Rev. Ken Turley
“Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.‘
So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.‘”
-1 Samuel 8:4-15*
“When one partner wants or loves what the other does, then there is a freedom for both, because all freedom stems from love. However, there is freedom for neither one when there is control. One is the servant; and the one in control is also a servant, because he or she is being driven like a servant by a need to be in control.” **
-E. Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell §380
Samuel, after a long and useful service, has reached the end of his time as spiritual leader of Israel. And they are wondering what will happen? Who will lead them? Samuel’s sons, who would normally be in line to take up his position, do not honor God. So the people ask for a new leader, but instead of a priest, a spiritual leader with a direct connection with God, who will lead them from a place of spirit, and who will keep them focused on spiritual values, they ask for a king.
Now this is no small matter! Up until this time they have been led by one whose authority and power and wisdom is in and from a direct relationship with God. But more importantly, as a priest, the focus and way of relating to the world is by definition spiritual. And what is most important based on and manifested in a complete trust in God.
But now, after being brought out of starvation into an honored place in Egypt, and then out of what had turned into slavery in Egypt; after leading them through the wilderness through many conflicts and trouble, after feeding them out of the air, providing them water out of rock, after establishing them in a home in the holy land, and making them one of the powerful nations in their known world, now they no longer want a priest, they want a king.
Why? Because everyone else has a king! We want a king too! It is an amazingly brazen and childish abandonment of the God who has fulfilled every one of the promises given and forgiven them every failing and falling away they have committed. It is obvious they have no real understanding of what they are asking! They just look around in the world, and want to be like everyone else. And Samuel is devastated.
It is in the next few lines, that we truly get a deep insight into the nature of God. “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me . . .” The gift of human freedom is the foundation upon which God builds our relationship. Understanding of human nature and compassion for human limitation are the dominant quality. And God’s endurance and patience are, well . . ., inexhaustible.
God says to Samuel, they have not rejected you and your leadership, they have rejected me. And if you listen, you can hear the deep sadness and resignation in God’s voice when saying to Samuel: “Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you.” Give them their king but – you must tell them what it will cost.
Samuel tells them in no uncertain terms and like the adolescent nation that they are, they don’t care. They want a king anyway. For the umpteenth time they, (and I remind you that this is God’s chosen people), have failed to rest in trust of God and sought to become through their own worldly ambition.
Why do they want a king? So they can have a recognizable identity that the other nations will respect. So they can have demonstrable military power that will intimidate and control the other nations. So they can compare themselves with everyone else around and be somebody the other nations will respect.
Do you get what a profound and utter abandonment of God this is? And yet it is something that each and every one of us goes through, and in fact lives with for the better part of our lives. Instead of trusting God and letting things unfold, we take on an identity that has more to do with how we function in the world, and how we want to be viewed by the world, and how we manage our power in the world, than it has to do with our trust in God. We want to be like other people, and yeah we love God, but we want respect, we want to fit in like every one else.
And so we take on a sense of personal identity in the world, and just like the people were warned, we live devoting enormous energy and valuable parts of ourselves to maintain and develop that leading principle that governs everything about us. How do you answer when someone asks you this question: “Who are you?” Or more politely, “So, what do you do?” What comes out when you attempt to describe who you are, is more than likely what we are talking about here, what is represented by “a king.” It is the leading principle to which we devote ourselves to maintaining. It is our sense of identity in the world, who we want people to think we are. And who we want to think we are. You might call it ‘ego.’ You might call it ‘identity’ or ‘sense of self.’ If you are well versed in Swedenborgian terminology, you might call it ‘proprium.’
But the undeniable fact is that almost everyone of us, at some point relatively early in our lives, abandons the carefree, trusting, unselfconscious and spontaneously open relationship to the world, and takes on an identity as an adult. It is a profound moment of change and transformation
In the Biblical narrative, nations are judged by their king, and God’s people want a king for that reason
In the life narrative that we all are living here and now, people are primarily judged by outward appearances and by ‘what they do.’ And we want an identity in the world, just like everybody else.
Now this would be a monumental failure and an act that would doom us to a life of suffering and conflict and tragedy, and ultimately to an eternity in the absence of God, what we call hell, except for one overwhelming fact:
We are understood and loved by God to such an extent, that, while never flagging in calling and influencing and turning everything we do towards heaven, God gives us the freedom to live life in our own way. Which mostly turns out to be just like everyone else.
As you read about the series of kings that follow, and as you observe the development of your own self identity, a pattern begins to play out: When that leading principle, when that sense of identity, when that ego, is committed and devoted to honoring God, it becomes our strength and ability and a source of joyful power. But when that leading principle, that sense of identity in the world becomes self-serving, becomes an end unto itself, and no longer honors God as source and purpose of power, but puts its own advancement and well-being as the measure of ultimate good, well then it becomes our downfall and source of slavery.
And while supporting and maintaining that king, that leading principle, that defining sense of who we are in the world, takes an incredible amount of effort, it is OK. God understands that we live in the world.
But here is the point of all of this. And it has direct relevance to who each of us is becoming as individual people, and who we are, and are becoming, as a spiritual community, as a church.
The value and quality of the Biblical king, just as the value and quality of our ego, our self-identity in the world, depends entirely on whether honor and service to all that is God and heavenly, is the foundation or not.
By what way do we accomplish anything of value in this world?
By God working through who we are and what we are able to do.
The quality of who we are is not defined by what we choose as our sense of self, God is imminently adaptable, the quality of who we are is defined by the degree that we honor and serve God within that sense of self-identity. It does not matter if we are a janitor or a minister, whether we work for Greenpeace or Dupont, whether we are a political activist or a stay at home mom. What matters is if honoring the presence and ways of God is at the heart of who we are and what we do.
The inescapable fact is that there is no life whatsoever, without the Holy Spirit flowing through us. It is that divine spirit that is our life. What we choose to do with it and how we actually do it, that is who we are becoming. It is letting God work through us that is the impetus forward in the process of spiritual Regeneration. It is what transforms our proprium from human weakness into divine power, from hellish spirit into angelic being.
So, let summarize what all of this has to do with us, in our personal lives, and as a spiritual community at an important point of transformation?
1. Make sure that serving God, what is good and true, more importantly what is loving and wise, is at the heart of who you are, that honoring God is the foundation from which you operate and that honoring God and helping to create heaven on earth the ultimate goal you are attempting to accomplish.
2. Living in the world is the arena in which we are to be spiritual.
Having and developing an identity in the world can be very useful and very powerful. But the more important it is to us, the more we will be required to invest in maintaining its’ presence and power. Serving a king who is serving God, IS serving God. And vice versa, serving a king who does not serve God, is well, what leads to exile into the absence of God. I believe that is in fact the definition of hell.
3. Change and transformation are inevitable. Not to be feared, rather to be embraced. Even with the loss and accompanying grief. It is how we grow. It is how we become. We take forward what is valuable and connects us with God. We let go of and leave behind what is not helpful in our relationship with God and the neighbor. What we take forward and what we leave behind defines who we are, as individuals and as a community.
Life is a challenge. The nation of Israel found that out every step of the way on their long journey from leaving home to making home in the holy state of being. We read about it in Scripture. But that is our story too, and as all find out one way or another, at one time or another, in one realm or another, life is indeed a challenge.
The test is not how we avoid the challenges, the test is how we respond to the challenges. And the crux of the matter, the turning point upon which everything about who we are, and who we are to become, balances, is where we choose to put God in the hierarchy of values by which we make our choices.
The kings of Israel are a necessary evil in becoming human, and understood and permitted, if not encouraged, by God. Our own egos, our own sense of self, our worldly identity are also a necessary evil in becoming human, Understood and permitted, if not encouraged by God. And in fact the very means through which the holy spirit is made manifest in our living. Let God be first intent, ultimate goal, and the means by which the two are joined. Then God reigns and your king becomes servant. It is in this that true power and personhood are found.
*New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
**Swedenborg, Emanuel. Heaven and Hell. Translated by George F. Dole. West Chester: Swedenborg Foundation, 2000.
Rev. Ken Turley, now retired after 30 years as parish minister and serving as president of Convention, and his wife Laurie, live in Bridgton, ME. While she continues her career as a public school music teacher, Ken devotes his time to composing music, producing music videos, gardening and keeping house. Performing and rehearsing have ground to a halt with the isolation required by the virus, but the more solitary aspects of his life continue unabated.