Saturday Night Theologian
17 August 2003

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

I hate reading management books. Their advice tends to be either painfully obvious or patently ridiculous. Scores of people jump on the latest management fad and produce books on the subject, and tens of thousands of people buy them and read them, following their advice until the next management fad comes along. I've found one exception to this general rule, a book by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister called Peopleware. DeMarco and Lister dismiss much of the current mumbo-jumbo about management and give good, relevant advice about managing (specifically, about managing technical people). In a chapter entitled "The Hornblower Factor," they focus on the fictional character Horatio Hornblower, the hero of eleven novels by C. S. Forester set during the Napoleonic Wars. Hornblower, they say, is the ultimate manager. As he rises through the ranks of the British navy, he learns the ins and outs of sailing and tactics, but from the beginning he is a natural at understanding how to get the most out of the people who work for him, even when they lack the skills that he himself has. He is not perfect, and he is nagged by recurring self-doubt, but he is always able to overcome his own weaknesses and accomplish the tasks set before him. In the first novel, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, Hornblower is a teenager who has received his first posting aboard a ship. He knows nothing about sailing and gets seasick right away, but he longs to do well in his new position. Solomon similarly ascends the throne as a young man without experience in leadership, and he is expected to rule a nation. He quickly shows his innate leadership skills when he asks God not for fortune or fame but for wisdom to rule his people. It is interesting to contrast Solomon's request for wisdom with his son Rehoboam's foolish decision to listen to his young advisors and ignore his father's advisors, with the result that the northern two-thirds of the kingdom rebel against him. Leading people does require wisdom, which is not the same as knowledge. Memorizing management books or going to seminars will not make someone a great leader. The wisdom to lead encompasses common sense, people skills, appropriate knowledge, and the ability to delegate authority. From what we know of Solomon's reign, he seems to have possessed these qualities. Different people may have some or all of these qualities in different amounts just by birth, but all of us can develop in those areas in which we are deficient so that we can become more effective leaders. If God thought that it was important for Solomon to have wisdom in order to lead his people, surely it is just as important for leaders today not only to pray for wisdom but also to work to develop their leadership skills so that they will be ready to lead when opportunities arise.

Psalm 111

The principal task of study is a perception into the reality of a given situation, encounter, or book, according to Richard Foster in his chapter on study in the modern spiritual classic A Celebration of Discipline. Foster talks about studying the Bible and other religious books, but he also notes the importance, even the necessity, of studying "non-verbal books," such as nature, interpersonal relationships, and current events. It is not enough to observe what goes on around us; we must also perceive. The psalmist says in verse 2, "Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who have pleasure in them." In my seminary classes we spent a lot of time learning how to exegete the Bible, but we spent very little time learning how to exegete the world around us. Foster, on the contrary, recognizes the value of studying things others than books, because in creation, other people, institutions, cultures, other religions, and the events of our time we can learn about God. Of course, when we watch the TV news or read an article online, it won't always be immediately obvious what that information has to do with God. That's why it's important to reflect critically on the object of our study.

To reflect, to ruminate, on the events of our time leads us to the inner reality of those events. Reflection brings us to see things from God's perspective. In reflection we come to understand not only our subject matter, but ourselves [Foster, p. 66].
Americans have grown lazy over the past two or three decades in regard to reflecting on current events. Too much TV "news" is really fluff, entertainment or marketing packaged to resemble news. Other "news," both on TV and in the newspaper, is sensationalized tragedy. It is all too easy to accept the pre-packaged "analysis" that we're offered, especially by TV personalities, rather than engage in critical analysis ourselves, but it is our obligation as prophetic Christians to think for ourselves. We have a perspective that comes from our understanding of God, and we must learn how to see beyond, or beneath, the presentation to the crux of the matter. For example, when we watch coverage of the electricity blackout in the Northeast (or perhaps, as we experience it directly), will we focus, with the majority of talking heads, on the fact that terrorism was not the cause (neither was the meltdown of a nuclear power plant or a riot, though for some reason the news people haven't mentioned these other non-causes), or will we begin to ask what was the cause? Does deregulation of the energy industry over the past ten or fifteen years have anything to do with the problems in New York, Michigan, and Ontario (and earlier, California)? If so, does it make sense to revisit the idea of deregulating an industry that modern people depend upon for living? Corporations eager to make big bucks in the newly deregulated market promised big savings and better service for consumers; have these things come about? Has the Enronization of the energy market been a good thing or a bad thing overall for those who depend upon electricity (i.e., almost all of us)? Most importantly, what theological principles are relevant in considering these issues (e.g., concern for the poor, ownership of community resources, the problem of greed, truthfulness)? We need to learn how to read the world around us, reflect on the theological implications, and take action based on our analysis.

For another discussion of this passage, click here.

Ephesians 5:15-20

Before about 10,000 years ago, all of our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. Anthropologists who have studied modern hunter-gatherer societies such as the San (Bushmen) in southern Africa use their observations to extrapolate back thousands of years and make generalizations about human society at that time. Ancient hunter-gatherers' days were spent largely in the search for food. The men would scavenge or hunt for game, and the women would care for the young children and gather food from plants. Other activities included preparing meals, making clothing, traveling, engaging in ritual, and playing. If we were to travel back in time and advise the members of such a group to make the most of their time, what would they say? I think it is likely that they would respond, "We already are making the most of our time!" When one's very survival depends on wise time management, natural selection chooses those who make the most of their time over those who don't. Modern life is much more complex than that experienced by our distant ancestors, and the admonition to make the most of our time is much more relevant to us. Those of us who live in the industrialized West have a surplus of food, so we need to spend relatively little time searching for it or preparing it (or eating out, as the case may be). We have jobs, but the very fact that we can say that we "have jobs" indicates that the job takes only a certain amount of our time. We have many hours of free time--that is, time not spent sleeping, eating, working, or traveling to work--every week. What does it mean for members of modern society to make the most of our time? There are many options available to us. If we have children, we will spend a certain amount of time with them, usually progressively less as they get older, particularly once they get their driver's licenses. We have time to spend watching TV or movies, reading, exercising, relaxing, doing yard work, shopping, doing volunteer work, working on hobbies, and much more. There is no hard and fast rule about what it means to make the most of one's time in today's world, but it is certainly something that we should take seriously. Some people have a tendency to fill their free hours with work, neglecting their families, getting little exercise and little sleep, and taking too little time to relax. Others are just the opposite. They spend all their free time relaxing, watching TV, or playing sports. None of these activities are bad in and of themselves, but making the most of our time requires balance. Everyone needs to spend time with family and friends, particularly those of us who are married or have children. As any doctor will tell us, we also need to exercise regularly. Not only do we need to exercise our bodies, but we also need to exercise our minds, perhaps by reading, or writing, or studying, or visiting museums, or taking classes. We need to spend time in worship and ministry, giving some of our time to help others. Finally, we need to spend time just kicking back, chilling out, and relaxing. The key word here is balance. In the complex world we live in, there are always choices about how best to use our time. Let's commit ourselves to ask God for guidance as we spend that valuable asset, our lives, that God has given us.

John 6:51-58

The Gospel of John does not contain an account of Jesus' institution of the Eucharist, or Lord's Supper, as the Synoptic Gospels all do, substituting instead Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet. However, today's reading draws on the symbolism of the Eucharist and sees in it the mystery of the divine union between God and humanity. One of the accusations against the early Christians was that they were cannibals. Both the second century Christian philosopher Athenagoras, in his letter to the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the church historian Eusebius, who preserved a second century letter of the churches of Vienna and Lyons, record that Christians were charged with engaging in secret "Thyestian feasts," a reference to the legend of the Greek hero Thyestes, who unknowingly ate the flesh of his sons. It is likely that the charge of cannibalism was related to the Christian practice of consuming "the flesh of Jesus" during worship. Whereas those around him seem to have understood Jesus' words literally, he was in fact using the image of eating to convey the idea of a mystical union with God, much as in the mystery religions of the time. The gospel writer seems to delight in the use of imagery that is likely to be understood only by those who have been initiated into the doctrines of Christianity. No wonder the Gospel of John was a favorite among the Gnostics as well as more "orthodox" Christians! All too early in Christian history people began to understand the elements of the Eucharist, the physical bread and wine, as having some sort of magic power. Ignatius, in his letter to the Ephesians in the early second century, already speaks of the Eucharistic bread as "the medicine of immortality, and the antidote which wards off death but yields continuous life in union with Jesus Christ." If the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation--the transformation of the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ (in essence, if not in accidence)--is too literal in its understanding of the words of Jesus from the Synoptics ("this is my body, this is my blood"), the view of many Protestants that the bread and wine are merely symbols, and in no sense the body and blood of Christ, is too literal in another direction. Jesus alludes to the fact that food that is consumed is transformed into the body of the person who ate it, yet at the same time it transforms the person who eats it as well. Eating and drinking are good illustrations of the nature of the divine union that Christians can experience with God through Christ. Union with God in Christ, as represented in the Eucharistic meal, is a mystery, and any attempt to explain it rationally, or to explain it away, reduces its value to the believer. The bane of much theology over the centuries, both Catholic and Protestant, has been its belief that it can use reason to explain the divine. All language about God is necessarily metaphorical, and there is value in mystery, though not in ignorance. Ignorance refuses to investigate the universe we live in or, having investigated it, refuses to accept the results of the investigation. Mystery recognizes that there are limits to all our investigations. We can explain the universe, but we can't explain God. Ignorance says, "I refuse to accept the results of scientific inquiry" (about how the earth revolves around the sun, or the age of the earth, or evolution by natural selection) "because of my preconceived notions about God." Mystery says, "I accept the results of all scientific inquiry, even if it conflicts with my previous understanding of God. However, even if my understanding of God changes, my belief in God does not waver." The meaning of the word "Eucharist" is "thanksgiving." Next time we celebrate the Lord's Supper, let us give thanks to God for the mystery behind the bread we eat and the wine we drink, the mystery of God's divine union with humanity.