Monday, August 7, 2017

It's Good to be King

The scriptures referred to are Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21.

It's odd that, despite having just released a film with both Superman and Batman in it, Warner Brothers has had its biggest superhero hit in the last 5 years with Wonder Woman. There was resistance to making a film about a female superhero because it was thought that men wouldn't go see it and women aren't as interested in the genre. Instead people went and were just fine with a woman in the lead. I loved the film but it bothers me that when we talk about strong roles for women we mean a woman who can beat up others, just like male heroes do. Why do we idolize fighters? Why do we consistently elect the physically bigger, ie, taller of two presidential candidates? Why do politicians fear being seen as soft on issues, if not because soft means weak? Why is belligerence seen as a plus for leaders? I think it goes way back to how humans have historically selected chieftain and kings.

When we all lived in scattered tribes trying to eke out a living, while fighting the elements, predators and other tribes, it made sense to let the biggest, meanest guy in our tribe lead. He could prevent the other tribes from raiding our settlements, taking our food and kidnapping our women. When things were desperate for us, he would lead us in raiding other tribes for their food and women. If he was real bloodthirsty, he would probably be feared by the other tribes. And most likely by us as well. So we put up with our big, mean, scary leader getting the best of everything. We wanted him to be happy and have a stake in fighting for us. And if that meant putting up with his greed, his bullying, his favoring his family and friends, and his arrogance, so be it. We probably even made excuses and rationalizations for his bad behavior. He may have been an S.O.B. but he was our S.O.B.

Our attitude didn't change when we transitioned from chieftains to kings, nor when we transitioned from kings to elected officials. Yet the world is a lot more complicated today. Most of us are not barely hanging onto survival, at least not in the developed nations. We have elaborate infrastructures, both physical and social, that supply our needs. Brute force doesn't ensure an adequate food supply anymore; agriculture and ways of preserving and shipping and distributing food do. We no longer have to move the community periodically, possibly through hostile territory, to find fresh game or water or shelter. Defense no longer relies on having big, mean, scary guys who can bash heads in. A 97 pound weakling can fire missiles or launch drones or hack into the enemies' computer systems. 

So we no longer need to let big, mean, scary people be in charge of everything. In fact, we shouldn't. More than anything, we need leaders who are smart, who understand the world and know how it works. We need leaders who are wise, who can work with others and make alliances. We need leaders who are just, who don't regard their position as an excuse to hog the majority of the resources but who make sure everything is done fairly and equitably. We need leaders who are compassionate, who champion the powerless and who recognize that are those who never could impose their wills upon others, who protect them against the bullies in society and make sure the poor and the sick and the marginalized and the unpopular get what they need.

When the twelve tribes of Israel wanted a king like other people, they were essentially rejecting God as their king. (1 Samuel 8:4-7) But God tells Samuel to do as the people say. However, God warns them about the hazards of putting so much power in the hands of one person. They don't care. And so their history is a roller-coaster, the highs coinciding with the rule of just and godly kings and the lows coming along with the rule of unjust and ungodly kings. And the prophets are always there, delivering a minority report on society, pointing out the nation's twin sins of not loving God and not loving their neighbors. People follow the example of their leaders. And leaders reflect what they worship. If they worship themselves or power or money that is what their leadership reflects. If they worship God, then they reflect his character.

Saying we need a godly ruler is not popular today. And that's because people who say such things usually mean a person who is outwardly very pious and hews to a predictable wing of the political spectrum. But defines the word “godly” as “conforming to the laws and wishes of God.” To know someone's wishes, you need to look at what kind of person they are. And when I look at God I see what the psalmist describes in our passages from Psalm 145, a psalm which begins by calling God King.

The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The word for gracious in Hebrew comes from a root word that means “to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior.” God comes down to our level; he closes the gap between us. Our creator could be indifferent to us or look down on us. But he favors us by coming down to us, especially in Jesus. That is the nature of God.

God is full of compassion. The word can also mean “merciful.” It is goes back to a root word for fondle, a gesture of gentle affection. It's not a word we associate with God Almighty. It sounds kind of soft.

Rather than belligerent, God is described as slow to anger. That's good. It's hard to reason with someone who is quick-tempered. But can you reason with God? Yes. Abraham does it. (Genesis 18:16-32) Moses does it. (Exodus 32:7-14) Hezekiah does it. (2 Kings 20:1-11) Amos does it. (Amos 7:1-6) In fact, contrary to what people think, God does change his mind about immediate actions he proposes taking. Scripture says so several times and it is almost always that God changes his mind about punishing his people and relents.

God is abounding in steadfast love. We talked recently about the Hebrew word khesed, which is often translated “lovingkindness” in the King James version. Indeed the root is a word for kindness but this word is also frequently translated as “mercy.” In addition, it is associated with God's covenant commitment to his people and so some translations render it “faithful love” (Holman Christian Standard Bible) or “loyal love” (NET Bible). That's a lot of shades of meaning for one word but the gist is that God is kind, merciful, and faithful in his love.

Lord, you are good to all and your compassion is over all your works.” If you only read certain passages of the Old Testament, it can make Yahweh sound like a tribal deity, the God of our people and not of anyone else. Yet passages like this, Isaiah 2, 25 and 55, and the whole book of Jonah reveal that God loves all, just as we see more clearly in the New Testament. Yes, God hates arrogance, deception, scheming and violence. (Proverbs 6:16-19) But as Jesus says, God makes the sun shine and the rain fall on both the just and the unjust. (Matthew 5:45) Crops don't grow better for the virtuous than for the evil; when folks trip, physics doesn't only apply to the bad and not the good; medical science doesn't only work for the innocent and not for the guilty. We live in a cosmos governed by consistent universal laws. And that's what theologians call “common grace,” God's goodness to all.

The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up those who are bowed down.” Or as the Jewish Publication Society's Tanakh translates it: “The Lord supports all who stumble, and makes all who are bent stand straight.” Once again God, the heavenly king, is pictured as perfectly content to stoop to pick us up when we stumble or fall. 

And I am intrigued by what bows down the people in the second half of the verse. Are they bent because they are carrying a burden? Are they being crushed by oppression? Are they bowed down by the weight of their sins? Whatever it is God raises them up and helps them get upright once more.

The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them food in due season.” That lifeforms must eat to stay alive is basic biology. We need water, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. But various species derive them from different sources, based on their specific needs and environments. Some animals are herbivores, some are carnivores, and some are omnivores. But at the base of the food pyramid are plants. If the herbivores run out of plants to eat, they die and then where are the carnivores and omnivores going to get their food? So all of us are dependent on growing seasons, which are dependent on rainfall and temperatures. That's the natural equilibrium of creation.

That's why our ever longer and hotter summers and ever shorter winters are dangerous. The Syrian civil war began with food riots due to a drought and bread shortages. The Department of Defense says the number one threat to world stability is global warming. It will lead to more food insecurity which will lead to more political instability, more wars and more refugee crises. God set up a world in balance. We have upset that balance in nature as we have upset it in human relations. Our ancestors were more in touch with the rhythms of creation. We need to get back in harmony with our providential God.

You open wide your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” I have to admit I was surprised by the idea of God satisfying our desires. Needs, yes, but desires? But that is what the Hebrew says and the word has overtones of delight and pleasure. God is not a cosmic killjoy, contrary to what some non-believers and, alas, some believers seem to think. It doesn't say God will satisfy every desire because some are unhealthy and self-destructive. But he will fulfill our basic desires, such as for love and justice and peace.

But like the cycle of nature he set up to give us food, we can and frequently do disrupt his methods of fulfilling our desires by our rejection of them or our rejection of elements of them. For instance, we desire sex. God has provided for that with stable pair-bonding or marriage. But sometimes we want the sex without the concomitant commitment. And that leads to unfaithfulness, disease, domestic turmoil, broken families and damaged and sometimes unwanted children. As C.S. Lewis says, God doesn't hate sex. He likes it. He created it. But we need to use it as he intended or we create chaos, pain, division and eventually death.

And so it is with all our desires. Just as we can't let our desire for junk food supersede our need for healthy nutrition, so we mustn't let our desires disrupt our spiritual health. God wants to satisfy our desires but not at the expense of our wellbeing.

You are righteous in all your ways and loving in all your works.” While I was writing this my granddaughter had a meltdown over candy she found in the church fridge. I said she could have a piece if she finished her lunch, which had one of her favorites, broccoli. She picked at her meal and barely made a dent in it. So I said she hadn't had enough of her healthy food to merit candy as a dessert. She acted as if I had taken her pet puppy away and sold it to Cruella Deville. She was desolate. I had to explain why her parents and grandparents had such rules. Too much candy and too little good food would be bad for her and over time could make her sick. We love her and want her to be healthy.

God is loving in all his works. It is all for our good, though from our spiritually immature viewpoint it may look as if he is just being mean. The trick then is to learn to look at everything from God's perspective and see how even the stuff we don't like is loving. Like gravity. We hate dropping and breaking stuff. And worldwide falls are the second leading cause of unintentional injury death and the number one cause of injuries and death among elderly Americans. So did God create gravity to hurt and kill us? No. Gravity also keeps us from flying off of our rapidly spinning globe and into the airless cold of space. Even if we evolved the velcro-like microscopic fibers on our hands and feet that allow lizards to cling to anything, it wouldn't do us much good if all our water was flung into the void. Gravity is good, if you respect it. It's one of the cosmic constants that allows life to exist.

You are near to all who call upon you, to all who call upon you faithfully. You fulfill the desire of those who fear you; you hear their cry and save them.” Again God is not like a watchmaker who puts together something that is intricate and then puts it on display and walks away. He is near to us, his creatures, and responsive to those who who are faithfully responsive to him. For those who have a healthy respect for him, as one does for gravity, he hears their cry for help and rescues them.

To summarize, God is gracious, compassionate, patient, loyal, merciful, righteous, loving, good to all and one who saves others. Note, by the way, that most of those qualities are what traditionally are thought of as feminine virtues. That was drawn to my attention by one of my Bible profs in college when we were discussing the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. They are characteristics we tend to think of in connection with a nurturing parent rather than a strict father. And yet scripture itself attributes them to God.

We are created in God's image. And he intends us to rule with Christ in his new creation. If we are to act as his vice-regents we need to start now to emulate God, our King, to be the leaders he wants us to be. Of course we cannot do it ourselves. God's image is marred in all of us to some extent by our sins, our self-destructive ways of thinking and speaking and acting. The only way we can hope to be able to become like our King is to let him rescue us from ourselves. Fortunately, we know we can trust him to do just that. He is gracious and full of compassion. He supports all those who fall and raises up those who are bowed down. With his Spirit, we can go and do likewise. 

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