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I was randomly assigned to read a total bummer today as part of the church’s legionary schedule. The day’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a. It is the conclusion of the story of David and Bathsheba. The story is known well enough to be a cross-cultural anecdote thousands of years later. David and Bathsheba is the story of a ruler’s complete misuse of power, the abuse of a woman, and the disgrace and murder of a soldier who, up to that point, had only shown bravery and loyalty to that king.
In the power of myth, a story like this speaks past its own context. It is a total bummer to read because the actions of the ruler bring destruction to many innocent people just as that leader sits enthroned in his self-righteousness. Yet, with the destruction of a marriage and a soldier’s life appearing to evade detection, the prophet Nathan is sent. You see, what has been covered up has been seen, and it is displeasing. Very displeasing.
“But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD, and the LORD sent Nathan to David.”
I imagine Nathan was afraid of this type of confrontation. Who dares to speak against the Lord’s anointed? Some religious leaders, more in love with power than the truth, will tell you never to speak back to a leader. Who dares to accuse a great person of a terrible wrong? Who dares to speak truth to power? I imagine that Nathan could have just let “Kings be Kings.” But he didn’t. Prophets take risks, but their confidence comes from the truth and the good of the Kingdom - not from the approval of their kings.
“Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
Nathan breaks the ice with a story of a wealthy man who needs to care for a guest and steals a poor man’s only lamb. This angers David. He swears that the man will pay and pay dearly. His righteousness is deluded because he thinks Nathan is telling a story and not giving an analogy. David’s anger is an example of reaction formation. His decisiveness to punish is an attempt to reduce the anxiety of his scrambled, inconsistent, and thoroughly selfish leadership ethic. With such power and such a perspective, evil thrives.
“Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.”
Nathan’s message connects with crystal clear clarity. David end’s the passage with “I have sinned against the LORD.” The Second reading for the day from Psalm 51 is related to this episode. The Psalm is said to be a prayer of David’s for mercy, for confession, and for a new and clean heart.
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; *
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
2 Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, *
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.
5 And so you are justified when you speak *
and upright in your judgment.
6 Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother's womb.
7 For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *
and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
8 Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
9 Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.
10 Hide your face from my sins *
and blot out all my iniquities.
11 Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.
12 Cast me not away from your presence *
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
13 Give me the joy of your saving help again *
And sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
Today, Psalm 51 is a popular worship song called “Create in Me in a Clean Heart.” I cannot read it without hearing the tune. I also cannot read it without feeling sadness because of the truth it speaks about the ongoing human experience. Hierarchy and rulers may be inevitable facts of civilization, but they need not be evil. They need not abuse the powerless. They need not be beyond rebuke. But when they are, even the God-ordained leaders and hierarchies cannot cover up their misuse of power. Something is watching. Always watching.
Prophets exist to speak the truth to power, even when it terrifies them. But at the moment’s when truth and justice meet reaction formation, the Leader’s true heart cannot be covered up. Will they confess and seek mercy? Will they restore the wrong delivered? Will they prevent future misuses of power? Or will they continue cloak themselves in self-righteousness and continue to damage those that they are supposed to protect?
I read a total bummer today in 2 Samuel and Psalm 51. Despite reconciliation and forgiveness, abuse of power has its consequences. David, King of Israel, wasn’t the first time something like this occurred, and it won’t be the last.
May all who hold power know that what is covered up is still seen.
May we all make space in hearts and mind to hear the prophets who are sent to speak truth to power.
May the confrontations with the truth restore leadership to its God-ordained purpose of justice.
May this ancient story stop being so very familiar to us all.
In October 2013 I noticed a small patch form under my left elbow. I consulted Dr. Google and came to the self-diagnosis that it was either a fungus or Vitiligo. Several anti-fungal treatments, two dermatology appointments, and a punch biopsy later I had a professional opinion. The doctor diagnosed me with Vitiligo - an autoimmune condition where your body reacts to the cells that create your skin tone as if they were a threat and killed them. Other than its cosmetic effects, it is not problematic and is not contagious. When I first heard the diagnosis, I was stunned, and I remember that the technician tried to comfort me by saying "at least it's not on your face." It's true; I am blessed to have a mild and slow changing pattern. It is also true that it would be years before I could see it that way. When I look at my arm, I remember that it could show up anywhere and anytime, even on my face.
It wasn't until my well-meaning immune system started destroying the pigment on my arm that I realized how much the color of my skin had melded with my self-identity. Cultural resentment and shame cripple a large part of my self-identity. I picked up these cues early; in first grade, my classmates covered my class birthday card with comparisons to Speedy Gonzales. In tenth grade, I overheard "decent" classmates at Christian school tell me how Mexican's look dirty. I have been told, more than once as an adult, that given how I speak and what I have to say, that I must be from East Indian heritage (the implication being: certainly not heritage from south of the border). Extended family relatives of my children have questioned the legitimacy of them being "Latino." Professionally, I accepted pigeonhole assignments and promotions from middle-aged, white males, to work predominately with Spanish speaking communities while also needing to justify that I do not speak Spanish and with few alternatives to grow my career.
It took me three years to stop covering the spots on my arm and hands. I didn't think the cover up fooled anyone, it just made me feel better and usually held off the Michael Jackson (who had Vitiligo) inspired joke for a while. In a year of committing to "show up, just as I am, wherever I am," I stopped covering it up. I continue the medical regime and even see some slowing of its progression, but the real progress has been psychological and spiritual. It is part of my journey to complete self-acceptance. Along the way, I have also learned to accept a few other things:
People will follow the spots with their eyes until they figure out what is going on
Someone always has "that one friend" who also has it, too
I did not become more or less of an American in the spot that lost its brown color
I did not become any smarter/less intelligent as my color shifted
I did not develop the drive to increase or decrease anyone else's access to education, employment, healthcare, or any other version of the American dream as the color changed.
This past fall, I volunteered in three elementary schools and played many hours of math and language arts games with student populations that are 95% Hispanic/Latino. About half of the time, and almost immediately, one of the students will ask about the spots. The inquiries are as sweet as they are surprising. Adults don't ask as often, and usually not out of curiosity, but from something that sounds like fear - "what is up with your arm?". The first time a young student asked me what was wrong with my skin I blurted out "that is just how God colored me." He then reached over, patted the spot on my right hand, and with tender eyes said, "it's okay!".
I supposed that this student's reaction is how God felt when he pronounced all of creation, and all of humanity as "good." Believing that we are born in and carry this "goodness" in all our lives makes it hard to watch the bias and racism that exist toward humans who have dared to live as they were born. Born into bodies where skin color is mediated by cellular function and not inherited superiority. Born into societies where ethnic differences are socially conditioned and not decided by genetic capability. And born in a world that looks the same as we widen the scope of our vision and realize that if we gain enough distance we all look the same and we are beautiful!
I imagine that being a Christian is mainly an expressive language that communicates about loving God and about being loved by God. Growing in my faith has become an understanding that loving God means loving what God loves. Generations of prophets, the voices in the wilderness of Israel's history, and the human face of God encountered in Jesus, make it clear that God is both love and justice. Those that have lost either are soon to recognize they are longing for both, for they are two sides of the same coin.
God is not ignorance, repression, suppression, or oppression of love and justice. In the trials and chaos of life, our obstacles are the void created by the absence of love and justice. Over and over, love and justice are God's words and actions breaking into the void. When the void is overcome with the truth which becomes evident as caring, compassion, comfort and the restoration of the dignity of all. When love pretends to be our motivation without a commitment to justice, our result is selfishness. When our sense of justice has lost its source in love then our result is self-righteousness. God is neither selfish nor self-righteous, and living with both is to enter the void.
When we look at the stories from the sacred scripture we see example after example of our responsibilities toward one another. If you were to ask Malachi and James what the definition of pure religion is, you will find particular instructions that represent universal values. You will not find the moralizing and rationalization that defends the prevailing oppression of the day, whether it be the harsh realities of imperial dominance, economic injustice, or patriarchy. As John Dominic Crossan points out, to a patriarchal society love and justice require that we care for the widow and orphan (and much more), in a tribal society they provide for the resident alien (like Ruth), and in a market society they provide aid to the poor, sick, and hungry. Since the time of Jesus, progress has been made and also lost on all fronts, in a dizzying yin and yang of human development.
I grew up in a tradition that emphasized the birth and the death of Jesus. Even the most famous creeds make these two events preeminent in their assessment of his purpose and vocation. The gap between birth and death, however, was often minimized or not discussed at all. The result is the same void we encounter when we lose sight of the love and justice. This is to me the greatest tragedy of current Christian practice and worship. In our effort to categorize, philosophize, and proselytize we have reduced the holy art work of a lifestyle love and justice into a mechanical expression of self-serving ideals.
This error can and must be undone and it starts with encountering, once again, the human face of God on earth. The face that demonstrated love and justice by walking toward things labeled "unclean", by eating with and creating relationship with "sinners", by defying gender roles and demonstrating that many society's structures are often built for the powerful few, who exploit the many, and are blamed on God. Instead, the human face of God is the one who is waiting as a father to the prodigal and the older son, who is sitting and waiting for the shame ridden woman to visit the well, and who is ready to offer a parable to a self-righteous Pharisee who mentally judges the tearful embrace of Jesus by a sinner.
To love God is to love what God loves which is to act in a way that restores and protects the innate dignity of all beings, cares for the sick and hungry, comforts in the reality of pain and death, and loves so thoroughly that it provokes the embrace of the sinner. This is what you find between his birth and death. If you can read this, you are still between those two events, too. May you fill your days with the same ethic of compassion known by the names of love and justice.
30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[a] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] There is no commandment greater than these.”
In the past weeks, I have been part of multiple discussions on finding common ground with others during this time of social division. I am not shy in pronouncing and working toward my own personal ethic of compassion and love. However, I should be more shy about discussing how well I follow through. It’s been too easy to simply brand the other side of any argument as unloving. I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of this accusation, as many of you.
This saying of Jesus is perhaps quoted as much by other faith groups as it is by Christians. It’s easy to stay on love and forget the self. It’s also very common to start with the first half and see your intentions became a train wreck by the time you read “as yourself “. It seems to me that many who draw the ire of others are indeed following this saying without even trying. How is it so easy to be so disparaging, hostile, and angry? Because you hate yourself. You live in regret, remorse, denial, and never ending self judgement. You can’t help acting with such malice toward others because it’s how you treat yourself moment by moment. A living hell on earth.
How shall we cope with those where we find angry disagreement? First, by seeing them as people who may be hostile because they live in self hate. They may be unloving to their neighbor just as they are to themselves. This type of seeing is the start of the compassion in this saying of Jesus. It works because it revives our humanity. You simply can’t love another until you’ve made the peace treaty with your own inner self war which then creates the foundation for acceptance. Maybe then we can strive toward social progress and to peace with our neighbors.
There has been a lot of talk lately about power, supremacy, and division. Tensions are high in the United States and opinions are as diverse as the people who make up the country. I certainly have my inclinations and feel the pressure that demands action. But, what action? What will actually help our situation?
In the New Testament book of Galatians the author, Paul describes his first encounter with his former enemies as “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” This is the reaction of the first audience of a transformed Paul. In our modern world, it is tempting to take all spiritual or religious tales and label them as an irrelevant fantasy. However, regardless of your faith tradition (or lack thereof) Paul’s experience points to a powerful experience of reversal. What causes this?
It seems that falling off of your horse will do this to you. As the story goes, Saul (soon to be renamed Paul) had a vision and encountered the force he thought he was serving only to find out that had been leading the opposition. The book of Acts does not tell us whether it was a “high horse,” but we are told he falls to the ground and the effect was powerful. Imagine the moment when you realize all of your life’s work is counterproductive, harmful, and disgraceful. How does he recover?
Blindness and solitude will do this to you. We are told that for days he lost sight and for at least three years he was mentored in the desert of Arabia. The unpacking of a wasted life is done by listening and depending on a close group of people that will demonstrate an important balance between love and justice. Many would have demanded justice toward Paul since he had been part of groups who murdered others with whom he disagreed. But this story demonstrates how love is the foundation of justice. How can this be today?
Justice that restores entire societies and communities but it’s love that restores a human being. Regardless of our history, our suffering, and our personal inclinations the restoration of our whole society depends on our ability to make amends with our brothers and sisters. Sometimes “love your enemies” and “love your neighbor” are different labels for the same thing. When hate and separation are the tools of the trade, it’s someone in deep pain doing the work. When we see a complete reversal it is our duty to meet their change with acceptance. Love and justice are the tools of unification yesterday, today, and tomorrow.