Museum and Memorial

May 5, 2022

Recently Popie and I traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit a museum and memorial sponsored by the Equal Justice Initiative, the organization led by Bryan Stephenson, author of Just Mercy. If you are ever in the Deep South, take this trip. I’ve been to quite a few civil rights museums over the years: this is the best I’ve seen. It’s done with skill and care; and everything is priced so that anybody can afford it. (Even the t-shirts and mugs are inexpensive.)

The “Legacy Museum” is in the heart of downtown Montgomery, built on the site of a warehouse used to house slaves going up for sale. The museum aims at education, not emotion (though there’s plenty to get emotional about). It tells the story of racism in America, beginning with slavery, extending through Jim Crow, and entering the present with a look at the racial bias of law enforcement. The story is factual, crammed with statistics, geography and eyewitness testimony. It’s not about making white people feel bad; it’s simply an account of what happened. None of it is controversial from a historian’s point of view, but I didn’t learn any of this in my history classes. It is exactly what some people are determined to keep out of our history classes.

The “National Memorial for Peace and Justice” does, by contrast, aim at emotion. It’s located on a hilltop about a mile from the museum, and its subject is lynching. The main exhibit offers rusty steel columns for every county in America that hosted a verified lynching. On that column is incised the name of the person lynched and the date. Visitors can wander among the pillars, perusing the names and locations. Some counties have one name; some have a dozen. There are over 4,000 names. The cumulative impact made me tremble. To think what we did and what we tolerated. The memorial’s simplicity and solemnity reminded me of the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C. I found it even more powerful.

It’s remarkable that these exhibits are presented in Montgomery, first capital of the Confederacy. This is the small city where Martin Luther King preached and where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. I admire that Stephenson has made his investments in Alabama, not New York or Washington. If we are ever to make a dent in the powerful tradition of racial prejudice, it has to happen in places like Montgomery.

Three Paths

May 4, 2022

When I was young, evangelical Christians placed a great emphasis on “witnessing.” Whether you sat next to a stranger on an airplane or lived next door to someone in your college dorm, you should be sharing your faith. The preferred way to do so was using the “Four Spiritual Laws,” a little pamphlet published by Campus Crusade for Christ. It presented a simple gospel message as a set of spiritual “laws” parallel to physical laws such as gravity. Becoming a Christian was a matter of accepting the logic of those “laws” and acting on it through a prayer of commitment.

I’m not knocking it. Many people were helped by it to find a way into a life of faith. Now, though, it has fallen out of favor, for lots of good reasons. The idea of spiritual laws akin to physical laws was always a stretch, and logic seems like an inadequate basis for being “born again.”

Another time-honored pathway was epitomized by the Billy Graham Crusade—mass events where preaching led to an emotional appeal to “go forward” and surrender your life to God. Those who did were met by “counselors” bearing the Four Spiritual Laws or something like it.

This way, too, has fallen out of favor, mostly because American culture has grown so insulated from religion it is hard to talk your friends and neighbors into going to a religious meeting.

People still are drawn to God, however. How does someone make that transformative step from unbelief to belief, from materialism to spirituality, from autonomy to trust in a living God? Some people would like to be converted but can’t see how. They are stuck in unbelief and alienation and can’t talk themselves into belief. They may see how good a life of faith would be, but they don’t know how to get there.

The process is mysterious, and no doubt different for each person. It seems to me, however, that there are now three main pathways.

One is the path of gratitude. It depends on a sense that we are surrounded by beautiful realities: our family, friends, environment, community. We hear birds sing and watch the clouds move across the sky and know that we should be grateful. Thankfulness sometimes wells up in us, and when it does, we sense that we are our best selves. Then the logical question becomes: grateful to whom? It makes no sense to be grateful to an impersonal universe. A pathway to God can begin by simply saying thank you—saying it in a heartfelt way, saying it again and again. The Who may be mysterious, but the Who is Someone. When we adopt a life of thanking that Someone, we become believers. Given time, we may discover that Someone has a name.

This is why people who become parents sometimes become believers. Looking at your child is a primal experience of wonder, and God help the person who is not grateful.

If the path of gratitude is theocentric, the path of Jesus is Christocentric.

There is no reason to doubt the reality of Jesus: he is an historic figure who lived two millennia ago, and his life and teachings were written down. We have the source documents, and anybody can access them. A great many people have never done so, or have not done so since they were 18. Reading the life of Jesus, you encounter an extraordinary person. Again, this is not controversial—anybody can see for themselves that he is (was) unlike anybody else. To read his words is to come face-to-face with an extraordinary man. Encountering him, one must decide what this extraordinary teacher is to oneself. Some will conclude that they are encountering God himself in human form, and they will begin to experiment with living according to the principles he taught, and even with speaking to him.

A third way I will call the path of fellowship. Here, longing leads us to join. For the sake of friendships, for a love of music, for an appreciation of ritual, we join a church or some other fellowship. It feels good. It feels healthy. We find ourselves part of a group of believers and, over time, we assume their beliefs. There may not ever be a point of decision. We fall into it. (This is how faith comes to those raised in a Christian family, as I was.) This leads naturally and organically to faith in God.

The life of faith is a great deal more than what I have sketched out here. These are merely pathways that can be followed to enter. They offer a plausible way to move from unbelief to belief. Each pathway is less than a total commitment, but it involves initiative. For those who are seeking, these pathways can be a starting point.

And we desperately need starting points! Do you know of other pathways that people follow to go from unbelief to faith? I’d invite you to describe them.

A Ray of Hope for Democracy

April 28, 2022

For the first time in my life, I can see how we could lose our democracy in America. It’s very unsettling, particularly since I’ve always assumed that our constitutional foundations were completely secure.

I’ve found a ray of hope in reading India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, by Ramachandra Guha. Published in 2007, it predates our current crises. What’s relevant is a consistent theme: at every point over 70 years, people have been predicting India’s demise. It cannot hold together, experts say; either it will shatter into multiple countries, or it will become a dictatorship.

Reading the history, you see the point. India is a vast country born through a violent conflagration in which it split into two over religion. Those religious differences have not disappeared: riots and bloody massacres, the destruction of shrines, mosques and temples, political assassinations—all have been constant. Added to that are caste differences, which create massive irreconcilable factions; huge disparities between rich and poor; immense populations speaking completely different languages, to which they are deeply emotionally attached (and which are the basis for many of India’s states). India has seen multiple guerilla factions fighting to secede from India in one region or another. It has fought multiple wars with its neighbors, and several of these have ended badly for India.

And yet, India is still intact, and still a democracy. Somehow, while Indian citizens remain divided by religion, caste, class and language, they know they are Indian. (At independence, according to Guha, that was far less clear.) The chances of dissolution and dictatorship seem to have grown smaller.

None of this is transferable. India’s survival is its own and does nothing to guarantee any other country’s. Still, it offers the reminder that nations are bound together by factors that are hard to define. India remains India partly by the luck of some good leadership (with some bad leadership too), but more by the fact that most Indians, whatever their particulars, want to be bound together in an Indian democracy. I think the same can be said for America.

America’s divisions seem small compared to India’s. If they can hang together, so can we.

Isaiah’s Hope, Part 3: The Branch and the Stump

March 1, 2022

When Popie and I moved into our house almost forty years ago, we inherited lots of little oak trees. They were small, bush-sized sprouts, and I had no idea that they would grow so fast into towering shade trees. But they grew at a rate of three feet a year, and we soon discovered there were way too many. They crowded each other and needed thinning. Some, too, grew in awkward places and began to lean on buildings. We had to cut some of them down.

I learned that when you cut down an oak tree, you haven’t eliminated it. You’ve merely set it back. New shoots will come up from the stump and grow into a new tree with great rapidity. It’s hard to get rid of an oak tree. They keep sprouting anew.

That’s one image that Isaiah uses to establish hope:

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; From his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” (11:1)

Jesse was David’s father, and therefore the first in the line of Israel’s kings. That “royal line” came to an end in Isaiah’s time, a victim of corruption, idolatry, injustice, and ego. The last of the kings was taken into captivity by the Babylonians when they destroyed the capital. By that time, there wasn’t much to regret. From God’s point of view, good riddance.

In that grim time, when the nation was about to be decapitated and the Temple decimated, Isaiah offered hope. In many passages Isaiah predicts a new, rescuing king to save Israel. This new hope doesn’t come out of nowhere, however. Isaiah says that the new beginning will spring out of the old. The Branch comes out of a stump. The “branch” passages make it clear: the new king will come from the old line.

A stump is a terrible fate for a magnificent, spreading tree. That is what Israel had become. It was cut down to the ground: no leaves, no shade, no fruit—just a wreck and a ruin. That’s what Isaiah faced. Today, when we think of our beloved nation and our beloved Church, our greatest fear may be that we will suffer similarly. Polarization, immorality, rancor and lies may destroy us. There will be nothing left but a stump.

I hope and pray that we have not reached that point. Reading Isaiah, however, convinces me that we should look calmly at the possibility that such a punishment may come upon our nation and our church. I pray that it will not be so, but it may be. And what then?

What then is that God causes bright, fast-growing green shoots to grow out of the stump. There is new life in the wreckage. It comes from the old root. What grows may be cut down, but new growth will come from healthy, deep roots—below ground and invisible, not easily chopped or burned.

We need tall trees, but even more we need deep roots. How do we nurture healthy roots for America? How do we nurture healthy roots for the church?

Isaiah’s Hope, Part 2: Suffering Servant

February 23, 2022

Isaiah offers a second vision of the coming King, one that seems to contradict the first. That’s the Suffering Servant. In four passages–42:1–4; 49:1–7; 50:4–9; and 52:13–53:12—a surprising and strangely brutalized figure appears. Though non-violent, he will bring justice to the earth. But how can he, who is such a pathetic figure? “Despised and rejected,” “like a lamb to the slaughter,” “my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.”

There is no precedent for this in the Old Testament. Kings and judges redeemed through power, not suffering.

The comfort in the Suffering Servant comes in the idea of sacrifice, that the Servant is a sin offering that purifies his people.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
6We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all. (53:5-6)

This was a completely new idea—that a sin offering on our behalf could be, not just a sacrificial animal, but a fellow human being. The thought of human sacrifice is enough to make you squirm. For this reason alone, the Suffering Servant passages were hard for Israelites to incorporate into their faith.

Yet I suspect the biggest obstacle to appropriating the Suffering Servant passages into Israel’s faith lay in in something much closer to the surface. The passages assume that Israel’s problems were not simply Babylonian armies, but their wicked hearts that had turned away from God (while continuing to attend worship services). A glorious king could deal with their enemies, but only the highest order of sacrificial substitution could absolve their wickedness. It would require God’s own Chosen One to die on the altar.

It’s unclear whether any Israelites between Isaiah’s day and Jesus’—seven hundred years, more or less—could fathom what Isaiah predicted, let alone find comfort in it. They knew, just as we do, that they were a sinful people. Yet nobody understood—not even Jesus’ disciples—that Jesus would fulfill this prophecy by dying a cruel death at the hands of the Roman oppressors.

These strange Suffering Servant prophecies are the special property of those of us who live on this side of Jesus’s resurrection. Even for us, the medicine is hard to swallow. It means accepting that our problems are not brought on simply by our enemies, but by our own sinful failings. Nobody likes to look in the mirror and find that kind of ugliness.

But who can deny that we, corporately, as Americans and as American Christians, are sick beyond understanding? Individually, we may be able to cling to a sense of virtue. Where, though, is the virtue of our country, and of our Church? We are in a desperate condition.

Someone has to pay a price for this immorality. Not us, however. Isaiah’s comfort is that God’s own Servant suffers for us.

Make no mistake, our world is full of enemies. There are those who dedicate themselves to making America ugly, and who profit from a politicized Church. It is not enough to defeat those enemies, however. We might trounce them in the courts and on Twitter and at the ballot box, but the problems will not disappear. That is because we, victorious, remain part of the problem. Our comfort comes in acknowledging our own corporate sin-sickness, accepting it as belonging to us (and not just our enemies), and recognizing God’s plan for absolving us. He sent Jesus as our substitute, to pay the price for our part in our sin-sick world.

Isaiah’s hope, Part 1

February 9, 2022

I’m teaching a class on Isaiah’s hope. The premise of the class is that our current sorrows are more than personal and individual; we feel deep communal sorrow over our nation’s polarization and rancor, and the American church’s politicization and trivialization. 

We usually think of our faith providing comfort for individual sorrows. It speaks personally to our spiritual and emotional needs. Yet when our sorrows are corporate and communal, we need comfort that speaks corporately and communally—which is just what Isaiah’s comfort does.

Isaiah spoke into a political and religious situation worse than ours, yet a good half of his message was hope. It’s communal hope, which of course filters down to the personal level. Isaiah 40 (and other passages) plant our hope in God’s arrival—not coming into our hearts but coming into history as a king, powerful, generous and gentle:

See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
    and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
    and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young. (40:8-11)

Can you see this as a prediction of Jesus’ coming to the world? His first coming in Bethlehem, and his second arrival yet to occur, provide our hope. We can’t bring it about by our efforts or our goodness. It’s not subject to our strategies. It’s for us, but it’s not by us. We can only anticipate, welcome and celebrate it. 

As the Christmas carol puts it:

  • Joy to the world, the Lord is come.
  • Let earth receive her king.

God knows all about the state of our nation and our church. He has plans to set it right, not according to our timing or methods, but by his. 

It’s worth noting that after Isaiah’s hopeful prediction of the King’s coming, Israel continued to suffer for 700 years. I find it quite amazing that when the baby Jesus was brought to the Temple for dedication, there were people waiting and watching for him, people who rejoiced to see him. That’s a portrait of faith, belief in what you cannot see. Isaiah’s hope offers no guarantee that we will see the King coming in power any time soon. It is a guarantee that God has a plan for our world, that he has promised to come, that we can count on it.

Real Comfort

December 6, 2021

I preached today on the extremely well known text of Isaiah 40:1-11. I talked about the distinct, political comfort that God offers through the prophet. It’s different from the nostalgic comfort of music, lights, family and food. You can hear it here: https://www.covefellowship.org/go/downloads

Black Theology

November 8, 2021

For most of my life, I’ve been aware that the Bible doesn’t portray the kingdom of God as a melting pot. Rather, the nations—the ethne, the “people groups”—maintain their distinctive identities to the end. Revelation 7:9-10 captures this:

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“’Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.’”

When my mother was dying, she wanted to hear this passage read again and again. She joyfully anticipated joining that scene. It is a lovely portrait, but it risks becoming a religious version of “It’s a Small World” unless those ethne contribute something distinctive to our worship of God. Ethnicity in God’s kingdom can’t be just distinctive clothes and foods—otherwise, why would it endure to the end?

I just finished reading Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black. The book showed me something I have never seen before: an ethnic theology.

McCaulley writes for American Black people in an attempt to vindicate the Black church he grew up in. Sniped at by progressive Blacks for maintaining its faithfulness to the Bible along with belief in forgiveness and a hope for Christian unity, while also treated with condescension by evangelical whites for (supposedly) less rigorous theology, the broad Black church, according to McCaulley, offers a distinctive voice that is worth clinging to. As I say, he is writing for Black people, but McCauley explodes the White Enlightenment theology that claims to hold a single, scholarly and biblical theology that speaks for all people. In exploring and defending a distinctively Black approach to answering Black questions (such as how to Christianly think about policing in a setting where the police start with a grudge against your skin color) McCaulley demonstrates that the Black angle of questioning can illuminate texts for all of us.

For example, in probing the painful Black question of whether God really cares about Black people, given their centuries of oppression and suffering, McCaulley discovers in the Advent narrative of Zechariah and Elizabeth two characters Black people can identify with: elderly, personally disappointed, and fully aware that their nation, which they love, has endured centuries of mistreatment with no end in sight. Are they fools to maintain hope? And yet they do.

Similarly, in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, McCaulley discovers a model song for Black people living under oppression.

In treating the biblical view of slavery, McCaulley makes use of Jesus’ distinction (in discussing divorce) between God’s original intention for human beings and the ways in which the Law accommodated our hardness of heart. Surely no one who reads Genesis 1-3 (or the story of the Exodus) would think that God intends for a portion of humanity to be enslaved!

McCaulley is also very helpful on the imprecatory psalms, using them to explore Black rage. Regarding Psalm 137, he asks, “what kind of prayer would you expect Israel to pray after watching the murder of their children and the destruction of their families? What kinds of words of vengeance lingered in the hearts of the Black slave women and men when they found themselves at the mercy of their enslavers’ passions? … Traumatized communities must be able to tell God the truth about what they feel.” With that as background, Isaiah 49 (and other texts) burst out as though a miracle:

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant

To raise up the tribes of Jacob

And to restore the survivors of Israel;

I will give you as a light to the nations,

That my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

By bringing Black questions and Black emotions to the biblical text, McCaulley illuminates texts from a different angle. It is not a Black theology that necessarily excludes other points of view—there is plenty of room for a White person like myself to learn and to interact. But time and again he sees things in the text that I would never have seen, leaving no doubt that these insights come because he is Black, living in a distinct community with its own questions and emotions. They are not my questions and emotions, but I gain from them.

Humans in the Image of God

September 21, 2021

I preached on Genesis 1 on Sunday. Here’s the sound, in case you’d like to listen:

https://www.fpcsantarosa.org/2021/09/humans-in-the-image-of-god/

Study Questions for David and David’s Son

August 18, 2021

I’ve heard from many people who read and enjoyed David and David’s Son. Some of them used the book for a small group study.

So I’ve written questions for each of the 13 chapters. Feel free to copy these if you think they will be useful to you.

Study questions: chapter one: Chosen

Read 1 Samuel 16:1-13

  1. Have you ever experienced a moment when you felt chosen for something important? If so, what happened to that?
  2. When you were a teenager, did you have ambitions? Did you practice hard at anything? What?
  3. Did your teenage ambitions have any connection to what you’ve done with your life? If so, what are those connections?
  4. David and David’s Son says, “the beautiful news embedded in this story is that nobody can count themselves out.” (p. 17) Why does it say that?
  5. Have you counted yourself out in some important area of life? If so, how might David’s story help you to re-think?
  6. David and David’s Son also says, “We are all chosen for something.” Do you think that is true? Why or why not?
  7. Do you believe that God has chosen you for something? What?
  8. Saul had a calling almost identical to David’s. What’s the difference?
  9. Calling can be seen in an individualistic, even egotistic way. How does embedding David’s story in God’s story culminating in Jesus (the Son of David) change that?
  10. Can you see your personal calling embedded in God’s story? How?

Study questions: chapter two: Confidence

Read 1 Samuel 17

  1. Where do you feel great confidence? What gives it to you?
  2. Obviously, people feel confident doing what they know they’re good at. But having confidence also affects their performance. Have you experienced confidence making you more effective? Where and how?
  3. Do you believe you can make people more confident just by encouraging them? What makes you think so?
  4. David’s confidence facing Goliath is extraordinary. Yet he doesn’t seem to have anybody encouraging him. Where do you think he got such confidence?
  5. David and David’s Son suggests that David’s confidence came partly because of practice. Alone with the sheep, he must have spent hours slinging rocks at targets. Apart from sports, where else have you seen practice leading to confidence?
  6. David and David’s Son also suggests that David’s relationship with God gave him great confidence. How does that work?
  7. On pp. 30-31 David and David’s Son notes that David, a successful military leader, never boasts in his own fighting powers, his army’s capabilities or its weapons. What is he proud of?
  8. David and David’s Son says (p. 31) that Jesus had unfathomable confidence. What do you think of that statement?
  9. If you agree that Jesus had great confidence, where do you see that rubbing off on his disciples? Where do you see it rubbing off on you?
  10. What can you do to become more confident? What can you do to give confidence to those you love?

Study questions: chapter three: Jealousy

Read 1 Samuel 18, 21-26

  1. What are some of the bad actions people take because they are jealous?
  2. If you have ever known yourself to be the object of someone’s jealousy, what did it feel like?
  3. What makes you feel jealous?
  4. How can jealousy distort a relationship?
  5. How did jealousy distort the relationship between David and Saul?
  6. 1 Samuel 24 and 26 relate incidents in which David refuses to kill Saul. How does David explain his decision?
  7. Does David’s decision make any sense to you? Why or why not?
  8. David and David’s Son says that “David’s behavior reveals a man determined to remain himself, to live by his principles no matter the provocation.” (p. 43) What are those principles?
  9. Jesus had jealous rivals in Israel’s religious leaders. How did he respond to them? What does he model for you?
  10. Imagine Saul if he had not chosen to be jealous of David. How is he different? How does he lead Israel?
  11. David and David’s Son says that “jealousy falls one way or the other. If you are successful, others will be jealous of you. If you are not successful, you may be jealous of others who are.” (p. 46) Which of these two have you had more experience with? Did it distort you? Why or why not?

Study questions: chapter four: Friendship

Read 1 Samuel 18:1-4; 19:1-17; 20; 23:14-18

  1. Do you believe in friendship at first sight? When and where have you experienced it?
  2. David and David’s Son says that “deep friendships can be especially scarce among ambitious men.” (p. 49) Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  3. Jonathan, who was older and more experienced than David, did everything possible to become his friend. Can you speculate on why?
  4. David and David’s Son says that “of all the people associated with David, there is not one to whom he can bare his soul, other than Jonathan.” (p. 54) Do you agree? What kind of harm, if any, do you think this brought to David?
  5. What friends did Jesus have? Were they important to him? How do you know?
  6. When Jesus’ friends disappointed him, how did he react?
  7. Do you believe that friendships must be pursued, or do they “just happen?”
  8. David and David’s Son says that “As you get older, friends become harder and harder to gain.” (p. 56) Agree or disagree? Why?
  9. If you are willing, share a time when a friendship has been critically important to your survival.
  10. How would you rate your “friends quotient” today? Is there something you could change to make it better?

Study questions: chapter five: Lost

Read 1 Samuel 27; 29-31

  1. Is there a chapter in your life when you felt completely lost? If so, how did it come about? What brought you out of it?
  2. What realities prompted David to abandon his country and take up fighting for the Philistine enemy?
  3. What does Achish, Gath’s warlord, get out of the bargain?
  4. What do you make of David’s slaughter of women and children?
  5. Do you think David was really planning to lead his men in battle against Israel? If not, what was he thinking as he led his men with the Philistine army?
  6. At the very worst moment, after discovering that their wives and children have been kidnapped, David’s men think of killing him. Why? How would that help?
  7. Why do you think the author of 1 Samuel includes these terrible moments in David’s life? Isn’t the Bible supposed to be uplifting?
  8. How do you understand the short phrase, “David found strength in the Lord his God.” (1 Samuel 30:6) Is this simply a matter of using the ephod?
  9. Jesus, David’s Son, also reached the end of his rope, though in a manner quite unlike David’s. Please cite at least three ways in which he “found strength in the Lord.”
  10. David and David’s Son lists several actions that people take to “find strength in the Lord.” (p. 69) Have you done any of these? Did it help?

Study questions: chapter six: On Top of the World, Part 1

Read 2 Samuel 1-5, 9

  1. Do you remember a time when everything went right for you? What was it like?
  2. When things go right for you, is it your instinct to be grateful? Or to assume you deserve what you got?
  3. What went right for David in the period after Ziklag?
  4. In a short time, David went from hunted outlaw to king of Israel. What did he do to bring this about? Why did it happen?
  5. Having gained the throne, what did David do with his newfound power?
  6. What is the significance of David’s reconciliation with Mephibosheth? (2 Samuel 9)
  7. What was David’s response to his incredible transformation? Who or what did he credit?
  8. What can you do to develop a grateful heart? Do you think it is valuable to “count your blessings?”
  9. David and David’s Son says that successful people often forget the role others (and luck) played in their success, and soon attribute it all to their own hard work and talent. (p. 78) Have you seen this? Where?
  10. Through most of his ministry, Jesus had remarkable success healing people and preaching to large crowds. How did he react to his fame?
  11. If you were teaching a class of younger people how to react to success, what would you say?

Study questions: chapter seven: On Top of the World, Part 2

Read 2 Samuel 6,7

  1. Do you think David had political reasons for bringing the ark to Jerusalem, his new capital? If so, what?
  2. Do you think he had personal reasons for wanting the ark there? If so, what?
  3. David goes instantly from celebration to anger when Uzzah touches the ark and falls down dead. What do you think of David’s reaction?
  4. Many people share David’s reaction: they consider God unbearably harsh with Uzzah. Can you explain God’s reaction? If God is emphasizing something he considers fundamentally important, what do you think it is?
  5. David is so outraged, he dumps the ark on a rural farm. Later he changes his mind, so that he ultimately brings the ark to Jerusalem. What produced this change of heart?
  6. What do you think of Michal’s eruption when she sees David? Why is she so upset by his dancing?
  7. Leaders sometimes become obsessed with their image. Whose opinion does David cherish? (2 Samuel 6:21,22)
  8. What can and should we do to honor God when we experience success?
  9. Why does God not want David to build him a temple? What fault in David does he pinpoint?
  10. The Old Testament is sometimes very bloody, with God commanding his people to fight. How do you put that together with God’s rejection of David as a man of blood?
  11. How does David respond to God’s rejection of his temple plans?
  12. How can you cultivate thankfulness with humility?

Study questions: chapter eight: Government by Words

Read at least five psalms “of David”

  1. David and David’s Son mentions three documents that are crucial to America’s self-understanding. What are they? How have they influenced your thinking? How have they influenced America?
  2. David is credited with half the psalms. How did they influence the nation David led?
  3. We find plenty of poetry in the books of the prophets. What sets David’s psalms apart from these?
  4. The book of Psalms was Israel’s hymnbook. What differences do you notice between the words of the psalms and the words of our contemporary church music?
  5. David and David’s Son says, “Without the Psalms, the Bible would be a very different book.” (p. 98) How would it be different? What would be lacking?
  6. Jesus was not a poet, but he used words powerfully to lead his people. What are some of Jesus’ words that have had a lasting impact?
  7. Why do you think Jesus quoted from two of the psalms while on the cross? Why borrow words from David?
  8. How would you like to improve the way you talk?
  9. If David led his nation through his psalms, what kind of leadership could you provide in your church, family, workplace or neighborhood simply by the way you speak?

Study questions: chapter nine: Midlife

Read Psalm 51; 2 Samuel 11,12

  1. Can you identify with David’s decision to stay home from work? How might such “slacker” decisions impact you personally and spiritually?
  2. What do you think of the idea that David was depressed because he had no more mountains to climb?
  3. If David wanted to maintain his character, what should he have done when he saw Bathsheba and lusted for her?
  4. Do you agree that David’s actions amounted to sexual assault? Why or why not?
  5. Why do you think David tried to hide his actions from Uriah? Surely nobody would have questioned him—he was the king.
  6. Given the magnificent way David proclaimed his integrity before God in numerous psalms, what do you think it did to him to be involved in Uriah’s murder?
  7. Nathan’s prophetic courage: where did it come from? What makes somebody willing to risk his life to confront a leader?
  8. Why do you think David was able to accept Nathan’s indictment of his sin?
  9. What would you prescribe to prevent midlife crisis? Could David have lived his life differently to protect against his downfall?

Study questions: chapter ten: Guilt Paralysis

Read 2 Samuel 13,14

  1. Have you seen somebody paralyzed by guilt? What kind of life events can lead to that?
  2. David and David’s Son notes that 1 and 2 Samuel gives several examples of the sons of leaders going bad. (p. 114) What problems come with being raised in the palace?
  3. David is furious when he learns that his son has raped his daughter. Why doesn’t David do anything?
  4. Absalom, unburdened by a guilty conscience, murders his brother in cold blood. What is David’s reaction?
  5. David and David’s Son suggests that David sees himself in Absalom—both murderers—so David can’t condemn Absalom without condemning himself. Have you ever seen that kind of twisted guilt in operation? What kind of offspring does such parenting produce?
  6. Families of addicts often experience guilt, feeling responsible for the addiction. What similarities do you see between an addict’s family’s co-dependence and David’s treatment of Absalom?
  7. How would you describe Jesus’ treatment of Judas? Did he feel guilty for his disciple’s moral failures? Did he confront him?
  8. What would you imagine happening if David had talked to Absalom the way that Jesus did to Judas? Do you think that would have made any difference in Absalom’s behavior?
  9. How common do you think guilt is in our society? What difference does it make in people’s behavior?
  10. What keeps guilt-laden people from confessing to a friend?

Study questions: chapter eleven: The Very Worst That Can Happen

Read: 2 Samuel 15:1-19:8

  1. How would you describe the worst tragedy possible for a wealthy, successful, powerful person?
  2. What is the worst thing that ever happened to you or your family? How did it affect you?
  3. David and David’s Son suggests that David was depressed, neglecting his position in government and allowing Absalom to “steal the hearts of the men of Israel.” (p. 121) What evidence do you see for and against this hypothesis?
  4. Why does David run from Absalom instead of fighting?
  5. Jesus’ via dolorosa out of Jerusalem has many similarities to David’s escape: both men barefoot, cursed as they go, surrounded by weeping followers. Both men are kings rejected by their people. What are the primary differences?
  6. Why do you think David was so ambivalent about fighting his murderous son Absalom?
  7. When he learns Absalom’s fate, David cries, “If only I had died instead of you!” Is he thinking of the recent battle, or of Nathan saying, “You are not going to die” even before Absalom was born? (2 Samuel 12:13)
  8. David’s cry is reminiscent of suicidal thinking: if I were gone, everybody would be better off. What would have happened to Israel had David died?
  9. David and David’s Son says, “When your life shatters, your only hope is that others will help pick up your pieces.” (p. 127) Who would you count on to pick up your pieces?
  10. The story of David and Absalom is depressing and has no happy ending. Why do you think it is included in the Bible?
  11. David fell from the top of the world to a place he experienced as hell on earth. What have you learned from following his journey?

Study questions: chapter twelve: Restoration

Read: 2 Samuel 19:9-43, 20

  1. What’s the most disappointing homecoming you can remember? What made it unsatisfying?
  2. David’s return to Jerusalem seems less than triumphant. What, to you, are its most disheartening features?
  3. If you had been in Israel, would you have joyfully welcomed back the runaway king? Why or why not?
  4. David’s forgiveness of Shimei is magnanimous. What do you think motivated him to forgive and forget?
  5. David’s treatment of his concubines is a monument to hard-heartedness. Why do you think he was so harsh?
  6. David and David’s Son makes the point that David’s greatest achievement—unifying the tribes of Israel—barely outlived him, while his poetry, perhaps viewed as a harmless hobby, lives vibrantly to this day. What do you think will prove to be your most lasting achievement?
  7. After his resurrection, Jesus meets disciples who badly failed under pressure. What does he say to them? (See John 21:10-19)
  8. Do you think it is significant that Jesus never reproves them for their failures? Why or why not?
  9. “David’s story is nested in Israel’s story, which is nested in Jesus’ story, whish is God’s story of the whole world, including every one of us. We live our lives nested in God’s story. He is the storyteller.” (p. 133) What does it mean to you that your life is nested in God’s story?
  10. How can you become more aware that your life story is part of God’s story?

Study questions: chapter thirteen: David is Dying

Read: 1 Kings 1,2

  1. What do you fear most about growing old?
  2. What do you hope people will remember about you at your funeral?
  3. In his final years, David the vibrant shepherd boy has become so feeble he can’t even keep warm. How does that make you feel?
  4. David’s life story ends with his final words to his son and heir Solomon. If you were writing the story, what would you like him to say?
  5. Why do you think David’s last words deal with revenge? Why has he harbored this anger?
  6. How can you avoid an ending like David’s, “grinding on memories of being cursed and abused?”
  7. Why do you think David’s historian wants to include this violent and revengeful ending to his life? What is the point?
  8. What exactly do you think Scripture means when it refers to David as “a man after God’s own heart?”
  9. David and David’s Son concludes that David is a royal mixture, showing the power of God to use all kinds of material to tell his story. “God is bigger than David’s smallness.” How would you sum up David’s part in God’s bigger story?
  10. “When we study David, we have opportunity to see ourselves.” What aspects of David’s life do you want to emulate? What avoid?