Flower Toward the Sun

Flower Toward the Sun

February 07, 2021 | Sarah Stewart

What Nathan proposes to David is Ethics 101. A rich person has many things and their tenants have almost nothing. The rich person meets their obligations by stealing from their tenants, instead of using their own resources. A powerful man is overwhelmed with lust for a woman who he sees only once. Upon learning she is married, he uses his power to arrange for her husband's death, so he can marry her, himself. We know the answers to those tests, the rich should not exploit the poor, the powerful should not exploit the weak, but King David failed those tests, and that is why Nathan is telling him his story about the lamb and condemning him. David was king over Israel, and his army is out at war, but he is home in his palace. And his palace is the tallest building in all of Jerusalem and so he can see the rooftops of all the other buildings, and one day he looks out over the rooftops, and he sees a beautiful woman bathing on the roof. Now she's not thinking that the king might be able to see her, she's thinking that the roof is a private place, and she does not expect to be seen bathing. But because David is the king, he has the power to send for anybody and get them to come to him, so he sends for this woman, for Bathsheba, and she comes to him, and they make love, and she conceives a child. Well, now David is in trouble, because even if you're the king, you are not supposed to make love to other men's wives. He learns that Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, is one of his soldiers at war, and he sends for him to come back to Jerusalem, he meets with him, he gets an update on how the war is going. And David says to Uriah, “Uriah, since you're here, just go home, see your wife, I'm sure she misses you, enjoy some time together and then you can go back to the frontlines. But Uriah. in the strongest possible contrast to King David. Uriah says, “well that would not be right, Sire, all my men are on the battlefield away from their families. It wouldn't be right for me to go home and see my wife. I'm here at your disposal, but while I'm here, I will sleep outside the palace, on the ground, and wait for your instructions until it's time for me to go back to the front.” David tries for several more nights; he has no luck, so finally he sends Uriah back to the front. He summons his general and he says to his general “put Uriah in the most dangerous position and ensure that he's killed in battle.” This strategy works: Uriah is killed, David marries Bathsheba, that child dies in the womb; but a later child of David and Bathsheba’s will be Solomon, David's heir and story of the King of Israel and Judah. It's so interesting that this story is in the Bible at all. Because as we heard Juliet and Abby tell this morning, there are certainly stories that tell what a brave, powerful, clever, and wise King David was. And yet, here in this story, is the beginning of a whole series of stories about David that show him to be mercurial, seduced by his own power, perhaps successful in battle, but lacking in morals as a king.

These past few weeks we've been discussing the challenges of leadership. We've looked to the history of ancient Israel for examples of good and bad leadership, and for these murky stories that show us both sides of a leader. Leaders, we're learning, have a special responsibility to be thoughtful and grounded in their values. All of us play leadership roles in our families, in this church, in our workplaces, or our communities. So, all of us benefit from strengthening our skills and our resources. Even in his mistakes, King David is a lesson to us in how to be a leader, and what mistakes to avoid. There's a branch of psychology called family systems theory, we heard from a rabbi, Edwin Friedman, who was a leader in this field until his death, and who helped unite family systems theory with congregational life. And family systems theory says that we learn how to manage our emotional lives, and we learn how to participate in society, in our families of origin. And not just in the actual people we knew in our families of origin, but we learn how to keep family secrets that might have gone back generations, we learn and might repeat patterns of relationships between men and women, between parents and children, and then we take all that we learned, consciously or unconsciously, from our families of origin, and we bring them with us into any other group that were part of, the workplace, our own families, church. And that we as individuals can learn to be reflective about what we learned in our families of origin. But if we don't do that, we will almost certainly simply replay the relationships and the patterns that we learned as children. We learn so much from our families of origin; we learn how to cope with stress, we learn what keeps the peace, and what rocks the boat. And we learn that the family system, as a whole, seeks equilibrium, and seeks peace, and does not want the boat to be rocked. We certainly learn how to preserve family secrets. We learn who will take responsibility for our mistakes. Will we have to do that? or will someone else do it for us? Is it different for boys and girls in the family? Is it different for adults and children? Even if no one ever sits down and explains these things to you, in a family we all learn them subconsciously; just by growing up. And then we tend to recreate those patterns in groups we're part of as adults, in our own families, and in church, and in our workplaces and communities. Systems, like a family, prioritize stability; if something's working for the family as a whole, then the family prioritizes keeping that thing going, even if it's damaging to individuals in the family, and, acting without thought, we may simply perpetuate that system. One of the tasks of leadership is being thoughtful about who we are, what we believe, and our place in the system; what Rabbi Friedman called differentiation.

So, let's go back to the story of King David. One of the key concepts in family systems is the triangle, a triangle is a more stable form of connection between people than just a line. Sometimes it can be more differentiated and more effective just to talk to somebody who we're having a problem with but bringing in a third party often feels better in the moment. In this story of David, it's full of triangles; we have David, and Bathsheba, and Uriah, that's a clear triangle, a classic love triangle. We have David, and Uriah, and the general, because David gets his general to do his dirty work for him. We even have David, and Bathsheba, and Solomon, their unborn child at the time of this story, but a child who grows up in this family system. And if you know the story of David, you know that there's even more problems than we're talking about here. But Solomon learns and grows up in a family that has a secret. He may not know how Bathsheba’s first husband died. He may not have the resources he needs to completely differentiate himself from this system. And, a principle of self-differentiation is, that when we find ourselves in a triangle like this, it's often helpful to go and talk directly to the person we're having a problem with. So, we could think about this, David might have been able to go directly to Bathsheba and say, “Bathsheba you're beautiful, I'm falling in love with you, and for Bathsheba to say, “David, I'm married.” And, for David to get his act together and try to find an appropriate wife somewhere else, or even for David to go to Uriah and say, “I'm in love with your wife”, although it's hard to see how that would have ended well. But we wish that David had avoided that problem in the first place and had remembered his values and taken responsibility for his own behavior. And this is another principle of self-differentiation in family systems, which is that even though we are all bound up in systems, we are all individuals who can take responsibility, within limits, for the issues of our lives. It's a goal of spiritual practice, as well as psychology, to learn to act from our values, instead of our instincts. So, let's back this story up a little bit more. When David first saw Bathsheba bathing on the roof, we could wish that at that moment, David had remembered his core values, that he had remembered she may not be available for me to pursue as a wife, I need to find that out before I fall head over heels in love with a woman I've never met. Or we could wish that David might even be aware of his power as King. In this story, it's hard to talk about Bathsheba’s self-responsibility and grounding herself and her values. Because in a modern setting, you might say that she should just have refused David's advances, but in this story, she does not have the power to do that, David is the King, and if he asks you to come to the palace, you have to go. She was not in a position to be able to say no, we look to David here, as a person with more power, to take responsibility for his own behavior. Spiritual practice and reflection are invaluable tools for leaders. Because leadership is stressful, we can imagine David worrying about his army, worrying about his country fighting against another country, dealing with all those stresses, and being relieved when a beautiful woman provides him a distraction from that stress. Acting from your values, especially when it disrupts a group's equilibrium, that can be exhausting, and spiritual practice helps us combat that exhaustion and grounds us in our values. Now David does, again and again, when he's having problems, he does after a while, remember his spiritual practice. He does talk to Nathan, his Prophet, and worships Yahweh, in the way of his people. For us, that spiritual practice might look like meditation, or prayer. It might look like journaling, or a daily walk. It might be participating in this religious community, and having wise friends, you can ask for advice when you need it. It might be coming to talk to me about problems you're facing or seeking therapy if that's right for you. These are all opportunities for reflection, and they help prepare us for those moments of emergency, when we really need to be able to remember, in a snap moment, what our values are and how to act on them.

So, we've talked about taking responsibility for ourselves, we've talked about grounding ourselves in our values, managing stress with maturity, and dealing directly with people in relationship. These behaviors create leaders; they create leaders at every level in our lives. If a family member is acting out, we can be a leader, by clarifying our values and priorities, and getting ourselves help and support. You don't have to have an official position of leadership to be a leader in your family or your workplace or the system you find yourself in. A truism of family systems therapy is that it benefits the system if the motivated person gets help. If the person who's motivated goes to talk to their minister, or gets therapy, or takes a differentiated stand in the family. You don't have to get the whole family into therapy, and you don't have to direct helping resources to the person who seems to be suffering the most. The person with the most motivation is often in a position to take a leadership role; get differentiated, ground themselves, and their values, have those hard conversations, and help the entire system grow in maturity. You know in church we do this. by trying not to interact with each other in triangles. So, I ask folks who have a problem with something going on at church to talk directly to the person they're having trouble with. And we just elected leaders for our church at the annual meeting last Sunday, but I want to tell you, that every person who does that, every person who goes to another person, and talks directly to them, they are a leader in our church. If you do that, you're a leader in our church, and you help the system of our church function in a more mature and healthy way. If you speak up for your values, you become a community leader. If you can stay connected to other people, even in times of conflict, you are being a leader in that group. If you can remember who you are, and what you believe in, it matters. For good or for ill, we cannot escape our families of origin, the lessons we learn about safety, self-expression, and communication, stay with us throughout our lives. But we are not determined by our families. We are all beloved children of God. And we have the power to chart our own course. It takes patience, spiritual practice, learning from mistakes, and sometimes therapy. Yet, we can learn to be our own people, and to stay connected with our family, and our communities, in healthy ways. We are all people, with the power to flower towards the sun.

I love you all.