The Presence in the Absence

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes get a bit discouraged when I read the stories and poems of the Bible.  It seems that people back then had a much more immediate sense of God’s presence than we do today.  On almost every page, there are tales of visions, voices, angels, and miracles.  Meanwhile, even the most spiritually-inclined of us today have to rely on powers of reason, conscience, intuition, and imagination when forming our ideas about who God is and how God relates to us.  It’s easy for us to feel left out when we read the Bible because most of us haven’t had the kind of direct and intense mystical experiences described in its pages.  After all, who here has ever walked on water or seen the ocean part in front of them?  My guess is that not many of us have.  If only there was someone in the Bible whose experience of God looked more like ours!  Well, as it turns out, there is just such a person: Esther.

This morning’s first reading comes to us from the book that bears her name.  As a matter of fact, this week is the only week in our church’s three-year lectionary cycle that makes use of the book of Esther, which means that I’ll have to give you a lot of back story in a short amount of time.

The story of Esther takes place during a rather dark period of Jewish history.  In 587 BCE, the kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonian Empire and its elite and aristocratic inhabitants were taken off into slavery, where they lived for the next several generations.  During this time, they struggled to preserve whatever tattered pieces of their culture and religion that they could.  A little while later, the Babylonians themselves were conquered by the Persians.

It is during the Persian occupation that the story of Esther is set.  It’s a story of struggle and survival in the midst of powerlessness.  Esther represents the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.  She was a Jew in a Persian culture, she was a woman, and she was an orphan.  In the ancient world, you really couldn’t get much lower on the social food chain than that.

Through a series of unlikely circumstances, Esther found herself being recruited into the personal harem of the Persian king.  This position would provide her with a modicum of security and comfort, but it came at the price of being an object of desire to be used by someone else.

As the story unfolds, Esther eventually becomes the king’s wife around the same time that a plot is being hatched to commit genocide against the Jewish people.  Due to her position as queen, Esther is in a unique position to save her people.  However, doing so would involve a great deal of personal risk to her.  In Persian culture, it was a capital offense to approach a king without being invited.  This particular king, Ahasuerus, had already demonstrated his willingness to deal harshly with any kind of insubordination, even from his wife.

Esther has a hard choice to make: she can keep silent and allow her people to die in order to save her own life, or she can risk her life in order to save the lives of her people.  It was her cousin and caretaker, a man named Mordecai, who gave her this advice: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

After hearing these words, Esther decides to take the risk.  Approaching the king unannounced, Esther pleads for her life and that of her fellow Jews.  The king has compassion on her and punishes Haman, the mastermind behind the genocide plot, but is too late to stop the plan from being carried out.  At the last minute, he makes provision for the Jews to defend themselves against their attackers.  The day is saved.

All in all, the book of Esther makes for a great story.  It’s full of intrigue on the one hand and irony on the other.  There are some outright hilarious moments as Haman, the villain, repeatedly sets himself up for failure and humiliation.  This is a story of underdogs winning out over powerful forces of hatred and evil.  Just like it happens in the movies, trust and faithfulness are enough to beat the odds.

There’s only one thing missing from the biblical story of Esther.  Its conspicuous absence sets this story apart from all others in the Bible.  Can you guess what it is?  It’s God.

God is never mentioned in the book of Esther.  Not even once.  This is so unusual for the Bible, where visions, voices, angels, and miracles abound.  All we see here are human beings, caught in a difficult situation, and trying to make the best of it.

I like that.  It gives me hope.  It reminds me of my own spiritual life, where I often have to ask hard questions and figure things out for myself.  It would be most convenient if I could get a visit from an angel every time I had a question or a problem, but that just doesn’t seem to be how God works in my life.  The God I believe in is one who encounters people on the journey of life and gives them the gifts of reason, conscience, intuition, and imagination.  These are the God-given tools with which we all must chart our own course in life, trusting that the path we take will lead us home to our true selves and the Mystery of Being, which we call God.  There are no easy answers or quick fixes in this life.  There is only the journey and the hard choices we must make along the way.

For me, the book of Esther is a brilliant illustration of this principle in action.  God does not show up in any immediate way.  God’s presence is implied.  Mordecai expresses the divine trait of wisdom.  Esther embodies faith and courage.  In the end, the implication is that God has been present and active all along, even though the heavens have been silent and apparently empty.

In the book of Esther, God is the presence in the absence and the voice in the silence.  So it is, I think, in our lives.  Faith, for most of us, grows gradually as we learn to trust in that absent presence and silent voice.  We find God in ourselves and in the people around us.  We feel a tug in our hearts that leads us in the direction of faith, hope, and love.  Those who follow the leading of that tug discover for themselves where that mysterious road goes.

Just like Esther and Mordecai, we can’t tell where the road will take us or whether our efforts will be successful.  All we have in our possession are bits and pieces of some larger puzzle that may or may not be solved at some point in the future.  The best we can do is lay our individual puzzle pieces down onto the table and try to see where they fit into the larger picture of the whole as it gradually comes together.

If you’re here this morning and your experience of faith has largely been an experience of doubt, silence, and absence, I want to encourage you with Esther’s story.  You’re in good company.  Your experience of absence does not necessarily amount to an absence of experience.  God is present and active in your life, whether you realize it or not.

As you struggle along in life, trying to walk by your own inner lamp of reason, conscience, intuition, and imagination, remember that you are not alone.  Others, like Esther and Mordecai, have gone this way before.  More importantly, there is one who walks with you, beside and within, who first gave light to your inner lamp and has promised to keep it burning through all eternity.




Showing Up

Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

As I move into my third year of ordained ministry on the outskirts of reality, I’m beginning to believe him.  That being said, there’s still this part of me that wants to walk into every crisis with brilliant theological answers and practical solutions that will make life easier.

Henri Nouwen described this inner urge as the temptation to be relevant. Spiritual caregivers sometimes get to feeling insecure about their sense of call, so they try to make themselves look useful by becoming pop psychologists and amateur social workers.  This is dangerous, according to Nouwen, because it takes us away from the task of being fully present with someone.  We can’t authentically connect with others in a meaningful way if we’re too busy covering for our own insecurities.

This task is both easier and harder for me, given the particular milieu in which I am called to minister.  It’s harder because the experimental nature of the ministry I do and the visible neediness of people on the street make me want to justify my presence in some way.  On the other hand, it’s easier because all my fancy theological footwork is utterly lost on someone who quotes Bible verses that don’t exist and reads poetry off a blank piece of paper.  As for my brilliant practical solutions, more often than not they’re like plugging up a leaky dam with your finger.  It won’t matter one bit when the entire structure eventually gives way.

In the end, it’s one’s physical and spiritual presence that counts.  I may offer a ride or some kind of assistance.  Our conversation may turn toward the Bible or spirituality.  But the real ministry is accomplished by showing up.  Being present in the darkest corners of the community sends a message that God has not in fact forsaken us.  God is right here in our midst.  God is listening to our drunken rambling.  God is receiving our gift of books found in a dumpster.  God is chatting about last night’s football game by the fireplace.  God is learning how to play craps on the kitchen counter.

These friends have been the sacramental presence of Christ to me; now I get to return the favor.  In the end, that is my only real raison d’être on the street.  The only real fruit of this ministry is that which grows naturally off the vine of these relationships.

After hanging around the neighborhood for a year, someone told me today, “Even though I left God, I can see now that God never left me.”

I guess I’ll keep showing up.