Yet More Esther Reflections

July 29, 2007

This is the summary of the fourth class in our Esther study at Highland. Astute readers will note that this lesson intersected in all kinds of interesting ways with Boyd’s book. We tried to keep the information we presented on a more general level, however, to encoruage discussion from a variety of perspectives.

 

Our class this week focused on the bloody conclusion of Esther, causing us to reflect on the way we react to violence both in Esther’s world as well as our own.

The Esther story ends in massive bloodshed. The King issues a command for Haman, the “enemy of the Jews” to be impaled on a pole. Then, Esther convinces the King to issue orders which permit the Jews to strike out against their enemies on the very same day which was initially appointed for their own annihilation. The body count exceeds 75,0000, and specially executed in a manner similar to Haman are his ten sons. This is treated as a glorioius ending to a story about how God’s people survive for another day.

And this is not the only story in scripture in which opponents of God or his people meet with a violent end. For example:

  • The entire world, save for one family, is killed in the Genesis flood.
  • All of the firstborn children in Egypt are killed just before the Exodus.
  • Joshua wipes out everyone in the path of the Israelites, often including the women and children, as the promised land is conquered.
  • Even in the New Testament, Ananias and Sapphira meet a quick death because they lied to God.

In most instances, the violence is couched in terms of an act of God’s justice. However, on occasion, it is also seen as a way of keeping God’s people pure from idolatrous nations.

We still live in a world where there is more than enough evil to generate a thirst for God’s justice. One hardly has to cast a glance at the headlines to see it. Daily, we are bombarded with stories of murder, sexual abuse, and massive killing in seemingly neverending, brutal wars. How do the biblical stories of violence, often toward the end of God’s justice, fit into our own world?

Christians have reacted in several ways. Some, concluding that the teachings of Jesus on nonviolence should be strictly followed, even on the national level, have become pacifists. “When Jesus disarmed Peter,” they say, referring to the instance in Gethsemane when Peter was told to put away his sword, “he disarmed us all.” Others conclude that, in the right instances, a violent reaction to violent people is – sadly – the only alternative. But the violence must be justified. In the context of war, this is called a “just war” approach. A third approach recognizes that we are at a certain point in God’s redemptive story, and must keep in mind that God is leading us toward a future that is free of violence. Thus, while violence may still be necessary – it may not be justifiable in the ways it was at “earlier” points in the story, and we must never lose sight of (or stop talking about) God’s future, in which the world is free of violence.

At the conclusion of class, we discussed the positives and negatives of these approaches, describing our own thoughts and ideas about the violence in scripture, and considering how, if at all, the brutal stories of violence in the Old Testament should be carried into and applied in our world.

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My Simpsons Avatar

July 27, 2007

What do you think?

(You can create your own at www.simpsonsmovie.com)  


Bush on God and Freedom

July 25, 2007

I’ve had to take a break from Myth of a Christian nation to work on two different classes at Highland during the last few weeks, but I just noticed a statement that was apparently made by President Bush recently which serves as a pretty good example of the mentality that Boyd is criticizing. Here is the statement:

The other debate is whether or not it is a hopeless venture to encourage the spread of liberty. Most of you all around this table are much better historians than I am. And people have said, you know, this is Wilsonian, it’s hopelessly idealistic. One, it is idealistic, to this extent: It’s idealistic to believe people long to be free. And nothing will change my belief. I come at it many different ways. Really not primarily from a political science perspective, frankly; it’s more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn’t exist.

Among several problems here is this: political freedom is simply not a value that is esposed much (at all, really) in the New Testament. Its a good thing – but its never characterized by the New Testament writers as some lofty ideal that should be placed alongside the notions of love of fellow man and respect for creation. And the idea that the most powerful man in the world thinks its a good idea to kill people and destroy things (two things that do seem to be prohibited) so that he can achieve what he (wrongly?) thinks is this “gift of [the] Almighty” is not a good sign.

Worse yet, he is basically saying “…and I can’t be talked out of this.”

_____________________

In the meantime, to add his part to the mayhem of the upcoming election year, my son is thinking about creating a Facebook group called “If Hillary is elected, I’m moving to Canada.” I’m thinking about joining.


Me and Mrs. Columbo

July 24, 2007

Over the years, I’ve had my share of heroes from TV and film. My idols have run the gamut from Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame to Sonny Crockett from Miami Vice. I’ve followed closely the adventures of Luke Skywalker, James Bond, and Christopher Reeves’ Superman. As an eight year-old, though I knew they were Christians, Roger Staubach and Tom Landry seemed to me like gods unto themselves.

I’m now 20+ years past my days of serious hero worship, and I feel pretty sure that – if we are supposed to turn out like the people we idolize in our youth – I must have done something terribly wrong. On the surface, I may give off the dispassionate, analytical facade of a Mr. Spock, but underneath an entire ocean of emotions is constantly churning. I’m not as cool or non-chalant as Don Johnson was in the 80s, and never will be. I don’t drink Martinis, shaken, stirred, or otherwise. And I’m pretty sure I don’t have the brashness of a Luke Skywalker.

If I had to pick any TV or film character that – like it or not – I’ve grown to resemble, it would be this guy:

That’s right, folks. I am like – nay – I am Lieutenant Columbo of Peter Falk fame.

Consider:

  1. I appear to be a very reflective person, though sometimes I am a little slow on the uptake.
  2. I am generally a little clumsy, and feel quite awkward in social situations.
  3. I tend to fixate on certain subjects so much that – from time to time – I become seriously boring and even annoying to others.
  4. I often have a somewhat unkempt appearance, particularly where my hair is concerned.
  5. I have a job where I investigate things, ask questions of people, and try to make sense out of evidence.

Yet none of those comparisons are nearly as convincing as the final one:

      6.   I constantly talk about my wife.

Did you ever notice this about Columbo? Some new movie? He doesn’t know about it – but his wife, she tells him all about it. Art, music, literature gardening – he’s usually pretty clueless. But that Mrs. Columbo – she knows about those things. In some sense, Mrs. Columbo was the person who gave his otherwise quirky, quasi-introverted personality access to normal life.

Why do I say this?

Well…Sheila is gone this week – serving as a counselor at a middle school church camp. And do you know what I am doing? Talking about my wife. Small group? Wife. Facebook profile? Wife’s gone. Hanging out with friends from church? Wife. On my blog? Well, you’re reading it right now.

What is going on here? Its not like I don’t have other things to talk about. And its not like I’m some young, 22 year-old newlywed that is constantly pining for his beloved. I’m happy to know that she is out doing ministry this week, actually, and I don’t miss her in that way. (Well, I do a little – but thats okay).

Its more like this: when Sheila is gone, I feel like this guy who can blunder around and make it though the world okay, someone who is even competent in his own way.  But I’m also like this unkempt, mumbling guy in a trenchcoat, situated among the power brokers of Los Angeles – I feel a little out of my element. Something is missing.

When I am alone, I can live life in my own way. Yet there is a side of life which – when Sheila is around – she constantly opens up to me – a life of laughter and joy, of music and dance – one filled with the possibilities of many, varied friendships and relationships. A life of spontaneity where the plan for the day can be tossed aside on a whim if a more promising opportunity presents itself.

Funny thing. Lately, I’ve been feeling more and more like Sheila Ritchie’s husband. She is, frankly, starting to do a lot of incredible things – particularly in our faith community at Highland, but not only there – in other places as well. Its been a time where I’ve gladly stepped aside a little to get out of her way as God begins to do some really cool things with her.

There was probably a time when people thought of me and then thought of her as my wife. But not anymore. Now, a lot of folks think of her and – yeah – that guy over there who looks a little clueless, he’s Sheila’s husband.

As I already said, I’m more than okay with that. But…if I have to turn the tables on this trend, and describe who she is to me, I think I would now say this:

Sheila is my Mrs. Columbo. And I’ve never loved her more.


More Reflections on Esther

July 22, 2007

Here is my post from our class weblog for week 3 of our series in Esther:

During week three of our study in Esther, we considered whether there is any value in a “bible” story in which, on the surface, God seems absent.

Chapters 3-7 in Esther detail the story of the fall of Haman. Enraged that Mordecai, the Jew will not bow down to him, Haman convinces the King to enact a law that will result in the genocide of the entire Jewish race. He then boasts that his wealth and cunning has put him in an ideal position of influence with the King and makes plans to have Mordecai impaled on a pole.

Little does Haman know, however, that Queen Esther is about to reveal to the King that she herself is a Jewess, exposing Haman’s plot to destroy her race. When the King hears Esther’s story, he is enraged that Haman’s advice has led to the near-destruction of his beloved Queen and her family. Worse yet, he later mistakenly believes that Haman is attempting to molest Esther – and he orders Haman impaled on the same pole on which Mordecai was to be impaled.

In many ways, this story is typical of stories of God’s actions to preserve his people, particularly those who are in exile. Yet, remarkably, God – who is celebrated in the Purim festival as the central character in the story – is entirely absent from the narrative.

Where does God act in this story? We are only left to speculate. God does not speak. There are no miracles. No one prays or suggests that God is involved. To the contrary, there is confusion as to whether God is acting at all. “Who knows?” Mordecai tells Esther at a critical moment, “Maybe you came to your royal position for such a time as this.”

Is it possible that Mordecai’s uncertain speculation is a better reflection of our own experiences than those of Bible characters who clearly hear God’s voice and see his actions? Phillip Yancey says this:

The Bible models both simple faith and hang-on-against-all-odds fidelity. Job, Abraham, Habakkuk and his fellow prophets, as well as many of the heroes of faith mentioned in Hebrews 11, endured long droughts when miracles did not happen, when urgent prayers dropped back to earth unanswered, when God seemed not just invisible but wholly absent. We who follow in their path today may sometimes experience times of unusual closeness when God seems responsive to our every need; we may also experience times when God stays silent and all the Bible’s promises seem glaringly false.

At the end of class, we struggled with this question: How do we cope in situations when God seems absent? Some of us found renewed determination to seek out and pursue God’s will in every situation in life. Others found inspiration in the way these characters pressed forward despite evidence of how God was acting or what he wanted. In either case, however, we can be assured that we don’t have to “see” God acting in order for him to be present and active in our lives. God’s kingdom advances, whether we can see it or not.

Next week, we will look at the gruesome, but (for the Jews, at least) satisfying conclusion of Esther.  Then, in two weeks, we will then conclude our study with a close-up look at the Purim celebration itself.


Fad of the Land

July 17, 2007

I always wanted a custom ring-tone on my phone, but never had the time to actually pick and load one up.

I now have one, however – taken straight out of one of my favorite Newsboys’ tracks – Fad of the Land.

Here are the lyrics:

I’m a marinade
Of what’s hot this summer
I’m an early comer
Bought a Gulf War Hummer

Every fad, I feel its force
Every trend, I do endorse
Got my genomes mapping
Caught my smart dog napping
[Note: I don’t get this line]

I’m charging up the new, new thing
I’m answering a customized ring
I’m starting from the place you stop
I’m packing for an ego trip!

Stop the scam!
Day traders in a traffic jam
Can the craze!
All you players out of plays
Fight the man!
All you suckers for a better brand
They got us livin’ off the fad of the land

[The ring tone begins with a very cool guitar riff here]

Get your pager on
‘Cause you know my number
I’m a wireless wonder
Got thumbs of thunder

[Ring tone ends here]

Sould daddies in a firewire tumble dryer
Soul mamas broke the breaker
Soul children packin’ Prozac pacifiers
Get your plug-in
We all need to plug into our Maker

I know I know: savor the irony of making a ring tone out of a song that disses people who think ring tones are cool. Don’t care. I seem to be a walking paradox these days, anyway. But…

I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. Steve Taylor Lyrics = the best in the Chrisitan music biz. His music, even though puzzlingly ironic in this context, is welcome on my phone and music player any time.


Esther, Week Two

July 16, 2007

Here is my summary of our second class on Esther, which I just posted to our class blog:

 

During our second class on Esther, we worked our way through the first three chapters, and considered whether any of the characters in the book could be considered a classic “bible hero.” Our conclusion? Not really, but thats okay.

The early chapters in Esther tell a humorous story about how Mordecai and Esther enter into (and come out on top of) a game of sexual politics in the Persian court. After King Xerxes removes the title of Queen from Vasti for refusing to appear before an assembly of drunken men, Esther joins a harem of beautiful virgin/candidates, each of whom is taken to Xerxes as a “try out” for the new Queen. Esther is instructed by her cousin Mordecai to keep her identity as a Jew a secret, and she complies with this instruction.

After an extensive period of beauty preparation, each virgin goes to spend a night with the King, but ultimately it is Esther who “wins the favor” of the King, and she is named the new Queen. Esther will later use this influence to protect her people from annihilation.

The decisions that are made by the characters in this story are morally ambiguous at best. By encouraging Esther to keep her identity secret, Mordecai puts her in a position where she will almost certainly violate the commandments of the Mosaic law. Also, inter-marriage, much less unmarried sexual contact with uncircumcised Gentiles was out of the question for women of Jewish descent. Yet,  to this very day, the Jews clebrate the book of Esther as a story about how God gives victory to his people.

What do we make of this bizarre story, which invites us to laugh about, rather than judge the conduct of these characters? Karen Jobes, I think, has the right answer:

Regardless of whether they always knew what the right choice was or whether they had the best of motives, God was working through even their imperfect decisions and actions to fulfill his perfect purposes. Other than Jesus, even the godliest people of the Bible were flawed, often confused, and sometimes outright disobedient. We are no different from them. Yet our gracious God omnipotently works his perfect plan through them, through us, and must surprisingly, even through powerful political structures that sometimes operate in evil ways.

Our challenge in reading Esther, then, is one of grace and mercy. Esther and Mordecai were doing what they thought was necessary to ensure their own survival in a highly politicized, decadent culture. They may or may not have made the best of decisions, but we can take comfort in the fact that the outcome of their story is not dependent on their ability to get everything “right” in a difficult situation.