Sunday, 20 September 2020

If the king regards me with favor and if it pleases the king to grant my petition and fulfill my request, let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the banquet I will prepare for them. Then I will answer the king’s question.” – Esther 5:8

 Today's Scripture Reading (September 20, 2020): Esther 5

Self-help author, Stephen Richards, in “The Secret of Getting Started: Strategies to Triumph over Procrastination” teaches that “habitual procrastinators will readily testify to all the lost opportunities, missed deadlines, failed relationships and even monetary losses incurred just because of one nasty habit of putting things off until it is often too late.” There is no doubt that delay is often costly. Procrastination is often the main reason that contributes to failure because we end up not even trying. And, the reality is that it is usually better to act quickly, even if it is not the absolute correct action to take; because perfection that comes too late is always wrong.

However, not all delay is procrastination. There is some debate over Esther’s reason to delay her accusation against Haman. Instead of coming into the presence of the King and laying the charge against Haman immediately while alone in his company, Esther appears to procrastinate, delaying the accusation until the time when a banquet could be prepared. For some scholars, this is evidence of Esther’s nervousness, and the banquet represents a delaying tactic, postponing the action she knew she had to take until a later time.

An alternative understanding is that Esther was unwilling to bring the accusation before the King without the one accused standing in the room. It appears that it would have been much more comfortable to accuse Haman during a private meeting with the King than to do so before Haman and many other witnesses at a state dinner. The latter seems to be a much more intimidating task.  

But Esther accusing Haman while both were in the room with the King was also the right thing to do. In our culture, we believe that the accused has a right to confront his or her accuser. Esther makes that possible. Instead of taking the easy path and bringing her complaint against Haman in private, she devises a plan where both the King and the man that she was about to accuse could be brought into the same room before the accusation is made. There is no doubt that Esther was nervous about what she had to do. But Esther also had a plan, and she was willing to wait to make sure it was correctly executed.

Because sometimes, a delay is procrastination, but sometimes delay is part of a well thought through plan and part of making the most of the actions we are about to take.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Esther 6

Saturday, 19 September 2020

When Esther's eunuchs and female attendants came and told her about Mordecai, she was in great distress. She sent clothes for him to put on instead of his sackcloth, but he would not accept them. – Esther 4:4

Today's Scripture Reading (September 19, 2020): Esther 4

Too often, all we want to do is solve the problems of those close to us. And usually, all that we are really willing to do is address the symptoms of their distress. Think about it. A friend comes to you with a situation that is bothering them. What is your first response? If you are like most of us, the first place to which your thoughts turn to is how you might be able to fix the problem or at least the symptoms of your friend's distress. It seems to be the nature of who we are; at our core, we are fixers.

But, to our detriment, fixing is not always what it is that we need to do. Often, listening and being willing to share the pain is more beneficial than trying to fix it. And, what is often even worse, our attempts to fix the problem often make us look like we weren't listening to our friend in the first place. In the process of trying to fix the problem, we miss that what the people in our social orbit really need is just somebody willing to listen.

Mordecai goes to the king's gates in his sackcloth, indicating his state of mourning. He can go no further. But word gets to Esther that her cousin is at the king's gate, but that he cannot pass through the gate because he is inappropriately dressed. Interestingly, Esther responds, not by trying to figure out what has caused her cousin to be in mourning, but by sending him clothes that would allow him to pass through the gate. The clothes would let Mordecai go to Esther, but the action seems tone-deaf to the reader. After all, she must know that Mordecai has more appropriate attire. Something must have happened that has sent Mordecai into mourning, and new clothes are not going to solve the problem. However, having Mordecai put on the new clothes would make Esther feel better. She is fixing the symptom instead of addressing the cause of her cousin's discomfort.

Mordecai refuses to put on the clothes. He doesn't need the symptoms of his pain addressed. He needs Esther to come and listen to him, and to struggle with the reason why he was in mourning in the first place. There was something that Esther could do to help, but first, she had to be willing to listen to Mordecai, and not just try to fix the symptoms of his distress.   

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Esther 5

Friday, 18 September 2020

The couriers went out, spurred on by the king’s command, and the edict was issued in the citadel of Susa. The king and Haman sat down to drink, but the city of Susa was bewildered. – Esther 3:15

 Today's Scripture Reading (September 18, 2020): Esther 3

They are the familiar words of John Donne.

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

We are interconnected, not just as a community or a race, but as joint inhabitants of the planet. Racism, in any of its forms, reduces us all, making all of us less significant. There is no room for ideas that put down other people, regardless of the reason. We are on a journey, and the only way that we can make the most of that journey is if we can link arms and walk together into whatever the future holds. Anything else will always be “less than.”

Haman is insecure, and his pride has been wounded because Mordecai refused to pay him honor. It did not matter what Mordecai’s reasons might be. Haman doesn’t care that this was a religious restriction of the Jewish faith that they reserved the action for their God. Haman’s reaction reminds me of ours; Haman would have been comfortable, and in agreement with our ‘if you are going to live in our society, you need to bend to our rules and leave your faith in the land of your origin” argument. But Haman was not getting what he wanted, and he wanted his revenge.

The twist to the story is that Haman wanted his revenge, not just on the offending Mordecai, but on all of Mordecai’s people. And here, he begins to plot his revenge. He portrays Mordecai’s people as a danger to the kingdom. They are a violent and rebellious people who would eventually cause the end of the empire, and the King needed to do something to stop them. In our culture, the same argument has been used against the Muslim people living among us. And the King seems to be oblivious to Haman’s lie, accepting his claims at face value.

But the people knew differently. These people were their neighbors and friends, and their children played with the other children of the neighborhood. They had never been anything but good, supportive people and good citizens of the empire, strengthening the Kingdom of Xerxes. They weren’t the enemies that Haman had described them to be. And the credibility gap that resulted was what was really dangerous to the empire. The people understood what Haman had missed; the death of Jews would diminish the nation and weaken it, making the country vulnerable to real dangers that surrounded them daily.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Esther 4

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Now there was in the citadel of Susa a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, named Mordecai son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, who had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those taken captive with Jehoiachin king of Judah. – Esther 2:5-6

Today's Scripture Reading (September 17, 2020): Esther 2

Nebuchadnezzar II rose to power in 605 B.C.E. after the death of his father, Nabopolassar, due to natural causes. As soon as his father died, Prince Nebuchadnezzar was rushed home to Babylon to secure the throne. But Nebuchadnezzar does not appear to have stayed in Babylon for long over the next twenty years. Instead, he continued to expand the Empire of his father. And at least twice, but possibly three times, Nebuchadnezzar found himself outside the walls of Jerusalem. And each time, Nebuchadnezzar took back with him to Babylon some of the best and brightest that the nation of Judah had to offer. And one of these times, in 597 B.C.E, during the reign of Jehoiachin, the King who Jeremiah often refers to as "Coniah," a man named Kish was taken to Babylon, among the many others captives stolen from their homes by the Babylonian King.

The author of Esther specifies that it was Kish who was carried out of Jerusalem and into exile. That means that his son, Shimei, was born in exile, as was Shimei's son, Jair, and Jair's son, Mordecai. Only Kish had any memory of what Jerusalem and its Temple had looked like before the fall of the city at the hand of the Babylonians. It was Kish that might have heard the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, explicitly written to the exiles, in the early days of their captivity. "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" (Jeremiah 29:11). Likely, Kish never went home again, and neither did his son, and grandson, and even great-grandson, Mordecai.

What the family of Kish did do was build their lives and connect with the Jewish community that was being formed outside of Judea. Mordecai, Kish's great-grandson, was a man who was deeply connected with his Jewish heritage, and yet had no connection with Jerusalem or the land of this fathers. The descendants of Kish had settled in the vital community of Susa, located in modern-day Iran. Incidentally, Susa is built adjacent to the modern city of Shush, which is also the place where the Tomb of the Prophet Daniel is thought to be found. In fact, it seems likely that Kish and Daniel were removed from Jerusalem at the same time, and neither of them would see home again. Instead, they would build their lives and form their families in a land that they did not know, among people who were strangers to them.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Esther 3

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

For the queen's conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, 'King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.' – Esther 1:17

 Today's Scripture Reading (September 16, 2020): Esther 1

Nineteenth-Century poet and philosopher, David Henry Thoreau, taught that "if you would convince a man that he does wrong, do right. But do not care to convince him. Men will believe what they see. Let them see." People learn more by watching our lives than they will ever know by what we verbally tell them, maybe partially because what we tell them is often the opposite of our actions. "Do what I say, not what I do" has never been great parenting advice, and it is not the motto of an influencer. Those who seek to influence us, walk the path in front of us and invite us to follow. It is because of this that the Apostle Paul offered this simple advice to the Corinthian Church; "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). The words of a true leader are always, "don't do what I say, do what I do. Just follow in my footsteps, and I will lead you to where we need to go."

Memukan was a trusted advisor of King Xerxes and one of seven vice-regents of the Kingdom. Scholars have openly wondered if Memukan could have been another name for Haman, that arch-villain of the story of Esther, although that connection is made nowhere in the book. But Memukan understood the precedent put forward by both Thoreau and the Apostle Paul, that people believe what it is that they see. And when Queen Vashti refused to answer the call of King Xerxes to come into his presence, Memukan became concerned.

For feminists, Vashti is a hero of the movement. Her crime was that she refused to obey her husband and perform her duties by being a beautiful ornament at the side of the King for a public occasion. According to contemporary standards, Vashti had every right to refuse her husband, regardless of the reason for the Queen's disobedience. But by ancient standards, she was expected to appear at the King's beck and call.

Vashti's refusal was problematic for Memukan. The King had just spent a substantial amount of time, a little more than half the year, showing off his power and prestige before the people of the empire. Vashti's disobedience was proving the limitations of Xerxes' power. Xerxes may well be in control of the nation, yet, he couldn't control the actions of his wife. Memukan was afraid that Vashti's disobedience would become an example for other women to follow. In his mind, the direct result of Vashti's disobedience was the disobedience of other women in the empire. Men were about to lose control over their homes, all because the queen refused to obey a command issued by the King.

We may disagree with Memukan's premise, but that doesn't really impact the story. All we need to understand is that Memukan saw a severe problem, and that required a drastic solution. And Memukan is about to propose that very solution.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Esther 2

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Before she goes into labor, she gives birth before the pains come upon her, she delivers a son. – Isaiah 66:7

 Today's Scripture Reading (September 15, 2020): Isaiah 66

American fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Sanderson, in "The Way of Kings," argues that "sometimes the prize is not worth the costs. The means by which we achieve victory are as important as the victory itself." Every victory carries with it a cost, and one of the big questions that we have to ask ourselves is whether or not the cost is too great for the victory that we win by paying it.

Maybe the military practice of the United States is an excellent example of this principle. There is no doubt what constitutes a win for the American government. They seek to expand their influence over the world in opposition to the ever-expanding influences of nations like Russia and China. With influence comes access to overseas markets necessary to the bottom line of the country. The American government has been accused of being present in the Middle East only for the oil that is present in the region, but that is just part of the motive behind the nation's presence outside of its borders. The economic access that comes with influence pays the salaries of the nation's multinational companies, a source of income that would dry up if the influence of the United States suddenly disappeared. There is also a strong belief that their presence plays a part in stopping terrorist attacks, like the one on 9/11, at home. And there is a genuine feeling of responsibility to help ally nations with their struggles and to help protect them against their adversaries. All of this supplies at least part of the motive.

But it also comes with a cost. Soldiers die every month on foreign ground. The United States has always had a strong desire to keep within themselves, building a wall between them and the rest of the world (no, this was not something new with Donald Trump.) And when things go wrong abroad, or when the American military is forced to take action in support of the motive, the national image takes an international hit, building a strong sense of hate against the Americans in foreign lands, wherever you might find them. The question the American Government is left with is whether the cost is too much to pay to achieve the intended gains. We have all gone through that calculation. We want something, but we have to decide whether or not the price tag is within our ability to pay.

Isaiah switches the conversation. What if you could achieve what you want at no cost. He uses the image of a child being born. One of the fears of many prospective first-time mothers is the pain of childbirth. I have heard more than one young girl proclaim that they don't want to have children because they don't want the pain involved in the process of giving birth. In the end, most mothers will tell you the gift of the child is well worth the discomfort of the birth process. But what if all that was taken away. What if there were no pain in childbirth, and what if victory could be gained without a cost.

Isaiah's prophecy is precisely that for the nation of Israel. The time is coming when you will gain your victory, and it will cost you nothing. I am pretty sure that we have not seen that glorious day yet. Everything that Israel gains now comes at a very high price, and the question of the price for existence is one that seems to be continually evaluated. But Isaiah says that one day that question will disappear, as God gives the victory without a price to be paid.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Esther 1

Monday, 14 September 2020

… who say, 'Keep away; don't come near me, for I am too sacred for you!' Such people are smoke in my nostrils, a fire that keeps burning all day. – Isaiah 65:5

 Today's Scripture Reading (September 14, 2020): Isaiah 65

In 1981, the Canadian rock band Klaatu released their album, Magentalane. And one of the tracks included on the album was entitled "Blue Smoke." It is a song that, for some reason, has stuck with me.

When that blue smoke gets in your eyes
You'll choke, choke 'til you cry
Oh, you'll die
Hey, where you gonna hide
Well, you can talk about the fog in London
But listen, mister that ain't nothing
When that blue smoke gets in your eyes

And it is John Woloschuk's words that return to me as I read these words of Isaiah. God is speaking about self-righteous people who think that they are better than everyone else. If you listen to them as they talk, no one measures up to the standard that they project. Charles Spurgeon writes this about this kind of person. "Self-righteous men, like foxes, have many tricks and schemes. They condemn in other people what they consider to be very excusable in themselves. They would cry out against others for a tenth part of the sin which they allow in themselves." And, maybe, that is the part of the problem. Self-righteous people see the error in themselves, but they struggle to maintain their worth by condemning the same faults in others, even when those faults occur in lesser degrees while pretending that these same faults are absent in their lives.

And maybe that is why God reacts so strongly against these self-righteous people. He says that they are like "smoke in my nostrils" (cue the John Woloschuik lyrics.) The smoke starts in the nostrils as an irritant, and then it gets into your eyes and your throat, causing fits of coughing and gagging, stealing away from you the air that you need to live. And there is nothing that you can do except get away from the offending smoke.

One of our biggest problems is that there is nothing about us that has anything to do with righteousness. Any righteousness we possess, we gain from our relationship with God and, therefore, it is rightly "his" righteousness. Left to our own devices, we will always act out on the same error that we despise in the people around us. We can pretend that we are righteous, but we will forever be just actors on the stage, playing out the role that we have set before us.

Charles Spurgeon goes on to say that, "This weed of self-righteousness will grow on any dunghill. No heap of rubbish is too rotten for the accursed toadstool of proud self to grow upon." He draws a horrible picture, but one that we know is true because we recognize our self-righteousness in the description, which means that we all have the opportunity to become the "blue smoke" in the nostrils (and eyes) of God.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Isaiah 66