What a surprising turn of events. A little like waking up one morning and learning that Kucinich is President. Probably a more efficient way to pick one, though. Only back then they called him King. Just hire a local prophet to go pick one. No year long campaigns, millions for television, election day organization. Just old Samuel and the confidence that he will discover the will of God in the matter.
Clearly they needed a new one. Saul, handsome and tall, had proven nonetheless to be a disaster. A great general, he wins a stunning victory over the Amalekites. But in doing so, he takes a large booty for himself and his family and sets up a monument in his honor. And this will not do.
So Samuel, prophet of God, sets out to find a new king. He is not much interested in the job, figuring that Saul’s intelligence officers may follow him. But God tells him to take along a heifer and tell any potential informant that he is off to Bethlehem to make a sacrifice there. Suppressing his fears, Samuel does so only to find that the elders of Bethlehem were no more happy about his presence in their town than he was.
If Samuel were still Saul’s man, he could be scouting the area for contributions to Saul’s organ fund, or maybe it was a harp in those days. If he had lost favor with Saul, the Bethlehemites were in even greater danger for giving him refuge. Although Samuel had invited all the village elders to participate in the heifer feast, they quickly disappear leaving only one, Jesse and his seven sons.
Samuel’s eye is immediately drawn to the first son, handsome, tall, impressive Eliab. Something like King Saul himself. But Samuel had no move of the spirit to choose him. Same with second son, Abinadab and third son, Shammah. And the fourth, and the fifth and the sixth and the seventh. Now the number seven in those days represented completeness. How come seven sons, and you don’t pick one of them, Samuel?
So Samuel demands to know if all of Jesse’s sons were present. To which Jesse responds, “Well, there’s the kid. But he’s with the sheep.” Learning that a single younger brother remained, Samuel insists that he be brought. And insists that everyone stand and wait, until the last son is called and comes. Samuel waits, Jesse waits, the brothers wait. They all await the arrival of David, the son who was not invited. And God told Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance for on the height of his stature, for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
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We tend to function that way, don’t we? We tend to judge inner character and beauty by outward appearance. These boys looked like leadership material to Samuel. Strong, Type A. Assertive. Take-no-prisoners. Leaders. There was only one sissy in the bunch, and he was singing songs, writing poetry and playing with the lambs in the back forty.
And we still do, don’t we, confuse appearance for reality. It is almost trite to note that we live in a culture oriented to image and appearance. Products are sold by the appearance of youth and sexuality, which have nothing to do with the product at all. Children feel ostracized at school if they don’t wear the right clothes or shoes. Politicians spend millions to polish and project a successful media image. I don’t mean to be critical but when you first saw Kisinich, didn’t you know he had no chance. I mean – look at that hair.
And in this kind of culture where appearance is everything, it is no wonder that our kids have problems with self-esteem. Certainly the prevalence of anorexia with our young women in our culture compared with others. And the passion to bulk up among our young men even to the point of using steroids must have something to do with how they feel about themselves.
Now there is nothing wrong with a measure of concern with appearance. In fact, the teller of this old tale later concedes that David is a pretty good looking fellow. Not quite what Michelangelo imagined, but good enough. But the point is this. When the culture elevates externals to the level where people take them as the real measure of their worth, when how we look and what we wear, where we live and with whom, and how many symbols of success we surround ourselves with; when these say who we are, we are in trouble. Because they don’t do it, give us strength and beauty of soul, peace and contentment within.
Barbara is brilliant and beautiful, although she would deny both. She had been a model child, never gave her parents any trouble, always seemed anxious to please. Anything less than an “A” in school threw her into depression, but there never were many. Everyone looked up to, admired Barbara. But no matter how well received she was, and how hard she performed, she never seemed happy with herself, as if always looking for some affirmation that never came. She never could believe in the image she had created.
Partly it happens because of the signals we send to one another and our children that we believe in keeping up appearances. A friend wrote, “I do not think I have ever heard from my parents “I love you.” I have discussed it with my sister and we agreed that our parents have never told us that we were clever, that we looked nice, did well, etc. It was always our failures that were talked about – if we did not pass an exam, there was no encouragement – “it will be OK next time” or sorry, etc. So we have a lifetime to make up for it, it seems. It would have been nice to hear from time to time when we do things right or have a dress that suits us and not to hear only “you look tired, that skirt is too short, it could not have been a good day for your hairdresser.”
In the comic strip, Momma, Thomas asks, “Momma, how do you really feel about Tina?” Momma says, “Thomas, I’m surprised you have to ask. I love my daughter-in-law more dearly than I love any other over-opinionated, grasping, manipulative person in the world.” Thomas walks off muttering, “With Momma, it’s hard to tell positive from negative.”
Many of us got where we are because of the attitude of others, parent, buddy, teacher, stranger, attitude that we bought. They looked on the surface, outward appearance, belittled, dismissed. They forgot all about it, but we didn’t. We finished the job for them. We looked and saw what they saw. Accepted the verdict.
A few questions: how do you feel about your intelligence. It is an odd thing. I know a number of valedictorian types. I have never met one who felt he was brilliant. In their minds, they are overachievers.
How do you feel about your appearance, your weight, the shape of your nose, the amount of hair on your head. Can you live reasonably contented with the way these are when every other magazine and self-help book conspires to suggest that you are pretty substandard, need a major over-hall? Remember flipping through the photos they took at that last party? Remember the reaction when you came to the one with you in it? Was the invention of the camera really such a good idea?
But the real point of the old story is this. Outward appearance is never the real story. It is not the real measure of us. God looks at what we are at heart. And what does he see? He sees his creation and children who if humble and open enough he can use to shape and shake this world, whatever their pedigree or place, their looks or list of accomplishments. One of the most basic themes of the entire biblical message is that God finds possibilities in the most unexpected places and through the most unlikely persons. To choose the youngest son, who labors as a shepherd, to be Israel’s future king is to ignore the usual arrangements for power and influence in the ancient world. And the family tree of David is not particularly distinguished. Jesse’s grandmother was Ruth, an immigrant Moabite woman. His grandfather was Boaz, whose ancestors included a Canaanite woman who was almost executed for adultery. In God’s plans as Jesus said, sometimes “the last shall be first” even an absent eighth son tending sheep.
Of course, the unlikely journey of God’s work in this world runs through the line of David to Jesus, born in a stable, a Galilean, a carpenter’s son, and finally a crucified criminal. We have no idea of what Jesus looked like, which is a good thing. But he probably did not look like the Jesus of Mel Gibson. Indeed an old prophet imagines that he would have no beauty, no majesty to catch our eyes, an object from which people turn away their eyes. But Jesus is the anointed in whom God meets us to convince us that it is not the estimate of the world around that really counts, not prominence, not appearance.
No moment of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta is more memorable than Keri Strug’s final vault in the team competition of women’s gymnastics. The American team was poised to win the gold medal if either of the last two competitors succeeded in completing a clean vault. The vault did not have to be spectacular, but neither could the team afford any major deductions. The next to last competitor attempted two vaults, but fell on both of them, leaving it to Strug to clinch the gold medal. Strug was not the best gymnast on the team, nor the flashiest, nor the most decorated. Before the Olympics, she was hardly known outside of gymnastic circles. When the tiny competitor raced down the floor to attempt her first vault, she slipped on the landing and injured her ankle. With one last chance remaining, she limped gingerly back to the starting line, testing her leg, fighting back pain and tears. With the encouragement of her coach and her teammates, she sprinted down the runway again, launched herself into a series of aerial gyrations, and executed a solid landing before reflexively lifting her injured foot, then collapsing in pain. With victory assured, the tiny but courageous gymnast was carried off the floor by her coach, placed on a stretcher, and wheeled to the medical center. One could say that Keri Strug made that final landing not with her feet, but with her heart. It wasn’t the outward appearance or reputation that mattered, but the stuff she was made of.
But where does that stuff, that strength, that heart come from. Our story ends, “So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord gripped David with power.” It is those who are not full of themselves, either arrogance or self-loathing. It is those who are humble and available to God’s power who learn heart.
Psychologist George Vaillant of Harvard has been researching for years the question as to what makes for strength and vitality in the midst of adversity. Some time ago, a 30-yearold musician, afflicted with progressive deafness, was debating suicide. He wrote to a friend that he was “living an unhappy life, quarreling with nature and its creator, often cursing the latter for surrendering his creatures to the merest accident which often breaks or destroys the most beautiful blossoms.” Yet he begged his friend “to keep the matter of my deafness a profound secret, to be confided to nobody, no matter whom.” To another friend he confessed, “For two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to say to people, “I am deaf… Already, I have often cursed my creator and my existence.” If he fantasized abuse from God, the flesh-and-blood father who had created him had been a chronic alcoholic who had repeatedly humiliated him.
The following year this musician composed a will in which his low self-esteem and suicidal ideation became more apparent still. “Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others? What a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing… Such incidents drove me almost to despair, a little more of that and I would have ended my life …. With joy I hasten to meet death.”
One might legitimately ponder how such a musician was to live out a full life. Certainly, one might doubt that he would ever work up to his full capacity. One might predict that he might indeed commit suicide; for as he wrote at the time, “It was only my art that held me back.” A quarter of a century later, the musician was still alive and still involved with his art. Age 53 found him standing at the Royal Imperial Court Theater of Vienna, staring at the score of a symphony whose premiere he had just finished conducting. One of his soloists plucked his sleeve and directed his attention beyond him, to see what he could not hear, the clapping hands, the waving hats, and fluttering handkerchiefs. An observer recorded proudly in his own diary, “Never in my life did I hear such frenetic and yet cordial applause… When the main floor broke out in loud cries the 5th time, the Police Commissioner yelled, “Silence.”
The miracle was that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony had put Schiller’s Ode to Joy to triumphant music. Twenty-three years before, Beethoven had written in his will, “As the leaves of autumn fall and are withered – so likewise has my hope been blighted … Oh Providence – grant me at least but one day of pure joy – it is so long since real joy echoed in my heart – Oh when – Oh when – Oh Divine One, shall I feel it again. At the same time the progressively deaf musician had confessed the bargain he wished to make with his accursed creator: “Oh, if I were rid of this affliction, I would embrace the world.” But this affliction had not disappeared, it had worsened.
Nonetheless, the lyrics that the totally deaf Beethoven had put to music were “Be embraced, all ye millions, with a kiss for all the world. Brothers, beyond the stars surely dwells a loving father.”
The miracle of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was the magic by which his heart had transformed an alcoholic and an “accursed creator” into a loving father, had indeed spun dross into gold, and not just for himself but for others and for generations.
Indeed, to those humble of position or appearance who are open to God, he gives the courage to embrace life and face whatever comes.
Copyright 2004, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.