Renewed with Fresh Purpose

It happens not infrequently—as I ring the bell for The Salvation Army at Christmastime, someone approaches the iconic Red Kettle with a recognizable humility. They mine their billfold for money and gladly tuck a gift of gratitude into the slot, and with a long-ago look of fond recollection, they say something like this: “I remember when I was a child and our family was in tough times, The Salvation Army was there for us.” Healing acts of kindness change us—though we remember the isolating pain of emptiness, it is the Christlike character and care of others that fill us, sustain us and send us down a new path of fresh purpose.

Overwhelmed by the death of her husband and two sons, Naomi had tried to send her daughters-in-law away: “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me?”1 One did return to her people, but Ruth remained, true to the noble character for which she would become known—loyal, respectful, compassionate, practical and industrious—a reputation reaching people’s ears even before her visage met their eyes. Said Boaz to Ruth upon their first encounter, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before.”2 He saw to it, then, that she would be protected and honored in his fields as she picked the sheaves the harvesters left behind. Her kindness kindled his own, though neither had an inkling where this shared trait might take them.

But Naomi did! Boaz was a relative of her late husband, and under Jewish law, he could “redeem” Ruth from a life of want and emptiness by marrying her. And Naomi knew it. Raison d’être! Fresh purpose! Step aside, I got this! “My daughter,” said the elder to the younger, “should I not try to find a home for you, where you will be well provided for? Is not Boaz … a kinsman of ours? … Wash and perfume yourself, and put on your best clothes. Then go down to the …”3 Ruth had been all about Naomi, and now the reawakening Naomi would be all about Ruth.

God “comforts the downcast.”4 He “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves had received from God.”5 Then even our mourning has meaning, growing us into a people who give comfort as only the comforted can give. And so sculpted into the character of Christ, we go forward with fresh purpose—to be there for others in their troubles. They are all around us, hoping.

Father, thank you for those who comfort us—we need them. Heal us in our hurt, and send us to others as conduits of your healing and hope. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.

1 Ruth 1:11
2 Ruth 2:11
3 Ruth 3:1-3
4 2 Corinthians 7:6
5 2 Corinthians 1:4

Night Lights

We were visiting at the kitchen table when my mother shared with me a pattern she’d observed from her own grief experiences and those of others. “When we lose someone we love, there is usually a strong support network for about three months,” she said. “People call, stop by, bring food—and after three months, they think things are better, so they resume life as normal. But things are not OK; we’re still hurting, and now we’re hurting alone.” Mom continued, “I’ve learned to wait three months and then step in to offer help when one’s support is beginning to fade.” The candle of care, lit by others, still flickers soft rays of hope.

It is hard to imagine the darkness of the widow’s anger or the depth of her pain. “Don’t call me Naomi [pleasant],” she said. “Call me Mara [bitter],” because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.”1 Heap more hurt on me. Call me “bitter” whenever you look upon me. Remind me what God has done to me and who He has made me to be—bitter. What can one possibly say to heal invisible wounds of unknown dimensions? Whose words are wise enough? Writes Solomon, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.”2

Consider then the heart and wisdom of Ruth, widowed herself and at a young age. To her grieving mother-in-law, she offered not Band-Aids of bromides, but the kindness of commitment—perhaps the only words Naomi could absorb. “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.”3 I am with you. With actions of integrity, then, Ruth provided for the two of them by humble means—“Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.”4 “Go ahead, my daughter”—Naomi’s heart, healing.

Blessed are those who refuse to let our bitterness and pain overcome us, who reconcile us to hope when we are wary of hope. Awesome are they who sacrifice their life to save ours with a love that transforms us and a grace that sustains us to a new day of renewed purpose. When the time comes, may we, too, be committed to care, bearing another’s burden with the sacrifice of self.

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2).

Father, thank you so much for those who have sustained me through the darkest moments of life. They are a gift. Grace me to be as faithful when I am called to do the same. Amen.

1 Ruth 1:20
2 Proverbs 25:20
3 Ruth 1:16, 17
4 Ruth 2:2

The Good in Grief

My son recently asked me, “Why do you work out as much as you do?” “So I can do the things I do at my age,” I replied. Later, the real reason returned to mind—I began a regimen decades ago, determined to spare my family from the bitter agony of loss. My own father had died suddenly and prematurely, leaving his young family emptied of his presence, insecure without his provision, and longing for his love. How could I let my wife and son experience such pain? I would stay fit and ask God for long life.

The Old Testament book of Ruth is a beautiful (and brilliantly written) short story of redemption, the rescue from loss and restoration to fullness at great cost borne by another. Yet the account is every bit as vivid a depiction of inner transformation, in this case that of Naomi, the mother-in-law to Ruth, by way of the painful path that wends through grief. Losing her husband and two sons had rendered Naomi bitter and blaming: “the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.”1 We’ve been there ourselves, and we’ve stood beside many Naomi’s in our life, speaking the kind words of silent presence.

Yet in His sovereignty, God commands even death to serve His good purposes for our life, for grief brings us to an unavoidable encounter with real thoughts and deep feelings now exposed before us. We appreciate more fully the unique beauty of those now gone, though frustrated in our inability to proclaim it in their presence. Left behind, we carry the heavy load of unresolved guilt, or we lay it before God in the cleansing power of confession. We find our love was stronger than we had known, and perhaps our hurts deeper. We draw nearer to God in reliance on Him, or we distance ourselves in resentment. And in the clarity of loss, God is there, meeting us wherever we are, eager to embrace, patient to wait, and faithful to heal.

The apostle Paul wrote that “suffering [leads to] perseverance … character … and hope,”2 and it is in the context of suffering that he penned the familiar verse, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”3 But these are words more apt for another day. For now, Naomi sobs, she questions; survival is aspiration enough. And though we will not say today what she cannot hear today, we know it to be true—that God is at work in her even now, commanding her pain to work for her good.

Father, there is no sting worse than death; sustain us in our grief. Strengthen us to persevere, command our pain to build our character, and sustain us in the sure and certain hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord. In his name, we pray. Amen.

1 Ruth 1:20, 21
2 Romans 5:3, 4
3 Romans 8:28