* 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, September 9, 2013

2 Chronicles 29-31: Appearances vs Authenticity

We'll soon be turning to the books of Isaiah and Micah, which were attributed to two "prophets" or outspoken spiritual commentators (preachers) during the time of King Hezekiah, who probably came to the throne in Judah a few years after the kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians. The authors of 2 Kings actually place the fall of Samaria six years into Hezekiah's reign, but it's difficult to make the dates work out with what is known of the dates of other rulers in the Ancient Near East. Some scholars propose that a practice of co-regency accounts for any apparent discrepancies. At the very least, we know that Hezekiah's reign (and in general the conflict between Assyria and Judah), is very well attested in extra-biblical sources. Hezekiah was a heroic ruler in the eyes of the Jewish historians, and it appears that his reign saw a surge in population, literacy, and power, potentially fed by Israelites fleeing south from Assyrian forces.

The Chronicler indicates much more about Hezekiah's religious reforms than the authors of 2 Kings. He started by ordering a group of Levites (the tribe that had exclusively been assigned duties of caring for the temple) to clean up the temple and get rid of any paraphernalia that represented the encroachment of foreign religions. Then Hezekiah hosted an extravagant sacrifice and public celebration for the people in Jerusalem, followed by an invitation to all worshipers of Yahweh in the surrounding areas to celebrate Passover properly in Jerusalem. According to the biblical record, his efforts were so successful that they extended the celebration for an additional seven days. This may have been due, at least in part, to Hezekiah's contribution of eight thousand animals for the ceremonies, augmented by another eleven thousand animals from Jewish officials (who were possibly "encouraged" to do so by their king).

After all of that, Hezekiah organized task forces to go around the entire kingdom and tear apart any worship sites that would detract from the state religion, with the end result that the Temple got all of the offerings that had been dispersed among various alternative worship practices. Very clever. While Hezekiah insisted on tolerance for people with different concepts of the state religion (2 Chron 30:18-19), he oversaw profound intolerance for any other religious practices. As Micah will report, that didn't make everything perfect, but the Chronicler has only praise for Hezekiah's leadership in these efforts. By all appearances, spiritual order had been restored and the country was prospering.

Even with the controls inherent in a theocratic dictatorship, and even with a great leader like Hezekiah, there are limits to what enforced religious practice can accomplish. People can become very adept at outward appearances while still continuing to live by fear of scarcity or a sense of entitlement. In other words, changing the visible religious practices of a community does not necessarily change the inward character of the people in that community. This is a problem to which various prophets call attention. We can certainly observe the character and practices of ancient people from afar and draw some conclusions about those people. However, we get more value from looking at our own character and practices with bold honesty.

So often, we spend our time and energy on appearances. We want to appear pure, good, right, noble, strong, charitable, trustworthy, competent, lovable, or whatever package of traits it happens to be for a given individual. We want people to see admirable qualities in us. We make our temples look clean and we make our sacrifices abundant, even extravagant. Hezekiah was trying to make up for a legacy of inappropriate behavior, and he went to great lengths to make a public show that things were going to be different. For some people, things probably were different. Hezekiah certainly seems to have been acting out of sincerity. He didn't really require that people change their lives all that much, though. People could still be as ruthless in business as they were before, or as discompassionate to the alien and impoverished as they were before, as long as they worshiped the way they were "supposed to." Changing people's character would require an entirely different kind of reform.

We are often the same way. We sometimes change the outward displays without bothering to change the inward motivations. We try to hide all of the things that we are afraid of or ashamed of about ourselves and display the person we want people to see instead. It's a lot of work for some of us, and it's work that never ends, because the things we are afraid of or ashamed of about ourselves never really get addressed.

What is it for you? For me, I often do battle with the fear that I am really a selfish person at my core. On top of that, I have an "inner critic" that likes to tell me that I'm not _____ enough. I know both of those things are false, but sometimes I wind up spending energy trying to prove my own inner lies about myself wrong, instead of spending my energy proclaiming what is true about myself. It occurs to me that if I spent more time working on dismantling the lies and living out of what is true, I would have a lot less worry about what other people see when they look at me. If I live out my authentic, capable, beautiful, noble, creative self, I don't have to worry about appearances.

So, that is one challenge that emerges from this passage about Hezekiah. What are you doing just for the sake of appearances, and how does that distract you from meaningful personal development? What would be wrong with just being your authentic self? What are you afraid people are going to see if you stop worrying about appearances and just allow your own deep guiding principles to inform your actions?

I certainly don't mean that what people see in us doesn't matter. To be clear, I gain a lot of insight from what other people notice about my demeanor and behavior. The more vulnerable I am willing to be with people, the more I get from other people's observations. So, by suggesting that we worry less about appearances, I don't mean that we should abandon personal hygiene or let fly every petty judgment that pops into our brains. I mean that our outward behavior can be more authentically influenced by our own inner values than by our fear about what other people will think. I mean that our time and energy is better spent nurturing our own integrity rather than nurturing a less-than-authentic image. We have nothing to fear about how people see us if we recognize what matters most deeply to us and live out those values with authenticity and integrity. Honestly, I'd rather be an authentic person than a person with a well-rehearsed persona. Maybe you agree.

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