2 Samuel 1:4-27 – Express Your Grief

“What happened?” David asked. “Tell me.”

“The men fled from the battle,” he replied. “Many of them fell and died. And Saul and his son Jonathan are dead.”

Then David said to the young man who brought him the report, “How do you know that Saul and his son Jonathan are dead?”

“I happened to be on Mount Gilboa,” the young man said, “and there was Saul, leaning on his spear, with the chariots and their drivers in hot pursuit. When he turned around and saw me, he called out to me, and I said, ‘What can I do?’

“He asked me, ‘Who are you?’

“‘An Amalekite,’ I answered.

“Then he said to me, ‘Stand here by me and kill me! I’m in the throes of death, but I’m still alive.’

“So, I stood beside him and killed him, because I knew that after he had fallen he could not survive. And I took the crown that was on his head and the band on his arm and have brought them here to my lord.”

Then David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them. They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and for the nation of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.

David said to the young man who brought him the report, “Where are you from?”

“I am the son of a foreigner, an Amalekite,” he answered.

David asked him, “Why weren’t you afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?”

Then David called one of his men and said, “Go, strike him down!” So, he struck him down, and he died. For David had said to him, “Your blood be on your own head. Your own mouth testified against you when you said, ‘I killed the Lord’s anointed.’”

David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):

“A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.
    How the mighty have fallen!

“Tell it not in Gath,
    proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,
    lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.

“Mountains of Gilboa,
    may you have neither dew nor rain,
    may no showers fall on your terraced fields.
For there the shield of the mighty was despised,
    the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil.

“From the blood of the slain,
    from the flesh of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
    the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.
Saul and Jonathan—
    in life they were loved and admired,
    and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles,
    they were stronger than lions.

“Daughters of Israel,
    weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
    who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.

“How the mighty have fallen in battle!
    Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
    you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
    more wonderful than that of women.

“How the mighty have fallen!
    The weapons of war have perished!” (New International Version)

Character is revealed by both attitude and action. It seems likely the Amalekite would have lived if he had any, at all.

But instead, the Amalekite tried to act as if he knew David. It became very apparent, he didn’t really know David, at all.

By claiming responsibility for King Saul’s death, the Amalekite sealed his own. David spent months outrunning and outwitting Saul, trying his best to stay alive, while at the same time, carefully avoiding killing Saul. In assuming Saul’s death would be good news to David, the Amalekite went full braggadocio, looking to impress, as well as get a reward.

He got a reward, alright.

David’s attitude could not be any more different than the Amalekite’s. Whereas the Amalekite had a small and selfish attitude, David had a magnanimous attitude. David had suffered much because of Saul, and yet held firm in his commitment to God and to the king.

Our attitudes and our actions truly reveal what is in our hearts.

Because David had an attitude which reflected that he knew God, he therefore genuinely grieved and lamented the deaths of both King Saul and Saul’s son, Jonathan.

Bereavement, grief, and lament are, unfortunately, scarce words in the English language. But those words were not strange or stingy with David. He shows us the good path to follow in facing significant loss and change.

David’s grief was not only personal but public. He crafted a lament and had everyone learn it and say it. Indeed, grief may be intensely personal, yet it most definitely needs a public outlet.

Tears, questions, sorrow, anger, anxiety, and sadness are all the normal and necessary expressions of working through the death of someone close to us. The only bad grief is unexpressed grief. It sits idle, deep inside one’s personhood. Over time, it becomes gangrene of the soul.

Many deaths are bittersweet. It may be an end of suffering for the deceased, but it is also the beginning of suffering for those left behind. Sometimes Christians forget that death is a result of humanity’s fall. There is nothing to rejoice over with death; it is something to mourn over.

We need to become comfortable with talking about death, bereavement, and all the emotions that come with it. Methinks this is a chief reason for so many improper attitudes, like that of the ancient Amalekite with David.

Unexpressed grief neither disappears nor goes away. It eventually comes out sideways, usually harming both ourselves and others.

To grieve and lament simply means that we tell our story – which requires someone to listen without criticism or invalidating our feelings.

David was able to respond the way he did because of his closeness to God. For even and especially God grieves over significant losses. It is the proper and right attitude.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night but find no rest….

He did not despise or abhor
    the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
    but heard when I cried to him….

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
    before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
    and I shall live for him. Amen.
(Psalm 22:1-2, 24, 29, NRSV)

Hebrews 2:1-9 – Pay Attention

We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    a son of man that you care for him?
You made them a little lower than the angels;
    you crowned them with glory and honor
    and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (New International Version)

In my line of work as a hospital chaplain on a behavioral health unit, I frequently deal with patients who have brain disorders. Many of them, including many in my own family, have Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.). Many people believe this to be a disadvantage.

Yet, I have noticed that since their brain chemistry doesn’t have a good filter for sifting all the stimuli they hear each day, many A.D.D. folks are quite intentional about picking out the voice they want to hear and engaging with it. Whereas others might take this for granted, the patients in my life know the value of creating the skills to pay attention.

The ability to pay attention and listen is necessary for a successful and sustainable Christian life.

The consequence of not developing such competency is that we will drift away – our minds will wander and allow other competing voices to overwhelm the singular voice of Jesus. Taking salvation for granted may subversively set us up for spiritual failure.

Whenever we think we already know about Christ’s person and work, we neglect to really pay attention. Bad idea.

Assuming we are paying attention is not the same thing as actually doing it. Assumptions create a slow drift away from truth. Therefore, we need continual reminders of Christ’s redemptive events. 

We must avoid the precarious position of being lost in a sea of competing voices.

We need an intentional plan for paying attention – without assuming we will be focused. Here are a few ways of daily mindfulness so that we will not become S.A.D.D. (Spiritual Attention Deficit Disorder):

  • Read Holy Scripture each day with a combination of standing and sitting, reading silently and out loud.
  • Hold a cross or other Christian reminder in your hand and feel free to fidget with it.
  • Journal your thoughts in a notebook.
  • Set a consistent time and place for spiritual reading and prayer.
  • Use different translations and versions of the Bible to read.
  • Go outside occasionally and pray while walking.
  • Focus on your breathing, and consider using breath prayers (i.e., Breathe out: “Speak Lord.” Breathe in: “I am listening.”)
  • Drink some coffee, tea, or something soothing, and picture the comfort of Christ coming into your life.
  • Be aware of distractions and acknowledge them without judging yourself.
  • Observe the Christian Year and the Daily Lectionary.

While some might argue that observing Lectionaries, the Church Calendar, Christian seasons, and worship liturgies are vain repetition, I insist otherwise: We are in grave danger of not paying attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 

Like a beach-goer on the lake drifting on her flotation device far out from shore, we can be unaware of how far we have strayed from our spiritual moorings.  If the passion and death of Jesus can only get a shoulder shrug and a “meh” out of us, there is a real problem.

Forming habits of worship, fellowship, service, and piety are essential to deliberately maintaining attention to Jesus. Perhaps if we all felt S.A.D.D. we would be more intentional about grafting reminders and practices into our lives.

Ignorance does not come from a lack of education; it comes from a failure to pay attention to the most important things in life.

God pays attention to us in a special way, different from all other creation. As the only creatures for whom the image and likeness of God resides, we have an innate sense of connection with the divine. Paying attention to things, especially to what Christ has secured for us through the cross, reflects the God who is continually observing humanity.

May your contemplation of Christ and his redemptive events of incarnation, holy life, teaching, death, resurrection, and ascension be always fresh and continually meaningful.

God, as You speak through scriptures, whispers, dreams, circumstances, nature, and people in our lives, help us to pay attention to Your voice. May we hear You in the many ways You communicate. May we pay attention to the important and the urgent and may we choose wisely. May we live attentively today.

Luke 9:28-43 – Transfiguration Sunday: Listen to Jesus

Transfiguration by Laura James

Jesus took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)

While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.

The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. A spirit seizes him, and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him. I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.”

“You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.”

Even while the boy was coming, the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the impure spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father. And they were all amazed at the greatness of God. (New International Version)

When Jesus is around, extraordinary things happen. And yet, sometimes we just don’t perceive it. The three disciples of Jesus – Peter, James, and John – experienced something incredible, yet they were not really aware of what it meant, at the time. The Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain was unimaginable and awesome. The disciples, however, were confused, sleepy, and walked away silent about the whole affair. 

Woodcut of the Transfiguration by Sister Mary Grace Thul

Coming down from the mountain, the other disciples were found scratching their heads about a boy in need of healing. Jesus seemed rather perturbed about the all-around lack of faith. After curing the boy, everyone was amazed, as if they did not expect such a thing to occur.

We are not always told in the Gospels why Christ’s disciples often did not understand or perceive the significance of the miraculous, supernatural, or extraordinary events that took place right in front of them. Maybe their minds were somewhere else.

It could be that Peter had ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and was having trouble focusing.

Perhaps James trying to do some sort of ancient multi-tasking. 

Maybe John had some road rage on his way to the meeting on the mountain and was having a hard time thinking straight.

It could be that the three disciples were caught up in the anxiety of wondering where their next shekel was coming from.

Perhaps they were just up too late the night before binge watching the fishermen on the lake. But whatever was going on with the disciples, they were distracted.

So, we actually have God the Father step into the scene at the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain and speak. God isn’t typically in the business of exhorting people to listen unless they are not paying attention. The heavenly Father is clear, succinct, and to the point:

“This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

We are to listen to Jesus because he is God’s Son. Everything centers round him. 

Jesus is the full bodily and human representation of God on earth. Jesus is Savior, Lord and Master, Teacher and Healer.

Jesus is the complete fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises, and the one who will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Jesus is the mid-point of history, the hinge upon which all the universe swings. Jesus is the one whom we must listen to when he speaks and acts.

Therefore, our identity is to be fully bent, molded, and shaped in Jesus Christ. This spiritual formation of our lives happens as we intentionally seek to be with Jesus, listen to him, and do what he says. 

Transfiguration by Macha Chmakoff 

Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain to experience his Transfiguration in a prayer meeting. Extraordinary things happen in prayer meetings. The early church gathered often in prayer meetings, following the example of their Lord Jesus. As the church listened to God and responded (in a rhythm of revelation and response) they saw Peter miraculously delivered from jail; ordinary people delivered from empty lives and demonic influence; and guidance in how to proceed as followers of Christ. 

Prayer is as much or more about listening to God as it is talking to him. It is in listening to God that we are filled with God’s Spirit and empowered to come down from the mountain and engage in God’s mission.

Jesus wanted the disciples to learn and discern something on the mountain. Jesus was changed in front of them. Moses and Elijah showed up and talked with him about his “departure,” that is, his “exodus.”

Moses was the one who listened to God and led the people in a mass exodus from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land.

Elijah was a prophet who listened to God and led the people out of centuries of idol worship and dead religion into the freedom of spiritual and national revival in Israel. 

And Jesus came to lead people in an exodus out of sin, death, and hell so that they can experience a new life of freedom, hope, peace, and joy.

Changed lives are God’s goal for us.  And a changed life will occur when we listen to God’s Son, Jesus, learn from him, and lean into faith in him – all of which takes humility.

Eventually, Jesus and his disciples came down from the mountain. Prayer meetings are great, but there is a time to descend the mountain and engage in God’s mission.

We are to participate with God in seeing changed lives through the work of Jesus.

We must bear witness to the redemptive saving events of Jesus to a world which desperately needs him – his healing work of both body and spirit.

The glory of God is presently here among us. We need to perceive it and be aware of it.  But to do so, we must listen well. 

Erik Weihenmayer is blind, yet on May 25, 2001, he reached the peak of Mount Everest. Suffering from a degenerative eye disease, he lost his sight when he was thirteen years old. But that did not stop him from mountain climbing. On a mountain where 90% of climbers never make it to the top—and 165 have died trying since 1953—Erik succeeded in large measure because he listened well. 

He listened to the little bell tied to the back of the climber in front of him, so he would know what direction to go. He listened to the voice of teammates who would shout back to him, “Death-fall two feet to your right!” so he would know what direction not to go. He listened to the sound of his pick jabbing the ice, so he would know whether the ice was safe to cross. 

When we journey through this life, listening well makes all the difference. So, how might we listen well to Jesus?  Here are some basic principles of active listening:

  1. Stop talking.  It was Mark Twain who said: “If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.” Proverbs 12:15 says, “The way of a fool seems right to him (therefore he has no need to listen) but a wise person listens to advice.”
  2. Prepare yourself to listen to God.  One of the ways I do this is by sitting in a quiet spot, free of distraction, and repeat several times to God, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10). Then, I am quiet… and listen….  If this practice is way off your radar then I would recommend, at first, being quiet for only a few minutes. Then, after a few weeks, be quiet in longer stretches so that you can go 20-30 minutes or even an hour. We might even consider a silent retreat in which the sole purpose is to listen to what God is saying to us.
  3. Slowly and carefully read God’s Word. Scripture is meant to be digested in small bites and thoroughly savored. Slow down and be quiet enough to hear God speak through the Word. A contemplative and meditative readings of Holy Scripture will always yield spiritual health and vitality.
  4. Pray back to God what you hear him saying to you. This is active listening – a genuine dialogue between us and God. “Come, now, let us reason together,” the Lord has said (Isaiah 1:18). God wants a conversation with us.

God speaks, if we have ears to hear, through so much more than an audible voice.

The Lord’s Supper is a tangible proclamation of the person and work of Jesus Christ. It speaks to us, and, so, we must listen well. The Table proclaims Christ’s identity as God’s Son, the one who came to live a holy life, teaches us the way to live, and how Jesus died a cruel death so that we might be born again and experience new life. 

We Are All One in Jesus Christ by Soichi Watanabe, 2009

The Table proclaims our mission, that as often as we share in communion, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. That is, we witness to the reality of Christ’s redemption in our own lives. We share our own changed lives with others. We pray for them so that they will experience new life, as well. 

The Table proclaims our spiritual formation in Christ. At the Table, we are lifted and joined with Christ through the Holy Spirit. It is a mysterious joining that defies description, just as the disciples had a mysterious encounter that they could not fully explain. Yet they experienced it, nonetheless.

May we listen well, without distraction, to God’s Son. May we know God’s purpose for our life. And may we encounter Jesus at the Table, and in all of life, so that we experience new life. 

O God, teach us to listen to those nearest to us, our family, our friends, our co-workers. Caring God, teach us to listen to those far from us – the whisper of the hopeless, the plea of the forgotten, and the cry of the anguished. Holy Spirit of God, teach us to listen for your voice — in busyness and in boredom, in certainty and doubt, in noise and in silence. Gracious God, teach us to listen well to the message of your Table. May you change and transform us to be like Jesus. Teach us, Lord, to listen. Amen.

Luke 11:24-28 – Human Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

“When an evil spirit leaves a person, it goes into the desert, searching for rest. But when it finds none, it says, ‘I will return to the person I came from.’ So, it returns and finds that its former home is all swept and in order. Then the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they all enter the person and live there. And so that person is worse off than before.”

As he was speaking, a woman in the crowd called out, “God bless your mother—the womb from which you came, and the breasts that nursed you!”

Jesus replied, “But even more blessed are all who hear the word of God and put it into practice.” (New Living Translation)

You have likely heard the old adage, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” This idiom is used to express the idea that empty or unfilled spaces are unnatural as they go against the laws of nature and physics. Jesus expressed a similar statement, not about physical nature but human nature.

People experience emptiness whenever something, or someone, has been expelled from our lives, creating a vacuum. In today’s Gospel lesson, the expulsion is that of an evil spirit. The bad spirit is kicked to the curb, so it goes looking somewhere else to settle, with no success. Then, the spirit decides to go back, check, and see if the person is occupied, or not.

Everything in nice, neat order. Cleaned up, looking good. But empty. For the spirit, this is ideal. So much space in such an organized environment that it becomes the ideal spot for a party of peers to turn the order back into chaos.

Yet, if there had been something to fill the void, the spirits could never have come and occupied the space.

It’s a pointed lesson about truly hearing. There’s the kind of hearing that goes in one ear and out the other. There’s also a type of hearing which listens yet does nothing to act on what is being heard. That seems to be the kind of hearing Jesus was talking about.

To hear God’s Word is one thing. To make it stick by putting into practice, is another thing altogether. It’s akin to the difference between having an attractive and expensive goatskin leather Bible adorning a coffee table in the center of the house. Looks great. Problem is, it never gets a genuine hearing because the cover rarely gets cracked open.

Once, in my first church as their Pastor, a man had a bevy of family issues which seemed endless. At first, I didn’t understand it. He seemed like a really nice guy. Every Sunday he was there, without fail, and always brought his Bible.

Then, one Sunday, after everyone had left, I found a Bible sitting in the pew where the man always sat. I opened it, and sure enough, it was his, his name written inside the cover. It appeared to be a brand spanking new one, until I looked at the publication date and inscription from when it was given to him: 1949.

In returning the Bible to the man the next day, I discovered that he indeed never read it. In fact, I quickly found out that in the thousands of sermons he had heard over the decades, none of them seemed to ever stick. He heard but didn’t really hear. Instead, he spent most of his life trying not to be involved in much of anything as a means of protecting himself from hurt.

Hearing God’s Word without putting any of into practice isn’t ever going to end well.

Obey God’s message! Don’t fool yourselves by just listening to it. If you hear the message and don’t obey it, you are like people who stare at themselves in a mirror and forget what they look like as soon as they leave. But you must never stop looking at the perfect law that sets you free. God will bless you in everything you do, if you listen and obey, and don’t just hear and forget. (James 1:22-25, CEV)

The Word of God has not been truly received until it is put into practice.

The person who only hears is like a Mr. Potato Head that is only ears. He can’t stand because he has no feet.  He cannot do anything because he has no hands. Mr. Potato Head needs some feet so that he can follow Jesus wherever he goes.  And he needs hands so he can do God’s will.

Listening to the Word without obedience is just that – it is mere hearing. 

Profession of faith in Jesus means nothing without a practice of that faith.

Learning the Bible is useless without living it.

Acceptance of the Word is nothing more than a mental exercise without action to back it up. 

Christianity is a vital love relationship with Jesus, and, so, is not merely a matter of hearing and affirming orthodoxy; it also involves orthopraxy, that is, having right practice, the doing of truth.

Good hearing leads to a good response.

When my firstborn daughter was still in her mother’s womb, I constantly talked to her. I was in seminary at the time, and I would come home and read her fairy tales in Hebrew. I spoke to her when I got up in the morning and when I went to bed. I told her all about how God was going to bless her and do great things through her. I told her of Jesus and his love for her. I practiced my sermons and Sunday School lessons on her – all before she was born.

When the day finally came of her birth, the nurses took her, and she cried and cried. She cried so much and so hard that I finally said to them, “Let me hold her.” The minute I held her, I began speaking to her, and what happened next got the attention of everyone in the room: my little baby daughter immediately got quiet. It was like that the entire time she was in the hospital. The only time she was happy was when I was speaking to her.

We respond to God’s voice when we recognize it. If we are not in the habit of responding to God’s Holy Word, it is likely that we do not know the Divine voice. My baby daughter didn’t need a lesson on how to respond to me. She knew exactly who I was: her father. 

Do we know our heavenly Father? Can we distinguish God’s voice?

We need to be servants who hear and respond to the voice of God, and not soakers who just sit and hear without any response at all.

Human nature abhors a vacuum. Our own inner emptiness needs to be filled with practicing the words of life we hear. This is the true path of blessing.

Gracious Lord, you have caused Holy Scripture to be written for our learning: help us so to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Word so that we may do what it says and embrace the joyful hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.