Saturday Night Theologian
2 March 2008

1 Samuel 16:1-13

The United States is currently in the midst of a primary season that has been one of the most closely contested in recent memory. The Democratic primary in particular has been hard fought, and it is still not over, as both Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama continue to battle it out for convention delegates. One of the issues that always arises in presidential campaigns is leadership. Which candidate will make a more effective leader for our country? What leadership style does the candidate employ? How has the candidate shown good leadership in the past? What shortcomings, tendencies, or personality traits has the candidate demonstrated in the past that raise questions about his or her effectiveness as a leader? These are all important questions to raise, but another important factor in leadership is harder to observe directly or measure quantitatively. It has to do with the inner commitment and motivation that drives the leader. In today's reading from 1 Samuel, God sends the prophet Samuel to Jesse's house to anoint one of his sons as the next king of Israel. When Samuel sees Jesse's oldest son Eliab, he notes that Eliab has all the external traits that would appear to make him a good leader. However, Eliab is not the person God has chosen. Nor has God chosen Abinadab or any of the other seven sons present at the meal. Instead, God has chosen the youngest son, David. On the outside David is a pleasant enough young man, but he does not have the outward trappings of one destined to lead his nation. He is young and inexperienced, yet God identifies him as the chosen one. "The Lord does not see as mortals see," God explains. "They look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." People can certainly learn to be good leaders, but some are born with an innate, God-given ability to be great leaders. It is one thing to lead; it is entirely another to inspire people to follow. Furthermore, it is not enough to claim a special relationship with God as proof of leadership aptitude. If anything, such a claim--whether made by the erstwhile leader or by the leader's supporters--ought to be viewed with the utmost suspicion. If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, piety must be the next to the last. One need look no further than the current administration to see an example of a leader who claims divine insight for his decisions, many of which have turned out to be spectacular disasters. The problem is not that some leaders rely too much on God. The problem is that some leaders lack the humility to realize that their perception of God's voice might just be wrong. Having God's man or woman as leader is a good thing, as long as no one relies on public claims about having the ability to hear God's voice rather than judgment based on observation of the leader's actual, not purported, leadership abilities. Human beings do not see as God sees, so this lessened discernment makes it that much more important to use wisdom and critical judgment rather than credulity when evaluating a person's leadership ability. There are great leaders out there, perhaps even among the current presidential candidates. It is our duty as Christians to use our God-given discernment to find them.

Psalm 23 (first published 6 March 2005)

About 1880, when Robert Dick Wilson was 25 years old, he made up his mind to prove the veracity of the Old Testament scriptures. Based on the lifespans of his immediate ancestors, he estimated that he would probably live to be about 70 years old, so he calculated that he had about 45 years left. He decided to divide the remainder of his life into three fifteen-year segments. During the first he would study every language that had a bearing on the text or background of the Old Testament. He would spend the next fifteen years investigating the Old Testament itself. Finally, he would devote the next fifteen years to publishing his conclusions. Indeed he did publish voluminously, and conservative Bible students to this day appreciate much of his work. His life was a prime example of one that was well planned out and executed. Most people don't have their lives planned out to nearly the same degree as Wilson, or if they do, they find that somewhere along the way they deviate rather seriously from their plan. "Midway on our life's journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost." I suspect that most people can relate to these opening words from Dante's Inferno better than they can relate to Wilson's example. Like the character in his narrative, Dante himself felt lost in the middle of his life, having been expelled from his native Florence and sentenced to roam the land as an exile. Dante's protagonist wanders from the right path, and to escape the attacks of fierce beasts--leopard, lion, and wolf--he enters the gates of Hell. Fortunately, he is not abandoned there, for providence has supplied him with a guide, the poet Virgil, and he successfully navigates the circles of Hell and emerges in Purgatory, eventually to enter Heaven. The psalmist similarly describes a journey which humans must take, and like Dante, he knows that we need a guide to make it successfully to the end. If the psalm is read as a picture of life's journey, one can see interesting parallels between the beginning of that journey and its end. The good shepherd at the beginning of life leads us to lie down in green pastures where there is plenty of food, while at the end of life he prepares a table for us. For drink, the shepherd leads us beside still waters at the beginning, and at the end he fills our cup to overflowing. For personal comfort, the psalmist says that the shepherd restores his soul at the beginning of the journey, whereas at the end he anoints the psalmist's head with oil. At the beginning, the psalmist says, "He leads me in right paths," and at the end, "I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever"; in both cases, God is right there with the psalmist. When I was a young seminary student, like Robert Dick Wilson I had my life pretty much planned out. I was going to get my Ph.D. and teach in seminary for the rest of my life. As it turns out, my life didn't work out that way. Now halfway through my life's journey, I look back and see that life has led in directions I never would have imagined. In some ways life has been better than I imagined, and in other ways it has been more difficult, but it has certainly been different. Now I work at a job that didn't even exist twenty years ago when I was in seminary, and I teach in an institution that is quite different than I envisioned back then, but I wouldn't trade the life I've had for the one I imagined, not in a million years. The reason I wouldn't is that all along the way God has been leading me, sometimes in ways that were blindingly obvious, sometimes in ways that were apparent only in retrospect. God was there in the beginning, God was with me during times when I sometimes felt like an exile, and God is with me now. That's the message of the twenty-third psalm to me as I contemplate where I've been and where I'm going. At the beginning of the journey, at its end, and everywhere in between, God is with us.

Ephesians 5:8-14 (first published 6 March 2005)

Mani was born about the year 216 in Mesopotamia. He was raised as a member of the Elkesaite sect, a group descended from followers of John the Baptist but heavily influenced by Gnosticism. Mani was only 12 years old when he received his first revelation from the Holy Spirit. Twelve years later he had another vision, calling him to preach a gospel of extreme dualism. Mani proclaimed that there were two worlds, one of light and another of darkness. As the apostle of light, Mani urged his followers to forsake the darkness and seek the light. He was enormously successful in his evangelistic efforts, and he eventually suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Magi, Zoroastrian priests jealous of the influence the Manicheans were gaining in the Parthian Empire. Mani was familiar with the teachings of Jesus, and it is likely that he knew of the letter to the Ephesians, which contains a passage that Mani's followers would have found consistent with their own beliefs. "Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light." Where Mani differed from most early Christians was in his idea of what it meant to live as children of light. Mani advocated a strict asceticism, including many dietary restrictions, as a means to purify the soul (the light) from the evils of the body (the darkness). Most Christians had a more holistic view of human life, believing that the body was not bad, because it was created by God, but it must be disciplined to avoid sin. Light and darkness are useful metaphors for good and evil, but Christianity and Manicheism are quite different in their respective approaches to these contrasting concepts. For Manicheans, light needs to be separated from darkness in order to purify the light. For Christians, light needs to be shined on the darkness to illuminate it. Whereas Manichean leaders urged their followers to separate themselves completely from the things of darkness, Christians are called on to mingle with the world in order to shine the light of Christ there. Yes, Christians must avoid unnecessary entanglements with the sin that is everpresent in the world, but they must not simultaneously avoid those who are trapped in the sins of the world, for they are the very people who are most in need of the light that Christ offers.

John 9:1-41 (first published 6 March 2005)

You don't really believe that "all men are created equal" when you allow the institution of slavery to exist. You don't understand the expression "in Christ there is no male or female" when you discriminate against women in the church or in the workplace. You don't alleviate the problem of terrorism by dropping bombs on civilian neighborhoods where terrorists might or might not be hiding. You don't solve the problem of poverty by cutting taxes for the rich. Some things are just blindingly obvious to many people, yet at the same time there are some who just can't see what should be obvious to them as well. What obstructs our vision? Sometimes tradition keeps us from seeing the reality of life. If tradition teaches you that blacks are inferior to whites, and you are white, you will struggle to overcome that prejudice, even if intellectually you know better. Sometimes extreme nationalism keeps us from a true perspective on the situation in the world. Those who think the U.S. armed forces are invincible, despite evidence to the contrary in Vietnam, will continue to support unwarranted U.S. intervention in countries around the word. Sometimes selfishness can blind us to the effect of our decisions on other people. When wealthy Representatives and Senators pass massive tax cuts for the rich, and when the bill is signed by a wealthy president, they and their wealthy constituents may be unable to appreciate fully the financial burden that they are shifting to the poor and middle class, and they seem to have no awareness of the burden that future generations must bear as well because of burgeoning budget deficits. When Jesus confronts the blind man on the side of the road, Jesus can see right away what his main problem is: he can't see! After he heals the man, religious leaders come and question the one who was healed. "Who healed you?" they ask. "Someone named Jesus," he replies. "How?" "By applying mud to my eyes." "He must be a sinner, because he doesn't keep the sabbath," they respond. "Give glory to God, for we know that this man is a sinner." The formerly blind man's answer to this charge is the crux of the story: "I do not know whether he is a sinner, but one thing I do know: once I was blind, and now I see." Whether it was tradition, jealousy, or legalism, something blinded the religious leaders and prevented them from seeing the obvious. Standing in front of them was a man who had been blind from birth, but now he could see. How could they miss God at work in this man's life? What blinds us to the truths that we should be seeing? Regardless of what it is, Jesus offers to remove the blindness and show us the light.