Sunday, July 29, 2012

You the Man! (Second Samuel 11:26 - 12:13)

Up until this part of the story -- which modern news media would probably call "Bathsheba-gate" and create spiffy graphics to play while a news reader looked Serious and Disapproving -- David has been what we saw him in the beginning. He's a man after God's own heart. Whatever sins he commits he confesses and repents openly to God, acknowledging that he has not done what God would want him to do.

Not any more.

From here on, we will see David commit errors and sins and do his best to try to fix things on his own, or to leave them alone and hope nothing bad will happen. The results will be as deadly as they are for Uriah.

David has now had Bathsheba's husband Uriah killed so he can safely marry her and claim their child as the result of a legitimate union. Neither of them will face charges of adultery. He figures he's got it all sorted out, and the whole mess is safely behind him. No one knows but Bathsheba and David -- although some may suspect, there is nothing like the proof you'd need to accuse a king. Whew. Dodged that one. Nobody knows.

To borrow a phrase I learned at church camp, that's cray-cray.

David seems to have forgotten that he's not just Israel's king, he's God's chosen king over Israel. He was anointed by Samuel as a sign that God had selected him and he's been guided and watched over by God for his entire life. He told Saul that the Lord was with him when he drove off wild animals that tried to steal his sheep. He told Goliath that the Lord was with him, so Goliath should get ready to lose. Over and over again during the time leading up to his kingship and as his rule began, David realizes his strength comes from God's presence by his side. God's presence that never leaves him. God's presence that never leaves him, even if he's sleeping with another man's wife and plotting to have the other man killed to save his own behind.

So God decides to remind David of this presence, using the prophet Nathan. Nathan tells David a story about a mean rich man who steals the only ewe owned by a poor man and his family. David is infuriated at the rich man's cruelty and demands his name.

Nathan gives it to him: "You are the man!"

David realizes his sins have not been hidden at all. They have always been visible to God. God saw David's sin from the very first moment that David shirked his duty as the nation's leader in battle to hang out at his palace, from the moment he saw Bathsheba bathing and kept looking instead of looking away, from the moment he called her into his presence and slept with her, from the moment he tried to finagle it all by getting Uriah to shirk his duty, from the moment he decided to have Uriah killed. God has seen it all.

I am amazed at my own ability to believe I've somehow hidden my sin. I know God is everywhere and that God sees all things, and yet I somehow think I've gotten away with something when I make sure I know that nobody knows what I've done. Yep! Snuck that one by everybody, baby! Score one for Mr. Stealth!

And then my own version of the prophet Nathan confronts me with the reality that I didn't.

If you ever watched the TV show Friends, you may remember that Ross once cheated on Rachel when he was first dating her. He manages to hide that from Rachel and then goes all over his circle of acquaintances to tell them not to say anything, since he and Rachel were "on a break" and he didn't think it counted. He spends the morning and most of the afternoon doing so and finally gets to the last person, Gunther who waits tables at their coffee shop. He tells Gunther not to say anything, but Gunther already has, and Ross sees Rachel at the seat by the window, realizing she knows what has happened. They spend several seasons estranged before reuniting in the finale.

Had Ross spent all that energy and time confessing to Rachel and showing he would repent, might things have been different? Sure, if you convince the scriptwriter, but my point is that if we look at all of the ways David tried to get out of the consequence of his sin, we see their futility. God knew. God always knew.

And so David confesses his sin, which we can read in Psalm 51, and asks God to forgive him and heal their relationship. God does. He even redeems the marriage of David and Bathsheba, stained by his dishonesty and murder. Bathsheba will later give birth to Solomon, the heir to David and the one who will build the temple.

Our own confessions can come after a Gibbs-slap confrontation with reality, or they can come before, when we first realize we've strayed. Yes, either way we'll be forgiven. But I've found I've grown more in my faith when I've owned up to my sin from the start. And after all, when I confess that I'm a sinner, I'm just telling people something they already know.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Earn This

Sunday I gave a devotion at the memorial service at my 30-year high school reunion. I prepared remarks that weren't really very religiously focused since I wasn't sure what religious backgrounds would be represented either by the people attending or by the those who'd passed away. Persons of a faith background may cast different parts of this devotional into that background as they may feel appropriate. I've also omitted the opening part, where I told my classmates that standing before them in this kind of role was one of those deeply weird experiences that I'm pretty sure I never thought would happen.

When Steven Spielberg was interviewing World War II veterans for Saving Private Ryan, he noted how many of the men said they felt they were trying to live lives worthy of the sacrifices their buddies and fellow soldiers, the ones who hadn't made it back, had made for them. He distilled that into the line from Tom Hanks to Matt Damon near the end of the movie: "Earn this." Later the older version of Damon's character would ask his wife if he had been a good man and a good husband and a good father, wanting to believe he had lived a life worthy of the sacrifices that had been made for him. 

I remember some reactions to that line were kind of unhappy with Hanks' words to Damon -- they thought that asking someone who lived to earn the sacrifices made on their behalf, up to and including the greatest sacrifice of all, was too much. How could a person live up to that kind of expectation? It was too much, too much to expect of anyone. 

But when I reflected on it and read about Spielberg's research I realized three things: One, it wasn't likely many soldiers had actually asked that of each other. Spielberg was as I said illustrating an attitude about the war and those who fought it by using the phrase. For another, the feeling more likely grew out of the hearts and minds of the survivors, as they struggled to honor their fallen comrades in the only way left to them by being the best men they could be, the kind of men they imagined the fallen would have been had they lived. The fact that the feeling of debt and obligation originated in their own feelings certainly didn't make it any less powerful. 

Our friends who've gone on may not have given us any such challenge either, nor did they sacrifice themselves on our behalf. But we are still sad about losing them and we are still sad when we think that our great and good friend who meant so much to us is now a part of the past and the rest of the world will move on without them. We don't want this to be -- we may accept it more now than we did when we were younger, but we don't rest any easier with it. 

We wonder why we are still here even though they are not. We probably wonder it especially when we consider the people we believe offered more to the world than we do, or who we think were nicer or better. We may just wonder why they're gone and what we're supposed to do about it to make sure that their memory remains as long and as bright as possible.

So maybe we should live our lives to to show the world how lucky it was that our friends were here. We should live our lives to make the impact they had on us felt far beyond their reach, stilled now in death. They were good friends and so we'll be good friends. They showed love and compassion and so we will show love and compassion. They were gone too soon so we won't let the days go by without telling those we care about that we do appreciate them and their influence on us.

They didn't sacrifice themselves for us, but they gave us the gift of their friendship. Whether they saw it that way or not, whether they said it or not, we can live to be worthy of that, to earn it.

And the third thing that I learned about what Spielberg had Tom Hanks say to Matt Damon was that we know we can't earn what was given to us as a gift. But we make the world and ourselves so much better when we try.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Mighty Fall (2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27)

David's life has made more than one movie, and the story of his rise from shepherd boy to warrior to king certainly catches people's attention.

But if we were to make such a movie, we might have a hard time putting this scene in for modern audiences. Saul has been the villain of the first part of the story. Although the king brought David into court so that the younger man's musical skills could ease his depression, things have soured. David's skill in battle gained him greater fame than Saul, and people sing greater praises of him. Though Saul married David to one of his daughters, he has also tried to kill him and drove him first out of the palace and then out of the country. This is considered extreme behavior even for fathers-in-law.

David has been on the run for years and a few times has been cornered by Saul, to escape only at the last moment. Saul, as the king, stands in the way of David's assuming the kingship that was promised to him when Samuel anointed him. So Saul's death solves a number of problems if this were just a dramatic story -- it allows David to return home and it allows him to make his move on the throne itself.

Instead David responds not with triumph or gratitude that Saul is dead but grief. We get how he would grieve the death of his friend Jonathan, but why would he be so sad about the death of a man who'd spent the last several years trying to kill him?

We get clues when we read the lament song that David wrote. Firstly, Israel's enemies will rejoice at Saul's death. For all his problems, Saul was a great warrior and an effective military leader. Nations that wanted to defeat Israel in battle just got a good head start. David may know he was supposed to be king, but Saul's remaining sons might have the idea they're supposed to follow their father on the throne, which means internal unrest and turmoil -- maybe even civil war.

Saul's success on the battlefield brought wealth and plunder to Israel. In many ways, he was a good king, and his inability to obey God didn't seem to harm the rest of the people of the nation very much. So David grieves the loss of a great warrior and effective leader for his nation.

I wonder if David also doesn't lament the loss of what Saul could have been. Had he obeyed God he could have been established as the founder of a great dynasty. Even after his disobedience, he could have turned his life around, maybe resigned as king and stayed on as David's adviser. His experience and knowledge could have been useful to a man who'd never been a king before. Saul's advice could have made David a better king, which would have been better for the nation of Israel.

But his death means he won't have the chance to redeem himself or to ask God to forgive his disobedience.

You might come up with other reasons if you think about it, but I think you might find that most of them are similar to the ones I mention in at least one important respect: They're about something bigger than David himself. Yes, I believe that David understood Saul's death made much of his life easier. But he sees a bigger picture, and he realizes that whatever benefits Saul's death provides him, it provides more problems for the people as a whole.

Jesus asks us to see beyond ourselves when we follow him. He may call us to spend more time, energy and money on others that we would rather spend on ourselves. He may call us to consider what other people need when we only want to consider what we want. He himself saw beyond what his own desires might have been -- because whatever they were, it's a safe bet they didn't include "getting beaten up and nailed to a tree" -- in order to do something for others, and he asks us to do the same.

Sure, few of are likely to be called to that extreme level of sacrifice, but almost all of us are called to some. We are called to see, like David, that sometimes what looks good for us may not look good in the bigger picture and trust that God, who sees a bigger picture still, has in mind what is ultimately right and best for all.