A Small Cog in the Works

Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Xerxes, preeminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews.
Esther 10:3 (NIV)

I found myself working with a small Inside Sales team that was a small cog in the works of a large business silo of a global corporate empire. The fact that we had this gig was a bit of a minor miracle. You see, the corporation they worked for didn’t care about their customers. The corporation didn’t survey their customers because they didn’t want to know. The corporation made it virtually impossible for customers to reach the right people by virtue of a labyrinthine phone system in which you could get lost for days among vague menu choices, endless loops, ignorant operators, and unempowered employees who long ago ceased to care. The corporate system was set up to serve the system itself. Customers were treated as a necessary nuisance.

So, how in the world did I end up there?

There was one front-line manager in charge of this small Inside Sales team. He couldn’t do anything about the corporate empire, the phone system, or any of the other teams, departments, divisions, or silos of the system. He determined, however, that he could control his little cog buried in the systemic works. He hired me and my team to help his little team to apply what I call Customer Service Rule #1: Do the best you can with what you have.

The sheer size and scope of the corporate system working against their efforts made it feel, at times, like we were Quixote tilting at windmills. Still, I had to admire the manager and his team for their courage to make a small difference and do their best to do the right thing for customers in a corporate environment that would never support their efforts, and would only undermine those efforts time and time again.

Over the past weeks on this chapter-a-day journey, I’ve been making my way through what’s known as the exilic books of God’s Message. It was a period of history when the ancient Israelites had been taken into captivity and were ruled by the Assyrian, Babylonian, Median, and Persian empires. Individuals like Daniel, Esther, and Mordecai were strangers in a strange land. They were despised by many and the odds were stacked against them in a myriad of ways. Yet, their stories tell of God using these small individual cogs to accomplish His work in the foreign empirical machines and the often horrific circumstances in which they found themselves.

Today’s final chapter of Esther is simply a brief epilogue that honors Mordecai for his accomplishments. It’s a literary epitaph of sorts and it leaves us with the reminder that Mordecai rose to power because concerned himself with the needs of all his people and worked tirelessly for the welfare of others.

I find myself reminded of two statements this morning. One from Peter’s letter to the believers who, like the Jewish exiles, were scattered by persecution around the Roman world:

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”
1 Peter 5:6 (NIV)

The other from the prophet Micah:

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
    what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
    be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
    take God seriously.
Micah 6:8 (MSG)

The exiles were like the Inside Sales team that I and my team worked with inside their own corporate empire. In many ways, that Inside Sales team was small, impotent, and relatively insignificant in the grand corporate scheme of things. But, they chose to humbly do the best they could each day to serve as best they could with what little power and influence they had. Sometimes, that’s the best you can do.

In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded that along life’s road I will encounter many situations and circumstances that are out of my control. There are so many times when I’m really powerless to make a significant change to large problems. The exiles provide a good example to follow as they, themselves, heeded Micah’s advice. I can do the same. Humbly, quietly, mercifully, faithfully do the best I can each day, in every circumstance, with what I have.

“If You Only Knew What it was Like….”

Meanwhile, the remainder of the Jews who were in the king’s provinces also assembled to protect themselves and get relief from their enemies. They killed seventy-five thousand of them but did not lay their hands on the plunder.
Esther 9:16 (NIV)

This past weekend I attended my 35th high school reunion. It’s only the second reunion that I’ve attended and it was a lot of fun to catch up with old classmates and where their life journeys have taken them. I walked to Kindergarten with some of these people. We played Kick-the-Can, Freeze Tag, and Ding-Dong Ditchem’ as children and experienced all the awkwardness of adolescence together. It was especially sobering for me to see the table of memorials to all classmates who have already passed, and to recall moments and life events I experienced with each of them. It was strange to have such vivid memories with these amazing individuals from my childhood and to realize that so much time has passed. One of the common conversations that evening was how our children (and now grandchildren) have no concept of what everyday life was like for us.

I found myself expanding that thought to a macro-level this morning as I read the chapter. It’s been a while since this chapter-a-day journey took me into such a bloody text. It is difficult for this twenty-first century, enlightened Western mind to get my head wrapped around such bloodshed and carnage. I’ve observed along the way that we have a penchant in our modern culture to whitewash, rewrite, or simply ignore certain aspects of history, including the brutal violence which was an everyday part of the culture in ancient days. “Kill or be killed” was the way of life and survival for most tribes and people groups.

In today’s chapter, I found it fascinating that Xerxes did not seem to bat an eye at the destruction of Esther’s enemies. But, I have to remember that his father, Cyrus, established the Persian Empire and became the world’s first “superpower” by destroying a lot of people. Xerxes had a reputation for holding onto that power and his Empire by brutally suppressing any kind of rebellion against him and his kingdom. Again, it was simply the way of life during that period of history.

There are two things happening in today’s chapter that are often lost on the casual reader. The first connects to something I pointed out the other day. The face-off between Mordecai (descendant of King Saul’s tribe of Benjamin) and Haman (descendant of King Agag of the Amalekites) is a historical rematch. In the first round (see 1 Samuel 15), Saul did not complete the task of wiping out Agag and his followers. In today’s chapter, the destruction of Haman and his followers was historically perceived by the Hebrews as righting an old wrong that Saul should have completed.

Second, while Xerxes’ proclamation gave the Hebrews permission to plunder their enemies, you’ll notice the text clearly points out that they chose not to do so. Again, this is further evidence that the events of today’s chapter were perceived as righting the wrongs of Saul, who was forbidden from plundering King Agag and the Amalekites but did so anyway. The story of Esther is layered with the theme of reversals: the reversal of fortunes, the reversal of specific events, and the reversal of past wrongs.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about the march of time. Based on conversations this past weekend, I and my classmates clearly wish that our children could understand what life was like for us:

  • “If you only knew what it was like without smartphones.”
  • “If you only knew what it was like to write a research paper on a daisy-wheel typewriter without the internet, Google, or Wikipedia.”
  • “If you only knew what it was like to walk a mile to school every day in the winter.”
  • “If you only knew what it was like to be at college and communicate with your parents once a week (at most) because they didn’t want to pay for the collect call.”
  • “If you only knew what it was like to be expected to get a paper route and start working as soon as you were 11 or 12 years old.”

In the same way, I imagine Mordecai and Esther inviting me to take off my modern, rose-colored glasses and to attempt to see beyond my politically correct horror at the violence of their time in history.  I imagine them beckoning me to try and imagine what it was like to live in the “kill or be killed” realities they experienced every day when there was no other choice. “If you only knew what it was like,” I hear them say, “to walk in our sandals as exiles and captives in a foreign land surrounded by enemies bent on killing us.”

I don’t think it’s fully possible, but I’ve found it worth the effort to try. The stories of history have secrets to teach me; Secrets that provide wisdom for my own life journey, and for the journeys of my children and grandchildren.

As Jesus said, “Seek, and you’ll find.

And so my “seeking” begins for another day, in another week.

I hope your own search is going well, my friend.

Structure and Flow

In every province and in every city to which the edict of the king came, there was joy and gladness among the Jews, with feasting and celebrating.
Esther 8:17 (NIV)

Over the past few years, I have served as a mentor to a group of teachers. I will typically review outlines and provide encouragement and advice prior to their message, and then give feedback after the delivery of their messages. It’s been rewarding to watch individuals improve their preparation and presentation skills, and it’s challenged me in a number of unexpected ways. I honestly think I’ve been a better learner than I have a  teacher in the process.

One of the biggest observations I’ve made over my tenure in this role is the importance of structure. If you have a well-ordered structure then your words and ideas have flow. The hearer, almost sub-consciously, follows the flow and ends up right where you want them at the end. Without structure, there is no flow. Transitions are clunky and the hearer gets lost not being able to follow how what you’re saying now related to what you just said before. When an audience is lost they check out. Casual observers rarely appreciate how a great story, song, play, painting, building, sculpture, movie, or presentation is almost always well-structured.

Which brings us to today’s chapter of Esther in which the villain, Haman, has been dispatched. Mordecai, his nemesis, is elevated to Haman’s position and given his possessions. It’s such a good story, but the casual reader does not realize that the story-teller has carefully structured the narrative in what’s known as a “chiastic” style. The author uses the same phrasing in both introducing Haman and then describing Mordecai’s redemption to highlight the reversal of fortune. Commentators Karen Jobes and Janet Nygren help us see the structure:

In the quiet of my office this morning I find myself thinking about structure and flow. The further I get in my life journey the more aware I’ve become that everything is connected. It’s the design of creation. Even a seemingly random sight of trees in a forest has what scientists call a fractal structure. Whether it’s my work, a message I’m giving, a story I’m telling, our weekly schedule, the vacation plan, our meal plan for the week, or how our living room is arranged there is both structure and flow. If I structure things well then things flow better and the results are generally good. If things are disjointed, disconnected, and there’s no real flow, then everything feels unstable and out of whack.

And with that, I enter the structure of my day.

Flow well, my friend.

Victim of My Own Poison

So they impaled Haman on the pole he had set up for Mordecai.
Esther 7:10 (NIV)

I once had a person who told me they were angry with me. I had done something to offend, and the person confessed that they knew I had no idea what I had done to hurt them so deeply. I asked what I had done and sought to reconcile, but they chose to not to tell me. Sometime later, I made another appeal and asked the person to share with me what I had done. Again, they chose not to do so.

Two cannot be reconciled if one is unwilling to do so.

Along my life journey, I have encountered many individuals who hold on to their anger, their grudges, their hatred, and their judgments of others. Typically, I find that underneath it all lies a spiritual, relational, and/or emotional wound. The wound often remains carefully hidden beneath all the bitterness and rage. If the wound is not addressed the destructive emotions remain.

I have observed that anger, hatred, grudges, and vengeance are spiritually dangerous things. It has been said that harboring them is like drinking a cup of poison yourself and expecting that it will somehow kill your enemy.

In today’s chapter, the plot twist is downright Shakespearean. Haman’s plot to kill Mordecai and all of the Hebrews is uncovered. Ironically, Haman is impaled on the very pike he had erected for the impaling of his enemy, Mordecai. He allowed himself to drink from the poisonous cup of anger, resentment, bitterness, and rage for so long that he became its victim.

This morning I find myself praying for the person I mentioned at the beginning of this post, as I do whenever that person comes to mind. Perhaps someday the time will be right and they will be ready to talk things out. I hope so. I also find myself taking an internal inventory of my own wounds and examining my own levels of anger, resentment, bitterness and the like. I don’t want to harbor such things lest I find myself the victim of my own internal poison.

Coincidental Presence

That night the king could not sleep; so he ordered the book of the chronicles, the record of his reign, to be brought in and read to him. It was found recorded there that Mordecai had exposed Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king’s officers who guarded the doorway, who had conspired to assassinate King Xerxes.
Esther 6:1-2 (NIV)

I am currently listening to the book The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather. It tells the true story of a Polish army officer who volunteered to be arrested and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp in order to smuggle out news of what was happening in the camp and to attempt to create a resistance movement from within. After enduring the hell-on-earth realities inside the camp for years, he escaped and was able to offer primary source evidence of what was happening inside the camps to the Allies.

As I’ve been listening, it has brought to mind the story of Corrie Ten Boom (told in her book The Hiding Place), a Dutch Christian who ended up in the Ravensbruck concentration camp with her sister. She and her family hid Jews in their home until they were caught by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps. She was the only member of her family to survive. I have a connection to Ten Boom through my mentor, and the founder of our company, who was head of marketing for the feature film made about Corrie Ten Boom’s life (also called The Hiding Place). He spent a lot of time with her and she had a tremendous impact on his life. As long as I knew him, he had a photo of Corrie in his office and he loved telling stories about her.

The first-hand accounts of life and death inside the Nazi concentration camps are always sobering and difficult to read or hear. They are so horrific and difficult to fathom or absorb. I’m reminded, however, of Corrie’s description of her sister, Betsie, who never failed to experience God’s presence, and even joy, amidst the terror of their daily existence inside the camp. Corrie was released from Ravensbruck because of a clerical error. She spent the rest of her life telling her story and telling whoever would listen: “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”

In today’s chapter, we reach the narrative center of the story of Esther. Things look bleak. Esther, Mordecai, and the Jewish exiles are in a deep circumstantial pit. The king has decreed the annihilation of the Jews throughout Persia and his highest official is bent on leading the genocidal slaughter, beginning with Mordecai. But now, unexpectedly, a coincidental event becomes the pebble that starts an avalanche of events which turn the tide of the story. The King has a bout of insomnia and he insists that the annals of his reign be read to him. It just so happens that the story of Mordecai unearthing an assassination plot (about five years earlier) is read to him, and he realizes that Mordecai was never honored for bringing the dark plot to light.

As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, God is never mentioned in the book of Esther. But I find God present and active in the coincidences and events that happen in the story. If God is omnipresent, and most followers of Jesus would cognitively say that He is, then God is always present even when His presence isn’t acknowledged. Even in the deepest and darkest of pits. Betsie Ten Boom didn’t just believe in God’s omnipresence, she experienced it amidst the hell of a Nazi concentration camp, and her sister Corrie was, coincidentally, released by a clerical error in order to tell the story to millions of people.

In the quiet this morning I find myself meditating on the notion of God’s omnipresence, and what that really means. I’ve always found it odd that people in church pray almost every week for God’s presence, and in doing so deny the very thing we say we believe. If God is omnipresent, then it’s silly to ask Him to be present. What we really should pray is that we actually experience God’s presence there, here, everywhere, at all times in all circumstances. Because God is always present.

I remember sitting at the bar just inside the front door of our local pub last summer. The door was propped open to allow fresh air in the place and a friend from my local gathering of Jesus followers happened to walk by and see me there. He stood in the doorway and greeted me, then engaged me in a conversation, but it was obvious that he was not about to step foot inside the establishment and the whole conversation felt incredibly awkward. Knowing a bit about my friend’s background, I realize he was raised to believe that one should never go inside a bar and I honor his conscience. Nevertheless, I’ve known fellow believers who would avoid going into a pub as they believe it to be a godless, evil place. I’ve had some amazing God experiences and conversations in pubs. God is there.

I want to experience God’s presence at all times, in every place, and in each circumstance. It’s then that I begin to see the coincidences of clerical errors and ironies of a King’s insomnia for what they really are.

The Thrill of Pursuit

“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 (NIV)

A number of years ago I was asked to speak to a group of middle schoolers. I costumed myself with the best secret agent look I could pull off and, after being introduced, I entered the room to the theme from Mission: Impossible being blared on the auditorium sound system. I then announced to the rowdy bunch of young people that I had a secret mission for them (should they choose to accept it), and there was one rule. When their parents asked what I talked about or what the lesson was, they could only respond with, “I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.” I told them that if their parents got upset, to tell them to contact me directly.

I then talked to the kids about simple practical ways to honor their parents, not because they had to, but out of a covert operation to respect, honor, and show gratitude for all their parents do for them. I also assured them that, if they followed my operational procedures, they would be driving their parent’s crazy wondering who kidnapped their middle schooler and replaced them with a well-behaved clone.

It was less than an hour after the night’s program ended that I started getting texts from curious parents going crazy because their kids were simply laughing and refusing to tell them what they’d learned that night.

That night was a lot of fun. I ultimately don’t know how effective it was at teaching kids about being respectful and honoring of their parents, but I certainly got everyone’s attention. There is something we human’s love about the thrill of pursuit, delayed gratification, and prolonged curiosity. One of my all-time favorite birthday gifts for Wendy was the year I started her off by letting her open one present. It was a GPS device on which she discovered there was a programmed route for her to follow. At each waypoint on the route, she found one of her friends waiting for her to get a manicure, have a cup of coffee, and etc. We love the tease of the unknown and the thrill of pursuit.

In today’s chapter, Esther uses the thrill of pursuit to heighten her husband’s curiosity about her request. Actually, Esther was following a common practice in ancient near-East civilizations when it came to making a specific request of someone in power. It was a culturally prescribed method intended to honor the one of whom the request was being made and to engage our human love of curiosity and the thrill of pursuit. We see the result in Haman who is excited to tell his wife and friends all about it.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the ancient practice that Esther employed in contrast to our 21st culture. I wonder how much technology and the instant gratification we enjoy for so many things in life has robbed us of the thrill of pursuit and the positive character qualities that are developed with delayed gratification. In the Customer Satisfaction and Customer Experience research my company regularly produced for clients we are finding that customers are increasingly expecting instant gratification to their desire to reach a human being in Customer Service or getting access to information they desire. I sometimes wonder if where it’s all leading.

I guess I’ll have to wait to find out ;-).

Have a great week, my friend.

Unlikely Hero

“And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
Esther 4:14b

In a couple of weeks, I’m scheduled to give a message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers entitled “It’s a Secret.” In preparation for that message, I have been pouring over some of Frank Warren’s PostSecret books. For those who are unfamiliar, Warren is simply a small business person who decided to do an art project. He handed out about 3000 black postcards with his address printed on them and asked people to share their “secret” with him. Years later they keep arriving from all over the world and his blog at postsecret.com is among the most popular in the world.

As I read today’s chapter, in which Queen Esther is made aware of Haman’s plot to annihilate her people, I thought about her secret. Esther had successfully managed to become the queen of Persia by being keeping her heritage and ethnicity a secret. She had assimilated into Persian culture. She did not demand a kosher diet, which would have given her away. She did not bring up any moral objections during her year-long education in providing the king sexual pleasure. The evidence would suggest that Esther was not a “godly woman” (by the strict definition of religiously following the tenents and disciplines of Judaism) and the faith of her people does not appear to have been something she practiced or felt compelled to take seriously.

I was also reminded, once again, that God is never mentioned in the book of Esther. It’s also interesting that when Esther asked Mordecai and her people to fast for three days it does not mention prayer in conjunction with the fasting. While prayer and fasting traditionally went together, the prayer part of it is not mentioned by the Queen.

Along the journey, I’ve observed that the institutions and adherents of my own faith like to try and keep God in their own binary boxes. I confess that I have, at times, fallen prey to this notion myself. People are either “sinners” or “saints.” God’s pleasure and purpose are reserved for the latter but definitely not the former. And yet, there are so many examples of God using people who wouldn’t pass our moral or religious litmus tests in order to accomplish His purposes. I’ve come to embrace the fact that when Paul wrote of God who is “able to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine” it includes working through and accomplishing His purposes through the most unlikely, seemingly unworthy, of individuals.

Esther is an unlikely hero who reveals herself to be, like all of us, very human. I compare her to Daniel who zealously and religiously clung to his faith, religious discipline, and heritage, and he still succeeded to carve out position and purpose throughout a lifetime in captivity. Esther, on the other hand, follows the easier path of cultural compromise. She keeps her heritage, her people, and what faith she might have had in her people’s religion a secret. She likely kept her secret in order to avoid prejudice and persecution. Some would call that cowardice. Her response to Mordecai upon learning of Haman’s genocidal plot reveals her feelings of powerlessness and fear. All of this, and still she finds herself in just the right place at just the right time to accomplish God’s purpose of saving her people.

Ever since I became a follower of Jesus, I’ve sought God’s purpose in my life journey. I’ve tried to be a person of zealous, disciplined conviction like Daniel, but any who care to look closely at my track record will find that it is dotted with the same kinds of compromises, secrets, easy choices, and fear revealed in Esther. My solace is that God did accomplish His purposes in both of them, and I believe that somehow in the mysterious tension between God’s sovereignty and my free will I continually find myself at just the right place, at just the right time, to accomplish the purposes God has for me at this very moment.

And so, I begin another day in the journey. Press on, my friend.