The first thing I noticed about Ruth was her right leg. I feel bad admitting that now, maybe because of the expectation that good pastors should see beyond the surface of appearances. But nope. The first thing I saw when I looked at Ruth was her swollen leg.
The swelling was caused by a condition known as lymphedema, a blockage that prevents lymph fluid from draining normally. It’s not fatal, but the pain and physical limitations sure make living difficult.
I guess most of us in the church tried our best to ignore Ruth’s leg, to act as if we hardly noticed it at all. We had been taught that acknowledging a physical deformity was impolite, even cruel. So we didn’t mention it. We didn’t ask how her leg felt. We didn’t inquire of Ruth why her calf would occasionally swell to three or four times its normal size. And we instructed our young children, whether directly or indirectly, not to ask Ms. Ruth why her leg looked the way it did. That just wouldn’t be right.
Three years ago we had a reception following church on a Sunday morning. Chairs lined the wall so that people could sit when they grew tired of standing with a plate in their hands. I remember Ruth was sitting in one of those chairs.
At one point in the reception, I was engaged in a circle of conversation when I heard my wife groan. “Oh no. Henry!” For the sake of context, Henry is our middle son; he was 4 years old at the time. He has the biggest, most innocent heart of any child I’ve ever known. His hugs may be the greatest thing in the world, and he’s always been liberal with those hugs. Even as an infant, he would sit in a lap and gently pat whoever was holding him at the time. Needless to say, I think he’s a genius when it comes to the power of physical touch.
I turned around and followed my wife’s gaze across the room. I saw Henry sitting at Ruth’s feet. Both his arms were wrapped around her swollen leg, his face pressed against it. Occasionally he would look up long enough to ask her if it hurt.
I’m ashamed to say that my first response was a mixture of shock and embarrassment. I fumbled over my words, apologizing for my son’s behavior… apologizing for what I knew, even then, was simply his sincere affection. But Ruth was gracious, as always, in that moment. She assured me that he wasn’t a problem at all. Looking back, it’s almost as if she welcomed the honesty of that exchange.
Something changed in my relationship with Ruth after that. She gave me a new permission to ask the questions that friends ought to ask – not only about her leg — about any of the peculiarities we carry. And she offered wisdom for how I might help other parents of young children better understand the differences that are part of our collective unity. In some greater sense, I believe Ruth made us a Church.
Tomorrow morning a gathering of friends and family will assemble to honor Ruth’s life. Her battle with cancer was just the latest in a list of surgeries and procedures, all beginning with the words of a doctor who declared at Ruth’s birth that her needs were “incompatible with life.” Some might say that even reaching the age of 37 was a miracle. But that doesn’t remove the personal, hollow ache of grieving the loss of a friend 29 days my younger.
I’d like to believe that in the face of such grief there might come a word of sustaining hope. And if that happens, I’m certain that Ruth will have helped us clear our throats to speak that word. As part of her funeral arrangements, Ruth gave specific details regarding the service, even down to how her body would be viewed. In her notes, she said that she wanted an open casket, from head to toe, so that all could see her right leg.
It probably sounds like an odd request. But having seen just a glimpse of Ruth’s heart, it makes complete sense to me now. She taught so many of us that we’re all broken and bruised, despite our first impressions. And we have to make our peace with that. Because only then can we see one another in a more honest light. Only then can we make our way toward the kind of love that saves.