Have you ever had one of those weeks? When all is supposed to be celebration, but you are having trouble celebrating because, well, life has happened as it does in a confusing and soul-sucking muddle. Have you ever had one of those weeks when what is in your mind and how your body moves, or refuses to move, are at odds? Have you ever imagined a certain kind of week, day, or moment, but it is as though time and circumstance have conspired against you—though you might have once counted your blessings, it is far easier to count your curses? Have you ever made a list only to rip it to shreds with your distractions and reality? Have you ever had one of those weeks?
And when you have one of those weeks, or one of those moments, you turn on the television, or fire up your computer, or – in a burst of hopeful anticipation—go to church and the speaker or the feast leave you less than satisfied, more hungry than satiated, the message becoming distorted as “just another thing to do” rather than scratching the “itch” that you really need after one of THOSE weeks.
God hears you.
That sigh of frustrating too deep for words. That unexplainable yearning. That f-bomb on teetering on the tip of your tongue.
God sees you.
That distracted look. That downward glance and those watery eyes. That exasperated eyeroll at what passes for connection and substance.
Sometimes what we need is not forthcoming—from any place. You go to the bookstore and trail your hand along the bookshelves, hoping that your hand will just providentially land on the book or magazine that you need to hear from in that moment and you encounter books on political dissonance, communal tragedy, an da world in need. You turn on the radio and, instead of hearing something to help you muster the energy for a new day, you hear some sappy song about a wife leaving her man and someone cruelly hoarding 40 barely-living cats. It’s Murphy’s law all over again…except it’s your psyche at stake caught in a never-ending, noxious, country music ballad.
Today’s reading about Esther is an ancient, well-known story and the basis for the Jewish celebration of Purim. We don’t have time to read the whole thing, but suffice it to say, Esther bravely uses her position with the king to notify him of a diabolical plan to destroy the Jewish people, which inconveniently includes her and her uncle Mordecai. She needs to say something about this plan to exterminate her people, but upon becoming a member of the royal household, she was told that she could approach the king when he specifically waved his golden scepter her way—that is, when he asked for her…a golden scepter being an interesting choice of words for our collective imagination. I suppose he could have waved a hand in “go and get me a beer” kind of way, but instead waved his golden staff, a symbol of male authority, dominance, and rule.
In our biblical story today, she summons her courage, without the golden scepter welcome-sign, and goes before the king unsummoned. Not only does she disobey as his wife and subject, but reveals herself as his Jewish wife, a surprise to him.
Furthermore, in this story of reversals and intrigue, the evil royal advisor, Hamon, finds himself hanging on the gallows that he had built for Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, who is a humble man who refuses to bow to the pompous Haman. When Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, discovers the plot to destroy the Jews, he prompts his niece’s courage by saying these famous words, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:13-14).
Usually, this story inspires both the hero and heroine in me. It typically creates a vicarious and aspirational chutzpah. Usually, I would consider how Esther bravely put herself and her neck on the line for her people, her family, and her friends. Usually, I’d want to show how Esther risked the king’s royal displeasure and her very life for a higher cause and then tell you all how this is both similar and different from the God we know in Jesus.
But then, I had one of those weeks. We imagine bravery to be something that we can work up to—like a higher grade or the sports’ competition after practicing the play on the field a million times under the coach’s weathered eye. We imagine courage as a quality that others like a queen or Christ Jesus can have in spades, but we—not being royalty or one of the martyred saints—have less a connection to that kind of demonstrative courage. And so, the message intended for lil’ ol’ us falls short because we think, we can barely get out of bed, much less out of the door and into the king’s bedchambers like Esther, who was the Queen, after all.
What good is talking about courage when our models of courage seem so far out of reach? We need courage that is on our level, so to speak, and off of social media. Those who speak about Esther’s courage or Jesus’ courage often focus on the modest beginnings of these two and others like them. An orphaned Esther becomes queen to King Xerxes unexpectedly. But she is beautiful and captures the king’s attention. Jesus is born to an unwed teenage mother and grows to shape a movement and die for a cause. But here we are, fully-grown grownups, with unpaid mortgages, credit card debt, wrinkles, love-handles, bad breath, and arthritis. If anyone is going to fondly gaze upon our looks, we can only hope it will still be our partners, our children, or our doctor…and even that’s a long shot.
No, Esther—while courageous—seems distant, unless we can imagine that the reversals that were set into motion in the story are all part of God’s redemption of this crazy world that we live in. That Mordecai’s justice is somehow part of THE justice from evil schemes and evil people that a eminently just God will render, even if takes a while. And even if they are distant, Esther and Jesus can serve as courageous examples if we can also imagine that they were going about their lives the best way they knew how when chance, circumstance, grace, and their willingness simply to try merged in a small but pivotal way that had deep ramifications.
If God can move a woman with a secret identity to stand up to her husband’s illogical demands; if God can move a carpenter’s son to imagine that he is beloved and not a bastard child; if God can reveal an evil plot through everyday human beings standing at the palace gates or the White House, then maybe, just maybe we can give God a chance with the weeks and weakness and unjust laws that we suffer and live through.
Courage in high places is admirable, but it is courage in the low places and at low tide that really inspires. When everything feels like it is against you and yours, when your little boat is caught on a sandbar in the middle of nowhere, you choose to do the kinder, riskier, and harder choice because your conscience whispers through not just the storm but through the daily routine of a new day. Courage sometimes walks very softly and looks like everyday people standing in line, crossing the street, and getting on with the business of life, even when the couch beckons and you’ve run out of your favorite coffee brew.
Courage shows up and speaks quietly when it is easier to shut down or shut up or shut out the people that you care about, and some whom you really don’t. Courage has imperfect motives and imperfect morals AND still makes its presence known. Have you ever thought: “oh, I couldn’t do that because I don’t have a squeaky-clean past” and so you fear that your decision might look bad, hypocritical, inconsistent or just plain weird? Or have you ever wanted the right thing, the good thing, but also wanted a bit of recognition that you actually wanted the right and good thing, along with maybe an incentive to do that thing as well? No? Well, you are better than most and can stop listening right now. Yes? Then you know intimately that of which I speak.
Courage sometimes makes multiple contingency plans and navigates clumsily between them when the unpredictable weather of life changes. Courage perseveres when you—like Esther or Jesus, for that matter—feel damned if you do and damned if you don’t, but you “do” anyway. Courage helps nudge you to the promise of making a difference, even if the only difference you can see is the one that you have made in your own life, heart, mind, and perceptions. Courage gets you through one of those weeks, by stretching your gut and soul in ways that feel unfamiliar but necessary, as you say ‘yes’ when you have every reason to say ‘no,’ or ‘no’ when you are altogether used to saying ‘yes.’
The writer, C.S. Lewis, once famously said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” What are your personal virtues? What 3 readily come to your mind first? The seven so-called heavenly virtues are: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. Imagine each of these being tested during one of THOSE weeks—like this one, for instance. Or imagine your very best virtue being challenged when you have had little sleep, a raging migraine, an annoying phone call, or a washing machine breakdown in the middle of your son or daughter crying to beat the devil. According to C.S. Lewis, courage is what kindness looks like when your beloved child says he needs his special green socks now, no matter that the washing machine is on the brink. Or, similarly, courage is how humility speaks up in a conference meeting when your coworker takes the credit for completing a project on which you have quietly worked the past 3 months with little help from his pompous self. Courage doesn’t always wear a cape or roar, as they say. Mary Anne Radmacher says, “sometimes, sometimes, courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.”
So what if you are not feeling particularly Esther-like? Or even Jesus-like? They did not have your life. Your courage and your life are unique to you. Only you know the questions that you must bravely answer, pandemic or no. Only you know how hard it can be to bravely share what creates the most fear in you. Only you know the choices that are yours alone to make with the limited resources, tangible and intangible, that you have.
What I am here to remind you: that God works with us in extraordinary ways and to encourage you to become quiet enough, still enough, and courageous enough to find out how to be the hero or heroine of your own story, trusting that God has partnered with you, even before your living memory, hoping that you will speak the truth of your heart whether you are in a royal bedchamber or out on the street, whether you are inching your way in miserable traffic, or donning your mask at a sporting event. You are God’s emissaries with divine connections and a divine pedigree, and who knows, perhaps you have come to such dignity and purpose for a time such as this, your “everyday sort of courage” being no more and no less than Esther’s, Jesus’ or any other biblical character, but very much needed, nonetheless.