BY LISA HELENE DONOVAN BACALSKI
If Lent is a journey through the desert to the fruitful promise of Easter, then I’d like to ask Naomi for some travel tips. In the book of Ruth, we read that she fled famine with her family and settled in the land of Moab, the longtime enemies of her people. Not only that, her sons married Moabite women after her husband died. Then they themselves died and left her a widow with no grandsons to protect and provide for her.
This was probably not the life Naomi envisioned for herself as a girl in Bethlehem, but her tragedy became the cornerstone of our salvation history. She decides to leave Moab when she hears that the famine has finally ended. Both her daughters-in-law accompany her on the road back to Judah, but she tries to send them back to their families to find new husbands. Orpah weeps and leaves. Ruth famously promises to stay: “Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
After Naomi and Ruth return to her homeland, she encourages Ruth to seek protection from Boaz, a kinsman who redeems Naomi’s family land and marries Ruth. Their son Obed becomes the grandfather of King David, whose royal line eventually leads to Jesus.
When I was younger, it was easy to identify with Ruth, to idealize how I would take care of a beloved family member if she needed me. Now I’ve crossed the bridge of time and find that I relate more to Naomi. Like her, I’ve left my hometown in the heartland for cities on the coast that are often considered bastions of sinful living. I haven’t physically walked through a desert the way Naomi likely did, but there have been times of isolation and struggle, particularly after I learned that I couldn’t have children. Like Naomi, I mourned the loss of hope that comes with a new generation, the sorrow of never seeing my husband’s smile on a baby’s face.
Lent gives us the opportunity to purify our sufferings and offer them to God. It also challenges us to look beyond ourselves and to build meaningful relationships that create hope. Jesus didn’t die for our sins in a general sense out of obedience to a distant father. He was in an intimate, loving relationship with his father which led to his obedience and our redemption. That redemption is both wonderfully universal and deeply personal. Ruth didn’t make her widely admired promise to Naomi out of a cultural sense of duty to any mother-in-law. She made it to the person of Naomi whom she loved.
Naomi returns home unrecognizable and bitter about her losses. “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty…” (Ruth 1:21) There have been times in my life when I have wept mourned and railed, especially about my infertility but also other frustrations and injustices. Sometimes it’s tempting to crawl under the covers and give up, but my husband Roberto always finds a way to bring light into my day and encourage me. Ruth may have done the same for Naomi, walking through the desert with her so she wouldn’t lie down one dark night and refuse to rise with the sun.
There’s no way Naomi could know what her future held when she returned; she only knew she could not stay where she was living without any means of hope or support. Her friendship with Ruth compels her to keep moving. I was similarly inspired to become a foster parent by my husband’s steadfast faith in us as a family. Such persistence is rewarded. Naomi discovers a good kinsman who can redeem her family’s land and marry Ruth. Roberto and I foster a young woman who will soon make us grandparents.
These blessings occur not because of a big yes like Mary’s fiat, but rather a series of small assents. “Ok, we can travel together from Moab to Bethlehem” or “Let’s look into fostering, it seems more feasible than adoption.” It’s easy to mistake Lent for a season of deprivations, when actually it is an opportunity to see how God transforms our emptiness into wholeness.
May your Lenten journey be like Naomi’s journey home, persistent, surprising and fruitful.
LISA HELENE DONOVAN BACALSKI writes, photographs and tweets for a better world from her home in Northern Virginia. Her career includes parish ministry, advocacy, teaching and a stint in Hollywood, all at the intersection of communications, technology and design. She and her husband Roberto are foster parents and usually cannot keep from either singing or laughing most of the time.