She Writes ...

She Writes…. is what I have written in the recent past.

Parenting, working with inmates, walking (walking, walking), The Twelve Days of Christmas, life with friends, found treasures, adventures in the Midwest and beyond… no unifying theme other than ‘written while awake.’

These short pieces are meant to help you and I remember we are here and life is interesting.

Click on the Title at right to read the article and comments: Path Making

Yesterday I preached at the Olympia Brown United Universalist Church in Racine.

This was a big deal for me. This was OLYMPIA BROWN’S church! Holy Cow! If American girls who like theology have a Patron Saint, she is it!

Olympia lived 1835-1926 and was the first woman in the United States to become an ordained minister. She would eventually serve three churches – the last being OBUUC in Racine. I learned who she was when I attended seminary in the late 1970’s. When she wasn’t pastoring, she was a leading figure in the Suffragist movement.

It’s easy to see our lives as the work and energy of ourselves alone. Yesterday, standing at that pulpit to read my sermon, an old memory came to my mind’s eye. It was a path into and through the scrub brush that tangled along the banks of Lincoln River, the small river that bordered the rural property where I grew up. My parents had obtained a canoe somewhere. My brother and I wanted to take it on the river but we couldn’t get through the 20-foot deep tangle of thick scratchy bushes and shrubs. So Paul and I spent an afternoon (more than one afternoon?) whacking through that growth. He probably did most of the work, he was already in high school, I was maybe 10 or 11. Eventually we cleared a very skinny path, but it sufficed. Our scratched arms looked like war zones, but we hauled that canoe through the teeny path, pulled out onto the shallow river, and the world was ours.

Making a path is grunt work. After it’s done, the journey on the river is the thing you will talk about – but if someone doesn’t make the path – it won’t happen.

I heard this quote last week when I watched “The Story of China” narrated by Michael Wood. The quote is from Chinese novelist, Lu Xun (1881-1936).

“Hope can be neither affirmed nor denied. Hope is like a path in the countryside: originally there was no path—yet, as people are walking all the time in the same spot, a way appears.”

Are you walking an inconvenient path that will help make a way appear for people who come after you?

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Click on the Title at right to read the article and comments: In the Meantime

I’ve mentioned before that Len is building a new website for me. It will have a section for these random essays I write. It will have my old Less Is More Gazette as a category. It will have a section for sermons I’ve preached and talks I’ve given because I want to do more of that. It will have short stories. It will have – and I’m curious to see if this works or not – a side section where you can send greetings to friends and family or advertise your small business/sideline for $10/month.

The new website is taking a long time to launch because Len is writing it in Drupal, by himself. This is not a subscription website hosted by a company that then posts ads that the writer has very little control over. This website will be me and you and none of those pop-ups or scrolling ads for the World Domination Corporation.

Here’s the thing: Since I have a new site coming, I don’t like my current website very much anymore. I open it to see if there are any new things to be aware of – and I see the sunflowers and I think “Karen likes sunflowers. I’m not a flowers-motif kind of person. Why on earth did I ever choose them???”

Like most non- sainted humans I’m cool with the things and options I have until I realize I might be about to get a new and better thing. At that point I go emotionally kaput on the old thing.

Len and I sometimes mention how lucky it is this predilection doesn’t extend to him or our kids. We love our second and third children; we didn’t have them because we wanted to upgrade our models! And I have no interest in a new spouse. Just got Len broken in...

But with “stuff” – I can keep something for a long, long time with a great deal of unflappable satisfaction. The living room sofa and chair we kept for 24 years. The vehicles we kept 12-16 years. Our second hand cat (actually, third hand) we’ve had for more than five years. Every winter I continue to wear a blue parka I bought second hand at Value Village in 2004 or 05. When they say Columbia jackets last, they aren’t kidding…

So it isn’t like I’m clamoring to get new, get new, get new. But when my mind decides it IS time to move on – boy, make it happen ASAP!

There is something spiritual about this dynamic. We live in a society overflowing and often overwhelmed with stuff and options. It is so easy to be done with the old and want what’s new.

Sometimes this impulse is a good one. Humans did a good job of moving out of caves into snug little houses that don’t leak and have furnaces. That was a lot of work and I appreciate the people who figured this out how to do this. Remember when there were TV repairmen who would come to your house because the giant Magnavox television in your living room couldn’t keep itself together for more than a year or two? Many modern gadgets and appliances are better, kinder to the environment, and less toxic that the early models. (Remember when old dogs got tumors from sleeping under the color TV? Yup, that happened…)

I appreciate that humans look forward, want and are willing to work towards better solutions.

But there’s this downside, too. Few of us now how to live fully “in the meantime”. Once the new thing is on the to-get list, we are mentally outa here.

And yet, “in the meantime” is a place all of its own. In the meantime is where we reflect on how many toddlers and middle-schoolers fell asleep on this sofa, how many novels were read on it while the supper dishes were still stacked on the kitchen counters. You recall all the mornings you heard the dog who no longer lives, hop down from this sofa as you stumbled down the hall in the morning to your morning coffee.

“In the meantime” is where it’s just one more ordinary day in paradise, and you put on the old jacket, and drive to work, and pick up milk on the way home, and the kids are noisy and the family is rich.

In the meantime is this sunflowers website during which we moved from Racine to Waukesha. Boy that was a highway! It’s my nearly three years of Prairie Dog Quadrilaterals where, for no reason that made obvious sense, I wrote weekly newsletters. Len and I took so many photographs, many of them quite lovely. The PDQ was my love letter to and from Racine, I think, although I didn't know that at the time.

It’s where old friends and new friends post comments. It’s the essays that got shared to other blogger sites. It’s where I learned how to write when I have no deadline and enough time. It’s where I fiddled and played, wrote and experimented. It’s where I have and still am realizing what I want to take into my wordy future.

Sooner or later, we move on.

“In the meantime” is a good place to look around before we go.

What “meantime” are you waiting to get past?

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Click on the Title at right to read the article and comments: T is for THREE Things

This is to let you know Otis is back home, healing, and watching bad and good TV. George was going to be with him most of the surgery day, but ended up only being there part of it because his car broke down along the way! So much adventure for a Tuesday.

I thank you and Otis thanks you for your thoughts and prayers and hopes.

Pals forever....

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Click on the Title at right to read the article and comments: T is for Two Things

1.) Len is working on a new website for me. He’s been at it for weeks between all the other things he does. I don’t know when it will be done, probably a couple more weeks. It’s exciting to me as it will launch some new directions I want to go with my writing.

In the meantime, this website is very quiet. We are fine and working hard over here, you just don’t see it.

If you want me to write about something in particular, let me know what that is and I’ll do my best. (Yes, that’s a dare.)

2.) Otis and I have been BFF’s since 1978. We met the first week of grad school, and we somehow stuck together all these years. Sometimes you look around and ... surprise-surprise ... there are these people whom you love and who love you who have been in your life for so long they have more-or-less become your relatives. Otis knew my first cat Buick. I knew his cat Monroe. That long.

Otis is having a cardiac procedure AKA surgery tomorrow. This is something surgeons know how to do and have done a zillion times. But it is brand new for Otis and those of us who love him.

Please help me and the rest of his friends keep him in our minds, hopes, and prayers tomorrow and through his recovery. I suggest you put a quilted anything (he has been quilting since the 1980’s), a funny cat or dog figurine, or a Teddy bear dressed in leather chaps somewhere unexpected in your house. (You know, not in the regular place you keep your Teddy bears in leather chaps...) When you see the unexpected thing, remember and be thankful for the goodness that is in most people, including Otis. Emily Dickinson said, “Hope is the thing with wings.”

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Click on the Title at right to read the article and comments: Getting Off the Tilt-a-Whirl

Over here at the Lucky Dog Chalet (our house) we are at Day #5 of being above-average happy about Life in General.

I’ve always been more curious about success than failure. It’s easy to be miserable; just eat a sleeve of store-bought cookies, blame it on someone else, then watch the news. Right? How to be miserable in 3 simple steps without getting off the sofa

But happy? Content? Pleased?

What happened? What brought on this Cloud of Mild Cheer?

Here’s what happened.


The past few months were by no means miserable. We have friends, things to do, good health, tasty things to eat and bikes to ride. Life was fine. But we were also pretty busy. I just deleted my list of the stuff we’ve been doing. You don’t need to read it; you have your own list.

We kept saying to each other that now that we were past this event or that thing, it was going to be easier. We could get back to days of being home, writing, learning Drupal (that would be Len), taking care of ourselves, and having time for walks and bike rides. And then another week would fly by that felt like that moment when you are just about to bite into the lovely s’more you just made – and an out-of-nowhere wind puffs ashes and grit all over your melted marshmallow. You stare at it as your heart fills with ridiculous disappointment. There are people on earth suffering. What is it with safe, healthy, whiny adults who can’t seem to ever be quite happy??

So we decided to cut back on activities - and we’re four-going-on-five days into mostly writing and computer-language-learning. Well, to be clear, don’t think we dived into some super organized schedule of productivity. The nature of what we do when we invent what we want to do- is to procrastinate with chores, walks, bike rides, and meandering conversations over coffee in the morning and wine at night. Being focused, at least around here, is surrounded by a lot of flim-flam time.

Nevertheless it’s working. We are calmer. We are concentrating. Stuff is getting learned and written. Sooner or later you will see my new website. At some point Len will create a professional website for his professional self. We will be here, working on all this, over the coming weeks and months.

I remember being a kid at the county fair. My two favorite parts of carnival rides were 1.) Imagining how awesome they were going to be, and 2.) When I got off them.

It’s like that.

Flox by the railroad tracks at 7AM. 5-18-2017
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Click on the Title at right to read the article and comments: S is for System

I have a system for sleeping.

I get ready for bed, and then I read for a while. When I get v-e-r-y sleepy, I roll over and Len scratches my back mindlessly while he reads. To make this even cuter, our cat has learned to jump on the bed and head-butt my hand until I scratch her back while Len scratches mine.

The cat and I fall asleep.

After a while Len also gets sleepy, turns off his light, and crumples into his side of the bed. He sighs and then breathes slower and slower until he is asleep.

The reason I know how Len falls asleep (note that I said I have already fallen asleep …) is that when he turns off his lamp to hunker down – I wake up. Now I am sideways in the bed, brain on, eyes popped open.

When I was working I dealt with this by taking OTC sleeping pills (diphenhydramine) which usually worked. It’s pretty safe and I used it for years and I am still here. BUT -- one of my retirement goals was to sleep without a sleeping pill. Dream big, they say.

This house has three bedrooms. We set up the third as a guest room which quickly became MB’s Second Bunk. When I wake at quarter to midnight, I move to the single bed in the other room, turn on the heating pad for my toes if it’s cold – and switch on my phone to Pandora comedians (I love Kathleen Madigan) or to Ben Franklin’s World podcasts hosted by Liz Covart. With either of these options murmuring quietly, I become intrigued enough to listen, which shuts off my monkey-brain (when one’s thoughts just won’t stop jumping) – and I fall back asleep. If I wake later, I go back to wherever in the podcast I probably fell asleep, start from there, then fall asleep again.

This is my sleep system. I am not quite sure if I invented it or it invented me. I once read that adults sleep best in about the same ambiance as their life before they were born. Len was the oldest in his family, muffled noises wake him up. I’m a third kid, I love anything that sounds as if a big brother and sister are out there somewhere pleasantly chattering while my mom tells them to finish their peas.

Do you have systems that make your life work? Are you aware of them?

One of the (many, many) interesting tidbits I have learned from the Ben Franklin podcasts is this which I learned recently when I heard most of a podcast about James Madison.

The year was 1787 and 4-year old United States was going nowhere fast. The guys we refer to as “The Founding Fathers” knew they needed to invent something better than the not-working Confederation of States. The thirteen new states were mostly arguing with and threatening each other. No one could figure out how to be a united government when there were so many damn interests to consider. In the meantime, rich and powerful people were manipulating the confusion to arrange rules and regulations to make themselves even richer.

1787. That’s what she said.

Anyway, from May to September of that year a conference/congress was held in Philadelphia to hammer out what patriots could and should do. This four month meeting was where we got our Constitution - the foundation on which our government operates (and doesn’t operate). Seriously, we are in such crazy times exactly now; google Constitutional Convention! You will recognize many of the passionate arguments among those who want to keep money and power and those who want to figure out how to best share it.

Several religious denominations rearranged their documents to help or harm emerging rules and rights of religion. George Washington, an Episcopalian, attended a Roman Catholic service in order to crack some folks’ expectations that only some religions should expect to be represented or protected. Rhode Island refused to attend at all.

• 74 deputies had been selected by the state legislatures to attend.
• 55 did attend and participate. Many were late because it was not simple to travel in spring mud season.
• Only 39 signed the resulting constitution in September. Less than 40 people, none of them saints, built and delivered our constitution.

This is what caught my attention when I awoke to podcast 107 - an interview with historian Mary Sarah Bilder about James Madison‘s role and work at the Constitutional Convention.

A guy had been appointed to be the recording secretary of the on-going meetings, but that man did a slim job of it. James Madison was a rich, educated, slave-owning plantation magnate who had been involved in the American experiment towards independence for years. He had signed the Declaration of Independence. He served as a colonel in the Revolutionary War. He stayed in political service all his life, serving as President twice in the early 1800’s.

Here’s Madison’s SYSTEM that caught my attention. At the Constitutional Convention in Philly he took notes. He paid attention to whomever was talking, what the gist of their argument or concern was. Then every Wednesday and Sunday he sat down to write out in long hand what had happened. He used his best thinking, remembering, and writing skills to clearly record the messy arguments and passions, the ideas and compromises that became our Constitution.

He took notes on what he heard and saw. He designated and reserved time slots in which to collate more fully what was happening. He preserved for all of us the drama and confusion, the ridiculous and harrowing opinions and choices made by several dozen men in attendance through that long, hot summer.

You can buy Madison’s on Kindle or get it from your library (there won’t be lots of competition). “The Journal of the Debates in the Convention which Framed the Constitution of the United States. May-December 1787.”

There are, of course, on-going observations and debates about Madison’s point of view. Nothing in real history is ever a done deal. That’s why it’s so interesting.

But when looking for what’s as truthful as possible – look to the men and women who have systems. Who listen and take notes. Who collect their notes and observations in a reasonable order, time, and place.

We are surrounded by people who have opinions. The difference between a foolishly opinionated jerk and a determined participant in the political system – of either party – is that we should respect the women and men who have systems for observation and later for reflection.

There’s more to say; I just started thinking about this today.

Systems are where humans try to turn aspects of their complicated lives into habit – so that they will have enough time and energy to pay attention to, think about, and respond to what is important.

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Click on the Title at right to read the article and comments: R is for Relevant Advice for Graduates

I am working on some other writing projects, so my alphabetical essays may feature old columns for a while… This one is from 2005. I bet you don’t remember it!
Maybe it will help you decide what to write in the card for the high school graduates in your life.

Was it only seven years ago my son's class of skinny, tubby, short, and gangly 6th graders started at Walden III School? This week I watched those same kids receive their ROPE medals. (ROPE is a yearlong class of oral exams and presentations each student makes to a committee of teachers and other adults, proving they learned what they were supposed to learn. Aren't you glad YOU don't have to do this?)

It seems just yesterday all the boys were short, all the girls were shrieking gigglers who traveled in little clots and bunches.

Where did these tall young men come from? And whoa.... When did they learn to smile like that?

When did we turn around for just a minute -- and when we turned back the girls had blossomed into wonderful young women filled with their own power and character?

When did we stop leading our children all the time -- and start leaning? Well, with our help or in spite of it, they have grown up.

I watched the graduating seniors this week, wondering this. What insight do I wish people had offered me back when I was a kid with future unrolling before me as empty and rich as a Dakota prairie?

I asked my 20-year old what advice she would pass on if she could. While we were talking, the 13-year old wandered by. (I bet you can pick out her snappy advice.)

• Learn to listen. Listening is not simply "not talking." It isn't the blank places in a conversation where you are deciding what your next story or response is going to be. It definitely isn't the lull before the verbal storm. Listening is turning your eyes to the person who's speaking, letting their words into your ears and mind. Pay attention as if that person were giving you directions to a lost treasure, on a tape that's about to self-destruct. If you love music, you may have this skill already. Listen to people around you as if what they are saying is lyrics not quite yet set to tune. Listening is everything. People are going to be telling you all sorts of essential stuff for years to come. Learn how to hear it.

• No matter what they tell you, high school might not have been the best years of your life. College might not be either. Hang in there.

• Always have at least one wearily respectable outfit for job interviews, funerals, and visiting older folks who faint at the sight of that part that shows when your pants are too low.

• Stay away from snapping turtles. Especially when you are wearing baggy pants.

• Go outside every day even if it's only to stand under a tree and watch it rain for 15 minutes. You need the vitamin D and you need the magic.

• Credit cards are dangerous. If you think your mom is a nag, boy, you don't want to know what collection agencies will do to the life formerly known as yours.

• Avoid saying "like" or "you know" to professors or bosses. It makes them not take you seriously.

• If you go to college, don't cut classes. You are paying $30 to $120 for each and every one of those babies. Get your money's worth.

• Make phone calls. Adult life is jammed with questions. Where should the scholarship people send their check? Why is the car shivering on hills? What time does the movie start? Does one have to know how to drive to apply for that job? When does the clinic offer free vaccinations? Would that attractive person ever-maybe-somehow talk to you?

• Don't wait around for your parents to make your calls. The early bird may get the worm but the person who makes phone calls gets a life.

• Get a job. If you haven't had one of these yet, by all means, get one now. It doesn't have to be a great job, anything legal that pays minimum wage is better than watching cartoons with your little brother. This is also true about going-nowhere jobs. The less money you make at a job, the more likely you are to work with people who have awesome stories. Once you've washed dishes with a grown man who is doing it as his third job so he can send money back to his family in another country, well, that will teach you something three majors in the humanities might never touch.

• When someone enters the room; roommate, sibling, parents, friends, your dog, look up and say hi.

You have a unique personality. Some kinds of people and situations will make you feel happy; others will make you feel inadequate, stupid, or worse. This may seem like a no-brainer, but you will be surprised how often in life you might forget.

Go after the amazing way it feels to be alive when your mind is engaged, time flies, and you smile just because the moment feels good. This is called the pursuit of happiness. Go for it.

Congratulations, Graduates. We're proud of you.

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Click on the Title at right to read the article and comments: Q is for Querns

A quern is the 10,000-year old Cuisinart. The photo I am using today is of a quern found in southern Arizona and set outside the door to the park headquarters of Organ Pipe National Monument, I recognized it because I’ve written about querns in the past!

A Quern is two rocks fitted out to grind stuff between them, generally to grind grain into flour. There are many, many designs of querns but in all of them, the bottom rock is some variation on a roundish flattish rock, the top rock is designed in some way that allows that rock to be swiveled or churned in a steady way over the bottom rock. This 2-rock system is called a Quern. To be more precise, the bottom rock is the quern, the top one is a handstone.

If you want to know more, go to Wikipedia and follow the crazy words. Like nixtamalization using a metate; Maya words for this machine and process. Or, in Scotland there was thirlage; which was the manor-run area in which you lived where you were forced to hire the local miller to grind your grain - so that the local lord and lady and miller could earn more money from your hard work and your crop. If you had a quern, you had to hide it. If they found it - they broke it, which is why museums in Scotland have a lot of broken querns. You have probably heard the rumor that poor Scots people were not fond of obeying laws imposed on them by lords, ladies, and the Brits.

A quern is a heavy, useful 2-part machine that shows us that being human has always required a wagon load of muscle with a dollop of smarts.

People figured out they liked to eat grain. They figured out that if you beat the grain up a bit, you could make bread and many other helpful, sometimes tasty, generally filling foods. A quern is a tool that allowed groups of people to work together in families and teams, to divide up the work and make a meal. It was a tool to radically multiply sources nourishment for humans.
A quern was one of humankind’s first assets. With it a community had a way to get through a variety of seasons and weather patterns. It helped turn this month’s bumper crop into flour with which to sustain the community months from now.

Querns helped even out the ups and downs, rains and droughts. It helped turn the inedible into supper. It made it possible for people to live a distance from their fields of grain. It allowed commerce, turning harvest into commodity.

The individuals, family, tribe, community who owned and controlled the quern – became the ones who could rule others.

It was a tool for sustenance. It could also become a tool for wealth, exploitation, and power.

Like health insurance.

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Click on the Title at right to read the article and comments: Zoey - P is for Pup

Our daughter adopted a little stray pup last fall from a shelter in Chicago. Zoey was my introduction to little pups. I thought apartment sized dogs were yappy and snippy and too much work. I didn’t understand, in my heart of hearts, why people wanted a 15-pound dog.

Zoey educated me. I do not know how she managed all that soul in that tiny body. She barked if she thought my daughter was in peril, for which I respected her mightily. Most of the time she tip-tapped around on her tiny paws, throwing her own fur ball and then running like The Blazes to go get it. Her even more favorite activity was snuggling on the sofa next to my daughter (or whoever else was on the sofa) to help humans watch TV. I have never known a dog who loved to be under afghans that much!

They also went for lots of walk in the city. Sometimes she rode in the back seat of the car to help my kid come to visit Len and me.

Zoey was an impeccable guest. Delicate, loving, interested, ready to sit on or next to anyone’s lap.

More than a month ago she started seeming sick. Sometimes she was fine. Other times she didn’t want to eat and her digestive system would go frighteningly out of whack. Daughter took to her their vet four times in a month. Zoey had blood work, an x-ray and an ultrasound. No clear answer popped up.

Last week we went to get Zoey to bring her here. Zoey was so low when she was on a downswing that our daughter was afraid to spend the whole day at work. It was scary.

Len and I thought maybe she was getting better. But she wasn’t. This morning we took her to be put to sleep. Zoey doesn’t need to go through any more nights like the last few and either do we or our daughter.

I’m posting this because so many of you are our friends. Len and I don’t have the energy to retell this story over and over.

Zoey was a loving, delightful, smart, soulful little pup. We will miss her like crazy.

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Click on the Title at right to read the article and comments: Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz sermon of 4-30-2017

Recently I re-watched the movie “Apocalypse Now”. It starts with Willard the CIA assassin, mumbling importantly to himself - as only a white male CIA assassin who treasures his own guilty conscience can mumble; “I wanted a mission - and for my sins they gave me one.”

First thing that came to my mind when Jennifer and Meg asked if I would preach today… “I wanted a mission – and for my sins they gave me one.”

Who We Welcome is Who We Are:

I have liked the Old Testament story of Ruth ever since I was a kid. But in seminary, when I learned it is not an “Aww Shucks, Ma’am” cowboy romance, I started liking it even more. The story of Ruth is not the particular romance of Ruth and Boaz. It IS a story of dangerous poverty, racism, and sexism – and what happened when good adults welcomed each other in an unsafe place and time.

In case you were not raised drenched in Hebrew or Christian stories (I can’t riff on Star Wars…) – let me retell the tale of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz.

The year being described was about 1100 BCE, although this story is written down and collated into Hebrew Torah between 550-400BCE. This 500-year discrepancy is important and we will talk about it later.

The Hebrews, only a couple hundred years past Moses leading them out of Egypt, were developing into a fairly cohesive culture of monotheistic Yahweh worshippers. But of course there were other nations and religions around them – the Hebrews were not the only culture in town. One of the other nations was Moab.

Because geography is a bit important here – let’s do some palm geography. Palm geography (I made up the phrase) is part of my Michigan heritage. I grew up observing Michigan adults, when they would meet each other, showing each other where they lived by pointing to some part of the mitten of their hand.

So, this is the Mediterranean. Down here at the curve of my hand was a skinny strip of land where the Philistines lived. About a hundred years down the road from our Ruth story – little David will sling-shot his smooth little stones -- and kill the Philistine giant Goliath.

Next to Philistia is Judah. Judah is the mothership of modern Israel. In Judah is Bethlehem, the hometown of Naomi.

Next to Judah is the skinny Sea of Galilee. The Jordan River starts north of it, runs through this Sea of Galilee and then south out of it where is dead-ends in the Dead Sea. On the other side of the Galilean Sea is Moab. Moab is a Semitic tribe of people that is in almost all other mentions in the Bible, is regarded as inferior people and culture. Hebrews did NOT esteem Moabite people at all.

About 10 years before our story begins there was a famine in Judah. Naomi and her husband - Elimelech - both Hebrew - leave Judah to move to Moab where conditions are better. They have two sons who will grow up and marry local Moabite girls – Ruth and Orpah. (By the way our American icon Oprah - was named for Orpah, except her mom misspelled it.)
After ten years in Moab, illness comes to the men in this family. Naomi’s husband dies. Later the married sons die. This leaves three vulnerable women in a dangerously patriarchal society (are there any other kind of patriarchal societies?) They don’t have property or money; they are in danger of abject poverty – and as unprotected females – probably worse. Some things don’t change much.

Naomi tells her two daughters-in-law to go back to their Moabite birth families, back to the protection of their fathers and brothers. Orpah feels bad about this, but she leaves.

Ruth says no, she’s not going back. Her poetical lines are, “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.”

People through the centuries have interpreted this plea and promise in many different ways.
• Maybe Ruth was raised in an abusive family and it isn’t safe to go.
• Maybe her family was so desperately poor she doesn’t want to burden them with her own hunger and needs.
• Maybe she and Naomi have developed a mother-daughter relationship.
• Or they have become close, close friends.
• Maybe Ruth and Naomi have become lovers and partners.
• Maybe Naomi’s Hebrew faith appeals to Ruth. No one is certain of the religion in Moab, probably they made sacrifices to the god Chemosh; there are rumors of occasional human sacrifice. And there were probably also ‘exploitive to women sexual practices’ that were part of the Semitic religion in Moab. So Hebrew culture may have seemed more respectful of life and Ruth was perceptive enough to want that.
• Maybe the Hebrew father-in-law and sons were wonderful husbands who opened Ruth’s eyes to better companions than she had ever known.

All we know is that Ruth told Naomi she wasn’t going back home and Naomi assented to this. They are two women with few resources other than mutual respect, love, and desperation – kind of an ancient Thelma and Louise - only it’s going to end better.

They go back to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem.

I have a hometown that is not Waukesha, as do many of you do. Mine is Ludington, Michigan. (point to where it is on my palm.) I rarely go back since my parents and siblings passed away, but I still have relatives there. I know a lot about how that town and how people are related. I recognize the interconnections of most of the roads and street; I know the sounds one would hear – the car ferry horn coming in and out of the harbor, whippoorwills at night, and the sound of Lake Michigan’s waves slapping the breakwater when one walks out to the lighthouse. Most people in my hometown are conservative, but I also know that once they know you, they are hugely generous and respectful. Knowing that gives me some clues as to how I would survive if I needed to move back.

That’s Naomi. She’s been gone a long time. She comes back poor and unprotected by a male’s name, but she’s no dummy. She knows Bethlehem and its families; who they are and how they are related.

Naomi has probably already explained local customs to Ruth. Particularly this Semitic farming tradition, which they are going to need to exploit. When farmers harvest grain – it is custom is to drop some grain on the ground so that poor people can follow the workers to pick up that fallen grain. Ancient social services …

Naomi has observed that her husband’s cousin Boaz became successful while she was gone. He owns land and has farm hands. Also, he doesn’t seem too married. Naomi tells Ruth to glean in Boaz’ fields - so Ruth does this. Boaz sees her and recognizes that she is his cousin’s wife’s foreign daughter-in-law. An undocumented field laborer, as it were – yet he tells his men, for whatever reasons we want to ascribe to him; he tells them to leave plenty of barley on the ground for the Moab gleaner.

Naomi sees how much barley Ruth is gleaning – she tells Ruth to ONLY glean in Boaz’ fields. She knows something is up.

When the barley harvest is complete and the thrashing is done, it’s finally time to party down. Partying in Judah 500 BCE means beer, food, revelry, and sleeping all night on the threshing floor - possibly because wives don’t want those stinky, drunk men coming home. Which means, where there are a bunch of drinking and celebrating men, who have probably just gotten their paychecks for the season – there will also be women who will offer sex for love, food, drink, and money. The threshing floors have this reputation. (What happens on the threshing floor stays on the threshing floor.)

Naomi tells Ruth to sneak very late in the night onto the threshing floor, find her way around sleeping men until she finds Boaz. Uncover the relevant parts of his clothing and hers. Instigate sex. Euphemisms are used, but what I said is what she did.

This is a trick to get the protection of Boaz who has money, power, and land in a place and time where women rarely have any. Where there is not equality of power and rights, there is conniving.

The women are anxious. If this ruse doesn’t work, Boaz has the power to do what he wants to an unprotected female. Ruth could be raped, strangled, and disposed of before the sun comes up. No one would ask too many questions of a landowner like Boaz.

But, the ploy works. Boaz wakes to discover he has spent the night with this woman – and he is not furious. He says OK, he will marry Ruth. But first they have to unravel the custom of the time that says if a man dies without leaving sons to carry on his name and property – then his next closest male kin is obligated to marry the widow, produce children by her, and leave his property to those sons.

Boaz knows there is a closer cousin/uncle in Bethlehem who ought to marry Ruth. After the night on the threshing floor, Boaz goes to the town center, finds that particular man, says he Boaz wants to marry Naomi’s widowed daughter-in-law. That guy agrees because he doesn’t want to have or leave his property to half Moabite children.

The good news is: Ruth marries Boaz. Boaz proceeds to legally protect both Ruth and Naomi. Ruth has kids with Boaz. Their first son is Obed. When Obed grows up, he has a son named Jesse. When Jesses grows up, he will have the little boy with the slingshot - who will become King David.


That’s the story. It’s only four chapters long – you can read it in a half hour to see how much I did or didn’t make up…

What are we to make of this short tale?

First of all - This story is NOT typical Western Literature. The stories we are most used to have one predominant character with whom we will probably identify. Curiously, this doesn’t apply to most of Jesus’ parables nor does it apply to this story about Ruth.

Instead of asking you to identify with one character–ancient stories present a small assortment of likely characters – and you probably gravitate to one that resonates in you. Which character is you in the Ruth tale? Older Naomi returning to her hometown with an unexpected dependent? Young widow Ruth who knows inside herself to not walk away from a good relationship, even if it makes her vulnerable in a society that doesn’t welcome her? Boaz who likely has already has had a full life and now this younger woman shows up and he has to find within himself the grace to accept the joy and work - and babies! - of a new relationship? This story invites us all in. Do you have to make peace with your past? Do you have to believe in your own longing for relationship? Do you have to keep working and dealing when all you wanted was barley soup, a couple beers, and a long night dozing in your Barcalounger?

There is also that historical reality I alluded to in the beginning. Scholars can tell by how the writer lays out the story, that he or she - I am fascinated that two out of three adults in this story are strong, brave women. This seems female to me – anyways the writer wants you to understand this is a story about the 11th century BCE. King David hits the scene about 1000 BCE; we are supposed to understand that Ruth is the great-grandmother of David.

Yet scholars tell us this story originates somewhere around 550 BCE.

Why is that interesting?

Nebuchadnezzar (the II but who’s counting?) was the Babylonian leader who conquered Judah about 600 BCE. He destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. He kidnapped Hebrews to export them as slaves to other lands. You may recognize this verse from Psalms or from Godspell: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” (Zion is a poetical name for Jerusalem.) That was written by Hebrews in exile.

Then about 50 years later, around 550 BCE, political reality mellowed out and many Hebrews were able to return to Judah. Except when they returned to their beloved land – it was different and parts of it were destroyed. They start to rebuild a temple in Jerusalem but nothing feels as “holy and inspiring” as their handed-down memories of life back when “people worked hard and lived moral and upright lives.”

Priests condemn Hebrews who are not living strictly; they blame the difficulties of the modern era on the so-called lax morals and practices of the returning Hebrews. They preach that citizens are being corrupted by the unfamiliar practices of foreigners among them. Some priests actually instruct Hebrew men who married women from other nations -- to divorce their foreign wives and get remarried to proper Hebrew women.

There is a huge and powerful message going on that says what’s wrong with society is foreign people, especially foreign women, lax morals, and lack of respect for the laws, rules, and customs of olden times.

Into this overwhelming world view – come this unexpected story of Ruth the Moabite woman who will not abandon Naomi her penniless mother-in-law. Naomi is realistically apprehensive about her own chances for a secure future, yet she allows this younger woman, against all that is common sense - to accompany her. The two women move back to the heart of the Hebrew holy land where they work hard, think harder, live as upright lives as they can manage in desperate circumstances – which in turn catches the attention of a good and decent Hebrew man who welcomes them with respect - and extra grain.

That welcoming of the powerless, of women, of the unwanted immigrant from Moab –- THIS is the tale used to launch the story of King David.

The startling message here is that golden age of Hebrew nationalism did not start in purity and rules-keeping. It started in respect, friendship, risk, and welcoming the stranger among them.

And here is another interesting thing. Hebrew law was comprehensive. There were rules for EVERYTHING people were likely to do, eat, and own. There were very clear laws about how to deal with widows who don’t have sons. Get them married off to the dead man’s brother. But even here, the story teller of Ruth is saying look – ALL your rules and you don’t know what to do with a foreign widow who is the daughter-in-law of a Hebrew woman. This situation is not covered in the bazillion rules for Hebrew conduct. So they have to make up for themselves what is the proper thing to do –Boaz negotiates with the one guy is town how is closer by blood than himself – but do you see what they are doing?

This situation is new. These two people want to get married -- and we don’t have clearly established laws about what to do. Hah, as if this is never going to come up again!

What Boaz does is portray the religious value of Hesed. Hesed is the Hebrew word for welcoming others, for living and giving generously, for treasuring the humanity in all the people we meet. Hesed is the ordinary and extraordinary moral characteristic of “loving-kindness”.

This small story of Ruth portrays a new aspect of Hebrew religion. Up until this time, people understood the presence of Yahweh in two ways. One was in miracles – such as Moses encountering the burning bush. The other place Yahweh resided was in religious rituals conducted by priests.

Ruth is one of the first stories to suggest that the Divine is present where people act with hesed, loving-kindness. Purity and spirituality grow out of living in loving-kindness in one’s family and community.

The little 4-chapter book of Ruth is squeezed into the historical books of the Hebrew story – Joshua, Judges, the Samuels, Kings, and Chronicles. Every year, seven weeks after Passover, is the 1-day festival of Shavuot (sha-vooith) where receiving the Torah is celebrated. Synagogues and temples are filled with greenery. People eat cheese and milk (Did one of the Tribes of Israel end up in Wisconsin?). During the celebration of Shavuot, the story of Ruth and Naomi and Boaz is written to the assembled congregation. Hesed - the loving-kindness that is the root of Hebrew culture and law - is lifted up as the heart of Torah.

We are not the first generation to live in a powerful reign of prejudice, discrimination, hatred of the immigrant, expulsion of the non-native.

The story of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz encourages us. Welcoming the stranger has always been and will continue to be the spiritual home of people seeking to live meaningful lives in unholy times.

Who we welcome becomes who we are.

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