Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Four Marks of Faithfulness - Part 2

TITLE: Four Marks of Faithfulness – Part II
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 6 Sep 2010

Then she said, “Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return after your sister-in-law.
But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” (Ruth 1:15-16)

MAIN POINT: Last week, I shared about the first two marks of faithfulness: Beyond destination, and beyond moods. This week, I share the other two. The last two marks of faithfulness transcends 'good-old-days' thinking and looks forward to a brave new world.

During my seminary years, we lived like a pauper. We ate unsold bread donated by the bakery. Church friends donated their used items. Practically all our furniture and equipment are second hand items. All of us eat leftovers for lunch, sometimes dinner. Lest readers think we live like a destitute, that is not the case. We are simply more careful with our limited resources. Occasionally we splurge on a nice dinner outside by giving our kitchens a ‘sabbath’ break too. Most of all, we have learned that we do not need a lot of things in order to live a meaningful life. Let me repeat:
“We do not need a lot of things to live on, in order to be happy.” 
The next two marks of faithfulness deals with the acts of simple commitment. In other words, faithfulness and commitment that avoids the ‘good-old-days’ thinking, and not afraid of a uncertain future.

A) Mark #3 – Faithfulness Transcends “Good-Old-Days” Thinking
When Ruth was asked to return to her gods and her people, her mother-in-law was concerned about Ruth losing out in terms of possessions and future opportunities. Like it or not, it is always easier for a person to return to her home country, her familiar culture and her society where she can easily blend in and be accepted. It is extremely helpful whether one needs to find a job, a place to live in or even a new soulmate in familiar territory.

Immigrants all over the world struggle with trying to find acceptance in their initial years in their newly adopted country. I have seen how Asian immigrants struggle to make ends meet in places such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or other English speaking countries. The rule of thumb is that, for new immigrants, previous experience and qualifications are not easily transferable. Safe to say, for any new immigrant, one needs to be prepared to rough it out, and not to expect kingly treatment just because they carry professional degrees, PhDs, or multiple work experiences. For those who migrated due to marriage, when their spouse dies, they are suddenly left alone in a foreign land and culture like a fish out of water. I have asked many friends before what they will do if their spouses die when they are in a foreign land. Nearly all of them said they will return home to their home countries.

For Ruth, losing her husband looks very much like being left alone in a strange new country. Naomi acts sympathetically and sensitively to Ruth’s needs. She knows that it will be hard for Ruth to adapt. After all, Ruth has every right to make it successful if she return to her gods and her people. It reminds me of how Israel complains ands asks to be returned to Egypt while they are traveling in the wilderness. Memories of the ‘good-old-days’ are so seductive during challenging times.

In a remarkable display of faithfulness, Ruth dismisses all the ‘good-old-days’ stuff. Instead, she embarks upon a brave new commitment to an uncertain future. More accurately, she chooses to be faithful to her marriage commitment, that when she marries, she marries the entire family, not just her husband. This remarkable act of faithfulness explains why a whole biblical book is named after Ruth. It is a great honour indeed. In the world of publishing, even great authors do not have the same reach like the Bible, and to have one’s name on a biblical book is an honour and privilege no money can ever buy. As far as Ruth is concerned, she has learned what it means to remain committed regardless of possessions, reputation or future opportunities. Ruth knows that faithfulness transcends great possessions of material goods.

B) Mark #4 – Faithfulness Transcends Fear of Uncertain Future
When Ruth pledges allegiance to the faith of Naomi’s, she is doing something deeply significant. She effectively rejects her own religion, and adopts the faith of her mother-in-law. In contrast, Orpah, the sister-in-law of Ruth was said to have returned to her land and her gods (Ruth 1:15). It is tempting for Ruth to simply follow suit. However, Ruth has that sense of faithfulness that transcends her previous religious convictions. She lets her love for Naomi, her desire to be faithful overcome any religious prejudices she may have, to accept the Jewish faith.

Ruth has just thrown away her future. It is like handcuffing herself to her mother-in-law’s hand and casting the key away in the wide blue ocean.

  • Ruth could have remarried as she was still young;
  • Ruth could have returned to Moab to restart her life as if former life never happened;
  • Ruth could have just taken Naomi’s advice and run back home.

Fortunately for us modern Bible readers, in Ruth, we have a true example of what faithfulness and commitment looks like: Faithfulness transcends future promises.

Note the word ‘faith’ in faithfulness. This reminds me of the powerful testimony of saints in Hebrews 11. From Abel to Abraham, Jacob to Joseph, Rahab to Ruth, wandering men and women of faith at large, they cling on to their faith, regardless of whether they see their promises fulfilled to them.

And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised,” (Hebrews 11:39)
Ruth received the shorter end of the bargain unwillingly when her husband passed away. She embraced an even shorter end willingly when she chooses to follow her mother-in-law. Faithfulness replaces an indefinite future with a definite commitment to a person.

C) Faithfulness as a Follower of Christ
Let me summarize the four marks of faithfulness.
1. Faithfulness transcends destination;
2. Faithfulness transcends moods;
3. Faithfulness transcends ‘good-old-days’ thinking;
4. Faithfulness transcends fear of an uncertain future.

What can we learn from these 4 marks with regards to Christian discipleship? Firstly, Christian discipleship is an act of faithfulness by clinging on to Jesus, regardless of our earthly destinations. Believers of Christ are first and foremost citizens of heaven. Whether we are at home or abroad, or aliens in a foreign land, our citizenship is in heaven. I know of people who cling on to nationalistic fervours relentlessly in the name of patriotism and cultural pride. I do not want to dismiss them. Instead, I want to suggest that unhealthy infatuation with patriotism can turn unruly and unhelpful. Like any culture all over the world, there are good and bad Moravians. There are good and bad Germans. There are good and bad Chinese people. There are also good and bad Westerners. We cannot simply judge a person on their skin colour or country of origin. When our citizenship is in heaven, we learn to see things with a bigger perspective.

Secondly, As a citizen of heaven, we fight against our tendencies to be victimized by our feelings. We aim to do the right thing, whether we feel like it or not. We pledge faithfulness, whether we feel good or not.

Thirdly, as a citizen of heaven, we look at our past with fond memories, but never trapped by good-old-days thinking which can impede our future growth. Take for instance someone who loves the Apple IIe, one of the classic Apple computer products more than 30 years ago. If this person insists stubbornly on using only his Apple IIe everywhere he goes, he would have deprived himself of the latest Apple notebooks, the flashier gadgets which are not only easier to carry but possess greater computing power. A ‘good-old-days’ thinker deceives himself to think that his clunky old Apple IIe can outperform the latest MacBook Pro laptops.

Finally, as a citizen of heaven, we practice faithfulness by braving the future with hope, and fighting any crippling fear of uncertainty. There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear, writes John in his first epistle.

Ruth exemplifies all of these marks of faithfulness. With remarkable courage, she clings on to Naomi and adopts a culture foreign to herself. With passionate pleas, she waylays Naomi’s tears to assure her mother-in-law that she will never leave or forsake her. This she does so honourably not just with words and actions, but her full and total commitment. Now, that is faithfulness.
When you have come to the edge Of all light that you know And are about to drop off into the darkness Of the unknown, Faith is knowing One of two things will happen: There will be something solid to stand on or You will be taught to fly.” (Patrick Overton)

Thought: Faithfulness is an adventure not to be missed. Why settle for the mediocre when you can be the best that you can be?


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