Monday, April 12, 2010

When Shepherds Stray

Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? … Why did you not obey the LORD?” (1 Samuel 15.17-19)

NOTE: We typically distance our discussions here from current controversies. Today's post is an exception in an attempt to ground our thinking about the present crisis in Rome. It is longer than usual, yet woefully inadequate in many ways. I ask you read it prayerfully.

The Terrors of Trust

Trust is a powerful thing. Confidence in parents or leaders, pastors or supervisors makes all the difference in our lives; it’s the medium through which we learn and prosper. Only when we reach positions of leadership and respect do we discover the terrors of trust. They riddle us with dread of misguiding those who look to us. Opportunities for failure abound. So, while experience, expertise, and willingness earn trust, maintaining it hinges on our ability to put those who trust us first and our personal needs and longings last. This is a terrifying prospect, because it begs the question “Can I be trusted?” Furthermore, damage caused by broken trust is directly proportional to its perceived value. Some avocations—parenthood, life partnership, teaching, political office, faith formation, etc.—are deemed sacrosanct. We presume people in these positions will cherish our trust above their interests. Thankfully, the vast majority of them do, which is why honored trust isn’t as remarkable as broken trust, because what is “history” if not one continuous saga of abused power? What is “scandal” if not bad faith’s showcase? And, since we’ve learned nothing from the past, today’s news is overrun with people reputed to be trustworthy who prove they’re not. None of these is more troubling than the faith crisis confronting the Roman Catholic Church. It grieves all of us—Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and non-believers—in its galvanizing depiction of exalted leaders wedged between honoring trust and protecting interests. It’s an ancient drama, one we see play out in the life of Israel’s first king. A review of Saul’s story provides some valuable insights into what happens when shepherds stray.

The Evolution of Leadership

To reap the full benefit of Saul’s lesson, we must retrace the evolution of leadership in Israel. While God knows Israel will eventually ask for a king, this isn’t His intention. His plan calls for a tribal government guided by a chief prophet who voices God’s concerns and desires. Judges mediate local matters in accordance to divine law and military leaders serve on an ad hoc basis per the prophet’s orders. Israel’s neighbors are all absolute monarchies, whose successions are predominately determined by internal power struggles—a collection of nations ruled by warrior kings. Leadership by brute force and its corollary—divide and conquer—are anathema to God’s organic approach to nurture Israel as a people unto Himself. But Israel’s people become convinced they also need a king. This wounds Samuel, the most exemplary prophet the Old Testament offers. God consoles him, saying, “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.” (1 Samuel 8.6) He sets down very specific duties and rights for the king, which Samuel publishes, along with this warning: “You will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” (v18) Nonetheless, Israel insists.

God vests the monarch with full administrative and judicial power over the realm, yet—unlike neighboring rulers—Israel’s king remains beholden to Him and His prophet. In this respect, the monarchy functions closer to a pastoral position than a seat of power. To underscore the king’s third rank, God selects a candidate, Saul, from the smallest tribe, Benjamin. This not only obviates any infighting and coalitions among the larger tribes, it signifies a certain disdain for the position in God’s sight. Saul, we’re told in 1 Samuel 9.2, is “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites—a head taller than any of the others,” which makes him a big guy without big tribal backing. He’s perfect. To win the people’s trust, he’s endowed with prophetic gifts and leadership talent. The Israelites hail their new king with gusto. Then things start falling apart. Saul’s power and status overwhelm him. He stops listening to God’s direction and starts making decisions to protect his rule. When he forgets whence he came, he strays.

Things come to a head when Saul disobeys God’s order to rout Israel’s longtime foes, the Amalekites, down to the last beast. But he returns from battle with a herd of trophy cattle. Though he knows it’s wrong, he tries to spin his decision as obedient by sacrificing the livestock in worship. In return, God says, “I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” (1 Samuel 15.10) Hoping his war spoils will ratify the nation’s trust in him, Saul loses faith with God. In 1 Samuel 16.14, we read one of Scripture’s most tragic verses: “Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.” The pastoral instincts are gone, replaced by a plague of ruinous doubts and jealousies. Saul eventually dies at his own hand. He’s succeeded by David, a shepherd so deeply flawed he has no choice but to trust God’s guidance and protection. And even though he also makes grievous mistakes, he remains honest before his Maker and God repays his humility by exalting him as the greatest leader in his nation’s history.

A Reckoning

The Vatican’s current crisis shakes us because it evidences broken pastoral trust on so many levels. Everywhere we look, we seem to find shepherds who’ve strayed. At the root of the problem are the reckless men who placed their personal desires above their priestly vows and their parishioners’ faith. We see people tormented by small beginnings taking advantage of their prominence. As we wrestle with our own feelings about them—and the issues multiplied from their misdeeds—it’s important to anchor our thoughts with a clear understanding of what their malfeasance represents. Sexual abuse of every kind is not about physical gratification; it’s a heinous leverage of power by individuals burdened by a sense of worthlessness. As such, the responsibility to end similar abuses—not only in the church, but also in the home, classroom, workplace, and elsewhere—falls to us. Belittling anyone is not acceptable. Beyond the effect it has on those we diminish and us, it spreads our evildoing to innocent lives.

Thus, while we watch in horror as pastors we trust fail to respond quickly, effectively, and unilaterally against this pervasive sin (which plagues all communions, not only the Roman Catholic one), we must realize this is a reckoning for the entire Body of Christ. We call for kings. We construct thrones. We cede power and trust. God’s plan for the Church is no different than His design for Israel. He grants our request for self-government, but reserves governance to Himself. Pastoral leadership, from the Pope down to the illiterate storefront preacher, is the Church’s underpinning, not its pinnacle. When Christ ordains Peter, He says, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16.18) We see the pastoral imperative in action as Paul writes in Romans 1.11: “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong.” We hear this note repeatedly in the epistles—making strong. The show of strength the Roman church presently seeks will only come when its leaders forsake their ambitions to honor their followers’ trust, when their sights return to the rock and their minds leave the clouds. Every pastor from every denomination must follow this prescription lest he/she stray. Every believer should do likewise.

The visibility of their errors doesn’t relieve our duty to listen to our true Shepherd. God is speaking to us. We are dealing with our misplaced trust in kings. We are reaping unjust and inadequate responses to problems we as a society created and then ignored. When shepherds stray, the sheep have two alternatives: bleat with alarm or repent themselves and return to the right way. In 2 Chronicles 7.14, God vows, “If my people, who are called my by name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (v14) The onus is on us. We can’t foresee whether or not the shepherds who’ve strayed will reawaken to their duties. They may go the way of Saul and destroy themselves. Right now, in the absence of shepherds, our prayers must attend to the flock. Our trust in God remains, and must always remain, sound.

When our shepherds stray, we are all called to a reckoning. We are all responsible for the losses and confusion that result in broken trust.


claire said...

We are dealing with our misplaced trust in kings.

First, another great post. I like your tracing back to Saul, Samuel, and the tribes wanting to be like everyone else -- with a king.

As to our Catholic King...

There are as many Catholicisms as Catholics. Nevertheless, I often recognize two kinds:

those who closely follow the decisions of the Vatican because they feel the need to know exactly what is right from wrong from a source outside themselves

and those who think for themselves, making a point to 'inform their conscience' and do not always agree with their hierarchy on topics such as homosexuality, women deacons, Eucharist to divorced remarried etc etc etc.

Others, like me, seem to be born somewhat alienated from their hierarchy. It smacks too much of malehood (nothing against men but I am into parity).

I look at the current crisis half laughing and half crying, like a lot of other folks. I have a friend who drowns me with e-mails in support of the Pope...

To come back to your post (sorry I strayed so far afield), a lot of Catholics see the Pope as their King. For my friend, who does not let himself be confused by the facts, the news are wrong (as some retired bishop said, It's a Zionist plot). For those who think and feel, they are appalled.

Will it change anything in our rotten Vatican? I do not know. I would not place any bet at all.

What strikes me, however, is that FAITH is not abated. Faith in Rome, yes, but faith in Christ, Godde, the Holy Spirit, no.

And the Spirit lifting us all above the Roman turpitude, this is maybe what we should focus on. Because it is a sort of Resurrection...

Blessings, Tim.

Tim said...

Claire, as an outside observer (though hardly impartial, as I truly love the RCC and its people), what you say validates everything I've found. There will be some who, like your friend, will follow their leaders to the death, at the expense of their own integrity of faith if necessary. But I believe there are many, many more who will be moved to pray for renewal of their communion, its leaders and followers--to find God in the chaos, if you will, where God never ceases to be found.

Beyond my prayers for the RCC, I also pray this brings a chastening of the Body at large--an awakening that supersedes politics and position, and recalls us to a place of humility and trust before our Maker. Christ is the Head of the Church. If we followed Him more closely and obediently, it goes without saying many of the problems that plague us (from the current imbroglio to the televangelist scandals to the unreported failures in quiet corners) simply wouldn't be.

Blessings, dear sister. And thank you for your candor and faith.


Tim said...

(Something I failed to add.) Change within the Vatican is not of essence, I think. Change within the church--in us--is where I truly believe this headed. That said, I also believe God has a David in the wings...

claire said...

A David in the wings... now you have me dreaming :-)

You know it is said that for a while it looked like a Brazilian bishop was going to be elected Pope. And other bishops, I understand, could see him praying that he would not...

Sherry Peyton said...

As the prophets continually warned, Israel began to act like the other nations, thinking that she was in control of her own destiny, thinking that Yahweh somehow gave Israel special protection so that all her desires would come to fruition.

The Church has begun to act as the nations, protecting itself, and by analogy supposedly "protecting the flock" from knowing things that would be too hard for them to deal with. This has been disasterously. And you are right, it should reorient all of us to realizing that we must look to God for direction--the still small voice always balks when we are tempted to follow Church rules that "don't seem quite right." We continue to do so at our peril it seems to me.

Thanks for a beautiful sensitive post Tim. You ground us in scripture and from that we can truly learn a better way.

Tim said...

the still small voice always balks when we are tempted to follow Church rules that "don't seem quite right."

Sherry, the instant I read this I was struck by how church leaders who discourage believers from heeding their consciences are no different than medieval prelates who withheld the written Word from their flocks "for their protection."

In Romans 2, Paul writes that each of us--regardless of cultural and religious background--is divinely endowed with an innate awareness of right and wrong. When we override that to conform to manmade edicts, particularly in regards to faith matters, we may as well just grab a sled and head for the slippery slopes.

The Church is indestructible, rock-solid and eternal. It needs no protection. The lives it shelters, however, are fragile and must be cared for in good faith. That this trust was breached at all, let alone among the youngest--the least--among us, is unconscionable. Then, to deflect any outcry for thorough investigation, correction, and renewal under the guise of "protecting the people," well, while we leave final judgment and disposition to God, the internal contradiction still gnaws at our moral base. The "still small voice" grows louder and more insistent. My mother calls this "a check in our spirit," a braking device to save us from following misguided leaders and doctrine over the edge.

As I write this, I'm reminded of Jude's instruction: "Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear--hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh." (v22-23) Any time we pray for fellow believers dealing with leadership gone astray, we should ask for courage and wisdom to amplify that still, small voice, gently with firm conviction. "Protection" from the truth is exactly as you say, exposure to peril.

Thank you for your thoughts on this. They're richly vital to our grasp of the dynamic at work here.

Blessings and joy always,

Philomena Ewing said...

Hi Tim,
You st this out so beautifully: sensitive to the truth and powerful for us all to pay heed to and the comments that follow are ones I fully agree with. The still small voice is a two edged sword and although I agree that it is an inchoate one that guides us it does need always to be discerned and for that to happen we have to have guides with integrity. It is the lack of trust in the very people who were traditionally revered as carriers of integrity that leaves us all reelingand afraid. As a Catholic I suppose I have given away too much of my own little inner voice to the male dominated hierarchy but I remain within the church because I hold on to the unity of its sacramental roots. I am intrigued by your comment on the feeling that there is a David waiting in the wings and like Claire I long for a dynamic loving and outspoken pastor to lead us all !! My trust in the Holy Spirit is strong too and it breathed through your post today Tim !!
Blessings to you !!!

Tim said...

Phil, your point about needing leaders to help us to heed our inner voice is spot-on. Yet I'm also convinced the Holy Spirit intercedes in the absence of such leadership. In the midst of all this sorrow, perhaps the brightest light I've seen is how profoundly it's roused many Catholic friends out of long-term indifference. I'm watching their faith spring to life as they question the Vatican's judgment and behavior.

What's happening is a truly remarkable reawakening among the Faithful--a renewed awareness that they are the church, bound by common faith expressed in its sacramental roots. It seems to me the dynamic is reversing. The pressure of the RCC's male hierarchy has reached its unbearable extreme and the people are pushing back. Will this be the decisive turning point? We don't know. But at the very least it's a decisive step to a turning. Call me crazy, but I see God's Spirit at work here, imparting new wisdom and fervor to His people through the foolishness and tepid responses making the headlines.

This is why I'm convinced a David will emerge--if not in the next papacy, in one soon to come. And let's not rule out the possibility Benedict may actually be a David; it's not unthinkable that this reckoning will fire in him a new spirit of humility and obedience.

But I'm confident who this David is and when he surfaces will be in keeping with God's plan. Our God always completes what He starts and He remains faithful to His Word. How many millions of Catholics pray "Your will be done" every day? He hears every one of them and will honor their requests.

Thank you, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Your passion and faith are an inspiration to us all.

Blessings for continued peace and strength,