Bishop Hughes has invited the whole diocese to reflect on the book of Esther and the inspiration it offers us for living “in such as time as this,” for faithfulness and discernment. Studying scripture and becoming familiar with its sweep can help us see themes and identify times and situations that resonate with our lives – even when that situation is quite different.
In addition to reading Esther, I have also been reflecting on other themes in the Bible. These include the significance of paying attention, focus, and patience. While these are always important for the development of a mature spiritual life, they are especially important right now. Our ability to focus and pay attention may help save lives (including our own), help us see need, and discern ways to truly address that need. Focus and prayerful attention can also lead us to ways to speak for justice as an entire diocese. Prayerful attention is key to seeing the grace that surrounds us even in such a time as this.
One of the other realities found in holy scripture is that evil functions best in, and seeks to sneak in through, the confusion created by lack or distortion of focus. When people overdo or underdo, things go wrong. Similarly, when people revise things out of anxiety and create their own versions of rules, instructions or priorities, things go wrong. There are all kinds examples of such distractions and lures that pull people off focus. Probably the most familiar example of this is when Adam and Eve dramatically embellish what has been told to them about the trees in the garden. (Genesis 2-3). Other situations go wrong when people, individually or collectively, lose sight of who and what is God. People today still make idols, as God’s chosen people did with the Golden Calf in the wilderness (Exodus 32). They follow their own ways and fail to keep their attention on God’s way.
In contrast, clarity allowed Jesus and Esther and Paul to overcome, because they listened, discerned, and then acted in accordance with those insights. Paul holds fast to his sense of being called by God as an apostle, even when challenged or imprisoned. Jesus refutes the devil by not falling prey to distortions of what is important in life. (Matthew 4: 1-11). Jesus’ whole life and ministry is shaped by his profound awareness of where he must go and what he must do in response to the Father.
What does this have to do with the moment we are living right now? After all, we are contending with an ongoing pandemic, we are worried and frightened and overburdened – isn’t that requiring focus and then some? Many of us are overwhelmed by the focus this time has demanded. It could be argued that all that hyper-focus we have been living with is itself a kind of distortion, even if it may be necessary. This means that we all need even more quiet time for prayer and reflection on scripture – to balance ourselves out, to remain healthy and to seek and do the work that God has given us.
Focus and paying attention in our life in Christ doesn’t mean we know the way or even the exact outcome. They mean staying still to hear the voice of God and remembering that we are God’s children first and foremost. The first disciples and earliest Christians faced many dangers and had no idea how things would go or where their lives would end up, but they did know they needed to follow Jesus. The same is true for us. After all, God looks always with attention and infinite love at each one of us; we become more like God when we seek to pay similar attention. We need to actively listen to each other and God and seek the will of God. That will be our way forward, following Jesus.
I am inspired every day by the focus and care and listening I see around our diocese. Grace means that it is possible and even necessary to grow spiritually as we also honor the practical and urgent needs of this time and the call of justice. In this, we can, as St. Paul said, run the race with patience. (Hebrews 12:1) In that way lies joy and freedom and the power to be agents of God.
This Advent season as we wrestle with “COVID Fatigue” and all the fear and frustration of this moment in time, let us remember that the spiritual essence of the season is waiting and paying attention – of looking with patience and hope for the future that God has prepared for all people and the joy that will come.