There is just so much that can be said about the book of Ruth. Because our lessons do such a fine job of covering the text and not knowing exactly what Mrs. Needham is going to be saying in her next lectures, I am staying out of the text and looking more behind the scenes.
As long as I've known about the story of Ruth, I have identified more with Ruth than with Naomi. I suppose because of the age difference. This is the first time in several years that I've studied this book. Now I have something else in common with Ruth. I know what it's like to move to and live in a foreign country. I think most of you are aware that my family and I lived in Naples, Italy, for over three years. I want to share with you some of my experiences of learning to cope in a foreign country. Then, hopefully, when we read that Ruth moved from Moab to Bethlehem, we'll have a deeper appreciation of the woman, and we'll realize there is more to this story than just letters on a page. There had to have been some anxiety along the way.
I'm sorry to be using some of my personal experiences, but hopefully we'll come away with a deeper respect for Ruth in seeing some of the mental and physical sacrifices a move to a foreign country brings about.
Some of you have visited foreign countries. Occasionally a tourist will experience a small amount of culture shock. I've never seen a worse case of culture shock in a tourist than I saw in Michael's father the first time he visited us. He was in a daze the whole time, rarely spoke, and only did what he was told to do. It was like he had put his brain in neutral. His wife said it wasn't until two to three weeks after they got back home, and got their slides back from being developed, that he started smiling again and realized he had enjoyed his first vacation abroad. They came back the next year, and he had a great time.
Usually you don't see much culture shock in a tourist, though. They know they are there for a brief time, and then they will be back in the good ol' U.S. of A. Culture shock is much more prevalent among people who will be living in a foreign land for a period of time. Everyone goes through it to some extent. It's unavoidable. Our missionaries experience it. People have different ways of showing it and different ways of dealing with it.
When I got my first look at Naples, at about 9:00 a.m., after not sleeping so well on the plane, with two small fidgety, anxious, tired children (which is how Mom and Dad were feeling), the lieutenant who was suppose to meet us at the airport was not there--no warm welcome. And I got a look at the flat-roofed houses and buildings, strange people speaking a strange language, litter EVERYWHERE and its odors, strange looking umbrella trees, men urinating along the side of the road. I remember thinking, "If I were just visiting here, I would think this was a charming place, but I actually have to LIVE with this stuff!" I wasn't sure I could cope. I was in a daze. I wanted to get back on that plane and go wherever it was going.
Within a few days I wrote my first letter back home. I didn't write my Mom or Sister. I knew my mind was too unstable to write a nice confidently written, "We're doing fine. We love it here" letter. I didn't want them worrying about me. Instead, I wrote my friend Alisa Davidson. I don't know how she read it. It was very obvious from my penmanship that my hand was shaking - from nerves. My thoughts were confused - erratic - excited one paragraph, scared the next. Had it not been for the small congregation of Christians there, I don't know how long it would have taken for me to relax, but they were a great source of comfort during those first trying few weeks, and throughout the whole three years.
I wonder how much Ruth went through all of that. Did she take one look at Bethlehem and want to turn back to Moab? She did a very wise thing - she ventured out and got busy. It takes quite a bit of determination in a person to venture out of the house when put in a strange environment. I don't know how long Ruth and Naomi had been in Bethlehem when she asks permission to go out and glean the fields for food. It sounds like an extremely short period of time, but it was probably just as beneficial for her mental health as it was for her physical health. The tendency in a new and strange situation is to withdraw - to hole up in your own dwelling place and never venture out - never have to face those new and strange things waiting outside the door to trap you, make you look foolish, make you feel inadequate because you can't communicate, can't count the money, don't know the proper way or customary thing to do. You might stick out like a sore thumb - get taken like a sucker, look like an idiot!
While living in Naples I saw several American military wives who just couldn't cope with living in a foreign land. After a few month's of trying, they were packing up and going back to America, leaving their husbands to finish out their 3- or 4-year obligation there alone. It is an emotional strain on any marriage or relationship to have to cope with these new and strange things. Michael and I were warned that our tour of duty in Naples would either strengthen or break our marriage. The divorce and separation rate was high among those who just could not cope. Fortunately for Ruth, she had a very strong, close relationship with Naomi, or she would have been on the first train back to Moab in a short length of time.
One of the wisest things the military has ever done to cut their cost on having to send people back home prematurely and to keep morale high is to require each new military personnel to take a week long ICR (Intercultural Relations Class). Spouses are very strongly encouraged to take it, too. And the sooner the better - preferably the first full week they are there. We spent two days learning how to use Italian money, how to calculate the exchange rate, essential Italian phrases, driving laws --both the legal, written laws and the laws of the common Italian driver that aren't written in any book, but had better be learned-- how to bargain for prices in the markets, how to use the public transportation systems, what to expect from our landlords, etc. Then the last three days they actually took us out into the real world--took us the market places, encouraged us to spend our lire, took us on the subway system, to the Royal Palace, the opera house, a Roman amphitheater - and literally helped us fall in love with Naples, and showed us we could survive among all those strange people, laws and customs. It was the most therapeutic thing the military ever provided for us. And we made lasting friendships with other new Americans in the class of about 35. I didn't tell you all of that to impress you with the military or what I've been through, but to let you know that it can take drastic measures to help someone to cope with culture shock.
But the battle wasn't over with that one little victory. That was just the first skirmish. I don't know how much language problem Ruth had. Their languages were different, but they may have been similar. How many of you have been to England? New Zealand may be the same, I don't know. When you travel to England, you discover we don't speak English - we speak American. Nappies and lifts and mossy nets, bobbies and queuing are not part of our language. We say diapers, elevators, window screens, policeman and line up. It can be rather confusing even though you supposedly speak the same language.
I never really felt at home in Italy. I just couldn't blend in because of the color of my hair. I was obviously a foreigner either from northern Europe or America. Of course, that question was quickly answered as soon as I opened my mouth. As soon as I said, "Angelique, don't," or "Steven, come back," the mystery was over. Although I lost part of my Arkansas accent to some extent while I was there, it was still obviously an American accent.
Ruth had probably learned some Hebrew from her husband and Naomi, but I don't know how proficient she was in using it. The language barrier was always my biggest barrier. I learned to drive Italian style easily and to bargain in the market places, but I never got comfortable with the language as I would have liked to, probably because I spent most of my time with my fellow Americans. I took 12 weeks of "Gateway to Italian" course. I learned to communicate on about a kindergarten level. I loved talking to the children. I learned enough to shop in the markets, order in a restaurant, ask simple questions (to which I didn't always understand the answer), and convey my problems with the house to the landlord. But I never felt at ease with the language. I still had to rehearse in my mind almost every sentence before I said it.
One day I was shopping in one of the markets in Naples. I had found a skirt that I liked. So, I rehearsed the sentence in my mind before I approached the little man who was the vendor and I went up to him and said, "Aveti questa gomme in un altra colore?", which I had translated from English for "Do you have this skirt in another color?" I expected a "Si" or a "No" answer. Instead, the man just looked at me with the most puzzled look on his face. Well, obviously he didn't understand me. Was my pronunciation that bad? Maybe he was just shocked that I spoke Italian so well that he couldn't find the words to answer me. So I repeated, "Aveti questa gomme in un altra colore?" He kept that puzzled, maybe even a little insulted, look on his face and turned and walked away. Well, I didn't know whether to be mad, insulted or what. I knew that sentence was grammatically correct and my accent wasn't THAT bad. So with a puzzled look on my face I put the skirt back on the rack and walked away. If he didn't want to sell me a skirt, I sure wasn't going to force him. It wasn't THAT pretty. It nearly ruined my day. I don't think I bought anything else that day. Later as I was driving home, I passed a sign nailed to a tree in front of a gas station that said "GOMME." Then it hit me. When I had said, "Aveti questa gomme in un altra colore," I had said, "Do you have this TIRE in another color?" No wonder the man acted insulted. The word for skirt is GONNA, not GOMME. TOTAL FRUSTRATION! I could have used that skirt. One word lost it for me. I hope Ruth never had that kind of experience.
I wonder if the dwelling places in Bethlehem were different than they were in Moab. Sometimes minor changes can be a source of irritation. After we found a house in Italy, I wrote my Mom and told her to come see us and all about our new house. The whole yard had an 8-foot wrought iron fence around it. The kids could play outside and I knew they couldn't wander off. There was even an intercom from the gate to the house. Inside, there was Italian tile on every floor, not just in the bathrooms. And marble! Our staircase was marble. The windowsills and thresholds were marble. We had two balconies that looked out onto the lake that opened up into the Mediterranean Sea. We had French doors that led from the dining room on to a terrazza. The bathrooms were huge. We could easily get 22 people into one to witness a baptism in our European-size bathtub. Sounds wonderful, huh? Yeah, let me tell you about that house.
The marble was not coated - it stained easily and was a killer on knees, shins and elbows. That nice Italian tile was always gritty with sand that blew up from across the Mediterranean Sea from the Sahara dessert, so no one wanted to put their bare feet on the floor. And in the winter time that tile was like ice! So we had to shell out several hundred dollars for used carpets that had been passed on from American family to American family. The Italians just laugh at Americans for having to pamper our feet and covering up the tile that they were so proud of. Speaking of winter--the Neopolitan climate is very similar to Arkansas' except it rarely gets below freezing or above 92. Well, Southern Italian houses are not insulated in any way. They are made out of TUFA stone which is a volcanic material, similar to our concrete blocks, but more porous. So when it is 40 outside, it is about 45 degrees inside. We were fortunate enough to have a house with radiators for heating (that didn't work well), but by law that heating system could not be turned on for more than 8 hours a day. We turned ours on from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. We slept under electric blankets at night, wore thermal underwear at all times and just plain froze during the day. And if it happened to be a sunny day, the windows had to be opened to let the house air out or mildew would form on the tufa walls. My beautiful Italian house looked less and less charming to me as the winter drug on. And summertime--no air conditioning in anyone's home. That was for spoiled Americans in America. Besides, each house only had about a maximum of 3 kilowatts of electricity going into it. That is not enough to run an air conditioner. I did have a microwave. But before I turned it on, I had to check and make sure Michael was not on the computer or if the water heaters were on, because it would blow the circuit if just a few things were on at the same time. Blow dryers - go check and see what else was on or run the risk of blowing the circuit and having to make a trip outside with wet hair to reset the circuit. So in the winter we lived with the cold and damp. In the summer we lived with the heat and dust. My husband made screens for our windows or we would have been living with the flies and mosquitos, too. Screens were for spoiled Americans, too.
And there were minor frustrating things to deal with that were hard to get accustomed to: Electricity went out constantly during the rainy season. Water pressure was extremely low or non-existent. Commodes were not flushed with a handle. The tanks were up near the ceiling. There was a button about at my eye level on the wall to push to flush the commode. The children had to climb up on the commode seat to flush it and then they rarely could get it pushed. It took quite a bit of strength to push it and made the most horrible noise. Now why couldn't they use nice American-made commodes? And kitchens--I was supposed to learn to cook elaborate Italian meals in that tiny thing? And closets? No such thing. Shell out another $700 for wardrobes. Kitchen cabinets don't come built in. (Why don't they build them in like in America?) Shell out more money for used kitchen cabinets, and pray they hold together long enough to sell when your tour of duty is up and you can return to the "Promised Land." That's how we Americans referred to America--"The Promised Land."
After having lived in Italy for about 6 months, the most remarkable thing happened... We got a telephone in our house. There normally is about a 3 to 4 year wait to get a phone. It did provide a link for my husband to the hospital, but it did very little for me because so few other Americans had a phone. So there was none of this - get the committee work done over the phone bit. If a message had to be conveyed or something organized, it all had to be done in person. It was very time consuming, but it had its own benefit. Everyone stayed prepared for company to drop by. We spent a lot of time in each others' houses. And now for the first time we didn't feel totally cut off from our families in Arkansas. Hundreds of families in America were given our phone number by our neighbors so we could relay important or emergency messages.
I haven't told you all the frustrations we encountered. I think I have blocked out of my memory most of the unpleasant things. Maybe someday I'll get a chance to relate to you all the neat things about Italy that made putting up with these other things worth it.
So in a strange new land there are frustrations inside and outside. Moving to a new country is not for everyone. It takes a certain determination to tough it out. Ruth seems to have plenty of determination and love to give up her homeland for the strange and unknown and to provide for herself and her mother-in-law. She must not have been too attached to her homeland, for no signs of gross culture shock are recorded. Her love for Naomi was comfort enough for her.
We really are spoiled Americans. Our homes are comfortable. They are equipped with the latest convenience appliance; the temperatures fluctuate very little in our homes. And when we venture out, we know how to behave, how to communicate. We are familiar with our customs. We feel comfortable inside and outside our homes. We are comfortable in our homeland, but I'm not sure that is for the best.
Philippians 3:20 tells us a Christian's citizenship is in heaven. In heaven there is no sin. Romans 12:2 tells us we are not to be conformed to this world - this world is full of sin. Perhaps we should feel more uncomfortable in America. Sin should be foreign to us and the presence of sin should make us most uncomfortable, just as a stranger in a foreign land would feel uncomfortable.
As Americans, we've been taught not to overreact. That's not cool. It's not cool to look uncomfortable and out of place. But shouldn't we be uncomfortable about sin? AIDS, drugs, adultery, murder, materialism, gossip, lying, stealing should make us most uncomfortable. That may be part of America's culture, but not a Christian's. We should never be comfortable in a land where these things are present.
We should feel like foreigners, for our home is in heaven. And with that in mind maybe we all can relate to Ruth a little more.
West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR