Of all the things there are to say about fathers, we can all agree on at least this one. Fathers come into the world prior to their children. Fathers experience life and perhaps death before we are even born. And fathers, therefore, have ways that we may observe. And more often than not, these ways are passed on and ingrained in our psyches whether we want them there or not.

“His son Jeshoshaphat succeeded him and strengthened himself against Israel.”

The third person pronoun in verse one happens to be the historic King Asa, and King Asa gets mixed reviews. During the many of the conflicts that arise in the course of Second Chronicles, King Asa relies upon the Lord about half the time, and during the other half he plays politics. So imagine being the son or the daughter of all that chaotic maneuvering and jockeying for position. In fact, when I think about King Jehoshaphat, as he succeeds his father and according to verse two, as he

“placed forces in all the fortified cities of Judah and set garrisons in the land of Judah and in the cities of Ephraim that his father had taken”—

When I think about that I also think about the strengths and the weakness that we’ve all inherited from our fathers. For example, a professional woman in her mid-twenties is watching a nature program on public television. The program shows footage of these two lions fighting over a wildebeest. With the volume turned up, you can hear the narration talking about the dominant male, winning the right to eat. Then, cut back to the professional woman, booking a flight back home for Father’s Day. Suddenly she’s there at the dinner table and her two massive brothers are fighting over a leg of lamb. Without even acknowledging the ruckus, the father then reaches over both of them and stabs the meat with his fork. “It’s good to have you home, honey,” he says, smiling at his daughter.

You see, if we take the time to reflect honestly upon the everyday habits and decision-making prowess of our fathers, intuitively we understand the way things are.
Fathers, by virtue of simply being our fathers, have power. Fathers exercise judgment and speak with authority. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it is usually up to the patriarch of the family to pass on the blessing that family has received from the Lord of God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But here’s the dynamic I find so intriguing this morning. 2 Chronicles 17:3 says,
“The Lord was with Jehoshaphat, because he walked in the earlier ways of his father; he did not seek the Baals…”

Now, before we venture any further, I’d like to point out the unique phrase, “the earlier ways of his father.” The earlier ways of his father means either one of two things:
1. King Asa had obviously come before his son, King Jehoshaphat and therefore his ways could be described as “earlier;” Or
2. King Asa, Jehoshaphat’s father, lived a life and passed on a legacy of mixed parts. During the earlier part, he did not seek after the Baals, a subject we’ll get to in a moment; but during the latter part, the pressure got to King Asa and he compromised. By walking in the earlier ways of his father, then, King Jehoshaphat filtered out and perhaps overlooked or saw beyond all his father’s cynicism and harshness. He saw instead the original man of God, who yearned and ached for integrity and relied upon Yahweh.

This is how I suggest that we interpret the earlier ways. It’s not nostalgia for the past, simply because it was good enough for my dear old Dad, but it’s looking at the generations who precede us and celebrating that, for which they had originally searched—that for which they searched before they became disheartened or distracted. And the main thing that is likely to have distracted King Asa is the Canaanite gods of storm and fertility, known as the Baals. The Baals had already been worshipped in the land long before the Israelites got there, and when the united kingdom of Israel split in two—with Judah in the south and Israel in the north—the Baals made a dramatic come back in popularity. In this way, you could believe in Yahweh and believe in the Baals much in the same way that you and I can worship God at Latah Valley, but still believe that other things are necessary for our wholeness. For example, another way of understanding the influence of the Baals is to assume the persona of Binx Bolling in Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer.

“It is a pleasure to carry out the duties of a citizen,” he says
“to receive in return a receipt or a neat styrene card with one’s name on it, certifying so to speak one’s right to exist. What satisfaction I take in appearing the first day to get my auto tag and brake-sticker. I subscribe to Consumer Reports and as a consequence I own a first class television set, an all but silent air conditioner and a very long lasting deodorant. My arm pits never stink. I pay attention to all the spot announcements on the radio about mental health, the seven signs of cancer and safe driving.”

What we’re getting at, you see, is how the chores of life and the hassle of making a living wear us down. It wore down King Asa, the father of King Jehoshaphat, and it wears down you and me to this very moment. King Asa, at an earlier time in life, practiced his faith in Yahweh with integrity, not worrying about the risk. King Jehoshaphat, his son, remembered that time and, according to verse four,
“sought the God of his father and walked in his commandments and not according to the ways of Israel.”

And “therefore,” verse five continues,

“The Lord established the kingdom in his hand. All Judah brought tribute to Jehoshaphat and he had great riches and honor.”

So, let me ask you: what is it about your father that you want to emulate, that you might like to put into practice?

My argument, based upon this passage, is that we ought to sift through the memories and recover what it must have been like to walk in the earlier ways. The earlier ways are hopeful and unafraid. The earlier ways suggest that we don’t have to compromise with the self-serving politics of the day.

A few years ago, a columnist for a Philadelphia newspaper published a story about the death of Arthur Spud Melin and Steady Eddie Headrick. They were the co-creators of the Frisbee, a product of Wham-O Toys. And, of course, to people who play Frisbee fanatically, it’s a religion. Frisbyterianism. In the 1960’s hippies threw the disk around in protest. Its ancestor, the Greek discus, dates to a time before Christ. Its shape evokes images of UFO’s and future space invasions. But the most intriguing quote of the whole article came about when Steady Eddie had mentioned his beliefs about life after death. He said with his tongue in his cheek: “When we die, we don’t go to purgatory; we just land up on the roof and lay there.”

When I read that I just had to write the columnist and this is what I replied:
“Dear Mr. Carey: As a Presbyterian minister and as an avid lover of the Frisbee I greatly appreciated your piece on Spud Melin and Steady Eddie Headrick. And yet, for me the pleasure of playing with the disk has never culminated with a landing on the roof. Nor am I comforted with such a lonely image of life after death. On the contrary, to me the glory of the toy is to be discovered in the exchange between two or more people in leaping and lunging relationship. Moreover, if an errant throw should send the Frisbee to a seemingly inaccessible place, I am grateful for someone—someone like my father—who will climb up there and retrieve it for more play. In the end, I hope for Steady Eddie and Spud Melin what I hope for everyone—that they land in the hands of a Loving Creator whose aim for our lives far exceeds the shingles of any house.”

Now, as I consider that reply to the columnist, I’d like to connect it with verse six of 2 Chronicles, which says this about King Jehoshaphat:
“His heart was courageous in the ways of the Lord; and furthermore he removed the high places and the sacred poles from Judah.”

His heart was courageous in the ways of the Lord, and those ways would remove any snag that might impede others from being courageous too. Those ways might even imitate something that Jehoshaphat recognized in his father from an earlier time.

You see, our fathers, like the co-creators of the Frisbee, had something in mind and it wasn’t the end of the game. It wasn’t a product by which we could make money and live our separated lives. That something in the mind of our fathers had to do with soaring relationships. King Asa, at an earlier time, had this in mind. And earlier on, before the pressures of work, career and marriage set in, our fathers had this in mind as well. Our fathers weren’t always cynical or hard or gruff. The blunt edges of the world made them that way. And yet, if we look closely and if we pray deeply, we can recognize the road they tried to walk and walk a bit further. We can walk a bit further in the earlier ways.

Amen.

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The depth of God’s love is displayed for us in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Unfortunately we are sometimes distracted and diverted from this deep love by various forms of superficial love. King Solomon represents the infatuated and intoxicated ways by which we try to cover all our bases and keep our options open. When we love in the manner that King Solomon loved his foreign wives, every anniversary is an opportunity to renounce a relationship that merely looks good in anticipation of a relationship that truly is good.

King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women,

How could anyone be against love? Among the passages of the Bible most often quoted at weddings is the famous 13th chapter of First Corinthians, which says that “Love is patient. Love is kind…” and “Love is the greatest of all gifts.” In a similar vein, when First John 4:16 declares that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God,” we are off to the races. What we are racing for, of course, has little to do with a bouquet of pink roses or a well-stitched gown of white lace. What compels us, in the ideal world, is the possibility of a soul mate, or the idea that of all the men and women who now exist, God has someone special who has been strategically designed to adore you all the days of your life. Now, who could possibly be against an idea or an ideal like that?

King Solomon, as you may have noticed, is not against it. King Solomon, according to First Kings 11:1 has loved many foreign women. He has done so, not because of his romantic search for a soul mate, however, but because his culture permits him to consummate his love in any way that he would like. And, because the majority of these spouses come from places like Moab and Edom, it may also be a convenient means of forming political alliances. Plus, if you’re the king of a kingdom that has the opportunity of expanding your influence over a larger part of the civilized world, remembering to celebrate a thousand or so anniversaries would be the least of your worries.

But, you see, verse two makes us worry. Even though “love” seems like a no-brainer solution to Solomon’s predicament, the writer of First Kings will not allow us to forget that most of these nuptials came—
from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the Israelites, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods”; Solomon clung to these in love.

Now, if that sounds like a prohibition against inter-religious or inter-racial marriage, it probably is. But today, as we read this passage, I don’t think that’s the prevailing issue. The issue isn’t that you ought to be permitted to marry whomever you want—no matter their creed or color. The issue is the way that we use relationships with people in order to enhance our own power. This, of course, applies to more than just contemporary marriages and to more than just the contemporary divorce rate. Solomon’s way of manipulating “love” also relates to the choices that you and I make at work with our colleagues, at home with our children or at worship with our partners in faith.

Consider verse three:

Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart.

Obviously, with a thousand or more women at his disposal, Solomon could not help but feel entitled. And that sense of entitlement is crucial for the following reason: if God is all about giving God’s Self away and away and away again, trying to enlarge our sphere of ego-influence will automatically take us in the wrong direction.

Verse four:

For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of his father David.

Verse four gives us a sense of chronology. Solomon’s heart went after other gods when he was old, and that’s strange to hear in that we typically associate old age with maturity. As many of us know from Sunday School, and from the folklore that connected with 1 Kings 4:29, Solomon had previously asked God for the gift of wisdom. God granted him this gift. But what are we to think as of chapter eleven? Is it possible that a gift from God, when it becomes detached from God, ceases to be a gift? Does it then become a sort of curse—the curse of a false heart?
For Solomon followed Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites.

Belief in Astarte and Milcom then need to be seen as byproducts of Solomon’s false heart. Solomon goes in search of religious philosophies which will reinforce his duplicity and deceit. Astarte is the god of fertility and when we think of her we should think of those magazine covers which make men stare and make women want breast implants. By the same token, Milcom had been a deity associated with child sacrifice and when we think of him we should consider all the ways we waste the lives and imaginations of our children and of our children’s children.
So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and did not completely follow the LORD, as his father David had done.

Solomon did not only believe in gods, which reinforced his false heart, he then did things which his father David would never have done. With this verse in mind, it’s important to remember that David actually committed adultery and manipulated the murder of Uriah. What made his heart true, however, was that he didn’t try to justify himself with his political alliances, but instead confessed and humbly surrendered to God’s mercy. Solomon, by contrast, did what was evil, which implies that he never fully comprehended the contrition and utter dependence upon God that shaped David’s life and legacy.

Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem.
Verse seven describes what Solomon built; that is, he not only built and dedicated the temple in Jerusalem. He also built various shrines to foreign gods. Chemosh and Molech, for example, are associated with mountaintop experiences and peak-emotional moments. So, in addition to fertility and to child sacrifice, Solomon used his later years to promote consumer religion—that is, something that might alleviate the stress of the wealthy, but do nothing for the poor and the peasant class of people who couldn’t afford the luxury boxes on the east side of Jerusalem.
He did the same for all his foreign wives, who offered incense and sacrificed to their gods.

Again, Solomon did these things for the sake of “all his foreign wives,” through whom he wanted to keep his options open and cover all his bases. What I’m getting at here, in verse eight especially, is the lack of depth and true devotion to the truth of the Lord God of Israel. Solomon couldn’t say No to his political alliances and therefore couldn’t go deeper in his alliance with God. Year after year he instead layered his life with more and more icing. And year after year, each anniversary with each wife or concubine or spousal unit accrued to his demise. Not only did he die in disgrace, but his policies produced the division of the kingdom of Israel, from which we get a multitude of other evil kings and corrupt administrations.

So, here’s where I see Solomon’s misdirected love as it relates to the anniversaries we have to celebrate in the coming years. First, each celebration ought to be a time of recognizing people for who they are and not who we want them to be for us. Second, by recognizing the anniversary of a wedding vow or another commitment, we have the chance to trace the strength of that commitment back to God’s love for us. And third, to make a toast to our favorite couple is a good thing, but an even better thing is to offer tangible support when times are rough.

In other words, as the years go by, let Solomon be a healthy and helpful warning. Don’t try to increase your strength by using people. Make yourself vulnerable to people—allow them to see your faults and failures and needs to forgive—and then, over time, see how God strengthens you.

Amen.

Poem

June 8, 2010

Suburban Penance

From the corner of Chester Pike and Ashland Avenue my consciousness
awakes to the illness.
Praises and Psalms escape from certain lips
in the upstairs sanctuary, but I emerge from the dimly lit rooms of the church basement. Mildew and the possibility of God go together like a scrawny kid
from junior high and a pair of unsettled eyes—the eyes of another—which
resemble the streaky azure of the sky
when the Space Shuttle once burst into flames
(upon lift-off and re-entry). Remember when the slick-backed hair of the President greased the only hopeful morning to come for decades. I dreamt
then of the wild, green sod beneath the asphalt,
and I came upon a breaching root that heaved like an enormous sperm whale.

My fall happened as a result of the undulating pavement, and the tree which refused to die. Then, of course, I roller-skated
home, bleeding from the mouth, sucking cold air
through my chipped front tooth and when I glanced
briefly at the granite rocks of that neglected temple, nothing else appealed to me.
God, I
still wonder what went wrong, and why
my personality won’t allow me to suck the moisture of an old fecundity.
Please let me grow from that cemetery perch, overlooking the football field, where the tombstones reek of urine and beer and the bones of settlers underline
the subject and the object of each barbaric sentence.

Perhaps there will be a wedding after my temperature has been taken and
when I finally enter the sweat-lodge. We’ll see
whether the natives will ever invite me to strip down again and not be ashamed.

–C. Scott Kinder-Pyle, June 1, 2010