Monday, August 31, 2009

God Chose the Poor

"If a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes and say 'You sit here in a good place,' and you say to the poor man 'You stand over there or sit down by my footstool,' have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives?"

"But James, this is simply the way the world works! You are being naive and unrealistic to think that it can work any other way." is the response that I imagine would be likely from the first recipients of James' letter upon hearing these verses. This is because the scenario that James describes in these verses would have been the cultural norm for any social gathering of his day. This was known as the patronage system. In order for most groups or gatherings of any kind in the first century to survive and thrive they needed a wealthy patron, someone who had the resources to meet the needs of this group. In return for their support, the wealthy person enjoyed a position of status and honor among that group. As a result, the wealthy were often looking for projects they could patronize which would improve their own standing in society and anyone with some kind of civic or religious cause was usually looking for a wealthy patron. Within this intricate cultural system of patronage, it just made sense that a church would give preferential treatment to a wealthy individual in hopes of receiving their patronage just like any other group would.

But in contrast to this "normal" way of doing things, James says that God has chosen the poor "to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he promised." This is not just a nice play on words to say that the poor really don't have it so bad because they can still be spiritually rich even if they are materially poor. It is a reminder that God really has chosen the poor. When God delivered Israel from Egypt, he was delivering them from slavery; the most severe form of poverty. Likewise, the Old Testament prophets repeatedly spoke of God's concern for the poor. As a prophet himself, Jesus spent his time with the poor and said that in his kingdom they would be blessed. Therefore, James tells this church that they are not supposed to operate like the rest of the world, giving preferential treatment to those with wealth and influence in hopes of receiving something in return.

Of course, this is not a problem confined to the early church. We may not be a part of a patronage system but many churches today still know what it means to have a large portion of their budget depend on the giving of one wealthy family within their congregation. Many churches openly admit that the "target audience" they are trying to reach consists of upper middle class families much like themselves. Countless churches have relocated when their neighborhood no longer consisted of the demographic to which they had become accustomed to ministering. The bottom line for those of us who are committed to a local church is that there has always been and will always be a temptation to evaluate others in terms of what we think they can contribute to the ministry of our church. When we do that, we forget that the person before us, the one we are tempted to evaluate as a potential resource for our ministry, is the very one to whom we have been called to minister. James reminds us that if we are to truly be the Church, then we can not regard people as a means to our own ministerial ends. In ministry, people, rich and poor alike, are the ends.

Monday, August 24, 2009

What's Our Politics? Wrath or Sacrifice?

Healthcare Reform. Town Hall meetings.

Is your blood boiling yet?

If you've watched any news in the last month, then I imagine that a very specific flood of emotional images comes to mind for you as they do for me upon hearing those phrases. Yelling and screaming. Guns and crowds of protestors. Lies, rumors, deceptions, mistrust. Fear. Anger.

As I've watched this flood of angry images pass across my TV and computer screens over the last few weeks, I've also been contemplating James 1:19-20 which stands at the heart of our sermon text this week.

"Everyone must be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger for the anger of man does not acheive the righteousness of God."

I'm not saying people don't have a right to voice their opinions, even angrily if they want to, or that the health care debate isn't important. In fact, I don't even offer these verses of scripture as a criticism of those who have made their voices heard in these town hall meetings. After all, James wasn't speaking to the American political process. James was speaking to the Church.

What concerns me is how often the Church follows this same model. We angrily shout and clamor for our voice to be heard above all others fearing that if its not then the whole world will just go to hell. Sometimes it seems like we almost wear our anger about certain issues as a badge of spirituality as if our passion about that subject shows just how spiritual we really are. "You're face doesn't turn red with righteous indignation at the first mention of helpless babies being aborted? And you call yourself a Christian? You don't launch into a passionate tirade or roll your eyes in disgust and disdain every single time someone forgets the countless starving children around the world? How could you possibly be a follower of Jesus?" But James puts it simply; our anger does not acheive God's redemptive purposes in our world.

Of course, I'm also not suggesting that we just not care; that we not have any passion about anything. There's a third way that is an alternative to apathy and anger. It's the way of sacrifice; the way of the cross, Christ, and His Church. It's caring enough to actually do something about it while also recognizing that the fate of the world does not rest squarely on your shoulders but on God's.

This passage in James is bookended by the language of sacrifice. In 1:18, James says that God has "brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among his creatures." The "first fruits" were the very beginning of the harvest brought as a sacrifice to God in anticipation of the rest of the harvest to come. The imagery here indicates that the Church is a sacrifice in anticipation of God's harvest, that is, the coming of God's kingdom and the renewal of creation. Likewise, James closes the chapter by saying in v.29 that "Pure and undefiled religion... is this; to visit orphans and widows and to keep oneself unstained by the world." "Unstained" is again the language of sacrifice, indicating that the Church is to be a sacrifice to God without spot or blemish.

In between these verses, James makes it clear that the only way that the Church can be this kind of unstained, first fruits sacrifice is to be people who not only hear the Word but people who live it. If we hear the truth, shout angrily about how miserably our culture fails to live up to it, but then are not willing to make any sacrifices to live out the gospel, then we are like a person who looks into a mirror but fails to actually see ourselves for who we are. In contrast, we must be a people who look deeply into God's law, allowing it to reveal to us our need for radical tranformation so that we might not live by a politics of wrath but by a politics of sacrifice.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Kingdom Experiment

Fortunate are those who are poor. Truly privileged are those who mourn. Favored by God are those who are persecuted and oppressed. It is with these words, normally called the beatitudes, that Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount.

You can sense the tension we feel when we read these words by the way we normally try to explain them. We know that the poor, those who mourn, and the persecuted and oppressed are not really blessed. Blessedness means that it is obvious to everyone that God is taking care of you. It means that all your needs are met. The poor, persecuted, and mourning are those who have not had their needs met. They are not blessed. So we often say that Jesus meant that these people are spiritually blessed in spite of not being physically blessed. Or we turn these statements into a checklist of Christian morality. In other words, the Christian must be a gentle, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaker. There is some truth in both of these statements but I think somehow they miss the point that Jesus is really making.

Only in a world completely different from ours could these statements be true. In our world, the powerful, influential, and violent inherit the earth, not the gentle. In our world, the merciful are usually taken advantage of rather than receiving mercy in return. In our world… well you get the idea. What Jesus is describing in the beatitudes is a world which operates by different rules than our own. He is describing the Kingdom of God, a kingdom which is backwards and upside down in comparison to the kingdoms of this world. These words are not an observation about how things are or a checklist of Christian virtues. They are a promise of what is to come, a promise that one day things will really be different. They are a promise that one day those who mourn will find real comfort and that the violent and powerful will not always control everything and that mercy, purity, and peace are really possible.

As followers of Jesus, we live in the hope of these promises. It is the promise of God’s kingdom which sustains us as the Church. However, it is not our mission to simply sit around and wait for this kingdom to show up. We aren’t called to just get by in this life until Jesus fixes everything. Instead, the hope that we have for the future impacts how we live today. Because we believe that our world will play by different rules when God’s kingdom finally comes, we want to live by those rules now as witness to the new reality that we anticipate with eager expectation.

This fall, we are going to participate in a small group study entitled The Kingdom Experiment. It is a study centered on the beatitudes but it is much more than just a Bible study. It is an experiment in intentionally living out our hopeful anticipation of the Kingdom of God. In addition to a lesson on one of the beatitudes each week, there will also be experiments from which to choose. These experiments are challenges to live out the kingdom value of that beatitude throughout the week. Each person in your group will choose which ever experiment they want to try that week and journal about it before your next meeting. Your meetings each week will consist of discussing your experience from the previous week as well as the beatitude for the next week. I believe that this study can help us to see the Kingdom of God in new ways and I hope that you will prayerfully consider participating.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I haven't posted anything other than my ramblings in a while so I thought I would share a few of my favorite photos from this summer. As I was looking through these photos today, choosing some to post, it reminded me again of just how much beauty and life surround us all the time. Undoubtedly, there is much ugliness and brokenness in our world but there is also such an overwhelming and lavish wealth of God's creativity constantly surrounding us... such a means of grace.

You can click here to see the album I've been building all summer long.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Lord, Hear Our Prayer

The Old Testament reading for this week is Solomon's prayer dedicating the newly constructed Temple in 1 Kings 8:22-53. As I read over it, I realized that even though this prayer was prayed specifically for the Temple and the people of Israel, it is a prayer that the Church would do well to imitate today. Below is my own paraphrase of this passage as a prayer for the Church. It is not meant to be a precise parallel to the passage. It is only meant to be an example of how Solomon's prayer might serve the Church today.

O Lord, the God of Israel, the God of the Church, there is no one like You in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and lovingkindness to Your servants who walk before You with all their heart. You are the God who kept your promises to David that his descendants would sit on the throne of Israel as long as they walked in your ways. So also may your promises to David's descendant, your Son, Jesus Christ be confirmed in your Church.

Is it really possible for God's own Spirit to dwell among us, mere human beings? Behold, heaven and even the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this feeble church building which we have built or these feeble bodies in which we live! In spite of our feebleness Lord, have regard for the prayers of Your servants and our supplications. O Lord my God, listen to the cry of Your people and to the prayer which Your servants pray before You today; that Your eyes may be open toward this people whom you have made Your home night and day, toward the people of whom You have said, "My name shall be there," to listen to the prayer which Your servants shall pray in this place. Listen to the supplication of Your servants, Your Church, when they pray in this place; hear in heaven Your dwelling place; hear and forgive.

If one of us sins against our neighbor and we then we promise to make things right and we come to this house and repeat that promise before You and God's people, listen from heaven and act accordingly. Judge and reveal any wicked way in us. Vindicate us when we act in accordance with Your righteousness.

When Your people suffer loss and defeat because we have sinned against You but we then turn to You again and confess Your name and pray and make supplication to You in this house then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of Your people and bring us back to the place of faith which you gave to our spiritual mentors.

When the heavens are shut up and your showers of blessing cease because we have sinned against You but we then pray in this place and confess Your name and turn from our sin when we are afflicted by You, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of Your servants and Your Church. Indeed, teach us the good way in which we should walk and soak us with Your showers of blessing once again.

If there is shortage of food among us, if there is disease or injury, if there is economic downturn, if there is job-loss, if there is war, if their are political rivalries, whatever plagues us, wherever anyone is in need, whatever prayer is made by one of Your people or Your people as a whole, all of us knowing our own afflictions and our desparate need for You, hear that prayer in heaven, Your dwelling place, and forgive and act and render to each according to all his or her ways, for You alone know the hearts of all people. May we live with respect for Your righteous judgments and live in the faith of those who have journeyed this way before us.

Even Lord, those who are not a part of this congregation or this denomination or this nation, even those who do not call themselves Christian, even those who do not know you, even those who are considered religious outsiders, when they hear of Your great power and Your great mecry and they pray to you, hear them! Answer their prayers so that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name and reverence You as we do. May they know that you have built up the Church, Your people who are called by Your name.

When Your people go to battle, whatever kind of battle it might be, and we go into that battle prayerfully following only Your lead and not our own, then Lord hear our prayer and sustain us in the cause that You have given us.

When we sin against you, for we know that we are not without sin, and You are angry with us and deliver us over to the destructive forces of our world so that we live in exile from Your Holy presence, if in that exile we repent and pray to You in the midst of our captivity, if we return to You with all our heart and with all of our soul and we pray to You, then hear our prayer and our supplication in heaven, Your dwelling place, and forgive us of our sins against You and forgive our transgressions and make us objects of Your compassion just as you did when you brought us up out of our slavery through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our Exodus. May Your eyes always be open to the prayers of Your people. May You listen whenever we call upon You for you have set us apart for Your holy purposes as Your very own inheritance by the redemption and liberation that comes through the life, death, and resurrection of Your Son Jesus Christ, in whose name we ask all these things. Amen.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Conversation about Creation.

Recently, I have been enjoying a coversation over facebook with my cousin Steve, who directs a Christian campground ( here in Illinois. He believes that the scientific theory of evolution contradicts the first two chapters of Genesis. I, on the other hand, believe that the theory of evolution can co-exist with a less literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2. I thought it would be worth reproducing my rather lengthy response here on my blog. I thought about posting our smaller exchanges within this conversation to give more context to this discussion but I didn't want it to become overwhelming. (This is already pretty long as it is.) I think what I've wriitten here can more or less stand on its own and represents well why i read Genesis 1 and 2 the way that I do.
I, too, am glad that as you mentioned in your response and as I mentioned in our previous discussion that we are in much more agreement than disagreement here. We both agree that God created which is the important affirmation as far as our faith is concerned. However, as we’ve already seen in the discussion so far this question is connected to other important ones such as how we interpret scripture and the nature of God. So while I don’t think we have to ultimately agree on the issue, I think it is worthy of the discussion.
First, I want to address what may be a difference in the way that we are using the term “literal”. For example, in your opening line you say that there are “poetic books in the Bible that have very literal application to our lives.” By that, I assume you mean that the Bible has a very real or true application for us which we are really meant to live out. Obviously, I agree wholeheartedly but I don’t think I am using the word in the same way. In other words, I’d have to assume that by your use of the word that the less literal something is then the less true or real it is. We often use the word that way in common parlance. For example, I might say “After such a difficult week of work, I was literally spent.” Of course, what we mean in such an instance is to say that we were really tired and so we add the word literally as a way of emphasizing that. However, in reality we were not actually spent as some kind of currency which is what “literally” would really mean in this instance. On the other hand, when we are being very technically specific and we use the word “literal” in reference to language or literature, it is in no way an indication of how true we think something is. You can see this in the example above. To recognize that being “spent” is not a literal designation of us as a commodity which can be traded but that it is a metaphor for how tired we are does not make it any less true. It only says something about how we have chosen to communicate that truth. To say that we are “spent” communicates the same thing but in a more vivid and meaningful way than simply saying “I’m really tired.”

I believe that the same is true when we come to the creation narratives. To say that I don’t take the creation stories literally does not mean that I regard them as somehow less true than if I did take them literally. It is actually a statement about the kind of truth I believe is being communicated in those stories. I don’t think that those stories were intended to communicate the “how” of creation. I believe it is the purpose of science to answer the “how” question. I believe the purpose of the creation narratives is to answer the infinitely more important questions of “why were we created?”, by whom were we created?” and “what does it all mean?” (This, by the way, is what the writers of the article meant when they said that the Bible is sometimes treated like a science book. They mean that some look to the Bible for the answer to the how questions when that is not a question that God or the Biblical authors intended to address within Scripture.)

You might ask then why I get to decide which kinds of questions the Bible can answer and which it can’t. The answer, of course, is that I don’t. However, what I believe that I can and must do as a faithful reader of Scripture is to pay attention to the cues that the Bible itself gives as to what kinds of questions it is trying to answer. One of those cues is the fact that the Bible is always concerned with who God is and what God is doing. Even the books of the Bible that we normally call historical are not history in the sense of simply keeping records of human actions. No, they unapologetically make God and what God is doing through human beings the center of the story at all times. I think that by it’s own contents Scripture shows us that it’s primary purpose is not to describe what happened (history) as much as it is to say what those happenings communicate about who God is (theology). The Bible suggests itself first and foremost as a book of theology before it is anything else. As such, we should look to it for theological answers rather than scientific and historical ones.

However, this by no means settles the question. This is because more so than many other religions, Christianity’s theology is connected to its history. In other words, God often reveals himself to us through historical events, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ being the primary example. In those places, the “how” question of history becomes inseparable from the theological question of what it all means. For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins”. This is an example of history and theology being inseparable. Jesus’ resurrection can not simply be a metaphor for new life in Paul’s theology. If Jesus has not been bodily raised in a very literal and historical sense, then we are all hopelessly lost in the power of sin because the new age in which the Spirit of God has been poured out on all believers has not actually begun as Jesus’ resurrection indicated in Paul’s thought.

So then, the question becomes this: “Why would I interpret this passage in 1 Corinthians so literally while interpreting Genesis 1 and 2 more metaphorically?” My answer is that hopefully the only reason I would do this is because a careful reading of scripture taking into consideration all of its literary, cultural, and historical complexities urges me to do so. It is NOT because I believe that science demands that I believe something other than what the Bible says. It is very important to me that in my own personal journey and growth in faith, I did not begin to read Genesis 1 and 2 metaphorically because I felt I had to do so in order to be considered intellectually respectable in light of scientific evidence. I did so because I believed and still believe that a faithful reading of Scripture pushed me in that direction.

So why did I feel that Scripture itself pushed in that direction? Again, it is important to go back to the distinction I made above concerning how we use the word “literally”. All good Christians read the Bible literally in the colloquial sense of the word. That is, every committed Christian believes that the Bible is really, genuinely true and that it has very real meaning for our lives today. That much is non-negotiable. However, we’ve already noted in our previous conversations that no one reads the whole Bible literally in the technical sense of that word. For example, it would simply be foolish to think that when Jesus says in John that he is the bread of life or a vine (and the disciples the branches) or a shepherd that Jesus meant for us to take any of these things literally. They are obviously metaphors. The point that Jesus is making with those metaphors are really genuinely true but they are not literally true, that is, they are not communicated in a literal way. I hope that simple example is enough to illustrate that no one reads the whole Bible literally and that everyone who has ever read the Bible has made decisions about what to take literally and what to take metaphorically.

So then, how do we decide what should be taken literally and what should be read in some other way? Of course, most of the time this comes to us intuitively, as it does in the examples from John’s gospel. It just makes very little sense to read the text any other way. But what do we do when it’s not so obvious? How do we decide in places where there are often disagreements such as in Genesis 1 and 2? Again, my hope is that we pay attention to the text itself and try to hear it as clearly as we can through all the years of history and the cultural and linguistic differences that divide us from its original writing. After all, history, culture, and language are exceedingly important factors when it comes to our ability to discern metaphorical language. If someone from your mom and dad’s neck of the woods said to a person in my town who is not a sports fan “I bleed orange.” they may simply wonder if that person has some kind of blood disorder rather than recognizing that they are indicating their loyalty to the Clemson Tigers. How much more difficult is it for us then reading a text written in a vastly different language and culture thousands of years ago? With that in mind, I think the following factors are significant in how we decide to read the Genesis story.

Adam is the Hebrew word for humanity. I think that if we were reading any other story and in the story there was a character named “humanity” we would immediately assume that we were not supposed to understand this story as a historical account but instead as an observation about the plight of all humankind, wouldn’t we?

There are actually two creation stories. The first story is Genesis 1:1-2:3. The second is from 2:4-2:25. Notice how 2:4 starts the story over again. (This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created…Wait, I thought we just heard that account?) The stories do no contradict each other but they certainly tell it differently. In my opinion, this pushes us toward the conclusion that neither account was focused on the “how” of the creation. Instead, each was focusing on a different aspect of its significance.

These stories are not unique in the literature of the Ancient Near East. Most of the cultures that surrounded Israel told somewhat similar creation stories. The theology of Israel’s creation story is obviously very different from those of these other cultures. However, the way the stories are told, the images and literary devices that are used are not too dissimilar to those of the pagan cultures that surrounded Israel. It seems to me that God used the literary conventions of the day to express through Israel his role as creator. If this is the case, then again it seems that the “how” is not as important as the “who” and the “why” since that is what would set this story off from other stories of its kind.
Of course, this does not make it an open and shut case by any means. But I think these kinds of things at least urge us to seriously consider whether we are missing something if we read these passages literally.

I want to address one last important question you brought up in your note. You wrote “IF the Genesis accounting of creation is meant to be poetic, but Evolution is really how man was created then it’s very deceiving.” If I understand you correctly, what you are saying is “If God used evolution, why not just come out and say that plainly and clearly in scripture? Why bother using metaphorical language when it runs the risk of being so unclear or even misleading?” I think there are a couple important things to address here. First, I think that God reveals himself to humanity in ways that make sense in the culture and time he is speaking. For example, when God revealed himself in Jesus he did not come as some eternal, angelic being. He came as a 1st century Jew to speak to 1st century Jews. Similarly, I don’t think it would have made much sense for God to speak to ancient Israelites about creation in the terms and categories of thought that were only developed in recent centuries. God spoke through the literary conventions of the day.

Second, I think it is very unlikely that the ancient Israelites who first told and heard these stories found their metaphorical quality to be as misleading as we might. I hope that I’ve already shown that some of the reasons that the metaphorical quality of the text might seem misleading are only because of the language, culture, and history that stand between us and it. I suspect that if we were ancient Israelites hearing this story we would intuitively “get it” much as we get the metaphorical language of our own day which is so common that we forget it is even metaphorical.

Third and most importantly, I think that God would reveal himself through metaphorical language and therefore take the chance of it being misunderstood because metaphorical language expresses something deeper and more meaningful that plain, literal language can not. Just as “I’m completely spent” communicates something a little more than its literal meaning of “I’m really tired” and “I am the bread of life” is so much richer and deeper in meaning than whatever literal meaning to which we might try to narrow it down. So also “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being” says something more profound in that single sentence about the relationship between God, humanity, and the earth than could be said in thousands of words of plain, literal writing. Metaphorical, poetic, narrative language has the power to express something that technical or literal language can not.

So there are some of the reasons that I read Genesis 1 and 2 the way that I do. I’ll look forward to hearing what you think about all that. Hope all goes well during your camp this weekend.

Monday, August 10, 2009


As we move from 2 Samuel into 1 Kings, we also move from the reign of David to the reign of his son Solomon. One of the most often told stories of Solomon occurs in 1 Kings 3. In this story, God appears to Solomon in a dream and says to Solomon "Ask what you wish me to give you." Honestly, it has a sort of a genie in a magic lamp sort of feel to it except that Solomon seems to only get one wish rather than the traditional three. The story tells us that Solomon makes a choice that pleases God. He does not ask for riches or long life as might have been a typical request. Instead, Solomon asks God to give him wisdom - specifically wisdom so that he might rule justly as king over Israel. God is so pleased with Solomon's request that God says he will not only grant Solomon's request for wisdom; God will also give Solomon that for which he did not ask: riches, honor, and long life.

Or to put it in the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:33, Solomon seeks first God's kingdom and God righteousness and all of these things are added unto him as well. Righteousness and justice are closely related terms in the Bible. Therefore, for Solomon to ask for wisdom to rule justly is to ask that God's righteousness become a reality through his reign as king over Israel. It is to ask that Solomon be so wise in his reign that it were as though God himself were reigning in Israel; that Israel's kingdom be God's kingdom. This is, of course, precisely what God's anointed leader for God's chosen people should pray. Israel was always supposed to be God's kingdom and the manifestation of God's righteousness within the world.

But what about the places in the story where Solomon does not act wisely or righteously? Of course, there are several stories that demonstrate the incredible wisdom that God gives to Solomon like the very next passage later in 1 Kings 3. However, Solomon also does several things which would certainly be counted as unwise and unrighteous by the standards of the Hebrew Scriptures. He marries women from foreign nations and we learn latter in 1 Kings 11 that these wives even lead Solomon to worship gods other than Yahweh. Solomon offered sacrifices on the "high places", which were probably pagan places of worship, rather than offering sacrifices in the Temple which God had given Solomon the privilege of building. We also find that Solomon makes his own palace larger and more magnificent that the Temple that he built for God, presumably with the same forced labor that built the Temple. Certainly, that is not the wisdom and righteousness of God at work, is it?

I guess we should come to expect this ambiguous mix of righteousness and unfaithfulness by this point in the story. These narratives of Israel's history are brutally honest about the imperfections of Israel's leaders. We saw the same thing in the story of David who was a model for all the kings after him and yet still had very serious flaws. Israel refuses to whitewash the stories of its leaders while simultaneously recognizing that these leaders were gifted by God in special ways in spite of their sins.

This is an encouragement to us as the Church. We know that we are sinners. Like Solomon, we recognize our inadequacy as we face the tasks that lie before us. We can not save this world. We can not even save ourselves. But God can still give us gifts and graces for his work in this world so that even in the midst of our sinfulness we can still pray and live the prayer "thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

Monday, August 3, 2009

O Absalom!

Some parts of the Bible read more like an episode of Jerry Springer than sacred scripture.

This week's sermon text (2 Samuel 18) ends with King David mourning the death of his son, Absalom. But this tragedy has been long in the making. In fact, the seeds of it were planted when David slept with Bathsheba. After being confronted by God through the prophet Nathan, David does confess his sin and as a result, Nathan proclaims that God had taken away David's sin and that he will not die. In fact, God is so gracious toward David that he does not even lose his reign as king. However, there are still consequences to David's actions. God says through Nathan that as a result of David's sin that the sword will never depart from his household and that enemies will rise up against David from his own family. We see the beginning of this in the very next chapter of 2 Samuel (13).

David's son, Absalom, had a sister named Tamar. Another son of David, Amnon, presumably a half-brother to Absalom and Tamar, is in love with Tamar. Or perhaps more accurately, he lusts after Tamar, much as his father David lusted over Bathsheba, so much so that he made himself ill over her. And like his father with Bathsheba, Amnon takes Tamar as if she were an object to be possessed. Then once he is done with her Amnon sends her away much to Tamar's disgrace. Word of what Amnon has done reaches Absalom and he hated his half-brother for what he had done to his sister.

Absalom shares some of his father's characteristics as well. Just as David developed a carefully devised scheme to deal with Uriah upon hearing of Bathsheba's pregnancy, so also Absalom does not immediately lash out against Amnon. He devises a scheme. He throws a sheep shearing party and invites all of the king's sons. He makes certain that Amnon will be there and that he becomes drunk and once he is Absalom has the sheep shearers kill Amnon.

Absalom flees the scene and keeps his distance for a while since he has murdered one of the king's sons and he does not know how the king will respond. However, the story says that "King David longed to go out to Absalom." Joab, the commander of David's army, sees this and convinces David to bring his son, Absalom, back to Jerusalem. So David recalls Absalom to Jerusalem causing to expect that perhaps there will be some form of reconciliation; maybe this will be like the story of the prodigal son. But instead, without any explanation, David never sees his son after calling him home. Absalom is allowed to live in Jerusalem but is never able to see his father, the king.

Absalom then begins to conspire against his father's reign. Every day he would spend his time at the city gate, winning over the hearts and allegiances of the people, building support at the grass roots level much as his father had done before him. After forty years, Absalom leaves Jerusalem to go to Hebron under the guise of having to fulfill a vow he made long ago. Once he is there, he has himself proclaimed as king. Absalom has begun a revolt against the reign of his own father using some his father's very own proven tactics. David flees Jerusalem in fear of the rebellion that has begun and Absalom soon takes over in the capital city.

In chapter 18, the stage is finally set for the battle between these two rival claimants to the throne who are also father and son. David is torn between his role as king and his role as father. He diligently orders his forces so that they will be successful in putting down this coup but he also asks his commanders to bring Absalom home alive if it is at all possible. David's well-trained and seasoned soldiers quickly defeat the untrained and inexperienced populist army that was supporting Absalom. A strange turn of events even makes it possible for Absalom to be to taken alive. The forest in which the battle took place was a very dense and dangerous one and as Absalom rode through it on his mule he somehow got his head stuck in some low hanging branches. He was suspended there still alive. He easily could have been taken prisoner without being killed. One of the soldiers sees Absalom and reports to Joab but instead of taking Absalom alive as the king requested, Joab puts three spears through Absalom's heart and even allows his armor bearers to continue to attack him after that. The chapter concludes with military victory but it is the personal tragedy of King David's family which really takes center stage.

If ever there were ever a passage of scripture which illustrated the destructive power of sin, this is it. David's sin with Bathsheba sets an example of selfishness, lust, scheming, manipulation, grasping at power, and a need for control that is replicated in his sons. The consequences of David's action do not end with him. It destroys his whole family.

How do we so often fail to see this in our own world today? Yes, of course, personal responsibility plays a role. Absalom's actions were not completely determined by his father. He could have chosen a different path. So also, we can choose to rise above our circumstances. But there can also be little doubt that children often pay for the sins of their parents. A father's abuse pays negative dividends in every relationship his daughter ever has. A mother's irresponsibility of even simple insecurity leaves her child without a father. A parent's lust for possessions or power leaves his or her children without any sense of value or direction in life. The list goes on. It is a story perpetuated every day in a million different ways. So often, we are not the one's who pay most dearly for our own sins.

It's not an idea that had occured to me specifically before writing this post but maybe it would be a worthy experiment. What if every time I was tempted to avoid some of my responsibilities or to allow certain images to pass before my eyes or to be selfish and arrogant rather than compassionate and humble, what if I thought of my daughter and my soon-to-be son? And I don't mean that I should think about them in the sense of what I want them to see or learn or the kind of person I am trying to teach them to be. I mean that I should think about them with the assumption that it doesn't matter if they ever see that particular action or not. It doesn't matter if they see that particular action because they always see me and at some level those actions are inseparable from who I am and therefore also vitally connected to who they will become. We can not determine the course of our children's lives but the story of David reminds us that who we are surely sets the tone for who they will be.