When Naomi left her hometown for a foreign country, Moab, the Bible doesn’t tell us how she felt. All we know is that she went along with her husband and two sons, in search of food. The family of four were running away from a famine.
Significant things took place for Naomi in Moab, the land of her sojourn. It was where her sons got married and where she welcomed into her family two local women as daughters-in-law. It was where her husband died and where she first identified herself as a widow. A decade later, it became the place where both her sons died and where she felt what a mother would feel to outlive her children.
If you are like me, and have moved cities, and watched significant things happen to you while in transition, you will know how seamlessly the place and its people gets attached to spiritual truths you have experienced. The spiritual pilgrimage that we are all on is deeply interlinked to the practical sojourn through the cities and communities we live in. The room and view to which you woke up each day and dragged yourself out of bed, the sights to which you let the pages of scripture awaken your body and your soul. The seat in church you sat in each Sunday and let a distinct flavour of fellowship surround you. The schedule of your week was neatly weaved together with the liturgy of your community. The faces that would greet you, the voices that reasoned with you, the convictions that rubbed against you, the resonant vocabulary that the Spirit whispered to you, and even the familiar brew of coffee or the home that you got used to worshipping in. There is a oneness you develop in your local church. The city you live in, as well, with its culture and structures is used to minister to you, as are you to it. All of this interweaving can become a part of the sojourner forever.
But it is not just these systems and personalities of churches and cities that make transition such a big deal. It is the sides of God that we see in our daily and local context. God is constantly meeting with us in our journey. He is also meeting our local churches, cities and systems in their journey. Somehow all these interplays to give us the living experience that we have and shapes our walk with the Lord and His characteristics that are revealed to us in our life contexts.
If the forefront of a city’s social issues is the violence against women, then it is likely that the church in responding to that will build dialogue and structures for the empowerment and protection of women. The gospel becomes an important protective cover for the rights of women; and the cross, a place of refuge for the abused and the oppressed and an equalising ground for men and women alike. It is a place to rest while we allow His wounds to bring healing. This makes the gospel real to us, it necessitates the redemption of Christ and makes our communities and our hearts long for the justice of God.
Similarly, if another city has been burnt or disillusioned by the institution of church itself and young people are leaving churches and living self-protective and self-focused lives, it is likely that the gospel would beckon people back with a call to sacrifice, and lay down their lives for each other. The suffering servant, Jesus, would confront the narcissistic lifestyles and would call the church to bear each other’s burden; wash each other’s feet.
While it is such a beautiful thing to experience Jesus in our home contexts, change is good too. The Bible truthfully and poetically tells us that ‘there is a time for everything’. This is why we have seasons. And perhaps, this is why we sojourn.
When Naomi had lost her husband and two sons, she returned with her daughter-in-law, Ruth, to the land of Judah, and her hometown of Bethlehem. The famine was over.
When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” (Ruth 1:19)
Herein the Hebrew writer uses poetry and perhaps because what better way to articulate interior thoughts and feelings? This is how Naomi responds to the women of her old-yet-new community:
“Call me no longer Naomi,
call me Mara,
for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.
I went away full,
but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi
when the Lord has dealt harshly with me,
and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
It is not just that Naomi’s name meant pleasant and that she felt that ‘Mara’ or bitter was better suited for her now. Naomi’s life had been altered radically and she was a significantly different person. By requesting another name she wasn’t just expressing the heavy hand of God that she had experienced. She was looking at herself in the reflection of her spiritual and contextual realities and testifying that she was changed since she had left. When you see a new side to God, you see a new side to yourself. And all of that is contextualised and reflected in community. We are sojourners, we are testimonies and our paths keep crossing with each other. There are thousands of transactions to one story.
In all this change and transit and seasonal nature of life on earth, there are many agents at work. But in this poem, Naomi, the practical sojourner and spiritual pilgrim, speaks in the context of one agent. The Lord, and the Almighty.
Transition is something that is used to alert ourselves to the transactions taking place, because it becomes clear to you what was then and what is now. It is also something that gives us a choice to see that The Lord and Almighty is more than what any one community or city or season can capture. He is who He is, and our sojourning feet cannot traverse all His mysteries at once. But He walks with us. Every step of the way, He walks with us. It is He who has mapped our journey on earth. It is He who is the primary agent for all change. The Lord is our ultimate context, our city, our country. He knows the intricacies of the changes that have taken place within us and around us. They all happened at His watch. He is the master of all transactions. He will always meet us just where we are. And, He will always call us by name.
But let’s not forget that transition is exhausting. Today I do not feel kicked about this beautiful, hopeful process. I want to lay roots and design my life with a sense of permanency. It’s not easy to live like your only context is in the Lord (and nothing or no one else matters) because there are so many other relationships that are necessary and that the Lord calls us to invest in and be invested by. But it does give a sense of freedom to keep practicing a life in the context of the Lord. After all, everything and everyone is in His hands. But it’s also not a practice for nothing. One day, heaven and earth will become one. One day our spiritual pilgrimage and practical sojourning will open into the same land. There is a grand arrival, a promised land, and for the first time, we will really be home.
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