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Illustration of Ruth, Naomi and Orpah from the Bible. Courtesy of the Providence Lithograph Company

Dear Ruth

‘How I need stories like yours when the way is lonely, dark — or seems unending’

By Carolyn Pogue

Dear Ruth,

It's been years since I last wrote, but I never forget you. We've been telling your story for 3,000 years — especially at weddings — because I think that everyone wants a companion like you.

Summer is wedding season, so your story will be remembered again and again. It's the season for stories and travel, too. So it made me want to reconnect.

Often, I have pictured you setting out on that famous journey as a young widow on the edge of the unknown. I picture you standing on the road with Orpah, your sister-in-law, and Naomi, your mother-in-law. Naomi, fed up with Moab, decided to go home to Bethlehem, bitter and defeated. Because her husband and both her sons were dead, how could she feel any other way?

You and Orpah offer to go with her, but she's in no mood for company. Orpah returns to her mother, but you were stubborn. "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay,” you said. “Your people will be my people and your God my God.” 

It meant that you had to leave your own family to accompany an old woman into the wilderness for a weeklong journey. Ruth, I've seen that land — up and around the north end of the Dead Sea. You faced desert winds that could blind or bury, land that sheltered thieves, snakes and scorpions. You crossed the River Jordan, climbed 2,000 feet above the sea level to reach to Bethlehem. You must have carried water, food and anything you cared about. After all, there's no mention of a donkey. But even with one, it would have been a marathon, especially given that you also carried your grief. So what was your secret?

I looked for a clue in The Wanderer, Sang Chul Lee's autobiography. Have you seen the Very Reverend Dr. Lee over where you are, Ruth? I hope so. You two would have stories to share about venturing into the unknown.

Lee was born in 1924 and — before coming to Canada — had been a refugee three times. He tells a compelling story in his book. He had been imprisoned and tortured by Japanese soldiers, he writes. But after the war, he had the opportunity for revenge when he walked with a stream of refugees and saw a defeated Japanese soldier. "No one would know or care if I had killed the guy," he related. "All I had to do was pick up a rock and smash his head." Instead, he picked up that experience — along with the experience of being a stranger in four different countries — to become, a "pastor, prophet and pioneer." The first church he served in Canada in 1965 was a Japanese congregation in Vancouver.

In 1988, Lee became moderator of the United Church of Canada. It was a turbulent time for the church as we wrestled with what it meant to fully include the gay community, and how to live out the 1986 Apology to Native peoples. He died in January this year.

I remember Lee's common sense, deep faith and delightful, gentle laughter. Were you like that, Ruth? When Naomi turned her back on Moab, she declared that she wanted to be called Mara, which means bitter. Did you become her light in the darkness? Were you the one who urged, "Just one more step. One more."

How I need stories like yours. When the way is lonely, dark — or seems unending, I remember you. Thank you both.



This is the seventh in Carolyn Pogue’s “Letter to a Spiritual Ancestor” series.

Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a Calgary author and longtime Observer contributor. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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