use at your own risk
It is, at once, a violent and an inspiring story. As with the rest of the Bible, our turbulent, bloody world is portrayed as the location where God's purposes are, somehow, being fulfilled. As I told this story yesterday I wondered how it might transform their lives, perhaps even one of their lives. I remembered that the African America slaves that my great-great grandparents owned sang songs like "Joshua fought the battle of Jericho" as inspiration, remembering that, with God's power, the impregnable walls of slavery would surely one day come tumbling down. Of course, they had been handed the stories of the Bible by their owners in the hopes that it would comfort them and give them hope of a better life to come in the next world. Little did their owners realize that the Bible is an incendiary device, that its hard - as in durable - words inscribe a durable hope into those who despair at the possibility of freedom, redemption, reconciliation. I wonder which of the little children gathering around me will have their lives upended by the God met in the stories that we are passing on to them.
In the midst of the angst and gnashing of teeth about the future of the mainline church in North America I find great energy for ministry in imagining that my calling is to sow the seeds of God's word which, as Isaiah reports, will surely not return to God empty. I am confident that the durable Word of God will continue to surprise and captivate those with ears to hear. Reading ahead in preparation for our conversation about Jeremiah on Wednesday mornings I ran across this testimony from the prophet who reports, concerning God: "If I say 'I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name', there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot" (Jer. 20:9). When I think of the church's future I think of a people that has a fire in its bones, that discovers it cannot keep silent in a world that has forgotten the God who works justice and loves mercy.
I imagine that, in passing on these durable words - this Hard Word - of God that they are being given the script needed for their witness as citizens of the kingdom of God in their time and place. I do not expect that this witness will be without trouble. Recall that J S Woodsworth was charged with sedition in the Winnipeg Strike of 1919 because he quoted Isaiah 10:1-2 and Isaiah 65:21-22 in public. Remember that when the songs of Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo were banned they chose to sing Mary's Magnificat. Traditionally sung at evensong, this hymn of a world turned upside down by Jesus' birth had been sung deep into their bones as Roman Catholics. Remember, too, that Mary's song was so incendiary that the Argentinian junta of the 1970's decreed it a crime to sing the Magnificat in public.
The call to seed the next generation with children who have the durable words of God inscribed in their souls, who know these stories - and this God - by heart, is what gives me energy for ministry when the evidence of a revitalized church is thin. When I am tempted to forget that God's Word has - and will have - power to change lives and to transform the world, I dig out Annie Dillard's lovely reminder: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return” (from 'An Expedition to the Pole' in Teaching a Stone to Talk. Harper and Row, 1982).
In other words, when it comes to the Bible pay attention to the warning: "Use at your own risk".