We have a word in our house that means something real but for which there is no English word. When Maisy was just a few weeks old, we left her one afternoon, napping on our bed alone. We all went downstairs, and neglected to turn on the baby monitor. By the time we realized she was crying an hour later, she had sent herself into a frenzy, red-faced and furious, kicking and waving her arms and wailing at the top of her lungs.
When we finally heard her and realized what the sound was, we took the stairs two at a time, flew to her side, and piled on the bed, crooning and comforting and reaching for her, “It’s ok! Maisy! We’re here, sweetie, we’re so sorry! You’re ok now!” Not quite three year old Owen laid his hands on her chest and leaned his head down on the bed near her cheek and said tenderly and wisely, “Oh Maisy, don’t worry, honey. It was only Hoatis. It’s OK, baby. You just had hoatis.”
Andy and I shrugged at each other in confusion, and then Andy cleared his throat and asked, “Owen, what’s hoatis?”
Owen glanced up from comforting his sister and said to us, matter of factly, “You know. Hoatis. When you’re all alone and crying and nobody hears you.”
Hoatis. It’s a real thing. There needed to be a word for that.
Here are some other words I have found that describe real things, for which there is no English equivalent:
Tartle. Scottish – The act of hesitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name.
Jayus. Indonesian – “A joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh”
Torschlusspanik. German – Translated literally, this word means “gate-closing panic,” but its contextual meaning refers to “the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.”
Tingo. Pascuense (Easter Island) – “the act of taking objects one desires from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them.”
There are lots of things that are real about life, things we experience, but which we don’t quite have the words to describe. Our whole story today centers around a reality that is described with a Hebrew word for which we have no English equivalent. That word is “Hesed.” It is Hesed that drives Ruth to stand with Naomi, Hesed that Boaz later shows toward Ruth, and ultimately, God’s Hesed that moves the whole story.
Hesed shows up all throughout all over this book, actually. It’s Hesed that the Psalmist raves about in song, Hesed that sustains the patriarchs and matriarchs in all their blundering and barrenness, Hesed that saves children of Israel out of Egypt and Hesed that gives them the words of life in the wilderness.
Hesed is the gift meant to be reveled in at Sabbath, studied in scripture, sung of in worship, and practiced in daily life. One might even say Hesed describes the true substance of this whole Story of God, of which today’s little chapter is just a fraction, and our own lives another tiny but significant piece.
Hesed is hidden within the ordinary fabric of life, all life, our lives. It powerfully binds, upholds, and communicates what all of this is about.
So, what does Hesed mean?
It has sometimes been translated as “mercy”, and certainly that’s a part – that undeserved forgiveness, compassion and grace – but mercy doesn’t nearly capture it, Hesed is more mutual, more communal than that.
Another way it’s been translated is lovingkindness. And yes, it feels like kindness, And undoubtedly it is full of love. But kindness can be impersonal, and love – at least in English – sounds too much like a feeling. Hesed is more intimate than kindness and more bonding than love, or rather, it calls love to be more bonding.
It has also been translated as loyalty. And this gets even closer, because it is a “through thick and thin”, “no matter what” kind of faithfulness and constancy. But loyalty can be exclusive, and Hesed is broad and inclusive. It spreads wider as it reaches out, bringing others, and still others.
One might even try calling it “Friendship,” in the classic sense, not the Facebook sense. Friendship as chosen love and commitment, not demanded by bloodlines or desired for personal gain, not for networking or nostalgia. Generous, really seeing an other and desiring their best, choosing to be with and for them, sacrificing yourself even, for their well-being. Hesed is like friendship, but deeper, thicker, richer; it is what gives friendship its strength.
Perhaps the best way to think about Hesed is something like “belongingness”. It is the inner logic of belonging, the substance of it. It looks like compassion, mercy and loyalty, lovingkindness and friendship. It looks like choosing over and over again to be there with and for this other, no matter what and without end. “The Hesed of the Lord never ceases, God’s Hesed never comes to an end.” (Lamentations 3:22)
Hesed says, I will go there with you. Hesed forgives. It hopes. It prays. It sits at his bedside every day, even when the memory has faded and he no longer knows you are there. It stands by you when everybody else has fallen away; even if you deserved for them to, it won’t desert you. It drives across country to settle you into your first house, or moves her into your house when she’s too sick to care for herself.
When you hold that new life in your arms for the first time Hesed gives you that sudden, jolting realization that you will forever and always now belong to this one. You are now part of belongingness with them.
Carolyn pointed out to me yesterday how greatly this extends our being, how it stretches and lengthens us beyond our selves, beyond the moment. You will Be. Long. Like, forever, long. Long, will you be for these others.
And that’s just the fleeting and frail human participation in Hesed! That’s just the tiny tastes we share here and now. It’s far bigger than all of that. Bigger, even, than we could ever begin to conceive of in our wildest imagination.
Hesed is the voice God spoke into nothing and made life. Hesed is the breath of God that animated human Spirit, and formed in God’s own image, like the belongingness within God’s own self Father, Son and Spirit, a new creature of belonging, a new community of life to whom to belong. You belong to me, I belong to you. My precious creation, my life, my love. And I will stop at nothing to cherish you in this belonging; I will never leave you or forsake you. I am the Lord your God.
Ruth should have stayed with her people. Started her life over. That was the wise thing, the right thing to do. But instead she took the way of Hesed. She stayed with Naomi.
What could she do for Naomi, really? She had nothing to give, she was not a man, she had no standing or property or means of support – nothing. She could do absolutely nothing for Naomi but be with her, share her position, her journey, her currently miserable lot in life. She could give Naomi Belongingness. She could be her Hesed.
“Where you go I will go, your people shall be my people, your God shall be my God, and when you die they will bury me beside you.” I will give up my own security and future to accompany you, come what may.
And the story of this woman, this widow, this foreigner with nothing to give and no future in front of her, became the story of the people of Israel, the story of King David, the story of Jesus Christ. Ruth had no idea she was doing anything more than joining her own seemingly insignificant life to the seemingly insignificant life of her friend. She certainly didn’t intend to be for the people of this God she didn’t even know yet, the bearer of Hesed, the bringer of belonging.
And the Story of God continues. After the last big chapter, with its drama and fire and priests and laws and leaders, and conquering and defeat and redemption - there’s this part. This sweet little story, tucked in there after all that testosterone. And in this humble tale we don’t hear the voice of God at all. We don’t see the hand of God smiting or waving or cheering or punishing. We don’t see big sweeping judgments or wide arcing redemption. We just see these few ordinary people, living their ordinary lives, trying to survive the best they can, broken and without hope, but moving forward anyway the best they know how.
And in the divine sense of humor, or direction, or both, God chose this remind God’s people, both then, and also in future generations - when they’d forgotten what they were meant to be about and who they were supposed to be, and sought to remove foreigners from their midst to maintain their pure identity – God chose to use this story to remind them that what makes them the people of God is not their bloodline, their security, their wealth or their knowledge. It isn’t their leadership or good manners or connections or power, and it isn’t their piety. They did not earn this, and they certainly don’t deserve it. What makes them God’s people is nothing less than the incomprehensible belongingness of God. It is Hesed. That God is a relentless belongingness kind of God, and they are to be God’s radical belongingness kind of people.
You are MY people and I am YOUR God. I am God because of you. And I am God in spite of you. You are mine, and I am yours. And my Hesed moves within and between you, but also beyond and outside of you.
And just in case you forget, or maybe because you will quite often forget, it is really important that the person who carries forward THIS part of your story, The Story, is none other than Ruth, the widowed Moabite foreigner.
At the end of the story, when Boaz, the kinsmen of Naomi’s husband decides to take Ruth as his wife, the townspeople and elders say to him, ‘We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel.”
And so Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 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! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’
And They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. (Ruth 4)
From the barenness of widows and impossibility of foreigners, God moves in Hesed once again to bring life to a people, hope to a story. “I will go there with you.” they said. “You will not be alone.”
God claims you in a wide embrace of unending belongingness. And stirs you to join in extending that embrace. In your poverty or abundance, strength or weakness, joy or sorrow, fullness or barrenness, pain or delight, right there, every day, you belong. And right there, every day, you are invited to Be. Long. with the ones God has put in your life. And the ones into whose life you’ve been put.
In a world of hoatis, God is Hesed. This is an astounding thing.
May you taste Hesed this day, and everyday.
And may your soul be filled with all fullness as to spill it over into the world.