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Reprinted with permission from the author. If you would like to reprint, please include the copyright along with the following caveat: “The comments and perspectives shared by Rev./Judge Griffen are his personal opinions. They do not represent, and should in no way be ascribed to, any other person, organization, or entity, including any member or entity of the Arkansas or American judiciary.”
THE PARADOX OF PROPHETIC HOPE IN A DISTRESSING TIME
©Wendell Griffen, 2017
Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America Peacemaker Breakfast
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly
Hyatt Regency Atlanta
June 30, 2017, 7:30 AM
I thank LeDayne Polaski for inviting me to address you this morning. Thanks to each of you for your presence today and your past and ongoing efforts as agents of God’s love, justice, and peace. I also thank BPFNA for your prayers, messages, and other acts of encouragement on my behalf after Arkansas politicians and the Arkansas Supreme Court attacked me earlier this year because I and other members of New Millennium Church held a peaceful prayer vigil in front of the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion on Good Friday, April 14, in solidarity with Jesus. Gwenyth Lewis of Albuquerque, New Mexico, came to Little Rock and delivered a statement of support on behalf of BPFNA. New Millennium Church, my wife, our sons, and I thank you, and are strengthened by your prayers and encouragement.
In March of this year Judson Press released a book I wrote that is titled The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope. I will make a shameless plug of the book, with its Prologue by Walter Brueggemann, Foreword by Allan Aubrey Boesak, and Afterword by Emilie M. Townes, and encourage you to order it online at www.pyramidbks.net, the online store for a black –owned Little Rock, Arkansas bookstore and art gallery named Pyramid Art, Books, and Custom Framing.
I title my remarks today The Paradox of Prophetic Hope in a Distressing Time. The signs of our distressing time include, racism, sexism (including heterosexism, homophobia, and transphobia), materialism, militarism, imperialism, techno-centrism, white religious nationalism, and xenophobia. These oppressive realities existed before Donald Trump and Mike Pence were elected President and Vice President of the United States on November 8, 2016. They are even more obvious, now.
I addressed those concerns in The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope to urge prophetic people to be more visible, more vocal, and engage in what I call “prophetic citizenship” with fierce and urgent hopefulness. I now offer suggestions on strategies for doing so based on four memorable Scripture lessons, two that I’ll read aloud and two others that I’ll mention summarily in the interest of time.
24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.
26 Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27And a young man ran and told Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ 28And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, ‘My lord Moses, stop them!’ 29But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!’ 30And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.
2When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 “In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
If you remember one thing I say today I hope you remember that humans do not manage the Spirit of God. I repeat: humans do not manage the Spirit of God.
In Genesis we read that God has given humans custodial responsibility for the earth and its creatures. We are divine stewards, trustees if you will, over all that God created.
But before there was a world to manage, we read in Genesis that “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Think of that “wind from God” as the Holy Spirit.
Then recall the night-time meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus that we read about in the third chapter of John’s Gospel. When Jesus explained to Nicodemus what he meant by being “born from above,” Jesus described the process in these words: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
I will mention the point a third time: humans do not manage the Spirit of God.
In Numbers 11, we read about a crisis in the ministry of Moses as he led his formerly enslaved Hebrew people.
Malcontents among the people stirred up a complaint about the food service along the journey (Numbers 11:4-9). The demands of leading hundreds of thousands of people overland were tough enough for Moses, but this seems to have been his breaking point. At Numbers 11:13-15 we read his frustrated words to God: “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once – if I have found favor in your sight – and do not let me see my misery.”
Moses was dealing with a challenge that people in ministry understand to be common to our calling – the challenge that comes from knowing that we face challenges that are larger than our resources.
At Numbers 11:25 we read that “the LORD … took some of the spirit that was on him [Moses] and put it on the seventy elders, and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied…” But two men – named Eldad and Medad – were not with the other elders who joined Moses outside their encampment to meet God. Nevertheless, Eldad and Medad prophesied in the camp. When their activity was reported to Moses by an unnamed fellow, Joshua urged Moses to order Eldad and Medad to stop their prophetic speaking, which prompted Moses to speak the words we find at Numbers 11:29: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”
In the familiar lesson from Acts 2 we read how what Moses talked about happened to the first followers of Jesus. After the Galilean followers of Jesus began to inexplicably speak the native languages of people from other places, Peter explained that the Galileans were not drunk, but that God’s Spirit was on display.
“No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be,’ God declares, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.’” (Acts 2:16-18)
Here’s the point! The Spirit of God is free to operate according to God’s agenda without our permission. What Joshua did not understand in Numbers and what the observers did not understand in Acts is that the Spirit of God is free.
The Spirit of God is free to work through people we have not designated.
The Spirit of God is free to empower people we have not considered.
And what we learn in Acts is that the wish uttered by Moses has been answered. God’s Spirit has been poured out in the world on men and women, young people and seniors, people who have no social standing as well as people with social standing. God’s Spirit doesn’t need a license from the government. God’s Spirit doesn’t need us to vote a certain way. God’s Spirit works, in divine freedom, to do for God through people what must be done so that God’s purposes are achieved in God’s world.
However, some of us, like Joshua, are captives of our thinking about how things are supposed to work. Some of us are accustomed to God’s prophetic power being managed, rationed, and assigned according to our plans, our procedures, and our policies. Joshua’s reaction to Eldad and Medad prophesying in the camp – out of sight of Moses and without his permission – shows that our preoccupation with our plans, procedures, projects, and policies overlooks this truth: God doesn’t work according to our plans, procedures, projects, and policies.
Our challenge, beloved, is to accept that God’s Spirit is free to work in ways we never considered and do not understand. God’s Spirit is free to move where we never imagined movement would be possible. God’s Spirit is free to call people we haven’t considered “religious” to speak and act with prophetic insight and courage.
Whenever traditional people like Joshua become set in our ways, count on God’s Spirit to work through other people to do new things for love and justice. Yes, God sent young people, lesbians and gay men, bisexual, transgender, and queer people who have been considered “outside the mainstream” of religious thought and practice to do the love and justice work we see being done in the Black Lives Matter movement and to challenge congregations and larger religious bodies about the intersectionality of oppression in new ways. Yes, God is inspiring more women and girls and men and boys to throw off longstanding notions of male privilege about who should be leaders – in religious efforts and otherwise. God is doing this love and justice in these new ways because the Holy Spirit is free!
Many people are like Joshua, who was so caught up in traditional notions of authority and power that he couldn’t understand how God always works. The Holy Spirit isn’t bound to follow our notions of rank and privilege. The Holy Spirit isn’t bound by our notions of budget, our forecasts, and our sense of priorities.
We are God’s sails, and the Spirit is God’s wind. Our challenge is to live in the power of the Holy Spirit. We do not and cannot tell God’s wind when to blow. We do not and cannot control how God’s wind will blow. We have no idea where God’s wind will blow us, who God’s wind will blow into fellowship with us, and how God’s wind will blow obstacles from before us.
We have this assurance. God’s wind will blow! God’s wind is blowing! And, God’s wind blows in ways the Holy Spirit chooses to make prophetic changes happen in our lives.
God’s wind blows to make prophetic people shed light on unjust situations powerful people would rather keep under cover.
God’s wind blows to use prophetic people to uproot traditions, customs, and practices powerful people want to maintain.
God’s wind blows to send prophetic voices to disturb our complacency and complicity about poverty, cruelty, inequality, and any other oppression.
God’s wind blows us! And the paradox is that, like Joshua, we who should be most excited about the work of the Holy Spirit are often unhappy about how the Spirit operates.
God’s wind is blowing women, gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, and other queer people, people who have been previously incarcerated, and people who have been overlooked or deliberately shunned by religious people in the past to challenge the politics, commerce, and religion of empire.
God’s wind is blowing! Our challenge is to be good sails!
Our first challenge is to be, like all other prophetic people before us, first amazed. God’s Spirit chooses to work through us. We do not recruit the Holy Spirit. We do not schedule the Holy Spirit. We cannot “organize” the Holy Spirit. We must admit that we are amazed about how the Spirit works and that we are agents of that work.
Then our challenge is to praise God for blowing on us, moving us, commissioning us, and getting God’s work for love and justice done through us. We must resist the temptation to claim credit for what the Holy Spirit is doing. Sails do not deserve credit for moving sailboats. Sailboats move because the wind blows! Without the wind, sails are powerless to move sailboats! Without the Holy Spirit, we can do nothing.
We must also, as Peter did at Pentecost and as Moses did with Joshua, help others understand that prophetic work is always done according to the ways of the Holy Spirit. Joshua, the people who thought the Galileans were drunk, and Nicodemus show that even religious people are not accustomed to how the Holy Spirit works.
So one important obligation of prophetic people is to do what Moses did for Joshua, what Peter did at Pentecost, and what Jesus did for Nicodemus. We must understand and then help others understand that the Spirit of God is not domesticated. God’s Spirit is not house-trained. God’s Spirit is always free.
Among other things, that will require us to admit that we are not in control! Like sailboats, we are on the water for God, but we do not control the wind. We do not define how strongly God’s Spirit will blow us. We cannot dictate to God’s Spirit when to act, where to act, or how long to work through us. We are not in control of God’s Spirit. The Holy Spirit controls us!
What a paradox! We are puny vessels. God’s Spirit transforms our puny and faint-hearted resources in amazing and powerful ways. Let us thank and praise God. Let us be obedient as the Spirit moves us to make God’s prophetic differences in our daily experiences. Let us live and rejoice in the powerful paradox of prophetic hope today, tomorrow, and always!
The comments and perspectives shared by Rev./Judge Griffen are his personal opinions. They do not represent, and should in no way be ascribed to, any other person, organization, or entity, including any member or entity of the Arkansas or American judiciary.