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:

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:

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?

Catastrophe, Part III: A Failure of Faith

August 11, 2021

As a Presbyterian, I was particularly interested in how the Joneses’ Presbyterian faith interacted with the catastrophe of war. The Joneses, good Calvinists, believed that God was sovereign over all events, and therefore war came from him, meant to induce repentance for sin. In trying to make sense of the war and predict its outcome, they consistently combined two seemingly contradictory impulses. On the one hand they were extremely confident that their cause was in the right, that they had been attacked for no cause by an aggressive and godless force from the North, and thus surely God would come to the aid of their armies and give them success. (They were well aware that the North outnumbered and outproduced them, so that Confederate victory could only come from a combination of God’s intervention and the superior honor and bravery of Confederate soldiers.)

On the other hand, they believed that God brings war as a punishment for sin, and therefore they must humbly repent of their sins in order that God would show them mercy and stop the punishment. So: we are in the right, and we are in the wrong.

It makes for a peculiar combination of bravado and humility:

Reverend Jones, in 1861: “I cannot divest myself of the impression that there will be some effectual interposition of a kind Providence in our favor and for our repose. It may be only what I desire; but surely we are right, and whatever be our sins that call for judgment—and they are many—yet so far as the North is concerned, we have not sinned against it, and therefore may pray for a blessing.” (686)

“It has been so far a summer of much anxiety and of excitement on account of the unnatural, unjust, and infamous war that is waged upon us… The Lord appears to be on our side, and so far has kept back the advance of the enemy and given us the victory in almost every encounter with him. We are in His hands, and our souls must wait only upon Him. We have been sinning with the Northern people as a nation for seventy or eighty years, and now we have become two nations, and the Lord may use us as rods of correction to each other. While this is so and must be acknowledged in all humility before God, we believe and are confident that in our strife with that people we are in the right, and can commend our cause to His protection and blessing with the assured expectation that we shall eventually triumph.” (709)

Mrs. Mary Jones, 1862: “I feel ever unwavering confidence in asking my Heavenly Father to defend and deliver my suffering country, for I believe our cause is just and right. At the same time I know that we have individual and national sins that merit the displeasure and judgments of a holy God. I pray daily that we may feel them, and so truly repent of them and forsake them that His anger and His wrath may be turned away from us, and the light of His countenance again lifted upon us through our Divine Redeemer!” (829)

Colonel Charles Jones, 1862: “War is a national judgment of the severest character; it comes from God, and is sent for wise purposes and to accomplish given ends. Among those objects perhaps the most important is the alienation of the hearts of the people from sin and worldliness, and a return of them to true contrition for past offenses, and the fear and love of God. It seems to me, as I look around me, that we have not even yet learnt the uses or accomplished the objects of this judgement. And this makes me tremble for the future.” (993)

Mrs. Mary Jones, 1862, upon news of battlefield victory: “I have not words to express the emotions I feel for this signal success in the outset of this last fearful and terrific assault of our enemies, when probably he has arrayed a force five or six to one, armed with all the deadly appliances of modern warfare to overwhelm and destroy us. Surely our strength to resist and overcome is immediately from above and in answer to prayer; and I believe if we trust in our Almighty God and Saviour and strive to perform our duty to our suffering land in His fear and for His glory, that our enemies will never triumph over us….

“What comfort and encouragement is afforded by the fact that we have so many Christian, true, God-fearing commanders; and that in many regiments of our army amidst the temptations and horrors of war the Blessed Spirit has been poured out for the conviction and conversion of officers and men; and that they who may be said to be treading the courts of death have had opened up to them the gates of everlasting life! … Oh, that our God would give us true repentance for our many, great, and aggravated sins, which have brought this awful judgment of war upon us, and speedily establish us as a nation in righteousness and peace!” (1001)

Mrs. Mary Jones, 1863: “How long will this awful conflict last? And to what depths of misery are we to be reduced ere the Sovereign Judge of all the earth will give us deliverance? It does appear that we are to be brought very low. May the Lord give us such true repentance and humility before Him as shall turn away His wrath and restore His favor, through the merits and intercession of our Divine Redeemer! I do bless God for the spirit of true patriotism and undaunted courage with which He is arming us for this struggle. Noble Vicksburg! From her heroic example we gather strength to hold on and hold out to the last moment. I can look extinction for me and mine in the face, but submission never! It would be degradation of the lowest order.” (1076)

What exactly do the Joneses mean when they refer to repentance? Repent for what, exactly? It appears they have in mind conventional sins like drunkenness, adultery, lies and gossip. They certainly don’t repent of the sins of slavery. Contrast that with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, in which he sees the sins of slavery as belonging to both North and South: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Lincoln possessed a comprehensive view of the war, but the Jones family, blind to the sins of slavery, find their moral universe fractured. Their theology tells them that war calls for repentance, but they only can repent of sins that have nothing to do with the war and are not really their own in the first place. (They are not drunkards or adulterers.) They will kill to defend their way of life built on imprisoning other people; but they will repent of gossip.

During the war, their rosy view of slavery comes slowly undone. To their distress, it seems that the only way to keep their contented slaves from running away is by military force. As early as 1861 Reverend Jones requests that the army “leave such a military force behind as will be sufficient to keep our colored population under supervision and control, and so prevent anything like an effort on the art of many or few of them to abandon the plantations and escape to the enemy.” (805)

By 1862 he writes, “Some Negroes (not many) have run away and gone to the enemy, or on the deserted sea islands. How extensive the matter may become remains to be seen. The temptation of change, the promise of freedom and of pay for labor, is more than most can stand; and no reliance can be placed certainly upon any. The safest plan is to put them beyond the reach of temptation (as to render it impossible for them to go) by leaving no boats in the water and by keeping guards along the rivers.” (925)

A few days later he writes his son Charles, “A public meeting of the citizens was called on the 8th at Hinesville to adopt some measure for suppressing if possible the escape of our Negroes to the enemy on the coast. Fifty-one have already gone from this county. Your Uncle John has lost five. Three are said to have left from your Aunt Susan’s and Cousin Laura’s; one was captured, two not; and one of these was Joefinny! Such is the report. The temptation of cheap goods, freedom, and paid labor cannot be withstood. None may be absolutely depended on. The only preservation is to remove them beyond the temptation, or seal by the most rigid police all ingress and egress; and this is most difficult.” (929) Reverend Jones later asks his (lawyer) son whether he can summarily execute as traitors any re-captured slaves.

Lt. Jones replies, “If insensible to every other consideration, terror must be made to operate upon their minds, and fear prevent what curiosity and desire for utopian pleasures induce them to attempt. If allowed to desert, our entire social system will be upset if the supremacy of the law of servitude and the ownership of such property be not vigorously asserted in cases where recaptures occur.” (940)

Their pleasant and comfortable way of life has been revealed to be a prison, with them as wardens using terror to maintain their supremacy.

When Sherman’s troops overrun their section of Georgia, the game is up. Mary Jones writes in her diary, “Nearly all the house servants have left their homes; and from most of the plantations they have gone in a body, either directly to the enemy or to congregate upon the large plantations in Bryan County, which have been vacated and upon which a plenty of rice remains.” (1248)

In the following months, the Jones’ letters repeatedly express loathing for their freed slaves. Mary Jones writes her son Charles: “I am thoroughly disgusted with the whole race. I could fill my sheet with details of dishonesty at [our plantations in] Montevideo and Arcadia, but my heart sickens at the recital, and a prospect of dwelling with them.” (1304) She later writes her daughter, “My life long (I mean since I had a home) I have been laboring and caring for them, and since the war have labored with all my might to supply their wants, and expended everything I had upon their support, directly or indirectly; and this is their return…. It is impossible to get at any of their intentions, and it is useless to ask them. I see only a dark future for the whole race.” (1308,9)

In the new regime the Joneses make attempts to hire former slaves, but the arrangements are contentious and not, evidently, profitable for the owners. The plantation system is not workable without coercion.

If you have wondered how a defeated Confederacy so soon violently tore power back and instituted Jim Crow terror, you have only to read these letters. The Jones family appears never have to reflected on their own failings or the failings of their beautiful way of life; the fault is always and wholly with the North and the Negroes. The Jones see themselves as blameless, and they are furious at the people they once enslaved, that they are ungrateful. Clearly, the Joneses’ calls for repentance in the face of war were pure cant. They never examined themselves. They never repented. Their theology was rhetorical, not real. It did not puncture their blindness, not even after war had destroyed the way of life they had been willing to kill to defend.

The implicit warning for us is that good theology provides little protection from our self-justifications. We can talk ourselves into anything. (Which is one meaning of the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity: even our rational faculties are under the power of sin.)

The South, including many sincere, honorable people like the Joneses, fortified itself against any critique of its way of life. They threatened abolitionists with murder. They burned their newspapers. They furiously attacked their moral character. If you anathematize your enemies, you cannot learn anything from them. And they did not. Their beautiful way of life was ruined and—even worse from their point of view—revealed to be a fraud. The peaceful plantation was a prison camp. Even then, they couldn’t see it.

To avoid cant and self-deception, we must refuse to vilify those who differ from us, but listen carefully and introspectively. That is surely one reason Jesus told his followers to examine their own eyes before operating on others’.

Catastrophe, Part 2: Moral Blindness

August 10, 2021

In my previous post–”Living On the Edge of Catastrophe”—we observed the Joneses of Georgia and their inability to see that their entire way of life was about to be destroyed in the Civil War. Despite dire political circumstances, they couldn’t believe that the worst would come. They shrugged it off and talked themselves into believing that catastrophe couldn’t happen. Like them, I tend to be optimistic and patriotic, thinking that somehow common sense will prevail in America. It ain’t necessarily so!

Now I’d like the consider the moral blindness afflicting the Joneses.

Slaveholders as depicted in the movies are obviously evil. They delight in tormenting black people. If they claim to be Christians, they are transparently hypocritical. Cruelty is their true religion.

The Joneses don’t fit that picture. In almost every way, they show themselves to be kind to their neighbors and principled in their business dealings. They are people of sincere faith, and it pervades their view of life. They rarely come off as sanctimonious. Perhaps the one theme that suggests sanctimony is the constant urging of both parents toward their son Charles to make a public confession of faith and be baptized. They bring it up again and again, and most particularly when his first wife and young daughter die in quick succession of an infection in childbirth and of scarlet fever. His parents are deeply grieved, sympathizing with their son in every way that parents can, but they cannot help themselves from urging that he, too, could die and fail to be reunited with his loved ones in heaven. Again, when Charles becomes a lieutenant in the confederacy, his parents are full of fear that he could die unbaptized in battle. They urge him to make a profession of faith and gain the ease, the comfort of assurance. Their concern seems completely authentic, genuinely and deeply concerned for his eternal welfare, but it’s insistent in a way that would be way over the top in any family I know. Except, Charles doesn’t seem to resent it. He knows they are expressing their care for him, and he believes as they do—it’s just that he can’t bring himself to the point of public profession.

Are they genuine in their faith? I think so.

Regarding their slaves, it’s hard to read exactly how kind the Joneses are, because they rarely detail their interactions. They seem to like their house servants, often referring to them by name and nearly always closing their letters with “howdy to the servants!” I am sure the Joneses would have claimed vociferously to have positive relationships with their slaves, and they certainly saw themselves as their protectors and benefactors. However, the relationships seem superficial, and—at emancipation—would prove to be.

Slavery, the Joneses believed, was a benefit to both black and white. They perceived their servants as simple, occasionally charming, but always in need of the superior discipline and order white people could provide. The servants let them think so. How much corporal punishment was required to keep “order,” and how close acrimony came to the surface between slave and master, is hard to tell from the letters. Such issues rarely appear. Since the Joneses seem to share freely about all kinds of issues in their daily lives, I have to conclude that the system worked smoothly. It was easy for the Joneses to conclude that “smoothly” equaled “well.”

Only one case mars this picture of harmony. An 18-year-old slave woman escapes—her name is Jane–and is discovered working under another name as a free black in Savannah. Caught, she is imprisoned, and Reverend Jones decides to sell her entire family. Evidently this family has been difficult for some time, and he is weary with the continual hassle of trying to bring them in line. Rev. Jones tries to live by his precepts. He makes up his mind to sell the family as a unit, even though he could get more for selling the pieces separately. Determining to find a new owner who he thinks will treat them responsibly, he consoles himself with the thought that a new start is best for everybody.

The cold-blooded reality, however, comes when Reverend Jones lists the family members for sale, including their estimated prices: A father and mother, in their forties; five children between the ages of 20 and 12, and a 29-year-old man who is for some reason attached to the family. Their prices range from a high of $1,000 to a low of $600. They are inventoried like pieces of farm equipment. It’s business. Reverend Jones wants a good master for them, but he also wants the highest price he can get.

I can’t tell whether the question ever occurs to him or his offspring: who gave you the right to own these people? The whole Jones family evidently believes, as indeed almost the whole South believed, that because the system ran smoothly (most of the time) it had to be right and just. No one asked the slaves, of course—but since they were simple people, unable to really care for themselves, their opinion did not matter.

It is a monstrous conception, utterly at odds with the image of God in humankind. Slavery’s pervasiveness throughout history and in biblical times says nothing to temper that judgment. Murder and theft were pervasive too.

Abolitionists from the North (and the South too, before they were driven out) could have taught them a different view. But the Jones family knew that abolitionists were fanatical infidels, godless and devoid of Christian morality. “And what will appear most remarkable to the sober, pious mind,” writes son Charles from Boston, where (while a student) he has attended the trial of Anthony Burns, a captured runaway slave being returned to the South, “is that [anti-slavery opinions] all come as emanations from the respective pulpits of this vicinity—promulgated, moreover, upon a day which the Lord has consecrated for His especial service. Strange and enormous must be the stupefying fanaticism of that man who, professing to be called of God for the revelation of holy things unto men, can so far forget his sacred office, and the solemnities of the season, as to indulge openly in vituperations against his country and fellow man, not only unbecoming a minister but unworthy a sensible person upon a secular occasion. It is really surprising to what an extent a person becomes an actual fool who, possessed of one prejudice, one misconceived idea, surrenders himself a total slave to its miserable influence.” (44)

That might be the wound-up, over-the-top rhetoric of a young man who has attended a life-and-death trial and heard vehement speeches. But in the 1,400 pages of Jones letters, there are really no other opinions. Abolitionists who speak for the slave are fools, infidels and knaves. They seek to destroy the South. Not once is there a hint of humility, of the thought that, “I might be wrong.” Not even, “I realize there are other ways of seeing this.” Nor, “It would be a terrible thing to be born a slave.”

It’s not that they aren’t good people. They are. But they are stupefyingly blind. They have grown up with slavery, prospered from slavery, and dealt with it (successfully) every day of their lives. It has taken away their ability to see.

I am not sure I would have been any different, if I grew up in the same place. And what, I wonder, could be my moral blindness today?

One thing I know: the words “walk humbly” should never be left out of our moral mandates. We must consider every day the possibility that we could be wrong. That in itself will not keep us from moral blindness, but at least it will open us to the possibility of learning something new.

Living on the Edge of Catastrophe—Part 1

August 9, 2021

America is polarized as never in my lifetime. The split between red and blue expresses ancient worldviews, but differences are amplified by social media and news media, and pushed to extremes by a sense on the part of both sides that we are living on the edge of catastrophe.

On the left, dread of catastrophe increased dramatically on January 6, 2021, when rioters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying the election of President Joe Biden. It had never occurred to us that our entire system of government was at risk—that democracy in America could be overthrown and we could wake up living in a North American Hungary or Nicaragua. You think liberals are shrill? That’s why.

On the right, fear of a different kind of catastrophe holds sway. Throughout my lifetime conservatives have been telling of the fall of the Roman Empire as a warning against decadence. Now, the pace of social change has led to social panic that gay marriage, gender fluidity, immigration, drugs, crime and the decline of Christianity are making America a place of unrecognizable moral chaos. To many on the right, we are in the last days, with a final, slender opportunity to rescue the country we love.

A third form of catastrophe, climate change, increases anxiety on all sides. The stakes are vast, the territory unknown, and we begin to feel the effects in our daily lives. It’s unsettling, and our fears leak out and spread.

I never have been a catastrophist, and I don’t believe most Americans are. We have been a nation of optimists and patriots, trusting that no matter what the challenge things will work out for the best because America has deep strengths that preserve it from disaster. When Popie and I lived in Kenya, we observed the fragility of the political order there and in most of Africa. A president feared traveling abroad because a coup might happen while he was out of the country. Elections could be and were stolen. We looked on this with sadness, but it never occurred to us that such things could happen in America.

I still don’t believe, in my gut, that they could. I just can’t believe that we could throw away our democracy or lapse into moral chaos. I’m an optimist. I’m a patriot. I expect that common sense will rule the day.

A book I just finished, however, The Children of Pride, has given me pause. It’s a massive collection of letters from within a Georgia slaveholding family from 1855 to 1868—the years just before, during and after the Civil War. The father of the family, Charles Colcock Jones, is a Presbyterian pastor who has dedicated his life to preaching the gospel to slaves. He and his wife Mary are well educated, thoughtful, temperate and loving. Their two sons, Charles and Joseph, attended Princeton University. Charles went on to study law at Yale, practiced law in Savannah and was elected mayor of the city in 1860. Joseph studied medicine in Philadelphia and became a well-regarded doctor and medical researcher. Mary, the daughter, married a Presbyterian pastor.

It would be hard to read these letters and not like the Jones family. They obviously love each other, and they care about the people in their community (including their house servants, whom they frequently mention). They write well and intelligently. It’s true that their wealth—they own three plantations in coastal Georgia—and their ownership of well over 100 slaves are hard to swallow. But reading their letters, you tend to forget that. Their lives are interesting. Babies are born, people fall in love and marry, people die—little children particularly—and fear of disease is a constant. A hurricane, vividly described, ravages their land. Planting and harvest are followed with intense interest. The Joneses write often of the beauty of the landscape.

They are not a particularly political family, and in the years 1855-1860 their letters rarely mention the national crisis over slavery. They know what is going on, and there is no doubt that they are staunch Southerners, deeply distressed by abolitionist ideas, but you look in vain for any signs of real fear or agitation. I found it fascinating and unnerving, because I noted the dates on the letters and—knowing what was coming–could feel the storm clouds gathering. The Joneses apparently did not. They were living their enviable, enjoyable, mostly-peaceable life, unconcerned that their entire way of life was about to be obliterated. Even in 1860, when firebrand Southerners were spoiling for a fight, and secession was on the table, they couldn’t believe that it would come to much. Like me today, they thought surely common sense would prevail.

Here’s Reverend Jones, writing his son Charles in January, 1860: “Our political sky is very cloudy! Have you read the Vice-President’s speech lately delivered at Frankfort, Kentucky? My hope is the He who has so often and so mercifully preserved our country will again show us favor, unworthy as we are, and deliver us from impending evils and grant us peace. He is able to still the tumult of the people.” (p. 556) Then he goes on to send greetings to Charles’ wife Ruth and a kiss to their baby.

And here is Charles, writing back in October, just before Lincoln’s election: “Should Lincoln be elected, the action of a single state, such as South Carolina or Alabama, may precipitate us into all the terrors of intestine war. I sincerely trust that a kind Providence, that has so long and so specially watched over the increasing glories of our common country, may so influence the kinds of fanatical men and dispose of coming events as to avert so direful a calamity.” (p. 621) He goes on to mention that his wife and child are coming home on Monday. Otherwise, not much is worth noting. “We have but little of interest with us.”

His father writes back a few days later: “I do not apprehend any very serious disturbance in the event of Lincoln’s election and a withdrawal of one or more Southern states, which will eventuate in the withdrawal of all. On what ground can the free states found a military crusade upon the South? Who are the violators of the Constitution? Will the conservatives in the free states make no opposition? If the attempt is made to subjugate the South, what prospect will there be of success? And what benefit will accrue to all the substantial interests of the free states? The business world will think very little benefit. Under all the circumstances attending a withdrawal there would be no casus belli. Is not the right of self-government on the part of the people the cornerstone of the republic? Have not fifteen states a right to govern themselves and withdraw from a compact or constitution disregarded by the other states to their injury and (it may be) their ruin? But may God avert such a separation, for the consequences may in future be disastrous to both sections. Union if possible—but with it we must have life, liberty, and equality!” (p. 625)

Today’s reader cannot help noting that the pastor’s “life, liberty and equality” involve denying liberty and equality to more than one hundred men, women and children whom he purports to own. He is not stupid, and he is not ignorant, but he cannot see what is in front of him.

So the war came, and if the Jones family did not welcome it, they seemed to greet it with a kind of shrug. By mid-November the pastor’s wife, Mary, writes to son Charles: “It is a new era in our country’s history, and I trust the wise and patriotic leaders of the people will soon devise some united course of action throughout the Southern states. I cannot see a shadow of reason for civil war in the event of a Southern confederacy; but even that, if it must come, would be preferable to submission to Black Republicanism, involving as it would all that is horrible, degrading, and ruinous. ‘Forbearance has ceased to be a virtue;’ and I believe we could meet with no evils out of the Union that would compare to those we will finally suffer if we continue in it for we can no longer doubt that the settled policy of the North is to crush the South.” (p. 628)

The war would utterly destroy her way of life. The Joneses lost none of their immediate family members to the fighting (both sons were enlisted as Confederate soldiers) but Sherman’s army swept through their farms and took nearly all their moveable property. The Southern plantation, dependent on slave labor, became impossible, and the Joneses could not find buyers for their thousands of acres of land at any price. The three children would eventually thrive (Charles, ironically, in New York City), because they could call on professional skills; but plantation life was dead. Not until the coming of Jim Crow would a mutant, crippled version of it resurrect.

What stays with me in this part of the story is the blithe unawareness. The Jones family, for all their sense and education, could not see that they lived on the edge of catastrophe. Could they have done anything to prevent it? Perhaps not if they acted alone, but if a large slice of Southern gentility had spoken strongly against Southern radicalism, the outcome might have been different.

The same may be true for us, in our time. We live on the edge of catastrophe, and yet I find it very hard to believe in the threat. Maybe these settled instincts are right. Maybe common sense will prevail. The Joneses remind me, however, that that is hardly guaranteed. It really could all go smash.

The Wisdom of Words

August 9, 2021

I preached at my church on Sunday, part of a series on Proverbs. The sermon has two parts: one on the importance of life-giving speech in personal life, and one on the dangers of certain kinds of speech in community life, particularly lying and mockery. Here’s the podcast. It’s about 20 minutes long.

David and David’s Son

April 16, 2021

The book I’ve been working on for three years, David and David’s Son: 13 Meditations on Success and Failure, is published and available on Amazon. Here’s the link:

I’m very excited about this book. It covers virtually every episode in David’s long and fascinating life–including some that never make it into sermons–and explores his personality and character in detail. I frame the book around 13 meditations, tying David’s highs and lows to our experiences of ambition, frustration, success and failure. Anybody with hopes and dreams will find multiple points of connection. Each chapter ends with a Question for Meditation, to help readers use the book for personal devotion or for a group study.

I learned a lot in working on this book, and I am hopeful others will too.

Here’s the back cover copy:

David’s career path was a roller coaster: from teenage nobody to ace commander, from fugitive to king, from high-on-God to lost-in-sin. He lived ecstatic triumphs and devastating failures. In David and David’s Son Tim Stafford carefully analyzes the highs and lows. He asks, “What can we learn about success and failure from David’s drama?”

David is a compelling personality, strong and charismatic and yet enigmatic, too. How was he lifted so high? Why did he fall so low? Through David and David’s Son you’ll accompany him through every challenge, and get to know him deeply.

“David’s Son” is Jesus. There’s a reason he was so often referred to as “Son of David,” and it’s more than genealogy. David’s story is captivating, but it only really has meaning when embedded in God’s story that culminates in Jesus. David and David’s Son explores many parallels between Jesus’ and David’s lives, and shows how Jesus completes David’s story. We learn to see David in Jesus’ redemptive light.

The real David is not a Sunday school hero, but a deeply flawed, deeply troubled, deeply blessed human being—a king, a warrior, a poet, a husband and a father. Come walk with him.

The Color of Law

February 11, 2021

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein

Black families in the US have, on average, about a tenth of the average White family’s accumulated wealth. Black men are far more likely than Whites to be stopped by the police, arrested by the police, or shot by the police. Black children lag behind White children in education almost everywhere. 

Racism, by my non-academic definition, is personal prejudice against people of color. It’s real, but today not nearly as pervasive as a faceless racism built into the way society functions. Those three discrepancies I cited in the first paragraph? One—policing disparities—may be largely due to personal prejudice. But wealth and schooling? There’s rarely a scowling face of prejudice behind those disparities. Rather, there are multiple societal forces at play, which make it so “it just works out that way.” You can’t find anybody to blame.

More accurately, you can find too many people to blame. Lots of different nicks and scratches add up, but it’s hard to say just when and by whom the car was trashed.

Richard Rothstein, a lawyer, makes the case that segregated housing is responsible for a lot of those nicks and scratches, not to mention the head-on collisions. Since Americans accumulate and pass on wealth mainly through the house they own, the difference between White suburban housing and Black inner-city housing is a major contributor to wealth disparities. That affects how people respond to emergency expenditures, and whether they can afford college for their children. 

But there’s more. Because Americans usually send their children to a neighborhood school, housing segregation leads to segregated schools, where “separate is not equal,” as the Supreme Court told us in 1954. Because Black housing tends to concentrate poverty, there’s more crime in Black neighborhoods, which circles back to downgrade the cash value of the housing and degrade the schools, which in turn leads to more crime. Segregated housing isn’t responsible for all our racial woes, but it contributes a lot.

People tend to segregate themselves, it’s true. The main reason Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America is that most people prefer to worship with people like themselves. Some White churches would deliberately make Black people unwelcome, I’m sure, but I’m also sure there are more White churches that would go over the top in trying to make Blacks welcome, in the process making them more uncomfortable. 

In bars, nightclubs, concerts, barbershops and beauty parlors, there’s a fair amount of self-segregation. New immigrants tend to settle near others who come from their home country, for very practical reasons (language and networking) as well as for comfort.

Housing is different, though. You choose where to live mainly on economic grounds: you want to live in a nice house. Having neighbors who look like you—or not having neighbors who don’t look like you—may be a preference, but for a lot of people it’s not an absolute. They’ll buy the nicest house they can afford, regardless of the neighbors. Segregation would tend to break down over time unless the government was working hard behind the scenes to make it stick.

That’s Rothstein’s case: that segregation isn’t just an unfortunate accident of personal preferences. No, the US government worked hard to segregate America, and keep it segregated. Rothstein asserts, therefore, that the US government is obliged to de-segregate America, undoing the damage done in the same way that it’s obliged to do away with nuclear waste in Hanover, Washington.

I liked Rothstein’s book because it’s very factual, proving its case with reams of historical information. I thought I knew a lot of the history of racism in America, but I knew nothing of this. For me, it really came home when he discussed segregation not in war-time Mobile, Alabama, or 1960s Chicago, but in parts of liberal Bay Area that I know well: Richmond, Milpitas, and Palo Alto. I had noticed, of course, that Black people tended to live apart from White people in those places. I had no idea what a concentrated, sustained barrage of work had gone on at all levels of government, federal down to local, to make it that way.

There’s no way a book review can comprehensively review Rothstein’s case, because it’s so information rich you almost have to read the book. In general, though, here’s how it worked:

After WWII there was a terrible shortage of housing, due to five years of the war and ten years of the Depression when almost none was built. Besides that, an exploding economy coming out of the war meant that people had money to buy, including Black people who had qualified for good jobs during the war and made the most of it. 

A lot of houses needed building, and the government subsidized them in lots of ways. Public housing was built, lots of it—always segregated. Sometimes it was built by tearing down poor neighborhoods that were mixed, thus turning desegregated housing into segregated housing.

Very importantly, the FHA and the VA guaranteed loans in subdivisions that were available only to Whites. The famous Levittstown was built by a private contractor, but only because the FHA gave a blanket guarantee of housing loans for white people only. That was duplicated all over America. 

Cities and counties used exclusionary zoning in suburban neighborhoods, excluding Blacks either by law or (more commonly) by income. By excluding apartments or homes built on small lots, they insured that only middle-income people could afford to buy. And guess what color middle-income people came in?

Furthermore, they allowed restrictive covenants to be written into deeds, and enforced them as though they were law. You couldn’t sell your house to a Black person.

The government further subsidized the (White) suburbs through roads and sewers and water projects, while inner-city (Black) development was deprived of rail and bus transport that would have taken residents to jobs that were moving out of the inner city.

Real estate agents were permitted discriminatory practices, even though they were licensed by the state. Banks were permitted redlining practices, though they were practically wards of the state. 

Discriminatory policies of real estate agents meant that Black people were kept from viewing White houses, though the real estate agents were licensed by the state.

Police connived with white mobs using dynamite and arson and armed threats to force Black buyers out of White neighborhoods.

Schools were deliberately situated in locations that reinforced or further encouraged segregation. 

Highways were routed through Black neighborhoods, demolishing them and forcing more Black residents into already crowded Black neighborhoods, which were the only places Blacks were allowed to settle. 

Section 8 and other low-income-housing policies steered poor people to poor (Black) neighborhoods.

The Fair Housing Act outlawed discrimination in housing in 1968, but most of these practices continued long after. 

I found it heartbreaking to read of the lasting, determined government policies that worked in the Bay Area to deprive Black people of decent (integrated) housing. Somehow it seems worse to learn of it in an area that you know, and where you never dreamed of it. Palo Alto?

Neara the end of WWII author Wallace Stegner and other Stanford professors started a co-op to build 400 houses on a 260-acre plot of land adjacent to the Stanford campus. Local teachers, city employees, carpenters and nurses joined in; three of the initial 150 families were African American. But banks would not finance construction nor issue mortgages without government approval, and the FHA would not insure loans to a co-op that included African-American members. The co-op board tried to find a compromise, promising that the proportion of Black homeowners would stay within the proportion of Black Americans in California. The government said no. Eventually the co-op gave up and in 1950 sold the land to a private developer, who built Whites-only homes with FHA-approved lands.

That’s just one small case out of hundreds that Rothstein details.