like a good marriage. It teaches us, the audience, that partnership does not only rest upon male to female relationships; but, feminine friendship is lasting and godly as well. As we watch Mara transform back into Naomi, the women of Bethlehem remind us of God’s creative redemption once again: “Blessed is the Lord…..” they say. “Ruth is worth more to you than seven sons!”
Mara makes peace with her inner dialogue and her past. In blessing Ruth, she blesses herself and her community. The full circle moment arrives, as we know that from the line of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz comes the blessed son-descendant, Jesus, who will save us all.
Praise God for grace, redemption, and love. To God be the Glory! Amen.
Questions for our discussion and consideration:
Have you ever had an alter ego? How has it helped or hurt you? Explain.
Do you use confession as a spiritual discipline? If so, how do you use it? (Remember -Confession is connected to repentance).
How did Mara reconcile herself to God’s creative redemption process in her life, even though it was painful? How can we?
Jesus, I hear You calling me. Lord, I feel You loving me. I understand and acknowledge Your sacrifice for me.
I surrender my entire self to You and ask for Your forgiveness. I confess humbly that I am self-indulgent, self-centered, and selfish. Help me to make You, Oh Jesus, the center of my life instead of myself.
I confess my sinful nature, my disobedience, and my stubborn ways. Assist me to be Your servant, instead of serving myself.
Heal and transform me from who I am to whom You desire me to be, and I will give You the praise and glory Your name is due.
In the matchless name of our Christ, we pray. Amen
(excerpted from “A Prayer for Redemption – Marydonagh)
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