Hamilton, History, and Me

Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God.
2 Chronicles 14:2 (NIV)

Yesterday Wendy and I  joined our friends in jumping on the Hamilton bandwagon. A regional touring production of the popular Broadway show about one of America’s founding fathers opened in Des Moines yesterday. The bottom line: Yes, it’s as good and amazing as everyone says it is.

Last night in bed Wendy was reading through different blog posts and articles about the places the hip-hop operetta strays from the facts of history. To be honest, I considered most of them to be nothing more than the typical ways writers are required to take license with history in order to tell one man’s life story in less than three hours on stage and to entertain the audience at the same time. I guarantee you that Hamilton has done more to motivate a generation of young people to dig into America’s history than any high school history teacher could do.

This morning as I read today’s chapter, the first of three chapters on the life of Judah’s King Asa, I thought about chroniclers of history whether they be relating stories via papyrus scroll, published novel, text book, research paper, or Broadway musical. The motivations and mediums may differ, but at a basic level the writers are all taking a lifetime of facts and reducing them into their own retelling.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the books of 1 Chronicles and 2 Chronicles were written at a time when Hebrew exiles had left the land of their captors in Babylon and returned to their homeland to rebuild and restore their country. The people, who’d been living in Babylon for a generation, are now staring at the rubble of Jerusalem and the rubble of Solomon’s Temple and they’re asking themselves all sorts of questions. Are we still connected to our history? Are we still connected to the God of our ancestors? Do we cling to the stories and faith of our ancestors, or do we ignore them and start over?

As I read through the accounts of the Kings of Judah written by the Chronicler I begin to see patterns. As noted in the past couple of weeks, the Chronicler is putting a positive perspective on the historical record. I can almost feel him encouraging his contemporary readers to dig-in, reconnect with their history, and celebrate their heritage just as Hamilton has done for our generation of Americans. He is also presenting a very simple, cause-and-effect story line. The kings who served God succeeded. The kings who abandoned God, worshipped idols, or were otherwise unfaithful experienced disaster and failure.

As I pondered this simple, cause-and-effect pattern I couldn’t help but think of Parson Weems who gave Americans the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree. The story was less about historical fact and more about teaching a moral lesson. Please don’t read what I’m not writing. The Chronicles are historical retelling (not fables as is Pastor Weems stories), but I can feel in the pattern of the Chronicler’s retelling that there is a moral lesson he wants his readers to catch: Follow God and be blessed. Abandon God and be cursed. It’s a good moral lesson. However, in the quiet this morning I’m looking back and finding that along my Life journey I’ve observed that Life does not always break down into  simplistic, dualistic terms.

This morning I’m thinking about all the lessons that history has to teach us. After the show last night Wendy and I joined our friends for a spirited conversation over dinner about history, stories, and the wide-range of areas into which Hamilton poked and prodded our thoughts. The Chronicles, similarly, provide historical stories and lessons for us to take an apply to our daily journey some 2500 years later; Lessons that, like life itself, can at once be both remarkably simple and amazingly complex.

Me, Wendy and our friends Kev & Beck at the June 28 performance of “Hamilton”

Differences in Interpretation

But Abijah grew in strength.
2 Chronicles 13:21 (NIV)

Yesterday at work I was helping a client with their company’s internal Quality Assessment criteria. One of the common mistakes made when it comes to assessing quality of a service interaction is the avoidance of defining simple, observable behaviors. Instead companies often create criteria in ways that leave the assessment wide-open to the analyst’s interpretation. An analyst who has a bent towards strict, “they could have done better” thinking will mark it one way while an analyst with a bent towards a more gracious “they did the best they could” thinking will mark it another way. The result is worthless data.

Along my journey I’ve observed these kinds of differences in all manners of life. We have diverse personality types with bents toward interpreting and reacting to the same set of circumstances in equally diverse ways. We have differences in life experiences, differences in world-view, and differences in life situations that all lend themselves to me seeing and interpreting things a particular way, while you may see it a bit differently.

I don’ know if you’ve caught it in these chapter-a-day posts the past couple of weeks, but one of the interesting things about the historic accounts we’re reading in 2 Chronicles is that the same historical events are also covered in the book of 1 Kings. One of the things I’m discovering is that some of the most fascinating lessons I’m learning come from comparing the two different accounts. They were written by different scribes living in different time periods and circumstances.

Take today’s chapter for example. The Chronicler tells a great story about Abijah’s (King of the southern kingdom of Judah) battle with the rebel Jereboam (King of the northern kingdom of Israel). Abijah’s battle speech is quoted at length in which Abijah blasts Jereboam for abandoning the God of Israel while Abijah and his tribe of Judah are still worshiping and trusting the God of their ancestors. The Chronicler then leaves his account of Abijah’s reign on a positive note. Abijah defeated Jereboam, grew strong, and had a bunch of wives and children.

The scribe of 1 Kings, however looked at the same reign of Abijah and described it differently. The account of Abijah’s reign is much shorter and the battle speech wasn’t mentioned at all. The writer of the 1 Kings account gives a more negative conclusion of Abijah’s reign:

He committed all the sins his father had done before him; his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his forefather had been.

As I’ve progressed in my Life journey I’ve come to recognize that human groups and systems (religious denominations, political parties, families, communities, and etc.) are naturally driven to building a sense of unity and safety by seeing and interpreting things the same way. These same systems, and the members of that system, often become resistant to respecting, considering, and working with systems that see and interpret things a different way. I become afraid. I feel threatened. I entrench myself in my thinking. I attack and discredit the person or system that thinks differently.

The types of rote and repetitive sales and service interactions I assess on a regular basis for my work are relatively easy to break down, define, and interpret once you know how to do it. Driving a consistent and repetitive user experience is one thing. Reducing an individual’s lifetime of stories, experiences, events, choices, words, and relationships into bullet point is a completely different ball game.

Of late I’ve been feeling the pain and frustration of watching societal groups and their members entrench themselves out of fear and suspicion of anyone who thinks differently. I find myself personally rebelling against that mentality. As a follower of Jesus I find it antithetical to the inclusive, boundary-breaking love that Jesus exemplified and commanded of those of us who follow Him. I always tell the Customer Service Representatives I coach and train that Rule #1 is “do the best you can with what you have.” I’m trying to do the same thing with my faith. I can’t change the entire culture of a nation, but I can daily control my own words, actions, interactions, and relationships. I can change the culture around me, the one I immediately impact.

Today, I once again endeavor to be a little more respectful, a little more considerate, a little more open, and a little more loving to the people I run into and those with whom I interact. People who may be members of a group who interpret the world much differently than myself.

Faith, Strength, and Suffering

After Rehoboam’s position as king was established and he had become strong, he and all Israel with him abandoned the law of the Lord.
2 Chronicles 12:1 (NIV)

I am currently doing character work and studying my lines for a play I’ll be in this October. It’s a brilliant piece of historical fiction called Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain. I play the great 20th century Christian writer and thinker, C.S. Lewis. Lewis pays a visit to fellow 20th century intellectual Sigmund Freud (who will be played by my dear friend, Kevin McQuade) who was a staunch atheist. The play is set in the final weeks of the eminent psychologist’s life. Freud had escaped Nazi Germany and set up his practice in London. Ironically, the battle of world views between these two great thinkers happens to take place on the very day Britain declares war on Germany.

As Lewis and Freud discuss the nature of human suffering, Lewis makes the following observation: “We don’t think of God when we’re motoring in the countryside, only when we’re stuck on the railroad tracks and see the train coming.”

This line came to mind this morning as I read today’s chapter about King Rehoboam. The opening line of the Chronicler’s account states that Rehoboam and the nation abandoned the law of the Lord after “his position had been established and he had become strong.” In other words, Rehoboam clung to the religion of his father, grandfather, and ancestors while he was struggling, when his kingdom was in crisis, when the rebel Jereboam was leading 10 of the 12 Hebrew tribes against him, and when his grip on the throne was in doubt. As soon as his power was shored up and he regained his strength, God was no longer a necessity.

Lewis’ observation is simple, but it captures what I have observed in my own Life journey to be a very human trait. When things are going well and life is easy, when I’m experiencing a runner’s high on the road of life, then it’s easy to trust my own strength and fortune. I don’t feel a particular need for divine connection, intervention, or faith. It’s when the shit hits the proverbial fan and I’m suffering from circumstances that are out of my control that I suddenly feel the need for connection and intervention from divine power that is outside of myself. In the play, Lewis follows the previous text I quoted with his now famous line: “If pleasure is [God’s] whisper, pain is his megaphone.”

For the record, Freud responds to Lewis by arguing the opposite. He views his sufferings (and all suffering in the world) are reason to doubt and discredit any notions of God and faith. It’s a fascinating play. You should come see it ;-).

This morning I’m thinking about my current stretch on Life’s road. I’m looking back at my own experiences in both times of strength and times of suffering. Is there a contrast in my own faith during those contrasting stretches of the journey? Does my faith wane when I’m cruising along on Life’s road experiencing runner’s high? Is my faith only intense in proportion to the intensity of suffering I’m feeling in the moment? I’d like to think not. Jesus said that the sun shines and the rain falls on both the righteous and the unrighteous. Times of strength and times of suffering are common to every person. My faith is central to either circumstance. It’s my sunscreen on life’s beach, my umbrella in life’s storm.

Note: Freud’s Last Session is a private production sponsored by the theatre department of Central College in Pella, Iowa. Performances will be October 24-27, 2018 at 7:30 p.m.

It’s Not About Me

When Rehoboam arrived in Jerusalem, he mustered Judah and Benjamin—a hundred and eighty thousand able young men—to go to war against Israel and to regain the kingdom for Rehoboam.
2 Chronicles 11:1 (NIV)

As a follower of Jesus, I am aware that God is at work in my life and in the lives of those around me. “You are not your own,” Paul wrote to the Jesus followers in Corinth, “Therefore honor God.” The practical application of this is that I think about the life decisions Wendy and I make. I not only concern myself with what we want, but also with what we sense God doing in our lives and the lives of others.

I found it fascinating this morning that King Rehoboam of Judah, having experienced the humility of having ten of the tribes of Israel rebel against him, immediately musters is fighting men for war. This is such a classic male reaction. This is the stuff of boys on a playground. “You wanna fight about it?” 

In describing Rehoboam’s reaction, the Chronicler is careful to also share with us Rehoboam’s motivation. Rehoboam wanted to regain the kingdom for whom? God? The legacy of his father and grandfather? Nope. Rehoboam wanted to regain the kingdom for himself.

What a contrast Rehoboam is to his grandfather David who, having been anointed King as a boy, refused to claim the throne for himself. David waited for God to arrange the circumstances and make it happen. David was all about honoring what God was doing and waiting for God to raise him up. Rehoboam was all about acting out of his momentary rage and humiliation to get what he himself wanted.

Do I want to be a Rehoboam, or do I want to be a David?

That’s the question I find myself asking in the quiet this morning. Of course, I choose the latter. I want what God wants for my life and the lives of my loved ones. It means that it’s not all about me and what I want, and that’s exactly what Jesus taught, to love others as I love myself and to treat others as I would want to be treated.

The Wisdom of Those Who’ve Gone Before

But Rehoboam rejected the advice the elders gave him and consulted the young men who had grown up with him and were serving him.
2 Chronicles 10:8 (NIV)

Like most young people, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life. As a young man I’d heard God’s calling to be a Messenger and  I made a young man’s naive assumption that this necessitated some kind of full-time vocational ministry. For whatever reason, I decided to go to a handful of my elders who were in pastoral ministry and ask them a question: “If you had the ability to go back and do college all over again, what would you do differently?

I found it fascinating that the answers I received from different people were eerily similar. They told me that they found much of their their Biblical studies in undergraduate and graduate school to be wasted repetition. “When you go to college, study something you love. Follow your passion and your gifts,” they told me. I listened, and majored in Communication with an emphasis in Theatre. It was one of the best decisions of my life.

One of the great life lessons I learned in that experience was that seeking the advice of those who have gone before me is a wise thing to do.

Solomon’s son Rehoboam had enjoyed a charmed life. He was heir to the throne and was afforded all of the privileges that came with the wealth, opulence, and deference that came with being the one who would succeed his successful father. We can assume that he and his frat-boy buddies grew up getting everything they wanted and being denied little or nothing they desired. In his very first political crisis, Rehoboam makes a classic young person’s mistake. Like me, he received the advice of his elders, but he chose to listen to his homies instead.  He foolishly chose the path of power instead of the path of mercy. He chose pride over humility. It cost him the kingdom and ranks as one of the most memorable and epic fails in recorded history.

This morning I’m looking back at my life and feeling gratitude for the grace that was afforded me to seek and heed wise counsel as a young man. As I transition to a new position of leadership in business this year I realize that seeking the wise counsel of those who’ve gone before me on this path is now almost second nature. I’ve learned that the journey goes much smoother when I seek the wisdom of those who’ve already traversed the section of life’s road I currently find myself trekking.

The Hard Facts

As for the other events of Solomon’s reign, from beginning to end, are they not written in the records of Nathan the prophet, in the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite and in the visions of Iddo the seer concerning Jeroboam son of Nebat?
2 Chronicles 9:29 (NIV)

In today’s chapter, the author of Chronicles concludes his account of Solomon’s reign. He chooses, however, to leave out some pertinent facts provided in the eleventh chapter of 1 Kings.

Solomon was a womanizer. He married 700 wives, most of them were daughters or women from foreign royal families seeking to make political alliances with the king. On top of that, Solomon kept 300 concubines. Solomon’s wives worshiped foreign gods, and they convinced Solomon to build altars and temples to their gods. Solomon even worshipped the gods of his wives, including a couple of nasty ones who demanded child sacrifice.

By the end of his reign, Solomon’s years of conscripting slave-labor had created political problems for him. The nation his father worked so hard to unite was falling apart. Rebellions and uprisings began to occur. Prophets began prophesying the end of the united kingdom. Solomon resorted to assassination to maintain power and rid himself of threats.

All of this, the Chronicler fails to mention.

We can only assume why the writer of 2 Chronicles whitewashes Solomon’s story. Scholars believe that the Chronicles were written at the time the Hebrew exiles returned from captivity in Babylon. The temple needed to be rebuilt, and the Chronicler’s account may have been intended to drum up support for the new temple by glorifying Solomon and the old temple. This scholarly assumption concludes that the Chronicler chose to focus on Solomon’s glory and  leave the inconvenient truths buried in the bibliography.

This past Sunday at our local gathering of Jesus’ followers I gave a message about “Story.” Over the centuries the institutional church has turned the concept of “witnessing” into a host of systematic programs for communicating the theological concepts of salvation. However, when Jesus told his followers to be “witnesses” He simply meant for them to share their stories about their experiences with Him. In the opening lines of the letter that became 1 John, Jesus’ disciple literally gives the testimony “I heard him. I saw him. I touched him.” John’s story is how his experiences with Jesus transformed him from being known as a “Son of Thunder” (because of his anger and rage) to “The disciple of love.” Each of us has a story. Each of us has a God story whether that story is how we came to believe or disbelieve.

We also choose how to tell our stories, how to give witness, and what that testimony will be. We may choose to tell our story differently depending on the audience and the circumstances. This is  not only common, but I would argue that sometimes it is even wise. Nevertheless, our stories all contain hard facts. I made huge mistakes in life. I became addicted to porn as a child. My first marriage failed. I was unfaithful. I made a complete mess of things. A big theme of my God story is the grace, forgiveness, and redemption God has shown me despite my being a complete boogerhead. I can’t tell that story without also sharing some hard facts about what a deeply flawed person I am.

This morning I’m thinking about my story. I’m thinking about the hard facts of my life. My life journey is riddled with big mistakes I’ve made. To this day I struggle with being self-ish and self-centered. Wendy can give witness to my melancholy and pessimism, my emotional overreactions, and complete blindness to anyone or anything other than what I’m focused on in the moment.  But there’s also the story of my journey, of God growing me up, freeing me, and giving me second chances. There’s a story of transformation that has come from following Jesus and what God has done in me. It’s a good story.

For whatever reason, the Chronicler chose to leave out the hard facts about Solomon. It makes me sad. Our stories are much more powerful and interesting when we’re honest about the hard facts. Even tragedies make powerful stories from which we can benefit.

Not Getting It

There were still people left from the Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (these people were not Israelites). Solomon conscripted the descendants of all these people remaining in the land—whom the Israelites had not destroyed—to serve as slave labor, as it is to this day.
2 Chronicles 8:7-8 (NIV)

Jesus told a simple parable of the King’s servant who owed the king 10,000 bags of gold. To those who listened to Jesus tell this story, the idea of owing 10,000 bags of gold was a ridiculous amount of money. It would be like me owing someone billions or trillions of dollars. More than I could pay back in many lifetimes.

Be patient with me and I’ll pay it back,” the servant said to the king. This is also ridiculous because I couldn’t pay back billions or trillions of dollars in many lifetimes. The king decides to forgive the debt and let the servant go.

As he’s leaving the palace, the servant runs into his buddy who owed him a hundred bucks. When he demanded repayment of the debt, his buddy says, “Be patient with me and I’ll pay it back!” (Sound familiar?) The King’s servant who’d just been forgiven from multiple lifetimes worth of debt refused to forgive his buddy a debt of a hundred bucks.

Jesus point was clear. If God forgives me for my lifetime of mistakes and poor choices and then I refuse to forgive an individual who offended me, then I’ve completely missed the point of everything Jesus came to teach me.

Buried in today’s chapter is a simple observation that brought this parable to mind this morning. Solomon, King of Israel, builds his temples and palaces by forcing all of the non-Israelite people of the land into slave-labor. Now, this was common practice among nations and empires of that day. Solomon was not doing anything differently than what every other King around him would do. But there’s a difference.

The roots of Solomon’s Kingdom were in the story of the Exodus. When Solomon’s people were living in the land of Egypt they were forced into slave labor to work for Pharaoh. God went to great lengths to free them from their slavery and lead them back to Canaan. Now, Solomon builds his Temple to the God who freed his people from slavery, by enslaving others.

As if to add insult to injury, Solomon then has his slaves build a palace for his queen, Pharaoh’s daughter of Egypt, the very nation from whom his people were freed from slavery.

Along my journey I continually encounter individuals who live very religious lives. They never miss a church service. They listen only to Christian music and Christian radio stations, watch only Christian television, read only books written by Christian authors, refuse to darken the door of a pub, associate only with Christians of acceptable repute in the community, and etc. And yet, among these types of squeaky-clean religious types I’ve known I can recall specific individuals who were slum lords, deceptive businessmen, money launderers, bigots, misogynists, and the like.

This morning I’m thinking about Solomon. I’m thinking about the religious individuals I’ve observed and described. I’m thinking about Jesus’ parable. I’m thinking about my own life. Where are the blind spots in my own life? Are there any areas of my life when I’m subjecting others to judgement or burdens from which I, myself, have been freed? Where are the places in my life where it’s obvious to God that I still don’t get what He came to teach me?