A Summer of Prophets: Divinely Called or Dangerously Crazy?

The icon to the right is a Russian Orthodox "writing" of the prophet Jeremiah. Christians using the Revised Common Lectionary will start a nine week series from Jeremiah's prophecy beginning on August 21 this year (2016). If you use the Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings you'll be reading from Jeremiah almost every day through these weeks.

I have to admit, this time in the three year cycle is tough going for me. We read the prophets all summer in Year C (winter in the global South). It's hard enough to hear the constant prophecies of doom and judgment for the Northern and then the Southern Kingdoms.

But then we run into this nine week stint in Jeremiah. It's the toughest of them all. It's not the vocabulary. It's actually fairly simple Hebrew, simple enough to make it a standard text for second semester Hebrew classes in seminaries.  It's not even the "plot" , though as we have the book, the plot is a bit jumbled.

It's the content.

Jeremiah is a tortured soul. He feels utterly compelled to say what he's saying and do what he's doing. More than this, he believes delivering his awful pronouncements is what he was made for-- indeed, that God has told him this is what he was made for. There are many days where he's not at all happy about what he feels he must do (we don't call him "the weeping prophet" for nothing) and he blames God for deceiving him into this work (Jeremiah 20:7 ff).  

I read his words, and my heart is torn.

As a pastor with training in pastoral counseling, I also wonder: If this man were to come to me as his pastor or spiritual counselor and share with me what he has shared in his book, mightn't I be compelled to refer him to licensed therapist and perhaps a psychiatrist? Doesn't he show all the classic DSM V validated signs of several serious personality and behavior disorders? In fact, might I be obliged to seek to have him committed for psychiatric observation as a person who may be dangerous to himself or others?

If that's what I'd have to consider if Jeremiah showed up in my study, if I sometimes have a hard time hearing such texts as anything other than the ravings of a dangerously insane man, how do I, and how do we, help our congregations or one another in study groups to hear what Jeremiah has to say truly as "the word of God for the people of God?"
I have to wonder, honestly, whether our immediate, culturally reinforced, visceral reaction a voice like Jeremiah's may make us immune if not allergic to any truth he may have to convey, then or now.

One of the hazards of my job (and perhaps some of yours!) with its widely publicized email address (worship@umcdiscipleship.org) is I often receive missives from folks claiming to be prophets today.

Here's a sample that came to me a few years ago after the BP Gulf oil spill:

My Little One, do you see what I have done? Do you see? For, I have taken My axe to a dry tree and I have hewn it down!I have taken My axe to an unproductive tree and I have hewn it down!  Great is the fall of this tree!

Wickedness and gross wickedness has continually spewed forth from this tree until it has killed itself; for the whole tree has made itself a haven for what is evil and abominable in My sight! A foul stench has continually come up into My face from the wickedness of this evil tree; and I have hewn it down!

My Lord, what is this evil tree and where is this evil tree?

My Little One, this evil tree is the whole coastal region of the Gulf States! This tree is but one offshoot of a greater tree; and this greater tree is the whole of the United States of America! What you do not see from this vision is that this hewn tree is but one very large branch of a large tree; but to you it will surely appear to be a very great tree!  And, it is a tree, unto itself, but still a branch of something much larger!

(It goes on and gets weirder!)

As I read this, I have to admit the kind of language used here is consistent with that of the biblical prophets. It sounds a lot like the "almond tree" or the "plumb line" discourses in Amos, or the potter discourse in Jeremiah. The interaction between prophet and the voice of YHWH is in the same mode as we see in Jeremiah, Exekiel, Amos, parts of Isaiah, Daniel and Revelation. And the almost sarcastic wrath in the "voice" of God is about the same, too.

Yet my immediate, visceral response, is to dismiss this as sheer crazy-talk. 

Which leads me to wonder how it is that I do not dismiss the biblical words of  the prophets, and especially Jeremiah.

Or how anyone really listening to the prophets with no prior exposure to such speech and no pre-disposition to consider the Bible as in any way authoritative for their lives could come to any conclusion other than, "These people, and their God, are dangerously crazy!"

Yet, I do not dismiss the prophets, not even Jeremiah. And I don't consider Jeremiah's prophecy to be dangerously crazy. It's always a wild and painful ride through these weeks, to be sure. But I trust these words as word of God for God's people. And I do so not out of some kind of blind allegiance to the Bible, but out of profound respect for the voice of God that truly emerges from and in the midst of suffering people.

I am not Jewish. I am not part of these particular suffering people by birth or biological lineage. I am Goyim as far back as my family records can go (and they go back at least to the 10th century!). I do not have that kind of visceral connection with the sufferings of these people as "my people."

I did grow up in a profoundly Jewish neighborhood, however. As I've shared elsewhere, many of my friends were grandchildren, and some of their parents were children, of survivors of the holocausts inflicted by Hitler and Stalin in Europe and The Soviet Union. I didn't have to see filmed footage to have some visceral understanding of what happened there. I could see it in their faces, and hear it in their stories.

I do have some Cherokee ancestry on my mother's side. I am 1/16 Cherokee. But I was not raised with any social connections or any connections at all to this part of my biological family. Still, I feel some kind of visceral connection with what happened to part of my family on the Trail of Tears and in so many other ways and in so many other places in the United States before and since then.

But what I am coming to see more and more is that because I am a Christian, I have a real, visceral connection through the blood of Jesus Christ with all who suffer, anywhere. I cannot and should not pretend to "live above it all." That is to deny my identity in Christ. And it is to deny how Jesus lived and what he did and still does among us, and in and through and with all "the suffering ones" (Apostolic Tradition, ca 215).  

If my imagination of what is "normal" and "sane" is formed by the imagination of the triumphant and wealthy, those who find ways to "live above it all," then yes, I have to consider many of the prophets crazy at best, and Jeremiah perhaps dangerously crazy.

But if my imagination of the normal is formed by the imagination of Jesus, and of a God who draws near to give good news precisely among the weakest, poorest, most oppressed people on the planet-- which means I can keep it straight that this is the dominant imagination of God and his Christ presented across the whole of the scriptures-- then, painful and heartwrenching as it is, it is also deep solace to claim even Jeremiah as divinely called, and his words as word of God.

And when I can live out of that imagination, as choked or challenging as it sometimes is, I can even muster, "Thanks be to God." 

--Taylor Burton-Edwards

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards