Tag Archives: Culture

Cancelled (Not)

Cancelled! [Not] (CaD Ps 130) Wayfarer

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

Psalm 130:4 (NIV)

I’ll never forget the story of a woman I know who told me the story of being a teenager who made a foolish choice. Once it was discovered, she was brought before her church and publicly shamed for her mistake. They threatened her with expulsion and vowed to make her an outcast unless she repented. She told me this as an adult, but the spiritual and emotional scars of the experience were still very much present.

As a student of history, I can tell you that public shaming, scapegoating, and what today we call “cancelling” have been around as long as human civilization. It morphs into various forms, but it is a staple of fundamentalist systems no matter the flavor. When allowed to run amok, it leads to guilt by accusation, mob justice, and the kangaroo court of illogical and unreasonable group-think. It can be lethal, as the residents of Salem, Massachusetts found out when a group of silly girls leveraged the fundamentalist bent of their Puritan faith and began accusing people they didn’t like of being witches.

I find it fascinating to watch what is happening in our own current version of it. I observe that cancel culture has all the same quintessential ingredients that existed among the reviled Puritans of Salem. I have had more than one person tell me in the past year that if an enemy at their workplace chooses to go back and uncover the silly, foolish things they did and said in their youth and make them public, they’re screwed.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 130, is an ancient Hebrew song that expresses the emotions of one crying out from “the depths.” The metaphor of the original Hebrew lyrics are that of deep waters. The songwriter is drowning in a sea of their own mistakes and foolish choices. In experiencing God’s forgiveness, mercy, grace, and redemption, the songwriter is moved to gratefully serve God.

As I read through the teachings of Jesus, I don’t find religious shaming and cancel culture. In fact, the most pointed condemnation Jesus dished out were to orthodox religious fundamentalists who were carrying out their own brand of cancel culture. Jesus actions and words were gracious, forgiving, and redemptive. Paul, one who was drowning in his own deep waters on a trip to Damascus, told Jesus’ followers in Rome that its God’s kindness that leads to repentance not shaming, condemnation, and threats of cancellation. He also wrote to the believers in Corinth that it was Christ’s love that compelled him to risk life and limb to share that love with others. In my experience, condemnation, hatred, public shaming, and threats don’t compel anything worthwhile.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself recalling the “deep waters” of my own life journey. I find myself mindful of the many foolish thoughts, words and actions that dot my journey, and for which others would gladly cancel me. I find myself grateful for Jesus who, by His own words, claimed that he didn’t come to condemn the world, but to save it through love, servant-heartedness, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, grace and redemption.

As He has not condemned, shamed, nor cancelled me, I find myself compelled not to condemn, shame nor cancel anyone else.

Every Tribe and Tongue

Every Tribe and Tongue (CaD Ps 129) Wayfarer

“they have greatly oppressed me from my youth,
    but they have not gained the victory over me.”

Psalm 129:2 (NIV)

Wendy and I watched Godfather: Coda a few weeks ago. For those who aren’t familiar, it is the recent re-edit of the final film in the Godfather trilogy by the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola. Originally released as The Godfather III back in 1990, the film has always been largely criticized for not living up to the first two films. Coppola claimed that he was at odds with the movie Studio on how the story should be told and was forced to rush the film to market. He was finally allowed, 30 years later, to recut it and tell the story as he and Mario Puzo imagined it.

The trilogy is really the story of Michael Corleone. Raised in a mafia family, he swears early on in the first film that he’ll never be part of the family business. The overarching story is how Michael descends into the underworld with the intent to save his family and then can’t escape, as his family is slowly torn apart.

One of the subtle storylines in the third film is that of Michael Corleone’s son, Anthony. Anthony, like his father, wants nothing to do with the family business. “I’ll never be part of the family business,” Anthony states. He then adds, “I have bad memories.”

“Every family has bad memories,” his father replies.

That line has always resonated in my soul because I find it to be true. Just the other day I wrote about my journey of discovery and uncovering some of my families’ bad memories when I was a young man. But there is also the larger reality that we are the product of the systems into which we were born. We are a product of our people. Michael wanted to escape, yet he chose in and tragically couldn’t find the exit.

Wendy and I are both products of a Dutch American tribe who risked everything to come to America, settled as a tribe on the plains of Iowa, and prospered. That prosperity was fueled by our tribe’s deeply rooted values of faith, frugality, and hard work. Wendy and I often acknowledge that we are products of our people with both the blessings and curses that come with every human system.

For the Hebrew tribes, history and identity as a people is one of constant struggle against other tribes and nations and their subjugation by human empires. That is what the writer of today’s chapter, Psalm 129, is pressing into with his lyrics as he describes being enslaved and beaten:

Plowmen have plowed my back
    and made their furrows long.

Psalm 129 was likely written after the return of exiles from captivity in Babylon. The sting of the experience would have still been fresh in the memories of those singing this song on their pilgrimage. It is the cry of a people that first acknowledges that God has blessed them and they have not been overcome, then asks God to justly deal with their oppressors.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself confessing that there are a host of human experiences that I can’t completely fathom because I haven’t experienced them myself, but that doesn’t mean I can’t seek to understand, to empathize, and to learn lessons from the experience of others. Our Dutch American town holds an annual festival of our Dutch heritage. The motto of the festival is “Everyone’s Dutch for a day!” and visitors are encouraged to learn the history, try on a pair of wooden shoes, learn a Dutch dance, and eat lots of pastries. When invited in to learn and embrace the knowledge of other cultures and people groups, I observe that everyone benefits. When excluded from doing so, I observe that the walls of prejudice are fortified to the detriment of all.

One of the sins of the institutional churches and the abuse of their power in history is the perpetuation of prejudice, injustice, violence, and indifference for the sake of power and empire in the kingdom of this world. The Jesus Movement that was about tearing down walls of prejudice and spreading love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness to every human tribe became a human empire. In the black-and-white binary choices to which the world likes to reduce everything, Christianity has been summarily dismissed by many.

I have found, however, that the heart of the Jesus Movement has always continued in the hearts and lives of individuals who embrace it and seek to carry out the original mission. A mission in which every human being of every people group can experience love, forgiveness, and redemption. When given a vision of eternity, John described the crowd as persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. When U2 described it in their psalm they sang, “I believe in the Kingdom come, when all the colors bleed into one.”

My heart this morning is crying out with the prayer of St. Francis. Perhaps it expresses more succinctly what my heart is trying to say in this post:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.

Of Voices & Family

Of Voices and Family (CaD Ps 117) Wayfarer

Praise the Lord, all you nations;
    extol him, all you peoples.

Psalm 117:1 (NIV)

Wendy and I read a fascinating interview in the last week of an expert in race and culture. In the loud cacophony of voices lecturing about race and culture with stark in-group and out-group labels and distinctions, this academic stands as a proverbial “voice in the wilderness.” He has been studying trends for 50 years and pointed out facts that no one else is talking about or acknowledging.

The number of bi-racial and bi-cultural couples getting married and having children has increased significantly in the last 50 years and continues to rise. Both Wendy’s and my family are classic examples. Between our siblings, nieces, nephews, their spouses and children, we have the following races and cultures represented in just two generations: Dutch-American, Anglo-American, African-American, Korean-American, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Mexican.

In other words, the simple, binary labels on the census list are increasingly obsolete. For this, I am increasingly joyful.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 117, is most known for being the answer to trivial pursuit questions. As just two verses long, it is the shortest psalm and the shortest chapter in the Bible. (If anyone is starting this chapter-a-day journey with me today, you’re getting off to an easy start. Just a warning, the longest psalm is just two chapters away, so you might want to get a head-start! 🙂

In its brief content, however, this ancient Hebrew song of praise has a significant purpose in the Great Story. This short song, traditionally sung each year as part of the Hebrew Passover, calls all nations and all peoples to worship and praise. This fits in context with the calling of Abraham, father of the Hebrew people when God promises Abraham that through his descendants all nations and peoples will be blessed.

If we fast forward to the Jesus story, we find Jesus breaking down the racial and cultural walls that His tribe had erected to keep those they considered spiritual and racial riff-raff out. Jesus followers went even further to take the message of Jesus to the Greek, African, and Roman worlds and beyond. This created upheaval and conflict among Jesus followers of strictly Hebrew descent. It was Paul (who called himself “a Hebrew of Hebrews”) who used today’s “trivial” psalm when writing to the followers of Jesus in Rome to argue that from the very beginning the Great Story has been about all nations, all races, all cultures, and all peoples.

When John was given a glimpse of heaven’s throne room, this is what he saw and heard:

And when [the Lamb who had been slain] had taken [the scroll], the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation
.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

Revelation 5:8-10 (NIV) emphasis added

In the quiet this morning, I am reminded of texting our daughters of Suzanna’s engagement to Chino in Mexico a couple of years ago. The response to the news was, “Yay for more beautiful brown babies in the family!” (by the way, the first of those arrives this summer and we can’t wait to meet our newest nephew).

Along my life journey, I have observed that we humans like to reduce very complex questions into simple binary boxes and choices. As a follower of Jesus, I found that the journey seemingly began that way. I could choose to follow, or not (though my theologian friends will be happy to turn that into a very complex question for you). After that, things get exponentially personal and complex. Just yesterday, I gave a message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers and I made the same argument about the season of Lent. Religious institutions want to make things top-down prescriptive when Jesus was always about things being intimately and spiritually bottom-up personal.

I find myself this morning meditating on the contrast between the voices of culture and the experiences of family. There are such complex questions we face today of race, gender, and culture. I don’t want to diminish or dismiss them. At the same time, I find myself encouraged by a profound truth simply stated in today’s chapter.

Praise the Lord, all you nations;
    extol him, all you peoples.

Wayfarer Weekend Podcast: Where it’s All Going

This week’s Wayfarer Weekend podcast comes on the heels of the most contentious Presidential election in recent history during the most strange year of our lifetimes. Where is it all going? Thoughts from a “wayfaring stranger traveling through this world of woe.”

(WW) A Wayfarer's Thoughts: Where it's All Going Wayfarer

Losing the Truth of Loss

Losing the Truth of Loss (CaD Ex 22) Wayfarer

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
Exodus 22:21-24 (NRSVCE)

I find it fascinating, as I read the laws of Moses in today’s chapter, that the Hebrews were commanded by God to take care of foreigners living among them, and to take care of socially and economically disadvantaged groups within their society. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene some 1500 years later, the Temple in Jerusalem had become a religious racket (which is why Jesus drove the currency exchange vendors out of the Temple). The religious system prescribed through Moses had become an institution that made money for the the chief priests and religious leaders who then leveraged their power and authority to line their own pockets at the expense of their own people, while they prejudicially looked down on anyone who wasn’t one of them. They religiously kept the rules that made them look pious while finding excuses for ignoring those that might require real compassion and generosity.

One of the reasons the early Jesus Movement grew so rapidly was the fact that Jesus’ followers were radically challenging the social structures of the day. There were no church buildings. They met in homes around the supper table and, at that table, everyone was welcome to sit together. Both women and men, Jews and non-Jews, and even slaves were welcomed to sit at the table with their master. Beyond that, the followers of Jesus took care of those who were socially and economically disadvantaged in the society of that day including widows, orphans, and lepers.

When Christianity became the state religion of Rome a few hundred years later, the Jesus Movement became a powerful religious and political institution almost overnight. The good news is that Christians would no longer be persecuted and fed to the lions in the Roman Circus. The way was paved for sincere teachers and theologians to meet together, debate, and establish core doctrines. With the authority of the Roman Empire, there was an opportunity for real change.

Interestingly enough, what followed was ironically similar to the very things Jesus criticized in the religious leaders of His own people. The movement moved from the supper tables in peoples homes to churches and cathedrals, which required a lot of money. Generosity to disadvantaged groups was curtailed as funds were shifted to lining the pockets of the church leaders and their churches and residences. Women were once again diminished as male dominance was established within the institution. Those who threatened the emerging orthodoxy, like the desert fathers and mothers, were branded heretics and either killed or forced to flee. Leadership positions in the church suddenly became positions of socio-economic and political power that were bought, sold, and traded by rich, powerful, and connected families. That’s how we eventually ended up with an eleven-year-old pope (Pope Benedict IX).

In the quiet this morning, I find myself asking a lot of questions. Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has spent the last year grappling with the mega-trends we’re seeing in our culture and our world. There are fewer and fewer individuals claiming to be Christians. Churches, especially here in rural and small-town America, are closing for lack of members. Christianity is no longer accepted as the prevailing cultural worldview in our culture, and there is open and growing antagonism as the historic sins and failings of church institutions spark anger and resentment in many circles. Meanwhile, around the world, Christians are being persecuted and killed without earning much attention.

As a follower of Jesus, I find myself wondering if all of this is simply going to lead Jesus’ followers back to our roots. The history of the Hebrews and the history of Christianity both reveal to me that when the heart of God’s message to care for strangers, aliens, and disadvantaged groups is lost amidst the desire for social, economic, and political power, then there is a loss of spiritual potency and legitimacy. I can’t help but believe that the loss of cultural prominence is actually the road back to spiritual progress. The way of Jesus has always been about letting go, giving up, and leaving behind. The diminishment of self for the gain of others is not an optional path for those followers of Jesus who want an advanced spiritual placement. It’s foundational to being a follower at all:

“and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

-Jesus

I think that this has been lost. I confess that as I reflect on my own journey it’s clear that I am as guilty as anyone.

My heart and mind return to yesterday’s post. I want to stop being an ally to Jesus’ teachings and become an accomplice in putting them to work in tangible ways.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Poison on the Team

As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire,
    so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife.

Proverbs 26:21 (NIV)

There is a client of mine who had a team that had been struggling for some time. While other teams around them were making great strides in their service performance, this one particular team languished in mediocrity. My quarterly training sessions with this team were sometimes painful. Silence. Arms crossed. No eye contact. No participation.

There was one member of this team who was, by far, the worst performer of the group. His performance on the phone calls we regularly assessed were so bad, that one almost had to willfully try to be that consistently awful to their customers. Over several years, the management team tried just about everything to motivate a change in this person. They tried offering cash bonuses for better performance, they provided remedial coaching (I had the joy of conducting many of the coaching sessions…ugh, also painful), they wrote him up on multiple Performance Improvement Plans with HR, and they made threats to fire him. Nothing worked. The longer this went on, I believe the more convinced he was that he didn’t really have to change and the more stubborn he became.

Coincidentally, I was asked at one point to mentor this team’s new supervisor. The newbie had been a member of the team for a long time and was promoted to his first managerial position. I watched him go through all of the same efforts as his predecessor trying to motivate behavior change in the team’s entrenched curmudgeon.

“What am I going to do with him?” the supervisor eventually asked me directly.

“Fire him,” I responded just as directly.

The supervisor seemed shocked by response. I explained.

Look,” I said, “Your management team has wasted their efforts for years trying to get this person to perform. There is a well-documented track record of a bad attitude, poor performance, and an unwillingness to do any more than the very least that is required to avoid getting fired. His attitude has poisoned the entire team and your team will never be healthy until you get rid of the problem at the source.

I had made this same suggestion multiple times to the supervisor’s predecessor and managers, but they could never take the final step of terminating his employment. I actually expected nothing different from the new supervisor, because he was new and firing a team member went against this client’s corporate culture.

I was, therefore, surprised to learn that my managerial protégé took my advice and fired the team member a short time later. Wouldn’t you know it? That year the team that had been mired in mediocrity reached their service quality performance goal for the very first time. I handed out more year-end performance awards to members of that team than ever. The team that had been so painful to train for so many years was laughing, cheering, clapping, and celebrating.

In today’s chapter, Solomon wisely says that a quarrelsome and contentious person is like adding wood to a fire. It spreads. My client’s entire team was stuck in their contentious mediocrity and poor performance because of one team member’s poisonous attitude. I wish I could say that this is the only example I’ve seen in my years of helping my clients improve the quality of their customer service, but it’s not. It’s actually fairly common. What isn’t common is a client’s willingness to do the right thing for everyone (especially their customers) and decisively extract the poison from the system whether it is firing the person or moving them to a different job with a different team that might be a better fit.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about other poisonous team members I’ve encountered in my vocational journey and the reticence, even in my own company, of confronting it. What I’ve observed over time is that these individuals really don’t want to be in their positions. Sometimes getting rid of a poisonous team member actually frees that person to find something better for themselves. I have followed the careers of a few fired team members on social media and it appears that they are much happier after finding a job that better suits their talents, desires, and personalities. And, some appear to be tragically angry and contentious people in any role no matter where they work.

At least a company can fire such a person. When the contentious and quarrelsome individual is part of a family system, it’s a far more difficult situation. Solomon had another proverb for such tragic circumstances:

To have a fool for a child brings grief;
    there is no joy for the parent of a godless fool.

Sex and a Larger Wisdom

Keep to a path far from her,
    do not go near the door of her house

Proverbs 5:8 (NIV)

One of the challenges in the reading of ancient wisdom is embracing the historical, cultural, and social differences I find rather than letting them get in the way. In our current culture of reactivity and the quick dismissal of anything that doesn’t fit neatly in the personal box of my world view, I’m afraid many miss out on the larger wisdom that is still there for anyone willing to see it.

The role and status of women in ancient cultures is a fascinating study. Just a few chapters ago I wrote about the fact that when the ancients personified wisdom she was a woman. Contrasting that honoring celebration of the feminine, today’s chapter is a head-scratching corollary. Solomon warns his son to beware of a caricatured predator: the adulterous woman.

It seems hypocritical for King Solomon to preach such monogamous virtue to his son, given the fact that the “wise” King was recorded to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Of course, it could also be argued that he was writing out of the pain of his own folly, as it is also recorded that he was “led astray” by having 1000 women at his disposal (though I doubt he was an unwilling victim).

Along my life journey, I’ve experienced that it takes two to do the tango of adultery. The peddling of forbidden sexual fruit is not discriminatory by gender, nor is the temptation to taste its pleasures. It is also my observation that gender is inconsequential when it comes to matters of seduction, sexual temptation, sexual surrender, promiscuous relationships and the bitter consequences typically experienced at the dead-end of those paths. It would be foolish of me not to look past the cultural differences between the ancient Hebrews and my own time to see the larger wisdom that Sophia has to share for anyone willing to listen to what she has to say about the foolishness of sexual promiscuity.

In the quiet this morning I find folly and wisdom in multiple layers. There is the obvious folly of promiscuity and the wisdom of relational fidelity presented in the text. I also find the folly of what I see on both sides of our current cultural discourse, in which I can easily be dismissive of others who don’t comfortably fit inside the box of my comfortable world-view. I find there is typically larger wisdom present if I’m willing to seek her out.

Popcorn Prayers

The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king…..”
Nehemiah 2:4-5a (NIV)

I was honored a few weeks ago when I was asked to pray for our meal at my high school reunion. In part, I was honored because it has become increasingly common for prayers at public events to be ignored our outright forbidden. I also realize that I and my classmates grew up in a time when public prayer was hotly debated along with questions regarding whether it was appropriate for public school choirs to sing sacred music at events such as commencement.

I can remember during some of these debates about “school prayer” that it was humorously acknowledged that the school building will always be the center of a million prayers during finals week. Of course, there is a difference between a public prayer at a school event and the silent prayer students staring at the test that has just been placed before them.

For those who are not regular readers, I have been blogging through what’s known as the exilic books of God’s Message in recent months. These are the writings of the ancient Hebrews who experienced being taken into captivity by the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Medo-Persian empires. They eventually returned to Jerusalem to rebuild and restore their homeland. Being an exile, in its very essence, means living away from home, and being in exile often means a loss of power, control, and public standing. My local gathering of Jesus’ followers is currently exploring the notion that the people of God are, by nature, exilic and what that means for us in the 21st century.

Nehemiah was a cupbearer for the Persian king, Artaxerxes. In today’s chapter, Nehemiah could not hide his grief while serving in the king and queen’s presence. It was, in those days, deemed inappropriate to show any kind of negative emotion in the presence of the king. On a whim, the king could have his servant executed for such an infraction. So when Artaxerxes notices the depressed look on his cupbearer’s face, Nehemiah’s immediate fear was warranted.

What I found interesting is that the phrase “Then I prayed to the God of heaven” is sandwiched in between the king’s question and Nehemiah’s response. There is no way that Nehemiah said, “Can you hang on a few minutes while I get on my knees and pray for a while?” Nehemiah’s prayer to the God of heaven had to have been what I call a “popcorn prayer.” A popcorn prayer is the silent, sudden, internal exclamation of my spirit to God’s Spirit in an instant. It’s exactly what I did as a student before every Biology test (science was not my thing).

According to a 2017 survey by the Barna, 79 percent of Americans said they had prayed in the previous three months. Barna found prayer to be the most common faith practice among American adults, but it was also the most multi-faceted. In fact, the researcher concluded that “the most common thing about people’s prayers is that they are different.”

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve discovered that my own prayer life is much like Barna’s research. It’s multi-faceted. I do, at times, spend set periods of time in prayer. Sometimes, I audibly talk to God while I’m alone in my car driving. Wendy and I pray together before meals, and often we will pray together when it is just the two of us traveling in the car. I’ve sometimes described my life journey itself as one long, uninterrupted conversation with God. I’m constantly aware of God’s presence, and my “popcorn prayers” are popping constantly in the heat of Life’s microwave oven.

Our culture has shifted in the 35 years since I graduated from high school. I know some who see this as a source of grief, anxiety, fear, and even anger. Sociologists and scholars are calling our current culture the “post-Christain” world. Frankly, I’m not that worried about it. In fact, I think it might just be a good thing. Throughout the Great Story, it’s clear that God’s people flourish, not when they are in power, but when they live in exile. It’s a paradox that Jesus said He came to model and that He told his followers to embrace:

“You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage.”

Jesus (Matthew 20:25-28 [MSG])

Paul, one of Jesus’ early followers, put it this way:

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul of Tarsus (2nd Letter to the Corinthians 12:10 [NIV])

In the quiet this morning I find my head swimming in thoughts of culture, and power, and exile, and prayer. Nehemiah found himself a servant to the King of a foreign empire. Artaxerxes had the power to execute Nehemiah for having a frown on his face, and yet his precarious position of impotence led him to depend on his faith in the power and purposes of God. Isn’t that the very spiritual reality that Jesus wanted us to embrace?

As I finish this post I’m saying a popcorn prayer for any and all who read it. Hope you have a great day, my friend.

Bad Blood Boiling Over

All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.
Esther 3:2 (NIV)

I recently read a fascinating op-ed by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali by birth who became a member of the Dutch Parliament. In the article, she shares about her journey of understanding that she was culturally and systemically raised to hate Jews and blame them for everything, and how she overcame that hatred.

Feuds are as old as humanity itself. Whether it is unresolved interpersonal conflict, blood feuds between familial tribes, or long-standing hatred between people groups, there are countless examples of systemic hatred and generational conflict throughout history.

For the casual reader, there exists in Esther an underlying conflict that is not easily detected on the surface of the text. Mordecai was a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin. The tribe of Benjamin had a famous ancestor in the person of Saul, the first King of Israel. Saul had warred against the Amalekites and their King, Agag. Saul’s disobedience to God’s command in the battle against King Agag led to Saul’s downfall which, in turn, brought shame to the tribe of Benjamin. Haman was an Agagite, a descendant of Saul’s famous enemy. There are over 500 years of bad blood between Haman and Mordecai’s tribes.

This adds a whole new layer of understanding to the story. Mordecai had thwarted an assassination plot against Xerxes in yesterday’s chapter, and yet he received no real reward for his courage. Haman, in contrast, is elevated to a place of unprecedented power within Xerxes administration and no reason is provided to explain why he was deserving of such favor. The King demands that everyone bow before Haman. Bowing and kneeling before others was a common form of public respect in ancient Persian culture. It would be similar to shaking hands in our culture or taking your hat off in respect. Mordecai’s refusal to offer this basic courtesy to Haman was not treated as treasonous, but as culturally impolite and disrespectful. Mordecai was scolded and lectured, but still, he refused to bow. Each day he stood as Haman passed by and each day the insult pricked Haman’s ego and pride. With each passing day the 500 years of cultural bad blood between Benjaminite and Agagite, between Jew and Amalekite, slowly simmered to a boil. Haman plots to have Mordecai and all of his people annihilated.

This morning I find myself contemplating Jesus’ command that I forgive my enemies. This not only includes the interpersonal conflicts or wrongs which I have suffered, but I believe also includes the deeper cultural, ethnic, moral, and religious prejudices I may hold against other people groups; Prejudices that I may have been systemically and culturally taught without even realizing it.

Which brings me back to Ms. Ali, a woman from a different culture, tribe, and religion than my own. I found her willingness to confess her hatred of the Jewish people and turn from the cultural enmity she’d been taught a shining example of what Jesus asks of me. I find myself taking an honest inventory of my heart this morning. As King David (ironically, God’s replacement for the disobedient King Saul) wrote in the lyrics to his musical prayer, “Search me, God, and know my heart.” Addressing prejudice and cultural hatred has to begin with me.

Living in Gray

When the king’s order and edict had been proclaimed, many young women were brought to the citadel of Susa and put under the care of Hegai. Esther also was taken to the king’s palace and entrusted to Hegai, who had charge of the harem.
Esther 2:8 (NIV)

Yesterday at the breakfast table Wendy and I were having breakfast and reading the news, as is our daily habit. Wendy happened upon a news piece that quite clearly divided the United States into two generalized racial groups. Implied in the article was the notion that in America you are either black or white. I find the distinction of choice ironic.

The simplistic divide does not account for the vast number of people of Hispanic, Asian, or Native American descent, nor does it account for the population of interracial couples and their children which, according to U.S. Census figures, has steadily grown since 1967 and continues to do so.

Our culture loves binary, either-or choices. I have observed this to be true of both institutional religion and mainstream news media who are critical one another. When dealing with a large population of people, simple binary choices are much easier to deal with. Here are some examples from both of them:

  • Black or White
  • Conservative or Liberal
  • Fox News or MSNBC
  • Capitalism or Socialism
  • Red State or Blue State
  • Progressive or Deplorable
  • Blue Collar or White Collar
  • Educated or Uneducated
  • Urban or Rural
  • Republican or Democrat
  • Protestant or Catholic
  • Sacred or Secular
  • Christian or Secular
  • Holy or Worldly
  • Evangelical or Mainline
  • Religious or Atheist

And yet, as I have traversed this earthly journey and spiritually followed in the footsteps of Jesus, I find most binary distinctions simplistic and inadequate for addressing complex circumstances and issues. The world and its people with whom I interact every day are an elaborate mosaic of DNA, thought, spirit, background, and experience. To put one complex person into one of two binary boxes for the sake of simple definition is foolishness.

One of the things that I love about the story of Esther is how God works through this young Jewish woman who appears to navigate the tremendously gray territory between binary choices of Jew or Gentile, Hebrew or Persian, and Moral or Immoral. She keeps her heritage and faith secret. Whereas Daniel refused to eat meat provided by his foreign captors, Esther has no such qualms. There is no indication that Esther balks at being part of the Persian harem system that would have instructed her how to pleasure the king sexually on demand.

The book of Esther has confounded binary thinkers for ages. One commentator wrote that Esther’s behavior would not pass any test of modern ethical theory. Her cultural compromises coupled with the pesky fact that God is never mentioned by name in the story led some editors in history to introduce prayers into the book that were never part of the original text along with commentary stating that Esther hated being married to a Gentile. I’ve observed that when the truth is too gray for our comfort zone, we like to shade it to fit our personal binary leanings.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the value and importance of a story like Esther. She successfully navigates a very uncomfortable world of gray politically, culturally, religiously, and morally. From a position of powerlessness and critical compromise, she is used for God’s purposes in profound and powerful ways. In a time when our political, religious, cultural, and social systems seem perpetually intent on placing me in one of two simplistic boxes, I pray I can, like Esther, find a way to successfully navigate the territory of gray that lies in tension between simplistic, black-and-white definitions.