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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 31: Prophesy is About the Present

 For they are a rebellious people, faithless children, children who will not hear the instruction of the Lord; who say to the seers, “Do not see”; and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions, leave the way, turn aside from the path, let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.” Isaiah 30:9-12

My understanding of prophesy was of something future-oriented, as in predicting the future. My scant readings of biblical prophecy did nothing to correct my ignorance. Last fall, I heard Sister Audrey Doetzel explain that prophesy is “courageously telling the present,” and her insights opened my eyes to the vital purpose and tenuous place of prophets throughout history. In biblical times, and still today, prophets lived in a space described by Fr. Richard Rohr as the “edge of the inside.” They live as part of the current culture, but they remain on the fringes of society. From there, they observe and participate in the here and now, while retaining a distance that allows for their unique and broader perspective.

The prophets of the Old Testament were often servants of rulers whose job it was to read the signs of the times. When their reading proved incorrect or unpopular, they sometimes were put to death. Some of those prophesies were future-oriented, as in “If you continue on this path, this (bad thing) will happen.” A prophesy, however, is a reading of the present situation, even when it points to a future calamity. Common to prophets then and now, however, is that prophets speak truth to power. Prophets almost exclusively speak on behalf of the disadvantaged to the advantaged.

Artists, poets, authors, and songwriters are often the prophets of the day, holding up a mirror to society, saying, “Look at what you have become.” The message of the prophets throughout time has not always been welcomed or received kindly. Jesus, himself, testified that a prophet has no honor in the prophet’s own country (John 4:44).

The 1960’s saw an explosion of contemporary prophets, including Bob Dylan:

Come gather ’round people wherever you roam, And admit that the waters around you have grown;
Accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone, If your time to you is worth savin’,
Then you better start swimmin’, or you’ll sink like a stone, For the times, they are a-changin’.

And Paul Simon:

And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they made;
And the sign flashed out its warning, in the words that it was forming,
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls,” And whispered in the sounds of silence.

Those railing against the status quo welcomed these and other artists in the 60’s, but they were threats to the established order. They gave a voice to those who felt they had none. Unsettled times bring prophets to the forefront where their perspective is needed, if not always applauded. Sister Audrey, quoting Thomas Moore, said prophesy is “an ethical motivation that leads to criticism of, or at least an alternative to, a highly narcissistic and materialistic culture (emphasis added).” She describes the 21st century prophets’ call as one to make “the invisible God audible and visible.” I agree wholeheartedly, and there can be no more timely need than now for ethical prophesies of that sort. The questions are: “Who will speak truth to power today?” and, once heard, “Who will act upon it?”

It is important to warn of false prophets, however. Jesus issued his warning in Matthew 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” In assessing would-be prophets, it is wise to ask, “What do they hunger for?” My sense is that today’s political partisans, on both sides, are closer to the powerful, ravenous wolf than to the sheep. If a person or group hungers for power or for the degradation or destruction of others, it cannot be the all-inclusive God they are making audible.

Prophesy is about the present. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

 

Swallowing Camels

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe … (but) have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”  Matthew 23:23-24

 Too often, I lose sight of what really matters. Usually, it is easier to get lost in the details of an issue than to focus on the bigger picture. The minutia in our life is clear-cut, but the whole-life-view is blurry. We have sayings that capture the sentiment: “He cannot see the forest for the trees,” or “She majors in minors,” or “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Jesus said it even better: “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” We immerse ourselves in the small stuff while neglecting the reason for doing the small stuff.

Jesus reserved his harshest name-calling for two groups of people: the scribes and the Pharisees. These two groups were devout and pious about their religion. In their attempt to do everything “right,” they did nothing righteous. In fact, because they did not understand religion’s larger purpose, they led others astray. They made following the religious laws the focus of seeking God, and ignored God’s issues of justice, mercy, and faith. Jesus called these obsessive zealots “hypocrites” and “blind guides.” That was strong language for such “holy” beings. It is little wonder they had Jesus crucified.

How does one eat a camel?  Just like one eats an elephant – one bite at a time. We consume our days in endless details, leaving no time or energy for the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith and Gulp! We just swallowed a big bite of camel. As time passes, we get used to the taste. Not having to deal with the squishy, impossible-to-solve issues of faithful followership can make the lingering aftertaste of camel fur almost pleasant by comparison. Straining out gnats is so much easier, and at the end of the day, we feel like we accomplished something. Unfortunately, straining gnats does not bring us into relationship with Christ, nor does it move God’s will forward on earth.

Clearly, we cannot accomplish anything worthwhile without paying attention to certain details. We also cannot mistake the details for the end goal, however. If, at the end of the day, everything on our to-do list has been checked off, we should be a step closer to something else of larger importance. Small tasks are like fruit flies – kill one and a hundred more appear. Eventually, we may have to allow a few gnats into our soup in order to focus on our purpose on earth. We are created in the image of God, and we, in partnership with our spiritual brothers and sisters, were created for great things!

Come home to church this Sunday. Better to eat a few gnats than to swallow a camel.

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The Blessings Ledger

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven. Matthew 5:3-6, 12a

A blessing is a special favor, mercy, or benefit. A trial causes difficulty or suffering. Here is a test, with respect to blessings and trials:

  1. Are the blessings of today greater than those of yesterday?
  2. Are the blessings in your life increasing or decreasing?
  3. If your life were to end today, would the weight of your blessings outweigh the weight of your trials?

Everyone receives a mix of blessings and trials during their lives. How one experiences those blessings and trials, however, varies greatly from person to person. Some people seem happy regardless of their difficulties. Others seem perennially unhappy, even though their problems may seem trivial to others. One of the primary determinants of how we experience the ups and downs in our lives has to do with the perspective from which we view them.

There are times, particularly during times of trial, when we need to expand our perspective in order to see beyond the difficult moments. We need to look forward to a happier future or to remember a joyous past. Other times, especially when we are bored, call for us to look deeper into the moment for blessings we otherwise miss. For example, when we walk a route we usually drive, we allow ourselves to see in more detail that which is normally a blur to us. We slow down our experience in order to expose hidden or subtle blessings. January in Kansas can be a dreary, cold month. But even now, buds are swelling on the trees. In the middle of the dead, brown stems of grass, green crowns waiting patiently for their time to explode. The seeds of spring are preparing to burst forth. If I focus on the bigger picture – trees without leaves, brown grass, cold temperatures – January is a month without blessing. The blessing is there, but I must look closer to find it.

Here is the irony: our trials are often the stepping stones to our blessings, like traversing winter to arrive at spring. Granted, some of our blessings will not manifest on this side of the grave. Our lives are bigger than the days we walk the earth. But no matter our situation, there are blessings to be found in abundance, if we learn how and where to seek them. If our blessings ledger weighs heavier on the trials side, we may need to use a different scale. As Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven!”

Come home to church this Sunday. Add a church family to your blessings ledger.

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