building bridges to the future: prophetic speech in a violent age

           “The kingdom of God is within you,” Jesus said in Luke 17.21.  What is within us is precisely what the world is waiting for.  When the apostle Paul describes the groaning of the creation for the world to come, he said “the creation waits with eager longing for the children of God.”  It’s an astonishing claim, really—that what the creation sighs for, but does not know how to name, is the revelation of God’s sons and daughters!  Even in John’s fantastic, apocalyptic vision, dizzying with the brilliant colors of the world to come, the new Jerusalem that comes down from heaven is “the bride” of Christ, the “wife of the lamb.”  In other words, even the heavenly vision of the new Jerusalem is not of a geographical space, but of a people—of us.  Simply put, the people of God are the hope of the world.

            It’s a staggering vision, but also a responsibility beyond our reckoning, to bear Christ’s light and hope over against the darkness, violence and indifference of the world.  We are called to be God’s light-bearers, God’s hope-bearers.  Yet the tragic thing is, many of those called to bear divine hope in the world (under the influence of end-times doomsday schemes as well as unadorned cynicism) often give up on the world they are called to transfigure by their own light.  What does it mean for the world when the light-bearers lose heart?  Too many professed Christians are waiting for God to come and rescue them at the bus stop, while the world is waiting on us—waiting for the manifestation of the sons and daughters of God. 

            When confronted with the darkness of the world, it becomes far too easy to join the chorus of accusers who simply point out all that’s wrong with the world.  The truth is, anyone can point out what’s wrong with the world we’ve been given—it takes neither courage nor prophecy to see how far we are from the beauty we were intended for.  We have all too often become experts in stating the obvious.  When the Holy Spirit is given in Acts Two, the promise is that “your sons and daughters will prophesy.”  We are not called to be mere commentators, but prophets who speak God’s hope into the long night of creation’s sighing. 

            Hope, in terms of Scripture’s account, is not rhetorical, fanciful, or sentimental.  If we live long enough, we will arrive in places where optimism will get us nowhere.  But hard-edged hope in the Restorer of creation is not predicated on keeping our heads in the sand.  Hope is hard-edged.  Hope is tough.  Hope is robust.  Authentic hope is not naïve, childish optimism toward the myth of progress.  Hope remains after our own innocence, and our youthful ways of ordering the world, have long been burned away.  Real hope is as hard and lasting as God, as it is from God that it originates.

            But hope for the creation can only be incarnated when the people of God recognize the power of the Spirit within them to become agents of beauty, reconciliation and new life.  In our love and full acceptance of people’s otherness, we give the world a glimpse of the plans God has for the whole creation.  Through our prophetic witness of tenderness, the world can glimpse the beauty just ahead, within us.  This is why we can’t lose heart, even when its terribly dark out.  If Romans 8.18—25 is true, we never have a right to give up hope for the creation, because we are the very manifestation of that hope.  We can’t give up on the world because God has not.  In fact, we aren’t authorized to give up on anyone because God has not.  We don’t get to play judge.  We don’t decide anyone or anything is without hope, we simply bear it with patience.             

Speaking in hope

            There was a phase in charismatic culture when everybody was talking about “the word of faith” movement.  There was a lot of talk of “speaking things into existence.”  We used to talk about this derisively, as “name it and claim it, blab it and grab it.”  And in its worst forms, that was not an inelegant or unfair expression for it.  There actually were people teaching folks to speak their Mercedes into existence, and telling people not to ever admit out loud if they were sick, because that would be a “negative confession.”  It was the power of positive thinking on steroids.  I dismissed almost all of this, because it struck me as a way of simply living in denial of reality at best, and at worst a way to guilt Christians who were not walking in “health and wealth” for not being “positive enough.”

            There is something still about all of this that strikes me as trivial, like some kind of infantile (and unreliable) kind of magical way of understanding the Christian life.  And yet in more recent years, even for the abuses I’ve seen, I’ve come full circle to realize just how much life, hope and power is divinely mediated through human speech.  Even now, that feels odd to feel myself type.  I don’t speak new cars or jobs into existence, and I’m not going to say I’m well when I’m sick.  But I do believe there is something creative, something generative, that occurs when we speak God’s hope into the world. 

            In Genesis, it is the word of God that calls creation into existence; in Revelation it is the word of God that calls creation into account.  Jesus Himself is the “word made flesh,” the once-and-for-all definitive statement of who and what God is.  As people who have this divine word alive inside of us, we are called then to speak, not trivialities or sentimental platitudes, but hard-edged hope.

            Prophecy is not, as I once understood it, an attempt to describe the future, and it is not a gift for a small handful of people.  It is part of the birthright of the entire Church, given to us on the birthday of the entire Church, the day of Pentecost.  When the Holy Spirit is poured out, the apostle Peter proclaims, “this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17In 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.”  All of God’s son and daughters are to prophesy, to speak God’s hope into the world on His behalf.  And while this hopeful speech does not describe the future in some kind of scripted detail, it does in fact make a hopeful future possible.

            I used to be scared death of so-called “prophets” when I was a boy, because I was scared they would publicly expose my inner life when I was going through puberty based on some Holy Ghost insider trading.  But I’ve learned that while God certainly can speak words of judgment, that is rarely how the gift of prophecy actually works.  Speaking on God’s behalf always entails speaking the love of God, and almost always is hopeful in orientation.  God always speaks a better word over us, than whatever it is we think we might deserve. 

            If you want to know just how powerful prophetic speech, look no further than the American civil rights movement.  My favorite book on Martin Luther King Jr. is Richard Lischer’s Preacher King: MLK and the Word that Moved America.  Lischer had me at the title, because it was in fact the word of God as was enacted through the speech and even death of Martin Luther King that turned the world upside down.  King himself evoked the biblical prophets often, passages like Amos 5.24, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  This kind of prophetic speech does not make calculations for the future, but is the harbinger of new creation.  Prophetic speech brings the life that is yet to come into the present. 

         The world needs less idle speculation about the future from us, & more prophetic speech like Ezekiel's, that brings dry bones to life.  Consider this extraordinary text, Ezekiel 37: 

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ 4Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’ 7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.11 Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’

Ezekiel is able to speak honestly about what he sees: a valley of very, very dry bones.  He sees the valley of dry bones with terrible clarity. Hope and denial are very different in that way. We cannot speak of God's hope authentically so long as our heads are buried in the sand. Prophetic speech is equal parts honest about the world as it is and yet full of hard-edged hope for the world as it could (and must) become.  

            The temptation, though, is for us is to speak ABOUT the valley of dry bones rather than speaking life, hope and breath INTO them.  God's people are called to speak to, not speak about.  The sons and daughters of God are called to prophesy.  Dead religion calls people to give color commentary on the valley of dry bones, to merely describe them.  We become experts in stating the obvious. "Your sons & daughters shall prophesy,"not become mere commentators.  Only someone given over to the Holy Spirit of God can see a situation in all of its starkness and impossibility, and speak a work of authentic hope into it.    

          When God calls Ezekiel to "prophecy to the breath," He is asking Him to do the same thing God Himself did in Genesis 1-2 in the creation story when He breathed into the first humans.  As those called to co-create with God, we are able to speak that kind of life and breath into others. There is no distinction in Hebrew between "breath" and "spirit."  We are literally filled with the "Holy Breath" of God, and can now breathe life into others because of the life now in us.  We can speak life where there has only been death, streams of living water where there has only been dryness.

            This idea is trivialized when people treat it like some kind of cheap parlor trick.  We are not given the breath of God to somehow speak all of our whims and fleeting desires into existence.  We can't call cars and jewelry out of thin air.  This is not some kind of superstition or folk magic--it is much more powerful.  This is power to raise the dead to life through our own life-giving, hope-dealing speech.  It is not to talk, but to prophesy.  It is to call the very breath of God, the Spirit of God, into places where death has reigned.  

            Our words do not conjure new life out of nowhere, but summon God's breath into those who could not breathe before.  It is not our breath that we offer, but God's breath that we extend. It is never power given to us to destroy or tear down--only to create.  We have the unique capacity to speak life/to prophesy into forgotten people, in forgotten places—to speak life into that which is already dead.  The Spirit of the future breaks into the present in that which may appear to us to be long gone and “not worth saving.” 

            We must take the risk to prophesy.  We must dare to speak the words that are so powerful, that Spirit is housed within them—words like: “I’m not going to give up on you, no matter what.”  Words like, “You will always be welcome here.”  Words like “I’m never going to stop loving you.”  Words of condemnation and judgment, even when spoken from a sincere desire to help or correct, almost never work to bring meaningful change.  They simply do not have divine life surging through them.  We are rarely able to “set people straight” with our speech.  But through our prophetic words, we may in fact set whole new paths ahead of those we love.  Hopeful speech, animated by the Spirit of life and love Herself, builds bridges into the future.  Hopeful speech creates new possibilities; hopeful words make God’s future possible in lives where there was not possibility before.  This doesn’t give us a magic formula for healing or financial prosperity, nor work as some kind of voodoo.  But the word of faith folks were right about this part: the power of life and death is in fact invested in human speech. 

            That doesn’t mean that hope talk is the only way we serve the world.  But in a violent age, where words are so often wielded like weapons, and words are mediated through wifi and cell signals with the negative energy of the prince of the power of the air, the power of such speech cannot be overstated.  Entering into God’s future for the creation does not end with hope-filled speech, but it may at least begin there, and in any case the bridges we need into such a future can’t be built without words.  We keep speaking God’s relentless love, the terrible tenderness of Spirit, way past the point where hope seems reasonable.  We continue speaking hope when all options have been exhausted, and we speak them in the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  And sometime, somewhere, someday, in some place—they are remembered.  They are activated.  

            Violent speech is the primary vehicle of hate and animosity in a world with unprecedented connectivity, and prophetic speech may yet be our best defense against such powers.  However realistic we must speak about the challenges at hand, our speech must yet be more descriptive of God’s transforming love than of human weakness. 

            This means we must take the risk to be awkward, take the risk to get beyond chit-chat, small talk, and banter.  It takes a lot of toughness to be sincere and vulnerable, to live with our defenses down, especially when it can feel that everyone around us has built up such impenetrable walls and fences.  But love alone can tear those walls down; love alone can penetrate the thickness of the night with divine hope.  Love alone, mediated through the fragility of human speech, builds bridges into God’s good future for the world.