January 23, 2013
Please visit our new website at www.deerislesunsetchurch.org. We are now hosting our own domain name and in the process of migrating material from this blog to the website. The blog will remain up until the transition is complete, but no new information will be added here.
New Web Address: deerislesunsetchurch.org
October 1, 2012
The Healing System
Deer Isle Sunset Congregational Church
September 23, 2012
by Marnie Reed Crowell
Back when we managed to set our anchor on Deer Isle year round, we learned that the Sunset-Deer Isle Congos had an amazing, welcoming choir. No auditions; just come. Both Ken and I regard ourselves principally as “ballast” in the choir. But we so enjoy it. The choral sound our director manages to wring from us is a “Sunday Miracle”. We choir members tolerate each other with a special affection. The ideal choral sound is one harmonious melding with no single voice sticking out. For some egos, that is a challenge.
We often sing Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, Hail True Body, referring to the Eucharist. It brings me to tears as surely the operas of Verdi. I would say the music causes some sympathetic harmonic reaction in me, in my soul. But I have many friends who immediately suggest the words “spirit” or “core” instead. Could we compromise on the word “system”? Let me explain.
It seems to be undeniably true that humans demand meaning. I make meaning and metaphor of my time inside a church. In a funny way I do feel I am called to stand outside churches and beckon people into the possibilities available inside. Scientist and poet, I feel I must share my metaphors. After the horrifying events of 9/11 I grieved for those we call “unchurched”; on this Island that’s more than two thirds of us. You could have comforted yourself by listening to sacred music alone on your iPod but it would not be the same as sitting with friends in our familiar little churches.
After church the day of my story we headed over to the marine shop where our boat was being readied to “go overboard” as our fishermen say. The proprietor wanted to talk. He was just back from Togus, the Veteran’s Administration hospital, where he had recently undergone surgery. He peeled off his shirt to show us his shoulder cast with ‘Jesus’ written on it with magic marker and the star-shaped red scar on his arm. He regaled us with a triumphant account of how his V.A. doctor had sent him back for a second x-ray since the doctor was sure there had been a mistake. There was so much bone regrowth and not just at the site where a bone-stimulating machine had been placed. He told us that at his little church he was anointed with oil and prayed over and that is what had done it for him.
I could see he felt I was sent to hear his testimony and he was supposed to hear my stories so I shared my own story of a Tibetan healing. Ken and I had gone with Rich and Mary Howe to China and we found ourselves in Yunnan, on the border with Tibet. Our guide was named Dorje, “sacred Thunderbolt”, and he had shut his whole hand in our van door. He was in great pain but still he took us to what was obviously a sacred place overlooking his village. There were prayer flags and an altar-like central stone and stunning mountains in the background. Dorje and I had discussed his emergency medicine studies when he had fled to India some years back, and traditional healing practices as well. I asked him if he wanted me to try to work with him. He promptly sent the other three off to look for some yaks. He and I stood there beneath the flapping prayer flags and he put his injured hand in mine. We closed our eyes and it felt as if an electric current had passed between his hand and mine. It was an amazing experience.
I am perfectly comfortable with the idea that my hands heated the injured hand of the Tibetan guide. I am sure also that he brought something to the equation. I wonder how Dorje decided to trust me? How does our marine mechanic decide it is safe to share his intimate story with me? What is the mysterious communication going on between us? It’s a whole system and we could call it soul. I propose we think of the word “soul” as a collective noun for ways we humans have interior conversations with ourself and the wordless ways we communicate with one another. Human, humans present and humans past: the artists expressing themselves across the centuries in their paintings, the composer sending a timeless message in melodies, the writer’s “voice”. We cannot quite say what it is, this soul we recognize, but we know it’s there. We say he or she is a good soul. We talk of finding our soul mate, soul food, soul music, and even the soul of the city, the country. All human; all mysterious.
Ancient civilizations differed in their ideas as to whether only certain people had souls, and where in us it resided—in our hair, eyes, organs, our shadow, etc. –and what is the relation of the soul to dreaming and sleeping and death? Most societies seem to relate the soul to the essence of being alive. Putting aside the question of immortality, we do see that soul has something to do with an individual’s system, a living function. You can have a dead heart but no blood pressure. It’s a heart, but it’s not.
From early infancy a child develops a sense of self and of other. Gradually we learn to communicate across that gap. The soul as instinct, intuition, the behaviors that gamblers call “tells”, revealing tics, behavior perhaps involving invisible pheromones. Clearly this includes our less-than-intellectual consciousness, functions not primarily of the forebrain but somehow also including the wisdom of our lower brains. That sum we could call soul.
Not allowing ourselves to be sidetracked into arguments about Darwin and creationism, can we of the faith community and the scientific community amicably discuss soul these days? As a lover of language I am always rooting for people to use words carefully to communicate accurately. How we talk about soul may depend on one’s training or personal perspective. The philosopher gives logical reasons why we are or are not body and/or soul. The cleric speaks too of soul, free or predestined, as well as ontological arguments about God as that than which nothing greater can be conceived by us—which of course sounds like the astronomer contemplating the universe.
We modern humans may not like to think of ourselves as test tubes full of chemistry reactions or as electrical systems or colonies of bacterial micropopulations, but ever more sophisticated methods of analyzing– spectrometry, electron microscopes and Functional MRIs– have certainly given us new views and insights into our being. I love the idea that scientists armed with fMRIs can now see what parts of our brains are “lighting up” when we are meditating, praying, having a profound experience. Data show that people with a support system (church?) have a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases and better-functioning immune systems — which leads us to the new science of psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI for short. PNI has enormous ramifications for understanding healing.
When you get a certain volume of humans in touch with each other, they cease to function in the same way that individuals do. Ask any rock concert promoter or rally organizer. Group-think becomes part of our equation. We become part of a large system. We call it a mob when we humans are simply, undeniably, a bad influence on one another.
Man is an intensely social animal. Join three million in Mecca for the Haj; rock out with the Beatles or the Boss; scream for your team at Fenway or the SuperBowl; or risk your life at a political demonstration—there is something undeniable in numbers. Egypt at present is in the throes of working out what the crowds will demand; Syria is bleeding en masse, and the People’s Republic of China has yet to work out what it will tolerate in the way of civil liberties.
Might we today make different decisions about our behavior? Gandhi calculated that there is strength in peaceful numbers. I remember when Vaclav Havel suggested that group behavior could change the state of his country. It was in November 1989, eight days after the Berlin Wall fell. Havel was calling for a Velvet Revolution. I heard him being interviewed, calmly stating that society could change itself at no cost of lives or resources by simply deciding to treat one another more civilly. The day after Havel, himself a former political prisoner, called for revolution, some 200,000 people took to the streets in Prague. There followed several largely peaceful demonstrations, and Communist domination came gradually to an end.
We speak now of “silo groups”, people who via the Internet can be in communication only with others who share their views. At the same time we find ourselves polarized in our world today–not just Republicans and Democrats, Liberals and Fundamentalists, Sunni and Shiites, Jews and Palestinians, Uyghur or Tibetan and Han, Serbs and Croats, Tutsi and Hutu—the list goes on and on…and it’s not good for our health.
What kind of healing do we need? You, me, the whole system? From the time the disciples realized that Jesus had left them, they understood that in a way a new body was being formed– the church itself—and it could be thought of as the body of Christ. We use those words today. WE are one in the body of Christ. We sing Ave Verum Corpus and are moved.
We can measure sound frequencies, analyze a sonogram, sing a solo, hum a tune, hear it in our head, but to experience harmony we need parts. To experience the whole-body thrill of a pipe organ resonating with the most sacred music, we need a sanctuary, a congregation, we need each other…
September 9, 2012
Transitions by visiting minister Rick Russell
16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Gathered here in the mystery of this hour Gathered here in one strong body, Gathered here in the struggle and the power, Spirit, draw near.
The Deer Isle/Sunset Church is in transition. We who are members and friends, whether year round or part-time residents, are participants in this transition.
I teach a class from September to May at the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. In this class I have graduate students who are training to be ministers, teachers, and church leaders. One of the books we read and discuss is called Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, by William Bridges.
In the book, Bridges reminds the readers that change is constant and that transitions are those times when life’s changes come together to form a major life shift.
He uses a simple model of this process. There is a time of endings, a time of in-between, and a time of new beginnings. He points out that some of us are good with endings, some not. Most of us are good with new beginnings, and hardly anyone is good with the in-between time. When things end, when we finally realize things have ended, then we want to rush into the new thing that presents itself. The in-between time is frustrating, unclear, confusing, unknown. We have some control over how we end things and how we begin them, but very little in-between.
This may have something to do with patience and our lack thereof. Nicos Kazanzakis wrote about this in his novel, Zorba the Greek. Zorba reflects this story of his childhood:
“I remembered one morning when I discovered a cocoon in a bark of a tree, just as a butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out. I waited awhile, but it was too long appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life.
The case opened, the butterfly started slowly crawling out and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its whole trembling body to unfold them. Bending over it I tried to help it with my breath. In vain.
It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of its wings should be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear, all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.
The little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience, for I realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.”
To “confidently obey the eternal rhythm” is easier said than done, but it does require patience, and trust.
It is easier to see this eternal rhythm from a distance. Looking back on life’s transitions we can make sense of how they have shaped us and how necessary and inevitable they were.
When I went from high school to college, I expected life to flow naturally from one way of living to another. After a year of university I found myself spending more time learning and exploring outside of class than inside. The administration agreed.
That led to a time of travel and work and relationships that led to meeting and marrying my wife Jennifer. There was no way I could have foretold this transition, but, later, I was able to reflect and make meaning of this time. I have labeled it my time in the wilderness when I was tested by God and when I found out who I was.
When I was talking with Jennifer about transitions, she gave me the illustration of being pregnant. She can tell it better than I, but what I heard her say reminded me of that crucial “in-between time.” Here she was, getting bigger and bigger, but there was still this long, long space of time before this new life would begin, a new life for everyone.
The Deer Isle/Sunset Church is in a similar waiting time. The past has been good. We have been blessed with excellent pastoral leadership. But what is the future going to bring? We are curious, anxious, excited. God only knows how life is going to be different. We will need to trust in God as God does a new thing in our lives.
The Psalmist said, I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? Not from the hills, or the islands, or the ocean. Not from an endowment or from several church properties. Our help will come from God, who made heaven and earth.
The early church shared the story of God in Christ Jesus. One central encounter was the ending story of Matthew’s Gospel. The Risen Christ commissions the disciples to: Go and make more people like yourselves, people who are filled with hope and love and trust in a loving God who loves all people. Bring some water with you and douse them with it, celebrating the centrality of water and life and Spirit. Use these words because they refer to the mystery of God and God’s love. Teach the folks you meet about me and how they too can be one with God. And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
Remember, never forget, never lose faith, never doubt that Jesus, God’s embodied reality, is with you, with us, always.
God is with us in the beginnings, when we are tentative and unsure, in the endings, when we are afraid, and in the in-between times, when we wonder if we are lost and alone. God is with us always.
There is a song from the Shaker Community that I find helpful as a reminder of God’s constant presence:
Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be, And when we find ourselves in that place just right, Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shant be ashamed. To turn, turn will be our delight, Til by turning, turning we come round right.
So remember, we all are in transitions. And in the midst of our transitions, God will keep us from all evil, God will keep our lives, God will keep our going out and our coming in, from this time forth and forever more. Amen.
August 26, 2012
PARTING MESSAGE — FAREWELL Dana Douglass
Twenty-nine years ago I stepped into a pulpit as an ordained minister for the first time — scared to death! Public speaking was not my thing. I placed my feet squarely beneath my shoulders, held the sides of the pulpit, and never moved as I delivered my first sermon — just as I’d been trained in seminary. William Sloane Coffin, perhaps the best preacher the American mainline church has produced, was sitting in the third pew. He didn’t make me all that nervous. Marion Sleeper and Maedene Brown made me nervous! They were farmer’s wives, matriarchs of the town, and former stalwarts of the church, who had left the church because they didn’t like the politics of the previous pastor. The search committee had made it clear — I was to bring them back to the fold.
By week two several important things had happened. I realized that I couldn’t stand still in a pulpit — I had to move around a bit, wave my arms, get physical. I had buried Bill Coffin’s son, Alex; and Bill and I were intimately linked ‘til the day I delivered a eulogy at his funeral. And, Marion Sleeper and Maedene Brown had become my most ardent supporters!
But, but week two I had come to a devastating realization. I would be a failure at my chosen profession! I had become a minister to change the world — foster world peace, heal the environment, and bridge the gap of fear and hatred that separated people. That’s what sermon number one had been all about. When I stepped into the pulpit for sermon number two, nothing had changed — certainly not on a global scale; but not even in the little town of Strafford, Vermont. Delia Perkins, a local, was still upset with Bob Boyajian, from away, who had built a home in her viewscape. The people in the pews hadn’t done a single thing I suggested they try; the world still looked pretty much the same.
Since I couldn’t live with letting God down week after week, by week three I had changed my expectations. I’d preach “peace, love, and understanding” week after week after week with as much energy and creativity as I had in me; but I’d leave the world-changing up to God, up to Love, to bring about. The changes came about so slowly as to be nearly imperceptible; but, apartheid has ended in South Africa, a black man has been elected President of the United States, last week Augusta National has accepted women members, and soon even gay people will be able to marry the person they love.
How’d that happen?! Preachers preached, you people lived your faith, your ideals, in your homes, and schools, and places of business, in clubs and organizations. The “arc of the universe tilts toward justice” because God is love, and Love can only love. The world gets better if we keep loving.
You can’t see it happening. You have to have faith that love makes a difference. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Every person who has ever made a difference for good in this world, even Jesus, did so by putting their faith in the power of love.. So, “run with perseverance the race that is before you”, love without reservation. You are changing the world.
Now then, I was nervous on my first Sunday. I am emotional on my last Sunday. I am sad to be leaving you. It was this church that brought us to Deer Isle. Twenty odd years ago you were searching for a pastor, and I drove up to have a look. I came over the bridge and had an overwhelming sense of being home. It feels good to be wrapping up a ministry in a place that means as much to me as this. So thank you. Win, I have never served with as gifted a musician as you — thank you. Choir, I had one choir as good, but none better, and none that sang all year — thank you. Congregation — you are as smart, gifted, emotionally healthy, progressive, and just plain good as any people in any church — thank you for being so responsive to my ministry.
While I am sad to be leaving this church, the real emotion comes from a deeper place. Leaving the ministry marks the end of a big chapter of my life. This has been the calling of the middle third of my life. This has been my life’s work — and it included more than leading worship and attending committee meetings.
There was someone else sitting in a pew on my first Sunday in that little church in Vermont. Anne had come to church that Sunday to check out the new young minister — by week four I think we had kissed! During this middle chapter of our lives we had our careers and built our relationship. We did a few other things together, as well; and the result was two absolutely wonderful children. So, you see, the emotion I am feeling today runs deep — big things are shifting. Tomorrow morning, I know I will wake up with intense excitement about all that is coming next. Today I feel profound sadness and gratitude for all that is being left behind.
This is where my emotion connects with yours — because we all move through these stages of life. We are raised in homes. We leave those homes. We go to school, we go to work. Perhaps we get married. Perhaps we have children. Our parents die. Sometimes our children die. Sometimes there are divorces. We make friends. We lose friends. We retire. We reach the closing years of our lives. I’ve watched old people — they cry at the drop of a hat, they cry at every farewell. Why? Because life is precious, and beautiful, and fleeting — and endings are hard! The only way we can withstand the heartbreak of it all is to have faith that love never ends!
Finally, a few nuts and bolts. You all know this; but I need to say it. When the service ends today, I will no longer be your pastor. I cannot marry your children or conduct your funerals. I hope you and your families won’t ask. I will have to say no. Also, I will not listen to any complaints about your next minister. I’d be happy to hear what you like about the person.
This is all going to be a bit difficult because I’m not going anywhere. This will still be our home. For awhile Anne and I will worship elsewhere. Someday down the road I hope we can come back and come to church just like you. I want to work with Gordon, and Chandler, and Bob Coombs on projects. Maybe I’ll sing in the choir!! But, I don’t want to be “the minister” anymore. I look forward to making a good shot on the golf course and not having someone say I have a connection with the “man upstairs” I don’t; and it’s bad theology. I look forward to my playing partner making a bad shot and not apologizing for swearing.
Anne and I have very different ways of leaving places. When we go to a party and I think it is time to go, I grab my coat and head for the door. Then I stand there and wait while Anne says a few parting words to everybody. Today, I understand how Anne feels — it would be nice to linger and just say a slow goodbye, chat for awhile. But it is an August day. Summer is slipping by. You’ve got things to do. I’ve got to find out what comes next.
August 19, 2012
“O ABSALOM MY SON, WOULD THAT I HAD DIED INSTEAD OF YOU”
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; 19:1-2 Dana Douglass
Fathers and sons. That’s probably all you need to hear to know where this is headed — Fathers and sons. There is love — deep love. There are issues — complicated issues. There will be conflict — it’s inevitable. Maybe it works just as well to say: Mothers and daughters. How about parents and children? Love, issues, and conflicts — it goes with the territory.
Parents love their children. Because they love them, parents set boundaries. Sometimes the boundaries are too rigid — an attempt to turn the child into the parent. Sometimes the boundaries are too lax — an attempt by the parent to be best friends with the child. Sometimes the boundaries are just right — providing a measure of safety and a set of values — “This is how we hope you’ll live.” But, whether the boundaries are rigid, lax, or just right, the child will rebel against them. That’s what children do. Children have to push against rules and find their own way in the world. It’s a good thing!
Parents should be parents. Children should have limits. Parents and children usually love each other anyway. And parents and children occasionally do battle with one another.
That’s the lead-in to the story of David and Absalom. They literally go to war against each other. David, remember, was the great king who did some horrible things. Absalom was one of David’s sons by way of one of David’s wives.
Can you see in your mind’s eye Michelangelo’s statue of David? Magnificent! Absalom should have a statue of his own because by all accounts he was even better looking! The Bible says, “From the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was not a blemish on him. No man could be praised for his beauty as much as Absalom.” His hair was what made him really stand out — he had a fabulous mane — when he cut it once a year it tipped the scales at over three pounds!
Eventually Absalom rebelled against his Dad. David, remember, was one to occasionally compromise his values, like when he raped Bathsheba and killed her husband. He also compromised his values when one of his sons raped one of his daughters — like father / like son. David did nothing. Absalom rebelled. He would not let his sister’s rape go unpunished. He killed the brother who had committed the crime.
The rift between father and son was established. Absalom left home and struck out on his own. He attracted a following, eventually formed an army, and became strong enough to challenge dear old Dad for the rule of Israel! The ultimate father / son struggle!
Which brings us to the part of the story you heard this morning. On the eve of the crucial battle between the King’s army and the son’s soldiers, David was a wreck. He was afraid he might lose his throne. He was even more afraid he might lose his son. David was at war with his boy; but he also loved him — complicated stuff! David called his officers together to urge them on in battle, and to ask them to go easy on Absalom.
Joab — you remember Joab, he’s the one who carried out David’s orders to arrange the death of Bathsheba’s husband — Joab didn’t follow orders this time. When he came across Absalom caught by his hair in the branches of a tree — interesting sometimes how our greatest gifts can be our worst curses — when he came across Absalom hanging by his hair in a tree, Joab ran him through with three spears!
If you have ever suffered the death of a child, if you have ever allowed yourself to consider what it would be like to lose a child, then David’s cry of emotional pain will break your heart. “O Absalom, my son, my son. Would that I had died instead of you. O Absalom, my son.”
Out of David’s pain comes a lesson for all of us. When David said, “Would that I had died instead of you, my son,” I think he meant it. I think most of us would substitute ourselves for our children if it would save them from illness or death. If we could. But, we can’t! Not even a king has that kind of power.
Since death cannot be undone, it is important to get things right in life. The real tragedy in the story of David and Absalom is that the son died with the separation from his father intact. Therefore, when the boy died, not only did David lose a son, he lost hope of ever setting things right between them.
Years ago, my friend Bill Coffin and his wife were visiting. Bill had two sons, Alex, whom he simply adored, and David, who always felt that Dad loved his brother more. At the time of Bill’s visit he was still grieving the death of Alex, who had been killed in an auto accident. He was also grieving a certain amount of estrangement from David. We sat up late one night listening to a father’s anguish and desire to get things right with the remaining son.
The next day an amazing thing happened. The four of us took our boat from Sylvester’s Cove to Cranberry Island to visit some friends. Along the way, we crossed paths with the ferry to Swan’s Island. David, a musician, was on his way to a music festival on Swan’s Island. As we waited for the ferry to pass in front of us, Bill recognized David standing by the rail. And right there in the middle of Penobscot Bay a father began patching things up with his son. “David, my son, my son. I love you! Let’s fix what broken between us.” It was an extraordinary moment.
The story of David and Absalom, and the story of Bill and David, and a thousand other stories of parents and children, remind us to get things right with the people we love sooner than later. Death is rarely on schedule. Don’t think you have all the time in the world.
There is perhaps one more lesson to be learned from the David and Absalom story. When David cried out that he wished he could die instead of his son, as I said, I think he meant it. And, I think he didn’t. David wanted to preserve his family. He also wanted to preserve his kingdom! He couldn’t do both. In the end, he put his political aspirations ahead of his familial ones. He went to war and his son was killed.
Are we all that different. We say we that we would gladly stand in for our children, take the blows of life for them. I think we mean it. And I think we don’t. We make choices for ourselves that cause our children pain. Sometimes if is relatively small stuff — like a career move that results in children being relocated and having to make new friends. Sometimes it is big stuff — like refusing to make any lifestyle changes even though the lifestyle is killing the climate! “I love you so much; but not enough to buy a compact florescent lightbulb!!
The story of David and Absalom ends with regret — a father crying over the death of his son, over the sad state of his family, over the high price of his choices, over all that he couldn’t undo. It reminds us that things rarely work out as we hope, that children will sometimes disappoint us, that parents don’t always act as they should.
There is another family story in the Bible that offers us a little grace. In it there is another parent who has a son, and who would gladly stand in and take the son’s death on himself, on herself — but can’t, or doesn’t. I believe God grieved for the death of Jesus. I believe the universe grieves the death of every child. I believe God knows our pain and meets us right smack in the middle of it — to help us pick up the pieces and go on with life. I also believe God wishes we would patch things up while there is time, and sacrifice some for those who will come after. After all, if we really love our children . . .
August 7, 2012
“GOD SENT NATHAN TO DAVID” 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a Dana Douglass
I don’t know many people who enjoy conflict. I know even fewer who are good at it — who can confront a difficult situation with another person head on and come out the other side with their message delivered and the relationship in tact. Most people avoid conflict like the plague, running from situations where difficult disagreements might take place. The lesson this morning presents us with a really awkward and uncomfortable confrontation.
Quick review for those who weren’t here last week. David, the great king and mighty warrior, was in his palace while his troops were off fighting the Ammonites. The wife, Bathsheba, of one of his soldiers, Urriah, caught David’s eye as she was bathing in her back yard. He liked what he saw and he took her — in essence he raped her. And, he might have gotten away with it had she not become pregnant. When he learned she was pregnant, David manufactured a coverup by bringing her husband, Urriah, back from the front hoping he would sleep with Bathsheba and everyone would assume the baby was his. But, Uriah wouldn’t go home to his wife while his buddies were still at war. When the coverup failed, David ordered his commander, Joab, to see to it that Urriah died in battle.
That’s where we pick up the story this morning. Urriah is dead, Bathsheba has mourned his death, David has moved Bathsheba into the palace, Bathsheba has delivered a son, and God is displeased with everything David has done.
I don’t know if David could see that his behavior was reprehensible. He’d become insulated from the consequences of his behavior. Certainly none of his inner circle would challenge him — they were going along just to get along. I imagine David justified the rape by calling it love. I imagine David justified the murder as a necessary fix for all concerned. You’ve renamed things you’ve done in order to live with yourself more easily?
I know what I’d have done if I was David. I don’t know what I’d have done if I was Nathan. What would you do if you heard the voice of God, or the voice of conscience saying, “You’ve got to do something. You can’t let David get away with this.” Maybe you’d say, “Oh yes I can! He’s my boss. He could fire me. What’s done is done. I’ll call him on it next time.”
God sent Nathan to David, and Nathan was brilliant. He knew something about human nature. He knew that when people are accused of unbecoming behavior, most of us get defensive — the walls go up. We think of excuses, rationalizations, justifications to let ourselves off the uncomfortable hook. And, if that doesn’t work, we start thinking of even worse things that our accuser may have done, as if by comparing ourselves to others, our own miserable behavior won’t seem so bad. Anything to evade the pain of an uncomfortable truth.
With a solid understanding of human nature, Nathan didn’t say, “David, you’re a jerk!” Instead, he told a story. Stories are wonderful. Stories help us fall asleep as children. Stories hold our attention around a campfire. Stories contain deeper truths than facts do. Stories open our hearts and minds, and allow us to imagine — and imagination is more important than knowledge.
Nathan told David a story about a rich man who had a whole flock of sheep. But, he took a poor man’s one precious lamb and slaughtered it to feed a guest. David listened to the story as any of us would, with rapt attention — it was fiction, after all — interesting and non-threatening. David responded as any of us would, “Good story! Man, that rich man was a jerk! If it wasn’t just a story he’d be sentenced to death. At least, he’d have to pay the poor man back four times over.”
Here we are at the pivot point. Most of us, standing in Nathan’s shoes, would leave it right there. “Yup, good story. Think about it, David. See ya.” None of us would want to push any further. Why? Fear. Fear that if we go further the person will be angry with us. Fear that any favor we have with the person will be lost, and we will suffer. Fear that word will get around about what we have done and said, and others will avoid us.
Nathan was probably scared, too. He could have been killed for what he did next. But, Nathan was given the courage to say, “You’re that man, David.” I wonder how he said it? What tone did he use? I’m guessing he said if gently and firmly, with the realization that hard truth brings enormously painful.
Pivot point number two: David’s response. At the moment when most of us would put up our defenses, David allowed the truth to hit home. “I have sinned against the Lord,” he said. The rapist / murderer acknowledged what he had become. He would pay a terrible price for his actions. He would suffer terrible loses. But, he would work to redeem his life, so he could be useful to God once again.
It’s a great story with a lot to teach. Each of us needs a Nathan from time to time. Each of us needs to be a Nathan from time to time. Confrontation works best when it is done with imagination and the understanding that human hearts are easily bruised. Defensiveness is never flattering, and while it may defend us against pain, it also gets in the way of healing.
We are human beings, a strange mixture of good and not-so-good. You are good. You are not always good. God doesn’t need you to be perfect, just willing.
July 29, 2012
“SPRING IS IN THE AIR” 2 Samuel 11:1-15 Dana Douglass
Over the years, whenever the story of David and Bathsheba rolled around, I have treated it like a steamy romance novel, like a torrid love story, an ancient version of Anthony and Cleopatra. Now, I realize, it isn’t that at all. It’s more like a crime story. It’s a story of rape and betrayal.
It starts off so sweetly, “Spring is in the air.” It was Tennyson who wrote, “In the Spring a young men’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” But, apparently, we also fancy fighting. The story says, “In the Spring of the year, when kings go forth to battle. . .” It sounds like a National Geographic nature special — “It is autumn, and following the call of nature, the whitetail deer begins to rut.” It is Spring and the men don their armor and go to war! Same today as then. We still have Spring offensives following winter respites.
Before we get to the story of David and Bathsheba, let me ask this question: Do you think human beings are violent or peaceable by nature? Do men go to war because it is in us to fight? Are we naturally violent, but able to rise above our violent nature in order to live together communally? Or, are we naturally social, and something goes wrong when we resort to violence?
Some researchers say that we hard-wired for violence. They say we dwell in a dog-eat-dog universe and the whole notion of peace, love and understanding is a recipe for disaster. The best we can hope for is to redirect our violent tendencies along less damaging avenues than war — like Olympic competition.
Another school of thought says human beings are blank slates, and we learn our behavior — peaceful or violent. Our faith tradition says that God is love and we are created in God’s image. Therefore, the most natural way to be human is to be in caring relationships with one another, where compassion governs our behavior. We do not have to defy our human nature to follow a peaceful path; instead we have to trust that by loving we are getting closer to being truly human, getting closer to our actual nature. What do you think — naturally violent or naturally loving?
Let’s shift to the David and Bathsheba story — Spring is in the air. The troops are off at war “ravaging the Ammonites. David is in his palace and has just awakened from an afternoon nap. He’s made himself a gin and tonic and is strolling about on his veranda. From this vantage point he can see his next door neighbor, Bathsheba. She is “ravishingly beautiful.” She is naked. Some would say, “It’s her own darn fault. She shouldn’t have dressed like that. She was asking for it.” Hopefully, we know better than to blame the victim. She ought to be able to take a bath in her own yard without worrying about rape. Again the question — are we naturally aggressive? Maybe only men are.
I used to think David and Bathsheba were attracted to each other; but the text says, “David took her, and he lay with her.” The verb, took, is the same verb used earlier in the story by Samuel when he warned the Israelites, who were clamoring for a king, that kings take — “your sons for war, your daughters for their harems, your lifestock to make themselves rich, your crops to make themselves fat.” Kings take against the will of the people. David took Bathsheba.
When she could get away, she went home. The next thing we hear are words that should be spoken joyfully, but are uttered in this context with worry and fear. Bathsheba tells David, “I’m pregnant.” This “problem” pushes David further down the road to self-destruction. He plans the cover-up.
David was well aware of what fighting men do when they are on leave, so he recalled Bathsheba’s husband from the front, naturally thinking that Uriah would want to “be with” his wife at the first opportunity; then, when he learned that Bathsheba was pregnant he would assume the child was his. Difficult little situation solved.
Uriah wouldn’t cooperate! Uriah didn’t feel entitled to a conjugal visit while his buddies were flirting with death on the battlefield. Even when David got him half-in-the-bag, he wouldn’t go to bed with Bathsheba. I’m sorry, but Uriah’s loyalty to a bunch of sweaty soldiers, most of whom probably would have had sex with his wife, given the chance, almost makes you feel that he gets what he deserves.
Here’s what he got: David sent Uriah back to the front with a sealed envelop containing orders for Uriah’s commander, Joab — “I was only following orders, Joab” — to send Uriah into the hottest part of the battle and then withdraw the forces. Uriah was killed. Problem solved. Bathsheba was then moved into the palace, married to the king, and delivered a son.
This is no more a love story that Jerry Sandusky’s is a love story. It is a story of power, privilege, entitlement, and violence.
Jerry Sandusky — “I’ve given so much time and effort and money to start an organization to help wayward boys. I work long hours to provide for my family. I’ve adopted children who would never have had a chance at life otherwise. I deserve something in return. Besides, what harm am I doing?”
David — “I was the only one willing to take on Goliath. I saved my nation; I made it strong. I wrote psalms that would inspire generations. I deserve a little dalliance with another man’s wife. I can be forgiven one self-serving murder.”
Do you see how slippery the justification slope becomes?
“Everyday I have to make momentous decisions on behalf of my country, decisions that affect the fate of the planet. It is a staggering responsibility. You have no idea what the pressure is like. So, there’s an intern in my office. I can be forgiven a little indiscretion.” Who am I? The Bible study group on Monday said it could be virtually any president. They all do it.
“My Dad drove me to be great since I was two years old. I’m the best on the planet at what I do. Because of me everyone in my field makes more money than they would have without me. I’ve provided untold riches for my family. The public takes my privacy, my time, my image. I’m on the road half the year. I’m entitled to dalliances with cocktail waitresses and porn stars.” Who am I?
Before we get too judgmental of others, which of you, in the position of a head of state, movie star, rock star, sports star, if you had untold riches and constant temptation, could resist? And, who among us hasn’t performed some ethical contortion to justify some questionable behavior at some time or other?
Had I continued reading the story to the end of the chapter, right after Uriah was killed, Bathsheba mourned, and David “took” her to be his wife, the last line of the chapter reads, “But the thing that David did displeased the Lord.”
Was the thing that David did just part of his human nature, and God was displeased that David didn’t have the character to rise above his base urges? Or, was God displeased because David had betrayed his God-given, loving, compassionate nature and become aggressive and murderous? I don’t know.
In the gospel lesson for this day Jesus fed 5000 hungry people and he walked across a raging sea to calm a storm and save a boatload of people. “Every day the multitudes come to me for healing and help, and every day I pour myself out for them. I feed them, I forgive them, I save their children, I pray for them, and still they keep coming, by the thousands.” If anyone deserved to feel entitled to a little preferential treatment, it should have been Jesus.
John gives an interesting twist to the familiar story of the feeding of the 5000. When the crowd realized that Jesus could give them food, they were “ready to take him by force and make him King.” And what did Jesus do? “He withdrew to the hills by himself to pray.” He ran from temptation, and privilege, and those feelings of entitlement! He ran for his life and he saved his soul.
I don’t know if you are I are peaceful or violent by nature. But I do believe this: Our most distinctively human characteristic is our ability to make choices; and the choices we make matter enormously.