There are ghosts in our readings for today. You may not see them; they may not look like those young sprites wearing all manner of sheets who drift through our darkened Halloween streets requesting candy. In fact, you might not immediately recognize them as such, but they are there. They lurk around the edges of this passage, asking you and me, “What will become of you?” and “What will become of us?”
When you are left with uncomfortable choices that leave you fewer options than you first imagined, what will you do? How do you respond to those voices in your head? No one welcomes hardship, fractured connections, displacement, or disorientation. Yet this is exactly what happens in life when some proverbial and powerful foot drops somewhere out there and questions that would have never seen the light of day suddenly take specter-form in here, right before your eyes, and cause your senses and your flight instinct to go into overdrive.
Ghosts show up unbidden when hardship comes, when life doesn’t work out according to someone else’s plan or even your own, or nascent dreams appear to die before they can break ground or root themselves before the cold of winter. Ghostly voices that begin to speak in our ears and whisper urgency and fear and all manner of issues. They question, “Where will you go?”;
“Who will you be?” and,
“What will you do?” in close succession.
There are ghosts in this story—the returning thoughts and ruminations that haunt and disorient the not-so-recently widowed Naomi. For it has been ten years. Ten years have passed since her husband died and then, just like that (snap fingers), the grim reaper takes both of her sons in another cruel twist of fate. Ghosts of what the future could have been stand in polite formation while Naomi re-names herself, “Bitter.” She is so unrecognizable that her friends ask, not unkindly, “Is this really our Naomi and after all this time?”
Ten years is a long time and yet, it isn’t really, not when a loved one is gone from sight and daily experience, while the ghosts of “could have, would have, and should have” are brewing something nearby. Just when Naomi may have been getting her legs under her, now her two grown sons have died, leaving their wives and Naomi bereft not only of emotional support, but of social security as well as protection. They had been a heavenly bulwark against the whims of nature, these sons and husband. Now, Naomi is a female Job, having lost everything—and yet, she does not have the luxury to wait for God in his whirlwind to deign reply.
So, she befriends these ghosts and their questions, but becomes bitter in the process. The two daughters-in-law who are newly grieving seemingly cannot offer reliable support, precisely because they have their own griefs to bear. Unless…unless, well, God and the Holy Ghost show up somehow.
The other day, my kids and I – in a fit of Halloween fun—watched Beetlejuice for the first time, a movie that is now – can you believe it?!? – 33 years old, having hit our American screens in 1988. I had just graduated high school, was living in Sweden, and missed the release. The film is about a newly deceased couple who are ghosts trying to rid their former house of the new and very much alive and obnoxious family who have moved in and taken over the place. No matter what they do, they don’t and can’t seem to frighten the new owners.
Yet, rarely are our ghosts the friendly kind like Caspar, or the friendly deceased couple of Beetlejuice fame. More often, they take the form of long-ago grudges, parents or significant others who were overly critical of our choices, well-meaning friends who may have warned us of potential consequences, or adversaries who are long-gone, moved on, or out of the picture, but not out of our heads.
Do you know the ghostly voices that I mean? The voices that tell you to go one direction and not another; the voices that whisper “if only you had done X, Y, or Z”; the shadows that sweep over your occasional joys only to unlock a window to regret and lamentation.
Imagine for a moment the ghosts with which Naomi had to contend and sheer force of will she had to muster to return to her former home after all these years. Imagine the looks of the villagers, the gossip at the town well, and the looks of those whose eyes felt pity, but not empathy.
Then imagine the courage of Naomi – the self-described bitter one—to actually send away her daughters-in-law to their own families, knowing that they would be well-cared for, that their chances to marry and to bear children and to form a second life had not yet withered away, unlike hers. One daughter-in-law flees; the other stays. Both suffer the consequences of uncomfortable choices with not much wiggle room for error.
And yet, Ruth stays with this bitter woman, this bitter Naomi. Ruth who is presently undone from losing her husband finds a common bond with her mother-in-law and ignores the ghosts of the past who would frighten her with an empty future and a wasteland of despair. Ruth binds herself to Naomi and, all through the ages, echoes of her commitment strike a louder and more promising chord then the ghosts who say, “turn back.”
Ruth is a foreigner. Ruth is the one that married into the family, into the faith, and into the misery. Ruth has every reason to return to her own people, her people’s gods, and a measure of security. But she does not. The young widow stays with the old one, loving the ghost of Naomi back into life.
Yesterday, Rev. Aubra Love reminded all of our Potomac Association UCC members and friends that “Our vision is IN our faith.” Speaking of the blind Bartimaeus who stood begging for alms when Jesus walked by, Rev. Love urged all of us to throw off our “beggars’ cloaks” and to truly ask Jesus what we really need and want. While it is a different story from the gospel one, Ruth helps Naomi throw off the cloak of her bitterness simply by being present to her daily needs.
And don’t you know– Ruth will later forage for them both; Ruth will gather a remnant of the harvest, and in her gathering find a way to provide for the both of them to make a new home absent of ghosts. In short, it is Ruth who helps Naomi to see that her options are not really as limited as they seem on first glance. In short, it is Ruth who takes Naomi by the hand in the midst of so many angry ghosts and says, “Where you go, I go; and where you live, I’ll live. Your people are my people, your God is my god; where you die, I’ll die, and not even death itself is going to come between us.”
There is no whirlwind from God to chase away the ghosts that linger around the edges of Naomi’s mind, but there is a greater love that puts those ghosts to bed. There is a love and a covenant that emboldens a younger widow to make, what would seem to be, a rash choice and to throw security to the wind and stick with an old woman who could potentially be reduced to alms in short time. It is God’s love through Ruth that helps Naomi and her people to see and to understand that the foreigner is only foreign when ghosts render us unknown to one another.
I find it interesting that Jesus has to reassure the disciples after his resurrection that he is not a ghost. They are fearful and frantic to make sense of the terror, the seeming destruction of not only their leader, but their movement. And likewise, we can feel as if our church is full of ghosts in these pandemic days and wonder where the live, resurrected Jesus is to be found.
When ghosts speak, it can be hard to focus on resurrection in our midst, whether it takes the form of a church coming to grips with life during Covid, or questions of “Who will we be?” or “Where will we go?” when this pandemic ends.
Take comfort that there are Ruth’s out there—feisty folk who, because they have lost all manner of things along the way, they are no longer focused on things, but rather people. Take comfort that your Jesus is not a ghost, but a presence who helps you to discern between questions that would trip you up, ripping you apart emotionally, and other questions that will build your trust in the present and future. Take comfort that you might be called to be a Ruth for your family, for your friends, and that your willingness to shelter in place with others who are more forlorn than yourself is part of God’s holy hands at work. Take comfort that the reformation that Covid has started will surely be completed by God, and our part is to keep covenant with Her purposes and promises and to nudge it along.
“Your vision is IN your faith,” as Rev. Love has said and that means that we have not been overtaken by malevolent spirits or ghosts that would have us doubt our future based on our past or even this present moment.
For sometimes when we are rightfully bitter like Naomi, we need a Ruth to expand our horizons and options.
And sometimes when we are consumed by grief like Ruth, we need a Naomi to remind us how we are still needed by the living and all the bitter ones, and to remind us of what we can yet become.
And always we need our Shepherd, whose voice we trust, over and above any and all malevolent spirits. We rely on God’s Holy Spirit, who is less ghost than glimmer, less specter than splendor, and whose very presence makes our covenant with others a living expression of love and life.