Did you see the Paralympian’s Halloween costume? Josh Sundquist lost his leg to cancer when he was 10 years old. Despite the loss, he began skiing at age 13 and represented the US in the 2006 Paralympic Games. His costume this week? He dressed up as the leg lamp from “The Christmas Story” movie. (www.joshsundquist.com)
Pretty creative way to deal with the loss of a leg, huh? Would Josh have preferred not to have lost his leg? I’m guessing yes. Did he grieve the loss of his leg? I’m sure he did. But on the far side of his loss, Josh is finding a life that is full and even a wee bit funny.
That kind of adapting– finding a new way of being on the far side of loss—takes a lot of creativity. In fact, some of the most creative people I know are people who are working through grief. Getting used to living alone when you’ve been married for 40, 50, 60 years? That takes creativity. Finding new pastimes after decades of sharing your free time with a spouse? That takes creativity. Buying all the birthday and Christmas gifts—by yourself; attending all the grandchildren’s events—alone; setting the dinner table—for one… Actors, painters, and poets are creative. But they can’t hold a candle to the creativity of people who are constructing new lives on the far side of loss.
People like Ruth in today’s Scripture story. When famine hits Bethlehem—ironically, a name that means “house of bread”—Elimelek, his wife Naomi, and their boys, Mahlon and Chilion, have to go where there’s food. They end up in Moab. Not long after they arrive, Elimelek dies. In a culture where women were completely dependent for their livelihood on men, that would have been catastrophic for Naomi…. if she hadn’t had sons…But she did have sons! Whew!
Soon after Elimelek’s death, those sons marry…Moabite women named Ruth and Orpah. I’m sure their mama would have preferred her boys to marry some nice Jewish girls, but what are you gonna do when there aren’t any around?
So, this widow, her sons, and her foreign daughters-in-law settle into a life that’s definitely a Plan B. No one planned for Elimelek to die so soon. And Naomi had never planned for her sons to marry foreign women…but with a little creativity, they settle into Plan B and live that way for a decade or so…
…until Mahlon and Chilion die, too. Now Naomi is left without her husband or her sons—which means she’s now fresh out of luck. No male relatives equals no means of support. No means of support equals… well, you get the picture. Time now for Plan C.
In the midst of her devastating losses, though, Naomi finally gets some good news: the famine is over in Bethlehem. She and her daughters-in-law pack up to leave.
When they come to a fork in the road, Naomi tells Ruth and Orpah to go back to their people, that she’ll continue on alone. In response to Naomi’s statement, Ruth and Orpah start crying. They weep. They wail. They swear allegiance to their mother-in-law. They promise to accompany her all the way back to Bethlehem. It’s quite a scene! But Naomi’s level-headedness kicks in. “Even if I could get pregnant tonight—which I certainly cannot,” she says, “would you wait around until my sons had grown up to marry them? No, my daughters. Go. Return home to your families. Find security for yourselves.”
Which Orpah does. But Ruth? Ruth won’t hear of it; she clings to Naomi. Again, Naomi urges Ruth to follow Orpah and return to her people.
This is when Ruth gets really creative, perhaps as creative as any widow has ever gotten. In familiar words often used at weddings, Ruth declares: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (I often wonder if knowing these words originally were spoken by a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law, couples would be so eager to use them in their weddings.)
As plans go, Ruth’s stinks. Two widowed, childless women? Who was going to take care of them? Who was going to support them? Rather than going home where some male relative might have given her a good home and certain security, Ruth chooses instead to attach herself to her aging widowed foreign mother-in-law and go to a far place where she knows no one, a place where she will have no standing, much less any security. Not a good plan at all…and certainly not one any clear-thinking person in her culture would have dreamed up. But in her grief, Ruth got creative. She began to imagine a completely new way of life, one she’d never conceived—or wanted.
Ultimately, though, it was a way that led to life. I wish I could tell you all the creative things Ruth and Naomi did to make this new life happen. Unfortunately, it’s R-rated stuff, not appropriate for Sunday morning.
Let’s just say those two widows get mighty creative. As a result, a kinsman of Naomi’s —Boaz– marries Ruth and together they have a child, a boy named Obed. So, a story that looked like it might end before it began for those two widowed women, ends with security for both of them in the persons of Boaz and little Obed. And guess who descended from Obed? Ever heard of King David? He was Obed’s grandson. And guess who descended from David? Does the “little town of Bethlehem” ring a bell? Yes, Jesus descended from David. See? Great things come of the creativity of two widows working out their lives after devastating losses.
Today is All Saints Sunday. It’s the day we remember our saints, the people who have died but who remain very close to us. For some of us, the loss still feels fresh, like it happened yesterday. I think sometimes grief is so hard because we feel like we have to forget the person who has died. It’s almost like we have to continue living as if the other person never existed.
The gift of All Saints is the invitation to remember our loved ones who have died…and not only to remember them, but also to draw strength from having known them. The teller of today’s Scripture story isn’t much interested in the men, at least not before Boaz enters the scene. The other men—Elimelek, Mahlon, and Chilion—are dead and gone by the end of the opening credits.
…but something bonded Naomi and her daughters-in-law. Something created a strong tie among those women. I’m thinking it must have had something to do with their men. Though the men quickly exit the narrative, I have to think they were still present in some way in the widows they left behind. Maybe part of what helped the women get creative with their post-loss lives, was drawing strength from their marriages. Maybe they had been so changed by, so formed by their relationships with their husbands, they had become stronger women. And maybe that strength helped them figure out how to live beyond their losses.
Whose loss are you grieving today? Who are you missing? Who helped formed you and encouraged you to become the person you are? Who—though they are gone—is still giving you strength? Who—though they have passed—continues to help you live your life creatively?
One of the first things you learn when you start hanging out with nuns, is just how important the cemetery is to them. Want to take a walk? “Let’s go to the cemetery.” Need a place to talk? “Let’s go to the cemetery.” Need to get some perspective on life? “Get thee to the cemetery.”
At first I thought this obsession with the cemetery unseemly… and morbid. The longer I hang out with the sisters, though–and the more trips I take to the cemetery myself–the more I find it to be an energizing trip. All those sisters…each one living a faithful life…and now at least two of them having impacted my own faith journey, Srs. Mildred and Joan Marie, who died this past year… Now I find strength and courage from visiting the cemetery. Those sisters are gone from this world, but their memory continues to strengthen the living…including me.
When I shared some of my thoughts about All Saints and about missing Srs. Joan Marie and Mildred with some of my Women Touched by Grace friends this week, my friend Nancy wrote back: “One of the things I will always remember about last week at OLG was seeing Sr. Mary Sylvester (She’s 100 years old) come out of the monastery for her daily walk. She moves so quickly, and she headed right to the cemetery. She goes there every day to pray and talk with old friends.”
That is the gift of All Saints—gathering together with our own cloud of witnesses and talking with those old friends. In my mind and heart today, I plan to visit the graves of those who’ve gone before me–Granny Jett and Pa Joe…my first boss, Principal Carolyn Mayes…my Old Testament professor Page Kelley…to name a few–People who have guided me on my life’s journey and my faith journey. People whom I have loved and who I know loved me. As I visit these residents in my own “cloud of witnesses,” I will draw strength and courage and joy. And I will offer deep and resonant Thanks!
Whose graves will you visit today?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2012