David & Donald: Does God Use Imperfect People to Be Great Leaders?

Jerry Falwell, Jr. compared Donald Trump to King David in March of this year. Explaining his endorsement Falwell said,

“God called King David a man after God’s own heart even though he was an adulterer and a murderer.” (1)

Given the nature of political leadership, the argument that God uses flawed human beings for good, for God’s purposes is a legitimate topic. Did God use the extremely imperfect David for good? In our own time is God using another imperfect man, Donald Trump, for good?

***

Despite his reputation over the millennia as a great king, David was a human being. He was a sinner who did terrible things. From our twenty-first century vantage point he was despicable.

David lusted after Bathsheba who was bathing on a nearby roof, as was ancient custom. And, though, lust in and of itself can be a normal human response, like other men (and women) he did not have to act upon that physical urge.

One evening, David got up from his couch and was pacing back and forth on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.

So David sent messengers to get her. When she came to him, he had sex with her. (2 Samuel 11:2, 4a CEB)

You might remember, this was no innocent hook up between consenting adults. This was a king who at best abused his wealth and power to have sex with a married woman or at worst raped her. Both interpretations can be legitimately argued.

David wasn’t done, however, with his despicable abuse of power and wealth. He covered up his actions by having Bathsheba’s husband killed! David used his power to satisfy his sexual urges at the expense of a woman and then abused his power as commander of the army to assure the husband died in battle.

God was certainly angry with David. God took his wives and gave them to others. God allowed the child born to Bathsheba to die. David was publicly humiliated as God took his patriarchal privilege away in a way that left him open for ridicule. God said,

“You did what you did secretly, but I will do what I am doing before all Israel in the light of day.” (2 Samuel 12:12 CEB)

What was David’s response when he was called out?

“I’ve sinned against the LORD!” David said to Nathan. (2 Samuel 12:13a CEB) 

A contrite David humbled himself before God. And God forgave and offered grace to David, to one who admitted his sin, humbled himself, and showed contrition. But God did not take away the consequences of David’s sin.

Because David admitted his sins and was contrite and received God’s grace, he became a great king. Though God would still love David whether he was contrite or not, it was his humble response and admission of his sin that allowed the God-David relationship to move forward.

Ultimately David will restore Jerusalem to the Israelites. Yes, God does use flawed human beings for good, for God’s purposes.

***

In our time we have Donald Trump, a financial king who would like to become the leader of his people.

Like David, Donald has a history of allowing his appetite for power and sexuality lead him astray. He was caught on tape belittling women, discussing sexual assault because, he bragged,

“…when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” (2)

What was Donald’s response when he was called out?

As accusations (and corroboration) from numerous women have surfaced about his abuse of power to sexually assault them, he has not confessed in anything near contrition. Instead, he has doubled down calling them liars. He has pointed his finger at others who have misbehaved as a five-year-old might: “Todd did it first!”

So, no. Donald Trump is not like King David.

Yes, David was an extremely flawed human being who went on to become a great leader. The difference, however, was that David admitted and confessed his sins when called out. David showed immediate contrition! He didn’t call Bathsheba names or point his finger at other leaders.

No, Donald is not at all like King David.

***

  1. http://www.christianpost.com/news/jerry-falwell-jr-trump-bible-king-david-a-man-after-god-own-heart-russell-moore-159143/
  2. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2016/10/07/donald_trump_2005_tape_i_grab_women_by_the_pussy.html

When You Hike with God

Sometimes hiking with God can be confusing. You don’t even realize God is with you at first. You may have a crowd of thoughts and worries pushing against you threatening to knock you off the path. But God? It seems like everyone but God is on that trail.

One step. One step more.

As you trudge along on your hike with God, the crowd trudges with you. Then, you notice an elaborate web spun across an old tree stump.

An elaborate web spun across the rough top of a tree stump. Photo by Tim Graves.

You pause, fascinated by the intricate work until that nag in your head pushes you, “C’mon, no time to look at bugs!” You continue on your way. The crowd that piled out of the car with you at the trailhead is still with you. But God? God’s nowhere to be found.

The carping crew breeds doubts. “Maybe I should turn around,” you tell yourself. But you don’t.

One step. One step more.

As you continue hiking with God, you wonder why it’s so hard. The ensemble in tow begins to whine as the trail gets steeper and steeper. Pausing for a sip of water, you realize your heart is working hard to keep you moving upward on the winding trail. You notice your breathing and check your heart rate as the trail gets more difficult.

A steep switchback along the Dog River Trail in the Mt. Hood National Forest. Photo by Tim Graves

As you hike with God, you start calculating how far you’ve gone. You wonder how long it would take to get back to civilization should your phone ring. “Go ahead! Look at it! You know you want to,” cajoles the crowd. Reaching into your pocket you pull your phone out, glance at the time. As you’re about to open your email, you hear a rustle at the side of the trail.

That’s when you notice the funky flower. It is a flower isn’t it? The mob sneers and taps their fingers on their wrists. You don’t care. They can wait. It’s amazing. On your knees, you get closer to see it.

Photo by Tim Graves

A smile on your face, you finally get off the ground. As you’re wondering what other flowers bloom on this trail, you notice the impatient crowd seems to have thinned. Maybe they went on ahead without you? Went back to the car?

One step. One step more.

Hiking with God, you find yourself getting deeper and deeper into the woods. The nattering naysayers that began the journey with you, though noticeably fewer, remind you of stories of an experienced hiker who fell off a cliff. They remind you of coyote sightings and of your dry mouth.

That’s when you notice the moss getting heavier on the rocks. Pausing, you pull out your water, take a sip, smell, and listen. The air smells more humid and, yes, that’s the sound of rushing water in nearby.

A moss-covered boulder in the Mt. Hood National Forest. Photo by Tim Graves

One step. One step more.

When you hike with God, your band of worldliness eventually gives up on you. One by one they leave you and that’s when you find holy ground. Sitting, you pause when you come upon the sacred cleansing waters. Later, when you reflect on your time here,  you realize that those waters are preparing you for what is yet to be.

The cleansing waters of a sacred land. Photo by Tim Graves

Rested, you continue your hike with God. Your eyes begin to see amazing things. A miniature waterfall dribbling onto the trail, purple flowers that reach upward where the canopy breaks, and gnarled post-growth trees that provide a home for so many small creatures.

One step, one more gentle step.

You’re walking gingerly now. You’re on sacred ground. You’re reaching the top of the canopy now. The vestiges of the battalion that began the journey slowly begin to fall away. Anxious for the pinnacle, you take a side trail looking for that which you seek. “Watch out for poison vines,” offers the last of the nega-teers.

When you’re hiking with God, negativity is but information. You look at the sacred ground upon which you take each gentle step.

One gentle step, one anticipatory step more.

That’s when you see a single flower. Dressed in royalty, the flower — like you — yearns for the One.

A lone flower reaches for the sacred sunshine. Photo by Tim Graves

The only one of its kind, the flower beckons you to look in the direction in which it points.

You jump in joy!

You dance like David before the Lord! (2 Samuel 6: 14) You cry out, “Ooh! Ooh! I was looking the wrong way!” You play your tambourine and dance back to the main trail — your path — just as Miriam danced (Exodus 15: 20).

One joyful dance step and another. And another.

When you hike with God, you dance until you come to a clearing where the sunshine warms your skin. Your dancing slows. You settle beneath a tree. This tree is for you. Beneath the sacred evergreen you rest from the journey and gaze at a mountain.

Mt. Hood from the Dog River Trail. Photo by Tim Graves

When you hike with God, you rest under your tree. You sleep. You wake. You sob. You laugh. You find peace. You pray and meditate. When you hike with God, you return to the trailhead and daily living, wanting to love as extravagantly as the One.

One step. One loving step more.

Trust the Spirit (A sermon concerning children)

Four-year-old Dominic wandered into the kitchen where his grandmother sat at the table. He immediately saw her red eyes, the clumps of damp tissues, and the photos of Grandpa Wally strewn about the table. 
 
“Grandpa Wally is ok, Granky. He misses you but God’s hugging him.” At that, Dominic hugged his grandmother.
****
The Jewish people hadn’t had self-rule for a very long time. They were patiently waiting for God to keep God’s promise and restore Israel to them. Yet, it was hard and keeping their people and their faith was increasingly difficult. Their children were tempted by the strange ideas of the Romans who oppressed them. 
In much the same way, the early Christians of Mark’s church were striving to keep their budding faith in a world that preached earthly power and worship of many gods. So, Mark was concerned about church cohesiveness and sustainability. He knew that the family, that strong marriages and children brought up as followers of Jesus were essential to survival as a people, as a church. 
And so, when Mark tells the story of the Disciples barring the children from Jesus, he places it immediately following two discussions in which Jesus criticizes divorce. You see, a church facing persecution couldn’t survive if families were splitting.
This is one traditional way of understanding this passage. Understanding who Mark was writing to as his early church faced a culture that was not filled with followers of Christ, and many think faced persecution, is important to our faithful understanding of scripture.
Another, way that folks have preached and thought about this passage, and its similar ones in Luke and Matthew has to do with the nature of children. Children tend to be more innocent than adults. Most children haven’t had the tragedies, or the daily trials, or the time to unlearn who God is. So, unlike adults, they tend to be more open-minded, more full of wonder. And, so, in this traditional interpretation Mark is implying that Jesus wants us to be more open-minded and full of wonder at the magnificence of the Divine, of God. This interpretation focuses on Jesus’ admonishment that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10: 15b NRSV)
I can’t really argue with this interpretation either. It is a valid understanding of the gospel with much truth in it. Still, I think there are other ways to look at the text. When we open ourselves to the Spirit and ask different questions, there are indeed other ways to hear the voice of God through the gospel. Recall that after the resurrection, before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told the disciples that, “‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.’” (John 14: 26-27 NRSV)
Friends, that is indeed Good News. Not only do we have an abundantly loving God who sent the Son… Not only do we have the Son who was ignored, persecuted, and finally killed at our own hands, and who overcame death when he rose three days later… Not only do we have the Father and Son, but when Jesus ascended into Heaven our abundantly loving God provided the Advocate. The Holy Spirit is here to guide us and to continue to teach us. Jesus knew there was still much for us to learn.  Do we Trust the Spirit to guide, remind, and to teach us?
Let’s consider now, what does Mark tell us about the nature of children? What does the Holy Scripture tell us about children and their relationship with God, with the Divine in Jesus? When the disciples sought to stop the children from bothering Jesus, when they sought to be gatekeepers of faith, and restrict children from being in direct relationship with Jesus, “he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them.’” (Mark 10:14a NRSV) 
So, from Jesus, we learn that children are to have unfettered access to God. Children do not need a gatekeeper to decide whether they are worthy, or well-behaved enough, to be in relationship with the one true God. When we Trust the Spirit to guide, teach, and remind, we allow children to be with the Divine in ways that make sense to them.
Yet, often we use Children’s sermons to interpret the stories of our faith in cutesy ways or as entertainment for adults. And when we insist that children sit still and worship in ways that are meaningful only to adults, we are functioning as gatekeepers. 
When we control children’s experiences of God, we become the disciples speaking sternly to the children, preventing them from knowing God, keeping them from a personal relationship with Christ. When we control experiences we’ve forgotten to Trust the Spirit to guide, teach and remind us. 
 
But what else can we learn from the Jesus and the Children story? Notice that the children want to be with Jesus. Parents aren’t forcing them to go to church, ahem, to Jesus. Children have a relationship with the Divine when they come into the world and it is up to us to support that relationship. We also learn in this passage that Jesus values children. It could even be argued that he has special place in his heart, a special place in the Kingdom–for children.
“It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10: 14b-15 NRSV)
 The Divine Jesus makes it clear to his disciples that he desires a relationship with children, unfettered by gatekeeping adults. From the perspective of his first century followers this was radical. Children were important for carrying on the lineage, or for labor, but they were far from important members of society. In an era without hospitals or prenatal care, it may even have been necessary emotionally for mothers and fathers to withhold attachment to their children until they reached a viable age.
Children as special? Children as important? Hardly.
Then here comes Jesus who says children have the keys to the Kingdom. Our Lord and savior really was a pro at turning conventional wisdom on its head! But this shouldn’t surprise us, the God of Israel, Elohim, the God that we still worship today, had the same habit in the Hebrew Bible, in the Old Testament. God has a way of using unlikely people in unlikely places for God’s purposes.
Recall that God used a Hebrew woman, Esther, to save the Jewish people. Recall that Rebekah, Isaac’s wife was used by God to assure that God’s promise to make many nations of Abraham’s children through Isaac became a reality. When Rebekah made sure that responsible Jacob received Isaac’s blessing she Trusted the Spirit to guide her.  
And remember that not only did God promise in Genesis to make many nations of Isaac’s offspring, God promised to do the same with Ishmael, Abraham’s son born of Hagar the slave woman. So while we are descended from Isaac, our Muslim sisters and brothers are descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael. So, in an era when we have folks demonizing Muslims, we should not be surprised when Jesus turns our ideas about who is worthwhile, about who is beloved upside down.
Likewise, in our Old Testament reading today, God calls Samuel–a boy, an unimportant child, to lead God’s people. God uses children for the purposes of the Kingdom. Perhaps, this is because they still Trust the Spirit to guide, to teach, and to remind them about the Divine will.
When Samuel hears the voice in the night he is at first, confused, and at the behest of Eli, an adult, he responds to God. So, while God uses children, adults who Trust the Spirit to guide are also indispensable in the march toward the Kingdom of God on earth.
****
A ten-year-old boy woke from a nightmare on the top bunk of the bed he shared with his younger brother. He was frightened. Terrified really. He’d seen too many images of 9/11 on the television and had dreamt a plane was heading toward his city. Fortunately, someone in his church had taught him, had modeled for him that prayer works. So this boy, this ten-year-old child, prayed to God. 
 
“Help me to not be afraid.”
 
As an adult this boy, reports that he felt an immediate calm come over him. His fear was lifted and he was able to fall back to sleep assured that his faith in God, that his Trust in the Spirit to guide, to teach, and to remind was well-placed.
 
*****
So, God desires a relationship with children and children seek after the Divine, striving to maintain the closeness to God that they came into the world with. And we are needed to help. As adults we’re crucial, essential, and necessary in God’s plan to help children grow in their faith. At times, as we each travel on our own journeys of faith, it can seem overwhelming and intimidating. Our children are leaving the church in the twenty-first century in record numbers. 
Yet the Good News is, our extravagantly loving God is also a dependable God. The Holy Spirit remains with us today. Trust the Spirit to guide, to teach, and to remind us.  
What do we need to do to help children maintain their relationships with the Divine? What are we called to do to help our children grow in their faith of our extravagantly loving God?
First, we need to model faithful behavior. We need to pray with, for, and in-front of our children. We need to talk about our own questions about God. God is not afraid of doubts, or questions. Doubts are the active Spirit luring us in our own growth in faith. When we Trust in the Spirit we know that we are up to the task.
Second, we must allow unfettered access to God. We need to provide appropriate worship experiences for children. Children need experiences that hold meaning for them, and that are developmentally appropriate. Children need experiences that are open to the Spirit’s guidance, teaching, and reminders.
Patsy and Jan and the Sunday School teachers are working hard at providing educational experiences for our children but children need worship, too.  It is the rare child under eight or ten, or twelve who worships best in our adult worship services. And, it is the rare child who–when provided a holy place of unfettered access to the Divine, doesn’t truly worship
When we bar children from the Lord’s Supper, we’re being gatekeepers  keeping children away from Jesus. When we expect bodies that are made to move to be still, we’re blocking our children’s path to Jesus.
But when we modify our worship service to be fully inclusive of everyone, including children. When we appreciate small voices and those who listen while rolling on the floor beneath the pews. When we do these things we are flinging the open the gate to Jesus.
Some churches have significantly changed their community’s worship to be fully inclusive of children and their worship needs. Others have chosen to provide a worship space and experience geared directly for children. Our sister churches in Logan, Parkersburg, and New Martinsville have taken the second approach by adopting the Children Worship & Wonder ministry.
Either way, when we provide that place, that time, that space… When we Trust the Spirit, the Spirit will guide, teach, and remind our children.
Finally, we need to be a community of Jesus followers who respectchildren and make them feel welcome. Frankly, we do a pretty good job with that. Our kids seem pretty comfortable among us. Yet, we can always do better. 
We need to be open to children’s ideas about the Divine as they construct meaning, as they learn about God within a loving environment. We must guard against becoming like the disciples and acting as gatekeepers when children express unorthodox, nontraditional ways of characterizing God. This is how children learn. 
Trust the Spirit to guide, teach and remind our children. We mustn’t let our own understandings and perceptions of God separate our children from a personal relationship with Jesus. When we hear our children questioning, we know they are learning. We know they are engaged with the living God.
When children say things that surprise us, or shock us, or worry us, trusting the Spirit allows us to respond with “hmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way.” When we’re asked questions which we find hard to answer, trusting the Spirit allows us to say, “I don’t know. What do you think?” or “I wonder.”
When we raise our children in a community of faithful people who Trust the Spirit to guide, teach, and remind each of us along our journeys of faith, we will raise children who have strong relationships with God, who seek to do God’s will, and who are always growing and learning in their faith. 
*****
The six-year old boy asked his mom, “When will my new baby sister learn to talk?” 
“In a couple years, sweetie. A couple years.”
 
Later that day the six-year-old asked again. “When will my new baby sister learn to talk?” 
 
Mom replied “In a couple years, sweetie. A couple years.”
 
That evening the six-year-old was asking his dad, “When will my new baby sister learn to talk?” just as his mom walked into the room.
 
“Why are you so concerned about when your sister will talk?” asked the Mom.
The boy looked his parents in the eyes and replied, “I want to talk to her about God. I’m starting to forget.”
*****
When we raise our children in communities of faith that allow questioning, that allow children unfettered access to the Divine…
 
When we model faithful living and habits and tell the children the stories of our faith then the Spirit will be able to do the Spirit’s work.
Trust the Spirit to guide, to teach, and to remind our children. God will not disappoint us. Amen
 
*****
This sermon was delivered by Tim Graves on Sunday, September 12, 2010 at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Wheeling during the Light a Candle for Children 40 Days of Prayer for Children leading up to the Interfaith Children’s Sabbath in October, many sermons.