How to Live After “Happily Ever After” (Sermon Notes)
This is the eleventh sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.” It was delivered by Leah Archibald, blogger, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on November 22, 2015. This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.
Steve asked me to speak today because he was interested in a blog post I wrote a few months ago. In my full-time life I'm a mom of three boys, but sometimes in the fifteen minutes before the baby wakes up I blog about things I'm thinking about, and I recently wrote a blog post titled: "What happens AFTER you get everything you want?"
Here's an extract from that blog post:
We have been running a free summer camp at our home this summer. It is lovely. The children are doing great. They are learning new skills, testing their physical limits, and improving their hand-eye-coordination. They are growing in bravery, growing their friendships, and problem solving all sorts of mechanical and social situations. The adults who stay and sit on our lawn drinking coffee get an informal support group where they feel immediately understood when they share about just how all-encompassing difficult this time of life is.
This is the closest to "living out a calling" that I've ever experienced. People come to my house, and I find a way to fulfill a deep need that's been eating them up inside. Also I get to serve them food, which fulfills the Jewish mother part of me. We are living the panacea — giving ourselves to others and seeing positive results.
Also, quite often I'm really miserable.
The moment a child smiles at me with eyes all lit up because because something clicked in her brain and she finally "got" basket weaving? That's moment is immediately followed by someone crying because they poked their finger with the basket tool, and then I have to run and get the Band-Aids, and right on the heals of that get snack because everything feels better with a muffin in front of them. And just when everyone is happy again I'm in the kitchen face to face with a stack of dishes two feet high and, let's be honest, the breakfast dishes I didn't clean while I was prepping baskets and the muffin tins to boot, or if the kids cooked snack themselves there's the ENTIRE KITCHEN that needs scrubbing.
So I ask myself: What happens when you find yourself living the life you wanted and it kind of stinks?"
I'll back up and give you some context for this story. I have for a while now felt that my specific calling, or what I'm most suited to and interested in doing in this stage in my life, is running home-based learning activities that involve other kids and families. So when my husband came to me to years ago and said, "This is what we're doing this summer, we're going to run a summer camp! At our house! And it's gonna be free!" I wasn't like, "Are you a crazy person? We just had a baby." I was like "YES!" Because why? I don't know. Every fiber of my being just kind of welled up into a YES. A completely naive but completely authentic yes.
So then we made it happen! Kids came to our summer camp! This crazy idea of ours really worked! And it was awesome!
Also, some aspects of it really sucked! This summer I was frequently frustrated by dishes, by irritated neighbors, and by unhappy campers.
Okay, so, what do we do after we get to live our dream?
I think there are some unlikely answers in this book of the bible called Ruth. Ruth was a non-Jewish woman who lived at a rather chaotic and frightening time in ancient Jewish history. This was during the time when Judges ruled, there was no king and not really any rule of law. Jews lived in clan groups that were fighting each other and also fighting their non-Jewish neighbors. There was very little security anywhere, and there was famine to boot! So, this is the time that Ruth lives in.
Ruth is a Moabite, she lives in the land of Moab, and she marries a Jewish man who came to live in Moab because of famine in Judah, his hometown. Ruth and her husband are married about ten years, and then her husband dies. Around the same time her husband's brother also dies, and her father-in-law was already dead so there were suddenly no men in her family. Which was a big problem for Ruth, because there was no man to support her. She's had her sister-in-law who is Moabite, and her mother-in-law named Naomi who is Jewish, and what looks like a life of poverty in front of her.
So, stinks to be Ruth at this point in the story, but don't worry Ruth's mother-in-law Naomi has a plan. Naomi hears that the famine in the land of Judah has ended, and she figures it's her best bet to return there to her relatives. So the bible says,
Naomi and her daughters-in-law got ready to leave Moab to return to her homeland. With her two daughters-in-law she set out from the place where she had been living, and they took the road that would lead them back to Judah. - Ruth 1:6-7
But then on the road, Ruth gets a change up of plans forced onto her! The story continues,
But on the way, Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back to your mothers’ homes. And may the Lord reward you for your kindness to your husbands and to me. May the Lord bless you with the security of another marriage.” Then she kissed them good-bye, and they all broke down and wept. - Ruth 1:8-9
I don't... Okay, so don't raise your hand, but does anyone here have trouble communicating with their mother-in-law? Like this offends me deeply. Why didn't Naomi say that BEFORE they all started walking? Like while they were packing up their stuff, maybe she could have said something like, "Hey these dishes are going to Judah, these linens are for you when you go back to your mothers' houses." No, Naomi waited until they were on the road together. To be extra crushingly dramatic. If I were one of Naomi's daughters in law I would have been deeply hurt by this turn-around. And indeed, Orpah leaves to go home to parents home in Moab. But Ruth refuses. I'm picking back up at verse 16 here:
But Ruth replied, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. - Ruth 1:16-17
Why does Ruth say this? To me it seems that Ruth makes a wild promise that defies all logic. Her husband dies, her mother-in-law tries to kick her to the curb, and she's like, "Nah, I'm still sticking with this lady who's trying to shake me off and this God who oversaw the death of all the men in my family." And she's not even doing it guardedly, like, "Maybe this trip to Judah is the best option going, even though my mother-in-law is a jerk, maybe i'll have more options in Judah." No, Ruth makes her declaration so completely enthusiastically: "Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!”
Now, running a free summer camp is nothing like walking across the desert carrying all your possessions, but I think Ruth and I have something in common. I think each of us experienced a really profound moment of completely nonsensical "yes."
"Yes! I will do that! I don't know how on earth I'm going to be able to do that, but I'll do that!"
What happens in these moments of extreme yes? These declarations that defy all logic? I would like to argue that these moments of naive yes are in fact God speaking to us, guiding our choices about the future from a deep place within our being, indeed a inner knowledge that defies all logic.
I think we shouldn't ignore these moments, in fact Jesus tells us in particular to look out for them. As we look at this book of Ruth we're also simultaneously taking a look at some of the parables of Jesus, and I see a correlation between this part of Ruth's story and a parable that Jesus tells in a book of the bible called John, it's in your program. Jesus is talking about a sheepfold which is a pen where sheep are kept, and a shepherd.
"Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them - John 10:1-6
So if you don't understand this parable, that's cool, neither did anyone listening to Jesus at the time. Like, what is he talking about? The shepherd of the sheep calls the sheep and they recognize his voice and they come out of the pen. Awesome, now we can all be farmers? No, I think what Jesus is saying in this parable is that insomuch WE are followers of Jesus, dumb sheep-like followers but whatever, WE can recognize his voice when he calls us. And Jesus's voice makes us feel safe and secure, because the shepherd takes care of the sheep, so we'll follow him if he calls us. Like, okay, time to go out of the pen now, here we go.
I think that Jesus's calling actually is this naive yes that Ruth acted on and that I acted on. Like, "I don't know how this exactly will play out, but YES!" It can't come from a place of reason, it has to come from a prompting from God.
Okay, so what next. Here's Ruth, she's been insulted by her mother-in-law, but she's still "YES," because God's voice from deep within her is calling her to be part of his story. You know, Ruth wasn't a Jew to start out, she had other Gods in her culture, but from some calling deep inside of her she wants to ally herself with the God of Israel. "Your God will be my God," she says. I don't think this was a mistake. Or like deity envy, your God is bigger than my God. I think God himself had a plan for Ruth, a plan to make her important within the history of the Jewish people. Even at this moment when she was a marginal figure, kicked to the curb by life circumstances, insulted by her mother-in-law, God had a plan to make Ruth really important. That's why He called her and made her say Yes.
Okay, so then Ruth and Naomi have to walk to Bethlehem in Judah. That takes some time. We don't know if Ruth had any doubts on the journey, the book doesn't say. Then they get to Bethlehem and everyone recognized Naomi! And Naomi says, "I return to you my friends, with Ruth, the only kind loyal woman in Moab! Look at how wonderful she has been to me! Reward her for her steadfast love for me and my family!' Haha, no just kidding, she doesn't do that, she verbally abuses Ruth again! Naomi says, "I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty" (Ruth 1:21).
Now, if I were Ruth in this situation, I'd be thinking, "What happens when you get your dream and everything stinks?" So, the bible was written in a pre-Freudian era so we don't get a lot of explanation about the characters inner worlds, but in my imagining Ruth's great dream is to be a Jew. In my own version of the story, Ruth really wants God to be her God. She wants to be knit into the fabric of the Jewish story, into the story of God's beloved people. So Ruth making this bold declaration, saying, "Your God will be my God" and then going to Bethlehem, the home of the Jewish people, which she says, "this will be my home," she's like living her dream. And what happens? She gets to Bethlehem and Naomi insults her. Calls her a nothing. And then they're living in bitter poverty.
What do you do, Ruth, when you get the life you wanted and it stinks?
Here's what Ruth does. She keeps going. I'll continue with the story, this is on your program:
One day Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go out into the harvest fields to pick up the stalks of grain left behind by anyone who is kind enough to let me do it." - Ruth 2:2
Ruth was a go-getter! She wasn't like me staring into a pile of dirty dishes wondering, "What did I get myself into?" She was all, "Okay, what next? How can I make this work?" You know, not to bring a contested political figure into this conversation, but years ago when I was getting my MBA I read this book called, "Getting to Yes" and it had in it this anecdote about Donald Trump. Who, you might have opinions about him either way politically speaking, but we can maybe agree that he was good at the central work of his life which is making business deals. So anyway, in this book it said that before Donald Trump signs a deal he weighs all the pros and cons, looks into it really carefully, evaluates all the angles. And then after Donald Trump signs a deal, he's all in 100% trying to make that venture a success. Everything he does after the point of signing is only in service of making that venture successful. He doesn't second guess himself once he's said Yes. So, okay, for what it's worth Ruth is a bit like Donald Trump. She's been dragged across the desert, verbally rejected, cast into poverty, and she's like, "Okay, what next? How can we make this thing work?" She's a go-getter.
Now, I'm not going to read through the whole story because there are other sermons in this series that'll do that, and also because I have too many snide comments I'd have to make. So what happens to Ruth in the end? I'll spoil the ending by saying that Ruth's dream actually works out for her. She ends up working in the fields of this man named Boaz, he's kind of an upstanding guy, he ends up marrying Ruth. And Ruth in the end becomes the great grandmother of the most respected Jew in all of Jewish history, King David.
So, I'm gonna skip over the courtship part of the story because I'm old and married, but I want to read the last three sentences from the book of Ruth. So from being destitute and having no husband, Ruth marries Boaz, and the end of her book says, "Boaz was the father of Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse. Jesse was the father of David" (Ruth 4:21-22).
For the old testament, this is like saying, "Ruth, you win." You went from being an outsider to the Jewish people, to being the most important woman of your time, because you were in the direct lineage of the most important Jew in the ancient Jewish story, king David. You did it Ruth, you get your dream.
So here are some take-aways from the story of Ruth.
1) Pay attention to your naive or inspired Yes.
God might have a plan for that! I imagine Ruth had this longing to be a part of the Jewish people, really and truly, not a blight on her mother-in-law's reputation but the pride of her extended Jewish family. And God was keen on that plan too, I believe he gave Ruth this inclination to follow Naomi because that decision would in the end satisfy the longings of both women.
This Ruth who was so cast aside in the beginning of the story, the end of the story has all the townspeople praising her. They sing to Naomi about Ruth's child, "he is the son of your daughter-in-law who loves you and has been better to you than seven sons!" And Naomi in the end is happy too. The story says,
Naomi took the baby and cuddled him to her breast. And she cared for him as if he were her own. The neighbor women said, “Now at last Naomi has a son again!” - Ruth 4:16-17
So it worked out pretty well, even though Ruth's decision to follow Naomi seemed kind of naive at the time.
I'm not saying always be impulsive, but I'm saying: Pay attention to your naive or inspired Yes. It might be God calling you, in the same way that Jesus says that he calls to the sheep. If you recognize the voice, if it inspires in you peace and hope and security and profound YES, then there's a good chance it's a message from God.
Okay, so what happens when you've said Yes to something and it kind of stinks? You're walking across the desert with your dramatic mother in law who's all, "Call me Bitter, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me!" What does Ruth do when things don't look like her Yes is getting her anywhere good?
2) Be a go-getter! Do one simple thing in front of you.
Ruth doesn't sit in despair as much as she actively looks for her next steps. She goes and gleans in a field to get some food.
I don't think here she was planning her whole life trajectory, like, "First I'll get food here, then I'll get this guy to notice me, then we'll get married and then I'll be rich and like really really Jewish." I think she was just literally looking for the NEXT step, the next single step she should take, in this case to feed herself. And God takes that and makes it work out. So be a go-getter! Even if it's a very small positive step.
For me when I was in despair about our camp situation, like "How can I make all these people happy and repair this house and get this mess under control?" Like, not to get too graphic, but these kids peed all over everything! And I have three boys 6 and under, and THEY pee all over everything. We were doing a homeschool experiment the other day and we had all these different materials in the kiddie pool like, "What makes things float?" And my middle son just takes off his clothes and hops into the kiddie pool and pees all over our experiment. Like, "Here's what makes things float, mom! My pee!" So, sometimes it can feel like life is just peeing on you. Even if you've said yes and that yes was inspired by God, life can just, metaphorically or literally, be really pee-pee. So what do you do? Like Ruth you can be a go-getter and look to your single next move.
In the camp situation, it helped me to focus on just one thing in front of me. Like focus on the one kid who was talking to me at the moment. And really pay attention to what was being asked of me in that one interaction. Not what was needed from me in my whole life, but just what was needed in that one interaction in front of me. What does this kid want? he wants a Band-Aid? Okay, I'll get him a Band-Aid, and really pay attention to him while I'm applying that Band-Aid. The pee-soaked bathroom can wait another minute. Often that was all that I was being asked to give, my attention. Kids are pretty simple like that, they often just want you to look in their eyes and demonstrate that you see them.
And not to get too metaphorical here, but I think we adults need that too. Ruth really wanted God to see her. She wanted to be part of the people He loved. And that's true of me, too, that's why I blog, because I want to be seen by other people. I want to not be invisible. I think the story of Ruth and Jesus' parable have good news for us in this regard. Both stories scream to me, "God sees you! God hears your dreams, even the ones in your inmost heart, He is paying attention to them. It's going to be okay."
3) Let God play a long game
So for me, the problem with reaching my dream of running a free summer camp is that I'm still the same person when I get to that dream. Like, I'm generally kind of aggrieved at the burden of housework, so getting my dream life does not make me less aggrieved about doing housework.
When Ruth said Yes to being a Jew, she said, "Your God will be my God." So, she like was a Jew from that moment in a way, she made a vow. But in the eyes of those around her, she didn't actually get to be a Jew for a while. When she got to Bethlehem people still called her "Ruth the Moabitess." Eventually she did get to be knit into the story of the Jewish people, she got to be the great-grandmother of King David. But it took a long time. So Let God play a long game.
God really answering our inmost desires takes a little time.
Here's more of what I wrote in that original blog post:
"It's not that God didn't come through for me. He sure came through- he gave us what we wanted. He just didn't change the entire world underneath me while he was at it. He gave me my dreams and made them a reality. It's just that now I have to live out my dreams in the context of reality. And reality tends to be chaotic and frustrating. There are dishes. Kids need to eat 5 times a day, and so do I actually, and if I don't I get really cranky. Sometimes other people, the people who I am so sure God is asking me to help or to share my life with? Sometimes these people are annoying. And then there's the weather."
This is what my friend Abigail called, "The pervasiveness of reality."
Brian and Abigail McMurray came and helped out at our summer camp one day. Abigail helped a camper weave a basket after learning how to do it herself like 30 seconds before. And Brian helped a group of rambunctious boys dig potatoes out of our garden. Or maybe he just kind of watched them dig potatoes out of the garden, he didn't come back nearly as filthy as the kids did. Anyway, Abigail and Brian are both living out some pretty cool dreams career wise. Abigail recently left a job that didn't feel right and ventured into the unknown of starting her own business, and she said something very incisive. She said, "I'm coming to terms with the pervasiveness of reality."
Sometimes, when we imagine our dreams we imagine either a different person living them or a different world they're lived out in. But God wants to give your dreams to YOU, and in THIS world that we're living in. That's why Jesus said, "The sheep know my voice." He's actually present in our reality leading us into the next step in front of us. He's not only present in some fictitious future time like, "When I get my act together I'm gonna be able to know Jesus."
Okay, so, if I want God to transform me into someone who is calmer about mess or more patient with children, I have to let him play a long game.