What on Earth Is Worth Saving
FRODO: I can’t do this, Sam.
SAM: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened. But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.
FRODO: What are we holding on to, Sam?
SAM: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
On Monday, everything in the rural counties north of Knoxville was on fire. Or seemed like it: a dry yellow fog settled into the valley, carrying a bitter scent. Tennessee state forestry officials reported 20 wildfires. Most of the fires, they said, were from arson. On Election Day, there was an air alert. The fires went on. One burned down a hundred acres of woods. Who would have gone and done something like that? What made them want to go out and lash out and burn it all down? What fueled such great anger? What made these lost souls not know what on earth is worth saving? A friend said maybe arson wasn’t the only reason for all the harm done. Maybe some was from carelessness.
This morning, where I live, the smoke has cleared away. But in our nation, a bitter fog has settled in, making it hard to breathe; hard to see. Countless of us greet the day still in something like shock, wondering what led so many in our democracy to want to go out and lash out and burn it all down. Wondering how much could be traced back to carelessness. Wondering how many lives are at risk—and how on earth we will live.
In the Book of Esther, in the Hebrew Scripture, Esther finds herself at a similar pivotal moment. King Xerxes (also called Ahasuerus), ruler of the Persian Empire, is reckless, extravagant, and not all that bright, endangering all who live under his erratic rule. In his dull vanity, Xerxes sentences all the Jews in the kingdom to death. At this moment of peril, Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, appeals to her for her help because Esther, who is Jewish herself, enjoys a position of privilege in the empire. She’s reluctant to risk it. But Mordecai tells her it’s not certain, in the coming wrath, that her privilege would save her. Help, he concedes, might possibly come from elsewhere. But, he concludes, “Who’s to say whether you’ve come to this place and position for such a time as this?”
This morning, we awake to a democracy set recklessly, carelessly ablaze, and the fire has only now started to spread. It reaches far beyond federal policy or the Supreme Court. It reaches elementary classrooms, where there is now further license to bully. My wife has started to call the migrant families she works with, whose neighbors have chanted at them, “Build the Wall.”
Those of us with some privilege in this empire may be tempted to seek refuge in it, as if privilege was ever going to save us. But who’s to say whether you’ve come to this place and position for a time such as this?
Upon hearing this question, Esther doesn’t leap into action. Doesn’t issue a statement. Doesn’t post a quip on Facebook. She knows what’s asked of her is nothing less than to risk her safety, her life. So she asks her people to fast and pray with her. She takes time to prepare herself for what life now requires.
That’s what time it is for us, all together: time to reflect, to be still, to feel all the feelings. And to prepare ourselves. Who’s to say whether, in fact, we were made for a time such as this?
Loving Spirit of Life,
Known in the sigh of the elderly and the sweet sound of a baby,
Be with us now, in our time of distress.
Strengthen our hearts for what may lie ahead,
And help us trust again
In the promise of the Beloved Community,
Made real in this world.
Blessed Be. And Amen.