There’s a formlessness upon the battlefield. The early morning fogs have not yet lifted; our dead, not yet collected. The battle raged late, waning only upon the exhaustion of the soldiers and the depletion of the stocks of battle counted in rounds and arms. Each side retreating from the field, counting the cost. Roll calls, makeshift nighttime hospitals; surgeries at the break of dawn for amputations, closing eyes when the fight has finally left – a coin for the boatman, a plain untreated pinewood coffin. A hole, not six feet – who has the time for that?
Because the fogs are clearing and the war is beginning again. Neither side has raised a flag; hoping desperately the other would, to preserve honor and preserve life. To go home victorious, justified – but to go home, first and foremost. That is the siren’s call of the soldier.
I am reading the deep old testament with my little boy at night before he goes to sleep. We have done this for years; a new devotional, starting again in Genesis and making our way through the creation on to the tribulations of tribal Israel towards Jesus. Laying the foundation for why salvation is so important and why it will not come from politics, armies, elections – utopias enacted upon the whims of those who only seek power and see in religion yet another way to attain it.
We are leaving the judges now; the period when God tried to govern the clans with special messengers. After they had fled Egypt, after they had defeated their enemies. Before the period of the Kings of Israel. I’ve always liked the judges; no pretentions on legitimacy other than that bestowed by God through wisdom and the occasional miracle. Eccentric, men and women with odd behaviors and bizarre requests and demands. And with deep human flaws; each nevertheless with a purpose, a reason for being called for such a time. To help Israel win their battles – battles they were always losing, because they did not follow the ancient purities required by their God, falling instead into sin time and again through the softness of flesh and weakness of mind.
It was never the foreign enemy who defeated the Israelites in battle. Their true destruction came always from within. Last night we finished Samuel; who took over from Eli, for the wickedness of his sons would not allow God to give them the priesthood; one cannot inherit divine insight. “Speak, for your servant is listening,” was what Samuel said to the Lord. Who would have known he was going to be instructed to tell his mentor that his days were over, and with them the days of the Prophets? They had failed to produce for the Israelites a life more abundant.
The Israelites had chosen to go with kings. I talked to my boy about peer pressure to evil, that while Israel wanted kings because everyone else had them; that was not the path which God had intended for them – but which nevertheless He would let them follow if they so chose. Of why groups of people tend toward bad decisions; things they know are not only wrong but also nonsense. And there is so much nonsense out there these days.
Tonight we will read about King Saul. Man’s experience with authority has so often been unpleasant; yet we do seek out our own trouble, don’t we? “Give us a king, who will brutalize us!!” we tell our God, we tell our fellow citizens. We tell ourselves. “Forget the prophets – forget words of wisdom whispered in the desert. They hold no power. What we want are guns, jails, rules – and a new nobility to oversee them,” we shriek thinking only of our enemies, never realizing our enemies are thinking only of us. And the war begins.
America had prophets for a time. Solomon Stoddard, Billy Sunday, D.L. Moody, Billy Graham. We did not listen to them either, just as the ancient Israelites abandoned theirs for the comforting mantle of authority we too have sacrificed their wisdom on the altar of “You do you”. Seizing the recipe for a life more abundant from the lips of great men and bestowing it upon wicked people who preach at us from in-between cocaine lines on the coasts.
They are more fitting, for we are not a society at peace with itself. These days we prefer the formlessness of our daily battle fields waged in schools and on internet sites and in courtrooms; destruction we bring upon ourselves like no enemy ever could. Violence upon our fellow countrymen, mischief in the dark. Bodies buried without thought or ceremony; parades not moral and victorious but instead soft and bent. These are the reasons I read the Bible to my little boy at night. He must know the epic tales; of a great God and his frustrating attempts to connect with people He created but cannot seem to control. He must know the feats of great heroes – he must be able to speak of Gideon and Sampson just as easily as he does Iron Man and Batman.
For only that will lift the fog and give edges to the formlessness.