WIT is happy to publish a guest post from Nancy Blackman. She describes herself in the following way: “I love all things food like a female version of Anthony Bourdain. I am drawn to small gatherings with meaningful conversation and have learned that creative and cultural things are important for my soul. I wrap myself in creativity like many in Hollywood dress to go out for dinner.”
I confess I come to the stories in the Bible with my own lens – the lens of a half-Korean, half-European woman who was raised as a Third Culture Kid. I admit that reading stories like Naomi and Ruth raise questions of where I should stand and how I should act.
I have one foot of understanding in an honor-shame culture and one foot of understanding in an individualist culture. On my Korean side I understand what it means to enter into an arranged marriage where the woman relinquishes ownership of her life to her husband’s family. On my Western side I understand what it means to be able to make choices and have the freedom to see the choices through.
In the midst of growing up and learning to make decisions for myself I was also part of my Korean family that has an unwritten clause of taking care of one another and showing respect for my elders. For someone who was shielded from this clause but had a front row seat I was able to witness giving from a place outside of oneself.
Being shielded meant that I was given a pass on having to conform to traditions. I clearly remember attending one of my male cousin’s weddings and being in my aunt and uncle’s house with a whole host of family. On their wedding night the wedding couple stayed in a nearby hotel, but when I emerged to the kitchen the next morning I saw the new wife finishing up in the kitchen. I asked why she was there. All the women said, “Sit down, sit down!” I cringed to what I was agreeing to by just sitting down at the table, but kept my eyes peeled on this young woman. She was washing the breakfast dishes. In the Korean culture, a bride becomes a member of her husband’s family and if she is the youngest woman, which normally is the case, she is expected to cook and clean for her “new” family … even if it is the morning after their wedding.
In fact, when all of the family gets together it is the duty of the youngest woman to cook for the entire lot. I was never expected to fulfill this role even though I was always the youngest woman. In fact, I never knew about this “duty” until later in life. The you’re-not-full- Korean shield kept me from understanding familial duties and expectations in many situations. What some might consider to be a privilege can be confusing for those who do have some understanding of two cultures with no solid footing in either. What I have learned, however, is that my position allows me to choose, but not having expectations of me shields me from a great wonderment – the beauty of committing to stay.
When I look at a story such as Ruth and Naomi, I understand what a big deal it was for Naomi to release her daughter-in- laws. Naomi understood the patriarchal culture and what was expected of her and her daughter-in- laws, but in releasing them they were being freed from the expectations. Personally, I would have been more like Orpah and so that makes me curious of Ruth.
This internal tension of the Western versus Eastern values causes confusion in certain situations. What would it have been like if I had been “expected” to cook for the entire family? They might have lost weight because I didn’t know how to cook Korean dishes. Would I have learned about honor from a different perspective? Would I have learned humility? Would I not have learned about empowerment? Would I have a deeper understanding of the inner workings of a patriarchal culture?
Ruth’s response to stay honored the relationship not only of daughter to mother-in- law, but also to Naomi’s God. Ruth was choosing to stay because she wanted to be around the only God that she knew and saw, which was through Naomi. Sometimes we intentionally choose to have people in our life that we know will challenge us to be better or help us to become more holy.
When my dad was still alive we would often have long conversations about the rumblings in my heart and brain. I imagine a conversation about Ruth would be something like this:
N: I was reading the book of Ruth and thinking about the relationships. What do you think her role as a woman was?
Dad: She was a woman who didn’t have choices. She was born in order to get married and have offspring.
N: What do you think of her as a woman?
Dad: She didn’t have choices until the end. What do you think of Ruth as a woman?
N: She was brave.
With all the choices that I have been offered, the shield has always protected me from being too Korean and society made sure to let me know that I wasn’t white. My parents were so vigilant to teach me that whatever I wanted to do in life, I could if I studied and worked hard. They did not stop me when I headed towards a profession in art nor playing sports because they saw my passion and diligence. In that respect I was also being shielded from educational expectations of the Korean culture. They also did not stop me from spending time with my Korean family, watching the inner workings of their life and engaging with them one on one when I could.
Here is where the crossroad emerges in my heart and brain. I think of the courage that Ruth had. The bible uses the word “determined” to describe Ruth (1:18). She was determined to follow the God that Naomi had modeled for her. We can have determination to get through school because we think the rewards will be better than if we didn’t, but what would it look like if a person who is “expected” to go to college is then given a choice to choose their own path? What do you think happens to that person if they then choose to go to college? They are allowed to own their choice. Something internally happens. There is a shift, which I refer to as empowerment.
Ruth made a choice to follow a mother-in- law that was releasing her from her “duties” as a daughter, but in Ruth’s choice to stay she was standing up for the ability to choose her future. I think her determination came from the understanding that she was being given a voice and Naomi respected her for it. “When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her” (Ruth 1:18, NRSV).
Ruth’s future held a lot of uncertainties but she was now allowed to own her future. That’s what happens when we are able to choose. We become empowered. There is also sacrifice. When allowed to choose, we are sacrificing comfort and familiarity to discomfort and uncertainty. It becomes a path of resistance. This isn’t like standing in the cereal aisle wondering which one is healthier. This is making a choice that changes the trajectory of your life.
I often wonder if the Western selfie culture that screams, “I want, I want” and manuals of how to doesn’t allow people to be empowered to choose and if they were would they choose a path of resistance and be responsible to it? With each turn of life also proclaiming that individuality is the best way, does the Western culture allow us to understand what it means to sacrifice for family—to stay because of a greater good that will come from that choice? What happens if I choose to give up my individuality and be a part of a community in a way that allows me to learn something new about God? What if this community encourages me to rise up to be the woman God has always wanted me to be?
So, here I am reading the story of Ruth who chose to honor something bigger than herself. I often read this story cringing when I get to the part where Ruth tells Naomi that she will stay with her. I yell, “No, Ruth, no. She’s letting you go. Don’t you get it? You’d have freedom! Don’t you understand that if you stay you would have to change?” Oh….that.
Some people call this faith. I call it bravery. In one sentence she changed the trajectory of her life. It reminded me of the movie “Sliding Doors” with Gwyneth Paltrow. In one decision, Ruth was swept into a world that was not hers but felt right.
We all make hundreds of decisions every day. Some are bigger than others. To be able to make decisions requires courage. To be able to stay or go is a big decision and either way might not necessarily be bad, but to make one decision over another requires a certain amount of guts. If you have done this recently, celebrate that you were courageous!
When we make a difficult choice to commit our lives to something we endure a huge transformation throughout the many seasons that will come. No one can put a price tag on transformation. No one.
What is God asking you to sacrifice today in order for you and your community to be transformed? What choices would you make today that would allow you to choose God over the path of least resistance?
Photo credit: Gerd Altmann https://pixabay.com/en/users/geralt-9301/