For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer,
I promise – I do
In sickness and in health, from now until forever,
I’ll always love you, and so with,
all of my heart,
till death do us part
I promise I’ll always love you
– Jessica Foker, “I Do”
You could hardly blame the anguished Nepalese mother for abandoning her family. They were achingly poor to begin with and when her husband was arrested and jailed there was simply no one she could turn to. All of her friends and relatives had abandoned them in disgrace. She desperately hung on to tenuous hope and meager survival as long as she could, but in the end it all became overwhelming, when she could no longer bear, it she abandoned her kids at the gates of the jail and ran away.
How the two young girls managed to survive I cannot imagine. When I first saw them they were sharing a handful of rice with their father through the prison bars. He was trying his best to care for them but there was little he could do except to share his daily prison fare. So his two abandoned daughters, aged five and seven, fended for themselves on the rough and tumble streets around the jail. I cannot even begin to understand what that would have been like, what their lives were like before we managed to find a place for those two vulnerable young girls.
They were victims, certainly because of their father’s crime, but even more so because their very own mother abandoned them, ran away when she could no longer cope with the situation. Literally thousands of children, are abandoned every year when prison families break apart. It is hard to fully blame the parents, for marriage can be difficult at the best of times, and at the worst of times the vows of faithfulness “for better or worse, for richer or poorer” seem to collide with expediency and survival.
Faithfulness in families, as in any relationship or commitment, seems to work out much better when everything is going along quite well. The depth of our loyalty to a person or to a particular group is always put to the test when what it takes to remain faithful becomes increasingly heavy – when staying the course strains our energy and saps our strength – and when the light at the end of the tunnel flickers and dies, leaving us without an exit, just the possibility of a bitter end.
I think that it was about remaining faithful under such difficult circumstances that Jesus had in mind when he challenged his followers not to become preoccupied with their own needs but to shoulder their own cross daily in order follow him. Jesus never said that following him would be easy and he often talked about the cost of being a loyal believer, a faithful follower. On the night that Jesus was betrayed, confronted by Judas and a hostile mob, the implications of fidelity and loyalty became clear. With the tide of public opinion shifting precipitously against Jesus, the possibility of violence was imminent. In the moment that Jesus was seized by that mob, every one of the disciples who had been with Jesus abandoned him to his own and lonely fate; they fearfully turned tail and scattered – running away from him to “save their own skins.” Fidelity to the Lord was easy for them when the crowds were in awe of him, but they were not at all ready to stay the course with him through the danger and the cross.
Fidelity and faithfulness are words I am grappling with during this Lenten season. It seems to me that in our cultural ethos of immediate gratification and the consuming agenda of comfort and pleasure the values of faithfulness, loyalty, and fidelity are becoming reduced to terms of convenience and no longer signify an enduring life commitment. I frequently encounter the resultant decadence of loyalty in the prisons when I speak with police officers who have sold their loyalty to drug lords who offered them more money than the government; and fathers who have betrayed their families and their spouses for the allure of high times on drugs and wild sex; and drug dealers and businessmen who have sold out their countries and communities for the promise of personal profit; and I also talk with believers who have turned their backs on God because of the disillusioning scandals in the church.
Nobody ever said that loyalty and faithfulness would be easy in all times, all places and all circumstances. True fidelity is still beyond all conditions of better or worse, sickness or health, luxury or poverty, dancing or danger, and everything in between. But any alternative to or diminishment of our loyalty to God and to those we’ve committed ourselves to puts our souls and our lives in jeopardy.
Semper Fidelis – Always be faithful!
And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected
by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law,
and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Then he said to them all:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves
and take up their cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it,
but whoever loses their life for me will save it.
What good is it for someone to gain the whole world,
and yet lose or forfeit their very self?
– Luke 9:22-25 (NIV)
Ron W. Nikkel is the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship International (PFI). For more information, visit the PFI website.