Connections 10.31.2021: Make a Move

The Screaming Tree on Federal Street, Beaufort, SC

Ruth 1-6, 11-21

My friend Maren used to live by what we kids called a “hanging tree” or “screaming tree.” There are a few of these around my hometown of Beaufort, SC, all large oaks with a sturdy branch growing horizontally over the road, which had been used as a gallows at some point in the town’s history. This tree had the distinction of being on the guided walking and carriage tours downtown. Near Halloween when these tours are given at night, the tree is pointed out by flashlight and you’re warned to duck as you pass under it so you aren’t kicked in the head by the spirits of the people who had been hung from that branch. You’re also told that some nights when a storm is on the way, you can hear the tree screaming.

After going on such a tour with my Girl Scout troupe (and being scared witless), I asked Maren if the tree growing from her yard really screams on stormy nights. I wanted her to tell me no, that that’s just a silly story they tell to tourists and girl scouts. Instead she said, “Sometimes.”

I was horrified. “What do you do? How do you sleep?”

“I go to my room and listen to music with my headphones on,” she said. Not looking at me she continued, “If I start to get freaked out, my mom tells me it’s the wind.”

“It couldn’t be the wind?” I asked, hoping she’d change her mind.

“I guess it could be,” Maren allowed, “except that Mom wears her headphones too.”

My Girls in Action class studied the first chapter of Ruth not long after that conversation with Maren. When we got to Naomi’s entreaty for her neighbors to call her Mara, I raised my hand and said I knew someone with that name.

My teacher reminded me that Mara means bitter. Jokingly, she asked, “Does that fit the person you know?”

Maybe my teacher planned to explain how meaningful names were in the Bible, but that we don’t always use them in the same ways now. She might’ve made the point that Naomi felt bitter and be angry with God for a time, but she didn’t always feel that way. Except I answered, “Yes. And Ms. Mara lives in a house by a screaming tree.”

Understandably, my teacher didn’t really know how to respond to that.

There are lots of reasons, most now forgotten, why Maren’s mother Mara seemed bitter to me. The fact that I’d never seen her husband even when I was at their house and the way she talked to Maren sometimes both played into it, but the screaming tree was why I believed her bitterness was permanent.

Maren wasn’t bitter or unhappy, but sometimes she had to hide from something scary planted near her front door. And so did her mother. I didn’t have sympathy for Ms. Mara though, because I believed she had the power to move them all away from the tree but wouldn’t.

I think of Ms. Mara now and my naïve childhood interpretation of her, the strange tree, and the entire situation. I believed Ms. Mara couldn’t stop being bitter because she wouldn’t move, whereas the first step in Naomi’s healing was a move.

Naomi decided to return to Israel because the famine there had ended, and presumably because she knew Israel’s laws would provide for her as a widow in ways Moab’s laws wouldn’t. She also may have longed for the familiarity of her hometown, the friends she’d had as child.

If Naomi had stayed right where she was in Moab, maybe things would have turned around for her and her daughters-in-law in time. But maybe not. Maybe her grief was planted so deeply in Moab, so close to her door, that she wouldn’t have ever been able to heal there.

When she arrived home, Ruth in tow, Naomi still felt like Mara. And Mara is how she explained to her childhood friends and community what had happened to her and her family.

I admire this about Naomi: she didn’t wait until she felt better before she made changes in her life. Naomi decided she needed to move and did so—healing came after.

Discussion

  • Have you ever felt like your own name didn’t fit you? What was that like?
  • When have you been in so much pain that you couldn’t see what blessings you had, only those that you had lost? Name a few blessings in your life that have been hard for you to appreciate lately.
  • Is there an area of your life where you feel a deep wound? How can you make a move or change that might lead toward healing?

Katie Cummings is the web editor of NextSunday Resources and editor of the Preaching the Word series (Smyth & Helwys). Her husband Tyler and their two cats live in Macon, GA.

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