For a Time Like This: Purim and doing the right thing (Esther 4)

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There was a time recently when I should have helped someone in need but didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I was totally polite and friendly, not arrogant, and so I was able to delegate the situation to someone else without looking like a complete swinebag. It’s always easier when you can do that.

But the moment has lived with me ever since. It exposed my hypocrisy and excuses and tendency to take the easy option. I can rationalise it – other people are often better placed to help, I don’t know the full situation and therefore don’t want to risk opening a can of worms, I don’t know what the heck I’m doing – but the fact remains, someone needed my help and I didn’t give it.

Today is Purim, the Jewish commemoration of events told in the Book of Esther. Long story short – Queen Esther, at great personal risk, rescues the Jewish exiles in Persia from genocide. It’s a raucous celebration, full of noise, gift-giving, dressing up and, in some case, getting incredibly drunk.

But the story of Esther has got mixed up with my failure to help, and so Esther 4 has become the most convicting part of the narrative. Here Esther is revealed to be the one person in the Jewish community in a position to prevent mass murder. She’s scared, sure, because one wrong move means her execution, but nevertheless she does what she’s got to do. Because, as her uncle reminds her, “Maybe a time like this is the reason you became queen in the first place.”

I have no idea if, in another time and place, I’d’ve supported Martin Luther King or insisted on having the front seat of the bus reserved for me; if I’d’ve supported an abhorrent dictatorship or been swept along with it. In one sense it doesn’t matter; the here and now is what counts, not some authoritarian parallel universe.

“Maybe this is why you’re here.” Not necessarily to save a nation but to redeem a moment. To take a stand, to say the right words, to say no words at all but to weep and embrace and be present. To refuse to participate in cultures that wound and demean. To lend a mobile phone or to make sure your mates all get in a cab at the end of the night. To try to make the world better and promote hope and holiness, even in the smallest ways.

Recently I failed. But I’m not Esther; the fate of a nation is not in my hands. And there are many more days on which to get things right.

Lent 2014: Ash Wednesday (Psalm 51)

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It’s been a while since I’ve seen a street preacher, especially one that fits the stereotype. Maybe they’ve gone out of fashion, those wild-eyed would-be prophets, loud of voice and high in volume, each one carrying a hand-painted sign proclaiming a single word.

REPENT.

Nowadays those signs have faded from view; you just don’t see them as much. Some of them have mutated into marquees and hang outside churches. It’s probably safer that way. Besides, ‘repent’ is a word only church folk use, sometimes for good reason, other times as a way of shaming those who are already scared and hurting and vulnerable.

Ash Wednesday‘s traditionally a time of repentance, a way of entering Lent with honesty – yeah, I’ve screwed up, I admit it, I’m sorry. And I’m not into shaming or yelling about the indiscretions of others on the street, but I know that there are times I need to admit my guilt and actions and apologise, to confess to both God and those around me.

Yeah, even for things no-one knows about. Like hurling abuse at tailgaters the other day.

Psalm 51 is a traditional reading for Ash Wednesday. It’s King David’s hymn of confession – here’s a man who slept with someone else’s wife then committed murder to cover it up. He’s pouring out his heart and guilt to God, almost as an offering. After all, he knows a ritual sacrifice isn’t going to cover it, God’s more interested in his heart.

But it doesn’t end there. We sometimes think of confession as a guilt trip, but often it’s a moment of release. Stop carrying around the baggage of your wrongdoing, stop running from your past.

Turn around.

That’s what ‘repent’ means, ‘to turn around’. And looked at in that way, there are so many metaphors we can use – it’s the moment we head back home, the moment we start a new journey, the moment we return to God.

Because that’s what Lent’s all about, a journey towards an empty tomb via a cross. Rebirth, resurrection, new life, all these things… But we have to turn towards them; something has to die before it can be reborn.

I was going to talk about how sometimes the church needs to corporately repent of how it props up and creates systems and attitudes that hurt and oppress others. I still think that’s true, but I’m a part of that church, and I can yell at the system all I want, but it won’t change anything, because I’m as broken and guilty and as loved and wanted as anyone else in God’s eyes.

The change starts with me turning around, facing a new direction, running back towards God. Look at the Psalm again; David prays that he would change and be forgiven before he prays for his city. Somehow he knows that our hearts and our structures are all connected, and transformation starts with individuals.

No; the transformation starts with Easter, with a specific individual; with a cross and a garden and death defeated in ashes. This is the message of Easter; that forgiveness and a new start are both possible. Maybe today’s a good day to do a u-turn and start a new journey.

(By the way, I’m having an eye operation tomorrow. If anyone fancies sparing me a prayer feel free…)

Shrove Tuesday 2014: Dancing on the Edge of the Desert

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder-_The_Fight_between_Carnival_and_Lent_detail_3The wilderness is waiting.

We know this, of course, because Lent is all about the wilderness, forty days of reflection and sacrifice and waiting for the day when the barren places explode with life. We’re not quite in that period of expectation and self-examination, not yet; first we have to prepare for it. That leads us to the big question of Shrove Tuesday – what are you giving up for Lent? Traditionally people have fasted, and that’s a great disciple, but the weak part of me, the part that loves burgers and Ben and Jerry comforts itself with the idea that this act of sacrifice can extend beyond our stomachs. Giving something up creates a space, a vacuum that demands to be filled; perhaps a better Lenten question is “What are you taking up?”

That question has weight that may be obscured by our pancakes. Because if we’re going to observe Lent, we’re simultaneously following Jesus towards the desert and towards the cross. That should be a little intimidating; this could be a hard journey ahead of us.

So while I fully endorse eating as many pancakes as possible, I wonder if the carnivals celebrated today throughout the world have more of a sense of the occasion: this is your last chance to party for a while because there aren’t many laughs to be had on the road to Calvary. Maybe that’s why Carnival is often disruptive, with masquerades and satire; for a few days at least, the world turns upside down and everybody dances.

It seems crazy to dance into the desert. But in the run-up to Easter, we’re invited to encounter a topsy-turvey outworking of faith; we remember Jesus showing strength as he starves in the wilderness, but also scared and sweating blood after his people’s great celebration. The social order is shattered; the king kneels and washes the feet of his followers and death is defeated through death on a cross. If a new kingdom is inaugurated by the Resurrection, Lent is our opportunity to prepare for that.

So we stand in the borderlands, looking out across the waste ground.

No Beauty or Majesty (Isaiah 53:1-3)

jesus-and-the-woman-at-the-wellI’ve always struggled with these verses. They’re a prophecy of the Messiah, of Jesus, but the idea that he would have “no majesty to attract us to him”? Something about that never rang true. After all, this is Jesus we’re talking about – he’s been gathering followers for 2,000 years. His majesty breaks through, beyond circumstances and beyond borders, and if there’s nothing to attract us to him, well, how do you explain all the churches, all the hymns, all the blogs?

Yesterday morning I was forced to see this verse in a new way. A video told from the perspective of the woman at the well alluded to this verse and suddenly everything fell into place. We’re talking about a different kind of majesty here; Isaiah states that the Messiah would have no beauty, no esteem, true, but he’s using the language of kings, of heart throbs, of rock stars. Did Jesus have any of this? Well, maybe, occasionally and momentarily, but it soon faded, and when he was hanging on the cross he was largely alone.

Re-reading the passage, it should be obvious what Isaiah was getting at, but there’s something profound behind it. Beauty, majesty, esteem… They can be barriers. They’re the guards at the gate of palaces, the bouncers at the nightclub door, the edge of the red carpet. They’re symptoms of a broken kingdom, a kingdom in which we celebrate the beauty of supermodels, the lovelives of TV stars, crowns and cars and charisma. We do it in the church – pastors with substantial book deals and huge houses but little accountability, worship that ironically would rock more if it wasn’t just performance. I don’t believe this is universal, not by any means, but they’re very real threats, creeping serpents of temptation trying to infiltrate a greater kingdom.

We establish these boundaries but Jesus rejected them; the man who was God laid aside the beauty and majesty and radiance of heaven for dust and dirt and indignity. Why? Because boundaries separate us and Jesus came to reconcile not separate.

So. No crown, no sceptre, no sword. Not the easiest way to build a kingdom, but it works. It works, not just because it brings God together with humanity, but with the marginalised, the oppressed, the ostracised. These are the people Jesus sought out. God’s glory isn’t revealed through external trappings of power, it’s revealed through love, grace and compassion for the poor.

And that’s why organisations like the Restore Project are following in the footsteps of Jesus. Discipleship that doesn’t have concern for the most vulnerable members of society isn’t discipleship because it doesn’t go where Jesus goes. That’s challenging for me – I like my comfort zone after all – but the serving kingship of Jesus should be the defining characteristic of the church. Without that we’re chasing the wrong majesty and esteem; our beauty is tarnished.

There is glory on the margins. Maybe a prayer for Lent would be for the eyes and the courage to recognise this glory, to see the King talking to those who are ignored; to hear his voice and to know his heart.