Tag Archives: Paradox

Strong Women in Weak Circumstances

“According to law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?” he asked. “She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her.”
Esther 1:15 (NIV)

In the days after the end of Game of Thrones, I have suffered a bit of withdrawal. I know I am not alone in this. While nothing in the current entertainment market is going to really compare to the epic series, of late I have been catching up on the series, The Last Kingdom, (on Netflix) which has enjoyably filled the void. It follows the life of a young English noble who is captured and raised by Vikings while his uncle claims the title and land rightfully his by birth. The series is set in a period of actual history when Vikings threatened to conquer all the kingdoms of the British isle while Alfred the Great sought to join the disparate Kingdoms of the isle into one united England.

One of the interesting themes that I have noticed of late in multiple series and movies set in medieval times is how the role of women is handled. Certainly, the dark ages and middle ages were a time in which women had little or no social standing. Daughters of nobility were married off to create political alliances. Writers seem to enjoy creating female characters of strength and courage who challenge and undermine the status quo of that time. I laughed a lot as I watched the character of Brida (played expertly by Emily Cox) in The Last Kingdom (who, like the male protagonist was a young Brit captured and raised as a pagan Viking) who re-enters English society and all of the male priests and nobles have no idea how to handle this strong, fiery, female warrior. Earl the Bruce’s wife in the movie Outlaw King (also on Netflix) is another recent example.

Today we begin another chapter-a-day journey through the book of Esther. Along with the stories of Daniel and Jonah, which we just blogged through in the past few months, Esther is set in the period of exile when many of the Hebrew people were living in exiled captivity to a successive series of foreign empires (Babylonian, Mede, and Persian). Esther is one of the most enjoyable and unique reads in the entirety of God’s Message.

The first chapter sets the scene as the Persian Queen, Vashti, refuses her intoxicated husband’s demand that she present herself to him and the drunken, seven-day binge of a frat-boy party that he and his court were having. King Xerxes wanted to serve his wife up to be sexually ogled by his “noble” entourage. When Vashti has the self-respect and courage to refuse her husband’s demand, the boys decide that she must be punished so that all women would know their place and all men could cement their power over their wives and households.

Today’s chapter sets the scene for the story on which we are about to embark. It establishes the setting in an ancient culture in which men systemically dominated politics, society, and culture. Women had little or no power, and to challenge the system – even for the best of reasons – could lead to very negative consequences. The Hebrews, as a people living in exile, understood this position of powerlessness.

As I think about the historical setting of the story of Esther, of the courage of Vashti to stand up to her drunken husband, and the examples of strong women in weak social positions that I’ve been watching of late, I can’t help but think of my wife and my daughters. God has surrounded me with strong women whom I greatly respect. I am partnered with a fiery, Enneagram 8 of a wife, who compliments and challenges me in all sorts of healthy ways. I also know, however, that most of human history would not have treated her and her God-given temperament kindly, despite what Hollywood writers portray as they try to bring 9th-century realities to 21st-century audiences.

In the quiet this morning I find myself excited to once again wade through the amazing story of Esther. It reminds me of the spiritual paradoxes that lie at the heart of being a follower of Jesus: that strength is found in weakness, that spiritual power is often unleashed in temporal impotence, and that the power of Life is found on the other side of death.

Content with What I Cannot Fathom

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
          declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV)

When I was a young man I may not have thought I knew it all, but I was pretty certain I had a firm grasp on most of it. The further I get in my journey the more I am convinced that what I know, indeed what we know as human beings, is the visible and temporal tip of an eternal iceberg. I am increasingly captivated by the mystery of what I do not know, and what I can not fathom.

Embracing of mystery, or perhaps better said letting mystery embrace me, is not something I could really do when I was younger. I needed to feel the self assurance of having it all figured out, neatly ordered in my own intellectual box, and tied up with the ribbon of my institutional doctrines. And yet, if I am going to faithfully believe what God has said through His Message, then I must embrace the truth of Isaiah’s poetic verse in today’s chapter. God uses the inverse of my iceberg metaphor. God’s thoughts and God’s ways are light years above what I can see or seem. So, why would I want to even pretend otherwise?

I know what God has expressed through what has been made, which itself confounds the greatest of human minds in the ways with which it functions. I know what God has expressed through Jesus, which is rich in diverse metaphors and spiritual paradoxes that have kept better minds than mine debating since they were spoken. I know the Great Story as it has been told and handed down through the millennia. Chapter-by-chapter I continue my journey through it and find myself ever captivated by the depths of it that I continue to unearth. I have accepted that I will never stop finding new discoveries within it, and asking questions for which I do not know the answers. Still, it will speak to me anew each time I delve into it.

I remember hearing a respected teacher, Gordon McDonald, speak at a conference many years ago. He said he had something he wanted to share with us and then added [I paraphrase], “You may disagree with me. That’s okay. I’m too old to care whether everyone agrees with me or not.” As a young man who cared a great deal that everyone agree with my neatly packaged and wrapped box of knowledge, I was blown away by this statement. Today, I get where Gordon was coming from.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
          declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

More than ever, I’m good with that.

Embracing Truth Wrapped in Paradox

See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—
Isaiah 52:13-14 (NIV)

Creation is full of mystery.

After stumbling upon a couple of YouTube videos, Wendy and I spent some time this past week pondering a couple of mysteries that have baffled physicists about the Quantum world. In the “Two Slot Experiment” it appears that matter not only behaves in ways that defy reason, but it also behaves differently when we’re watching. In another experiment, two seemingly independent atoms at opposite ends of the universe can be entangled and determine the other’s behavior. In the mystery of Schrodinger’s cat, two seemingly independent realities exist at the same time (the Cosmos’ version of “Yes, And“).

I love mystery. Richard Rohr writes in his book, The Divine Dance that mystery is not something we cannot understand but rather something that we endlessly understand. We don’t capture the mystery, the mystery captures us.

All of creation is the expression of the Creator, including the mysteries of Quantum mechanics and Schrodinger’s cat. It is through the ancient prophet Isaiah that God will tell us (later this week in our chapter-a-day journey),

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Even Einstein understood that science and faith were not mutually exclusive, but enjoyed their own form of spooky entanglement . “Science without religion is lame,” he said, “and religion without science is blind.”

Today’s chapter is about redemption. God through Isaiah says in the early part of the chapter:

“You were sold for nothing,
    and without money you will be redeemed.”

At the end of the chapter Isaiah the seer slips into one of his prophetic “Servant Songs” about the coming Messiah, who will do the redeeming. In a mysterious paradox, the “exalted” Messiah suffers in horrific ways:

See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—

Paradox and mystery. It is at the core of our understanding of God, the universe, and everything. This is not something of which I should be afraid, rather it is a reality that should both captivate and motivate me to reach further up and further in. It should be enjoyed and pursued. One is Three and Three is One. Two seemingly independent realities are simultaneously true, and two seemingly independent atoms are inexplicably entangled across the universe. Matter behaves differently when it is being observed. The ultimate Redeemer will be exalted, not through power and wealth, but through unbelievable suffering at the hands of those He created. My mind is capable of far more than I can possibly imagine with the fraction of it that I use, and if it were processing at 100% it would still fall infinitely short of the One (er, Three) who Created it.

This morning, I am embracing Truth wrapped in paradoxical mystery.

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A Spiritual Lesson from Acting 101

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
James 2:18 (NRSV)

I’ve always believed that acting is the creation of an authentically believable character from the inside out. It is not just the manipulation of body and voice but the understanding of internal need, intention, motivation and thought which then translates into words, movement, and action.

My theatre professor in college taught us that one of the most important tools for the actor is observation. Watch people. We were sent to the local mall to watch people. Really watch them. It’s the Sherlock method of beginning to understanding character. What do you deduce from what you can readily observe in people? What can you tell about that couples’ relationship by the way they walk four feet apart? What does it say about them as a couple when she’s carrying on a conversation but her eyes are always looking over his shoulder at the people walking by? What is that teenager trying to say when he walks with that pronounced strut? Look at that old man, shoulders hunched over as if he’s protecting his soul, shuffling slowly with his eyes glued to the floor as though he’s afraid to look anyone in the eye. What in life led him to walk like that?

James’ discussion of faith and works in today’s chapter has created firestorms of controversy among theologians throughout the centuries. Some have even suggested pitching James’ letter from the canon of scripture altogether. Paul teaches that we are saved by grace through faith, and that it’s not of works. But James writes in today’s chapter that faith without works is worthless faith. So, which is it?

I’ve never been that stressed out about seeming contradiction. Following Jesus is a journey fraught with paradoxes. You have to die to live. You must lose in order to gain. You must give away to acquire. Faith and works is just another spiritual paradox in God’s economy. Theatre learned long ago the spiritual principle required for holding the tension. It’s called “Yes, and.” Yes, we are saved by grace through faith, and yes, faith without works is worthless faith.

James was simply tapping in to Acting 101 class. Watch yourself. Really watch yourself. I should observe myself as others do. What do my words say about me? What can someone deduce from the way I treat my employees, my family, or as James suggests, the poor and needy? My inner spiritual realities are evidenced in my outside behaviors. If I really believe what I say I believe, the internal faith will continually work itself out in my words, actions, and relationships.

This morning I am feeling convicted. The process of honest self observation is never comfortable. Though I’m quite sure I have blind spots, I know most of my major shortcomings acutely. A self-inventory leads me to uncomfortable conclusions. And, I think that’s also ultimately James’ point. Discomfort prompts change, which creates movement, which propels me further in the journey towards Life. Comfort prompts apathy, which creates stagnation, which eventually becomes death.

Faith or works?

Yes.