* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, November 19, 2012

2 Samuel 11-24: Pride and Gratitude (Infusing Our Thankfulness with Honesty and Recognizing the Extent of Our Abundance)

The rest of David's story as recorded in 2 Samuel is fraught with conflict befitting a soap opera, and not one you'd want to have on while the kids are in the room at that. The Chronicles version is somewhat cleaner, eliminating all of the indulgent behavior of David and his offspring and including in its place a riveting catalog of personnel. While this was likely an important account for ancient Israelite culture, such lists do not contain any more spiritual value for 21st century Westerners than any other extra-biblical lists of people. There is something realistic about the indulgent version of David in 2 Samuel, where he takes advantage of his position of authority, sleeps with another man's wife, conceives a child with her, and has her husband murdered. His household is a mess of incest, murder, revolution, and greed. In the midst of it all, there is a military adviser trying to hold things together politically and a spiritual adviser trying to hold David together morally.

As exciting as the story is, the spiritual message is somewhat odd. This immoral man is Yahweh's hope for the future of his people, despite his lack of capability when it comes to making the truly difficult decisions? Well, yes. No person can be perfect, so anyone chosen as leader will come with weaknesses and challenges. Somehow the Israelites who recorded the earlier version of their history understood that being in a position of power--even with the approval of the almighty--didn't make a person a better human being than anybody else. We might not sleep with another person's spouse and then conspire to have someone killed on a battlefield, but we are occasionally going to do things that are selfish and fail to value other people as much as we ought. We might not have children who try to usurp power and prove their superiority by sleeping with our harems in public, but from time to time we will be challenged by other people's behavior. And in spite of all of that, we have plenty of reasons to feel and express gratitude.

David expresses his gratitude in a song to Yahweh, whom he credits with victory in battle. David believes that his deity has protected him from human adversaries and has given him authority as king over foreigners. This is all well and good for a primitive society. Thousands of years later, however, we seem to still hear claims that God has protected us from harm and given us victory over adversity, even that God has made us prosperous or worked out circumstances for our benefit. In David's song, he comes close to claiming that he deserves God's blessing. The person who committed acts of adultery and murder just a couple of chapters back is claiming that:
"The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness;
    according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord; I am not guilty of turning from my God.
All his laws are before me; I have not turned away from his decrees.
I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin.
The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
    according to my cleanness in his sight." (2 Sam. 22:21-25)
Really, David? What an interestingly blameless vision of yourself you seem to have cultivated. Perhaps you think that because you had a military victory or were otherwise fortunate that your previous behavior is unimportant to the point of being forgettable? Well, that's not an unfamiliar perspective to us, after all. When we dodge a bullet, slide in just under the wire, or avoid getting caught, it's tempting to think that what we did must not have been so wrong, because God protected us--he made sure we were safe and successful, so everything must be cool. A ludicrous claim, when you think about it. Gratitude is surely an attitude worth cultivating, but so is honesty.

Rather than a Davidic claim to superhuman holiness, it's worth recognizing that we Americans did nothing to earn the privilege of being born in one of the wealthiest places on the planet. We don't live blameless lives, not a one of us. We turn our backs on people, we give in to fear, we wrestle with moral and ethical issues, and we don't always come out smelling like a rose. None of us is perfect. None of us is truly worthy of a better life than anyone else. Many of us are lucky. Many of us are fortunate. Some would even say many of us are blessed. But what we have in our lives is not the result of our utter righteousness. And here I don't just mean the number after the dollar sign in our bank accounts, I mean clean water, abundant food, access to medical care, a level of safety that is unexpected in many parts of the world.

In this time of year when we think about gratitude a little bit more and acknowledge our undeserved privileges a little more easily, let's be honest as well as grateful. We haven't done anything to deserve our lives or our relationships. Whatever we have, it isn't because we did anything to be more worthy of it than anyone else. We have more to be grateful for than we ever take the time to realize. We aren't chosen, set apart for some greater purpose--we are simply fortunate. What we do with what we have is our responsibility. We can cultivate pride, or we can do all that we can to contribute to a better world. This is what gratitude enables us to choose. Honest gratitude allows us to recognize the worthlessness of our pride and to focus instead on our opportunities to practice generosity.

So, I invite you to take a moment--without needing to be clever or funny for an audience, without needing to impress anyone with your depth or insight, and without any reason to guard a sense of dignity or pride--just take a moment to be grateful for the many undeserved gifts of life. Through gratitude we have a chance to recognize our real abundance in life. That abundance doesn't mean that we should stop striving or growing. It simply puts that growth in a context: We don't need more, although we may want more. And when we have more, it means we have more to offer, not more to guard and protect. If we are honest, most of us will see that we truly have enough. Enough time. Enough money. Enough skill. Enough to be happy. Enough to share.

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