john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    A study on Knowing our Place(s)

    Investigations in the Book of Ruth

    For a retreat day at Loyola Hall, 9 November 2005

    Eugene H. Peterson - The Pastoral Work of Story-Making: Ruth

    EVERY WEEK the pastor makes a fairly short but exceedingly painful journey from the chancel to the narthex. In the chancel everything has been ordered and poised: the scriptures have told the plain story of salvation; the sermon has retold the story in the idiom of the assembled people; the hymns have gathered the voices of worshippers into prayers and praises that establish continuity with God's people in every time and place; actions at Table and Font have set forth God's grace and providence as real and available for every person present; prayers have created encounter with a personal God.

    Each Lord's Day worship divides the waters of chaos that on command roll back to the right and to the left while the people march through in glad triumph. For an hour all truth is proportioned, contemporary, and complete. God's word is proclaimed, affirmed, and accepted. Then the pastor lifts his arms in benediction, giving witness to the wholeness of salvation and promising the continuities of blessing through the week. He goes to the narthex to speak individually with the people as they leave to "'take possession of the land'" (Josh. 1: 11). In another hour or so the sanctuary is empty on one side and the parking lot empty on the other. He goes to his study and begins to look over the notes from and about persons who need visitation and counsel. The telephone rings. He looks out of the window and sees that the waters have "returned to their place and overflowed all its banks, as before" (Josh. 4:18)

    In the chancel the pastor works in an atmosphere of acknowledged faith - every detail is clear, symmetrical, and purposed under the sign of redemption; in the narthex things are very different. The people, having received the benediction, now make a disorderly re-entry into a world of muddled marriages and chaotic cities, midlife boredom and adolescent confusion, ethical ambiguity and emotional distress. The pastor who has just lifted the cup of blessing before the people now shakes hands with the man whose wife has left him for another; the pastor who has just poured the waters of baptism on the head of an infant now sees pain in the eyes of the mother whose teenager is full of angry rebellion. The pastor who has just addressed a merciful Father in prayer now arranges to visit a bitter and cynical executive who has been unexpectedly discharged from his job; the pastor who has just been confidently handling the scriptures now touches hands that are tense with anxiety and calloused in a harsh servitude.

    The narthex is, of course, not sheer chaos. The signs of salvation and the continuities of blessing are evident in many - maybe most. To a visitor, perhaps, it will look like a very happy place as Christians exchange greetings and share joy. The pastor, though, picks up signs of despair in one, senses veiled pain in another, knows the adulterer's secret and the alcoholic's defeat. He knows that among these people in the days ahead there will be deaths no one expected, accidents no one thought possible, illnesses that defy diagnosis, and conflicts no one anticipated during the hour of worship. In the narthex the pastor is suddenly in a world that, though only a few steps from the chancel, is not at all quiet in adoration, not at all unanimous in trust, not at all obedient in love. Salvation is now neither unmistakably obvious nor openly acknowledged. In the chancel God's word ordered the hour of worship; in the narthex the sins of the congregation begin to write an agenda for a week of pastoral visitation and counsel, comfort and guidance. The transition is abrupt, violent, and difficult. Oral tradition has it that A. B. Davidson, the Scots scholar and preacher, said that the passage always left him feeling "mondayish." A woman met him on an Edinburgh street and gushed, "Oh, Dr. Davidson, I heard you preach yesterday and was so uplifted! It must be wonderful to be used by God like that." Davidson replied, "It gives me a backache."

    The narthex is the place where pastoral attention begins to focus on those who fail to find their place in the covenant, who do not recognize their personal life story as congruent with the story of God's salvation. The announcement in church has usually been clear enough; it is God's will to save every person, to incorporate each created man and woman into the people of God, to graft each private history into the stock of salvation history. But many disqualify themselves, supposing that their individual experience or unique circumstances exempt them from the general truth. Guilt or wilfulness or accident makes a loophole, and they assume that what is true for everyone else is not true for them. They are left out. They conclude that they are, somehow, 'just not religious" and so unfit to participate in the way of faith. They form negative or neurotic identities, self-understandings unrelated to God's will and love. They feel disorganised; they experience alienation; unable to comprehend their lives as connected narratives that have meaning and make sense. The pastor knows that the story of God's revelation is a comprehensive narrative that includes everyone - how can he provide the insights and incentive to get such persons to understand their own lives as chapters, or at least paragraphs, in the epic narration of God's saving history?

    On studying places

    Now, what I particularly notice in Peterson's writing is that the journey from the chancel to the narthex is a journey from one kind of place to another very different kind of place altogether.

    [As you know] since I landed in Liverpool 11 last year I've been very keenly exploring the place, and that has led me into further reflections about the significance of place, the sociologies and psychologies and spiritualities of place, the theology of place.

    I think that it's essential for ministry to develop an understanding of the place we're in and the places where the lives of the parishioners play out because the place and the people are closely intertwined, and an understanding of the place helps to more fully understand the people, in Peterson's terms to more fully understand what's happening in the narthex. And seeking some theological understanding might hopefully help us to discern how the 'disorganised', 'alienated' lives played out in this place connect to the story of God's revelation , to give us ways of expressing how our parishioners may quite literally find their place in 'the epic narration of God's saving history'.

    Place in the book of Ruth

    Peterson writes:

    Ruth is a particularly useful book for the narthex, for the story is placed in "the times the judges judged", a notoriously disordered age. ... [S]imply by being in the canon the story of the outsider Ruth, a person not born into the faith and who felt no natural part of it, became integrated into the larger story of God's people. ... [Ruth] is the inconsequential outsider whose life is essential for telling the complete story of salvation. [2]

    So what I propose to share with you is a brief survey of the places represented in Ruth's story, to reflect on the significance of these places to the people involved and on how it may relate to the lives of the people we serve in their / our place.

    In what sorts of places do we spend our lives - out in the 'narthex'? What is our relationship with those places - what do we do to them, in them, with them, and what do they do to us?

    These are questions we can ask of the characters in the book of Ruth, questions which we can ask of our parishioners, and of ourselves: and we might use some time today to reflect together or on our own about what all of this may be telling us about the life of our parishes and the shape of our ministry.

    The book of Ruth is a story in four chapters and is often divided into four parts. If it was put on the stage, however, it would have seven scenes, for it is a tale told in seven different locations. In the land, on the road, in a field, on the threshing floor, at the gate, in the house, and in the neighbourhood. I'll look briefly at each of these scenes in turn.

    The Land

    In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land [1.1]

    - Land is a geographical area defined politically and a focus for economic activity:

    In a royal ideology, land is a source of centralised wealth and glory for the monarch and the empire, the monarch being the earthly representative of YHWH located in heaven; the people are the monarch's labour force in the land. [3]

    - In the days when the judges ruled, the famine undermined their rule, caused disorder and made the people take their labour elsewhere. The Land was a tainted one, a struggling 'nation'. This would reflect on its people: Naomi and Elimelech's people would be 'tainted' by being associated with a 'tainted' land. (eg Serbs, Afghans, Iraqis here today)

    ...and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah [1.1]

    - Land is a source of personal identity: we can all identify with that way of naming ourselves. "Where are you from?" - deeply important to us to be able to answer that clearly, affirming our identity in those terms.

    The Road

    ...went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. [1.1]

    So she said, "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law." But Ruth said, "Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God... [1.15,16]

    - Roads enable journeys: they are places of decision. Both metaphors for choices we make, and the actual means by which we make them. (Decision to study for ministry leads us directly onto the road to theological college...)

    - Roads are places where people are seeking survival / travelling in hope / moving in and towards newness.

    - The means by which you travel the road says something about the condition you are in:

    Although 86 per cent of British households are within six minutes' walk of a bus stop, a recent social attitudes survey found that nearly two-thirds of people agreed with the statement: 'I would only travel somewhere by bus if I had no other way of getting there'. It is hard to stand at a bus stop, as the single-occupant cars stream by, without feeling somehow denied full membership of society. [4]

    (We don't know by which means Naomi and Ruth travelled, but we can assume it was closer to the bus than to the private car)

    So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them [1.19]

    - Roads lead to certain destinations, where the issue is no longer the decision to travel - it is how the traveller will be received.

    The Field

    Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, "Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favour." [2.2]

    The part of the field belonging to Boaz [2.3]

    - The Field: workplace / place of social interaction:

    Then Boaz said to Ruth, "Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn." [2.8.9]

    4. Her mother-in-law said to her, "Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you." [2.19]

    - The Field: involving all sorts of issues around ownership, economics, power, community ethics etc.

    Our workplaces are similarly complex places of social interaction: as illustrated in The Office with its often painfully-well observed moments of illumination about the nature of modern office-spaces and the gaps between management and authority. Brent:

    You grow up, you work half a century, you get a golden handshake, you rest a couple of years and you're dead. And the only thing that makes that crazy ride worthwhile is, 'Did I enjoy it? What did I learn? What was the point?' That's where I come in. [5]

    The great irony of The Office is that Brent, the self-styled motivational manager, seems the least secure character in the whole workplace. By contrast, for Ruth and Boaz the workplace was a forum for a mature and complex exchange and bargaining...

    The Threshing Floor

    Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do." She said to her, "All that you tell me I will do." [3.2-5]

    The Threshing Floor: another workplace - its usual role usurped: here, a it is place of intimacy, private dialogue and decision. The 'personal' has broken into the place of 'economic' transaction - changing the nature of the place for the characters involved.

    Like, eg, in The Office, Tim and Dawn's decision to acknowledge their love for each other which has been simmering, unacknowledged, throughout the series.

    The Gate

    Boaz gone up to the gate and sat down there [4.1]

    - The Gate: a place of public dialogue and decision based on certain moral codes. Where Boaz negotiated his and Ruth's salvation future.

    So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, "Acquire it for yourself," he took off his sandal. [4.8]

    Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, "We are witnesses ... [4.11]

    - We might reflect on the equivalent places in our own society: the pub, the school gates... the world wide web???

    The house

    ... May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. [4.11]

    Then the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! [4.14]

    - The house is obviously a deeply domestic, privatised space, but decisions about who lives there and under what arrangements, also carry wider social / spiritual significance: witness the change in the status and nature of women's work over recent decades; current highly-political debates over parental responsibilities, child-rearing etc.

    The neighbourhood

    The women of the neighbourhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David. [4.17-22]

    - The neighbourhood ('the community'?) is where soul history & salvation history, the personal and the universal, the chancel and the narthex coincide: where people give each other names:

    - Good names: like here, recognising how Naomi's grandson is in the line of David - where the journey from the chancel to the narthex is a continuum, seamlessly connected;

    - Bad names: like the names incomers get called in our society - where the healing, liberating connection between the chancel and the narthex is denied.


    Reflect back on the seven 'places' mentioned, prompting questions about how we / our parishioners relate to each. In the land, on the road, in a field, on the threshing floor, at the gate, in the house, and in the neighbourhood - what is our relationship with those places - what is their significance to our parishioners and to us:

    How do we identify ourselves in The Land, how do we perceive our place in the economy and by our relationship with the rulers; how are we formed by 'The Land'?

    What roads do we use and how do we use them, what decisions do they represent for us, the journeys we have chosen to take, or are forced to embark on?

    Where are our fields and threshing floors, the places where we and our people congregate to work, and besides work what other social interactions take place there?

    Where are the gates in our parishes, places of public dialogue and decision: the pubs, the school gates... the world wide web perhaps? And who are the gate-keepers, those who sanction decisions as acceptable to the community?

    Reflect on the significance of the house, to us and our parishioners, and of the neighbourhood, and how that functions.

    Through all these reflections can we see signs of where God might be at work in the places we and our parishioners frequent? Do we find anything in these reflections to help us make positive connections between the chancel and the narthex, between the minutiae of our people's everyday experiences and the great overwhelming truths of God's salvation history?

    [1] Eugene H. Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, pp.73-76
    [2] Peterson, p.77
    [3] Norman C. Habel, The Land is Mine, p.134
    [4] Joe Moran, Reading the Everyday, p.3
    [5] Moran, p.47


    Referenced here:

    Norman C. Habel, The Land is Mine (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1995)
    Joe Moran, Reading the Everyday (London, Routledge, 2005)
    Eugene H. Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992)

    Also consulted:

    Walter Brueggemann, The Land - Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 2002)
    John Inge, A Christian Theology of Place (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2003)
    Thrift, Harrison, Pile (eds), Patterned Ground: Entanglements of Nature and Culture (London, Reaktion, 2005)