04 December 2014

Esther and her dumb king

Growing up, Esther used to be one of my favourite Bible books. It sounded like a fairy tale: young orphan girl living in exile is chosen to be queen and later saves her whole race from destruction. Furthermore, the main character is female, the evil guy loses, and the story is filled with drama and suspense. What more could one ask for?

The challenge, however, is to move beyond my childhood understanding of the book as some kind of real life biblical fairy tale. As an adult, I do know better, but it's hard not to let this ingrained perspective continue to colour how I read it. It is easier, after all, to read the hanging and violence of the Jews against their enemies through that lens. 

One help in moving beyond my childhood understanding is the recognition of how Esther becomes queen. The Bible is very gracious in its description, describing Esther as finding favour in everyone's eyes and taking the advice of the king's advisors. At the same time, the Bible is clear that the deciding factor was one night with the king. Such immediate amazing success in the bedroom doesn't quite fit with the nice Christian girl stereotype that I'd projected onto Esther as the heroine of the fairy tale. This then allows cracks to form in my childhood understanding.

At certain points in my academic career, I've had to look at Esther again. One of the common tools is to read Esther from a feminist perspective. Vashti is often presented as a heroine of sorts, although I found that argument difficult to swallow. This is perhaps in part because of my residual understanding of her as a fairy tale's wicked queen. It also seemed to be reading more into the story than was present in the text.

The first chapter of Esther presents Vashti as neither good not bad, neither justified nor condemned in her refusal of the king. She is not the focus of the first chapter. It is even questionable whether telling the back story to the search for a queen is the point of the chapter. Why do we, as readers, need to know how the king's first queen was deposed? 

Asking questions of the text helps one to see the text anew. Hearing the text read aloud also helps. When Matthijs and I started Esther the other night, my initial reaction was how dumb the  king seems to be. As I thought through the rest of the book, I wondered whether seeing the king as being an incompetent idiot fits with the rest of what is said in the book. Further, how does this assumption about the king, other than further destroying my prince charming fairy tale image of him, help me understand the text better?

If I do assume the king is dumb, God's hand in the events of the book appear more obvious. It was no human wisdom or anything in the king's character that saved the Jews; instead, it was solely God.

I find it amazing that I continue to gain new insights into the text as I read it. And although I'd like to see myself as being more competent than Esther's king, I realize that the insights are best attributed to God and his grace.

02 December 2014

It's been fun, but can we go home now?

I've been out of sorts lately, and it's taken me awhile to name the feeling: I'm homesick. I wasn't really expecting this, so it took awhile to recognize it for what it is.

How can I, after all, be homesick when there is so much here that I am thankful for? So much here that I love? I have a job I love, where I get to care for and love others, show and receive hospitality, listen and ponder, think and pray, write much and challenge others. I am developing friendships and community. Matthijs is settling in to life here and, despite the challenges of determining what's next for him, continues to view this all as a delightful adventure.

So how can I be homesick?!?

I did expect to miss my friends and the community in Amsterdam. I miss the rhythm of life there and the goodness (and ease) of attending of daily prayer. I miss the blessedness of how living in community made it easy to catch up with and show my concern for others. I miss knowing where to pick up everyhing (and having most things in house) and being able to bike or walk pretty much everywhere I needed to go (whatever the time of year).

Somehow I hadn't realized how hard it would be to miss the normalities of life there and to have them replaced with learning new normalities here. What I thus miss most, and I remember this feeling from my first years in the Netherlands, is knowing what to expect and what normal life can and does look like. Sometimes life here feels so different, from living situation to job situation to social situations, and it would be nice not to feel so caught off balance by it all.

To some degree, my being out of sorts with all  the changes is okay. It's being honest about how hard it is to upheave one's life and try to re-root somewhere else. On the other hand, writing my desires and feelings down makes it obvious that what I want is unrealistic and, to some degree, even sin. It's like I'm asking for there not to be change, and if there is change, to make it easy to handle. Life's not like that. I also don't believe that a life without difficulties and change is what the Christian life ought to look like (even as it feels hard and uncomfortable and thus part of me is whining that I don't want to, thank you very much!). Following Christ means opening oneself up to the Spirit's whispers (or shouts!) about how we live our lives. It means spending time outside of Christian circles, so that we might truly love and care for those who do not God. At the same time, it means not buying into cultural values that are foreign to the gospel: materialism, consumerism, along with entitlement and a lack of true concern for others, especially those different than us. Such a life - in the world, but not of the world, as it's sometimes called in Christian-ese - is a life of feeling off balance, of often being somewhat uncomfortable when surrounded by both Christians and non-Christians.

So perhaps what I have identified as homesickness is both a recognition of how hard transitioning can be, alongside of an unhealthy nostalgia for a life and feeling that never really existed. The first part will fade with time hopefully. And as for the second aspect? That I will just have to learn to live with gracefully, as there is no home here on earth that will every make that kind of homesickness go away.