Choosing to Be Family

“Look,” Naomi said to her, “your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods. You should do the same.”

But Ruth replied, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she said nothing more.

So the two of them continued on their journey. When they came to Bethlehem, the entire town was excited by their arrival. (Ruth 1:15–19a NLT)

In 2016, researchers off the east coast of Canada came across a pod of beluga whales that had seemingly adopted a narwhal as one of their own. While belugas and narwhals are closely related, they normally don’t spend a lot of time together: narwhals tend to stick around the colder Artic Ocean year round, while belugas typically migrate to warmer waters during the winter months. Both cetaceans are social animals and rarely found swimming alone, so the researchers don’t know how the narwhal was separated from his pod. However, in the years since it was first spotted, the narwhal appears to have integrated fairly well with the beluga pod. Some experts are even eager to see if, when the time comes, it will mate with one of the belugas and produce a rare hybrid known as a “narluga.”

For social animals – such as narwhals, belugas, and humans – family units are crucial to our well-being, even our survival. Whether they are based on a biological link or more of a “found family” situation, these relational connections are central to the welfare of our lives, and especially our souls.

When Ruth chose to stay with Naomi, she was choosing to care for her mother-in-law rather than return to her own people and the culture she was more familiar with, and more comfortable with. Naomi had recently lost her two sons and her husband had been dead for a decade, so she had no biological family, only her two daughters-in-law, both of whom she absolved from any obligation to care for her. Yet Ruth wouldn’t hear of leaving Naomi on her own. Even though Naomi was known by the community in Bethlehem, Ruth chose to ensure Naomi had a support system in place by becoming a part of it.

She had no way of knowing it, but in making this choice, Ruth was choosing to enter into a story far larger than her own, or even Naomi’s. By making her home in Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, and ultimately Boaz, she would become one of the ancestors of Jesus, born in that very town more than 1,000 years later.

When we choose to be with others – intentionally walking alongside them in the midst of celebrations, struggles, and everyday life – it is not only for their benefit; it is also for our own. We cannot do life on our own. We cannot become more like Christ without a community that surrounds us and helps shape us into his image. In a recent post on his blog, David Fitch notes that Jared Boyd, in Finding Freedom in Constraint, talks about how “the primary problem with the spiritual formation movement is that we have tried to do the life of spiritual formation alone, i.e., as individuals. In the process it inevitably becomes about us, as opposed to about living into the life of God, His presence and [His] purposes for the world.”

Intentionally choosing to be family to another – even if they are already related to you – is not only following in the footsteps of Ruth, it is following in the footsteps of Jesus as well. As it says in Hebrews 2:11, “So now Jesus and the ones he makes holy have the same Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters.”

Michael Benson is the communications director for the North American Baptist Conference.