Tag Archives: free will

Why Samuel?

People have asked and I haven’t given a good answer yet. A comprehensive explanation is probably not possible, but I hope to begin to answer this question for myself, my son, and anyone else who may be curious.

While it was one of the most significant things we have done as a family, naming our firstborn was quite possibly the easiest decision Kristen and I have ever made together. Samuel just fit. We both thought of it independently. We had joked about other names before, but when it came time to make a list, there was only one boy name on it.

There are several reasons why we settled on Samuel, not the least of which is the fact that it’s simply a fine sounding, timeless name.

Samuel became especially significant to me early last year when my position was cut at the newspaper I had been working at and I found myself with an abundance of time on my hands. I began focusing on developing a more disciplined daily routine and one of the big elements in this new routine was an increased level of scripture study, in addition to devotional readings. The first book I decided to explore, for no particular reason at the time, was Samuel. If I want to be honest (and I do) then I have to admit that up until this point, my knowledge of the Old Testament was hazy at best. I knew all of the key stories and characters, but really understanding how those stories fit together and what drove those characters to act like they did had been left out of my Sunday school lessons.

Samuel made the biblical narrative real to me.

First and Second Samuel document the history of the early Israelites during the time of Samuel — the prophet, priest and final judge of Israel — continuing through the rise and fall of the nation’s first monarchs, Saul and David. Reading these stories of Samuel, Eli, Saul, David and Jonathan, I was struck by how very real these men were. These were the great characters of the Bible, the pioneers of our faith, but understanding their journey means understanding that they were not much different from you and me. They were very real men with very real flaws, yet they loved God with all their might and wanted desperately (with a few exceptions) to serve him. Samuel was a great leader and a devout man of God, but he wrestled with the same problems I face today: pride, fear and frustration constantly threaten to hold him back from the tasks God has set before him; he wants his own sons to know the Lord and seek him, but he understands that ultimately he cannot be responsible for their choices; he has trouble reconciling the ideal community of fellowship God has called his people to with the reality of their situation and the desires of the nation. Samuel, David and Saul may have moved in the upper echelons of society, they may have had personal encounters with God too intense for us to possibly imagine and they may have lived in a radically different world 3,000 years ago, but they were still more down-to-earth than most of the people I come across at church, at school or on the street.

Samuel helped make God real for me. My most ardent prayer — my greatest hope and strongest desire — is that he will be real for my Samuel as well.

Another lesson that I learned from Samuel came from a simple phrase often repeated by the biblical author: “Do what seems best to you.” This phrase is repeated, with some variation, throughout the story of Samuel. Elkanah says it to Hannah once it is revealed that she has pledged Samuel to a life of temple service; Saul’s soldiers offer this affirmation to their leader; David uses the phrase as he heeds the advice of his generals; Mephibosheth uses it to express humility before the king

When Eli receives a prophecy of God’s displeasure with him and his sons, he simply concedes: “It is Yahweh; let him do what seems good to him.” When David decides to begin construction on a new temple at Jerusalem, Nathan tells him, “You should go and do whatever you have in mind, for the Lord is with you.” Once Samuel has established Saul as the nation’s first king, the judge leaves the young man with a final word: “When these signs have taken place, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God will be with you.”

When the prophet’s announced “God is with you” to David and Saul, they were speaking to the kings in a particular context. Still, as Christians, we know that God has sent us his Counselor to guide us as we make our way through life. If our desire is to live within the Lord’s will, his desire for us will become clear.

It may be dangerous to simply say “Do what seems best to you,” especially if there is a possibility that our bad choices may be interpreted as God’s bad guidance. An important part of maturing is accepting responsibility for our actions; an important part of growing as a Christian is trusting God to guide us when we seek to make responsible decisions. This lesson from Samuel came to me at an important crossroad in my life, a time when I had to make a responsible decision but no choice seemed absolutely clear. Finding this balance between freedom and faith, between personal responsibility and surrender to the universal, is a constant struggle for me, and I’m glad.

My first wish for my son is that he may come to know God in a real way; to love him and seek him out, just as the prophet, the king and the shepherd boy did many years ago. My second wish is that he may have the faith to trust God with his hard decisions; to have the humility to know that, even if he is a king on Earth, he will never be able to walk the journey alone, but he does need the courage to act in faith — to “do what seems best” — because after all, as Samuel so eloquently said, “God will be with you.”


False Perceptions: what is real?

A few weeks ago, James Williams, a 21-year-old WakeTech student, was fatally shot in an otherwise peaceful neighborhood in a small town outside of Raleigh. Moments later, Curtis Lee, 24, called 911 to report the shooting. During the phone conversation, Lee told dispatchers he shot Williams because “He drove up, man — and I don’t know anybody from this area, so, whoever he is he shouldn’t have came over here.” He said that Williams had pulled into his driveway. As he started to get out of his car, Lee shot him. When police arrived, they found Williams in his car, dead from a shot to the torso, according to the News & Observer. The newspaper reported that Williams likely pulled up to Lee’s house by mistake, as a car parked at the home was very similar to a car driven by one of Williams’ friends who lives on the same street. Lee was charged with murder and taken to the Wake County Jail.

This is the saddest news story I have read in quite a while, and I come across a lot of sad news. I don’t want to pretend like I understand this situation, because I don’t. I refuse to begin judging Lee based on the facts of this account. I don’t know what may have happened to him the last time a stranger pulled up into his yard. I don’t know what other things he may have seen when he looked out at Williams that added to his picture of the situation. I don’t know what he had been doing earlier that day that contributed to his frame of mind. I don’t know any of that. But I do know that this is a very sad story; one that leads me to grieve for these families and for our world.

Reading this story — and then listening to Lee’s simple, candid conversation with the 911 operators — forced me to wonder what kind of perception he has of the world. Is it characterized by fearfulness: a world where everyone unknown is an enemy intent on doing me harm? Is it characterized by competition? Are other people seen as equally valuable, or is value based on how much I know and understand about an individual’s story? We all look at the world from unique perspectives. More often than not, we let external influences take control of our perspectives; they begin to overlay the glass we see the world through and, eventually, to define what we understand to be reality. Whether these perceptions we have are at all related to actual reality becomes irrelevant. What matters is perception.

Obviously perception played a huge role in the story above, and I hope working to piece together the varying perceptions of those involved will be an important part of the investigation that follows. How do we keep our own perceptions of the world from becoming so skewed we can no longer see clearly?

“I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
— Jesus

John 9:39, NRSV

I thought about my own perception of reality. I love the infinitely complex, yet wonderfully simple way the natural world fits together. Life is simple. It is about food, family and community. God made it simple, but we make it much more complex than that. I sometimes kid myself into thinking that, as I continue to seek to serve God in whatever way I can, that I am comfortable living in this barest of all realities. Then I start to think about what that really means. Does this mean I can be at peace with my situation even if my income does not allow me to save for retirement like I would like to, or to save at all? Does this mean I can be content with drawing closer to God even if I am a complete failure at every task I attempt? Does this mean I am satisfied with my life even if my reputation is fallaciously destroyed? Does this mean I really believe that lying beggar downtown is created in the image of God; that he has a goodness in him that is longing to come out, and I have a responsibility to be Jesus for him so that he might overcome his own false perceptions of reality?

I would like to answer yes to all of these questions, to say that I am content to live within the actual reality that forms the foundation of creation, but I don’t always know that I can. I do care about maintaining a comfortable standard of living for my family. I do care about presenting myself to others in a positive light so that I might enjoy their fellowship. I do care about keeping a clean credit report, about earning college degrees and receiving the approval of those who have come before me. My question then becomes: how much of this comes out of a desire to responsibly execute my own free will, and how much has been laid upon me by the conventional wisdom of the world? After all, Jesus has called us to rise above conventional wisdom and to live in the world as it really is; to live in spirit and in truth.

Conventional wisdom is a culture’s way of seeing the world that gives advantage to those in power and defends the social status quo. People internalize this “wisdom” and live out of it, unless they are able to see a different kind of wisdom. Marcus Borg identifies these characteristics of conventional wisdom:

  • It domesticates reality for the convenience of those in power.
  • It is based on reward and punishment.
  • It is a world of hierarchy and boundaries.
  • It produces a life of anxious striving and conformity.
  • The spell of conventional wisdom produces self-preoccupation and selfishness.
  • Conventional wisdom views God as a lawgiver and judge and sees the religious life as a set of demanding requirements.
  • Conventional wisdom is not confined to a particular society or time; it pervades all traditions.

Jesus spoke of conventional wisdom as “the broad way” and God’s wisdom as “a narrow way.” He depicted God not as a judge but as a compassionate being who offered cosmic generosity. He spoke of the kingdom of God in parables that described God’s kingdom as a place populated by marginalized people — nobodies — not by those with wealth and power. Jesus was repeatedly criticized for being host to meals that included sinners and tax collectors. These meals were enacted parables of inclusion that subverted the conventional wisdom of privilege, purity, and exclusion.

Richard Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones
“Know Your Story and Lead with it: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership,” 46-47
Herndon, Virg: The Alban Institute, 2009

Prompted by a school project but pushed on by my own interest, I have begun to look at the emerging field of Narrative Leadership. At its core, Narrative Leadership prompts people to begin looking at the world, looking at others, and especially looking at one’s own life, as stories that are being lived out. These stories have recurring themes, but they are constantly open to change. Whether we recognize it or not, our own story directly influences the way we understand the snippets of story we read about the people we come in contact with. These stories combine to form our perception of the world, but as anyone who has ever been touched by a powerful novel knows, every book always has at least two stories to tell; usually many more. Adopting a curious stance and digging into the stories of others allows us to dig into our own story in ways we haven’t been able to experience before. Retelling our stories, allowing others to reinterpret them for us, listening to their stories and piecing the complex narrative together allows us keep our own interpretations in check with reality, to bring them into sharper focus and to develop a clearer image of the world as it really is.

Stories are best when they are shared.

What sort of space gives us the best chance to hear soul truth and follow it? A space defined by principles and practices that honor the soul’s nature and needs. What is that nature, and what are those needs? My answer draws on the only metaphor I know that reflects the soul’s essence while honoring its mystery: the soul is like a wild animal

Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places. …

Yet, despite its toughness, the soul is also shy. Just like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense underbrush, especially when other people are around. If we want to see a wild animal, we know the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out.

Unfortunately, community in our culture too often means a group of people who go crashing through the woods together, scaring the soul away. … We scare off all the soulful things, like respectful relationships, goodwill, and hope.

Parker J. Palmer
“A Hidden Wholeness,” 58-59
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004

If this discussion has turned into a pot-luck dinner of thoughts that you have no taste for, I apologize. I’m not really sure where I’m going with all of this right now, but I thought the first step in making any sense of it was to get it out of my head and into words.

It’s far too messy in there to keep anything straight.

The Problem of Freedom

The most often voiced complaint against God that I hear among people sounds something like this:

“How can a loving, compassionate God allow such awful suffering to exist in our world? How can he support the murder of children? How can he condone the genocide of those people? Why would God let such a good, generous woman live in such hardship?”

These are difficult questions to be sure; questions that have led people to hate God — or in some cases to give up on him completely — since the beginning.

For me, the answer to this hardship lies not in examining God’s indifference to human suffering, but in God’s love of the entire human creature. Of all the wonderful talents, skills and gifts God has given the human race, the greatest one of all — the crux that everything else rest on — is freedom.

William Sloane Coffin, who died in 2006 after a long career of championing social justice for humans everywhere, answered this question better than I could ever hope to. Coffin uses a well-known teaching of Jesus to explain the problem of free will, and why God thinks it is so important in our lives.

The teaching is commonly called The Parable of the Prodigal Son; the NET Bible calls it The Parable of the Compassionate Father, which I think is a better fit. The entire text of this lesson can be read here if you are not familiar with it. In a nutshell, it is a story about two sons. One asks his father for an early inheritance, takes his father’s wealth and runs off to have a good time. When the money runs out, he comes back home, broken and ashamed; Yet his father greets him with a hug and a shout of rejoicing. The other son stayed at home the whole time, lived a responsible life and tried to follow the letter of the law. When his brother returned, this hard-working lad was furious that his father would even accept him back into the household.
      *It’s important to note the father’s forgiveness does not include re-dividing the responsible brother’s share of the estate to make up for the folly of the prodigal; He simply showered his lost son with generous love, just as he always had.*

But now on to Coffin:

The word of the Lord hits the world with the force of a hint. Could anything be more frustrating? We want God to be God; but he wants to be a still small voice, a babe in a manger. We want God to be all-powerful, so that we can be weak and dependent; but he wants to be all-loving, so that we can be strong. We want God to prove his existence; but he wants us to prove our freedom, to be able to act wholeheartedly without absolute certainty. “God is love” means God is known devotionally, not dogmatically. So the word of the Lord has to hit the world with the force only of a hint.

The story of the prodigal son is a parable about all this, about an all-loving father who precisely because he is all-loving has to restrict his power, for love is self-restricting when it comes to power. As the story has a happy ending we cheer the father. But suppose the boy had gotten knifed in a brothel, had died of hunger; or, on the contrary, had become a powerful ruler dictating the deaths of hundreds of his fellow citizens. Wouldn’t we then have complained! “How could you let it happen?”

But that’s the risk. The father could have said “nix” to any dividing of any estate and kept the boy at home; But he could not have kept him filial. God, I suppose, could keep us all “at home,” in the brute calm of servitude. But because love is the name of the game, he releases us into the storms of freedom, and then stands on the road, trembling with concern.

Excerpt from “A Certain Man Had Two Sons,” by William Sloane Coffin.
Delivered at Riverside Church in New York City, May 7, 1978.

We can use this freedom God has afforded us in many ways. We have the freedom to escape from the world; to ignore suffering, ignore the pain that inevitably follows when we pour ourselves out to others in relationship. We can live in isolation, comforting ourselves with the knowledge that God has redeemed us already. We have the freedom to make our own way. To carve out our own vision of success and pleasure in creation, bending the world to our will. Or, as Coffin concludes, perhaps we have been given freedom not to throw our lives away, but to give them away to one another. To give them away to reconciliation, to forgiveness and to love, just as Christ gave his.

How will you spend your freedom today?