Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Wading in Deep


Is it just me, or has it become harder to be a prophet in recent years?

I read today’s Old Testament lesson (Jeremiah 7:21-34) and thought, “You couldn’t say anything close to that these days.” Delivering the sharp message of judgment, Jeremiah predicts that the valley of Topheth will have its name changed to “the valley of slaughter” because the corpses will fill it like an overstuffed landfill. And, yes, according to Jeremiah, that’s God’s will.

Hyperbole has its place in modern preaching, but I don’t think you could go that far and get away with it. Why is that? What about our religious culture has changed so significantly that a message that is considered sacred—the inspired word of God—if uttered today would be labeled as blasphemy? Have we changed? Has our understanding of God changed? Is that a good thing?

I certainly believe it’s a good thing that we don’t look at someone in the midst of their disaster and say, “Tough cookies; I guess God is mad at you.” But I also don’t think it’s right for us to be so squeamish about God’s role in those horrible moments that we can’t talk about it. I feel like the only acceptable pastoral responses to a person surrounded by tragedy is either A) shrug your shoulders and claim ignorance or B) insist blindly that God isn’t involved without offering any reasonable justification for that claim.

I think part of the problem is our enlightenment. We’ve discovered that God isn’t an angry, vengeful, punishing God who is waiting to strike us down with lightening (or train wrecks or earthquakes or cancer). We can probably all agree that that’s not how God works. But, because of that, we’ve implicitly decided that God’s will must reflect what we think about God and not the other way around. We’ve created God in our own image. If it’s what we think is bad, then it’s not of God. If it’s what we think is good, then it is of God. Earthquakes = bad = not God. Victory over our enemies = good = of God. But that’s exactly why we need prophets. We can’t trust ourselves.

No one likes a prophet. Prophets are always pointing out what’s wrong and explaining how a failure to act (repent) will lead to terrible consequences. But just because we don’t like prophets doesn’t mean we should run them out of town as soon as they open their mouths. Maybe it’s time for us to create a safe space (non-judgmental) to allow people to ask, “Where is God in the tragedy?” and to allow the prophets among us to help us see that, perhaps, “judgment” is God’s will.

Disclaimers: I’m not suggesting that God punishes us for our transgressions. I’m on the record as being a strong believer in God’s impassability, which means he isn’t affected by the created order. But I am wondering whether we can say that “bad things” are “God’s will.” If it’s easier to talk about it in the abstract (hypothetical earthquakes) than it is in the concrete (my nephew’s cancer diagnosis), that’s fine. But why can’t we simply ask whether the consequences of our actions (or more obliquely the consequences of original sin) are part of how God intends the universe to work?

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