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For Sunday June 14, 2015

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

1 Samuel 15:34–16:13 or Ezekiel 17:22–24
Psalm 20 or Psalm 92:1–4, 12–15
2 Corinthians 5:6–10, 11–17
Mark 4:26–34

About a month ago my friend Bill paid me a surprise visit from New York.  We hadn't seen each other in fifteen years, and only had an hour together before his dinner meeting, so we cut to the chase.

Last year Bill was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer.  He's forty-two, with a wife and two teenagers. 

After surgery to remove a tumor the size of a baseball, he had some success with chemotherapy, but in April a scan revealed that the cancer had spread to his lungs and liver.

"Give it to me straight," he told his oncologist.  She prescribed a new drug regimen, but explained that after that she had no more tricks in her bag.

After Bill left, I could barely speak.

The prospect of death has given him a new perspective on life.  Bill's point of view on everything that matters has undergone a radical conversion. 

Samuel Anoints David, Dura Europas, Syria 3rd century CE.
Samuel Anoints David, Dura Europas, Syria 3rd century CE.

That's what end of life questions should do, says Atul Gawande in his new book Being Mortal; Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014).  Acknowledging your mortality can be a tremendous gift. It reorders your desires. It narrows your focus.  It gives you a new perspective that's rooted in reality instead of futile medical fantasies.

Next week I fly to Ohio for my aunt's 90th birthday.  I'm reminded how old age as well as a terminal illness can radically alter your point of view. 

There's a big difference between living long and living well, says the Yale surgeon Sherwin Nuland in his book The Art of Aging (2007).  Aging well isn't just about eating granola and getting exercise; it's about the attitudes and perspectives we cultivate — like contentment instead of entitlement, or determination instead of discouragement.

The readings this week commend a new point of view.  They challenge us to see and live life from God's perspective. He works in ways that surprise us. 

The psalmist's prayer is a little schizophrenic. At first he prays, "May God give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed; may the Lord grant all your requests" (20:4–5). That's not a bad prayer, not by any means. I've prayed it for myself and for others many times.

But I'm also grateful that God didn't give me much of what I've asked for. The psalmist qualifies and deepens his thought: "some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God" (20:7).

Better to trust in God's providential care than to micro-manage my life.  Better to trust God's love than the raw power of chariots and horses.

So, these days I acknowledge my ignorance of what's best, and pray a Celtic prayer: "O Being of life! / Keep us in good estate, / Better than we know to ask, / Better than we know to ask."

Then there's king Saul.  Saul was a war president: "All the days of Saul there was bitter war with the Philistines."

The funeral of King David, medieval mss.
The funeral of King David, medieval mss.

Divine destiny overshadowed Saul's decisions; history didn't turn by his own hand.  At God's command, Samuel deposed Saul and anointed a most unlikely successor.

David was the last and the least of Jesse's seven sons. The first six sons had all the marks of regal authority, but God told Samuel: "The Lord does not look at the things that man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (16:7).

David looked like a lady's man, handsome and "ruddy."  But God directed Samuel: "Rise and anoint him; he is the one." God looks at things differently than we do. He does the unexpected.

Ezekiel had a strange vision of two eagles and a vine, and a word from the Lord that was even stranger. In the waning days of Israel's kingdom, hapless king Zedekiah broke his treaty with powerful Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon by turning to Egypt for help.

No, said Ezekiel, spurning Babylon looks patriotic and brave, but to resist pagan Babylon was to resist the very hand of God. "I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish" (17:24). Things aren't always what they seem.

Marble statue of David by Donatello (1408-1409).
Marble statue of David by Donatello (1408-1409).

In the gospel this week, Jesus says that the kingdom of God grows in inexplicable ways. It's like a farmer who scatters seeds. Then, "whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how." Sunshine, dirt, and water, then "all by itself" the seed of the kingdom grows. Even a tiny mustard seed produces giants.

Paul's letters to the Corinthians reveal serious tensions between him and his readers.  Some so-called "super apostles" at Corinth had back stabbed Paul.  They joked that he was "weighty" in his letters but lightweight in person and speech. 

These charlatans weren't "super" apostles, said Paul, they were "pseudo" apostles.  The proof was in their point of view.

Life in Christ is "by faith, not by sight."  Contrary to the pseudo-apostles who "take pride in what is seen," Paul commends "what is in the heart."  He contrasts his perspective with their "worldly point of view."

His critics said Paul was "out of his mind" to live this way.  But Paul was unapologetic: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come."

In his new book The Road to Character (2015), David Brooks contrasts two perspectives for living your life — "resume virtues" and "eulogy virtues." 

The former are what you present at a job interview, and what we're all conditioned to seek.  But they lead to a shallow life, "self-satisfied moral mediocrity," and "unconscious boredom."

Eulogy virtues, on the other hand, are what you hope for at your funeral.  Eulogy virtues are those of "inner depth" of character rather than outer accomplishments like wealth or power.

Brooks proposes a counter cultural point of view, not unlike the readings this week.  It's the authentic faith-perspective that I heard from my friend Bill in my living room last month.

Image credits: (1); (2); and (3)

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