Psalm 81 – Be Safe This Thanksgiving

13 “If my people would only listen to me,
    if Israel would only follow my ways,
14 how quickly I would subdue their enemies
    and turn my hand against their foes!
15 Those who hate the Lord would cringe before him,
    and their punishment would last forever.
16 But you would be fed with the finest of wheat;
    with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

This Psalm has so many parallels to todays’ realities, it’s uncanny. First, it takes place at a festival, most likely the Feast of the Tabernacles. Like Thanksgiving, the Feast of the Tabernacles (also called Sukkot) occurs in Autumn, during the harvest-time. It also involves a lot of food, celebrating, and getting together.

Second, many of the words uttered by the “unknown voice” in this Psalm could be uttered from any epidemiologist who warned about the pandemic, if you take out the God language. For example, vv. 13 and 14 would sound something like this: “If only the people would listen, if they would only follow directives. How quickly we could subdue this virus! How quickly we could prove naysayers wrong!”

Finally, and most importantly, the warning against false gods in vv. 8-9. “Hear me, my people, and I will warn you—if you would only listen to me, Israel!  You shall have no foreign god among you; you shall not worship any god other than me.” The idea of foreign gods has been on my mind a lot as I listen to travel and infection rate predictions for the holiday weekend. No one (that I know of) is still praying to Molech or Baal, but other “foreign gods,” gods that take us away from the one true God of love, have become much more insidious. How much do we follow Selfishness, Greed, Exceptionalism, and Exclusion? These have become our gods.

Collectively, we allow Selfishness to govern us when we decide to not take precautions during Covid, because it would inconvenience us. Collectively, we allow Greed to govern us when we hoard PPE, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer. Collectively, we let Exceptionalism govern us when we think, “but it won’t happen to me.” Collectively, we allow Exclusion to govern us when we refuse to share information, such as vaccine research, and resources, such as more liberal PTO or stimulus checks that mean something. Selfishness, Greed, and all the rest do not have one single altar we can destroy, one high place we can decry, but that doesn’t make them any less powerful, and in following them we have fallen away from God.

I wrote a few weeks ago about our own Thanksgiving’s continually racist traditions, so I’m not going to rehash that right now. Today, all I want to do is urge you, beg you, really, to be safe and prudent this holiday season. I know it’s hard. It is so, so hard. And I’m not trying to shame the people who have to support their family, send their kids to daycare in order to do so, or go on essential travel. But so much of what I see happening out there isn’t that. To make it worse, it isn’t done carefully. I find it disturbing that, despite infection rates skyrocketing past 150,000 new cases per day, there are still large, unmasked gatherings happening. Take, for example, the Million MAGA March, or Polyface Farm’s 300 person mask-less pop-up event, which in the last paragraph of the event description categorically denies the CDC, accepted contagion theories, and basic protective measures.

So please, remember that we are all children of God. God loves each and every one of us, and therefore we should love each other, too. One of the best ways we can do that right now is by keeping each other safe and healthy. Perhaps you won’t get sick, but in moving across the country you could bring one community’s infection back home to your own, where it will kill someone’s grandmother, someone’s partner, someone’s child. The time for festivals, gatherings, and celebration will come again, but only if we are patient and restrained now.

1 Kings 2: A Call to Bridge Building (For Some)

When the time drew near for David to die, he gave a charge to Solomon his son.

“I am about to go the way of all the earth,” he said. “So be strong, act like a man, and observe what the Lord your God requires: Walk in obedience to him, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and regulations, as written in the Law of Moses. Do this so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go and that the Lord may keep his promise to me: ‘If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel.’ (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

Let’s stick with Kings this week, and talk about the divide I’ve seen between people calling for reaching out to Trump supporters and people declaring they are done, and not to expect anything but a cold shoulder. At the risk of sounding completely noncommittal, I think both are completely valid decisions, and I will discuss why, after we review what, exactly, is in today’s chapter.

A three-fold example of justice

I was ruminating upon this thought divide while sitting with 1 Kings. As I mentioned last week, Kings is basically one long story of regime change, and can offer us much wisdom when it comes to our own election-years. The chapter we discuss today involves the passing of the crown from David to Solomon. In particular, David gives his final orders to his son Solomon, and the rest of the chapter follows Solomon doling out the judgment for which David called.

It’s an elegant chapter, in its three-fold example of justice. Solomon has to show discretion in deciding how to deal with three problematic individuals. First, Solomon’s conniving older brother, Adonijah, tries to undermine Solomon by requesting one of David’s last consorts, which, according to my NIV study notes, was a blatant power grab. Allowing Adonijah to go unpunished could lead to insurrection, and a firm and swift judgement was needed.

Second comes Joab. He was a thorn in David’s side for much of his reign: a rogue military man who was always for David, but acted out of turn and against David’s wishes on multiple occasions. Joab enjoyed David’s (begrudging) protection, but Solomon had no further reason to continue that protection, and thus removed a potentially problematic officer from his regime. Disposing of Joab reduced the threat of military shenanigans, further securing Solomon’s throne, while also showing a long memory and attention to detail: This is a king who is sharp, he will not let anything – small or large, old or new – escape his notice.

Finally, Solomon shows restraint with Shimei. Shimei basically picked the wrong side in the fight between Absalom and David, and then repented of his acts. David did not punish him at the time of his crime, but clearly had it on his conscious for some time. “You are a man of wisdom,” David says to Solomon in v. 9, “You wil know what to do with him.” Solomon tries mercy, first, basically putting Shimei on a travel restriction, allowing him to remain in Jerusalem – and Jerusalem only. But Shimei ends up leaving Jerusalem to collect runaway slaves, thus violating his agreement with Solomon, and opening the door for a legal execution.

As a small but important foible to all these disposals, Abiathar, a supporter of Adonijah, is simply banished in deference to his previous good service in carrying the ark. Allowing Abiathar to go into banishment showed restraint and kindness while still being firm.

To build a bridge…

Now, killing people is the opposite of bridge building, so let me share with you why it reminded me of contemporary times: Solomon showed discretion and subtlety in handling each of these delicate situations in a tenuous time of regime change, using the right tools and the right people for each job. It’s something our leaders could learn from, but also something we can learn from, as well. Like Solomon, we need to clearly define our own boundaries, fully understand our own strengths, and look outwards beyond ourselves to see what is for the good of our larger communities in how we act.

Or not to build a bridge…

For many, that action may be no action at all, when it comes to conciliatory gestures. If you are confused or frustrated by the anger still coming from some liberal camps, consider this: Trump’s hateful rhetoric in and of itself is enough to be exhausting. But beyond that, he has actively infringed upon the rights of many. There are still kids in cages at the border, as well as a humanitarian crisis in Syria the US has all but washed its hands of. Trump has actively rolled back LGBTQ anti-discrimination policies in HUD, the Department of Education, and elsewhere, directly impacting thousands of individuals’ ability to access healthcare, housing, and education. Finally, he has seriously jeopardized the health and safety of the entire country through his downplaying of the pandemic. Don’t believe me? Ask literally the whole world. The USA’s skyrocketing infection rate is why you and every other traveling American are currently blocked from entering so many countries.

So no, a vote for Trump is not simply a difference in opinion vis-à-vis tax income vs. investment tax rates or how much of a role the federal government should take in supplying rural broadband connections. A vote for Trump, no matter how it was “meant,” is a de facto vote for real and active discrimination against marginalized people of the country and, quite frankly, the entire world. Dismantling the damage done by the dominant policies and attitudes of the past four years is going to take a lot more than a single election of a single Democratic president, so some people are going to keep fighting, hard. And some people are exhausted thinking about that uphill battle. Everyone is different, and this is just a brief overview of a very complicated issue…but I hope that it at least gives readers a frame of conference that may have otherwise been lacking.

Don’t start building bridges if…

Are you exhausted? Let’s pause right here and do a quick self-evaluation. Because if you are exhausted, pushing yourself is going to do more harm than good. Here’s some warning signs that you may need to put yourself on pause:

  • Outsized reactions: Are you crying more? Are you startling easier? Getting angry quicker? All of these are signs of emotional burnout, compassion fatigue, and stress; and are flashing red lights that you need to get some rest.
  • Trouble focusing or remaining objective: If you feel like you’re walking around in a fog, forgetting things, having trouble problem solving or getting emotional over little problems, you may be suffering from fatigue – emotional or physical.
  • Physical symptoms: Stress and exhaustion cause physical symptoms, too. These can include headaches, back pain, nausea and other gut issues, nervous tics or restless arms/legs (both can be caused by an overproduction of adrenaline), and hair loss, to name a few.
  • The big red flags: Depression, emotional numbness, loss of purpose, suicidal thoughts. If you’re experiencing any of these you definitely need to seek help.

It’s normal for everyone to experience any of these symptoms from time to time, but if you were nodding along to multiple symptoms on this list, I’m going to tell you to stop reading right here and go take a bubble bath with your choice of chamomile tea or red wine. Come on back when you feel a little better. Seriously, go.

But back to building those bridges…

So, if you’re not off taking that bubble bath and still interested in building bridges, congratulations, you’ve already taken the first step in exercising your discretion a là King Solomon. Actually, everyone discussed here so far has shown that discretion: those who have already stepped back from conciliatory discussions, those who are newly recognizing their exhaustion and taking care of themselves, and those recognizing they still have the energy to act as God’s good agents. Now, where do we go from here?

  • Pick your battles. Just because you’re committed to repairing the broken trust of this country doesn’t mean you need to take on everything and everybody. You still have the right to walk away from an argument that is getting out of control at any time.
  • Pick a focus. What makes you passionate? There’s no right answer, and you don’t have to feel guilty about picking one thing over the other. All causes, from Black Lives Matter to disability access to immigration reform, need champions.
  • Play to your strengths. I highly recommend taking a skills assessment. There’s plenty online, the one I found particularly helpful, as it was faith based, was the Spiritual Gifts Assessment from the United Methodist Church. I scored highest in Interpretation, and it’s one reason why I write this blog. I’m good at explaining things, and the more I explain how God’s unconditional love is evident throughout the entire the Bible, the more I hope that unconditional love will spread in the world. Other people are good at organizing, others at protesting. Even less “godly” skillsets like lobbying or litigation are just as important in achieving a just and good world. I’ll also mention there’s lots of ways to get involved without actually speaking, let alone arguing, because direct confrontation is definitely not for everybody.

It can be easy to forget this in a time of quarantine and pandemic, but I want to leave you with this thought: We are not alone. We do not have to solve all the world’s problems by ourselves. Look at all the teamwork and delegation that happens in this single chapter about one of the world’s greatest kings: David passed his crown (and attending business) to Solomon. Solomon listened to his mother’s council and requests (though I will admit, in this case, she was being manipulated and Solomon saw through it. But she does council him wisely in other chapters). Solomon leaned heavily on Benaiah in executing justice. He appointed Zadok the priesthood vacated by Abiathar. In short, creating the world we want to see is a team effort, and one that will have constantly changing roles. Perhaps now is your time to rest, perhaps now is your time to step up to the plate. It is going to take the wisdom of Solomon to find our way forward, but we have each other to lean upon, and God to guide us forward. With those odds, how could we not, in the long run, make things better?

1 Kings 15 – A Response to the 2020 Election: Transitions of Power

25 Nadab son of Jeroboam became king of Israel in the second year of Asa king of Judah, and he reigned over Israel two years. 26 He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the ways of his father and committing the same sin his father had caused Israel to commit.

27 Baasha son of Ahijah from the tribe of Issachar plotted against him, and he struck him down at Gibbethon, a Philistine town, while Nadab and all Israel were besieging it. 28 Baasha killed Nadab in the third year of Asa king of Judah and succeeded him as king. (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

Watching election coverage last week I knew I wanted to discuss Kings, which is basically one long chronicle of regime change. I wish I had a magic ball to tell you what is going to happen with the upcoming transition of power. Even as Biden is called winner while I sit here writing, the transition to his presidency still faces challenges – a lot of nonsense can happen between now and January, my friends. But in reading a few chapters of 1 Kings this week, I was reminded of this: transitions of power, whether they be peaceful, contested, or anything else, are a consistent part of human history, something to be expected and endured…not unlike death and taxes.

Parallels between Kings 15 and Today’s Politics

So much of Kings, particularly this chapter, has parallels in all of human history, up to and including today. Take v. 13, written about King Asa of Judah: “He even disposed his grandmother Maacah from her position as queen mother, because she had made a repulsive Asherah pole.” Just a few days ago I read an article about how the politics, policies and personal conduct of Trump and his supporters has torn families apart, with both sides disowning the other. I was also reminded of our own Civil War, where underage sons defied parental wishes to sneak North or South to fight.

In this story of regime change, there is also the accompanying story of changes in diplomatic relations: The same King Asa who disposed his grandmother went to a neighboring king, Ben-Hadad, to tempt him into a new treaty, breaking Ben-Hadad’s treaty with King Asa’s enemy King Baasha. (vv. 18-22) Biden has already promised changes in diplomatic relations, and he isn’t even in office yet. On November fourth, Biden tweeted “Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it.” It may not exactly be a treaty coup a lá King Asa, but it will dramatically change the diplomatic landscape of not only the US but also the world.

Even the division of Israel reminds me of the division of the US. In Kings, the unified Israel of Solomon is divided into a Northern kingdom of ten tribes and the Southern kingdom of Judah. To be clear, there are many countries and kingdoms that have been divided along a North/South line – I think it is dangerous to read the Bible looking for prophetic parallels to contemporary times. But the fact that it has been so read, and the fact that this division has existed in so many places and times, does speak to the universality of the text, and the universality of this human experience.

God keeps Their promises

It’s not much comfort that so many people throughout history can look at a contentious political climate and nod sympathetically, but at least it reminds us that politics is an endurance sport, not a sprint, as it always has been. There will be better rulers, such as Asa, who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (v. 11), and worse rulers, such as Abijah, who “committed all the sins his father had done before him” (v. 3).

But the important thing to remember is that God keeps Their promises. Let’s start with the second half of this chapter, where Baasha rises up in the Northern kingdom of Israel and wipes out Jeroboam’s regime down to the last person. This, gruesome as it is, is in fulfillment of God’s promise. It’s a doubly tragic story, as Jeroboam had the opportunity to create a new covenant with God that went alongside God’s covenant with Israel. In Kings 11:38-39 God tells Jeroboam, “If you do whatever I command you and walk in my ways and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statutes, I will be with you. I will build you a dynasty as enduring as the one I built for David and will give Israel to you.” (Emphasis mine.) Imagine what it would have been like to have two kingdoms blessed by God. It makes me wonder exactly how many such covenants could have existed and how it could have changed the course of history. Unfortunately, Jeroboam did not hold up his end of the deal, so that opportunity was not only lost, but he so angered God that God promised to wipe out his whole family. In Baasha’s uprising detailed at the end of this chapter, that promise of retribution was kept.

On the flip side of that coin, even the evil of all the kings of Judah could not move God’s hand against them. This is spelled out explicitly in vv. 4-5: “Nevertheless, for David’s sake the Lord his God gave him [Abijah] a lamp in Jerusalem by raising up a son to succeed him and by making Jerusalem strong. For David had done what was right in the eyes of the Lord and had not failed to keep any of the Lord’s commands all the days of his life — except in the case of Uriah the Hittite [a story for another day].” God so loved David that Xe made a promise to him that God upheld, despite the fact that David’s descendants did not honor the terms of the covenant.

God’s promise to us, and how we can make it even better.

So what is God’s promise to us, the ones who are living in today’s world? It is the promise of salvation through Jesus Christ. God so loved the world, just as he loved David, that God sent his only son to prepare the world for a communion with the divine that would be open to all. And I mean all. Nothing we can do will change that ultimate salvation, because nothing we can do will negate God’s love for the world. This has been proven from Noah to Jesus and beyond.

But, if we look at the story of Kings, there is clearly a lot of wiggle room in the details. (Dare I say…the devil’s in the details? I crack myself up, at least.) Yes, David’s lineage was continuous. But because they turned from God’s ways, David’s descendants were relegated to one small part of the kingdom, and to regimes plagued by war and dissent, instead of ruling prosperously over all of Israel.

Back to today. What can we do to make our deal with eternal salvation even better? It is succinctly stated in the Greatest Commandment, given several times in the New Testament and actually adapted from Deuteronomy: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Again, emphasis mine.) Can you imagine how God would smile down upon us if we made our world a world where no one went hungry? How God would smile down upon us if we recognized the human dignity of every female, non-binary, and brown individual? If those suffering mental illness, disability, or addiction were not stigmatized but given the resources they needed to be fully participatory members of society? If everyone was able to live healthy lives through access to quality health care?

From a purely selfish standpoint, just think of all the contributions of those who have been lucky enough to “beat the odds” and contribute to society. Anecdotally, let’s look at Stephen Hawking. His remarkably long and productive life with ALS can be at least in part attributed to his access to early screening and a devoted family who could (afford to) care for him. Now, think of all the artists, from Oscar Wilde and Zora Neale Thurston to Judy Garland and Sammy Davis, Jr who could have continued creating and contributing if they hadn’t died in poverty brought on by medical bills and addictions. And those are just the famous ones. How many creative minds have succumbed to debt, disease, and death before they even had a chance to contribute? If we made a society that treated everyone compassionately, the potential blessings for all of us could truly be manifold.

A final word on the election

Biden winning is, at least for me, a small breath of relief. I won’t feel at ease until he is sworn in, to be honest. I know we all need that breath of relief, so please, go ahead and take it. But don’t forget the popular vote: over seventy million people, nearly half of those who voted, voted for Trump. We have a long way to go in order counteract the hate and vitriol of seventy million people who, in voting for Trump, voted for racism, homophobia, and intolerance of every sort.

This isn’t something that most Biden voters want to hear, but a large part of this reconstruction process needs to be reaching out to Trump voters and making allies of them, so someone like Trump doesn’t win them over again. We need to show them how an equitable society benefits them, as well (because it will). We need to work harder than ever now to make sure that someone like Trump doesn’t happen again, so that in future years we can look back and say, “Wow, that was really bad, and look at how close we got to it getting even worse!” Then, and only then – after the hard work of reconciliation and equity are done, not to mention the winning of hearts and minds – can we truly breathe easy. Because then we will not only have the promise of eternal (and universal) salvation, but all the bonus benefits of an inclusive and loving society, as God desires for us, and waits for us to achieve. I pray that this election is the first step down that road, and I’ll look for ways to keep traveling it. With God’s help, I hope you will, too.