This week I had the privilege of spending three days with a group of pastors and ministry workers on how to be more effective teachers of the Word. Our instructor was Todd Kelly, from LRI (Leadership Resources International). Todd is part of a unique organization that operates all around the globe, encouraging and equipping pastors in what they call a “Movement of the Word” (see here for its out-working in New Zealand).
It is all driven by a simple conviction: the Word of God is what creates, builds and multiplies the church. Many pastors forget this and find themselves wearing themselves out doing all kinds of things which are not bad in of themselves but cause them to neglect the main task to which God has called them to do. The result is their ministries are not effective. People do not experience lasting change.
So how then do people experience lasting change? When they are transformed inwardly by the power of God’s Spirit working through His Word. And how does this occur? When the ones teaching them are inwardly transformed by the Word themselves. God intends His Word not just to impart information, but to bring about personal transformation. It isn’t enough to be simply comforted or challenged by the Word; we need to be changed by the Word, as we are hearing it.
And that is exactly what Todd modelled for us over the three days he was with us. We immersed ourselves the entire time in one text: the book of Ruth. Todd didn’t lecture us. That is not what this is about. He guided us into a journey of discovery of seeing things that we don’t normally see. They didn’t appear instantaneously – and this was part of the lesson for us. It required patience.
We had to slow down.
We had to linger long in the Word.
We had to deeply ponder the Word.
We had to seek God for the answers.
Only then did the God-intended meaning appear.
Once we saw it, the experience was one so rich and rewarding, it had the effect of changing our hearts. We were being transformed – right then and there.
Let me share a little example from the first day. The book of Ruth opens with Naomi and her husband Elimelech leaving the land of Israel in search of food. They travel to the land of Moab and stay there. While they are living there Naomi’s husband dies and so does her two sons. She is left now with two bereft daughters-in-law. She can’t provide for them and she has no other sons for them. She informs these two young Moabite widows that it’s time for her to return to her homeland and they should stay and find new husbands for themselves. One of them kisses her goodbye but the other – Ruth, clings to her. And we have that wonderful declaration of loyalty:
“Don’t plead with me to abandon you or to return and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you live, I will live; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD punish me, and do so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:16–17)
We all love that part and tend to camp there. But as we were reading and thinking about this chapter we saw something that were a little disturbing. It was Naomi’s view of what happened in her life.
“My life is much too bitter for you to share, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me” (verse 13)
“Don’t call me Naomi . Call me Mara ,” she answered, “for the Almighty has made me very bitter.” (verse 20)
“I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty.” (verse 21a)
“Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has opposed me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?” (verse 21b)
We started thinking about this. If anyone in our congregation started talking like that we would book them in for counselling. They have a faulty view of God – and their own circumstances. They need their theology straightened out.
That’s our typical, knee-jerk response. That’s because we don’t understand people as God understands them. Nor do we deal patiently and gently with people when they are experiencing trauma and or going through a crisis. That’s why God puts people like Naomi in the Bible. It’s to help us be better shepherds and leaders of others.
We began to put ourselves Naomi’s shoes. She had just lost her husband and her two sons. She is without any security or hope for the future. She has no one to take care of her or provide for her. She is completely on her own. And we expect her to be upbeat? We needed to give this woman (and others like her), a break.
Todd then began to talk pastorally to us. “People who are going through trauma or experiencing great grief say things they don’t always mean. They know what they are saying isn’t completely true, but that’s the way they feel. We need to give them space. We need to give them grace.”
His words pierced my heart. He was right. I thought about how impatient I have been with my wife during some very difficult times in our lives. I thought about some of the times I’ve been insensitive to people in suffering over the years, thinking I was doing them a favour by correcting their theology.
“Don’t call me Naomi (pleasant), call me Mara (bitter).” Naomi was experiencing a crisis in identity. But don’t we all, at times, when we are down and out? “I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty.” Well, that wasn’t entirely true. She had a homeland to go to. She had a lot of people who are excited to have her back. And she had a wonderful daughter-in-law called Ruth. But this is how she felt. And it’s OK – as long as she doesn’t stay in that place – which she won’t. Because God was about to do something wonderful in her life that was going to blow her socks off.
But if I wrote about that, it would be giving the game away. Go and read the rest of the book of Ruth and you’ll discover it for yourself.