The First Time I Was Shot (Psalm 3)

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“I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy hill.”

Psalm 3:4

When I was a kid, I played paintball. Myself and a rambunctious collection of neighborhood kids would traipse around the woods for hours welting each other with plastic bullets, all of which were filled with a paint-like chemical I’m sure will someday give me cancer. It was great.

My mother had reservations about allowing us to buy actual paintball guns. Instead, we used our allowances to purchase small slingshots which were called ‘wrist rockets.’ The whole thing was like Lord of the Flies except we didn’t kill each other, which was only because- again- my mother wouldn’t let us buy the guns.

The third psalm has a grim opening: “Oh LORD, how many are my foes!” (3:1). The “foes” to which David here refers are the armies amassed against him by his son Absalom. whose name (ironically) comes from the Hebrew words for  “son of peace.” The coup against David is the culmination of events that began with David’s first-born son, Amnon, raping his half-sister- Absalom’s sister. David’s refusal to punish Amnon led Absalom to take justice upon himself. He killed Amnon, then fled from David. When two years had passed, Absalom and David were reconciled. Sorta. Because a few years later, Absalom gained enough support to declare himself king and amass an army to lead against David.

So no, family holiday’s were not pleasant. Thanks for asking.

I remember the first time I was shot playing paintball. It was dusk. We were playing in a construction lot. There were about six of us and it was a simple game of annihilation; last team with members standing wins. About halfway through the game, I was moving ahead of some teammates to another bunker when I felt a giant wasp sting my right butt cheek. I yelped and looked back, quick enough to catch a “I-can’t-believe-that-happened-but-damn-it-was-funny” look on my teammate’s face. The twerp had shot me.

“My bad,” he said after the game, grinning widely.

So that was also the first time I’d ever shot somebody.

Retributive justice is all we human beings really know. You hit me in the eye; I hit you in the eye; we’re even. It’s even found in the Bible (whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed. Genesis 9:6).  Justice is brought about when the killer is killed and somehow moral algebra erases the presence of a new killer.

With all that in mind, it’s interesting that this psalm is written following David’s decision not to take up arms against his rebellious son. One could argue that the decision was motivated by fatherly love; but, then again, Absalom also killed David’s first son. Furthermore, David doesn’t shy away from beckoning God to take action ( Rise up, o Lord…you strike all my enemies on the cheek and break the teeth of the wicked. 3:7). There’s something else at work here.

Contrary to human nature, contrary to the justice instincts of humanity, David accepted a posture of penitence and refused violent defense. Instead he sought defense in the humility that comes from reliance upon God.

Therein lies the hope: when David cries out to God, and God answers. Not just that, but God answers from his holy hill (3:4). The “holy hill” is the Mount of Olives to which David- and his followers- fled so as to avoid the violent clash with Absalom’s forces. Once there, David ascended the Mount of Olives, climbing barefoot with his head covered and weeping (2 Samuel 15:30). Generations later, David’s descendent would sit in an upper room and share a final meal with his disciples. Afterward, Jesus and his disciples sang a psalm, and then they went out to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30).

The answer David found at the Mount of Olives was the answer Christ gave to all creation when he went to the Mount of Olives. Christ’s apex of glory was his journeying to the the holy hill, whence he gave himself up to humiliation, torture and death. Christ’s was the same message David had for the Philistine people when he defeated Goliath: the Lord does not save by sword and spear (1 Samuel 17:47). That’s quite the paradigm shift, both then and now.

It felt natural, it felt human, to shoot the twerp who shot me; the hangman’s noose, a standing army, defense budget and the electric chair seem natural, necessary, and pertinent to battle the injustice of the world. But this psalm alludes to the fact that true justice- divine justice- is to be found elsewhere.

The psalm does not, Ellen Cherry notes, mention confession or repentance from Absalom or David. But it’s unstated message is that if David can so rise to the occasion then we can too. And perhaps Cherry is right.

Then again, it felt good to shoot that twerp.

 

 

 

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Superman & Faceless Creatures

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Can I be honest with you? I’m not a good person. A decent person, maybe. I don’t indulge in any illicit substance, I’ve not committed a hate crime and the only thing I’ve ever stolen was Bobby Reynolds Superman action-figure; I took out of his sandbox, one pubescent summer day after he refused to share his fruit rollup with me (which is to say that the twit had it coming). So I’m a decent person, maybe- but certainly not a good one.

For example, this past week we travelled across the country to visit some family before Christmas. My wife, ever the economical guru, managed to find us the cheapest flight possible- meaning it left at zero dark thirty.

Now a good person, a good husband, would’ve been thankful for her financial prudence. Heck, a good person might even be allowed a few grumbles at first, but certainly wouldn’t have complained the entire trip to the airport and certainly wouldn’t have used manipulative guilt (“I sure hope sleep deprivation doesn’t spark migraines… and did you hear scientists have linked it to pneumonia?”) to make her buy him a donut at the terminal. No, a good man wouldn’t even consider these things.

At times I look in the mirror. Have you- and excuse me for asking so bluntly- ever really looked at yourself in a mirror? Have you taken in your eyes, the color of the line where your iris meets the pupil, the depth of the whites around them, the twitch and twitter of countless muscles pulling them to and fro? I’ll wager you haven’t- few of us do. And the thing is when I look at my eyes, I mean really look into them, I couldn’t tell you what I see. I want to call it a face- for that is the only name I know. But what I see is beyond faceness: in a way it’s the absence of a face- it’s an intangible form but an existent one nonetheless. It’s indescribable, really. Try it, you’ll see.

I think about the afterlife a lotdon’t you? It seems logical that some day I’ll be required to give account, not for my decency, but for all the not-good I have committed: words spoken in anger, teenage-backseat rendezvous, my potty mouth, that one night with that one(ish) handle of whiskey and, of course, stealing that twit Bobby’s stupid Superman. In this regard, I have much fear and trembling. For I am not good, as we have established. And should my faith in the justice of paradise’s gatekeeper turn out to be even remotely accurate, then I’ve earned my way to an eternity of early morning flights.

It was CS Lewis who once proposed that heaven will be realness beyond our capacity, more than we can bear. And that makes sense- doesn’t it? I mean if you think about eternity- truly contemplate neverendingness, time without a clock-well it’s rather terrifying isn’t it? I’d rather think about anything: tragedy, pain, heartbreak… the notion of having to catch a flight at the butt crack of dawn- I’d rather muse over all these things than think about eternity. I just can’t bear it. Because when I look into my eyes I see no face capable of smiling upon the suns endless rays. And with no face- what hope do I really have? How can we meet the gods face to face, Lewis will later ask, until we have faces?

I suppose it brings us to faith, hope for grace and mercy. Because I have no face- I am not good enough to know one nor am I powerful enough to make it.

And If I make it to the pearly gates, if I’m there when the clouds come down and veil of beauty around us is lifted, I suppose I shall break down weeping- weeping in the simultaneous sadness and joy known only a father on his daughter’s wedding day, or a mother as her child backs down the driveway, car packed to the brim for college- a feeling known to truly loving another, perhaps for the first time. I shall weep and I will beg for a face, a face to smile, a face to laugh, a face to praise and a face to behold the beauty stretching before me into everlasting. I’ll ask for a face not because I’m good; more than ever I shall know I am hardly decent. But I’ll ask because I’m before the Good, and if I can only behold it, have the face with which to see it, then nothing shall be lacking in me. And, if He is as wonderful as I believe, then maybe, just maybe, I’ll get a face. And I shall go my way, into forever.

But not before asking that He makes sure to also give one to Bobby Reynolds. That twit.

Sunday Quotes: The Writer’s Business

Have you picked up on the fact that I’m growing to be increasingly fascinated with Flannery O’Connor?

No? Oh, well…let me help you. Also, I can’t help but wonder if O’Connor was meditating on the Parable of the Talents as she penned these words:

“The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood  has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not be merged in it.”

-Flannery O’Connor; The Nature & Aim of Fiction