6B Ruby and Ben’s Story, Mark 4:26-34
St. Mark’s June 17, 2018 Father’s Day
Today’s parable is about farmers and seeds and the widespread miracles which happen when the tiniest of things are cared for by something we cannot comprehend. Parables have been described as “stories thrown alongside our lives.”1 So, in an attempt to make any sense out of this story, on this Father’s Day, I would like to share the parable of a father who is one of the few farmers I personally knew who shared with me his and his wife’s story of their tiniest of treasures.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.”
In 2008, twenty somethings, Elizabeth and Ben, start an organic farm growing flowers and vegetables in an idyllic but remote land along the bluffs of the Buffalo River. The nearest town is Snowball, a 30-minute drive down dirt roads to their farm. They work long, dirty days, planting seeds, building hoop houses, laying irrigation, spreading mulch, and then harvesting, washing vegetables, making bouquets, loading the truck, and taking their produce to market in North Little Rock, two and a half hours away. In between time they go on long hikes down the Buffalo River Trail, or go swimming in the river, or find one of the hidden waterfalls in the forest. They are living a dream. Everything they plant grows. Everything they grow sells. They are happy, hard-working, at peace, and in love. When they find out Elizabeth is pregnant, it feels like the most natural thing in the world. It has not been part of the plan, but this child would be just one more seed for them to nurture.
On a rainy Memorial Day weekend in 2009, Ben with Elizabeth now 24 weeks pregnant, barely half way through the 40-week gestation, and barely showing, learn that life has a way of revising plans. Elizabeth has a few shooting pains, then a few more, then enough for them to take a long drive to the Harrison hospital. Within 24 hours they are in a sterile labor and delivery room, in Little Rock, three hours from Harrison, with a one pound, six-ounce baby named Ruby struggling for life and being cared for by a team of highly specialized doctors and nurses. If they could have held tiny Ruby, she would have fit into the palm of their hand. This is a bewildering, confusing, terrifying event, and the only thing they know for certain is that their life as farmers is over. There is no way they will be able to go back to that life again. Ben recalls a moment in the NICU, surrounded by artificial light, beeping machines, and whirring ventilation systems, with his tiny daughter as he describes her in a plastic box hooked up to at least a dozen tubes and wires, when he sees the blue light bounce off a single speck of dust. He watches that speck float gently through the empty air and thinks about all the dirt, all the life, all the plans that were so recently a part of their lives but are no more.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.”/
For the next six months from day to day Ben and Elizabeth do not know if tiny Ruby will live or die, or if she does live,/ what will be her quality of life. Elizabeth and Ben keep as constant a bedside vigil as they can manage, talking to Ruby, reading her books, touching her and holding her hand when they are allowed. Ruby is on the ventilator for four months, has three intestinal surgeries, one heart surgery, three airway procedures, retinopathy of prematurity with detached retina, and a bleed in the brain, all of which resolve. Ben describes it as “quite a minefield she makes her way through!”2
Elizabeth and Ben are in an unfamiliar city, literally homeless in their own way, and must rely on the kindness of an extended network of friends and relatives to have a place to sleep and other support for six months. 2
“when it is sown it grows up and puts forth large branches, so the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
During these months they need some income, so through connections Ben finds a job as a part-time grant writer for a local nonprofit organization.
As the months go by, very slowly Ruby shows signs of improvement. Ben and Elizabeth are able to hold Ruby for the first time, for 15 minutes at a time on their laps/ on a bed with the ventilator still going, but to them they are holding the greatest of treasures. After four failed attempts, Ruby is finally able to get off the ventilator. After three major surgeries, it seems that the lingering issue with her intestines may be resolved. After about five months they begin looking for a place to live in North Little Rock so they can still be close to Ruby’s doctors. This is their final realization that they no longer are going to be farmers.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God..”
They remember the day they bring Ruby home for the first time. When they hold her for the first time in their living room they describe it as “the quietest place in the universe. Finally, Ruby is free from the noise, the lights, the constant commotion of the hospital.”2 They speak of loving and appreciating Ruby in a way they never would have if they had not experienced the many terrifying months when they were afraid they would lose her. As the years progress, they deeply celebrate every one of Ruby’s milestones: her first steps, her first words, her every word, even her every breath, because they remember when they couldn’t take those breaths for granted.
“”yet when it is sown it grows up and puts forth large branches , so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Ben pours himself into his work at the nonprofit, finding great purpose in helping other families overcome difficult circumstances. As Grants Manager Ben is able to find new funding to help this organization grow to meet better the needs of hundreds of struggling homeless families in central Arkansas. Elizabeth finds new purpose as well, undertaking the difficult journey of training as a Registered Nurse. She now cares for young babies and their mothers during their first 24 hours of life, in the same hospital where Ruby was born.
Over time Ben is able to take on greater leadership of the nonprofit, and in 2017, after eight years on staff, Ben is chosen by the Board of Directors of Our House as the new Executive Director, only the third in Our House’s 30-year history, a non-profit which is “helping homeless families find a nest in the shade.”
Ben writes that “compared to the typical family that Our House serves, Elizabeth and I have enjoyed every advantage in the world. We both come from stable middle-class backgrounds,/ we have a very supportive network of family and friends,/ and we have a great relationship with each other. But even with all of these advantages, one adverse experience nearly wrecks our family and our lives. It is only because of the support of family and friends, the wonderful care provided by dedicated medical professionals, and a healthy dose of divine providence that we are able to pull through. I have tremendous respect for the strength and resilience of the families Our House serves. Ultimately what we have in common is greater than what separates us. We all want the best for our children. We all feel tremendous pain when our children suffer and we are unable to help them. And we all need help from others from time to time. Ruby has become our beautiful, intelligent, creative daughter who is a testament to the power of families to overcome difficult circumstances, if they have the support they need from their communities.”2
Two weeks ago Ben and Elizabeth invite us to celebrate Ruby’s 9th birthday with a block party also celebrating the birthday of her younger brother. Matthew, and his story is another parable to save for later!//
So today we have heard two similar parables about farmers and tiny things that grow much bigger than expected, one story two thousand years ago and one just happening in this decade. Let’s go back to the beginning of Ruby’s story and remember what a parable is because our gospel tells us “he did not speak to them except in parables.”/ A parable is a provocative, positive, life-giving story thrown alongside our lives that calls us to make a gestalt shift in the way we see ourselves, God, and others. From the parable we see God’s presence, God’s grace in a new and different light especially in times of darkness. Parables also expose mystery and surprise endings, resurrections, as God redeems our lives.1/ May Ben and Elizabeth and Ruby’s miraculous parable open our eyes and ears to remember/ the redeeming parables of Resurrection/ that play out as well/ in EACH/ of our lives today/ and throughout all eternity./
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth great branches, so the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
1Nibs Stroupe, “Proper 6,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3, p. 141.
2Ben Goodwin, His Story
Joanna Seibert joannaseibert.com