The world of Christian publishing is rife with material about “purpose.” Everyone wants to read about their life and someone else’s opinion of what it should be about. Much of this is based on a misreading of Jeremiah 29:11, which was never a word of the Lord to every individual for all time, but a promise to the exiled Jewish community that the God of the covenant would not abandon them. So I don’t know that we have much reason to believe that God has a “plan” for each an every one of us; I find little reason Scripturally to believe that God has designed us genetically to be butchers or marketers or writers or actresses or what have you. The most we can say (and this is enough) about God’s purpose for each of us is that we were designed for fellowship and union with God.
For many Christians, the Lord’s Prayer is a regular and powerful part of their spiritual journey. It is for me and for many of my friends and colleagues. The prayer that Jesus gave us is not only a pattern for prayer but a rich prayer in its own right. Even aspects of the prayer than are often overlooked provide an amazing fount of insight into life with God.
As Warren Smith, who teaches historical theology at Duke Divinity School, suggests, when we pray “hallowed be Thy name,” we are remembering the holiness of God and thus the true purpose for our life:
So the confession “hallowed by thy name” grounds our lives in the knowledge of who God is and what God has done for us. This daily confession focuses our mind upon the end or purpose of our journey – that is, fellowship with God – and the quality of our life – that is, holiness – necessary to attain that God. But when we confess that God is holy we also confess that we cannot become holy on our own. We cannot be holy apart from the Holy Spirit. Our thinking and speaking and acting become holy when we cultivate holy habits by living in the company of the Spirit. By inviting us to share his name, by calling us to be saints, God has set a high bar for his children. But he has given us the Holy Spirit as our companion who helps us gradually replace unholy habits of thought, speech, and action with holy thoughts, holy conversation, and holy actions as we grow into the likeness of our heavenly Father, becoming the spitting image of God. (The Lord’s Prayer: Confessing the New Covenant, 46)
This is a small example of how a deceptively simple line such as “hallowed be thy name” works on us over time. The Lord’s Prayer is full of such wisdom and beauty – a treasure too often ignored, and too little appreciated.
You want purpose? Pray and work, die to self daily so that you might become “the spitting image of God.” There’s plenty of room to grow there for several lifetimes. And thanks be to God, he never stops his gracious, other-regarding, self-giving through the Spirit so that we might become who he made us to be:
“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
-2 Cor. 3:18 (NRSV)
What role does the Lord’s Prayer have in your spiritual life? How does your faith community make use of it? I’d love to hear about your experience below.
There are few roles in Scripture as misunderstood as that of the prophet. In conservative circles, “prophecy” is shrunken down to telling the future, usually by studying arcane tables and charts relating Daniel and Revelation to try and figure out when “the end” is coming. These people are usually tying to sell you something. In progressive Christian circles, being “prophetic” is essentially a baptized form of activism. Both of these miss the mark substantially.
First, a Definition
Michael Coogan notes,
“The English word ‘prophet’ comes from Greek and literally means ‘spokesperson.’ It expresses the understanding that the prophets were delivering divinely sent messages. The primary content of these messages…was interpretation of phenomena and events from a divine perspective.” (300)
As we will see, this definition precludes both of the popular distortions of the prophetic vocation in the church today.
Prophecy is Not About the Future
Note the definition above. The primary content of prophetic utterance was interpretation of the here and now. The future may be involved, but it is to render change in the present. As Abraham Heschel puts it, “The prominent theme is exhortation, not mere prediction…his essential task is to declare the word of God to the here and now.” (14-15) Thus, fundamentalist and/or dispensationalist obsessions with prophecy as Biblical keys to the future or present are sorely missing the mark, no matter how many Mayan calendars or blood moons are there for the taking.
Prophecy is Not About Activism
One of the most inane tropes in Mainline Protestantism is the ease with which every Tom, Dick, or Harriet with an M.Div. will claim the prophetic mantle for themselves. Far too often we see well-meaning progressives high-five each other ad nauseam as if they were the new incarnation of Jeremiah himself. But the prophets rarely smiled (look at the Rembrandt above), and they certainly weren’t excited about being prophetic. “None of the prophets seems enamored with being a prophet,” says Heschel, “nor proud of his attainment.” (20)
This is quite contrary to how many would-be prophets actually comport themselves. In North Carolina, I recently watched the spectacle of colleagues gleefully taking selfies at the State House every Monday for weeks on end, part of the “Moral Monday” protests that dominated the headlines for quite some time. (I am no fan of the Republican-ruled state legislature at present, but it’s preposterous to assume that there was not immorality going on before the GOP took over.) That is, we don’t see many joyful prophets lighting up Instagram in the Bible. Thus Heschel gravely concludes, “To be a prophet is both a distinction and an affliction.” (21)
Moreover, the problem with identifying prophetic work with any kind of activism or truth-telling (whether in church or society) is that it cuts both ways on the ideological spectrum. If one talks to enough folks on the left and the right – and this is especially true the UMC at present – you learn that both sides feel like besieged, risk-taking prophets standing up to a stiff-necked church. Both sides, to use a hackneyed phrase, believe they are “speaking truth the power.” Heschel was certainly right when he notes, “God is raging in the prophet’s voice.” (6) But what if the prophets are self-selected? Therein lies the perennial danger: we too quickly assume our own fury for that of the Divine.
A Solution: From Power to Reflection
In his wonderful little book In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen names temptations common to leadership and offers particular disciplines as solutions. He concludes this brief treatise by discussing the temptation “to be powerful.” In different ways, both the right-wing and left-wing perversions of the prophetic are temptations to power. Fundamentalists manipulate Scripture to show forth their own insight and giftedness, unlocking “secrets” of the end times heretofore unknown. In so doing they often amass large followings (and bank accounts). Progressives too quickly make use of the prophetic role to mask their own ideological agendas with a veneer of Biblical authority, and claim God’s voice for whatever the cause happens to be that week.
For Nouwen, the solution is “theological reflection.” He concludes,
“Few ministers and priests think theologically. most of them have been educated in a climate in which the behavioral sciences, such as psychology and sociology, so dominated the educational milieu that little true theology was being learned. Most Christian leaders today raise psychological or sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms. Real theological thinking, which is thinking with the mind of Christ, is hard to find in the practice of ministry. Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, psuedo-social workers.” (65-66)
Theological reflection is critical because without it, we will too quickly mistake our words for God’s, and so make fools of ourselves when speaking on His behalf (as a pastor, I’ve done this more than once). This discipline is sorely lacking in every corner of the church, Mainline or Evangelical, Catholic or Charismatic. Such a poverty of theological insight is all the more problematic because we (all of us, including the author) are quick to forget that we are not brilliant by virtue of living in the 21st century or having masses of education. The great missionary and ecumenist Lesslie Newbigin points out that we may come to different conclusions than Paul, but that doesn’t make us Paul’s moral superiors; we are apt to be as blind to some things in our day as Paul may have been to certain obvious evils in his. Instead, says Newbigin,
“The true reading of history seems to be this, that every new increase of man’s mastery over earth and sea and sky opens up possibilities not only of nobler good, but also of baser and more horrible evil, and that even those movements of social progress which can point to real achievement in the bettering of society have to be put side by side with these equally real movements of degeneration which have sometimes actually arisen out of the same social improvements.” (17)
In other words, what we consider “prophetic” may in reality unleash something more horrific than that which we speak out against. Or, on the other hand, our obsession with seeing the future may blind us to the needs of the present. We are all still afflicted by the fall, and this side of the eschaton we must be wary of confusing our mouth with the mouth of God, or to conflating our will with the will of Christ. A steady discipline of theological reflection, done with and through the church and her teachers – and including those with whom we disagree – is the only way that the prophetic task can escape the hubris of either future-casting or banal activism. The prophetic task (as noted at the top) of interpreting events and phenomena from a Divine perspective is an awesome and humbling vocation, and one that none of us should assume too quickly nor hold lightly.
I’ll let Nouwen have the last word:
“I think we are only half aware of how secular even theological schools have become. Formation in the mind of Christ, who did not cling to power but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, is not what most seminaries are about. Everything in our competitive and ambitious world militates against it. But to the degree that such formation is being sought and realized, there is hope for the Church of the next century.” (69-70)
P.S. My apologies to those who had trouble viewing this before. I had severe problems with WordPress continuing to revert it to a draft after publishing. I think I have fixed it now. Thanks for your patience.
Coogan, Michael D. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (New York: Oxford University Press 2006).
Newbigin, Lesslie. Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003).
Nouwen, Henri. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroads 1989).
I’ve been having a back and forth with my friend Morgan over his recent blog post reacting against the attack on the Libyan embassy. Morgan is a deeply committed Christian and an articulate interlocutor. This exchange raised a question with me: how do Christians respond to the kind of senseless violence that seems to be so prevalent in our world?
Certainly, any reaction that blames all Muslims as a whole is to be vehemently denied. The above photo, from this story about an anti-extremist rally, is evidence enough that not all of Islam is violent (and it is sad indeed that we must keep reminding folks of this in a post-9/11 world).
It seems to me that a measured, loving, but honest response is warranted. Many of my liberal and progressive Christian friends were so quick to remind us that not all Muslims are terrorists that they seemed to forget that a tragic few are. They seemed more interested in offering an apologetic on behalf of moderate Muslims than in grieving the lost or crying out for justice. This strikes me as a “PC” response but not necessarily a Christian one.
As Christians, we are called to pray and work for and witness to the peace of Christ, the prince of Peace. How that plays out in the world of international politics, foreign policy, and non-state actors with RPGs is a complex question. Whatever else we say, we must know that the call for peace must not come at the expense of justice, or vice versa. The prophet Jeremiah thus excoriated the false prophets of his day:
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. (6:14, NRSV)
We must not be too quick to cry “peace” in the absence of justice. There is a time for peace and for war, a time for forgiveness, and a time for the sword of government to do its work. The time for reconciliation will come. For now, let us pray for the victims of this attack, for the people of Libya (especially those of the household of faith), and for the perpetrators: may they be brought to justice swiftly, and may the God of all people so draw them to Himself that they repent and are reconciled to God and neighbor.
For now, as the old song goes, let peace begin with me.
Many folks have argued, rightly, that a basic understanding of Scripture is necessary for an appreciation of the cultural and intellectual heritage of the West. Stephen Prothero, author of the remarkable American Jesus, makes a similar argument in Religious Literacy. Like it or not, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are simply part of how we communicate. From “eye for an eye” to “turn the other cheek,” our literature and our everyday language are bathed in biblical images and phrases. See, for instance, this stanza from Poe’s “The Raven”:
`Prophet!’ said I, `thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil! –
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted –
On this home by horror haunted – tell me truly, I implore –
Is there – is there balm in Gilead? – tell me – tell me, I implore!’
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’
This stanza is, of course, nonsensical unless one has at least become aware of the cry of Jeremiah/God* in chapter 8. Until I was researching for Sunday’s sermon, I actually had no idea that Poe referenced Jeremiah. I suppose that means that, while I am not totally biblically illiterate, I am poorly read!
*Many scholars have noted that the line between the prophetic voice and the divine voice is, in Jeremiah, much less pronounced than in other prophets. I first came across this in Gerhard Von Rad’s The Message of the Prophets, but I’ve noticed in in many other commentaries as well. The Old Testament lection for this coming Sunday (Jeremiah 8:18-9:1) is a prime example of this mixing and mingling of voices. I suppose this could be exegetically troubling, but I prefer to think it is theologically hopeful. As we see in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God is capable both of mourning His own and of creating a different future for His wounded and broken people.
In one of my classes on Methodism, it was stressed that Wesley encouraged his preachers to proclaim Christ “in all his offices” – prophet, priest, and king. In other words, the substitutionary act of Christ as the mediator of sin – a priestly act – should not override his prophetic and kingly ministries. Christ ought to be viewed more fully in the multiple roles that he inhabited, regardless of theological proclivities.
I’m currently working my way through a sermon series on Jeremiah (going – mostly – with the lectionary). As part of my preparation, I’m rereading Abraham J. Heschel’s classic tome The Prophets, or at least the parts that deal with the personalty of the Hebrew prophets and with Jeremiah particularly. In doing so, I was struck by the ways in which Jeremiah’s rejection as a prophet is echoed later in Jesus’ ministry.
Jeremiah, of course, was branded a traitor by his own people for suggesting that Judah should submit to Babylonian rule. You may remember that Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town.” (Luke 4:24)
In his chapter on the prophet from Anathoth, Heschel argues,
He who loved his people, whose life was dedicated to saving his people, was regarded as an enemy…What protection was there against such backbiting? No one could look into his heart, but everybody was hurt by his words. Only the Lord knew the truth. (The Prophets[San Francisco: Perennial Classics 2001], 157)
He goes on to quote from Jeremiah 17, including
I have not pressed Thee to send evil, nor have I desired the day of disaster, Thou knowest; that which came out of my lips was before thy face.
Heschel’s work is an absolute must-read on these fascinating individuals, whose office was both great and terrible. Among many other gifts, the Jewish Theological Seminary professor has reminded me of just how strong Jesus’ ties to the Hebrew prophets were – and remain.