Torn – A Series on the story of Esther

The book of Esther is one of the most dramatic and beautifully told stories in the Bible. It tells the story of a young woman named Esther and her cousin Mordecai as they try to survive and thrive as Hebrews in the land of Persia. Mordecai and Esther find themselves in a very important position, possessing very powerful knowledge, at a very critical time. The story has quite a few unexpected twists and turns, and is loaded with drama, intrigue, irony, and comedy. It is also one of the most puzzling books in the Bible. First of all, there is no mention of God. The book nowhere acknowledges God’s activity on the stage of history. It doesn’t record anyone praying to God or asking for His favor (even though it does record a fast, which might be assumed to be prayerful). On top of that, the characters do not always behave as you would expect Biblical heroes and heroines to behave. There is a lot of moral ambiguity that can be difficult to sort out. Besides being a very entertaining read, it also has a lot to teach us about the tension we sometimes feel between God’s Kingdom and our culture. Esther and Mordecai are in a very tough spot to be a Hebrew.

Lessons from a woman caught between two worlds – This book raises all kinds of questions about how we are to deal with our culture. Many of us feel like Esther did – torn between two worlds. We love Jesus and His Kingdom, but our culture where we live is seductive and has its own allure. The power of Esther’s story is the tension she must have felt being stuck between two very different cultures. She was a Hebrew, and that gave her a sacred obligation to the will of the God of her people. At the same time, she found herself thoroughly entrenched in the Persian culture, a culture that was drawing her deeper and deeper into itself. She embodies the struggle to be in the world but not of it. This is one of the hardest things for followers of Jesus to do. What do you do when the culture you are in threatens to swallow your faith, rewrite it, or erase it? I have watched so many people struggle with how to interact with their culture as a follower of Jesus. This is the tension I want to explore in this series. Echo has people all over this continuum. Some are just holding on, barely surviving. Some have already been swallowed up by the culture. Some are doing their best to be the influence and not the influenced. People take three stances when it comes to the surrounding culture:

1. Isolation – No contact, no impact. Sometimes the church has gotten this wrong. Sometimes the church has been tricked into isolating itself from people far from God in the name of protecting the holy ones from corruption. I have met many people that really do love God, but they look at the world and our culture like it is full of potential sources of “infection.” Their strategy to survive is to create a separate culture, walled off from negative influence and protected from corruption. They end up living like bubble boy, afraid of what is out there that might corrupt them. The irony of this is that whenever we do this, we have been tricked. According to Jesus, His disciples are the ones that are contagious! The danger is not to us, but to the kingdom of darkness. We are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. The light is more powerful than the darkness, and when you shut up all the carriers of light inside of little cloisters and holy communities and churches and concerts, there is no chance for anyone bound in darkness to discover the light. Jesus warned his followers against this: he said a “You are the light of the world; city on a hill cannot be hidden.” Look at John 17:13-19. Jesus prayed for his disciples, not that they would be taken from the world, but that they could be a force of influence and change in the world. Without contact, you can’t have any impact on your culture. You might get a little messy if you try this. Can you imagine a Jesus that avoided what He found impure? For this reason, Echo cannot be allowed to be a shelter from culture, a group of people separated from the world that needs them. I love that we have a pastor that models this. Our pastor, Brad Russell, created the Washington West Film Festival to interface with and engage our culture.

The story of Esther could be very different. At multiple points in the story of Israel, the Jews struggled with influence and took the path of isolation. You can imagine Esther and Mordecai being so offended by the suggestion that they be complicit in this corrupt and perverse culture! The story would be one where Esther was killed and Mordecai as well, dying to persevere her “honor” or virginity. This isn’t easy stuff by any means, but this is how the story goes. What I am saying is that it is possible to limit your influence because you limit the exposure other people have to the hope and life that is in you. Now of course, this works both ways.

2. Assimilation – You can’t stand fast without contrast. The other thing I see happen when it comes to culture is that people are just swept away by its current. The force of culture just swallows them whole and assimilates them, they become just like everyone else in culture and any distinctiveness about them is lost. If you are not strong enough to be the influence and you are always being swept away in the current of your culture and negatively influenced, you might need to limit your contact with negative influences. You cannot be a rescue swimmer until you stop drowning and learn how to swim. It is not what is the similar to everyone around you that will grant you influence, it is what is different. I am not talking about something weird, strange, or bizarre, but something distinct. If you lose your distinctiveness, you lost your ability to influence and attract others. If you are just like everyone else, just one more follower in the crowd of sheeple, why would anyone bother to follow you? The right kind of difference is contagious. Here me on this: if Esther was just another pretty face in the crowd of hundreds, this story would look so differently. Something made her different, something more than superficial made her stand out from among the others. The key to influence is to discover life on a level that few others ever find. Then you have found something that will make you stand out! The Jesus movement, the Kingdom of God – it is a counter-cultural revolution. It is not the popular thing but the right thing. It is not what everyone does, it is only what the remarkable can do. If you want to impact the world, you will have to do it living differently that everyone else. We are called to be aliens in this world, living “in it but not of it.” There is supposed to be a quality about us that is “otherworldly,” like we have been somewhere else and we are from somewhere else.

3. Transformation – Look at 2 Corinthians 5:16-20, and listen to this charge by the Apostle Paul. He describes the followers of Jesus as the ambassadors of Christ, as if God were making his appeal for reconciliation with the world through us. He is imagining a force of positive change unleashed on the world with transforming results. Esther’s initial struggle is this: how to I prevent being swallowed by the culture even as I am surrounded by it and immersed in it? That is where many of us are, barely surviving. In that case, you may need to find some sources of strength and change some habits and reroute some patterns. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that living for God’s Kingdom means staying “pure” somehow. It doesn’t mean anything that small! Esther eventually discovers this. It isn’t just about surviving. Not only does she want to survive, but she wants to influence her culture of the Kingdom of God. I know in Echo we have people that are struggling with both of these challenges. The secret lies in protecting the fire of God in your heart, so even when you are immersed in your culture without, you heart is captured by God within.

**Food for thought, seeds for discussion with your teenager:

*What do you find tempting or alluring about your culture?
*Why do you think “Isolation” isn’t an effective strategy for dealing with culture? Can you think of reasons why you should be isolated from some things in culture?
*What exactly should make a follower of Jesus distinct from others? What are some superficial ways that people sometimes look to distinguish themselves?
*What do you think Jesus meant when he prayed that his disciples would be “in the world” but not “of the world?”

Coram Deo – Salt and Light

Echo High School has been having a conversation about what it means to live Coram Deo, or in the sight of God. We are centering our questions around the manifesto of Jesus as laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew’s Gospel chapters 5 through 7. In it, we find so much about what walking in the ways of Jesus is and is not, much of it corrective criticism to the way the Christian faith has been practiced. This week, our conversation goes to Mathew 5:13-16.

Matthew 5:13-1613 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Jesus uses two different metaphors to communicate the purpose or effect of being his disciple. The metaphors for salt and light were more vivid to the ancient audience of this teaching than they are to us, so let’s break them down.

1. SALT of the earth – Salt was much more meaningful and valuable to those in the ancient world. Now, we think of salt in terms of sodium and cholesterol. Salt was connected with several ideas in the ancient world. First, it was the most common preservative. There were no refrigerators in a very hot climate, so this was a very important. Salt was used to keep things from going bad, and to hold putrefaction at bay. When Jesus compares his disciples to salt, this is one of the associations they would have made. If followers of Jesus are to be the salt of the earth, they must have a certain antiseptic influence on life. They should be preservers, holding infection or corruption at bay. I want to be careful and clear here, because no one likes it when someone takes the morality of another on as a personal project. This shouldn’t give you permission to be judgmental, bossy, self-righteous, or superior. It doesn’t mean you should try to be the conscience of others. It does probably mean that you should bring out the best in others, to be someone whose company makes it easier to do the right thing, and not the opposite. It means to influence others to be their best.
Second, and most obviously, salt lends flavor to things. Food without salt is bland and boring. When Jesus said his followers were to be the salt of the earth, he meant that they should flavor life. The sad reality is that so often, people connect Christianity (and religion in general) with precisely the opposite. They assume that religion is what takes the flavor out of life. Interestingly, this was an early criticism of the Jesus way by the Romans – that Christianity took the fun out of life. If life in the way of Jesus is grey, pale, and gloomy; if all it offers is renunciation and suffering, then what flavor could it bring? I think if that is the face of your faith, you have gone wrong and are far from the vision of Jesus. We need to discover and demonstrate the radiance of the way of Jesus. For those in Christ, it should not look like a funeral when we gather, but a feast.

2. LIGHT of the world –
The second metaphor, the light of the world, is equally powerful. Matthew’s readers may have remarked that Jesus referred to himself as “the light of the world.” When Jesus commanded his followers to be the lights of the world, he demanded nothing less than that they should be like himself. This means that we shine not with our own glory, but with the reflection of his light. Think about the way a bride on her wedding day glows. It is not that she is inherently radiant, it is the attention of those gathered and love and adoration of her groom that causes her to shine. A light is something that should be seen, something almost impossible to hide. The houses in Palestine were very dark, with only one little circular window. They lit their houses with these little oil lamps that they put on a stand. Light can also be a guide, something that chases away the darkness and reveals the truth of the situation. It can make clear the way.

SO WHAT? Taken together, the idea behind these metaphors is a command to demonstrate a public faith that is potent, influential, and effective. This is a counter cultural command in an age where people are told to keep their religion to themselves. Jesus says: “Let all see it and benefit from it.” However, he does caution that this should be done in an attractive and compelling way, not an ugly or obnoxious way. There is a big difference! Jesus says in v. 16: “Let your light shine before people, that they may see you good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” In Greek, there are multiple words for good. There is the word agathos, which simply means good or high quality; and there is the kalos, which means that thing is not only good but it is also captivating, beautiful, and attractive. The word here is kalos. We hear this and might wrongly assume it means playing righteous, like being the good girl or good guy – somehow projecting an aura of purity or righteousness. This is not quite what he means. What some people think is “goodness” is often repulsive. This is not “theatrical goodness.” If that could ever translate into a showy self-righteousness or superiority, this is NOT what Jesus means. What Jesus means is for you to show your world something beautiful. Show them something compelling. Show them something attractive. “Christians,” those who walk in the way of Jesus – have a little bit of a “perception problem.” At least that is how I heard one person describe it. I think it goes much deeper than our culture’s perception; this is reality. The findings in David Kinnaman’s book unChristian should shake those who claim to follow Jesus to the point of self-reflection. It is not that the church really does resemble Christ and the culture just has it wrong or is seeing us through their jaded glasses, it is that in some ways the church has actually wandered away from the teachings and the heart of Jesus. When people look into the lives of those who claim to follow Jesus, they see so little of Jesus. This is the major problem. Jesus here describes people that do not embody the ways of the Kingdom of God as salt that isn’t salty and light that is invisible; in other words, worthless. If it is not doing what it is supposed to do, if it is not what it claims to be, discard and dismiss it. Of course this is the joke: Jesus’ audience could not imagine tasteless salt or invisible light. They didn’t exist in their minds. This is Jesus’ point: there is no such thing as a disciple who doesn’t act like a disciple. Such a disciple is not a disciple at all! The transformation of your life as a result of walking with Jesus should be evident and obvious; it should be noticeable like the presence of salt and light.

Questions for you and your teenager:
-What is the difference between being influential and being obnoxious about your faith?
-What are some of the things that prevent followers of Jesus from being influencers?
-Why is it so easy to be influenced instead of being the one that influences?
-What do you think Jesus would say about peer pressure based on this passage?

Mind Games

Echo High school started a new series this Sunday talking about Mind Games. Romans 12:1-2 teaches that the key to transformation is renewing our minds: changing destructive patterns of thought into something that follows the mind of Christ. It means learning to think correctly about God and ourselves. This is tough because sometimes our mind is our worst enemy. People say things like: “It’s just in your head…” but what is in our heads matters! What you believe influences how you behave.

Check out 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 – Paul is talking about the struggle he has to help people understand the Gospel and his ministry. He is struggling against and arguing against “false teachers” that are defaming him and telling lies. You might call this a propaganda war; it is about which voices will be most influential on the beliefs of others. To this conflict, Paul says this: “For though we are human, we don’t wage war as humans do. We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ.” Paul is talking about spiritual warfare as a mind game – a contest of ideas.

It was true back then and it is true now – there are forces at work in the world that seek to control the way you think, and some of those forces are sinister and harmful. I have talked with so many people that are plagued by destructive patterns of thought – held prisoner to lies, deceptions, and false assumptions about God, about themselves, and about others. Many times people are ignorant about the spiritual dimensions of such thoughts. What happens in your mind makes a very big difference in your life.

Behind our behavior is our worldview – the deep rooted beliefs at our core. I am not trying to imply that changing your patterns of thought is an easy thing to achieve, like you can just flip a switch and think differently. Paul uses the word “stronghold” on purpose. A stronghold is a fortress, a place of refuge from attack. Such fortified cities were very important in the ancient world, and Paul’s audience knows to what he is referring. One of the most famous “strongholds” of the ancient world is the city Masada, a place so well fortified it held off the Roman war machine for a long time in the first century. This image would have helped Paul’s original audience imagine an obstacle very difficult to overcome. Some of our destructive patterns of thought run deep – they are the root of insecurity, dysfunction, addiction, etc. Some of these patterns of thought are generations old – it is the way you were taught to think by your parents, who were taught something similar by their parents, and so on. Changing such deeply rooted patterns of thought is hard work. You cannot begin to live the truth until you believe the truth, and you cannot believe the truth until you hear the truth. Our culture is constantly telling its story and propagating its version of reality. this is why it is so important to read scripture and see and understand the Kingdom of God. It is a different way of looking at reality. Mind games matter. What you believe determines how you behave. Your core beliefs influence your actions, reaction, and attitudes. These core beliefs change slowly. They are deeply held and ingrained convictions that we hold close to our hearts.

Bringing down a stronghold is a war of attrition. Overcoming a stronghold is going to involve a siege. The Romans laid siege to the Sicarii at Masada for months before they could take the city. In a siege, sometimes you have to starve the enemy out. It is a war of attrition, it isn’t fun, it isn’t fast, but it is effective. How would you do this in spiritual warfare? It would mean blocking access to the food or the fuel for certain destructive patterns of thought. We live in a world where we have access to so many avenues of information. Much of this is very influential on our thoughts – some of it even has the goal of controlling your mind and shaping your worldview. Marketing is a mind game. It is about the battle of ideas, the power of suggestion. It is ultimately about control. It is about getting people to do what you want them to do. We can convince ourselves or be convinced that something that is untrue is true. Sometimes these sources of information are feeding destructive and unhealthy patterns of thought.

Follow me on this: if you are struggling with this attitude of “lack” that feeds a materialistic and shallow lifestyle, you should probably be careful about fashion magazines and trips to the shopping mall. If watching stick-thin actresses pretend to be average people on T.V. makes you feel fat and provokes your insecurity – you should probably watch something different. If you are struggling with lust or looking at women as objects, but you are not addressing your pornography addiction, nothing is going to change anytime soon. Some strongholds need to be starved! If facebook feeds your “drama” addiction – unplug. There are some behaviors or compulsions that are rooted in a spiritual stronghold – which is a deep system of thought or belief. You cannot change them until you change the way you think.

Food for discussion/thought:
*We all deal with destructive patterns of thought in different ways. What are some “mind games” that you struggle with? (Critical thoughts, insecurity, pride, envy, jealousy, shame, depression, doubt, lust, prejudice, etc.?)Can you identify some harmful thought patterns that need to be adjusted in light of the claims of Jesus?
*Do you agree that core beliefs change slowly? Why do you think this is?
*In your mind, can you think of any strongholds that you need to stop feeding?

<Thanks to for the picture>