Literary critics, not least the one to whom I am married, remind me that a popular theory within literary criticism is the notion that all stories fall under the rubric of a group of larger meta-narratives. Several well-known genres include that of the journey (epitomized by The Odyssey), the coming of age or maturation, the tragedy, the romance, as well as several others depending on which school of thought you lean toward. In this week’s lesson Abiathar, one of the lesser-known biblical characters, is highlighted. In a sense, his story seems to be one filled with elements of narrative coupled with those of tragedy, which together highlight the perils of priestly ministry.
The stories we choose to tell, and how we tell them, speak a great deal about who we are—they provide a sense of identity. As an Adventist historian, I fell in love with Adventist history through the powerful medium of the story. I met an Adventist historian, the late C. Mervyn Maxwell, who was a consummate storyteller. Suddenly, for the first time, it seemed as if people popped off the page as real people with problems that I could relate to. They also inspired me as passionate individuals who loved Jesus Christ, but at the same time were also beset with foibles and faults. Their struggles gave me hope that I too could succeed against my own very different circumstances and challenges.
The terrible tragedy that beset Abiathar early on in his priestly career is perhaps one of the reasons why he has not made it in the pantheon of common bedtime Bible stories (of Maxwellian fame!) that I read to my own children. Despite his attempt at trying to be publicly neutral, a traitor in their midst led to the genocide of his clan. Old Testament scholars debate whether or not this was a fulfillment of the prophecy made to Eli more than a hundred years earlier (1 Sam. 2:30-36), but Gerald and Chantel Klingbeil, the authors of this quarter’s Adult Bible Study Guide, lean away from that interpretation. Regardless, Abiathar was certainly beset by a lifetime of difficulties!
Although there are several interesting angles to which one could pursue within this story, as a pastor and Adventist historian, for me there are two that are paramount from Abiathar’s life: (1) the perils of leadership; and (2) the importance of finishing well.
It appears early on that Abiathar and King David had a close friendship. Ahimelech the High Priest, in his own self-defense before King Saul (after he was summoned before the king and his army for resupplying David), indicated that David had been a regular visitor to the Tabernacle, who had consulted the Lord, through him, for advice on a number of occasions. During the massacre that ensues, Abiathar escapes and casts his lot with David. Later on, during Absalom’s rebellion, Abiathar again stands stalwartly with David and becomes instrumental in providing David with important counter-intelligence information. Abiathar proves himself to be a loyal friend despite these distressing circumstances.
On a personal level, as a pastor I can appreciate and admire just how tough sacerdotal ministry can be—especially when you get at the crosshairs of politics. I’ve never met a church member (or even church administrator) who tells me that they love church politics, yet why is it that we are so good at it? Pastors frequently find themselves caught in the middle between local parishioners, the local conference, and the expectations of community and denominational leaders. Sometimes this can lead to high levels of casualties within the ministry. As I look back over the past decade since I graduated from Southern Adventist University with degrees in theology and history, I see a high number of my ministerial colleagues who have become casualties from similar battles: sometimes battles with their own internal demons, but quite often, caught betwixt and between high expectations and the daily rigmarole of what real ministry is like. No course in college or Seminary can fully prepare you for the realities of pastoral survival in the field. My biggest surprise as a young pastor was learning how much time quickly became absorbed in conflict resolution. Of course, every church is different, but ministry is not for the faint of heart.
With regard to the second aspect, finishing well, Abiathar’s life is a telling tragedy of what can happen when someone stays in leadership a little too long! At the very end of his life he sided with tradition by supporting the oldest living heir, Adonijah, above his personal loyalty to King David and the Lord’s clear direction that Solomon be David’s successor (1 Chron. 22:9, 10). Recently I appreciated Roy Adams’s courage in sharing the pros and cons of term limits in The Adventist Review (Oct. 21, 2010). Power has a way of corrupting, even within the church. I well remember a church leader who 15 years ago told me that, in the coming quinquennium, he would retire (he even shared with me the exact date of his retirement). At General Conference session this past summer, when I bumped into him, all such plans were thrown to the wind. Of course he would serve another full term!
Recently as I read through Edwin H. Friedman’s classic, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, I was reminded of the importance of finishing well. How a leader finishes often can have more impact than their entire tenure beforehand. And some times this very well may mean letting go. Of course there are many reasons why leaders may not let go, one of the most compelling being the fact that quite often leadership does not adequately invest in equipping new leaders. However, how a person concludes their time of service can either reinforce all of their good work earlier on, or, undo it. It is not enough to be able to say that, as a leader—whether as a pastor, local church leader, or even denominational administrator — we’ve stood for the right and sacrificed in the past. We need to make sure that we also finish well, too.
Finally, I hope that this week’s lesson as well as the entire quarterly will challenge us to re-examine the stories that we tell and which shape our Adventist identity. As a historian, how we choose these stories (the process of historiography) is just as important as the telling of the actual story. Abiathar’s life reminds us of the need to look not just at the triumphs, but also the tragedies of our Adventist past.