Sunday, August 29, 2010

4 Marks of Faithfulness - Part I

TITLE: Four Marks of Faithfulness – Part I
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 29 Aug 2010
And they lifted up their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law but Ruth clung to her.” (Ruth 1:14)
[** Today is my (Conrade) wedding anniversary, so I am publishing this issue earlier.]

MAIN POINT: The book of Ruth provides us a laser-sharp focus on the faithfulness of Ruth that we can all learn from. I submit to you the four marks of faithfulness. This will be shared over 2 weeks. This week, I suggest that faithfulness transcends destination and moods.

In the Ancient Near East during biblical times, the lives of women can be very hard. Their sense of identity is strongly connected to the husbands they marry. Their whole livelihood depends on what the men of the family do. This link is often seen in the genealogy of Jewish families. During a census, families are registered based on their family of origin. In most of the genealogies, very few women are listed as part of the family heritage.

A) Amputated Hopes
The biblical book of Ruth begins with promise, of a Moabite family trying to survive a terrible famine in Judah. For some reason, the head of the family, Elimelech died (Ruth 1:3). His two sons who took Moabite wives also died subsequently (Ruth 1:5). In a short terse 5 verses, a family of 6 was reduced by half. All the men died. In such a male-dominated culture, as far as Naomi and her two daughters in law are concerned, their family’s future has taken a turn for the worse, as far as social status is concerned. All three of them are now widows. All three of them lost husbands. They have no children. They have a weak status. They have a bleak future. Their hopes of building a family have been cruelly amputated from them. Despite this situation, the Scriptures record Ruth’s amazing response: ‘Ruth clung’ on to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Instead of drowning herself in her despair, or immersing her plight through depression and regret, Ruth said something that has been quoted, memorized, and treasured by many.

“But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)

This verse represents Ruth’s first words to be recorded. These words form the sub-title of the entire book of Ruth; an expression of what true faithfulness looks like. There are four marks of faithfulness that we can learn from here. The first two deals with vocation and location. It essentially answers the questions: “Where to go?” The next two deals with identity. It answers the question: “Who am I?”

B) Repairing Hope: Four Marks of Faithfulness
Ruth’s remarkable response is a mark of faithfulness. It is a vow of loyalty to her mother-in-law, despite her being given the permission to leave, and to return to her hometown. In a nutshell, Ruth chooses to be faithful. It is volitional. It is motivated from inside, not outside. It is freely offered. Ruth could have opted out of a life of continued misery. Yet, she clings on to Naomi. Ruth knows profoundly what it means to stick together, regardless of destination, of location, of people and of religious convictions.

MARK #1 – Faithfulness Transcends destination
I remember my first time I met my wife. Both of us are born in different countries, and hold different passports. It can be a scary feeling for her when I pop the question:
"If we get married, are you willing to follow me wherever I go?"
I felt most blessed when she said 'yes.' There is no greater feeling then knowing that both of us pledge our faithfulness to each other and to God. Out of this faithfulness, where we go does not really matter. WHO we are with becomes most significant.

For Ruth, her choice of where to go is far more intense. She has lost her husband. She has a choice to look for another. It concerns her entire life. It is like putting down all her chips to follow after her mother-in-law. Faithfulness according to Ruth, is not a matter of where she is going, but WHO, namely her loyalty to her mother-in-law. If we were to ask Ruth, where is she going, all she says will be: "Anywhere my mother-in-law chooses."

This reminds me of the argument between Abraham and Lot which led to their amicable parting of ways. While Lot looked at the place and chose Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham chose the relationship. He offered Lot the best of choice, but he himself opted for the best of relationships. Wow! This is exactly what Ruth did to. Ruth chose to be faithful to her mother-in-law, and not leave her to struggle alone.

MARK #2 – Faithfulness Transcends Moods
Being human, we are susceptible to choices according to our moods. When we are happy, we laugh. When we are sad, we become downcast. When we are restless, we look for exciting things to do. When we are restful, anything is possible. Sometimes, when we go out with friends, the location matters. I remember a time when we try to invite a friend to join the rest of us for a meal. Upon finding out that we are going to a fast-food restaurant, my friend declined the invitation. He is not into fast-food. I can understand. People who are health conscious tend to avoid fast food places. As a place to eat, I can understand. However, as an opportunity to meet and hang out with friends, I think my friend has missed out. Friends are important. Sometimes, we just have to bite our lip, (or our health choices), and follow along so as to spend time meeting up and renewing our ties with one another. One reason is because we do not know when we will ever see our friend again. We could die tomorrow. Our friend could be leaving the country for good. Anyone of us could have a new job that brings us to a new place at any time.

Ruth knows that when she makes a commitment to Naomi, it means her all, not simply a part. It is regardless of where her mother-in-law chooses to go. Faithfulness is independent of moods, for it transcends location with a pledge to follow Naomi wherever she chooses to go or stay.

If we were to ask Ruth, "How do you feel about throwing away your life by following your mother-in-law?"

I suspect that she will give a sharp rebuttal: "It is not about me or how I feel. It's about following my mother-in-law anywhere she goes."

Sometimes I wonder about marriages and Boy-Girl relationships. Have they become too dependent on new-wave moods rather than old-fashioned faithfulness? Faithfulness to God has a similar trait. On days where I feel exceptionally exhausted, I will be most reluctant to go to Church. Yet, there is something that tells me, it is an act of grace that I go. It is not for the sake of myself. It is a grace extended to the people in the Church. My presence encourages people. My participation aids worship. Faithfulness is a powerful emotion when it is directed toward God.

Faithfulness is not a question of new ways of worshiping God or following Christ. It is despite of whatever contexts we are in, we pledge ourselves to obey God and follow Christ.

A Pause to Comment
Let me pause to comment on one more behavior that faithfulness cultivates on the way. It is where we choose to shine our attention on. It is where we converge our resources. It is who we give our limelight to. It is like a laser-beam of the heart, focusing the rays of love, to cling on to the desire to give the person the best that we can offer. It holds nothing back. It gives up one's selfish ambitions and it keeps the other person more important than self. When this happens, when we learn to be faithful, we find ourselves strangely changed. We discover we are more focused. We realize that we know what we want in life. We are not longer scattered in our thoughts, for our lives are no longer dependent on where to go, or how we feel, but on plain utter faithfulness to God and the people He chooses for us to live with.

One more thing. I suspect that the reasons why we are prone to committing adultery is when our minds are confused and scattered over who we truly love. This is why we must learn to direct our focus to be faithful to God always. Our relationship with fellow people depends very much on our relationship with God.

~~~ To be Continued ~~~
"By faithfulness we are collected and wound up into unity within ourselves, whereas we had been scattered abroad in multiplicity." (Augustine)

Thought: What would you do if you are Ruth? Faithfulness is not related to where we are going, or what location we are living in. Faithfulness to God and to our loved ones is a relationship.


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