Spent three nights in the badlands of North Dakota this week, pursuing the ever elusive mule deer with my brothers. We're bowhunters, so that means that our success rates are abysmally low, I am afraid, especially if you measure success in terms of venison in the freezer. But we had a good time. Darin saw some amazing deer, and actually got within shooting distance a couple times. Sadly circumstances prevented him from getting off a decent shot. Les and I saw nice bucks but from a distance, and for some reason we were never able to get closer. That's the way it goes.
The biggest takeaway from the trip for me, however, was spending hours and hours sitting in the badlands contemplating the fact that I'm preaching about King David this Sunday. Actually that's not true -- I'm preaching about David's life before he became king.
In the early days, he was a shepherd in country much like the badlands. I've never been to Israel (it's on my list) but those who have been to both places tell me that there are distinct similarities between the badlands and the hills of what would have been, in David's time, southern Judah. Shepherd boys today lead flocks of sheep and goats around the ravines and hillsides, seeking what David in Psalm 37 called "faithful pasture" -- at least that's one rendering of what the NIV translates "enjoy safe pasture" and the ESV translates "befriend faithfulness." Hebrew can be tricky. I can imagine the vagaries of trying to find faithful pasture for livestock in the badlands. On these trips we are always accompanied by a few angus cows tearing at the tufts of grass that grow here and there in the coulees. I wonder how much trouble the mountain lions give those cows. I know they're rough on the deer -- I've found kills with shards of torn meat still clinging to the bones. It's enough to make you glance around at the hundred or so hiding places where even now, a cat could be watching you ...
Must have been a little like that for David. Too much time to sit and think, too much time to talk to the sheep, too much time to ponder his own powerlessness. He was just a boy, like those Palestinian boys today. But in those days, instead of random rocket fire, he had to worry about lions and bears and Amalekite raiders.
It's easy to think, perched under a juniper tree on a rock ledge over a hundred foot dropoff, staring at a huge sky and picking cactus spines out of your knuckles, of your own powerlessness. The universe might just snuff out your life like squishing a bug, and the planets wouldn't grind to a halt. The cosmos would just roll right along. The clouds would keep on scudding eastward. What's one more human life out of six billion, give or take?
There is so much in our humanistic world today designed to make us feel powerful. Just for a minute, try defining power not as the ability to influence nations, but rather as the ability to change your environment. Make it even more specific -- maybe power is the ability to make yourself comfortable.
See? All you have to do is turn up the thermostat. You are powerful. Put on another sweater that 2/3 of the world can't afford. Flip the switch for the heated seats on your car. Warm up with a $3 cup of coffee. Close the window on your $200,000 "moderate" house. Suddenly power is accessible.
David didn't have much of that kind of power as a boy. He probably had an extra blanket, and the means to make a fire if need be. Living like that, he gained a sense that he didn't deserve a lot -- not in a negative, "poor me" kind of way, but he didn't expect the world to make way for him. Read the stories of his early life and you find that over and over again, when people gave him opportunities to grab power for himself, he refused. "Who am I to do something like that?" he asked over and over again. Today we'd probably say he's hopeless, that he suffers from a lack of self-esteem. He needs to stand up for himself.
The other thing that happened under these circumstances for David is that he learned to step up when needs arose, because no one else was around to step up. Lion attacking the sheep? David steps up. Bear attacking the sheep? David steps up. So when a 9-foot tall man hurls insults at the God of the Israelites and all the warriors are obviously cowed, David does what David does: he steps up. He does this not because he's so competent and all that, but because it's just what needs to be done, and he's learned to take responsibility. He's learned not to stand up for himself, but to step up when there's a need, even if it means he puts himself at risk.
Three years ago on a helicopter flight from Princeton to North Memorial Hospital, I learned something. When you let go of the "my life matters" attitude that is, at heart, about selfishness, you're willing to risk things, to take some serious chances, if it seems they might really matter. When you learn to trust that God means what he says -- your life is precious -- and though he doesn't give guarantees, he promises that he will not spend your life foolishly, then it's possible to dare great things. There's a great deal of freedom in that.
I think David knew that freedom, and I think he learned it mostly by spending a lot of time out in the hills, in the quiet, watching over a few sheep and picking cactus spines out of his knuckles and pondering things.