No Dead Ends

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What is it like to be an Iowan in January 2016?  It is to be bombarded with messages of aspiring presidential candidates.  Terrorism and migration are hot topics this year, but they are only two examples of the complex issues facing our nation and our world.  Those seeking the presidency claim to have answers, but we all know that any U.S. president has limited power and wisdom to make a real difference.

We might react with either despair or debate.  Neither one is ultimately effective in addressing these issues.  Despair would have us throwing up our hands and focusing on looking out for our own interests.  Debates grow more and more shrill, and the two sides become more and more entrenched while the problems remain unsolved.

God encourages us in Isaiah 43:2b-3: “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.  For I am the LORD, you God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”  I read Eugene Peterson’s interesting version of these verses in The Message: “When you’re between a rock and a hard place, it won’t be a dead end—Because I am GOD, your personal God, the Holy of Israel, your Savior.”

Whatever problems we are facing, on a personal or national scale, it can feel like a dead end.  We can’t go forward, and we literally cannot go back in time.  What is there to do?  It looks hopeless.

Recently my family spent a week on the island of St. Thomas.  It is a beautiful place, but the driving is not for the faint of heart.  The roads are very curvy and hilly, and they drive on the left side of the road there.  Hairpin turns are not unusual.  The signage was confusing to me.  I counted it a victory when I got to my destination without a wrong turn.  We ended up on a dead end at one point.  It is a frustrating experience in a place that is unfamiliar.  This is not unlike the challenges of navigating through life.

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Whether on a personal or a national scale, the road ahead for us often seems confusing, with blind curves and the occasional hairpin turn.  The problems seem insurmountable, and we see no way forward or back.  Yet God promises a way out.  With God there are no dead ends; there is only life and hope ahead.  Sometimes God gives us peace right where we are, and we need to trust that the way forward will appear.  Occasionally the way out is shown to us quickly.

Either way, we need to trust our God who promises life ahead no matter what.  The Scriptures assure us that there is more than what meets the eye in our circumstances.  We have a Savior we can trust.  That is our good news in the midst of a contentious caucus season.  We don’t have to argue like enemies; we can listen to one another and pray for God to show us the answers.  God will make a way if we trust the One who loves us deeply and eternally.

The Cure

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Quick quiz: Who is called “a man after God’s own heart” in the Bible?  Paul said it in a sermon in Antioch, on his first missionary journey.  (Acts 13:22)  He was talking about David.  Is there any more beloved figure in the Old Testament than David?

Yet David had feet of clay just like everyone else.  As so often happens, his strength ended up being his weakness, because he took it too far.  He was celebrated as the fiercest and most successful warrior his people had ever known.  But one day he took his ability to eliminate the enemy too far.

It happened when he sent his men into battle and stayed home himself.  Did he think that he had paid his dues and deserved a break?  Was he noticing that his reflexes weren’t what they used to be?  We can’t be sure.  What we do know is that he ended up with too much time on his hands, and he got into mischief that snowballed into horrifying proportions.

You might remember the story.  It is found in 2 Samuel 11-12.  David notices a woman bathing next door, sends for her, and has his way with her.  She ends up pregnant.  Her husband is a loyal soldier named Uriah.  David conspires to give Uriah some time on leave when he might spend time with his wife and hopefully presume some months hence that the child is his.  But Uriah refuses to enjoy time with his wife when his buddies aren’t given the same privilege with their wives.  David resorts to ordering Uriah’s commanding officer to put him where the fiercest fighting ensures his death.  His plot succeeds.

The prophet Nathan is sent by God to hold David accountable.  He does it by telling a story of a wealthy man who stole his neighbor’s only lamb, his beloved pet, and served it up for his guests.  David responds predictably with anger at the injustice.  Nathan looks David directly in the eye and intones, “You are the man!”  David accepts responsibility and confesses his sin to God.  (Psalm 51)

What was David accused of?  Certainly he was guilty of adultery at the very least.  But he compounded his problems by trying to solve them with violence.  I wonder one of the reasons the story is told is because David had to be cured of his compulsion to use violence as the answer to every problem.  He had to learn that righteousness is not about eliminating one’s enemy.  He had to understand that God’s righteousness is about relationships, compassion, and restraint.

We hear a lot of political rhetoric these days in Iowa.  It is almost time for the first caucuses in the nation here.  Violence is promoted by would-be candidates as the answer to terrorism as well as other problems.  It is used by the terrorists themselves to send a message and to wield control.  In today’s political climate, we are encouraged to demonize our enemies, whether they are young men who have been indoctrinated with murderous philosophies, or merely a neighbor who disagrees with us about who should be elected president.

Some candidates use fear to rally people to their side.  Others use fear of those same candidates to rally voters behind themselves.  There are plenty of causes to argue about: police violence, the right to bear arms, abortion.  Too often the children of this generation are being taught that the best solution is to fight, whether verbally or with weapons.

Where does it stop?  I contend that it stops at the foot of the cross, where Jesus staked his claim to declare the rule of law in this world.  It was there that he invited us to do our worst, to see where violence will get us.  The respected religious leaders joined forces with the Roman oppressors to kill the one who advocated forgiveness.  The outcome was unexpected: they couldn’t kill him.  Love could not be silenced or killed.  Jesus rules with love and not violence.

We teach that Jesus died to save us from our sins.  “Saving us from our sins” has many meanings.  I believe that one of those meanings is that we must be cured of our violent impulses.  The gospel shows us in no uncertain terms that demonizing the other and trying to eliminate them is not the answer.

I do not know what it looks like to love our enemies.  I have not had to face someone who killed my child.   Dealing with terrorism is complex.  Trying to get enemies with a long history to speak to one another is almost impossible.  But we can start with this: listening to people with whom we disagree.  We can resist the impulse to shout one another down and listen for a kernel of truth we can agree on.  We can make the effort to love first, and debate second.  We be people “after God’s own heart.”  We can let God cure us of violence.