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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Remember: The significance of a story someone failed to forget

My cousin Renee worked for many months or years transcribing the love letters written between our great-great grandparents, Henry Johnson Spicer and Eda Lucinda Ferguson. The book is entitled Miss Eda, My Dearest Friend: The Love Story of Henry Johnson Spicer and Eda Lucinda Ferguson of Wilkes County, NC.

The letters were written back before and during the time of the American Civil War. Some relative had stored the letters in a trunk, which survived a house fire in 1942. My Uncle Sammy, Renee's father, had acquired those letters and held them in his own safekeeping for many decades, hoping that some day they might be preserved in book form. And his daughter has done just that, 150 years after the correspondence took place.

It seems like an inconceivable amount of time, and I wonder how many lives will be touched by the memory of HJ and Eda's story in the future. To think another 150 years might go by with descendants calling them by name seems, yes, inconceivable. And yet, it most certainly isn't the first time that a simple love story has been told and preserved in great detail. I've been reflecting on that this evening: a 3100-year-old love story, recorded and remembered in great detail, and actively read and remembered and retold today.

I am talking about the love story of Ruth and Boaz.

It seems to me to be absolutely implausible that anyone who knew Ruth and Boaz personally might have thought theirs was such a remarkable story that it could possibly be remembered millennia into the future--or even more than a generation or at most two.

Who could have thought at the time that the story of Ruth and Boaz would be so valuable as to record it in the kind of detail it contains? How many of us can think back to stories of our great-grandparents, and tell not only their names, but their occupations, the places they lived, the type of climate they lived under, the legal transactions they participated in, even the specific name of a former sister-in-law who left the family after her husband's death? But that's the kind of details we have in this seemingly inconsequential couple of Ruth and Boaz.

They seem to be just a fairly average family with a nice story of how they met. Some trouble, such as poverty and loss of loved ones too early; but they are getting by. An old woman, a young woman, a man, a baby. It's a family story. That's all. A lovely, endearing family story.

It's only later, when that couple's great-grandson David turns out to be the unlikely King of Israel (who saw that coming? Shepherd boy, youngest of the family) that the story takes on any real significance historically. Ruth and Boaz couldn't have known they were in the royal lineage. Their story contains no supernatural revelation about creation or catastrophic world events. No ground opening up to swallow anyone, no rivers turning to blood, no seas parting. There is no great war, no battle skirmishes, no girding up of loins to face an enemy. There's no taunting by the prophets of false gods, no child sacrifices, no pillaging. There are no talking animal oracles, no dreadful prophecies, visions, or revelations. Yet even in this ho-hum drama, a terribly minor character, Orpah the sister-in-law of Ruth who returns to her homeland and never sets foot on Israelite soil, is carefully recorded so that she is known by name.

Just imagine if this were the story of friends of yours. Let's just say, for instance, that it's my friends Brad and Caroline. They met after one had experienced a pretty difficult early life. But she had persevered and seen God's guiding hand through it. How they came together makes a great tale worth hearing over cocktails at a party, and remembering fondly. Eventually, they knew the great joy of bringing new life into their union with the birth of a daughter. They rejoice. They go to work. They raise their child. They pay their bills. They meet with friends. They are pretty much like the rest of us.

Now fast-forward a few generations. Who remembers Brad and Caroline? Who knows their daughter's name and how many years after they were married that she was born? Where he worked? When she left her job and why? What the weather was like the year they married? Seems unlikely, doesn't it? But that's only a glimpse of it. Fast-forward 3100 years. That's right, three thousand one hundred years. We're talking Star Trek generations, comparatively speaking. Who is talking about Brad and Caroline then? Who is drawing wisdom from their story?

And yet, that's how it is with Ruth and Boaz. It's been three thousand one hundred years (give or take) since Ruth gleaned some grain and those two met and married and had a son. And yet we know the fine details of their courtship, marriage, business practices, and even who gathered their child onto her lap after he was born. We know their story and draw wisdom from it, and reason for celebration and encouragement and hope. Good, plain folks.

Just good, plain folks. But their story was of critical importance to establishing the validity of the lineage of David for the purpose of the Kingship. Boaz was of the tribe of Judah, and though Ruth was a foreigner, grafted in by God's choosing and her adherence to her mother-in-law's faith, David is legit. Did David, know, however, while he was out making music in the fields and telling lions to scram from the pastures where his sheep grazed, that he would one day need to know in such detail the courtship story of his great-grandparents?

It's a remarkable thing to me that such a simple, common love story would be so carefully preserved for that length of time, when it had absolutely no historical significance evident at the time of its occurrence.

Perhaps there's more to each of us than we can ever begin to comprehend. Perhaps how we came to be and where we are now and what we do with our short little lives really does matter. Perhaps our little thread in the tapestry has a greater role in holding together the big picture than we can see. It reminds me of a quote we hear fairly regularly at church:

You are more sinful than you dare face, BUT you are more loved than you dare imagine, AND more instrumental than you dare think.

You matter. Remember.

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