Tag Archives: Weakness

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.

The Doorway of Defeat

…for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.
Romans 11:29 (NIV)

I reached out to shake his hand as I was introduced. The lights in the room were dimmed but the darkness couldn’t hide the look of defeat. Shoulders slumped, eyes down cast, and the smile that was clearly being conjured by sheer will. I could feel the discouragement. I sensed the fear that God just might be done with him. I also instantly felt an affinity for him. Something clicked deep inside, and I knew that somehow Holy Spirit had connected us for a reason.

I have seen the look of defeat on the faces of some of the most amazing people. I’ve seen defeat come in a myriad of ways. Sometimes it’s moral failure, a personal failure, a relational failure, or a combination of all. Sometimes it’s a life tragedy and the inequities of circumstance. At times it might be some kind of physical or chemical issue wreaking havoc on a person’s spirit. Then there are times when the source of the funk is spiritual, and a rational explanation is elusive.

When defeat descends on a person life gets very small. Vision is reduced as focus turns inward. Interaction is avoided which only tends to extend and exacerbate the symptoms. A person wraps him or herself in layers of self-protection that, ironically, not only serves to deflect further injury, but also prevents any kind balm from reaching the spirit wound. When the individual experiencing defeat is a believer, the person also feels a spiritual impotence that can be so pervasive as to prompt an unshakable belief that this is all permanent.

But, it’s not.

Defeat is never a permanent destination. Defeat is a doorway to deeper understanding. It is through the doorway of defeat that I discover humility’s sweet gifts and where I experience grace’s sufficiency. On the other side of defeat comes the understanding that Spirit power is perfected in weakness.

Resurrection must, by definition, be preceded by death. Redemption’s prerequisite is always some kind of damnifying defeat. This was the grand spiritual paradigm that Jesus ultimately exemplified, yet I always want to dismiss the fact that if I choose to follow He said I have to follow in His foot steps down that same path.

I saw my defeated acquaintance the other day. It’s been a few years since we were introduced. We’re now friends. His shoulders were squared, there was a sparkle in his eye, and the smile on his face was no longer conjured by will. His smile was clearly the effect of an inner joy that radiated off of him. I had the privilege of helping him through the doorway, and watching him discover, over time, what was on the other side.

So good.

Fail, Rinse, and Repeat

Now when all this was finished, all Israel who were present went out to the cities of Judah and broke down the pillars, hewed down the sacred poles, and pulled down the high places and the altars throughout all Judah and Benjamin, and in Ephraim and Manasseh, until they had destroyed them all.
2 Chronicles 31:1 (NRSVCE)

I decided to become a follower of Jesus when I was a young man. As I began to walk this new journey there were a number of behavioral patterns in my life that I knew I needed to change. There were thoughts, words, and behaviors that were incongruent with the teachings of Jesus. Just like last week’s post I felt a certain internal conviction that I needed to “carry out the filth from the holy place.”

Some of these behavioral patterns were easy to remedy. I simply willed myself to behave differently and it happened. Other behavioral patterns weren’t so easily changed. For years I had fed certain natural appetites in unhealthy ways. These behaviors gave certain levels of comfort, pleasure, and masked some deep soul wounds in ways I didn’t even fathom. With the best of intentions I committed myself to changing the behavior only to find myself, in short order, back doing the same thing I vowed I wouldn’t do anymore.

In today’s chapter we read about the aftermath of King Hezekiah’s homecoming Passover festival. He’d invited all the Hebrew people scattered in the region to return to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast which commemorated God delivering the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. It was a huge success. Revival broke out. The people were humbled and recommitted themselves to the Lord. They repented of their idolatry and went out to tear down their pagan idols. They were going to change their ways!

But wait a minute. Haven’t we read this somewhere before? The people repented of their idolatry during the reign of Asa back in chapter 15. And again during the reign of Jehoshaphat in chapter 19. And again during the reign of Joash in chapter 24. Each time they repented, vowed to give up their idols and follow God. Then they find themselves right back in their idolatrous ways.

Conviction. Repentance. Commitment. Obedience. Temptation. Disobedience.

Rinse, and repeat.

Oh man, do I get that. Along my journey I’ve battled my own demons in the form of appetites out of control. I’ve found myself cycling around and around and around with these unhealthy thoughts, words, actions, and relationships. I feel like a total failure. Here I am again. Ugh.

Looking back now from almost 40 years in the journey here’s what I’ve learned:

  • The cycle is a natural part of the journey. There are lessons to be learned in it. There are lessons that can only be learned in the on-going struggle against our own out-of-control appetites.
  • The cyclical journey and on-going struggle led me on a long slog to dig deeper (multiple counselors and mentors), search farther (reading, studying, friends, accountability, support groups), and to become more brutally honest with myself about my own weaknesses.
  • Plumbing the depths of my depravity led to a deeper understanding of, and experience with, God’s grace and mercy.
  • Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you’re truly ready to change.
  • With each failure, each renewed commitment, and each return to the path of repentance it was hard to see that I was getting anywhere at all but in hindsight I can see that this wayfaring pilgrim was making slow progress towards addressing the core issues that lay beneath my surface behaviors.

This morning I’m recognizing that the people of ancient Judah were a macrocosm of the human struggle against our human weaknesses and out-of-control appetites. Another call to repentance, another revival, another turn away from what was tripping them up. Somehow I don’t think this is the last time. The cycle of struggle was pointing them and me to a very important truth. I can’t do it on my own.

I need a Savior.

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The Depressed Prophet

Cursed be the day I was born!
    May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought my father the news,
    who made him very glad, saying,
    “A child is born to you—a son!”
May that man be like the towns
    the Lord overthrew without pity.
May he hear wailing in the morning,
    a battle cry at noon.
For he did not kill me in the womb,
    with my mother as my grave,
    her womb enlarged forever.
Why did I ever come out of the womb
    to see trouble and sorrow
    and to end my days in shame?
Jeremiah 20:13-18 (NIV)

Across the ages, the ancient prophet Jeremiah has been labeled with  the moniker “The Weeping Prophet.” In our bedroom at the lake Wendy and I have a copy of Rembrandt’s portrait of Jeremiah looking depressed and sullen as he sits amidst the ruins of Jerusalem. It reminds me that the lake is a thin place where any who are burdened can find rest for their souls. Alas, it would seem that Jeremiah had no such place.

In today’s chapter we read of a confrontation between Jeremiah and a priest named Pashur, who was “the official in charge of the Temple of the Lord.” The fact that the one “in charge” was out to get Jeremiah is a good indication of just how corrupt the system had become in Jeremiah’s day. The priest in charge of the Temple was overseeing all of the pagan rituals and cults operating out of the Temple. The Temple had become a religious corporation, a powerful money-maker for those in charge (not unlike the way Jesus’ found the Temple in His day).

While Jeremiah had been protected from the death-threats that had already been made against him, Pashur decided to at least punish the prophet for his inflammatory prophesies of doom and destruction. I’m quite sure they were bad for business. In fact, I can almost hear Pashur saying, “This isn’t personal, Jer. It’s strictly business.” Once again, this is not unlike Jesus who, after His repeated rants against their corruption and His stirring up of the people, pressured the Temple leaders to plot His death .

After his time in the stocks, Jeremiah immediately confronts Pashur with a stubborn and willful repeating of his prophetic message: Jerusalem will be destroyed and its people led into captivity at the hands of Babylon. Obviously the prophet wanted Pashur to know his punishment did not have the desired effect. In fact, it simply appears to have pissed Jeremiah off.

What comes next is fascinating. The weeping prophet goes into a depression and pens a dark poem that graphically expresses his wish that he’d never been born. Obviously, the burden of his role, his prophecies, and the steady threats and persecution were getting to him. Of course they were. It would get to me too.

This morning I’m thinking about how common it is for humans to go through periods of depression. If you were privy to my medical records you’d find that I’ve had a few bouts with the blues along my life journey, and I never faced anything like what Jeremiah was dealing with. I’m also thinking about how common it is for individuals in history (artists, musicians, writers, thinkers) who saw and expressed things no one else could see were given to depression, madness, mental illness, and even suicide. I’d certainly put Jeremiah alongside the likes of Van Gogh, Hemingway, and Parker.

I’m struck by the contrast this morning between the spit-shined image I believe we often have of a “godly” person or a “servant of God.” We demand so much, expect so much, and are so quick to scapegoat individuals for their weaknesses and shortcomings. Jeremiah reminds me this morning that God’s servants were fully human, carried human flaws and weaknesses, were susceptible to all the shortcomings known to humanity, and were even given to deep depression and suicidal thoughts. Jeremiah reminds me to cut others a break. He even reminds me to be a bit more gracious with myself.

Wendy and I were at the lake late last week opening it up for the coming summer season. Once again, I saw and pondered Jeremiah’s portrait as I lay in bed.

I’m looking forward to getting back there.

(FWIW: My latest message was added to the Messages page.)

Silence and Spiritual Authority

But Jesus remained silent.
Matthew 26:63 (NIV)

Just last week, on the 15th of April, the Major Leagues celebrated Jackie Robinson day just as it does every year. Every player in Major League Baseball wears Jackie Robinson’s number: 42. It was on April 15th, 1947 that Jackie Robinson  walked out onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and broke the color barrier in baseball.

This morning as I woke up in my hotel room I happened to have a documentary about Jackie Robinson playing in the background and reminded me of the familiar story. When Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Dodgers, brought Jackie to the major leagues he made Jackie promise that for three years he would not respond to the taunts, insults, and attacks that he would face as the first black man to play in the major leagues. Jackie agreed.

The abuse Jackie faced in those years is well documented. The treatment he received in opposing cities was unjust and unfair. Racial slurs and terrible insults by opposing teams and crowds rained down on him non-stop from batting practice until the last out of the game. Pitchers threw at his head intentionally. Runners intentionally spiked him with their cleats, opening up gashes on his legs. But true to his promise, Jackie remained silent. And, he played great baseball.

It seemed like a bit of synchronicity that this morning’s chapter documented Jesus standing before His enemies. They taunted Him. They falsely accused Him. They beat Him and they mocked Him. But true to what had been prophesied, Jesus remained silent. And, He fulfilled His mission.

I’m simply reminded this morning of the power of silence in the face of personal attacks and social adversity. Human nature and our own culture desires – even demands –  justice at an intimate, interpersonal level. If insulted, return the insult. If he talks smack to me, I’m going to dish it right back. If falsely accused, make a spirited defense. On the face of it, Jesus’ encouragement to “turn the other cheek” seems foolishly weak.

But it’s not.

It took incredible courage and spiritual strength for Jackie Robinson to remain silent those three long seasons. His silence was, in fact, an act of spiritual endurance while it took a tremendous physical and mental toll.

Turning the other cheek is not running away, slinking back, or cowering in fear. Turning the other cheek requires standing in, facing your enemy, and defiantly presenting him the opportunity to do it again. It reveals and highlights the injustice. It makes known the truth of the situation.

After three years of sticking to his promise, Jackie was released from his bargain with Branch Rickey. Then it was the wisdom of Solomon that took over. “There is a time to be silent, and there is a time to speak.” Three years of remaining silent before his enemies had earned Jackie Robinson the spiritual authority to be one of the greatest voices for civil rights and social change. Jackie Robinson Day continues that legacy each April 15th.

I find it ironic that Jackie Robinson Day fell between Good Friday and Easter Sunday this year.

Jesus, likewise, followed His own teaching before the kangaroo court that had been hastily and illegally assembled to arrange His execution. He remained silent. He stood in. He faced His accusers. He turned the other cheek each time He was beaten. All that Jesus would endure took its lethal physical toll, but the spiritual power that was unleashed would conquer death itself.

Time Reveals the True Measure of a Leader

English: Posthumous official presidential port...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then the Lord said to Samuel, “I am sorry that I ever made Saul king, for he has not been loyal to me and has refused to obey my command.” 1 Samuel 15:10-11a (NLT)

On Friday the United States will mark the 50th anniversary of the assination of President John F. Kenndedy. The media has been stirring for the past week with programs and news stories about Kennedy and his legacy. On Sunday, the news magazine CBS Sunday Morning spent their entire 90 minutes exploring the life and death of the young President. Wendy and I were on the couch watching as it’s part of our Sunday morning routine.

Wendy and I discussed President Kennedy that morning and the reality that he was in office less than three years before he was shot. Kennedy inspired the nation and laid out a grand vision, but he was killed before the nation could hold him accountable for his leadership in taking us to the realization of that vision. Reading current headlines is an interesting contrast. Our current President also inspired the nation and laid out a grand vision, but five years later the nation is in an uproar over failed implementation, the President’s party is in open rebellion, the nation is more politically divided than ever, and his approval rating is quickly plummeting. We will never know how Kennedy would have fared five years into his Presidency.

Time reveals the true measure of a leader, for time will always reveals a leader’s strengths and weaknesses. Like many leaders, King Saul started strong out of the gate. He led the nation to victory while displaying humility and deference. Today’s chapter, however, reveals a steady decline of character:

  • He was disobedient, allowing his army to capture the King of the Amalekites and take some of the spoils for themselves.
  • He excused his disobedience and lied, stating that the spoils were going to be sacrificed to God so that made it all okay.
  • When Samuel sought out Saul he found Saul, in a display of arrogant pride, erecting a monument to himself (I am so tempted to make the obvious phallic joke here).
  • When initially confronted with his disobedience, Saul did the usual political back-pedaling, obfuscating, and justifying his actions.

I am thankful that I do not have to face the spotlight of leadership on a national or global scale. Nevertheless, each of us find ourselves in positions of leadership in our homes, our businesses, neighborhoods and our communities. Time will reveal our strengths and weaknesses to those who follow, even if it’s only among our children, grandchildren or extended family. And make no mistake, our weaknesses will be revealed.

I have come to believe that perhaps the real pivotal question of leadership on any scale is how we respond to our own weaknesses and failures. Do we run, hide, excuse, justify, obfuscate, stonewall, gloss over, and deny? Or, do we accept, confess, own up, reconcile, learn from, better ourselves, and make things right?

There are No Lesser Roles

choices choices_SnapseedThree different times I begged the Lord to take [my suffering] away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:8-9a

I am currently in the middle of casting a show for our local community theatre. I had a lot of people try out and there are many roles to fill. In all my years of working on the stage I know that the vast majority of people are wanting to be cast in one of the major, lead roles. This show has a host of smaller “bit” parts and I know that many people will be disappointed when they see that they have been cast in one of these “lesser” roles. Most people think that bit parts are by definition worse parts and that being cast in them means that they are considered lesser actors or have been maligned in some way. But, as a director, actor and playwright I don’t see it that way and it grieves me to know that people will be disappointed by my casting decisions.

Most stories and plays have “bit” parts because they are crucial to the telling and they often provide for some of the most important and entertaining moments. As a director, I pay close attention to the smaller parts and consider the casting of the bit parts to be among the most crucial decisions I make. In some cases, a “lesser” role is so important to the story that I only want to cast a strong actor whom I can trust in that role. Time after time after time I have watched productions in which audiences buzz afterwards about one of the “lesser” characters who played their part so well at such a crucial moment that they “stole the show” from the lead actors.

Shakespeare wrote “All the worlds a stage, and we are all but players in it.” In today’s chapter, Paul realizes a similar lesson about his own role in this life. Like our desire to have the lead role, we all tend to desire the spotlight of power, prestige, fortune, and fame. Paul had learned an important lesson, however. He learned that God, the author of creation and master playwright, is known for a recurring theme: common, lesser, younger, weak, marginalized characters become the most important and powerful pieces of the story. Consider the line up of players like Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, David, John and all twelve of Jesus’ disciples. All of them were considered “weak” and “lesser” in the eyes of the world for various reasons (age, birth order, home of origin, handicap, social status, etc.), but ended up being among the crucial pieces to the Great Story. As God revealed to Paul, He specializes in making weakness a conduit of true power.

Today, I’m thinking about the many ways I feel “weak” on the grand stage of life as I compare myself to those who live in the spotlight of this world. I think about my own feelings of being “less than” and my need to be reminded of an old adage of the stage:  there are no small roles, only small actors. Help me, Lord, to play my role well today.