Thursday, July 9, 2015

Write It Down


I don't know a lot about Amos, but I do remember that the prophetic image of the plumb line was a substantial contribution to prophecy. We read about that plumb line in the Track 2 readings for Sunday in Amos 7:7-15. In a heavenly vision, the Lord says to Amos, "Tell me what you see!" and Amos replies, "I see a plumb line." As the passage continues, I get a little lost in the application of this metaphor. Neither Amos nor the Lord ever really explain what the plumb line represents or why God is using it as a means of judgment against his people, but people with any sort of carpentry or masonry background can probably figure it out.

The Lord's plumb line was being held beside a wall--an image that suggests that the Lord is assessing whether the wall was built well or poorly. The assessment is never announced, but the judgment that follows suggests to me that Israel's wall was in trouble. Walls, of course, were a means of security--the barrier that kept the opposing tribes and armies out. If the wall is not built plumb, it can easily be toppled using its own unbalanced weight against it. Amos has come into the midst of God's people to announce that their security--the Lord--was being withdrawn from them. Doom and gloom he announced even to the leaders of the nation. "What sort of prophet are you?" they asked Amos, questioning the boldness of this unknown figure. And Amos replied, "I am not a prophet--just a dresser of sycamore trees."

People make bold predictions all the time. Sports analysis pick the underdog. Aging would-be prophets decry the direction of society and predict its imminent demise. Onlookers at General Convention speculate that the bishops will elect someone other than Michael Curry. (I guessed Ian Douglas.) Why? Because audiences marvel when the long-shot guess turns out to be right, and no one remembers when the long-shot guess turns out to be wrong. It doesn't cost a lot to pick the loser. No one makes a big fuss because the expected winner has won and nothing needs to be said to those who chose the underdog. But if the underdog should happen to win...

Amos wasn't really a prophet. He didn't have an audience or a following. He was just a vinedresser to whom the Lord spoke. Why should we listen to him? Why bother paying attention to the unheard of little guy who is saying ridiculous things? Where did he come from? What does he know?

The only reason to write down such a prophecy is if it comes true. As Israel lay in ruin and its people had been carted off in exile, the voice of Amos was remembered. "I guess he was right," the priests and leaders said to one another. "Maybe we should have listened to him. Maybe we should write all of this stuff down so that our children's children's children don't make the same mistake we did."

In a time of substantial religious and social change, I hear lots of predictions. Some claim that gay marriage will be the unraveling of society. Other are sure that, in fifty years, we'll look back and wonder how anyone ever stood in the way of marriage equality. Some believe that the institutional church cannot survive the secularization of society. Others believe that now is the moment when the church is needed most. Some predict that the widening gap between rich and poor will lead to unprecedented unrest in our country. Others predict that the strength of our richest investors will safeguard our nation for generations. Who's right?

Prophecy is about learning from the past--not guessing for the future. Prophets are never fully appreciated in their own age. (That's what makes them prophets.) We aren't supposed to like what they say. And, if we all knew that they were right, we wouldn't need prophets in the first place. Instead, prophets are those fringe teachers and preachers who stir up our consciences in the moment and then leave us scratching our heads decades later. So what do we do about it? We write it down. Take note of the different voices that fill the airwaves. You don't necessarily need to buy into everything you hear (please don't!), but you should probably make space in your mental journal of the bold things you encounter. In a few years, you might find their predictions preposterous or prescient.

As people of faith, we are called to look for God's guiding hand--where is he leading us and who is he calling us to be? Read Amos. Hear John the Baptist. Remember Isaiah and Jeremiah. Listen to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Adam Smith and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Listen to the would-be prophets of our own day and prepare to learn from them. We might not know the answers now, but the truth will become clear in time.

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