Butterflies and promises
"May the Lord deal with me ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me."
Ruth the Moabite
Ruth the Moabite
There's so much betrayal of trust in the world that you might think we'd all be cynics by now. Believing no one, insisting on pre-nuptial agreements, pages of fine print and a list of witnesses the length of a football field—that's pretty much the order of the day in some cultures.
In light of all that, isn't it a grand kick in the head to discover that the bus you run to catch is packed full of "trusters". Supermarkets are jammed full of them, they're bringing up coal out of the mines and fixing your televisions; they're hanging off roofs and swinging on chandeliers; they're writing you a speeding ticket or cutting your hair. Everywhere you go they're popping up or out or in or over or across or back again. They're everywhere! Praise God they're everywhere! They know the horror stories, know their own limitations and the shaping power of a glib and shrewd society. They look at the world with steady eyes, fully aware of the shiny veneer and the gold-plated promises, missing nothing; and then as if the world was made of solid oak they give their hearts away. They mortgage the only hearts and lives they have because someone says to them: "I'm not very smart, I'm not good-looking and I may never make my mark in this world; but I love you. Yes...I do, I...love you, and if you'll come with me I'll never leave you!"
They hear that and they trust! They deserve to be honoured with our faithfulness because they've earned it with their "yes!" And it's precisely because of their noble-spirited trust that they suffer incredible heartache when that trust is trampled in the dirt. Their emotions are savaged but their whole view of the world takes a battering as well and that adds calamity to tragedy. Believing that somehow right is stronger than wrong they defy the jeering world and are run over by a juggernaut. The more cynical among us aren't hit as hard by treachery because we don't commit a lot—we know better, you see. Still, while we don't get badly hurt we aren't greatly loved or blessed and, perhaps what's worse, we never love gloriously. We shrewdly grab the shiny metal and turn down Aladdin's lamp because we've seen too many poor souls mangled beyond repair by the callous and the glib.
In Puccini's opera, Madam Butterfly, Cio-Cio-San is a sensitive fifteen-year old Japanese girl who's swept off her feet by Lieutenant Pinkerton, U.S.N. She turns from her traditional religion and marries the sailor who makes her believe she's the only one in the world he wants. Despite the bad record of marriages with "visiting foreigners" and despite the fact that the marriage has an "out" clause, Butterfly believes in Pinkerton with all her heart. He sets her up in a fine house, promises her that he will come back and take her to America, and goes back to sea. It's only later she discovers she's going to have his child—a child he doesn't know about.
He's gone for three years, she misses him beyond words, she's having a hard time financially and socially but far worse than all that, there's a lingering dread. But when her devoted maid Suzuki tries to persuade her of the worst, she rages against her and says that Suzuki lacks faith, that she simply doesn't know Pinkerton! At that point, full of faith and smiling, seeing it all with her trusting heart, she sings the beautiful aria One Fine Day.
Hear me! One fine day we'll notice a thread of smoke arising on the sea—In the far horizon, and then the ship appearing; the white trim vessel glides into the harbor, thunders forth the cannon. See you? Now he is coming! I do not go to meet him. Not I! I stay up on the brow of the hill, and wait there...and wait a long time. But never weary of the long waiting. From out of the crowded city there is coming a man, a little speck in the distance, climbing the hill. Can you guess who it is? And when he's reached the summit can you guess what he'll say? He will call "Butterfly" from the distance. I without answering, hold myself quietly concealed, a bit to tease him and a bit so as not to die..."Dear baby wife of mine!" "Orange blossom!" The names he used to call me when he came here. This will come to pass as I tell you. Banish your fears, for he will return. I know it!
The American Consul, Sharpless, arrives with a letter saying that Pinkerton has married in the U.S.A. and is returning with his wife. Sharpless tries again and again to tell her but he can't bring himself to do it. They're interrupted by the arrival of the young prince Yamadori who wants to marry Butterfly but she insists she's already married to the only one she'll ever love and, on the basis of what Pinkerton had promised, she turns down security and dignity for her child and herself.
Later Pinkerton does arrive, but with his wife Kate. He learns of the child and is torn with grief at the agony his selfishness has caused. As soon as Butterfly enters and sees Kate, she senses who she is, and when the woman confirms it Butterfly's world collapses. She sets her house in order, arranges for the little boy's future with Pinkerton and all alone, broken-hearted and beyond comfort, she stabs herself and dies.
Only a silly story? Hmmm, do you think so?
The biblical Ruth took it all seriously and wouldn't walk away from her calamity-ridden mother-in-law even though the older woman urged her to go back to her familiar and secure world. The young Moabite made this unforgettable commitment (1:16-17):
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. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord deal with me ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.
The good news is that there are tens of thousands who say to one another, "I can't be sure of the world or what they will do; I can only be sure of me and what I'll do. I will stay!"
Landon Saunders put it like this, "Marriage is two people looking deep into each other's eyes and saying: 'Others may come and go in your life but I never will. If you get sick, I'll care for you, feed you, bathe you; I'll do anything for you except leave you. I will never leave you.' "
To give our solemn promise is a gallant and profoundly serious thing. It alters the world for us because it shapes the future; it says some things are no longer options for us. But it doesn't only change our world—it changes the world for those who take us seriously. They too see the world and the future differently because they believe some things are certain. And on that promised future their present world is shaped—they live in the light of that.
I know some lovely people who are as distressed as I am at times about the state of the world, about terrorist threats, about the global economy, about the restlessness of the nations, about spiraling crimes rates and deteriorating health. It's all that uncertainty, don't you see. But if I were to ask them if they were sure that their beloved would always be there, the answer would come back decisive and immediate, "Oh, always and always, come what may."
Now that's something to be sure of.