I have always had heroes. My first was Ted Williams. Some of you might remember the name. He played left field for the Boston Red Sox. Somewhere around the age of six I became convinced that no game was more perfect than the one whose objective was to go home. Some folks loved Mickey Mantle. The ones with the best eye for talent adored Willie Mays. But I fell in love with Ted Williams. We had nothing in common. He was left-handed, born in San Diego, and stood six feet three. I was a right-headed Georgian who was almost three foot six. It hardly mattered. When Williams swung a bat it was poetry in motion. I was ten when he retired and his absence left a hole in my life. It was later I learned Williams had a darkness in his soul that dimmed the brilliance of his career.
It took me a couple of years to get over my love of Ted Williams. I courted Luis Aparicio until I learned he didn’t spell his first name correctly. Ernie Banks played for the wrong team. No real Cardinal fan could root for a Cubbie. Eventually my heroes moved from the sporting field to the political arena. In 1968, in my youthful heart, no one seemed a more perfect candidate for the presidency than Bobby Kennedy. He was young, spoke a language I could understand, and had moved from the shadow of his brother. Bobby even had a law degree from the University of Virginia. But his ascension to the top of the political spectrum was destroyed by an assassin’s bullet. A darkness in America’s soul extinguished what might have been.
That is the problem with heroes. We embrace them in the light of day. They rise beyond our expectations only to fall victim to the darkness, often leaving us wounded.
I suspect David grew up worshiping heroes. While he was destined to be a king, he was born a shepherd. I imagine one of David’s early heroes was King Saul. The king was a giant of a man. When fully dressed for battle Saul cut a figure anyone would admire. But David would soon discover his hero was flawed. Saul desperately fought and finally succumbed to his inner demons. Like Ted Williams, the king was defined not by his valor on the field but his insecurities when surrounded by the darkness.
Perhaps David considered Jonathan to be among his heroes. The son of Saul was young, dashing, and David’s best friend. Everyone believed Jonathan would be a worthy successor to his father. But like Kennedy, Jonathan was struck down. He died in a battle against the despised Philistines. The deaths of Jonathan eased David’s path to the throne. But it left him wary of the power of darkness.
I grew up imagining David the shepherd boy composing the 23rd Psalm. Sitting alone with his flocks he would seem to have had ample time to compose lyrical poems. All of the components of the verse are before us. Green pastures and still waters are his playground. At night dark valleys stand in opposition to the safety of his sheep. But then we encounter verse five. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” These words transcend the naiveté of a young boy counting the hours until sunset.
I now believe David composed the Shepherd’s Psalm as a reflection on a long and arduous life. He had not desired the throne but once anointed he fought to secure it. Like his childhood heroes, David was not without flaws. He committed adultery and murder, excusing both actions as permissible. He struggled with friends and family members. He disappointed those who loved him the most. At times he was at odds with God. Yet despite his tragedies, David experienced mercy.
I struggle with reconciliation, particularly if the person who has fallen from grace was a former hero. Ted Williams’s career batting average was .344. He was the last player to hit over .400 in a season. Yet his temper left him hopelessly flawed. In my adolescent world where everything was hopelessly black and white, mercy was not on option.
I encountered the same blindness when reflecting on the turbulent year of 1968. Bobby Kennedy was not the only young person slain by an assassin’s bullet that year. Martin Luther King was only 39 years old. Both were murdered by a toxic hate in our society that enflamed the unbalanced judgment of two killers seeking inglorious fame. My anger was not limited to Sirhan Sirhan or James Earl Ray. My forgiveness has yet to be bequeathed on those participating in that dialogue of hatred.
That is why I cling to the 23rd Psalm. It was never intended to be a poem of comfort read at the graveside. It is the confession of a tamed cynic. It is never easy to deal realistically with the moral confusion of the day. The same could be said of the chaotic days of David’s reign. He was King. He could have declared history be written from the perspective of his pen. Yet he remembered the darkness. His first hero was plunged into chaos from the weight of the throne. David’s first son plunged Israel into anarchy because of Absalom’s desire for the throne. David’s mortal sins were excused because he sat on the throne. David desired still waters but his reign was marked by turbulence. So he writes, “I will walk into the valley of darkness but I will not fear because God will be with me.”
Childhood heroes cannot mend our brokenness because they are also flawed. Perfect societies cannot birth utopia because an ideal social order has never existed. We can rationalize our fears, we can lay blame on others but that will not heal us. Knowing the cost would be tremendous David chose only one companion to accompany him on his walk into the darkness. This walk did not change David’s sketchy past, but it did transform his future. Such is the power of God’s mercy.
The old king, no longer a worshiper of heroes but a hero worshipped, prepared a dinner attended by his enemies. Imagine sitting down to break bread with folks who want to kill you. In attendance was a traitorous general, a former wife who hated him, and a son who believed he deserved to be king. Each had loved David, but no longer. Each expected to be dead before the evening festivities had concluded. But this aging king finally understood the meaning of mercy and grace. David had spent his entire life following heroes and thirsting for power. In the end all David desired was the mercy of God and the forgiveness of those he had wounded. It was not his exploits in battle that secured the legacy of King David. It was his revelation that people cannot co-exist if they refuse to display acts of mercy toward each other.
An ancient man, weary with intrigue but full of life turned to those who hated him and whispered, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us the rest of our days if we dwell in God’s presence …….. together.”
May we go and do likewise. Amen.