Friends for All Seasons

by Linda Bieze and Alena Amato Ruggerio

(Ed. note: This article is a departure from the usual organization of our Christian Feminism Today feature articles. It is a combination of personal stories, how-to-suggestions, and two book reviews, all wrapped up in a single package We present it here as an example of how Christian feminists, who often yearn for a sense of community and faith-sharing with likeminded friends, can find each other and meet together in spite of great geographical differences.)

Linda provides some background

As many readers of Christian Feminism Today know, Letha Dawson Scanzoni, Alena Amato Ruggerio, and I have been holding a weekly long-distance Bible study together for more than four years. Sometimes we call ourselves the Transcontinental Trigenerational Telephone Trio, because Letha, who lives in Virginia, is in her 70s (can you believe it?), Alena, who is in her 30s, lives in Oregon, and I, who am in my 50s, live in Michigan.

Linda Bieze, Alena Amato Ruggerio, Letha Dawson Scanzoni
The transcontinental trigenerational telephone trio, shown here at the 2007 annual EEWC Council meeting, one of the rare times the three are together in person. Front, row (l to r), Linda Bieze and Letha Scanzoni, back row: Alena Ruggerio

Even before Alena joined us, Letha and I had been getting together weekly by phone for a Bible study.  We began during the 2002 Advent season when we were both sensing a lack of connection with a local church community.  This was during the time that the church to which I belonged in Massachusetts was in the sad process of disbanding.  Letha and I began with ”A Psalm Journal” published online by Joan Chittister.  We enjoyed our study so much that we continued it, mostly using our own biblical knowledge and the new insights God gave us as we meditated on the Word, but sometimes also using resources such as the Interpreter’s Bible, Barclay’s commentaries, and feminist writers, such as The Women’s Bible Commentary.

In 2003, while attending the EEWC Council and Staff meeting held that year in Claremont, we happened to mention our long-distance Bible study and Alena said she wished she could participate in something like that.  We invited her to join us, using Letha’s three-way calling plan, and began with the Gospel of John. By then I had moved from Massachusetts to Michigan, and Alena had begun her academic career at Southern Oregon University.

Our weekly telephone meeting is almost like church for Letha and Alena, I believe. For me, now active in a Presbyterian church in Michigan, our Bible study is a “feminist church” and “friendship church.”  The three of us have used resources such as Sunday School lessons written by Reta Halteman Finger on Luke, Acts, and the book of Hebrews, books by feminist authors (like the two we will review later in this essay), and, again, our own Spirit-guided understanding of God’s Word.  We have no designated leader but simply share our thoughts on the passage of the week and talk about what each has gleaned from it.

A large portion of our meetings has always been devoted to sharing personal joys and concerns so that we can pray for each other throughout the coming week.  Sometimes, we have felt led to give our meetings more of a liturgical shape by opening with a poem, a song, or a reading from the Book of Psalms.  Then, we turn to the Bible study itself.  You might find it hard to believe, but our weekly meeting usually lasts for about three hours!

If you would like to set up a group like ours, all you need is a long distance phone plan (with unlimited calling time, if you expect to hold three-hour conversations!) and a three-way conference call feature. Or, if you have a group of four or more, consider using a service like FreeConference.com, where each participant makes a long-distance call to the same pre-assigned number to “conference.” Letha, Alena, and I will be happy to recommend Bible study materials you can use to get started.

Linda reviews Marjory Zoet Bankson’s Seasons of Friendship 
(Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005)

Linda BiezeLast year, the Spirit moved the three of us to study the book of Ruth in the Hebrew Scriptures, that beautiful story of love,  faithfulness, and redemption. To gain some additional insights into this scripture, I read a book by Marjory Zoet Bankson, Seasons of Friendship: Naomi and Ruth as a Model for Relationship and Alena read Joan Chittister’s The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Woman’s Life.  Letha contributed excerpts from the Jewish Study Bible, especially appropriate because we read the book of Ruth together in May and June, at the same time in the Jewish calendar when it is read aloud in synagogues.

I chose Bankson’s book because her earlier book, The Call to the Soul: Six Stages of Spiritual Development (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004), had spoken so eloquently to me during a period of soul-searching and seeking God’s call in my life. Seasons of Friendship is equally meaningful. In a way, I felt hampered in trying simply to glean scriptural insights from it to share with Alena and Letha each week because Bankson not only interprets the story of Naomi and Ruth, but she also presents it as a model for women’s friendships with each other, with men in their lives, and with God.

Bankson uses the cycle of the four seasons—Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn—to shape her discussion of Naomi and Ruth, as well as to give examples from her own life’s friendships and to help readers understand the various friendships throughout their lives.  As I read, I found myself jotting in the margins the names of my friends who have characterized each season of my life.  And because Bankson includes questions for personal and group reflection at the end of each chapter, any reader or group of readers can walk through the book to gain insights into their friendships with others and with God.

After giving an introductory chapter that outlines the entire cycle of seasons, Bankson begins the story of Ruth and Naomi, and of her own search for friendship, with Winter, a season when we turn inwards and seek survival in the face of death.  Winter friends, she writes, “are given as a gift, undeserved and unearned” (p. 44). Like Naomi, we may choose independence in Winter, focusing on ourselves and our own needs—which Bankson declares a healthy thing for women, who are always giving to and caring for others, to do. A Winter friend, as Ruth was to Naomi, walks beside us during our time of need and searching.  We can become interdependent friends but not lose ourselves in each other.  Janice Baldwin of Andover, Massachusetts, was a Winter friend to me as we walked together on the path of discerning God’s new call for our lives at a time of career change for us both.

Spring friends, says Bankson, are two people who “learn to depend on each other for basic needs: safety, nurture, and language” (p. 64). The friendship can be like a mother-child relationship, but each friend, alternately, can mother the other in her need to grow and become able to take risks. Boaz was a Spring friend to Ruth, noticing “with tenderness and affection who [she was] and what [she was] doing in the world” (p. 74) when he first encountered her working in his fields. Letha has been one of my dearest Spring friends, nurturing me and encouraging me to grow and take risks. I hope that she has found me to be a Spring friend, too!

“Summer,” says Bankson, “is the season of ‘I am,’ of independence, of pushing beyond friends who give us home and help to a new place where we can establish a separate identity” (p. 78). Summer is a time of life when we hunger for change, when we are recognizing and answering a new call. My classmates in the Class of 2001 Women’s Leadership Institute at Hartford Seminary were Summer friends to me. Together, we asked each other, “Who are you?” and “Who are you becoming?” (p. 89), and the ritual of our monthly meetings helped us all prepare for new callings.

In Autumn, says Bankson, “friendships are embedded in family and community” (p. 94). Naomi returned to the women in Bethlehem after her husband and sons died and through them she found a gateway for herself and Ruth back into community life. It was through the community that she made contact with her relative Boaz, who himself was seeking, in his old age, stronger family ties than he had yet experienced. Boaz was Naomi and Ruth’s “redeemer” through community custom, but they also were his redeemers, giving him a family of his own. Bankson notes how difficult it is today for people to find communities in which to experience Autumn friendships. We confine ourselves in our nuclear families, or our virtual online communities, or our communities of one rather than finding multigenerational networks of friends through extended family or church. For me, Letha and Alena are Autumn friends; we are a multigenerational community of sisterhood, a “family of choice,” as Alena puts it.

And EEWC is and can be such a community for all of us! Just as Ruth declared to Naomi, “Your people will be my people,” EEWC members, each of whom has journeyed far in self-understanding, can call EEWC “my people.” We are the type of friends who, Bankson writes, “can give birth to ‘a new people’ out of their commitment to each other, rather than searching for admittance to an external community created by others” (p. 117). We are multigenerational people, women and men, befriending each other in all seasons.

Alena adds her story

The Jews of the Hebrew Testament experienced diaspora, the forced scattering of a once-united people across far distances.  On a smaller but personally painful level, I know how diaspora feels.  The handful of friends who accepted my nerdy intensity in high school dispersed to various colleges and careers after graduation.  We kept in touch for a while, but soon the new pressures and new cultures of our present lives eclipsed the connections of the past: the first diaspora.

As we all must do, I rebuilt.  As a college undergraduate, I stumbled into a nurturing group of friends so close-knit that we gave ourselves a name, made matching t-shirts, and put on our own formal events.  At least four couples within that crew eventually married each other.  My own wedding day was the last time I ever saw some of those dear ones.  Instead of a jubilant departure with tin cans tied to a bumper, my wedding reception ended in uncontrollable, heaving tears as I realized that the final goodbye we had refused to say at our university graduation had finally drawn nigh: the second diaspora.

Instead of going on a honeymoon, I went to grad school.  Thank the Divine for sending me to do my doctoral work in Indiana, where I sometimes worked harder on the planning of the 2002 Indianapolis conference than I did on my dissertation because the Hoosier women of EEWC offered me such haven.  When I was offered a faculty job in Oregon, I was both overjoyed to have found a place in academia and miserable to be separated from this stunning community of Indiana women: the third diaspora.

I have a difficult time accepting the premise of the Bankson book Linda reviewed, that different friendships serve different purposes at different stages of our lives.  I grasp the concept intellectually, but my heart still grieves for all those friends whose season in my life seems to have passed.  You might be asking yourself why I do not look to family for a more constant source of heartfelt connection, and indeed I love my family, and my husband is my most important confidante.  But I have never understood prioritizing one’s relationships first by the ties of blood or law.  The word “family” should be reserved for those circles formed by choice, tenderness, and love rather than obligation.  Many times they overlap with biological and legal relationships, and sometimes they don’t.

I was in the midst of my third, wrenching diaspora when Letha heard my loneliness and my grief, and by some miracle she and Linda agreed to invite me into their telephone fellowship.  Even though we, too, are scattered across the country, the regular appointment we keep with each other for weekly Bible study and personal sharing makes Letha and Linda feel unwaveringly present in my life.  I am not sure which metaphor to choose—we patiently comfort each other like grandmothers, wisely advise each other like mothers, and mischievously tease and laugh with each other like sisters.  No matter which role they are taking in any given phone call, Linda and Letha remain precious parts of my family of choice.  And as two or more are gathered together across telephone lines in God’s name, it is holy.  Our friendship, like Ruth and Naomi’s, transcends the boundaries of age, location, and life circumstances because God is at the center of our circle.

Alena reviews The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Woman’s Life by Joan Chittister 
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000; paperback, 2007).

Alena Amato RuggerioJoan Chittister divides the journey of the widows Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah into twelve moments that move them—and by extension, us—into full development as women. Chittister begins with the moment of loss upon the deaths of Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion, when the women are forced to find within themselves resources they already possess and that cannot be taken away from them.  As Orpah turns back to her Moabite birth family, the three women experience change.  They are compelled to remain open to God’s leading them to places in their lives they had never anticipated.  A moment of transformation occurs when Ruth commits to accompanying Naomi back to her hometown of Bethlehem.  Then Naomi is not recognized at the gate by the women who once knew her in Bethlehem, and she must acknowledge aging and discover in it the strength to thrive “in a world that calls itself godly and then throws old women away” (p. 32).

Ruth makes a decision to glean in the fields, supporting herself and Naomi as independent adults rather than the passive objects of men’s control.  Boaz asks about Ruth working in his field, and gives her respect for her strength without going to the extreme of placing her on a pedestal.  Boaz recognizes Ruth publicly for her achievements and her values, illustrating that the cultural invisibility of women both in the story and in the present day is not the will of God.  Chittister writes, “Here we have a completely different view of God’s ways with women.  Here women do the work of God, and good men, deeply spiritual men, recognize it. . . . Such recognition of a woman by a man is surely the Holy Spirit’s answer to the use of Scripture to justify the heresy of the hierarchy of creation.  God willing, this Word, too, may someday be fulfilled” (pp. 54, 56).

Naomi insightfully discerns Boaz’s character as a man who is spiritually whole and safe, not merely a breadwinner unworthy of Ruth.  Recognizing this, Naomi empowers Ruth to act, not for Naomi’s own security, but so that the lives of the next generation of women might have more justice than her own.  Ruth goes to the threshing room floor, actively saving herself and Naomi instead of waiting for someone else—even God—to intervene to save them.  Ruth has defined herself as a woman who shapes her own world, relying on the creative force God has put into her soul and the soul of every one of us.

Ruth’s act of heroic desperation is immediately countered by a scene of invisibility in which the women’s fates are decided by Boaz, another close relative, ten town elders, and a sandal, wholly without the input of Ruth or Naomi.  Chittister invokes the holy anger of activist women working to overturn this silencing and to give voice to women’s perspectives and experiences of the Divine.  “We are suffering badly from the loss of Ruth at the city gates, where the public shapes its policies and decides its directions as a people” (p. 84).  Finally, with the marriage of Ruth and Boaz and the birth of Obed, Naomi achieves fulfillment.  Ruth hands the baby not to her husband but to Naomi, in acknowledgment of Naomi’s journey from the barren foreign desert into a “coming home to herself.”  In the full development of her personhood, Naomi is an expression of God’s power made manifest in the world through women.

The illustrations by John August Swanson and the gilding of the pages make this a book as beautiful to look at as to read.  Chittister provides insightful context into the history and social structure of Ruth and Naomi’s world.  Her explanations about Moabite race relations and Jewish laws on kinship provide a deeper understanding of the story and a palpable sense of the terrible danger Ruth and Naomi were in financially, socially, and physically.

Chittister did make some assertions about the way American women are now treated that might not ring true with some of her readers of my generation or younger; for example, “When a woman joins a company, she stays in the secretarial pool until she retires” (p. 54) and “‘You don’t need an education… you’ll have a man to take care of you’ they say to her” (p. 63).  This is not to say that such sexism no longer exists, but that many of us experience it as less explicit now.     Chittister was also conciliatory on the issue of the feminist response to men.  Boaz ends up being portrayed as a more complex character than Ruth or Naomi: He is a very good man and should be recognized as such lest we commit reverse sexism, but Chittister also wrestles with the questions of why Boaz did not act if he knew Naomi was his kinswoman until Ruth took matters into her own hands, and why Boaz did nothing to change the system that excluded the women from publicly determining their own fate.  Ultimately, this biblical story is about the redemption of the men as well as the women, the society as well as the individuals (p. 90).

My favorite part, of course, is that as our story begins, Ruth and Naomi were family by neither law nor blood.  “Wherever you go, I shall go” proclaims Ruth and Naomi as family by choice, friends drawn together by the power of God, working side by side to improve the lot of women yet unborn, supporting each other in times of plenty and in times of want.  Just like the Transcontinental Trigenerational Telephone Trio; just like the members of EEWC.

 

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