Early in the morning David left the flock in the care of a shepherd, loaded up and set out, just as Jesse had directed him. And he reached the encampment as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry. Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines, army against army.Then David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the ranks and greeted his brothers.
As he was talking with them, behold, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and he spoke these same words again, and David heard him.Whenever the Israelites saw the man, they all fled from him in great fear.
Now the Israelites had been saying, “Do you see how this man keeps coming out? Surely he comes out to defy Israel. The king will reward the man who kills him with great riches and will also give him his daughter in marriage and will make his father’s house free from taxes in Israel.”
Then David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he has taunted and defied the armies of the living God?” So they told him, “That is what will be done for the man who kills him.”
When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard what he said to the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “What are you doing here? And who is watching our few sheep in the wilderness back home? I know you—you are overconfident and your heart ain’t right; for you have come down only to see the battle.” David cried, “Now what have I done? Was it not a harmless question?” He then turned away to someone else and brought up the same matter, and the men answered him as before.
Now, when the words David said were heard, the men reported them to Saul, and Saul sent for him.
David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”
But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. And when a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the lamb from its mouth, and when it rose up against me, I seized it by its whiskers and struck and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear, and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has taunted AND defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”
Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you.”
Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried to walk, but he could not, because he was not used to them. “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off.
Then he took his shepherd’s staff in his hand and chose for himself five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag. And then, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.
The Philistine came and approached David with his shield bearer in front of him. And when he looked and saw David, he derided and disparaged him, for he was just a young man, healthy and handsome. He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field!”
David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the corpses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, so that the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel, and that this entire assembly will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will hand you over to us.”
As the Philistine rose and came forward to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone penetrated his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.
So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him. David ran and stood over him, grasped his sword and drew it from the sheath and killed him, and cut off his head with it.
When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they fled. Then the men of Israel and Judah stood with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as the entrance to the valley and the gates of Ekron. Their dead were strewn along the way to Shaaraim, even as far as Gath and Ekron. When the Israelites returned from chasing the Philistines, they plundered their camp.
Then David took the Philistine’s head and brought it to Jerusalem, but he put the Philistine’s weapons in his own tent.
As Saul watched David going out to meet the Philistine, he said to Abner, commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is that young man?” Abner replied, “As surely as you live, Your Majesty, I don’t know.”The king said, “Find out.”
As soon as David returned from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with the head of the Philistine in his hand. “Whose son are you, young man?” Saul asked him. David said, “I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem.”
1 Samuel 17:20-58
That is quite a story.
A story that, I suspect, you have heard mannnny times. Perhaps the single most recognizable story about David that a person is likely to know.
It feels like something out of a movie, or a novel, or a comic book, this hero story of David, the someday king of Israel, and his magical ability to fell a big bad guy with nothing but a rock and a sling.
Who wouldn’t love a guy like that? As a story, it is utterly seductive.
There are some interesting things, however, going on in this story, right under the surface, that I would like to unpack together on this World Communion Sunday, a day when we mediate on words from scripture like those that David uttered when he said “that it is not by the sword or the spear that the Lord saves.”
Let’s begin by orienting ourselves. Remember that, in this moment, Israel already has a king. King Saul, the first King of the Israelites. And King Saul’s first task has been to take the fight, as it were, to the enemies of Israel.
And it isn’t going so well for Saul. Sure, his army is encamped against the dreaded Philistines. But they are all shaking in fear at this great warrior, Goliath, who scripture tells us is raining down terror with a mix of self-confident taunting and a rather intimidating appearance.
What was that that scripture told us just last Sunday? That God looks not at what is on the outside, but on what is inside the heart? Well, the army didn’t get that memo. Goliath looks terrifying, and they believe him when he says he will utterly destroy them. They are shaking in their armor.
And along comes this–how does the story say it—handsome, un-battle tested youth. The reason they keep calling him handsome, here, by the way, is to emphasize that he doesn’t “look” like a warrior. Not enough battle scars. David, the son that was left behind while the big boys went to war. Someone had to bring supplies to the front, and take care of the sheep. Someone, in other words, had to keep things going while everyone else picked up a sword.
Somehow David, is the only person who *isn’t* incapacitated by Goliath. This young man who doesn’t hide with the baggage but runs to the front, isn’t cowed by words from a giant of Gath. And yet his reaction—we have to *do* something about this—is met with anger from his brother, and dismissal from Saul. They are all convinced that the only way to solve this problem is with more force. But when they look at David, all they see is weakness.
We hear this story on a Sunday in which the church traditionally focuses on our call to peacemaking. Which feels, at first glance, a little incongruous. What could this story possibly have to teach us about peacemaking?
What if stories like this are EXACTLY why we need to talk about peacemaking? Whether we like to admit it or not, the stories of the bible are marked by violence—the violence of war, the violence of conquest. The violence of the cross.
When we talk about peacemaking, it is really important that part of that conversation include a reckoning with our own tendency toward violence. We cannot pretend that we do not stand on the wreckage and ruin of countless bloody wars and conflicts that brought us to where we are. As Christians, as Americans. Chris Hedges once wrote “war is a force that gives us meaning,” and if we are to be peacemakers, we must reckon with that truth.
Because the truth is that we are *not* peacemakers, not most of the time. We are far more like David, gaping at the battlefield, or like the Israelite army, either caught in the midst of it and filled with fear or lust for battle. We must reckon with the fact that we live in a world that glorifies militaristic conquest, and enshrines it in the national story that we tell. That leans less on the wisdom of God, and more on the power of those who wield weapons.
The call to make peace must also reckon with the fact that, even if we are creative and imaginative in avoiding violence, this violent world will still find us. We cannot run from the violence of the world. And if you don’t believe me, believe the witness of the cross.
So what, then, does it mean to transform a violent world with peace? What is all of this reckoning for?
Perhaps for the same purpose that these stories exist in our bible at all. The remind us where we have come from. Of the moments of greatest triumph, but also of our greatest mistakes. To reckon with our history is the gateway to choosing another path. Perhaps, if we are lucky, even a better one.
I first moved to Philadelphia in 2008 for a summer pastoral internship. The other seminary interns and I had been attracted to this worshipping community because its mission was, in part, to work to transform the city through solidarity and hospitality to the marginalized and the oppressed. But before we got there, one of the first things that the pastor who was our mentor asked us to do was to read a book. It was called “A Prayer for the City” by Buzz Bissinger, and it told the story of Philadelphia in the late 90s. As a California Girl with absolutely no context for understanding Philadelphia, that book became a sort of compass—it helped me get to know my adopted city, and to understand some of the things that made it the way it was. It helped me to see the ways in which the problems that city faced were larger than just what was in front of me—violence, homelessness, poverty, racism–all of these problems have roots stretching back into the past, and if we want to be a part of the solution, we have to be willing to do the work to understand where they came from. And so it is with the work of peace as well.
So this World Communion Sunday, let us not speak as though the work of making peace is easy. It is not. It is likely the hardest thing we may ever strive for, and in the broad span of history, we may make but the smallest difference. But let us also commit ourselves to knowing the barriers that stand in our way, so that, like David, we might be creative in slaying the giant that stands before us.
I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the ways in which we live out the stories that we told about ourselves when we were young.* It is fascinating to trace the person that I am today back to the person I was when I was fourteen years old. I ask myself: how is it possible that the struggles I faced back then continue to live and breath now? And yet they do.
Before I go any further, let me be clear about something–I had a pretty happy childhood. Idyllic, even. I never doubted that my parents loved me, my siblings and I got along (most of the time), and we were not subject to the whims of illness, or poverty, or drug abuse, or any of a myriad of traumas that can afflict a home and a child. We were so lucky. So privileged in so many ways.
My adolescent self was plagued with self-doubt. You wouldn’t have known that to look at me–I projected a great deal of confidence, especially around adults. I was competitive, and academically strong. But all of that was a grand cover. Around my peers, I couldn’t shake the conviction that they knew something that I didn’t. I felt awkward in my own skin all of the time. And when I looked at my (younger) sister, who seemed so popular and beautiful and at ease, I was convinced that it was something inside me that was wrong. I was the problem.
It is amazing how something like this can eat away at your self-confidence over the years. If you believe that you are a problem, and if you are also someone who believes that problems are meant to be fixed, then you are going to spend much of your energy trying to diagnose yourself, and the rest of what is in you administering the cure. And so I tried all sorts of things: I changed my clothes. I starved my body, I grasped about for answers in books, in church, in culture. I pretended to like the things that people who seemed far more interesting than me enjoyed.
It was miserable.
Even worse, it didn’t work.
So I doubled down on self-recrimination.
By the time I got to college, I knew that I needed a fresh start, but the only “me” that I knew was a striver who was desperate to please. I learned, quickly, that on a large university campus, there are countless opportunities to remake yourself. But I stuck to that same, toxic script. I kept stuffing myself in a box that seemed acceptable, single-minded in my pursuit of success but always with my attention focused on how I might find acceptance in others. I joined rigid community groups–Marching Band, Campus Crusade for Christ, a military recruitment program for aspiring clergy–hoping that within the confines of those spaces I would find what I was looking for. Instead, I learned the hard truth that letting other people dictate the boundaries of your acceptable self serves only to isolate you further. All they did was offer further evidence of my inadequacy.
I’m not sure what flipped the script. Somewhere in college, I started to care about my own well-being enough to make it more of a priority. I never fully stopped performing for other people, but I started to care a little more about what made me happy. What brought me joy. I started to be okay with disappointing some people if it meant choosing myself. It felt good to care about myself. It still does.
But the ghost of my teenage self still haunts me. She lingers at the edge of sight, and when life is feeling unmanageable, as it is right now, she sidles closer and whispers that all of this is my fault. That I am the problem. Sometimes, I can see her for what she is. Many more times, I am tempted to believe her. And when I do, I am right back where I started: anxious, afraid, certain that at any moment, the shoe will drop and everyone will figure out that I am a fraud.
Lately I have found myself wondering how things might have turned out differently if I had not felt it so critical to hide myself, and my insecurity and fears all those years ago? What if my younger self had felt like she could have said what she was feeling out loud? what if someone had seen her struggle, drawn close and whispered, “it’s okay. I see you. you can be afraid with me?” How might my life have turned out differently if I had made that choice to be fully known?
I think of this as I raise my own children. As I watch them silently struggle with their own fears and insecurities. I tell myself, if you will not be that person for them, then who will? I tell myself, the choices you make right now will ripple forward, and while you cannot control that, you can make sure that those that you love know that they are loved, and accepted, exactly as they are. If you wish to make a difference in their lives, perhaps you will have to risk being vulnerable now in ways that you could not be when you were young.
I tell myself this, and I wonder: does the adolescent within me hear? And if she does, would she believe me?
A few years ago, someone gifted me a copy of a book by Kathleen Norris entitled “Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life.” I considered the tome for all of about 10 minutes before deciding that it had nothing helpful to teach me, after which I set the volume upon my bookshelf where it might begin its task of collecting dust.
How could I have imagined that, in the span of just a few years, I would find myself held in stasis by what Norris describes as a “restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today.” I can describe it only as the feeling of being, on the one hand, completely incapable of sitting still or of being alone with myself and my own thoughts, and on the other hand, feeling disturbingly incapacitated and utterly incapable of the fruitful endeavors that previously filled my time.
It has been such an unexpected and unwelcome turn of events that, strangely, I have felt compelled to write (and to write, and to write, and to write some more) about the perturbations that it has stirred up–driven to examine from every angle the ways in which this “scourge of the soul” affects me even as I have found myself nearly incapable of stringing together coherent, written observations for the worshipping community which I serve. Somehow, acedia has managed to simultaneously silence and unfetter my internal voice. It has caged the writer but unleashed the poet.
At first, I mocked my own drive to write more lyrically. I told anyone who might encounter my words that they were “deeply average” and “crappy poetry for beginners.” I think a part of me was (and perhaps still is) disappointed in myself. Whereas before I felt completely in control of my voice, now I experience my writing as deeply vulnerable, needy, and exposed. Because decent poetry resists the urge to explain itself, I have to let it speak on its own terms, and allow others to make their own connections. I have to be okay with the possibility that my own needs, wants, and desires will lay right on the surface, unhidden by fancy turns of phrase.
What has been fascinating is that poetry has in some ways been an antidote to acedia. It has forced me to pay attention to what I am really feeling, right now, right here. I have been made to confront the longings of my heart rather than escape them and to acknowledge the things within me that I am ashamed of, because they cannot be denied. They are a part of me too. Poetry has forced me, in other words, to care about myself. And while that is difficult, agonizing work, it is also deeply necessary, for it is care for the self that lifts us out of our despair, and back into life.
If I have seemed distracted, lately, perhaps it is because I have been startled by the beauty of a world in motion. Yesterday, it seems, we were trapped in the heavy humidity of August in Pennsylvania; this week there is an edge to the morning cold, and I noticed the edge of a dark red seeping into the treeline on 76 just this week. In the evenings, I am distracted by the silent bats charging through the sky as they scoop up the tarrying mosquitos in the dusky light.
Everywhere I look, it seems, I am reminded that nothing stays the same. Change is the constant that follows us through this life; it is just a matter of whether we have the eyes to see. Even the church is not exempt—we look around our pews, and the people who sit amongst us are different than they were. It isn’t just us— recent studies by the Pew Charitable Trust and Barna Foundation confirm that whole generations seem to be choosing not to be in the pews at all.
Nature, the church, Scripture, all conspire to remind us that the world does not stand still. It moves. And our call, as disciples, is to move with it. There is a reason, I think, that Jesus’ model of discipleship is to “follow me.” Faithfulness rarely looks like staying in one place. It more often looks like getting up and exploring the world, paying attention to where God might be at work, and then going there. Even if that makes us uncomfortable.
I know, I know. That sounds like a lot of work. But I think it may be as simple as being Christ where we are. Allowing ourselves to be distracted by the world that is right there in front of us, and looking at our world, full of neighbors and strangers, with the eyes of the Beloved. Giving ourselves permission to practice Christ-like love in our communities, our grocery stores, our libraries, our schools. Because we are already out in the world, friends. The trick is to see it as God does.
If you are up for the challenge, I encourage you to join me in this holy work. And if you do, let me know what you see. Perhaps we can follow Christ together.