Monthly Archives: February 2011

Esther

“For such a time as this” is the most quoted line from this little Old Testament book.  As I picked it up tonight, after exfoliating and moisturising my face and scrutinising my flaws in the mirror, I wondered what a story about a beauty pageant winner might have to tell me.

Reading the story from Peterson’s The Message translation (is that the right word for it?) certainly helps with the flow of this little récit about a shaky moment in Israel’s history.  I had never realised before that King Xerxes’s reason (or rather that fed to him and enflamed by his advisors) for banishing and essentially divorcing his wife Queen Vashti were so sexist.

After days of revelry and drunkenness, Xerxes decides he’d like to show off his beautiful trophy-wife in front of all his mates.  She refuses.  We could elegise Vashti and say it was because she did not want to demean herself or whatever, but I’d say it could equally be because she was concerned with her own girly party and was looking worse for wear, or couldn’t be bothered getting changed…!  But anyway.  Her refusal is seen as an affront to Xerxes’ authority and ownership of her – the King can’t control his own wife?!?  The men (some probably trying not to snigger behind their hands) terrify the King that the whole land of women will be in uproar and will be disobeying their husbands right left and centre!

So Queen Vashti is punished – they make an example of her in order to keep the whole nation of women subordinate to their husbands.

Suddenly this ‘story about a beauty pageant’ got more interesting to me…

Its nearly bedtime so I’m not gonna spend ages pontificating about this, but here is what struck me…  Firstly I can almost smell the boorishness of Xerxes and his buddies – not an unfamiliar scent even today.  Secondly, Xerxes’ wife was the least of his problems – it was the power his reputation in the eyes of his male friends had over him that would worry me!  Third, the desire for control, absolute control, over people (in this case women in particular) and their behaviour in relation to one’s own desired state of affairs.  And four – the role of ‘fearful what-ifs’ in making a complete shambles of a situation.

Fast forward to Esther’s reign as queen.  It seems to me that her power and influence grows stronger – she seems to have been given a place in decisions that matter.  Is it that Xerxes was madly in love with her?  Was he under her power because of her beauty?  Or was it that she had proved herself as capable and righteous because of her petition on behalf of her people?  Did he have more respect for her character and goodness?  Was he listening less to those eejits he’d had around him before?  Who knows.

I like that Esther had more influence and that she is hailed for her courage and faithfulness in ‘such a time as this’ is good and right.  But I can’t help but notice that there’s a rather bloody end to this tale…

Once the order to exterminate the Jews was revoked, the King had granted them the right to arm and defend themselves should anyone have missed or disobeyed the revoke.  Fair enough… But suddenly the land becomes a blood bath!  The Jews kill 75,000 people!  Rather than it being a defensive “this-guy-came-to-my-house-to-kill-my-children-so-i-clunked-him-one”, it became a “I’m-a-Jew-yeoo-I-will-kill-you-because-you-hate-me-grrrr”.  The cull might have been half that number, but Esther asks the King to allow the killing to go on for another day.  What the flip??!!

I can’t help but notice that before this request to the King, there is no three days of fasting and prayer.

So, as I head off to get my beauty sleep… What have I learned from this story?  It could take a while to refine, but it seems to me that given a little bit of power, men and women can be complete idiots.

Thank God for grace.

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French Kissing and other cultural reflections on love.

French kissing.  I’ve done it a lot.  Its very nice and I have to say I like it.  But, it can get a little awkward…  Turning this way and that, bumping glasses, not knowing what is acceptable to do with your hands, wondering if I have to kiss EVERY person in the room even though it takes an awful long time to get around everyone.  It gets tiring, all this kissing.

For those of you who aren’t sure what I’m talking about, here’s a little instructional video…

See?

I think even the French get confused.

In other cultural reflection news… I’ve been thinking about how the presence of or lack of words to describe a concept in a certain language has a profound affect on a culture.  The French word/concept that I’ve been thinking about is ‘love’.  Another slightly awkward one for an anglophone.

So, you make a new friend of the opposite sex.  You don’t fancy them, but you do greatly appreciate their friendship and would like to communicate this.  Problem : the verb you would most likely use (‘aimer’) means both like and love.  Awkward.

Or, you make a new friend of the opposite sex.  You are attracted to them and would like to communicate this.  Problem : the verb you would most likely use does not exist.  Your only option is to use ‘aimer’ – I love you.  Immediately you find yourself confessing to be in love with this person.  Awkward?

Now, for an anglophone (at least in my culture), the phrase ‘I love you’ takes a relationship to a whoooooooole other level – think how many films/tv series include that awkward moment where one person says ‘I love you’ and the other person freaks out because they’re not ready to say it so says something silly like ‘thank you’ and so ensues a whole episode of angst until the second person plucks up the courage and decides its okay to say it but now the other person doesn’t want to hear it etc etc etc.  Awkward.

But anyway.  I digress.

Now imagine yourself French (no rude comments, please).  This is how it works as far as I can tell… You meet someone of the opposite sex and start going out.  How do you express the fact that you like that?  Je t’aime.  I love you.  But that’s okay, because you’re French and you speak French, and that’s what you say.

Incroyable.

It puts such an interesting spin on it all because ‘I love you’ is therefore a somewhat smaller thing to say because it is employed from a very early period in defining a relationship.  It is made even smaller, then, when you break up with someone after a few weeks because you don’t feel like its working – the words ‘Je t’aime’ are therefore as easily revoked as they are employed.  Do you see what I mean?  The words somehow don’t have the same binding power…

But whilst it is a smaller thing to say, it can also be a majassive thing to say, you know?  For example, in the French Christian world, love is, on principal, not bandied around (which is a Good Thing), but at the same time the amount of pressure that is put on a couple to Know from the beginning is huge.  Like, where is that period between friendship and ‘in love’?  Surely that’s an important stage to pass through before committing yourself for a lifetime to a person?  Its sort of an all-or-nothing situation.

Hmmm…. Makes for a more dramatic life I guess.  Perhaps Alicia was in France when she wrote this

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Was it meant to be dynamite?

I’ve heard a lot of Christian talks in my lifetime.  It seems that in a fair number of those talks, the idea that the bible and that the gospel are explosive (or could be so) featured so heavily as to have been engrained in my head.

I’m just wondering… Is the bible meant to be ‘dynamite’?  Is the gospel?

Its just… well, when I think about it, the idea of the bible of the gospel exploding in a great big BANG doesn’t seem to fit.  There is something slow and steady about scripture, something growing, something expanding.  Like sunrise or sunset – where you can’t quite tell the moment where they begin and end.

The whole smell of the Jewish culture in the Old Testament, the simplicity with which churches met and began to grow in the New Testament… Yes, there are moments of great drama and ‘explosion’, but is it not mostly the simple bread and wine of daily life under a new King?

We are exhorted and exhort people with the message that the power of scripture and the gospel are incredible.  Which of course is true.  But do we do more harm than good when we light a fire under people and tell ’em to go and use dynamite to change the world?

Dynamite is powerful and impressive – you certainly can’t go hiding your dynamite under a bushel.  Dynamite is effective, speedy and the results are immediately discernible – not just by the one who lit the fuse.

So what happens when our use of the ‘dynamite’ is more of a fizzle than a bang?  What happens when our use of the ‘dynamite’ brings no visible results and certainly not speedily or even effectively?  What does it say about our lives when they are… frankly… normal?  No wham-bam-pizazz here.

Too many times people (especially young people) are being told to go and shine, go and change the world, go and… blow up the bastards!!!

That may be paraphrasing a little.

What does that mean for the kid who is shy?  What does that mean for mother of two small children who barely sees the outside world never mind have time to light a fuse?  What effect does that have on the capable, dynamic young person who has grown up in a quiet country church with very few outlets for ministry?  What does that look like for a new church-plant in secularist Western Europe whose members are not yet on spiritual meat?

Running around talking about chucking dynamite seems like it could leave people feeling useless, stressed, arrogant and dissatisfied…

It seems to me (tonight as I think ‘out loud’ onto this blog) that everything about the way Jesus came was on the small-scale.  A town no-one wanted to go to, a young girl no-one would know of, a birthplace less than immaculate… A carpenter from a town no-one thought of, from a people who’d been crushed and despised for centuries, hanging around with a bunch of nobodies…  New life coming to prostitutes, tax collectors, undesirables.  A criminal’s death.  Angels witnessing to ‘little women’, powerful preaching from unschooled fishermen, centres of learning for tradesmen and non-scholars …

Yes, all of it had an incredibly life-changing, profound effect on the cosmos but yet happened in such ‘ordinary’ circumstances

If we’re talking about ways to ‘get people’ with the gospel, dynamite is a pretty messy way to do it – I’d think its much more along the lines of putting the frog in the cold water and heating him up…!

How would it affect us if we thought of what the church is doing as a heating up rather than a blowing up?

We’d be less concerned with being impressive.  Fewer ‘slick’ youth programs and polished worship bands, more real relationships and genuine engagement with truth.  Depth rather than height.

We’d be less concerned with efficiency.  Fewer 12 step-plans to greater holiness, more stickability when the going gets so tough it seems to be going nowhere.   Faithfulness rather than results.

We’d be less concerned with seeing results, fast.  Fewer unrealistic expectations of what it takes to know God, more actual living with and knowing God. Endurance rather than ‘success’.

The power at hand is indeed incredible, but does that mean we wrap it up in red, light a fuse and stand back to watch the explosion?

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Perhaps

He hadn’t always been like this.

She tried to get up from the floor, but he pushed her down again, swearing and barely able to focus both eyes on her face.  His breath was foul as he pleaded with her to forgive him.

“I can’t let you up til you forgive me” he slurred. “It was an accident, I’m sorry!  You have to…”

He trailed off, slumping onto his knees then sidewards to lean against the wall.

“I didn’t mean to…”

He hadn’t always been like this, but this time wasn’t the first.

He reached out an impotent hand towards her as she pulled herself up on the kitchen chair, mumbling incoherently as she made her way out of the kitchen towards the hall cupboard.  By the time she got back to where he was with the blanket, he was already asleep.

She won’t leave him this time either.

They had grown up together, become best friends and later married – every girl’s boy-next-door fairytale.  She wasn’t interested at first, but as they grew up she discovered that the loyalty, passion and gentleness he possessed was not easily found in any other person she’d met.  His capacity to love and care for the ‘unloveable’ was astonishing, his ambition and compassion for others startlingly beautiful.

But something somewhere went wrong.

She wonders if it would be quite so hard if she didn’t believe he was made of greater stuff, for greater things.  If she’d never known him before, she would have no idea how to hope for the future.  If she didn’t know who he really was, who he could really be, would it hurt so much to see him so far from that?

He gurgled and shuffled in his sleep.  Instinctively she reached out to him in case he should slide onto his side, but he stayed put, his hair matted and mussed on one side like a child’s after a good night’s sleep.  He would make a great father, if only…

That’s why she stays.  The picture of him as he was, as he could be – that exquisite bittersweet morsel of hope in face of his bad choices, in face of his persistent rejection of her and the life they once had together, in face of his inability to say no to the voice that wants ‘just one drink’.

To stay and hope is as painful as to give up and go, but perhaps this way she can be the one to try and win him back with her love and care.

One day it’ll be over.  Either he will be won over by her love, her efforts, the truth… or he will go too far and she’ll be forced to leave.  If she has to leave, all concerned will still bear the consequences.  She too, in her love for him, in her hope for him, already suffers the consequences – she may be removed, but she will not be absent.  Maybe if she leaves he will be forced to face his own consequences.  Perhaps he’ll feel the loneliness, the futility of doing life for himself alone, the pain of what he has brought about.  Perhaps then he will change.

But perhaps he will get used to the absence of her light – his eyes will become accustomed to the darkness he has chosen and soon the memory of light will be nothing but shadow, nothing but the absence of light, nothing.

No! Love always hopes.

One day she does leave, though.  Perhaps there are children involved, perhaps she can no longer bear to see them suffer the consequences of his bad choices, perhaps he starts to hurt them.  But she herself cannot carry him any more – she cannot hope alone.

Perhaps someone else, something else will shine.  A candle lit somewhere on his behalf – a hope, a wish, a prayer.

Love always hopes.  She will always hope.

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