But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you.  Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.  Your people will be my people and your God my God.”  (Ruth 1:16)

She left her country, her home, her people.  And incidentally, according to Naomi, her gods (Ruth 1:15).

Ruth chose not to return to them with her sister-in-law.  Instead, she chose to worship the one true God and journey to a new land and a new people.

So have we.

As with Ruth, that choice will be paved with loss and hardship.  It will also result in divine provision and redemption.  To be sure, it is the right choice.

But when we choose to make God our God, we also choose to make His people our people.  There is no way around it.  If He is our Father, His children are our siblings.  All of them.  The ones we like and the ones we don’t like.  The ones who are kindred spirits and the ones we can’t understand.  The ones we admire and the ones of whom we disapprove.

Perhaps I’m alone in this confession, but there are some in the family of God with whom I do not generally prefer to keep company.  There are some I find myself avoiding for various reasons.  There are some on whom I pass judgment without even thinking about it.  As ungodly as it may sound, there are some with whom I do not prefer to be identified.

But maybe I stand alone in these feelings.

You might be surprised at those who would fit in the categories above for me.  That’s really not the point, though.

When I chose to make God my God, I left behind the pattern of this world.  I chose to live as a citizen of a different country in fellowship with different people.  And I didn’t just choose to be their neighbors.

I chose to be their family.   I chose to be called by the same name.  I chose them to be my people.

And whether or not I like their company doesn’t matter.  Whether I admire their lives or disapprove of them doesn’t matter.  I do not get to choose with whom I will be identified in the family of God.

Because long ago, One wholly other than me chose to identify with my pitiful existence.

He was divinely unique, and yet He made Himself flesh-bound.

He did it to bind me to Him forever.  To call me His own.

And so I now call those He has ransomed mine too.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.  (Ephesians 2:14-16)

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Moving back to the South in the summer has been refreshing.  In much the same way that walking into a sauna can be refreshing.  You’ll have a better complexion but you’re going to sweat for it.

In all seriousness, we’re excited to be back in the South and much closer to family, but it’s definitely an adjustment from life in New England.  In getting accustomed to a new city, I also find myself getting reacquainted with certain aspects of Southern life.  Here are some things I’ve noticed:

1.  When checking out at the grocery store, I no longer have to ask the sacker to put my milk in a grocery bag.  I never went to a grocery store in Massachusetts where they automatically bagged my milk with the rest of my groceries.  And they always gave me a strange look when I asked them to do so.  Weird, but true.  It might sound trivial but it’s the small things that can make or break a day sometimes.

2.  I keep forgetting that I don’t have to keep my hand on the gas pump when I fill up.  Because of Massachusetts’ air quality laws and their deep-seated fears about fuel vapors, they won’t let you squeeze the lever on the pump handle and then slide it into the little notch so that you don’t have to hold on to it.   The notch is literally not on the pump.  And let me tell you, that metal pump handle gets very cold in the winter.  Don’t have to deal with that anymore.  Score two for me.

3.  When you ask where to find good barbecue, people don’t direct you to a burger place.

4.  I am still a hopeless snob about Mexican food that I eat outside of Texas.

5.  Campaign commercials are very different.  I’m not saying they are better in one place or another.  I’m just saying they are different with a capital D.

6.  I now feel a strange compulsion to explain to people that, despite the fact that we moved here from Massachusetts, we are not Yankees.  And yes, it does matter to them.

7.  The letter R is miraculously back in the alphabet.  However, G has gone missin’.

I’ll stop at seven, since it’s the biblical number associated with completion.  And let me be clear, once again sleeping under the same roof as my washer and dryer has satisfied my soul.

A month of Sundays.

That’s how long it’s been since the day we left that beloved little church on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Memories of our last days in New England may elude me at some point, but I won’t soon forget that Sunday morning.  It is etched on my heart, right along with all of the people that line the pews of that centuries-old sanctuary.

As my tearful husband and I stood before them to say goodbye, the emotions that had been growing over the previous Sundays flooded to the surface.  I didn’t know what else to say, except to tell them they would always be home to us and to thank them for showing us Jesus.  And, as they circled around us and prayed for us, my heart ached with a multitude of feelings that only increased with the beautiful cakes we ate after church and the old benediction hymn they sang for us in the fellowship hall.  Every time I look at the framed photographs they gave us, I’m reminded of how much we love them and how much they loved us.  It is a humbling thing to receive such affection.  It was undeserved and yet more precious than a thousand Sundays elsewhere.

And with each moment that morning, my heart kept crying out, “Who are we, Lord?”  Who are we that you would give them to us, not just for a few years but for eternity?  Who are we that you would take our heart’s desires for a season and give them back  to us in the most unexpected ways, in the most unexpected people?  Who are we that you would create a people to be yours and then welcome us to join it?  Who are we that you would love us so?

Every Thanksgiving, that tiny church breaks its tradition of a weekly sermon and calls several of its members to bear witness to the ways God has worked in their lives through the church.  It is a corporate thanksgiving of sorts.  Last Thanksgiving, I was honored to be one of the four to share from the pulpit.  Not knowing what the next six months would hold for my husband and me, these are the words I offered them that morning.

Last year, we sat around Parker’s parents’ dining room table at Thanksgiving, and each person shared what we were most thankful for in the previous year.   When my turn came, I shared that it was this church for which I was most thankful.

You see, when you pack up all your belongings and move 1,100 miles north to attend seminary, you have a lot of hopes.  But honestly, you try to set your expectations pretty low.  Maybe that makes me sound like a pessimist, but I feel the need to be honest. 

What I mean is that we had a lot of desires and dreams for our time at seminary, but we didn’t know if they were just too far-fetched.  We thought they might have to wait.  Some of them never came to pass, but — without a doubt — one of them did.

Just before Christmas in 2007, after what I’m sure was the most exhaustive search for churches on the North Shore, we decided to visit this church.  And we had no idea to expect. 

But not long after our arrival that morning, somewhere between the Christmas pageant announcements and the congregational prayer, I think we realized this church – this body of believers – was different than the other churches we had visited in the area or elsewhere.  [Tim was in India, of course, so he really can’t take the credit.]

The first time I had heard about this church was in a series of classes I took at the seminary for wives of students.  Rama was invited to speak one night, and her genuineness and candor stood out from other speakers.  It was fitting to me that she was the first impression I received of the church because she was merely a reflection of the authenticity we would find here.

What we’ve discovered here is a sincerity so refreshing it’s hard to even do it justice.  When I’ve tried to tell friends or family – or even other seminary students – about our church family, the most apt description I can find is that you are real and that you really love each other.  This is not a place where people wear masks and hide the realities of their lives.  This is a place where a whole lot of different people facing a whole lot of different things are reconciled together – in Christ.  As Paul said, God “has made the two one … creating in Himself one new man out of the two.”

I found that Robin’s mother put it so well at the women’s retreat this year – it’s a group that only God could put together.  I would add that it is God who keeps it together.

And that would be incredible for me, just to have had the chance to witness the body of Christ coming together as He intends, meeting each other in their uniqueness but unified in the hope of our Savior.  But that isn’t the whole story.

Because over these last couple of years, you have welcomed these two transplanted Southerners into your homes and into your lives.  You’ve brought us rhubarb jelly, taken us for boat rides, and shared your secrets of the best restaurants in town.  You’ve broken bread with us and you’ve welcomed us to your kitchen tables.  You’ve shown us the hospitality of Jesus.  You’ve shared your stories with us and provided space for us to share ours. 

You knew we might not be here for more than a few years, and yet you have welcomed us with open arms into the fellowship of believers in this place.  Wholeheartedly.  Without reservation.  You have no idea what that means to two weary travelers far from home.  The generosity of your love has graced our lives.  You’ve taught us what it means to be a body of believers whose unity comes from Christ.  You’ve demonstrated the power and beauty of living life openly together in community. 

You are our home here.  This church has become our family. 

For however long God keeps us here, I will sit back in awe of the fact that He led us to you, that He welcomed us here through your open arms.  And whenever this season in Massachusetts comes to a close for us, we will miss you the most. 

And we do.

One day about a month from now, I’ll rush onto a crowded train headed out of Boston for the North Shore.  I’ll find a seat, plop down, and try to catch my breath from the rushing.

I’ll take out my train pass and watch as we push away from the platform and travel past the gravel plants clustered near the tracks.

I’ll listen to the person sitting next to me, as she talks on her cell phone about all manner of personal details.  I’ll wonder why she doesn’t care that I can hear everything she’s saying.  And I’ll wait for her to lose her cell signal when we go through a tunnel.

Then I’ll take out my book and start to read but find my eyes too heavy.

For one last time, I’ll scoot down in my seat and push my knees forward into the seat in front of me, so that I can support my nodding head leaning ever so close to that woman’s shoulder.

I’ll wake up about twenty minutes later, my knees hurting from the pressure of being shoved into the seat.  And I’ll wonder once again whether I’ve done any permanent damage to them by my train sleeping habits over the past few years.

Then I’ll close my eyes for a few more minutes, paranoid that I’ll miss my stop like I did that one time.

But I know I won’t do it this time.

This time when they call out the next stop, I’ll gather my things with a bit of a lump in my throat and head for the door where the conductor stands.  Then I’ll climb down from that train for the last time at the stop that I’ve called home for the last few years.  And when I climb in the car where my husband waits for me, I will feel relieved that my long daily journeys on mass transit will come to a halt for a season.

But there will be something in me that recognizes those train rides were about more than just a daily commute for me.  Somewhere along those tracks I realized that my life was not the center of the universe, and despite my acting as if it was, my God had not grown weary of me.  I learned that my independence might not be what He called for, and that reminders of His faithfulness are all along the way.  Perhaps those lessons could have been learned anywhere, but I guess God chose to use public transportation as his classroom for me in this season.

When it seemed unending and unfair.  When it seemed like I left home and returned always in the dark.  When the ride seemed so very long.

He used it to shape me and to change me in little ways and in bigger ones.  And I am a different woman than the one who climbed up those train steps for the first time just a few years ago.

Though my days on the train will be over, I’ve found that there is much life to be lived along the way.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.  As they pass through the Valley of  Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.  They go from strength to strength, til each appears before God in Zion.  (Psalm 84:5-7)

Boy, have I got a lot rolling around in my head and heart right now.  They’ve been on the edge of explosion in the past two weeks for a whole lot of reasons, which I’m sure will come out over the next six weeks as we prepare to leave our seminary community and head to our next season of life.  I will ask your patience in advance as I will probably process that transition through writing as I have time, and I’m not completely sure it won’t devolve into emotional drivel at the rate I’m going right now.

On Wednesday night, we said goodbye to some wonderful friends who began their trek home to the Pacific Northwest Saturday morning.  I was doing fine the entire time until I watched the girls’ grandparents bid them farewell.  They had been in town for graduation and were heading home the next day to await the rest of the family’s arrival after their long road trip.

But as I stood there listening and watching their grandmother talk to these two precious girls, I got choked up.  My emotional swell was caused by my soul-deep regret that they weren’t listening to both of their grandmothers.  This fall my friend’s mother passed away after an excruciating battle with pancreatic cancer.  And in this brief moment, I was overcome with emotion recalling the diagnosis, the treatment, and the suffering.  Everything that happened within the few years she’s been in my life.  I thought about the tears that our whole bible study cried together both in her presence and in prayer for her when she was at her mother’s side for two months this fall.  It was sacred ground that we were privileged to tread, and it all came flooding back to me in that moment.

Births.  Successes.  Answered prayers.  Healing.  Victories. 

Infertility.  Miscarriages.  Heath problems.  Financial difficulties.  Marital crises.  Deaths. 

In the past three years, I’ve felt the weight of it all from living in community here at seminary.  I’ve had the sacred opportunity to weep and rejoice with those around me, and they walked with me through my own health concerns, personal trials, and joys. 

As I said goodbye to my friend, I began to feel a familiar tear in my chest that will become more pronounced in coming days.  It comes from knowing the end of a season is near and that separation from all that it has meant will not be easy.  Closure will not come neatly tied with a bow, and I need to let myself feel the pain of loss. 

The pain means it was real.  Things are only pried apart if they have been bound, and so it is with my heart. 

I guess I could have kept it all at bay for three years.  I might have escaped unscathed, but my attempts at self-protection would have resulted in an isolated heart.  And no matter how brief our season here, I am certain that is not what God had in mind.

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters.  Increase in number there; do not decrease.  Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.  Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”  ( Jeremiah 29:4-8 )

Investment of my time, my energy, my heart.  That’s what God asked of me in this season and what He asks of me in the next.  He doesn’t promise any of it is forever.  He doesn’t promise ease or comfort.  He promises growth.

It’s a risky thing to “settle down” in the new thing God has for you.  It means you have to be sure of Him when you’re not yet sure of it.  And when He calls you on again, your soul must remember that stops on this pilgrimage are never without cause.

I sit here tonight with the heart-tearing only just begun again, but I am grateful. 

For I have loved and been loved.

About this time three years ago, I was having quite a disagreement with God.  It seems so obnoxious to me now, but it’s true. 

We were in the midst of making the decision about where my husband would attend seminary, and thus where we would move.  I was wrestling with all sorts of things.  Expectations.  Frustrations.  Hopes that I was afraid would never materialize.  Frankly, I felt entitled to some things.  Things to which I was not entitled.  

And so I made a hesitant decision to go where I knew we should go. My husband had already arrived at the same decision weeks earlier but he had given me the space and time to wrestle with the issues that bubbled to the surface during the process.  And I arrived at the same conclusion, though my fingers were still gripped around what I thought was due me.  It was a decision I thought reserved me the right to call the shots in the future, if things didn’t turn out like I wanted.  Some might call it a soul-bargain, though I would never have admitted to it.  

But I had a lot of things mixed up in my heart and mind, and over the next three years God slowly unwrapped what was bound so tight.  There were hard lessons to learn and white knuckles to pry loose of what I thought life ought to hold for me.  There was quite a lot of complaining.  And then quite a lot of taking my turn at listening to the Truth. 

As our time at seminary draws to a close, we’ve found ourselves back in decision-making mode again.   

One day a few months ago, I was completely fed up with the Boston weather.  It was freezing and raining, and I was tired of walking around in it.  I thought, “Surely we could move somewhere else and not have to deal with this.”  

“Rachel, it rains everywhere.”

It’s true, you know. 

There is no place where you can escape the hard stuff.  There is no easy road we can take as long as we live on this planet.  I will never find my utopia on this broken sod.  That might sound defeatist, but coming to truly believe that has been one of the most freeing experiences of my life.   

My anthem for the past few months has been the hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.”  I just can’t get the second verse out of my head.

Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under his wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen how thy desires e’er have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?

Yes.  Yes, I have seen.  And it has changed everything. 

There is no way I could explain everything that the last line of that verse means to me.  I’m going to let that remain between me and God, if that’s alright. 

I don’t yet know what awaits us on the other side of graduation, but I do know that every day of the past few months I’ve told God I trust Him. 

And this time I’ve done it with my trembling hands open wide.

“I, a pilgrim of eternity, stand before Thee, O eternal One.  Let me not seek to deaden or destroy the desire for Thee that disturbs my heart.  Let me rather yield myself to its constraint and go where it leads me.  Make me wise to see all things today under the form of eternity, and make me brave to face all the changes in my life which such a vision may entail: through the grace of Christ my Saviour.  Amen.”

(Excerpt from A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie)