Who Can Speak God?

Who Can Speak God?

Sun 20 Sep

Who can prophesize?  Who can speak the ‘words’ of God?  Who can imagine the connections between the mysterious ways of the universe and our own souls?

Is it only the ones who are authorised, ordained, and educated in the Church?  Is it only the elders?  Is it only the wise ones among us?  Is it only those of our church?  Is it only those who are Presbyterian, or Christian?  Is it only those who agree with us?

In the Book of Numbers [11:27-29] there’s a great little story, with two of the more unforgettable names in the Bible:  Eldad and Medad.  Yep, believe it or not, those are their names. 

The context is the wilderness.  Moses, the trade union organiser, has led the enslaved Hebrews out of captivity in Egypt and into – not the Promised Land – but the wilderness.  And in the wilderness, so the legends tell us, the Hebrew people had to sort through a lot of stuff.  Stuff like: Who are we?  Who/what is God?  What’s required of us?  Lots of bewildering wilderness stuff… – especially when you are lost, and losing faith in your leader.

Well, the Book of Numbers devotes its opening chapters to organisation.  When lost get organised, give people jobs to do, look like you’re on your way somewhere… and delegate.  So they appoint seventy elders who are duly ordained them and duly prophesise [speak the words of God].

Not that the grumbles about being lost and hungry in a desert go away.  But at least now they have 71 people to grumble at.

Then Eldad and Medad pop up.  They are not part of the 70.  They have not been duly ordained and authorised as elders.  But they are prophesising, and the people are listening.

So Joshua, who is the heir-in-waiting to Moses, tells Moses that he’s got to gag these guys.  Moses needs to assert his authority, back his organisational process, follow the Book of Order, and support his elders, and shut Eldad and Medad up.

But Moses does the unexpected.  He doesn’t shut them up.  He sees the big picture.  He has glimpsed a bigger God.  Moses says to Joshua, in effect, ‘What’s your problem man?  You want to control who God speaks through?  You want to control God?  Should we instruct Almighty God that only the people we approve of should be God’s spokespeople?’ 

Joshua, like most ecclesiastical bureaucrats, probably at that moment hung his head in despair and wept.  Kind of like what bureaucratic cardinals are seemingly doing at present every time Pope Francis opens his mouth.

Who can prophesize?  Who can speak the ‘words’ of God?  Who can imagine the connections between the mysterious ways of the universe and our own souls?

Maybe, just maybe, when we were born we were all speaking the words of God, the fire of the imagination.  We were speaking love, and need, and giggles, and wonder. 

And then, at some stage, someone told us that the words weren’t God’s words but ours, and therefore somehow less important, less magical. 

Indeed we were told words weren’t magical at all.  They were all listed in dictionaries, and we should learn them, and write them, and pronounce them… properly!   Instead of being transient and slightly strange messengers of love and need and laughter and wonder, words became important in themselves. 

And the more words and bigger words you had, the more important you were.  Words were power!

And so we got lost in the wilderness.

Bob Fulghum writes:

“I am frequently invited to speak at kindergartens and university graduation ceremonies.  The environments differ only in scale.  In the beginners’ classroom and on university campuses the same opportunities and facilities exist.  Tools for reading and writing are there – words and numbers; areas devoted to scientific experiment – labs and work boxes; and those things necessary for the arts – paint, music, costumes, room to dance – likewise present and available. 

In kindergarten however, the resources are all in one room, with access for all.  In university the resources are in separate buildings, with limited availability.  But the most apparent difference is in the attitude of the students.

Ask a kindergarten class, “How many of you can draw?” and all hands shoot up.  Yes, of course we can draw – all of us.  What can you draw?  Anything!  How about a dog eating a fire truck in a jungle?  Sure!  How big do you want it?

How many of you can sing?  All hands.  Of course we can sing!  What can you sing?  Anything!  What if you don’t know the words?  No problem, we make them up.  Let’s sing!  Now?  Why not!

How many of you can dance?  Unanimous again.  What kind of music do you like to dance to?  Any kind!  Let’s dance!  Now?  Sure, why not?

Do you like to act in plays?  Yes!  Do you play musical instruments?  Yes!  Do you write poetry?  Yes!  Can you read and write and count?  Yes!  We’re learning that stuff now.

Their answer is Yes!  Over and over again.  Yes!  The children are confident in spirit, infinite in resources, and eager to learn.  Everything is still possible.

Try those same questions on a university audience.  A small percentage of students will raise their hands when asked if they draw or dance or sing or paint or act or play an instrument.  Not infrequently, those who do raise their hands will want to qualify their response with limitations: “I only play piano, I only draw horses, I only dance to rock and roll, I only sing in the shower.”

When asked why the limitations, university students answer they do not have talent, are not majoring in the subject, or have not done any of these things since about Year 3, or worse, that they are embarrassed for others to see them sing or dance or act. 

You can imagine the same response to the same questions asked of an older audience.  The answer: No, none of the above.

What went wrong between kindergarten and adulthood?  What happened to YES!  of course I can?”[i]

Of course I can prophesise.  Of course I can speak the words of God.  Of course I can imagine and speak of the connections between the mysterious ways of the universe and our own souls?  Of course I can speak love, and need, and giggles, and wonder. 

In Mark’s Gospel [9:30ff.] Jesus talks about children.  Jesus says ‘If you want to be great, if you want to be first, then become like the least, become like the last… become like a kid and you might figure out what the God stuff is all about’.  Learn to speak love, and need, and giggles, and wonder.  Learn to speak God.

Children in the ancient world were at the bottom of the heap.  Authority – marked by age and tradition – was at the top.  Only when you had learnt the words and ways of adulthood did you receive serious consideration as a member of the family group.  Until then you were a nonentity.  You needed to shut up.

I would suggest to you that things in regard to children haven’t changed a whole lot.  Kids are still at the bottom of the heap, still being told to shut up.  In our society, despite the rhetoric, kids and their needs are still considered of lesser value than adult-world priorities, as the debate about paternity leave recently indicated, as the statistics on child poverty show. 

But Jesus then stops talking about kids and addresses an in-your-face problem for the adults.  There’s this guy you see, strolling around the Markan neighbourhood, a maverick, who is performing exorcisms. 

Now I won’t go into the whole anthropological shtick about exorcisms, except to give you a pointer that ‘demon possession’ is somewhat common among suppressed and colonised people. 

Anyway, Jesus was into healing and liberation, and the neighbourhood maverick was into it too.  Indeed he was using Jesus’ brand name.  And Jesus’ disciples, John particularly, was not happy about this.

John wanted to bring in the patent police.  John wanted to wrap this guy so tight in legal red tape that he would never dare to even think brand-Jesus ever ever again.

Now Jesus reminds them of the story of Eldad and Medad and Joshua-sad.  Jesus knows that John’s objection to the maverick exorcist lies in John’s attempt to erect boundaries around the exercise of compassionate ministry ‘in Jesus’ brand’.  John equates exorcism with the accrual of status and power, and wishes to maintain a monopoly over it.  ‘We own Jesus and his God’ is John’s credo.  ‘We own healing and liberation, thank you very much.’

But this is nuts.  Immediately preceding these verses in Mark there is an episode where the disciples try to do the exorcism thing and fail [9:14-18].

More importantly John’s words and credo are contrary to Jesus’ teaching that ‘whoever welcomes one such child/outsider/maverick in my name welcomes me’ [v.37].  Jesus is exhorting his followers to include, not exclude – to open wide their arms, hearts, beliefs, and imaginations.[ii]

Jesus, rather than telling John directly that he was an ignorant fool who didn’t get it, instructs all the disciples in a general principle: ‘those who are not against us are for us’.[iii] 

John is worried about brand, and patents, and power, and competition.  But Jesus is welcoming love and healing and mercy and justice, wherever it comes from. 

John is entertaining a ‘we-have-the-truth-and-we-are-the-chosen’ delusion.  But Jesus points out how his followers will often find themselves on the receiving end of others’ compassion. 

In other words, the disciples – and by implication we who try to follow in their footsteps – have no monopoly on love and healing and mercy and liberation, and therefore should without prejudice work alongside those whose practice has compassionate results. 

What is important for Jesus is behaviour [how we treat one another] not beliefs, boundaries, and status.

Jesus understands that the quickest way to undermine aspiration to power and control is to keep the definitions of “belonging” ultimately fluid and inclusive.

Jesus was dangerous to good order.  He undermined all those with pretensions to greatest.

Who can prophesize?  Who can speak the ‘words’ of God?  Who can imagine the connections between the mysterious ways of the universe and our own souls?

The answer, the dangerous answer, is that we all can: the Eldads and Medads, the mavericks, the kindy kids, the ordained and unordained, you and me.  God doesn’t discriminate.

[i] Robert Fulghum, Uh-Oh, London: HarperCollins, 1992, p.225ff.

[ii] In addition to all this, John’s censure of the maverick exorcist is based on the fact that the maverick “was not following us” [v.38].  The disciples wanted to be followed, not followers.

[iii] There’s a bit of irony in here: for in fact Peter will at the end of Mark’s story “speak evil” of Jesus, and even now he and the rest of the disciples, who are allegedly for Jesus are progressively turning against him.