Be Careful What You Ask For

In 1 Samuel chapter eight we read a story recalling the evolution of the Israelites’ movement from a theocracy–where  a god or gods are seen as the ultimate civil authorities and priests claim to speak for those gods–and they were moving to a monarchy, where powerful kings were the ultimate human authorities, and priests would sometimes serve as their spiritual directors and theological advisors (until they upset the kings, that is; then things could go downhill rather quickly for those advisors). Some scholars place the writing of this story around 700 B.C.E. when this community was already divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. By this time both kingdoms had already experienced both healthy and unhealthy leadership, and things weren’t going so well for either kingdom. So perhaps this story was their way of looking back and trying to make sense of their situations by basically saying, “Well, Samuel told our ancestors this would happen if we had kings.”

According to this passage the people wanted a king to rule over them so they would be like all the other nations; and they wanted a king who would lead them and fight their battles for them. Perhaps the Israelites looked around at the nations around them and saw wealth, military power, strong administration and security. And they saw a powerful, charismatic leader at the head of it all–a leader, by the way, who you could actually see and hear for yourself; not a leader who spoke through an old man with sons who were already corrupting your weak governing and religious system. Perhaps they observed these things and thought to themselves: “THAT is what we’re missing–a charismatic leader who will lead us and fight our battles for us! Combine that man with the God of all creation being on our side and we can’t lose!”

Yet lose they did–big time. First the northern kingdom fell; and by 580 or so B.C.E. Judah fell, and the best and brightest of these communities were taken into Babylonian captivity. What happened? Some people believe since the Israelites rejected God by demanding a human king, God was punishing them by allowing them to be conquered. This belief is somewhat like people today saying the challenges the United States faces reflect our rejection of God. At the same time, it could simply be that Israel and Judah fell because that was the way life often worked in that particular time and place. Kings, kingdoms, gods and their religions rose to prominence and then crashed and burned. It was all part of the evolutionary process.

My focus, however, is on the reasons–the motivations–for their insistence on having a king in the first place. Basically the Israelites wanted to be like everyone else, and they wanted a leader who would fight their battles for them. We can apply these motivations to many areas of our lives today, too–including church.

First, I think the Israelites were demonstrating a very basic concern for survival–and that’s normal. Samuel was old and his sons were corrupt. They needed a new way of governance and leadership, and witnessing the success of the nations around them, they decided that was the model to copy. Samuel would appoint a strong leader who, in turn, would lead them and fight their battles for them. And we can’t really blame them for wanting to survive, can we? Of course not! What we can question, however, is how that survival seemed to be all about them and no one else. Beyond that question, too, is the idea of wanting someone else to fight their battles for them.

So here’s my question: “What are our motivations for having these communities we call “church”?

That is, why do we say things like, “We just HAVE to have children and young people!” “We absolutely MUST update our music and the words used in our worship services!” “We need to get back to basics and make sure we’re preaching the ONE , true message that Jesus is the only way to heaven!” “We need more programming for the 20-30 somethings!” “We need to welcome LGBTQIA people!” “Come as you are, believing as you do!” “We need a stronger, entertaining presence in the pulpit who isn’t too intellectual!”

Depending on your particular church, none of these things are wrong in and of themselves; still, the question is WHY do we want them? I think if we’re honest we will admit that concern for the survival of our churches is at least part of the reason. After all, no one likes to preside over the funeral of a church–especially if you’ve put your heart and soul into that community (like Samuel may have put his heart and soul into serving the Israelites). And these feelings are often as strong for committed laity as they are for clergy–sometimes even stronger, since even committed clergy tend to leave churches after a period of time while committed laity tend to stay in those churches for longer periods of time.

Yet, if our primary reason for wanting children and young people, catchy music and programming and entertaining preachers is to put bodies in the building who will pay the bills and guarantee the survival of our churches, aren’t we just using people to fight our battles for us, rather than examining our real reasons for existing as a community of faith? And what happens when people start feeling used? They leave. Sometimes they leave organized religion altogether, too. And who can blame them?

Here’s a thought: What if, rather than looking around at what everyone else has and deciding we need what they have in order to be successful and complete, we allow our churches to evolve as they will–trying new things to be sure, and not being afraid to fail and try again? And what if, rather than focusing on our survival, we focus on making the world a more peaceful, just, and loving place–even if that means “losing our lives” in one form of community in order to gain those lives once again in other more healthy ways of being with one another in community and in the world?

Just remember, be careful what you ask for. For what you receive may be more challenging–and in the long run, more fabulous–than you could ever imagine.

6 thoughts on “Be Careful What You Ask For

  1. “The challenges the United States faces” do “reflect our rejection of God.”

    (Surely you don’t imagine they have no purpose?) One prophet after another told the kings of Israel & Judah that their safety didn’t lie in how many chariots they could field, but in whether they trusted God for protection. Over and over, being ‘practical’ people, they opted for the chariots. Likewise, the U.S. With the concurrence of “Christians” who imagine that God’s angry because we’ve stopped dissing gay people, but who think nothing of a few children & other bystanders getting in the way of our sacred bombs…

    There was a woman who came into the bookstore a year or so ago; we agreed that the world was in a bad way. She thought it was because the young women were wearing short skirts. I don’t really think that’s God’s concern.

    But lives dominated by fear, greed, self-righteousness, blame… God wouldn’t “punish” people for living that way; that way of life is a punishment. While these afflictions bring further unpleasant consequences

    “because” God means us ill? Not likely. Because we don’t “listen”? Yes.

    One day Nasrudin was walking past his neighbor’s yard, and saw his neighbor sitting in a tree, sawing on a branch.

    “If you don’t stop that,” he said, “You’re going to fall.”

    A few minutes later, his neighbor came limping over for a visit. “I hadn’t known”, he said, “that you were a prophet!”

    1. Thanks for your comments!

      I think we’re saying somewhat the same thing. Some people think the challenges we face in the United States are related to a rejection of God by not taking a hard-line stance against gays, immigration, etc. I hear you saying the same thing, but for different reasons. That is, we are indeed having problems, but perhaps it is because we are rejecting God through things like oppressive legislation that increases the gap between the rich and poor; actions that result in more violence, etc. Am I close to correct in my assessment?

      Personally, I think we humans largely punish ourselves through our actions and inactions. We don’t listen to “prophets” who warn us about the consequences of acting against our higher natures (which I think you pointed out in your closing example).

      Again, thanks for your comments!

      Peace and blessed be,

  2. Yes, some of the same!

    A lot of what we see in the Bible turns out to be from priests defending their turf. Or their cultural baggage.

    Every once in awhile you’ll find a prophet who’s really paying been attention, and he’ll be expounding a much more enlightened viewpoint. Being agin oppression & for mercy, not just wanting to whup the YouNamim for practicing YouNamitt!

    & if God had truly favored greed, brutality, self-righteousness?

    When my wife & I were attending the Jewish Renewal synagogue in Philadelphia, somebody explained that God had commanded certain things — not out of arbitrary divine Whim, but because they were good for us. [“I am a ultilitarian,” as ‘God’ says in a Raymond Smullyan dialogue.]

    The flavor of US national policies has become increasingly nasty, brutal, and short-sighted. [Starting from “been like that all along!”] This looks ‘practical’ but turns out not to work as advertised.

    Taking up such policies is not the same as ‘rejecting God.’

    But it’s a direct consequence of such rejection. People are going to want to anchor their security on one basis or another. God is a stable foundation, for people who can keep asking, “Is this really what You want for us?” When they start telling God what they expect of Him, oy veh! When they substitute money, force, technology, cultural norms as their foundation, these don’t do the job either.

    We’re talking about the core of each person’s true self, here. When people’s relation to that gets out of whack, the details of what will go wrong in consequence… aren’t all that significant.

  3. I agree with most of what you say. I do have a question, though. If enough “people’s relations to their true selves get out of whack,” won’t the “details of what will go wrong in consequence” become more significant? Indeed, could that be part of what we’re noticing now?

  4. You can be sure how this sort of story will turn out: Something is going to go wrong. What in particular that might be could turn out to be almost anything.

    —- —- —- —-

    The Ching re “Innocence (the Unexpected)”:

    “If someone is not as he should be
    he has misfortune,
    and it does not further him
    to undertake anything.”

    vs “Keeping Still” [ie meditation]

    [intuitively understanding the laws of the universe & acting in harmony with them — ] “Whoever acts from these deep levels makes no mistakes.”

    —- —– —- —-

    Literally, “no mistakes”? I’d read this as: In the right state of mind, even one’s mistakes will be helpful.

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