Sunday, May 26, 2013

Not Empty, But Full

“Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:20-21).

Naomi calls out to God in pain: I have lost everything. I was full, and you have made me empty. I had, and now I do not have.

Before these words, we read the story of Naomi going to Moab with her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Her husband dies, and her two sons take Moabite wives, dying 10 years later themselves. Naomi returns to her own land, and Ruth chooses to go with her. Upon returning, Naomi utters these heartbreaking words: “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty.”

One of the hallmarks of our modern understanding of depression is the recognition of cognitive change: people gripped by depression often cannot and do not see the good in things. Life narratives are re-written under the oppression of darkness to form a trajectory of despair. The person who is depressed cannot remember feeling happy, or idealizes the past as a perfect, unrepeatable time whose wonders have disappeared. The person who is depressed does not see the blessings in their life. This cognitive bias toward perceiving all things through the lens of sadness and worry is typical, and knowing that helps us begin to comprehend why and how people suffering from emotional mental illnesses often do not perceive their own lives with anything approaching reality.

Naomi doesn’t see her life fully and truthfully. She says “I went away full,” and while it’s true that there was a lot of good in her life it’s also true that she and her family were driven from their homes by famine. She was literally not full. Naomi says, “the Lord has brought me back empty,” and it’s true she has lost much. But she is also returning to a people who have been blessed with food (1:6). She is literally returning to be full.

Most importantly, Naomi has not lost her family and received nothing in return. She had gained Ruth. Ruth, who leaves everything behind to journey with her mother-in-law. Ruth, whose love and devotion propel her into the unknown.

Naomi tries to send her daughters-in-law away again and again. She has so many excuses, but probably the most truthful is that she feels cursed by God and they don’t fit into her self-pitying narrative: “it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone forth against me” (1:13; emphasis mine). She hurts and sadness them and tries to send them away, as though the future of a childless widow is any more certain in their homeland than with her. She is wrapped up in her own sadness and grief.

Though Orpah turns aside, Ruth stays, saying, “Entreat me not to leave you or return 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; where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you” (1:16-17). Her profession of love sounds like marriage and covenant. Like covenant, it is profoundly unearned and unearnable, given freely in the binding together of one who loves selflessly and one who needs greatly.

Naomi doesn’t return empty, but she feels she does because she doesn’t see her blessings. She receives Ruth and her devotion silently, without thanks or remark. Like so many swallowed by the darkness, Naomi doesn’t see the good things. It’s true of so many people living with depression: we tend to see our lives as stories of decline, without hope of repair, and we don’t see the blessings we’ve been given because we don’t feel blessed. We have a lot to learn from the story of Naomi and Ruth.

Like Naomi, we’ve lost a lot. Like Naomi, we have a Ruth. Ruth figures the love of God: God Who binds Himself in covenant with us in selfless, abundant love. God Who gives Himself to us without need of recognition or thanks, and for Whom we can never do anything to earn the love that is given. And, like Naomi, we never journey alone no matter how much we protest we’d prefer to.

That doesn’t mean it’s okay to be blind like Naomi, silently taking love for granted as it works itself out in our lives. God commands us to rejoice, to give thanks, to praise, all of which help us to embrace the blessing of His love. But in those dark, bitter moments where we cannot thank Him, God is there, loving us beyond measure. In realizing this, we can begin to create new narratives.

Though God’s presence doesn’t erase or undo sorrow and tragedy – just as Ruth, who is more than seven sons, cannot bring them back – the love of God is hidden in the midst of the darkness, catching us on its branches as a wildness of joy.

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