Thursday, February 26, 2015

Showing Our Dirty Diapers to the World

Our church announced a new “child protection policy” that goes along with the state’s new “mandatory reporting” law, which states that the church needs to report anyone they so much as suspect of abuse, whether a staff member or the parent of a child (or spouse or any other relative or acquaintance, I suppose) who appears to have been abused. This is essentially “If you see something, say something” applied to the church.
The existence of the new policy was announced at a congregational meeting and promoted with a statemetn to the effect of, “We need to go along with this if people are to trust us to take care of their children.” I told a staff member that I don't think we're going to get a lot of trust from parents, abusive or not, who are afraid of something like this happening to them.
This was the reply.
There are some things that fall within the responsibility of the state and about which the state then has the right to regulate. The physical harm of one individual by another falls within that realm. And it is their job to punish the evildoer. We may feel the state is doing a poor job of regulating this, or is perhaps issuing improper penalties, and it would be right for us to address this and call on them to do a better job. But that is different from saying that they have no business telling us what to do here at all. It is one thing to say that the church should settle disputes among brothers (1 Cor 6) and another thing to say that the church should settle criminal matters. The church has no divine authority to imprison, take property, or take a life, and so cannot punish criminal activity in the way God has authorized the state. It can offer no protection to those being taken advantage of or abused by others. The most the church can do is to excommunicate, which is significant but not sufficient in criminal matters.
There may be some areas where we think that the state has overstepped its bound, but I have to say that in the area of child safety, I’m with the state on this one. I have had too much personal experience with individuals whose lives have been severely damaged through adulthood because they were abused as children. This is not something that just happens and people “get over” when they get older. The results are devastating. I am pleased that the state is taking it so seriously and is placing so much responsibility on adults. This is not something that the church can “settle” by everybody confessing their sin and saying, “I’m sorry.” A very clear and firm message needs to be sent that this behavior will not be tolerated. The temptations for some are so great (like an addiction) and the results so devastating and lasting that a clear deterrent must be instituted.
Where I think that Pennsylvania has unnecessarily regulated things is in the area of background checks. Most abusers do not have criminal records, and what sense does it make to do a background check on someone we have known for ten years? This to me is just a nuisance that really does almost nothing to make our children more safe. I can see it in a school setting where people are working with children all day as their job, but for one-hour-a-week Sunday School teachers or nursery workers I think this policy is unnecessary.
I have to agree that if the best that can be expected from those who will someday judge angels and are guided by the Holy Spirit, prayer, and Scripture is that they would be content with “I’m sorry,” God does indeed need to delegate the responsibility for dealing with big sins to the godless. I can also see why those outside the church consider her useless at best. (I recently saw The Shawshank Redemption, so its takeaway that Christianity and the prison system are frauds who depend on each other to perpetuate themselves is fresh in my mind.) I’m finding reasons to disagree with them taken away from me every time I turn around.
The Jesus I thought I knew (since I’m not sure one can know something that isn’t true) was big on repentance, restitution, and restoration. The perp doesn’t just confess his sins and say, “I’m sorry.” He makes things right by compensating his victim fully and then some. For abuse of any kind, that means paying for counseling at least, plus whatever those charged with arbitrating the situation determine needs to be done for the victim to be restored as much as possible to health. If the prospect of paying for months or years of therapy and whatever else is needed isn’t a deterrent, nothing is.
Obviously, if the perp refuses to repent (by making restitution) even after admonishment by those who will judge angels, he is to be treated as a pagan or tax collector: report him to the police and let them handle it. But this is the last resort, not the first.
If restitution is impossible (e.g., murder), the perp is executed by either the community by stoning or by the “avenger of blood,” a family member, but after a trial before a neutral party (not professional tax guzzlers trying to justify their above-market paychecks). Of course, that doesn’t happen in our present state system, so to complain that it wouldn’t happen if the church kept matters in house is pointless.
Either way, the sin is against a flesh-and-blood human being, and the primary purpose of the reaction of God’s people is to make things right for the victim. At least that’s the way I read the Torah.
Why Jesus would scrap that idea for a system in which the crime is against an abstraction (“the State [capitalization of divinity] versus Joe Blow”), where the punishment does nothing for the victim but satisfy a cowardly desire for revenge, and where the process by which the perp is convicted is often as traumatic to the victim as the original offense was is beyond me.
Jail time satisfies nothing but a cowardly desire for revenge. If the victim or his protector wants the guy’s face broken or his balls cut off or whatever else happens to child molesters in prison, he should do it himself (be “the avenger of blood”) and not delegate it to the court, who in turn will delegate it to their prisoners. I have no respect for a man who would not be satisfied until his daughter’s attacker was put in a cage, the attacker’s family publicly disgraced, his church’s name put in the paper (all this before the “trial”), and then have the attacker set upon by his fellow prisoners. Again, if a real man wants another man destroyed, he destroys him himself.
If he is physically unable to destroy the perp himself, he should at least be in the room and forced to watch when the man is destroyed so he can hear the screams and the bones breaking and see the blood flow. Otherwise, he’s a coward. And if he’s content to have his and his neighbors’ tax money used to put the attacker in a place that no one I know really believes prepares anyone for life in decent society (Shawshank again), he’s at best what the Proverbs call a simpleton.
I would respect a man who shows that he truly believes that his own sins against God are worse than anyone’s sins against him and who allows God’s people to work to see that both the perp and his child are made whole (which might mean holding the church elders’ feet to the fire on occasion).
As for the trauma of the conviction process, what I don't know about women fills libraries, but I can't imagine any of my girls preferring to tell a story of abuse by a church worker to a state functionary rather than to a church elder, especially if, as is often the case, the abused person hates the sin but still loves the sinner.
And, of course, I can’t imagine the parent of a prospective Sunday school student saying, “Ah, yes, X Churchthat’s where they had some pervert arrested for abuse.” If both the perp and the victim can be restored with the story going no further than the families involved and a few of the church elders, why does the whole world need to know what went on?
I'm with my interlocutor: better to make sure such a situation never happens. Doubly so if spreading our dirty diapers before the godless world is the best way we know of to deal with it when it does.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Jehoshaphat “R” Us

(Text of a sermon delivered at Meadowood retirement center, February 8, 2015.)

By way of introduction, I’d like to remind you of the ending of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11ff). You remember that a man had two sons. The younger son went off and squandered half the family’s fortune while the older son stayed home and worked for the father. When the younger son went broke, he came home to ask his father if he could be a servant, but the father forgave the boy, welcomed him home as a son, and threw the biggest party he had ever thrown. The older son was upset that his no-good, shiftless brother had been reinstated and refused to go to the party. The parable ends when the father comes out, explains why he had to celebrate his son’s return, and pleads for the older son to join the party.
This is what I want to draw your attention to: We don’t know whether the older son went to the party or not. Jesus doesn’t tell us. Yet we know that the older brother represented the Pharisees, the Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus because Jesus was associating with no-goods like prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus wanted the Pharisees to see themselves as the older brother and understand that they were refusing God’s invitation to follow Jesus just as the older brother was refusing his father’s invitation to join the party. He never outright invites them to the party, but he does leave them, in effect, with the question “What are you going to do?”
The stories in the Bible are, the apostle Paul writes, “examples … written down as warnings for us” (1Co 10:11).
So is our text today, the story of the last day of King Ahab, where he refuses to listen to the voice of the prophet Mikayah and dies as a result. The Sunday school version of this story usually ends up by saying, “Don’t be like Ahab. Listen to the Word of God.” That’s true, but I think there’s much more to the story.
Let’s begin reading at 1 Kings 22:2:
There was no war between Syria and Israel for three years. In the third year King Jehoshaphat of Judah came down to visit the king of Israel. The king of Israel said to his servants, “Surely you recognize that Ramoth Gilead belongs to us, though we are hesitant to reclaim it from the king of Syria.”
Then he said to Jehoshaphat, “Will you go with me to attack Ramoth Gilead?”
Let’s look at what we know about Ahab when the story begins. What are his credentials? First, like Solomon, he had married a woman who worshiped idols, and he had set up idols all over his kingdom (1Kg 16:31ff). Then he had allowed his wife to threaten God’s prophet Elijah after Elijah defeated and killed the 400 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1Kg 18:20ff). (I want you to remember the number 400!) Then, just as David had murdered his friend to take his wife, Ahab had murdered a man named Naboth and his sons so he could steal Naboth’s land (1 Kgs 21). So his biography is almost a list of what you shouldn’t do if you want to please God.
What about Jehoshaphat? We know from 2 Chronicles 17:2ff that “The Lord was with Jehoshaphat because he followed in his ancestor David’s footsteps at the beginning of his reign.” He had removed idols from his kingdom (v. 6), and he had sent people to teach his people the law (vv. 7-9). He was a “good guy.” But he surely knew what kind of person Ahab was. He knew about all the horrible things he had done. So why was he going to visit him?
Well, his son Jehoram had earlier married a daughter of Ahab (2Kg 8:18)—that is, Jeshoshaphat had allowed his son to marry the daughter of an idolatrous murderer—so he and Ahab were now related by marriage and probably good friends by this time. Even at this early point in the story, Jehoshaphat is showing signs of compromise: as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Bad company corrupts good character” (1Co 15:31), and we should be on the lookout for signs that Ahab has influenced Jehoshaphat’s character.
Now Jehoshaphat showed up just in time for Ahab to tell him he had a wonderful idea: this would be a good time take the city of Ramoth back from the Syrians.
There was some reason to think this war was a good idea. Ramoth was indeed traditional Israelite territory; it was a city of refuge in the area God had granted the tribe of Gad (Jos 20:6). God had granted Ahab victory in other battles, defensive battles against the Syrians (1Kgs 20), so there was reason to believe Ahab could win this battle. So though Jehoshaphat didn’t have any significant military victories under his belt—and nothing makes a politician look and feel better than a military victory—this was as good a time as any to bag one.
Jehoshaphat replied to the king of Israel, “I will support you; my army and horses are at your disposal.” Then Jehoshaphat added, “First seek an oracle from the Lord.”
Jeshoshaphat wasn’t totally spiritually dead yet. Somewhere inside of him he was uneasy. He wanted to know what the Lord had to say.
So the king of Israel assembled about four hundred prophets and asked them, “Should I attack Ramoth Gilead or not?”
By now the perceptive reader sees an ominous foreshadow: how many prophets of Baal had Elijah defeated on Mt. Carmel? That’s right, 400. So Ahab seems to have learned nothing. He has reconstituted his army of false prophets, and what do you think they’ll tell him?
They said, “Attack! The sovereign one will hand it over to the king.”
But Jehoshaphat asked, “Is there not a prophet of the Lord still here, that we may ask him?”
Jeshoshaphat must be really serious, right? He’s asked a second time for a word from the Lord. What will the Lord say?
The king of Israel answered Jehoshaphat, “There is still one man through whom we can seek the Lord’s will. But I despise him because he does not prophesy prosperity for me, but disaster. His name is Mikayah son of Imlah.”
Jehoshaphat said, “The king should not say such things.”
The king of Israel summoned an official and said, “Quickly bring Mikayah son of Imlah.”
Now the king of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah were sitting on their respective thrones, dressed in their robes, at the threshing floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria.
Here’s the scene: the two kings are outdoors in a large flat space, surrounded by their courtiers, their soldiers, and as many common people as could get any kind of view. Everyone is dressed in their finest clothes.
And a messenger is sent to get Mikayah. We don’t know anything about Mikayah except what’s in this story. We don’t know where the official went to fetch Mikayah. Back before the Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets on Mt. Carmel, Ahab’s wife had been killing off the Lord’s prophets, and the survivors were living in caves and being taken care of by a man named Obadiah. If Mikayah had survived that purge and the official knew right where to find him, my first guess is that he was in prison. Or he might have been under house arrest or maybe, when Ahab dressed in sackcloth to show his regret for killing Naboth and taking his land, he had guaranteed protection to the Lord’s prophets and Mikayah had been able to live as a free man. We don’t know.
Now the messenger who went to summon Mikayah said to him, “Look, the prophets are in complete agreement that the king will succeed. Your words must agree with theirs; you must predict success.” But Mikayah said, “As certainly as the Lord lives, I will say what the Lord tells me to say.”
Again, my guess is that when he arrived on the scene he was a typical prisoner: on a chain, filthy, unkempt, and dressed in rags, and he was greeted with boos, hisses, and taunts. [He was the personification of what Rush Limaugh used to call “a filthy, maggot-infested, FM radio type.”—QP]
But no matter what he looked like, here we go! Mikayah will speak the Lord’s words, Jehoshaphat will heed them, and everything will be hunky-dory!
When he came before the king, the king asked him, “Mikayah, should we attack Ramoth Gilead or not?”
He answered him, “Attack! You will succeed; the Lord will hand it over to the king.”
What’s this? Ahab was in step with God on this one? This is wonderful—they will go out, they will retake Ramoth, God will be glorified, and everyone will be happy!
The king said to him, “How many times must I make you solemnly promise in the name of the Lord to tell me only the truth?”
Hold everything! Mikayah tells Ahab what Ahab wants to hear, and now Ahab’s objecting? I see Mikayah sighing and saying,
Mikayah said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains like sheep that have no shepherd. Then the Lord said, ‘They have no master. They should go home in peace.’”
The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Didn’t I tell you he does not prophesy prosperity for me, but disaster?”
Now we’re back to Square 2: Ahab knows the Lord is against him. Jehoshaphat is no longer the spokeseman for the Lord; Mikayah has upstaged him. Mikayah has also made a fool out of Ahab, and Ahab isn’t going to take it lying down.
Then the king of Israel said, “Take Mikayah and [put him] in prison. Give him only a little bread and water until I safely return.”
Mikayah said, “If you really do safely return, then the Lord has not spoken through me.” Then he added, “Take note, all you people.”
Remember where these words were spoken. The kings, their functionaries, and the common people were all assembled where they could hear Mikayah. Mikayah was speaking to Ahab, but the words “take note, all you people” tells us he wanted Jeshoshaphat to hear him as well. He wanted Ahab’s court and Jeshoshaphat’s entourage, including his soldiers, to listen. And, since we have this story in the Bible, God wants us to listen as well.
He didn’t come right out and say that the Lord forbade them to go to battle. But just as Jesus left the parable of the two brothers unfinished, Mikayah was saying, in effect, what Jesus often said: “He who has ears, let him hear.” That is, you know what the right thing to do is. You don’t need me to tell you. Just do it.
What is Jeshoshaphat going to do? He asked for the word of the Lord and he got it. Ahab has just sent Mikayah to prison for declaring the word of the Lord. He has a choice between siding with Mikayah and siding with Ahab. So now what is he going to do? We find out in the next verse:
The king of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah attacked Ramoth Gilead.
You can almost hear all the angels in heaven groan. But it gets even worse:
The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “I will disguise myself and then enter into the battle; but you wear your royal robes.”
I feel like taking Jehoshaphat by the ears and looking him in the eye and saying, “Let’s get this straight, Jeshoshaphat. The Lord tells Ahab that the battle is lost and that Ahab is going to die in battle. Then Ahab wants you to wear the royal robe while he is disguised! Why do you suppose that is? Could it be that he wants you to take the heat for him disobeying God? ‘The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty’ (Pr 22:3). You’re certainly not being prudent, so what are you?”
Jesus said, “The person who has my commandments and obeys them is the one who loves me” (Jn 14:21). Did Jeshoshaphat really love the Lord? Did he really want to hear the commandments to begin with? He sounded like he did, but did he obey what the Lord told him? Did the Lord want him to attack Ramoth, to send his men out to kill and maim and and die and be maimed?
I say if Jeshoshaphat had really loved God from the heart, he would have taken the hint from Mikayah and withdrawn his support. Instead, he went to battle and almost got killed. Worse, it’s quite likely that some of the soldiers who had come with him did kill and get killed, and all because neither he nor they heeded the word of the Lord after he had made a big deal of asking for it.
By the way, when Mikayah said, “Take note, all you people,” I’m sure he was issuing an invitation to the soldiers in Jeshoshaphat’s army to stay out of the battle.
He was calling them to obey what Moses wrote: “You must not follow a crowd in doing evil things” (Ex 23:2). Those who refused to go would have joined Mikayah in prison, if they weren’t executed, but in one sense, they would have been where God was protecting them instead of on the battlefield where had said he would be opposing them.
That’s no guarantee of a happy ending for them, though. We don’t know what happened to Mikayah after Ahab died. There’s a proverb that says, “People ruin their lives by their own foolishness and then are angry at the LORD” (Pr 19:3), so my first guess is that Ahab’s loyalists blamed Mikayah for Ahab’s death and killed him. I certainly have a hard time thinking they had a tickertape parade for him. But again: did the Lord want those men out on the battlefield or back with Mikayah? “By faith, when he grew up, Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be ill-treated with the people of God than to enjoy sin’s fleeting pleasure. He regarded abuse suffered for Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for his eyes were fixed on the reward” (Hb 11:25-26).
We are not pagan kings, so I don’t think we’re being called to listen as Ahab should have listened. Since we’re not kings at all, I don’t think we’re being called to listen as Jehoshaphat should have listened. Since most of us are nobodies, I think we’re being called to put ourselves in the shoes of Jehshaphat’s soldiers.
I think the Lord wanted Jehoshaphat’s soldiers to show their faith in him by “choosing … to be ill-treated with the people of God,” by bearing the “abuse suffered for Christ” with Mikayah. Jesus said, “'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (Jn 15:20). I see the marks of discipleship on Mikayah. I don’t see them on Jeshoshaphat or on his soldiers, at least not that day.
When Jeshoshaphat returned from the battle, God rebuked him for having his heart in the wrong place (2Chr 19:2-3):
“Is it right to help the wicked and be an ally of those who oppose the Lord? Because you have done this the Lord is angry with you!”
These are fearsome words. But then the Lord consoles Jeshoshaphat, reminding him of good things Jehoshaphat had done in the past.
“Nevertheless you have done some good things; you removed the Asherah poles from the land and you were determined to follow the Lord.”
Though it nowhere says that Jeshoshaphat repented, he certainly brought forth fruits of repentance: “He went out among the people from Beer Sheba to the hill country of Ephraim and encouraged them to follow the Lord God of their ancestors” (2Chr 19:4). He appointed judges throughout the land and in Jerusalem and called them to high standards (19:5ff). Later on, we see that God gave him great military success (2Ch 20).
So what do we take away from this?
First, we need to remember that the most important thing we can do is to love God with all our hearts. Every stupid thing we do—and I’ve examined Jehoshaphat’s stupidity in detail because I’ve been that stupid myself and probably some of you have also—is a result of our failure to love God. It is with our hearts that we make stupid decisions in our rebellion against God, and the stupidity follows like flies go after an open sore.
If we fail to love God the way Ahab failed to love God, we have no hope of eternal life. If we fail to love God the way Jeshoshaphat failed to love God, God will bring us to repentance, we will ask God for forgiveness the way the younger son in Jesus’ parable asked his father for forgiveness, and God will restore us. No matter how colossal our stupidity is, Jesus has paid the price for our sins by taking the penalty we deserve on the cross.
Second, we need to be careful that we are “doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Jesus said, “Blessed … are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Lk 11:28). According to this verse, anyway, if you want God to bless you, you have to obey him. This is much more easily said than done. We need to be asking God to keep us on track, and he has promised to send his own Holy Spirit to do just that. We also need other Christians around us to tell us when we’re wandering off the narrow path. For me this means meeting regularly with a few men I trust. We confess our sins to each other, counsel each other, and pray for each other, and then we encourage each other between our meetings. We still have sins to confess, but the God of Mikayah challenges us to live for him and the God of Jeshoshaphat encourages us when we fail with a vision of what can be if we repent.
Prayer: God of Mikayah, Father of our Lord Jesus, we thank you that you are good, that your love and mercy and faithfulness endure forever. We admit that we are rebels against you in thought, word, and deed, in the evil that we do and in the good that we do not do. We thank for sending Jesus to pay the debt our sin incurred and for sending your Holy Spirit to guard and guide our hearts. Help us to avoid the sin of Jehoshaphat and the folly of those who followed him. Help us instead to choose to be ill-treated with your people if necessary, to bear the abuse suffered by Christ.