We are in the midst of fast-moving change in response to a fast-moving virus. The goal is to get ahead and stay ahead of the virus in order that its impact is mitigated, our medical services are not overrun, and fewer people get sick and die. We are fortunate that our islands are some distance from the epicentres, that we have a fairly non-acrimonious democratic culture, and that our leaders are primarily following the evolving script of the best the medical-science minds can offer.
Yet each day is different. People are worried about loved ones overseas. Plans have had to change. The economy is suffering and will continue to do so; with economic hardship to follow. Many are or feel isolated, and this number will increase. The elderly and those with lesser resistance are feeling vulnerable. Gatherings will become fewer and fewer, and churches and other groups that care about spiritual and community health will continue to change and adapt; adapt and change.
And change is hard.
When I realized on Monday that this Sunday couldn’t be the same as last, when ‘social distancing’ needed to be taken seriously, I called a meeting for Wednesday morning to consult further about this and then I subsided into a ‘blue funk.’ My energy disappeared. My creativity shrivelled up. And all I wanted was comfort food (David McNabb’s leftover birthday cake). I suppose my body, before my mind could process it, was grieving this change being forced upon us by a virus. And the next day, when the blue funk was starting to turn into blue sky I realized that if I was feeling it so were many, many others.
Change is hard. Especially change we don’t initiate or feel particularly in control of. Especially fast change.
Yes I know there will be silver-linings. Yes I know that we will develop ways to build community and sustain community even when we are not in the same building together; and we will hopefully become stronger for it. And yes I know this virus too will come to an end. But still there is the blue funk of hard, unbidden, rapid change.
Scripture is best thought of as stories - community stories, woven and rewoven (with a loose thread or two), over a long period of time. And like most intriguing stories there is not one ‘right’ interpretation, as if our re-telling is right and others re-telling is wrong. Instead we can bring plurality to the text, and plurality speaks back to us from the text. Poetry works similarly.
The story of Samuel anointing the 8th and youngest and least likely of Jesse’s sons to be the next king can be a story of treachery. For Samuel was going behind the King’s back in doing this. It can also be seen as a story of leadership. For Samuel, seeing that the King was failing, decided to act for the greater good of the tribes. ‘Greater good’ is always though a phrase to be wary of – for who determines what is the greater good? This episode can also be seen as a personal ‘call’ story: Samuel’s God calling the young David by looking at his heart not his stature (though a later Vogue editor does tell us how good looking he was!).
Today I read this passage as people, principally Samuel, making a hard decision in a time of threat and change. And note that David, he who was ruddy, handsome, and with beautiful eyes, did not immediately after the oil drenched his head, arise and assume the mantle of leadership. Indeed if the chronologically of the Book of Samuel has any historicity it was some years before the displacing and replacing of the King would happen. It was if Samuel was preparing for a time a long way in the future.
Another, and possibly more accurate way (‘accurate’ is a doggy word in stories) to read this episode, is to see it as a retrospective fiction designed to legitimate the reign of the usurper David.
I am more interested though, intrigued really, in v. 7 – “God looks on the heart”. And ‘the heart’ is wonderfully, poetically, vague. We can speculate what the storytellers, scribes, or editors might have imagined it to be. Given that the stories of David that follow – stories primarily of his prowess at killing - ‘heart’ might have meant courage (he of a ‘stout heart’ stuff).
There is a phrase ‘the eyes of the heart”. You can find that phrase in the Book of Ephesians (1:18). The author is suggesting that there is a seeing that happens through our physical eyes, but there is also a seeing that happens without the use of our physical eyes – what we might think of us as perception, or intuition, or a ‘gut’ feeling. Seeing with the heart invites the thought of seeing with the eyes of compassion, or seeing with ‘eyes’ that look beyond the outward appearance of things and into the motivation, or the bigger picture, or the more loving, caring, holistic landscape.
In the context of 1 Samuel and the context of today the message is simply in a time of threat and change ‘don’t be fooled by outward appearances’. The person you think is the big, strong leader is not the one God thinks of as the leader. As St Paul says some 1000 years later God chooses what the strong and wise consider weak and foolish. So, when it comes to leadership, don’t always trust your physical eyes but listen with the heart, look for the heart, perceive differently.
The 1 Samuel text was no doubt chosen by those who construct lectionaries to segue into the long gospel reading of John 9 and the man born blind – a man whom the Eastern tradition called Celidonius.
It begins with a relatively simple healing story – Jesus spits in mud, rubs mud in Celidonius’ eyes, and tells him to go wash it out. Celidonius is quite passive. He doesn’t ask to be healed, but he doesn’t resist it either. We presume someone will lead him to the pool to wash the mud out.
But even before this healing there is the provocative questioning by Jesus’ critics with the question of what sin has caused this man’s blindness. Jesus’ answer is refreshing: there are no past misdemeanours by Celidonius or his family that has caused his disability. Stop getting into the guilt and blame game. Rather treat the ailment as compassionately as possible so that the man might experience healing if not physically and then socially. When guilt and blame are removed from the medical equation so too, to a large extent (especially in a superstitious worldview), is fear.
The parallels to this time of threat and change are obvious – blame saps our energy and leads nowhere, rather we should focus instead on what can be done to prevent the spread of the virus and the spread of fear; and care for those worst affected.
The whole of John chapter 9 is a meditation – put in the form of interactions with Celidonius – on Jesus being the Light/Enlightenment of the World. It asks who is blind? Who sees? What is blindness? What is sight? If Jesus is the light what does that mean? Is he a torch by which we can see? The story lifts our eyes to a wider perspective. Jesus is not just a healer, but light for the world’s darkness. The story plays around with this metaphor of sight and light.
The context of this chapter is (as v.22 alludes) the time when the followers of Jesus (who of course were Jewish) were expelled from the synagogue communities. Their claims about Jesus had gone too far. They had in effect set aside the biblical Law or, better, redefined its role as now to function only as a witness to the Messiah Jesus. They now attributed to him claims once made of the Law. So it’s a time of conflict – an inter-Jewish conflict. And like all conflicts there is the desire to paint one side as right and the other wrong, one side as faithful, the other as enemy. It is a time threat and change.
I have a children’s book called The Three Questions based on a story by Leo Tolstoy. The questions – those of a teenage boy called Nicholai are – ‘What is the best time to do things?’ ‘Who is the most important one? And ‘What is the right thing to do?’ Like many stories it is set within a journey of discovery and it concludes with the old wise turtle telling Nicolai: “Remember that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.”
The big questions are brought down and into focus around the current needs of those whom you are with, and responding to those needs with care and compassion.
When The Three Questions are placed alongside John 9 we have enlightenment embodied in Jesus defined as responding to the needs of the blind man (Celidonius) with care and compassion, and the theological statements about Jesus and the conflict that arises from those statements and in response to Jesus’ healing as being secondary.
I would also add into that mix that enlightenment is an interchange. We usually read this text, and other healing stories, as one person (Jesus) being the healer and the other being the healed, rather than seeing in the interchange both being blessed, both receiving some healing and wholeness.
When The Three Questions are thought about in relation to this virus time of threat and change we have the encouragement to focus not on the latest news or events happening far away, or the desire to self-preserve, but to instead think of the needs of those whom we are with, and how to respond to those needs with care and compassion.
As Anne Salmond said the other day during this virus time of trial, will we have demonstrated that we care for each other, and especially the most vulnerable? As Kiwis, I hope we can find our own, unique ways of dealing with this crisis. Instead of "social distancing", we can show aroha by blowing kisses, or putting hand on heart, or waving still expressing affection while keeping each other safe. Instead of "self-isolation", leaving frightened, vulnerable people to fend for themselves, we can pick up the phone, making sure they have someone to talk to, and access to food and medicine. We can encourage one another; and in doing so find courage ourselves.
Aroha ki te tangata, tiaki i te whenua, manāaki i ngā kaumatua – Love the people, care for the land, look after our older folk.