Dear Shepherdess: Each month my mail brings me many interesting letters from the various Shepherdess organizations throughout North America. What a pleasure it is to keep in touch with these local groups of pastors' wives and other ladies involved in the work of the church! Each communication has such a variety and originality all its own that it just isn't fair for me to keep all this good material to myself. So I decided I should share some of these pages with you this month. I am indebted to the newsletter from Marvel Boggess, president of the Michigan Shepherdess group, for this excellent treatment of a very important subject in human relations. No doubt many of you are already mothers-in-law. Others are preparing for that experience, and most of us are someone's daughter-in-law. The following article was a joy and a blessing to me, and I know you will feel the same. With love, Kay.
Is there any figure more often the subject of jokes than the mother-in-law? Her efforts to adjust to this new member of the family (her child's husband or wife) have been admittedly awkward at times, and the reason is not hard to find.
Such fundamental shifts in family relationships are often fertile breeding grounds for problems and misunderstandings. Yet it doesn't have to be so. Naomi, an Old Testament mother-in-law, shows us that friction between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law is not inevitable. If you find yourself in either of these unaccustomed roles, take courage from Ruth and Naomi!
Their story is a beautiful one. At a time of national calamity, a Jewish family living in Bethlehem decided to find a new home, no doubt only temporarily, they thought. The normally fertile country of Judah, a rugged plateau west of the Dead Sea, was being ravaged by famine because of a lack of rain. The wheat, the barley, the grape vineyards, and the groves of olive trees had withered, and famine followed.
Elimelech with his wife, Naomi, and their two sons left Bethlehem in search of a more promising life. Their journey around the edge of the Dead Sea to the land of Moab was not a long one in miles, but certainly in their thinking, the distance be tween familiar Judah and alien Moab was great. Why did this family select Moab as their new home? We don't know. Perhaps some personal or business connection made it seem plausible for Elimelech to establish himself in Moab. At any rate, the Hebrew family found themselves in a country where nearly everything must have seemed strange.
True, Israel and Moab spoke dialects of the same language, so making herself understood was not one of Naomi's problems. However, the people of Moab worshiped their god Chemosh with rites regarded as sinful by the people of Judah. Religious differences and political rivalries had resulted in longstanding friction be tween the two countries.
Centuries before, when the Israelites had first entered Canaan, attractive Moabite women seduced many of Israel's warriors, even enticing them to sacrifice to Chemosh. Their sin resulted in a plague that killed thousands of Israelites. Even in Naomi's day Israel still spoke harshly of Moabite women.
Consider, then, what Naomi's feelings must have been when, despite the traditional enmities, each of her sons married a Moabite girl. (The lessons of history must not have been deeply engraved on the minds of these young men!) Chilion married Orpah, and Mahlon took Ruth as his wife. For a number of years the family evidently lived comfortably, perhaps in Eastern style under the same roof.
Then tragedy struck.
Elimelech died, leaving Mahlon and Chilion, his two sons, to carry on. Life went on for a time, but some ten years from the time of their entrance into Moab, both sons, perhaps because of some physical weakness inherited from their father, also died. Naomi was left a stranger in a foreign land. She did not see how she could continue to live in Moab in comfort or maintain herself. How could she stand be tween her daughters-in-law and poverty?
In those days women could not inherit property directly, but could only hold it in trust for some future husband or another male relative. Women had almost no way to earn a living, and, without husband or family, were sure to become dependent upon the charity of others.
As Naomi thought of this, she knew that her future in Moab would be bleak. She was past the age to bear children. Besides, no man was likely to choose her as a wife. When she heard that Judah was blessed with rich harvests again, she decided to return to Bethlehem. Among her own people, there might be more concern for her welfare.
What a tribute to her relations with her daughters-in-law that both Orpah and Ruth decided to return to Judah with Naomi! They had seen her faith in God expressed in daily living, and were drawn to her and her God.
So these three widows started out for the land of Judah. It was spring time, and the countryside was alive with beauty. They traveled some distance together, while Naomi wondered privately what reception these Moabite women would receive in her country. Occasionally she hinted her concern, knowing she could not take care of them financially.
Finally, Orpah gave in to Naomi's urgent suggestion and with tears kissed her mother-in-law goodbye. But Ruth clung to Naomi and uttered those beautiful words of selfless devotion that have stirred hearts in every age: "Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God" (Ruth 1:16).
Naomi could protest no longer in the face of such wholehearted devotion, and the two women continued their journey. Four or five days later, they saw before them the village of Bethlehem, with its humble, whitewashed dwellings huddled together on the side of a hill.
The narrative that continues from this point need not be repeated here. It portrays life and customs in early Israel. It describes a beautifully arranged marriage. It shows us the glorious outworking of God's concern for His humble, trusting children.
But beyond all this, the character of Naomi stands out as a special object of admiration. Seemingly ad verse fate led her to Moab, where she met Ruth. Love for her daughter-in-law crossed national boundaries, leaped over common prejudice, and induced in Ruth a response that was beyond all expectation.
When the two women took up residence in Bethlehem, neither dreamed that Ruth, the gleaner, would marry Boaz, the rich land owner, and that from this union would be born, three generations later, King David—and ultimately, the Messiah.
When God steps in, the ordinary events of life take on extraordinary significance. We can be thankful that Naomi, the mother-in-law, was big enough and wise enough to have faith in God, who orders all the circumstances of daily life. We can rejoice that Ruth was secure enough in her role as a daughter-in-law to re turn Naomi's affection and share her life. As mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law today, we can find the same loving union by God's grace.
Prayers from the parsonage
by Cherry Habenicht
We've arranged for substitutes, caught up with the garden, and tried to foresee possible events during the next two weeks. Vacation! Such an arbitrary segment of time filled with the dreams of each family member.
Please give us the rest we need. We do not plan a marathon trip or fast-paced schedule. Yet, from habit, we may bustle and hurry. If we run, may it be to race the waves. If we stay up late, may it be to study the stars.
Give us, also, the privacy we crave. Our lives, our work, revolve around people. For this short time we want to be just a family. No calls except bird song. No interruptions except for discoveries. No guests except chipmunks.
Keep us from being selfish. May we allow each person opportunities to pursue his special interests. (I pray that I'll be patient when Dick wants to examine another boat or Lisa saves another rock.)
Don't let us be so exclusive that we miss opportunities to make friends. We'll be meeting new people in unfamiliar places, and without Your prompting we cannot know who is lost and unhappy without You.
You tried to take a vacation once. All You asked was a rare escape from the multitude. But that retreat to a desert place never succeeded, for the great crowd followed You.
Yet You were not angry or resentful. Moved with compassion, You taught the people and even fed them all supper.
Take our plans, and work what is best for us and others.