Thursday, February 19, 2009

Love’s Embrace

Ruth 3:1-18; 4:9-17[1]

In our discussion of what it means to embrace your life—the life you have—we’ve talked about a lot of facets of life. I think, however, that perhaps the single most difficult facet of our lives is our relationship with those closest to us—our friends, our family, our children, our husbands and wives. There’s a lot we can say about loving others that can in the end sound pretty superficial and even worn-out. The plain truth of the matter is that our experience of loving the people in our lives is a difficult one.

I guess that’s one reason why our culture romanticizes human love to such an extreme. When you look at what our songs and poetry, what our stories and films have to say about loving another person, it sounds like something straight out of a fairy tale! If you were to go strictly by most of what we hear about love, then love is the most natural thing in the world to fall into, love is something that makes you completely happy, love makes your life a bed of roses; and of course, if that’s not your experience with love then you simply haven’t found “the one.”[2]

That’s not the perspective of the 2006 film The Painted Veil. It’s a story set in early 20th century England about the very difficult path two people take to finally learn how to love one another. [3] Walter is a young doctor who has been assigned a position in Shanghai; he’s so infatuated with Kitty he’s truly blind to everything that might tell him not to become involved with her. Nevertheless he asks her to marry him. Kitty is a spoiled rich girl desperate to escape her family; she doesn’t really love Walter, nor can she imagine ever loving him, but she’s willing to use him as a ticket to another life.

It’s no surprise that when they arrive in Shanghai Walter immerses himself in his work and Kitty has an affair. She is desperately in love with Charles, but he has used her just as she used Walter. When Walter finds out about the affair, volunteers to go to a remote village suffering from a Cholera epidemic, he almost literally drags Kitty with him—mostly out of revenge. But the situation of living and working with people in extreme need changes both of them. As Walter selflessly engages in the work of teaching the Chinese villagers procedures to stem the epidemic, Kitty volunteers to work with the nuns at the local convent who are caring for the village orphans. In the process, something strange and wonderful happens—Walter and Kitty actually learn to see one another in a completely different way than they had before. And they begin to love one another, despite the past and despite their “incompatibilities.” They learn that loving another person has very little to do with feeling love-struck; what it is about is accepting and caring about another human being.[4]

The Bible teaches us this about love in many ways— through it’s practical teachings about love, through the stories of God’s love for a wayward people, and most importantly through the life of Jesus, who gives himself completely for the sake of us all. I think perhaps one of the more memorable stories about love is the story of Ruth and Boaz. Ruth is a “foreigner” who married an Israelite living abroad. When he dies, her mother-in-law, Naomi, resolves to return to Israel and the life of destitution that she believes to be her fate. But Ruth is devoted to her mother-in-law Naomi, and so she returns to Israel. If you read between the lines, it would seem that Naomi begins to play the the matchmaker. She suggests that Ruth glean in the fields of their relative, Boaz. Though it’s not obvious, it would seem that the attention Boaz pays Ruth suggest that he falls for her.[5] But for whatever reason, while Boaz keeps tabs on her, he also keeps his distance. Naomi (perhaps sensing the attraction) urges Ruth to “make the first move.” There’s a lot we don’t know for sure about the scene at the threshing floor, but what we do know is that two people are alone together at night. But perhaps the fact that their motivation is not simply one of desire, but rather one of concern for others—for Naomi and Ruth’s safety and livelihood—there’s not a hint of criticism in the story.[6] The end result is that they marry and build a home and a life and raise a family that leads to the birth of King David!

I like this story for a number of reasons. For one, it doesn’t cover over the realities of two people coming together. Also, the story of Ruth teaches us that love is about devotion to another person—no matter what.[7] And I like it because Ruth and Boaz’s love is about raising a family and making a life together—which is what human love has been about for ages, not about fairy tales and fantasies where all our dreams come true!

What we don’t know is how Ruth and Boaz learned to love each other over the long term, through thick and thin, for better or for worse. But I would be willing to bet that they had their share of ups and downs—just like we all do.[8] Because that’s how we learn to love another person—by going through the difficulties together. As one observer put it, that’s part of the journey toward love that is stronger and richer.[9]

It’s the very difficulty of loving another person that makes it so valuable to us. None of us is suited to loving—we have to learn to love in the give and take of everyday life. That’s when love becomes for us a token of God’s presence among us—lifting us up, giving us hope, comforting us in our sorrow, encouraging us when we’re discourages.[10] That’s how our love for one another becomes a mirror of God’s love. That’s when our love becomes “sparks from the great flame of love that is God”[11]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/16/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 78, where he talks about “our love of love.”

[3] See Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, “Review of The Painted Veil”; accessed at

[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 255: it means combining, “respect for the other person’s freedom” to be an individual “with deep affection for him or her as a person.”

[5] See Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn, “Boaz, Pillar of Society: Measures of Worth in the Book of Ruth,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 45 (1989): 45-59.

[6] Cf. Lillian Klein, “Engaging Biblical Women,” Bible and Interpretation, 2003; accessed at .

[7] See Michael S. Moore, “Ruth the Moabite and the Blessing of Foreigners,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 60 (April 1998): 217 where he calls the Book of Ruth a “powerful statement about the power of human love” as well as “a powerful theological statement about a God who keeps his promises, a creator who takes great delight in blessing his multifaceted creation, a Redeemer who will use any means—any people, tradition or person—to accomplish his gracious will.”

[8] Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, 89, where he talks about love’s “shadows.”

[9] John Welwood, in Love and Awakening, says it this way: “I don't know any couples who have not suffered this fall from grace at some point, losing touch with the original bright presence that first drew them together. Yet this is not a problem when we understand it as an integral part of a couple's journey toward greater wholeness and a richer, more seasoned kind of love.” Quoted at .

[10] Cf. Moore, Care of the Soul, 95: “There is no way toward divine love except through the discovery of human intimacy and community.”

[11] Fulton Sheen, From the Angel’s Blackboard; quoted at .

No comments: