Whether you were a fan or not, I think most of us grew weary of the 24/7 coverage of the death of the King of Pop. I was a fan of Michael Jackson’s music and his genius, falling in love with the Jackson Five when I was about 8 years old. Watching them on American Bandstand in the living room of my friend, Michaelynn, remains a vivid childhood memory. I also remember 1983 when I was teaching summer school in the deep south of Mississippi. A beautiful three year-old boy from the neighborhood greeted me on my first day by climbing into my lap and singing Jackson’s hit song, Billy Jean. That tiny boy knew every word and he melt my heart.
As we’ve seen in the media coverage from around the world, Jackson’s fans were in the gazillions. Isn’t it fascinating that a person so conflicted in his private life held such intrigue? Jackson’s interior life was taunted with the demon of self-doubt; he struggled against a host of obsessions and addictions; and of course there remains the questionable and bizarre behavior that landed him in a courtroom more than once. And yet he could still capture and hold people’s imaginations. He was a brilliant musician and artist.
People who knew him said he was extremely generous and kind. His fragility brought out both positive and negative feelings in us though. Jackson was visibly an extreme version of what all humans struggle with: reconciling the inner life with the public self.
South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford has also been in the media a great deal lately. After being MIA for a number of days, Sanford returned from Argentina to fess up to an extramarital affair. In fact, he confessed to a number of affairs over the years. As tragic and sad as Mark Sanford’s life is right now, he too stands in the company of countless men and women who have been caught in the trap of the private house and the public house. Mark Sanford – dad, husband, and lover – and Mark Sanford, highly respected politician.
Without in any way excusing their choices and behaviors, Jackson and Sanford – and I’ll add Clinton and Edwards – are but four names and faces among successful public figures who have navigated very thorny private lives.
Now, here is what I love about the Bible. The characters are bigger than real life. Here enters our beloved King David; a forerunner for all leaders of what it is to have a complex personal life AND a public image to maintain.
There are three main characters in this story: The ark of God, David, and David’s wife, Michal.
With thousands of people, David is bringing the ark from exile to the new capital, Jerusalem. The ark was the symbol of THE raw presence of God. Inside the ark were the tablets of Moses – God’s commandments to the people. The tablets gave the people their identity. The ark was the core of who they were. Where the ark resided, God resided. David was told that the house in which the ark had been kept had been blessed by God. So David figured that having the ark moved to Jerusalem legitimated his new royal city, and his new royal position.
David was the new king-taking over the throne from Saul, a disaster of a monarch. Throughout the first book of Samuel, King Saul disintegrated physically and mentally. As Saul descended, we watched David ascend to power.
Tradition’s dominant voice tells us that David was God’s chosen one, the faithful son of Jesse, a boy picked from a line up by the prophet Samuel. David – a man after God’s own heart, the great King of Israel. Despite these epithets, despite tradition’s insistence to overlook David’s shadow side, David indeed had an underbelly. He was no moral paragon. He grew up to be an agonizing mix of faith-fullness, and selfishness.
He could be sincere and cunning. Loving and lustful. He loved his friends, and he loved women. On some days, David appeared to have had great faith and courage, but was clearly greedy, had a need for power, killed those in opposition to his desires, could be cruel, and was given over to fits of anger.
David grew from a humble shepherd boy into a great politician. The house of David looked terrific on the outside, but when the storyteller pulled back the curtain, there was a convoluted house filled with the twists and turns of a man who did not stop himself from getting what – or who – he wanted. (The story of Bathsheba is still ahead.)
Despite all this, David’s tender anguish over the death of his friend, Jonathan, also made up the picture of this man. We read the prayers in the Psalms attributed to the king himself. Psalm 51, the psalm we read every Lenten season, is the greatest confessional prayer we have and is said to have been from David.
Unfortunately, biblical interpreters and preachers more often try to protect David’s reputation by not encouraging us to see the whole picture of this man. I ask why wouldn’t we find it reassuring that the King of Israel was more often a royal disappointment than a faithful servant? Can’t we handle that our leaders are fully human?
It was not surprising to hear Governor Sanford justify his desire to remain in office by referencing the story of King David. Sanford said he went searching the scriptures and found he resonated with David. After all that David had done wrong, and through sorrowful prayers and consummate repentance, David remained ruler and was eventually forgiven for his sins. So hopes Mark Sanford.
It is when we are honest with ourselves, when we are hit between the eyes with our own raw fallibility, and when we feel the weight of our offenses, that we are comforted to find other persons – real or fictional – who reveal a full humanity too. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
I think we feel sympathy for guys like Jackson and Sanford, because if we’re honest we “get” what it is to have thorny interior lives. I find the older I get, the less surprised I am by anything I hear about people. And I don’t think I am just getting jaded. To be human is to be a mixed bag of good intentions and poor decisions.
So let’s say we give David the benefit of the doubt in this celebration scene. Let’s say we trust that David is dancing with all his might before the ark because he sincerely wants to put God in the center of his life and in the collective life of his people.
When David danced mightily before God, he was a naked fool. He danced with reckless abandon. A line from a Mary Oliver poem goes, “the cricket dances with its whole body.” David was dancing and praying with his whole body.
I read about a mother of young children who had learned to pray in a way that fit into her scarce private time. Her very religious aunt was visiting her and the aunt was sitting with the bible laid out on her lap. The young woman told her aunt that she learned to pray while she showers.
The stuffy, religious aunt exclaimed, “You pray naked?!”
Being naked before the ark, naked before the presence of God, was David’s way of saying, “Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt. . . . I come, I come.”
Praying naked, dancing naked, coming before God naked and unashamed…that’s what God wants of us. “It is not what you have been that God sees with his all-merciful eyes, but what you desire to be,” said St. Gregory.
Now, when David returned home very pleased with the whole party, David’s wife Michal was not impressed with David. There will always be Michals in our lives who can point out our hypocrisies. There will always be those people who see the 360 degree us. Like being up close to a painting, they see our brush strokes.
Michal ridiculed David’s dancing like a fool; I’d like to think not out of spite, but because she spoke the truth! David was “all that” – and a whole lot more that did NOT meet the eye. Our family members see the “full Monty.”
I often hear that people are reluctant to take on positions of leadership in the church because they fear they are not Christian-enough or that they still have too many doubts in their faith. It can be frightening to put ourselves out there because truthfully we will be exposed. People might see our inconsistencies and foibles.
I believe each of us comes to worship on Sundays wanting to bring our whole selves, to be known just as we are, and to be considered worthy. We come wanting to believe that God is here, and yet we have some doubts. We come sincerely wanting to feel God, or feel greater faith, or just feel anything!
In his novel, Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry wrote affectionately about the church-goers:
What they came together for was to acknowledge, just by coming, their losses and failures and sorrows, their need for comfort, their faith always needing to be greater, their wish (in spite of words and acts to the contrary) to love one another and to forgive and be forgiven, their need for one another’s help and company and divine gifts, their hope (and experience) of love surpassing death, their gratitude.
The Good News proclaims Faith is a gift, not a prerequisite to being accepted by God. Our starting point is “There is no one righteous; no, not one.” Therefore, we are set free to dance after God with abandon. Jesus went around Galilee saying to all sorts of folks with complicated lives, “Follow me.” That was it.
We are invited to follow Jesus with all the baggage and burdens we are so accustomed to dragging around. That is, if we want to bring them along with us.
But King David shows us that if dare to dance before the presence of God naked and unashamed, we’ll have to set down the baggage. To let loose of our baggage. God would rather us dance unencumbered.
So let go of all the reasons why you think you aren’t good enough, or spiritual enough, or holy enough, or believe enough. God knows and sees our deepest desires (in spite of our words and actions to the contrary), and still God invites us to come to the dance.
Thanks be to God.