Tollymore Forrest is arguably one of my favorite places I’ve ever been. It holds some of my fondest memories, and is also the place where the Lord taught me some of the most impactful lessons I’ve learned. It’s hard to put into words the beauty of the creation that God has given us to enjoy in that place. I’ve been there a few times now, and had two very different experiences. I had the blessing of spending the past two Februaries abroad in Northern Ireland. The first time I went as a student at Kanakuk Link Year, with 31 of my dearest friends and had the time of my life gallivanting throughout the beautiful Irish countryside making memories and laughing a lot, enjoying every moment; but this past year, I returned to the country with Link Year, but without my beloved friends. It was hands down one of the hardest months I’ve ever endured…but in the very best way.
The months leading up to my return to Ireland this past year were anything but easy. The lord was trying hard to get my attention, but I wasn’t letting him have it. So, being an almighty, sovereign, and jealous God, He did what he had to do in order to really get my eyes on him. He took me halfway across the world, to a foreign country…without any friends…without any comfort…without any distractions; and he met me there.
Throughout the four weeks I spent in Ireland, The Lord spoke to me many different times, in many different ways, through many different people. The month I spent across the pond was one time in my life that I feel like I will always remember as being vitally important in my walk with the lord.
I returned to Tolleymore the last week of my month in Ireland this past year. Walking into the forest, I was filled with an unexpected sense of nostalgia. All I wanted to do was sit, and be still, and reflect over the trip. Two hundred yards into the forest, the Shimna River roars, making its presence known to anyone near by. I had never moved beyond the river, but this time, the sound of the river was too much for me to handle. I walked over a bridge, and moved deeper into the forest, when I stumbled onto one of the most peaceful and still areas I have ever seen. A still, clear pond, surrounded by trees on three sides, and the greenest grass I have ever seen on the other. As if it was placed there just for me, there was one small three-sided shack, with one bench overlooking the pond. So there I sat, secluded and silent, for what seemed like hours. After a while, an old Irish man with two big black labs came and joined me by the pond. I could tell that he too thought he was alone as he walked and talked to his dogs, throwing them sticks to retrieve. I don’t think he ever would have guessed that he would teach me something that would change my life forever. But that day, in that forest, by that pond, God spoke to me through that man. I wrote this as I sat on my bench:
“Big dog, afraid of water” the Irish man laughed realizing I, the only other human near by, was watching him repeatedly throwing a stick to his black lab. I’m fascinated by dogs. I love them more than most humans. They have the ability to love beyond that of any person I have ever met. They love to have fun and be adventurous and break all the rules, but at the end of the day, no matter what he’s done, you can’t help but love your dog. The way he curls up next to you on the couch, or insists on warming your pillow…dogs want one thing from you, and they give one thing in return; love. With this dog in particular, a fun game went awry when his owner threw his beloved stick out just the slightest bit too far into the water. Up until this point, the dog had been able to overcome his fears enough to reach the floating stick in the murky water, but this time was different. This time, the stick had travelled out just far enough for the dog to become skittish and frightful of the previously adored water. He walked into the water, and stopped. He really wanted the stick, but he wasn’t really willing to venture out that far to retrieve it. He turned his head back to lock eyes with his owner, the thrower of the stick, “Ah go on boy. Go get it.” The owner commanded, knowing that the dog’s only goal was to retrieve the stick that he had thrown. I chuckled to myself. “Big dog, afraid of water” he looked at me and laughed. The dog hopped once more and then came running out of the water with the stick in his mouth, and ran to his owner.
Sometimes, I think that we can be just like that dog. God is always throwing us sticks- giving us opportunities to grow and glorify him; but do we always want to do what he’s asking us to do? How far are we willing to go to retrieve the stick? Sometimes further than others…but what we need to realize is that he is always standing just behind us, waiting for us to look back and hear his encouragement. “Go on, Get it. I know how much you want it.”
Even though the water scares us; even though it requires an entirely new level of trust and reliance on God; even though it forces us to step out into the unknown, we have to ask ourselves, “How badly do I want the stick?” Because it’s easy to pretend to be a big brave dog when three feet is as far as you have to go…but even when we’re scared, God is right behind us saying, “Go on. Get it. I promise you’ll be okay.”
This is a lesson that The Lord taught me nearly a year ago, but is continuing to use to refine me still today.
Over the past few weeks, my mentor (her name is Kristina and she’s super rad) and I have been going through an inductive study of the book of Ruth. Honestly, I read through the book a couple times (it’s fairly short), and I thought that I understood exactly what it was saying. Welp, surprise surprise, we got about 8 verses in before I realized I was wrong.
If you aren’t familiar with this story, it starts out with a completely average family of Jews living in Bethlehem, God’s chosen land for them. Well, probably as a result of God’s wrath over the Israelites, Bethlehem is struck with famine, and they flee to Moab, the land of their enemies. Not long after Naomi, Elimilech, and their two sons move to Moab, Elimilech falls ill and dies, leaving his wife Naomi a widow. Their two sons take Moabite women to be their wives, and they too die after about 10 years, leaving Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah as three widows without a male provider or protector. Naomi decides to move back to Bethlehem, and has this encounter with her daughters-in-law as they begin their journey.
“Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”
Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”
But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”
At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.
“Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.”
- Ruth 1:8-18
There’s a lot of significance to this exchange. The girls set out on a journey with Naomi, and don’t make it far before she points out the imminent struggle that lies before them.
Naomi commanded the girls to turn back, and return to the homes of their mothers. After this first command, the girls respond with weeping, and a refusal to leave Naomi’s side.
Turn back, I have nothing to offer you.
Again, she tells them to forsake her and leave to return to their homeland… but this time she gives them a better reason.
Even if I were to get pregnant tonight, would you wait for my baby to grow up so you can marry him?
Orpah recognizes the weight of the situation. Returning to Bethlehem with Naomi means leaving her life of comfort, of provisions, of protection, to live in a place where she would not only be culturally unaccepted, but she would also be choosing a life of work- a life of pain and toil. Orpah recognized the challenge, and wasn’t ready to accept it. She said “thanks, but no thanks” and hit the road towards home. But Ruth… Ruth hears Naomi say, “my God has turned against me,” and Ruth says, “That’s the God I want.”
Ruth understands that following Naomi back to Bethlehem is a risk; but it’s a risk she’s willing to take. She sees not the struggle, but the reward. The uncertainty of what lies ahead carries no weight compared to the prize of walking in obedience to the one true God, the God of Israel.
Like the dog, Orpah saw the risk and turned her head. She wasn’t willing to venture out into the water. But Ruth heard the voice of her master calling her by name out into the abyss, only to show her his goodness and greatness over her life. Ruth received the prize of life because she was willing to step out into the unknown in order to fetch the stick, and abide by the good and perfect plan that the Lord had laid before her.
Because of her faithfulness, and trust in the Lord, Ruth went on to become a member of the lineage of Christ. She was rewarded for her faithfulness, and recognized for her loyalty. The Lord blessed Ruth’s obedience. Contrary to Christ’s call to his disciples, Naomi says, “Go home” and Ruth chooses to follow; but in both instances the question is the same. It’s not a matter of how willing you are to be obedient; it’s about how obedient you’re willing to be. It’s not about how many times you run to fetch the stick; it’s about how far you’re willing to go to retrieve it.