Monday, 6 June 2011

Pentecost Reflections: Courage and Commitment

"It hath fully been shewed me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother in law since the death of thine husband: and how thou hast left thy father and thy mother, and the land of thy nativity, and art come unto a people which thou knewest not heretofore. The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to take refuge." Ruth 2:11-12

This week sees the arrival of the Jewish festival of Shavuos, or "Weeks" in English. It is the culmination of the festival of Passover that occurred 7 weeks or 50 days previously. The number of days also reveals a link to the Christian feast of Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, which is celebrated this coming Sunday. Shavuos is one of Israel's harvest festivals, which Jews have piously observed even when distanced from the agricultural cycles of their Holy Land. Additionally and more importantly the festival marks the date which tradition claims as the anniversary of God presenting his revelation to Israel on Mount Sinai. Over one thousand years later and on the same date, according to Christian tradition, occurred the revelation and descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus, infusing them with renewed inspiration and commencing their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. Just as fire descended on Mount Sinai so flames were said to descend upon the heads of the disciples. Both these festivals are pregnant with meaning and merit greater study and respect.

For me one of the nicest observances of Shavuos, (other than the consumption of lots of yummy cheesecakes and other assorted dairy products) is the reading of the Book of Ruth, perhaps one of my favourite books in the Bible. Not only is it a beautiful and moving story, I find it inspires me to emulate its core themes of commitment, kindness and devotion (even if I am not always so successful in putting these themes into practice.)

The story is replete with many selfless acts of kindness. Naomi, a stranger in a strange land, who having lost her husband and her two sons and resolving herself to return to Bethlehem, pleads with her daughters-in-law (her last connection with her sons) not to accompany her into a life of poverty and loneliness but to return back into the bosom of their families and societies. Thoughts of her own loneliness and vulnerability are set aside in the interest of others. Boaz, whose words of praise opened this post, was willing to set aside his own love and admiration for the titular heroine, in order to observe God's will, and to honour the rights of others.

But above all, the greatest sacrificial kindness on display is that of Ruth herself. She sets aside her own heritage, future and comfort in devotion to Naomi, her mother-in-law and utters her famous words:

"Intreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God" Ruth 1:16

While the trait of loving-kindness is perhaps the most obvious aspect of Ruth's character (so much so that people not exhibiting this trait are held to be ruthless) I feel that another of her virtues is often overlooked; Courage. It may seem that Ruth is a victim of circumstance, a lone women lost in a world dominated by men, forced to labour tirelessly in the fields, gleaning for survival and at the mercy of the goodwill of others. But of course it did not have to be this way. She chose to give up her life in her homeland and embrace life with Naomi, whatever the consequences. Placing her trust in God she, like Abraham before her, walked bravely forward into an uncertain life. She made a commitment to Naomi and to God, and all commitment requires a good dose of courage.

Every relationship and every endeavour has risk, nothing in life is guaranteed and despite all the methods which people have invented for prognostication, the future remains uncharted territory. So when we commit ourselves to someone or something we too act with courage.

Ruth could not be dissuaded, she knew what she had to do, she knew what was right and she set herself on the path necessary to fulfil it. Like all of us, she no doubt heard that familiar inner, incredulous voice that questioned the sanity of her decision. Naomi herself was pleading with her to stay among her people, and yet her moral fortitude won out. Can it be any wonder that royalty would in time descend from her?

It is not always easy to stand by our decisions or our beliefs. Sometimes self-doubt or external criticism forces us to veer off the path we believe to be true. In the interest of an "easy life" we conform to peer pressure and expectation, and in so doing we sacrifice an aspect of our human dignity for as Ruth demonstrated it is exceedingly more noble to gather scraps of grain in a foreign field and be committed to that which you know to be true, than to sit in luxury knowing that you have betrayed your conscience.

A couple of weeks ago in chapel, I heard a Hindu story which illustrates the danger of relinquishing the courage of conviction. I shall broadly outline it:

Some thieves notice a wealthy man returning from the market with a grand sheep. They decide amongst themselves to steal it and eat it, but are divided as to how to go about it. Two of the thieves suggest various ways of physically attacking and disabling the man in order to make off with the animal. The third brigand suggests that they trick the man into handing the sheep over, a suggestion that is accepted by the others. As the man walks along he comes across the first thief who asks him if he is going hunting. When the man replies that he isn't, the thief questions him as to why he has brought a hunting dog with him! "A hunting dog" replies the man "What are you talking about this is a sheep!" The thief continuing his act insists that it is a dog. Convinced that he is talking to a person devoid of sanity, the wealthy man walks on. Soon he comes across the second thief, "Please please sir, keep that dog away from me, I'm terrified of dogs" he yells. Struck by the madness of the situation the sheep's owner insists that the "dog" is in fact a sheep, but to no avail. Finally he comes across the third thief who begs to be allowed to pet the "dog" as he loves them so. At this point the man questions himself. "I thought this was a sheep, but it seems I must have been wrong. It looks as if I must have been deceived in the market, and sold a worthless dog for the price of a sheep. What do I need a dog for, I have five at home?" And with that he releases the sheep and storms off back to the market. The criminals set upon the sheep, kill it and eat it.

The message of Shavuos and Pentecost presents us with challenges. To embrace God and to walk trustingly in His ways is not always easy, just as it is not always easy to sustain a relationship in the face of difficulties. But if we are confident that this way is true (with the humility to always be open to the wisdom of others and to the possibility that we might be wrong) we must courageously walk that path even if the whole world stands against us, safe in the knowledge that it is a blessing in itself to do so.

"Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake." Matthew 5:10-11

Many have risen to such a challenge, and one day I will have to dedicate a post to the story of one such individual: Emily Hobhouse, who suffered accusations of treachery and disloyalty for her advocacy of Boer women and children, victims of the brutal British policy of that time, and her staunch opposition to the First World War. She knew the truth that she had to pursue. She, like Ruth, was committed to it and would not be dissuaded.

These upcoming holy days can reinvigorate our resolve and convictions and strengthen us to continue our journeys, faithful to God and to the service of our fellow human beings, always aware that commitment is very much like Shakespeare describes love:

"Love is not love, which alters when it alteration finds.
Or bends with the remover to remove:
Oh no! It is an ever-fixéd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken."
Sonnet 116

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