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Becoming: The Courage To Become (Book of Ruth)

Date: 21/11/2021/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

In this series, Becoming, we began by talking about the Sower and how God sows love, life and light extravagantly, regardless of the condition of the soil, and how we are called to be sowers and do the same. Then we talked about how we will encounter resistance because of the fear response in us and others, and how we can have wisdom to build our resilience anchored on hope. We also talked about waiting, and much as it is difficult, waiting is part of God’s plan in our becoming. We were also reminded that in the midst of becoming, we have all been loved into being. And in the same way we have been loved, we can love others into being. Then last week, Gary talked about how the process of becoming is like a pilgrimage, and it’s important for us to understand the passion, promise, path and purpose of a pilgrim. So what is there left to talk about?    

Well, today, we are going to talk about courage — the courage to become. This is what it all boils down to, right? Do we have the courage to take the first step? Will we be courageous in following God’s call whatever it may be? There are many passages from the Bible that I could have chosen but I decided to choose one that is seldom preached from, yet exemplifies the courage to become – the book of Ruth.  The Book of Ruth is one of only two books of the Bible to be named after women (the other is Esther). Ruth is the only Jewish convert to have a biblical book named after her–a profound and unparalleled honour. So what stands out about her, among all the biblical writers is that she is not only a woman, she is also a convert. Something about her story must have been so remarkable, it was included as a book of the Bible many centuries ago, in a day and age where the words and experiences of women were usually not taken seriously.   

 Question 1 (Word Cloud) 

What do you remember from the book of Ruth?  

People often think of the book of Ruth as a love story between the foreign widow, Ruth, and Boaz, her kinsman-redeemer, or what we would call her family redeemer. The story is a bit like a soap opera and even has bits that seem to involve some kind of seduction, and we will get to that later. But this book is so much more than that! It’s much more than a nice, heartwarming love story.  

This book has only 4 chapters but it’s a beautiful work of art that begins with tragedy and death in the opening chapter, and it moves towards joy and birth in the closing chapter.  

  • From Tragedy & Death to Joy & Birth 
  • From Chaos & Famine (the time of the Judges) to Order & Abundance (the genealogy leading up to establishment of monarchy under David) 

And I want you to be able to see that arc even as we talk about the story. This book is a brilliant work of theological art that invites us to reflect on the question: how is God involved in the day-to-day hardships and joys of our lives? 

“In the Book of Ruth, the Word of God takes a position on women that defies the social tradition, in this day as well as in that one. In the Book of Ruth, God calls us beyond the stereotypes and the social barriers to fullness of life and wholeness of being. It is a spiritual journey meant clearly for us all.” – Joan Chittister 

This is true for women but this is not just for women. It is true for us all. Through the story of Ruth, God is calling us beyond the stereotypes and the social barriers to fullness of life and wholeness of being. This is a spiritual journey for you and me.   

The story of Ruth begins with tragedy and change, not unlike the pandemic times that we live in now. Naomi and her family move from Bethlehem to Moab because of a famine, and her husband dies. Her two sons marry Moabite women, and after some time, both sons die, leaving three widows. At that time, it was hard to be a woman. And it was even harder to be a widow because there was no one they could depend on for survival. In a deeply patriarchal world, they couldn’t just go out and get jobs. Many had to beg for a living or turn to sex work, if they didn’t have the help of their family. So Naomi decides there is nothing left for her in Moab and she should return to Bethlehem, where she might at least have some relatives who might be able to help her. Her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, want to go with her but Naomi tells them that though they have been exemplary in their behaviour throughout the multiple tragedies, there really is no future for them in Israel.   

Naomi had no illusions that her life as a widow would be easy. And as foreigners who were despised by the Jews, she knew that life would be even more difficult for her Moabite daughters-in-law. They all wept aloud together, Orpah finally relents and goes back to her mother’s house. But Ruth refuses to leave.  

There is no question about leaving Naomi on her own. She clings to Naomi and says her famous words in Ruth 1:16-17.  

‘Do not press me to leave you 
   or to turn back from following you! 
Where you go, I will go; 
   where you lodge, I will lodge; 
your people shall be my people, 
   and your God my God.  
17 Where you die, I will die— 
   there will I be buried. 
May the Lord do thus and so to me, 
   and more as well, 
if even death parts me from you!’  

  

These words probably sound familiar because they are often uttered at weddings. When we hear these moving words of steadfast devotion during wedding ceremonies, they are spoken by comfortable lovers surrounded by well-wishers in an atmosphere of romantic love. But there was nothing comfortable, romantic, or idyllic about Ruth’s situation. Her future was not one of bright promise and happiness. She was speaking as a widow going to a foreign land where she didn’t know anyone else. She was making these promises to an older widow who was returning home, bitter with grief. And she was doing this against all odds, even though it was not expected or required of her.  

Ruth’s words to Naomi weren’t prompted by sentimentality. They were motivated by a steadfast devotion to the mother of her dead husband. Ruth, was determined to care for Naomi. As a foreign woman, she was determined to endure discrimination in Bethlehem in order to see that Naomi’s last years were as comfortable as she could make them. Ruth’s words were not cute or casual. They were words of courage and utter devotion. Her proclamation of love, loyalty and commitment until death is remarkable and moving, regardless of time and culture.   

In fact, Ruth is very much like the YHWH she has chosen to embrace – the YHWH who will never leave us nor forsake us, the One who will forever offer us hesed or loving-kindness, no matter what the cost. The themes  hesed (loving-kindness) and redemption, particularly exemplified by both Ruth, and then later on by Naomi and Boaz, is found throughout the book. Ruth demonstrates hesed in her devotion and obedience to Naomi even as they strive to survive together in this land, and in Ruth 3, we see Naomi’s plan to ensure that Ruth is well taken care of, in response to how Ruth has been taking care of her.  

So, in order to feed Naomi and herself, Ruth had been gathering the leftover grain in the fields of this man named Boaz, who treated her with kindness when he heard that she was the one who left her own family and homeland in order to take care for her mother-in-law in a foreign land. When Ruth returns home and tells Naomi about Boaz’s kindness and generosity, Naomi is filled with joy because Boaz just happens to be a close relative, someone they would call a family redeemer. So Naomi comes up with a plan. She tells Ruth to bathe and anoint herself, go down to the threshing floor, and to uncover Boaz’s feet after he has lain down, and to lay down too.  

Ruth did everything her mother-in-law had instructed, and perhaps even a little more as she takes the initiative to ask Boaz to spread his robe over her because he is a family redeemer. Now, that sounds like a pretty strange custom, right? To uncover someone’s feet while they are sleeping. Now, Bible commentators will tell us that “feet” is actually a common Hebrew euphemism for the genitals. So to our modern ears, that sounds a little scandalous, right? But you must remember that it was considered culturally honorable at that time to make such a request in this way. We know it was culturally accepted and honorable because Boaz didn’t wake up in shock and scold her. In fact, he praised her for her loyalty to the family and blessed her. When Ruth asks Boaz to cover her with the corner of his cloak in verse 9, she is asking him to marry her according to the laws of family succession. And Boaz displays hesed in his role as family redeemer when Ruth approaches him with such courage and audacity.  

Through their combined demonstration of hesed and go’el redemptive powers, Ruth ends up marrying Boaz, a male relative of her late husband in order to preserve his name and lineage, converts to Judaism, and ultimately becomes the ancestor of the royal house of David. The book of Ruth thus addresses challenging issues of that time, such as the treatment of “the other”, intermarriage, what it means to build community, and the role of God in human affairs. God is mentioned numerous times by the three main characters, and we see God working behind the scenes in the movement from tragedy and death to joy and birth, from chaos and famine to order and abundance.  

Ruth’s steadfast devotion and courageous commitment to Naomi eventually worked to save Naomi from bitterness in her old age, as Naomi would end up joyfully with a grandson, Obed. Obed would go on to become the father of Jesse, who would become the father of David. David, the great-great-grandson of Naomi, and the great-grandson of Ruth, would become the second king of Israel, and the ancestor of Jesus. When we later read about the ancestors of Jesus in the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, we find Ruth’s name in Matthew 1:5-6 when we read the words “Boaz, the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.” 

Because of her courage and loving kindness, Ruth became the ancestor of Jesus. What about you? What do you need courage to become? What is God calling you to become?  

Question 2 (Word Cloud) 

What do you need courage to become?  

What do you think God wants you to become? Become holier, a better person? I guess but ultimately, I think God wants you to become YOU. “But I’m already me. What do you mean God wants me to become me?” What I mean is for you to become fully and truly yourself – the person that God has created you to be. None of us are there yet but I sure hope we are on the way to becoming.  

Top 5 Regrets of the Dying 

Recently, I read the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying by Bronnie Ware, who was a palliative nurse. Interestingly, two of the top 5 regrets involved wishing for more courage.  

No.1: I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.  

No.3: I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.  

I think in Ruth’s life, we see clearly her courage to live a life true to herself, and her courage to express her feelings, among other things.  

  1. The Courage to Live A Life True to Herself and Her Values   

She was initially seen and treated as a foreigner, “Ruth the Moabite”. But she continued to do what she believed was right even if it meant leaving her family, homeland, culture and religion. 

  1. The Courage to Give of Herself – Her Practise of Hesed – Naomi wanting to take care of her and her future in response. Boaz wanting to act as their family redeemer in response to her hesed towards Naomi.  
  1. The Courage to Express Her Feelings 

Some scholars and commentators argue that Ruth was a feminist of her time. Even though she was a woman in a deeply patriarchal world, she was bold in asking for what she and her family needed to survive. Her courage to approach Boaz, even though she was considered a nobody, and invite him to fulfil his responsibility as a family redeemer is truly remarkable.    

  1. The Courage to Follow God’s Leading 

Ruth may have been a foreigner but she certainly wanted to follow this God that the family she married into believes in. And she does this one thing, that is truly reflective of YHWH. She loves Naomi above and beyond what anyone expects or deserves. She is present when she doesn’t have to be. And in order to be present, she lets go of her securities and takes risks. She embodies divine love, just as Christ embodies divine love, just as we embody divine love, when we truly pay attention to those who are walking through the wilderness. When we give the simple gift of our presence, when we have the courage to follow God’s leading, God’s presence comes through us, to heal, to encourage, to love people through the most difficult times of their lives. God is always ready to partner with us in this work, ready to love through us, shine through us, ready to give hope. The task is simple – it’s for us to be fully present, to be our full selves. The result can change lives, including our own.  

This past week marked the fourth anniversary of Rev Yap’s passing, and all of us here at FCC are forever indebted to him, Mrs Yap, Susan and their family for their sacrificial love and unwavering courage that continues to inspire us, and leads the way towards justice, bringing God’s kin-dom closer to fulfilment on earth. FCC would not be what it is today, if not for Rev Yap and his family, and we are eternally grateful for him as well as for them. I remember one of the last times I visited and spent time with Rev Yap. He had to stay in bed but we still managed to have tea and biscuits together, and I remember us laughing a lot. I will always remember that twinkle in his eye whenever he laughed.  

I re-read one of the sermons he wrote in 2014 for the Amplify Conference, Towards Radical Inclusion, and I appreciate anew his wisdom and challenge for us:  

“How inclusive are we if we do not include all these in our mission agenda? We must resist the temptation to be exclusive and stay within the walls of this sacred sanctuary, dark and cave-like. We have to part the curtains, raise the shades, and see out of our windows the world outside groaning in travail, and challenge the Church to transform our community to be more loving and caring for one another. We cannot view religion exclusively as a private matter or as personal salvation. By the same token we cannot be exclusively involved only in the transformation of society and changing social values. We strive to be inclusive in terms of personal and social salvation.” 

What beautiful words that continue to ring so true and is still relevant today!  

Question 3 (Open) 

In what ways might God be leading you to take courage today? 

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[Yanmei’s Sharing] 

Thanksgiving for my study journey  

Dear FCC family, 

I would like to share with you my journey for theological studies. Coming from an evangelical background, missions had always been my interest when serving in church. But when I came to FCC in 2008, there was no ministry for missions as it was quite a new church. As I understood from my youth days from evangelical church, missions abroad were mostly opportunities to share the gospel, plant churches, setup new ministries, etc. Missions had since evolved in the world and for FCC it came in a different form. FCC started Amplify Conference in 2009 from Singapore as an aim to equip or train church members for worship or ministry in church, but it has since evolved to have combined overseas conference in Hong Kong in 2012, to include LGBT fellowships from SEA regions such as Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, Philippines and Japan, etc. These conferences allowed us to network and connect with LGBT churches and fellowships around Asia. It also gave me an opportunity to interact with the people from different fellowships in China such as Shanghai and Xiamen, and to hear their pastoral needs in the region. My first “mission trip” in FCC started as I was following Pastor Miak on his journey to China in 2015 – we went to Shanghai Retreat then to Xiamen, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. (View the photos on slides) It was there that God connected me to the people from various fellowships in China. During 2016-2019, Pastor Pauline and I had the opportunity to go into various parts of China and Hongkong to do mini workshops to meet the pastoral needs of the folks there. (View the photos on slides) 

I want to take this opportunity to give thanks to FCC for starting Amplify, they had done a wonderful work of sowing the seeds for missions as well as equipping the workers. And now we are reaping the fruits from the years of labor as we see many new fellowships started in different parts of China, etc. 

As I reflect on my journey on how I came to take Master of Arts in Christian Studies (MACS) in HK, it was an unusual direction from God. The Theological schools in Singapore were not able to accept me as a student after hearing that I am from (FCC) Free Community Church since they cannot accept LGBT folks for various reasons. They allowed me to take audit courses in 2016, but I could not study for any theological degree there. As I do not want to give up, I continued to take up some short courses such as Church History to quench my thirst for knowledge. Meanwhile I kept in touch with the fellowships in China and joined most of the retreats, and I was very motivated to hear some of them studying in theological schools to serve in their fellowships.  

The Queer Theology Academy camp (QTA) that I attended in 2019 in Hong Kong opened my options to study Theology. It was held in Divinity School of Chung Chi College (DSCCC), the same place where we had our combined Amplify conference in 2012. (View the photos on slides). I found out that some of my camp mates had studied in this Divinity School before and they are friendly towards LGBT. There were some major considerations as I contemplate to study there – (1) Language, (2) Finances, (3) Distance. Although I am Cantonese, but my language is conversational, I can understand the basic language, but not in Theological terms. Attending QTA camp reassured me that most lecturers have English slides and reading materials, so I can follow along, and we are allowed to write our essays in either English or Chinese. My finances were low after purchasing my new house, so when I found out that MACS allowed part time students, I realize that I could work part time in Hong Kong while earning my tuition fees if the company allows me to transfer. 

After deciding that this is what I wanted to do, I began the process to enroll in 2020 intake. I thought just need to fill in the registration forms, right? No, there are other steps too, firstly I need to submit my degree certificate with official transcript with official stamp from the university I studied from. The degree I studied was from Informatics during 2004, how would I be able to get any electronic copies? I had to email the University with my scanned copies of my certificate and transcript and get them to review before sending to back to CUHK which took 2 weeks. Secondly, I need to get online verification report from Hong Kong to verify that my degree certificate is authentic, so I had to submit another form, and that took another 2 weeks. Thirdly, after submitting pastor recommendation letter, I need to get my 2 referees to do a survey form from the university to assess my abilities for studies. Finally, I need to submit the visa form to Hong Kong Customs to get my part time student visa to study there. I was having trouble getting my visa as I was not in Hong Kong and the company did not approve for me to transfer, and I was out of options when Covid suddenly struck.   

During the Covid situation in April 2020, travel was restricted, and we were not allowed to travel out of Singapore. I had hit a roadblock; I was quite sure in July that I would need to drop my studies plan or defer indefinitely. But God has other plans for me, the Divinity School (DSCCC) for the first time in history had to do online classes, due to the pandemic situation as students are not allowed on campus. (God had just performed a miracle just when I thought my hope for studies were gone!) By God’s grace, the school wrote to the customs to grant me a temporary visa pass to do my course online. In Sep 2020, I enrolled as a part time student and started my lessons via Zoom. I am finally able to fulfil my dream of studying theology at a university!  

I had never imagined myself studying theology in a Chinese University with 3 different languages and the immersion in the Chinese Theological World was a unique experience as there was focus on how Christianity came to China and history of missions.  

I am very grateful to God for providing me a way to study Theology in a manner that I did not expect, and I had saved a year of living expenses while studying online. All things seem to fall in place in God’s time and place. I am now looking forward to completing my term at campus next year 2022 in Hong Kong. 

My encouragement for fellow FCC folks who are interested pursuing theological education is to continue to trust in God to provide a way. The need for our community is great and will always have need for workers. It will seem difficult due to our identity and financial situations, but our God is without limits and boundaries and will provide the resources and the people to get there if you do not give up. Do continue to trust in our amazing God! Thank God! 😊 

The Summons 

Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name? 
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same? 
Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around, 
through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?