At a leadership retreat last month, we talked about something and I cannot stop thinking about it.
We were studying Ruth and came to the bit where Naomi returns to Bethlehem with Ruth. The people soon recognize Naomi and call her by name, but Naomi rebukes them.
“‘Don’t call me Naomi,’ she said. ‘Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.’” (Ruth 1:20)
After reading this, one of our group spoke up, “It’s interesting…Naomi tells everyone to call her Mara, but they still call her Naomi…even the text still refers to her as Naomi.”
It is significant for the people in the community to call her Naomi. She feels abandoned by God, by the One who gave her life and is supposed to sustain her. The name Mara is tinged with the bitterness of her perceived abandonment. Rather than affirm: “Yes, Naomi, you are bitter. The Almighty has abandoned you.” By calling her Naomi, their response may have served as a reminder: “You are Naomi…cherished by the Almighty. He has never left you.”
I think it is beyond gorgeous the way God designed community. We do not often operate the way He designed it, but we cannot deny God’s ability to work through community to reveal our identity. Identity is often thought of as some concrete thing we discover after an arduous process. Like an archeological dig, beneath the sands of our exteriors we expect to find the skeletal infrastructure of who we really are. To a degree, identity is nothing like a skeleton. There is a very fluid element in which change is occurring all the time. And yet, there is something so significantly static it serves as the armature for our entire being.
Naomi rejected, and maybe even resented, her identity as God’s child because it’s manifestation looked nothing like what she thought it should. I imagine Naomi’s inner monologue sounding something like this: I had to leave a famine-plagued Bethlehem and relocate to Moab—of all places—where my sons married two of the locals, after which all the men died and left me with two Moabite daughter-in-laws. What about this says I am cherished by the Almighty?!
Stacked next to Naomi’s unfortunate life list, mine is in a different weight class. But I’ll share it anyway. As of late, my inner monologue is has been: I feel in debt up to my corneas thanks to college and, because I went to three different ones, I met a lot of people but never had a core group of friends in my life-stage, while more and more it feels likely that I will be living in my parent’s house until I’m old and wrinkly with nothing to show for myself.
When negativity becomes my inner monologue, I, like Naomi, have forgotten who I am and who God is. When I get stuck in what my expectations are for my life I am trying to belong to myself, not to God. As community, we must constantly remind each other: God meets us where we need to be met and it’s not always where we think He should.
Before our discussion closed for the night, Jim, the facilitator, shared a story. Along with Jim’s, there are a few different versions I have found, but here is my adaptation:
In the northern part of Namibia, Africa there is a semi-nomadic tribe, the Himba people. Before every child is conceived, the mother (perhaps with a group of women) waits in the wilderness to hear the vibrating hum of her child’s song. Once the song is discovered, mother and father use it during conception to call the child into being. By the time the mother is ready to deliver, the father and the entire tribe know the child’s song. As the child enters the world, he hears his song. As he grows and inevitably misbehaves, the community encircles him and sings his song. As if to say, “This is who you really are. You are not the things you have done. No matter what you feel about yourself or what others have said, that’s not who you are. But this, this rhythmic strain of love is who you really are.” And when the child has reached the end of his life, the community sings him into whatever awaits at his last breath.
Apart from a community steeped in the identity of the God who sent Jesus Christ to save the miserable wreck that is humanity, we are apt to forget we are not our own. And apart from Christ, we cannot know the vibrating hum of our identity as beloved… as cherished.