Fasting From Heroes

It’s still Lent, so I’d like to say a word or two about fasting. Fasting traditionally means abstaining from food for a period of time and has been picked up by many as a way of taking a break from something. It could be anything. Dessert, alcohol, TV…etc. I’d like to ask you to consider something a bit different. Fast from your heroes.

Have you ever found yourself rationalizing the behavior of someone you deeply respect? Their shortcomings are overshadowed by their great contribution to your life. Perhaps you would like to model them in some way. Of course there is always the risk that by modeling your life after theirs that you will not only find their success but perhaps you will also stumble into their darkness. I’m not sure this is an avoidable aspect of life, but when mixed with the obligatory acceptance and approval of religion, this danger becomes startlingly present. So, since this is a season of change and reflection, perhaps I might convince you to take a second look at your heroes in a way that may help you grasp that ever elusive “reality”. As an example I’d like to present one of my greatest childhood heroes, King David, from the Hebrew scriptures.

Reading through 1 and 2 Samuel one can find a plethora of stories that would appeal to almost any young mind, perhaps uniquely the young mind of a male child raised within American masculinity. The young boy who grows into a mighty warrior and popular King is quite addicting. It sparks the imagination and can contribute to development in a very real way. For me, many situations I encountered were filtered through a lens which compared my reactions and actions with those of my heroes, especially David, with the goal being more alignment between my reality and the ideal of the narrative. Of course, looking back, this was greatly assisted by the majority of my scriptural intake during childhood coming from picture bibles and movies, none of which, in my opinion, truly display the horror that is sometimes described in such a banal way throughout these stories. Perhaps that does need to be done at some point, though that media would be very difficult to absorb I think.

I’m not saying that the narrative of 1 and 2 Samuel doesn’t criticize David. It does. Biblical apologists rightly point out that the Hebrew scriptures have a unique penchant in ancient literature for exposing the dark sides of their heroes. We should learn from them. However, it IS interesting that what the narrators find reprehensible are perhaps small and relatively unimportant compared to what we would find disturbing if we were to have accurate theatrical portrayal of the, often celebrated, acts of David. Let me now bring your attention to a central example that is perhaps the epitome of my point.

In 1 Samuel 27 we find the pre-king David and his company of warriors, for reasons I won’t get into here, going to Achish, king of his notorious enemies, the Philistines, and asking for refuge from the current king of Israel, Saul. This would be a slap in the face to Saul and the king of Gath (philistine capitol) knows it. So he allows David to take possession of a nearby town for his home. To retain the favor of the king and to make a “decent” living, David spends the next year raiding nearby villages and taking all their goods and livestock. He then brings a percentage of these spoils to Achish. David tells Achish that he has been spoiling Israelite villages to get these goods and so Achish is all for it. His enemies are hurt and more riches are brought to him. In reality it is neighboring Canaanite communities that have been feeling the edge of David’s sword. The question is, how does David keep up this ruse?

I would dare say I wouldn’t be able to stomach seeing the reality depicted in a well produced Hollywood film. When David ransacks a village he puts everyone to death. This way there is simply no one left to tell the tale. Some might speculate that perhaps babies could be saved, being unaware and unable to tattle, but let’s give the narrative the benefit of the doubt here and take it for its word. Every man and woman, including children, would have to be executed to prevent word of David’s action from spreading.

Yes the overall narrative criticizes David, but not for this, perhaps for sleeping with another man’s wife and killing him to get away with it, but not this. No prophet comes from the shadows with a clever story to trick David into condemning his own action. Nothing. The narrator, and apparently God, is banal in his description and opinion of these events. Perhaps it is this indifference in the narrative that causes so many to simply gloss over this when they read it.

I don’t highlight this story to simply bring up David’s immoral acts or to ask if we might consider a David as a villain rather than a hero considering the cultural context. After all, at that time, there might very well have been similar canaanite bandits raiding and destroying Israelite towns. In fact this is all highly dependent on the narrative. We don’t know if a “historical” David really did these things. I bring it up because, if we are again to believe the narrative, David had a hero as well, one by which he could measure his own actions. One whom he modeled in his merciless treatment of canaanites.

Joshua. The original conqueror. The two can easily be compared and some scholars even see David as continuing the campaign/pogrom of Joshua during this span of his life and the general Davidic conquest of the kingdom. And so we must be very careful with heroes. Especially religious ones. Like David himself, many, even to this day, still model the conquest of Joshua and the establishment of David-ish kingdom in Israel. Many settlers in the area surrounding modern day Israel and their American religious allies carry on this “grand” tradition and see their lives through the lens of ancient heroes.

So that brings us back to the conundrum. How can we not have heroes? How can we not have models? Are we alone in the sense that we always run the risk of adopting the darkness of the other as well as the light? Perhaps, but perhaps fasting can give perspective and warn us of our own hidden motives created by our unfiltered adoration.

Photo Courtesy of Lou Levit

 

Lent as Preparation

The word Lent, in it’s original language, means Spring. Spring as a time of growth and renewal is a refreshing change from winter but perhaps we might see it as preparation as well for the season of summer with all of its work, productivity, celebration and fruitfulness.

All great movements, like great stories, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning in a story might be a tale of origin. In movements, the beginning is defined by preparation. Take, for example, the story of the movement surrounding Martin Luther King Jr, itself a specific instance of the greater civil rights movement. King’s movements were almost always preceded by intense preparation, often in the churches of the communities he helped. This preparation was absolutely vital for, without it, the massive resistance to the movement could not be withstood. His speeches and direction, accompanied by mutual encouragement and conversation among the participants, prepared the people for the work they were about to do.

What in your life right now is worth preparing for? How can you prepare your self. Not just your body or your mind, but your essential humanity.

The Christian season of lent is modeled after the story of Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness before he brought the gospel to the people, and that story, in turn, is modeled after the story of Moses spending 40 days on the Mountain before bringing the Israelites the law. These were major movements within communities that required preparation. But do we not face major events of life every year?

In a sense the personal mission of historical and/or mythical figures is made of central importance by their followers and perhaps also always obscured by the narratives handed down, again by the followers. I would not wish to trivialize or minimize the impact and example of their missions and great movements. However, I also do not want to minimize the impact and change each of us brings to our world. It’s profound and equally obscured by mundane circumstances instead of fanatic or devout followers. Is the fact that another person will be added to my family this year somehow less important then the events in the lives of Moses or Jesus? To you my readers I’m sure it is of less importance. And in a statistical sense it will probably mean less to far fewer people. However, to me, it is no less important and I would not consider myself a good father if I felt otherwise. I’m sure if you think about it, you could bring to mind those things in your life as well.

So here is my challenge to myself and please take this up if you feel so inclined. Use this season, from now till Easter, to prepare yourself for what is coming this year. I’m not speaking of self-improvement. That’s important but New Years already has it covered. I’m also not talking about preparation in the sense of to-do lists or buying supplies, or painting the house. I am challenging myself to use the internal disciplines that I would normally perform, or at least hear about, for lent, and to direct the intention of those disciplines toward preparing for what is coming this year, to strengthen my inner self and tap into my humanity. For me, that means removing distraction and having more time of stillness and quiet, both in the house (much less TV) and in my mind as well. I’m taking a fast, as much as I am able, from critical evaluation of people’s expressions. Critical thought is a good thing, so are TV shows (Parks and Rec reruns anyone?). But sometimes dissecting everything everyone says just takes over. I’m directing this intentional inward discipline toward preparing for what is to come.

If you don’t feel you have something this year bigger than yourself to prepare for, perhaps this is your opportunity to reflect and consider how you may change that.

I’ve already shared just one of the things that needs some internal preparation for me and that is the quickly approaching birth of a new baby. What is it for you and how will you prepare? Leave a comment.

The Danger of Repentance

It is Ash Wednesday, a day celebrated for centuries by good catholics everywhere and also, increasingly, by the evangelical church in America. There are doubtless many recent articles highlighting the benefits of observing this day and the season of Lent. If you are not educated on this part of the church calendar feel free to do some light reading about it.

A major point of focus today, across the globe, will be the practice and idea of repentance. The two popular, but perhaps somewhat divergent, meanings assigned to the word “repentance”, can be summed up as follows.

  1. Repentance is the act of admitting that one has sinned against God in thought, deed or belief by breaking God’s law or commands, asking for God’s forgiveness and perhaps the forgiveness of others, and deciding to better act, think, or believe in line with the commands of God in scripture.
  2. Repentance is an intentional change in direction based on a new understanding of God and/or his direction and mission.

These overlap of course but they can also diverge drastically because the second de-couples itself from the Bible as an objective standard of morality. However, what I’m here to write about is a danger inherent in both of these activities. When one has been convinced that God is on a mission and that our actions, thoughts and beliefs can influence that mission, we may find ourselves under enormous pressure to find out how we ought to behave and likewise what we ought to abstain from in order to align ourselves with that mission. This can be a very powerful tool in human communities and calls to repentance are often the catalyst for massive changes in community direction, action, and values.

Let me offer an example. In the book of Ezra, chapter 9 & 10, the community is convinced by some Judean princes and the leader, Ezra that the men in the community were guilty of breaking God’s law by taking wives from other Canaanite communities. With the Babylonian captivity fresh in their minds, they believed that such a blatant act of disobedience, if tolerated, would lead to the removal of the favor that had allowed them to resettle in Jerusalem and again subject them to oppression by foreigners.

The community had a fresh sense of the importance of walking in the ways of God. Armed with an understanding that they were destined to walk fully into God’s mission, and that rededicating themselves to the law of Moses was the best way to do that, they took drastic action to remedy this error. We can read in chapter 10 that the men pledged to “put away” the foreign wives. Some with whom they had children. Now there’s a lot of debate as to whether they still supported those wives after “putting them away” or just put them out on the street, or even expelled them from the community. In any case, the sense is that these women and children got the short end of this deal. Their fault for not being born Israelite I guess…

All debate aside, it can’t really be denied that the motivation behind the action was a renewed effort to align the community with the mission of God by what was seen as strict adherence to the law of Moses as the conduit through which that mission would be accomplished. We can see this tradition carry forward into the first century when we read of the legal debates between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels. I cannot help but think of Jesus prioritizing mercy over strict adherence in places like Matthew 9. Perhaps these passages from Ezra would have been upon Jesus’ mind as he discussed the law, particularly with his strong stance against divorce.

Whether it’s Ezra, the law of Moses, or even the teachings of Jesus being used, true believers are too often led away from softness of heart by religious edicts which would replace it with a stone like, impenetrable certainty of rightness and holy mission. I can say from experience that strict adherence to “God’s word” can often fight against our own conscience at times and lead us to destroy good things in this world. Things like relationships, family or otherwise, as we see in Ezra, and as I have experienced in my own life. I can’t help but wonder if some of those men who had grown to love their wives were resistant at first but finally convinced that the relationship must be sacrificed in order to live in obedience to God.

By all means seek repentance and ask God to reveal where you need a change of direction in this season. But for the good of the world and the benefit of God’s mission, seek mercy and love over sacrifice and religious codes.