As a journalist and cultural commentator, my friend Rod Dreher seemingly had it all. In addition to his strong Christian faith, Rod was a successful writer and editor, a family man with a lovely wife, Julie, and three beautiful kids. Yet it took his sister Ruthie’s horrible illness to show him how much he’d been missing.
Rod and Ruthie were raised in the small town of Starhill, in West Feliciana Parish, which is not too far from Baton Rouge, Louisiana — but not too close, either. In his arresting new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, Rod describes the little red brick house they grew up in as “smack in the middle of plantation country.” Yet it wasn’t a good fit for Rod, a bookish sort who didn’t always fit into the outdoorsy mold expected by the town.
Not so Ruthie, whom he describes as “probably our town’s only homecoming queen who really did know how to skin a buck and run a trot line.” For Ruthie, Starhill meant comfort, security, and a sense of belonging. She put down roots, got married to her high school sweetheart Mike, and began raising a family. Rod, however, facing “the intolerance, the social conformity, the cliquishness, the bullying,” got out as soon as he could — and he didn’t plan to look back, ever.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Rod’s career success out East, writing about such things as the fragmenting modern family and “every other thing under the sun that undermines our sense of home and permanence”: You see, Ruthie got sick — very sick with cancer. So Rod and wife Julie and kids left their farmhouse near Philadelphia and came back to help.
They were stunned by the simple, practical faith they experienced. Ruthie, always helping others, received help from them now, accepting her illness as God’s will. “The love that had sustained Ruthie through her cancer, and that now surrounded and upheld her family,” Rod writes, “came from somewhere.” Rod saw Ruthie’s death reveal a “bright sadness.”
“I was able to see,” he writes, “the effect of Ruthie’s love, given and returned, in steadfast acts of ordinary faith, hope, and charity. The little way of Ruthie Leming is the plainest thing in the world, something any of us could choose.”
Rod and Julie, sensing a longing, chose to move back to Starhill to support, and be supported by, imperfect but incredible people. It was messy, as family things often are, but it was real. After Ruthie died, Mike, a man of few words, said, “We’re leaning, but we’re leaning on each other.” Rod and Julie were drawn to this loving community.
“To look upon beauty that powerful,” Rod says, “is to receive a calling and a command to change your life — and that can make you afraid. It can always be refused, but grace like that doesn’t come often.” So Rod began to work through his own lingering hurts, tears, and need to seek forgiveness from others in his past.
“Contemporary culture,” Rod says, “encourages us to make islands of ourselves for the sake of self-fulfillment, of career advancement, of entertainment, of diversion, and all the demands of the sovereign self. When suffering and death come for you … you want to be in a place where you know, and are known.”
Friends, this isn’t about Rod Dreher. We also need to put down roots and build relationships so we can share the love of God, minister, and be ministered to. We need to be, not just to do. And that takes time.
I urge you to get a copy of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. It’s an amazing book. We have it at The Colson Center Bookstore. It’ll probably make you cry; it will certainly make you think. And if you sense the call of God to re-establish yourself in a community, well, it just may change your life.
Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.
Publication date: May 7, 2013