Prophetic Imagination and the Lord’s Prayer

23 08 2009

(Just in case you’ve lost track along the way — I almost did ūüôā — I’m in the midst of reading Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination and am blogging my thoughts, one chapter at a time. ¬†This entry is inspired by chapter 5: “Criticism and Pathos in Jesus of Nazareth.” ¬†Click for more food for thought about chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3, or chapter 4)

Brueggemann opens his chapter about Jesus of Nazareth with a disclaimer: “Clearly Jesus cannot be understood simply as a prophet, for that designation, like every other, is inadequate for the historical reality of Jesus. ¬†Nevertheless, among his other functions it is clear that Jesus functioned as a prophet.” ¬†Brueggemann’s study give us the tools and language to understand that particular function of his ministry, and I have a feeling I’ll be referring to this book in my Bible studies for years to come. ¬†Obviously, Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God/kingdom of heaven are a huge part of that prophetic ministry, and his ushering in the kingdom can be seen a radical criticism of the status quo.

One thing that stuck out to me was the radical prayer that Jesus offers his disciples in Matthew 6.  On the surface, it may not seem immediately radical to us, especially for those of us who grew up in liturgical traditions and prayed this prayer every single week.  But some of the phrases stuck out to me for their rhetorical power in building up that alternative consciousness, which God has been establishing from the beginning:

Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.

Prophetic messages are empty if they are removed from God. ¬†For prophets who proclaim social justice or religious freedom, it is essential to know the reason for that social justice and freedom and compassion. ¬†And within the Judaic context, the prophet had a whole rich history of religion — the religion of a people in covenant relationship with their God — to use in his message.

Part of the prophetic message is about setting God apart from the gods of other religions. ¬†Moses’ message declared that our ¬†God — YHWH — is free to love and reach out and show compassion to the broken-hearted and oppressed (as opposed to the stagnant gods of Egypt, who served Pharaoh). ¬†Second Isaiah’s message declared that God called the weary-hearted people near to him to carry them and save them.

Jesus’ ministry attested to both of these prophetic messages. ¬†And in this prayer he sets this God apart, as hallowed in heaven. ¬†This God is greater than any other god we could ever dream up.

Your kingdom come
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

Brueggemann makes the great point that the kingdom of God was radical for everyone, in one way or another. ¬†In true prophetic form, Jesus’ kingdom message offered both mercy and criticism simultaneously. ¬†For example … his ministry to the poor radically challenged the status quo of economic justice, and directly criticized those who profited from others’ poverty. ¬†His ministry to the oppressed also implied that their was another class of people, the oppressors, who would be threatened by his message. ¬†And so on.

So what did this kingdom look like on earth? ¬†Jesus gave us some idea by the way in which he lived out his life, crossing social boundaries with his radical love and compassion. ¬†He broke the Sabbath law, he ate with sinners, he touched the outcasts and the lepers, he crossed gender boundaries in allowing women to join his ministry, he criticized the temple. ¬†Nothing was “safe.” ¬†This kingdom on earth instituted a new social order and thus affected every aspect of life. ¬†And today, we can learn both from the hope and the criticism, as we embody this kingdom-living in our own lives.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Earlier, Brueggemann established that the image of bread was used by Isaiah to symbolize the sustenance offered by God. ¬†Jesus takes the image of bread several steps further: first he recalls Isaiah’s words as he declares that he is the bread of life, and later he breaks bread at the Last Supper to symbolize his own death. ¬† In the first instance, he establishes himself as the daily bread referenced in the prayer; he is all we need for sustenance. ¬†In the second instance, he shows how the process¬†works — through his death and resurrection.

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Stay with me here — this is the coolest part of the prayer. ¬†Jesus’ ministry certainly demonstrated radical forgiveness, and we should never underestimate the power of forgiveness. ¬†It has the potential to dismantle societies (in a good way — in a modern context, I’m thinking of initiatives like As We Forgive and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in various countries). ¬†And notice the past tense of the second phrase — “as we have [already] forgiven.” ¬†As Jesus instructed us during his Sermon on the Mount, we are expected to make our amends and be reconciled to our neighbors¬†before we come to God in prayer or worship.

But it’s not just about forgiving sins — although that’s important. ¬†The most literal translations use the word “debts.” ¬†As in money. ¬†As in, this prayer has radical social, political, and economic implications. ¬†We often interpret Jesus’ debt-forgiveness parablesmetaphorically, forgetting how literally he speaks about money elsewhere in the gospels. ¬†¬†And in fact, the concept of debt forgiveness, among other things, had deep roots in Levitical law. ¬†Leviticus 25 talks about a year of Jubilee, which proclaimed economic freedom for the poor of Israel, to be celebrated every 50 years. ¬†This is the economic order as ordained by God.

So what a promise and blessing that must be for all of us, to know that we are living in the year of the Lord’s favor, as proclaimed by that radical prophet, Jesus of Nazareth!!

Prophetic Imagination and the Music-Makers

22 08 2009

I have long loved William Edgar O’Shaughnessy’s ¬†poem “We are the Music Makers,” but reading The Prophetic Imagination has brought its words to life in a wonderfully new way. ¬† Here is the poem:

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world-forsakers,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers,
Of the world forever, it seems.

With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.

We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.

prophetic-imaginationIn particular, sitting outside in the middle of downtown Atlanta on my lunch break, I found myself quoting the line “With wonderful deathless ditties/We built up the world’s great cities.” ¬†Truly, with the skyscrapers of the city line, the overwhelming busy-ness and traffic, the people walking by with their laptops and cell phones, it seems that this culture and civilization as we know it will be here forever. ¬†And maybe that means that I have bought into the lies of the empire. ¬†All of it — the skyscrapers, the traffic, the schedules, the technology — is manmade, temporal, and subject to God’s much longer continuum of time.

By ourselves, we have built up these cities.  And in their glory days, in our golden eras, we trust in ourselves and in what we have created.  So when all of these systems and civilizations fall (as they eventually must), we are out of the habit of trusting God, and we cannot even trust God to give us a new beginning.  And despair sets in, a deep despair that is far away from the comfort of God.

There is a sterotype that people turn to God only in times of trouble, when they need something from him.  But Brueggemann goes even further, and makes the claim that those who have not trusted God before cannot all of the sudden change that orientation.

Yes, maybe we do start praying more when someone is in the hospital, when we’re contemplating a big decision, or when we hit rock bottom. ¬†But, in those prayers, are we really and truly trusting that something will happen? ¬†Do we believe that God is working among us, changing us, offering us a new beginning? ¬†In short, do we allow ourselves the freedom to hope?

If we have spent our whole lives blocking out God, trusting in ourselves, and denying his presence, we may not even have the potential to imagine anything truly different. ¬†We don’t know where to start.

And that is where prophetic ministry comes in: the prophetic ministry of energizing, of amazement, and of hope.

This is not just about the Jeremiahs and Isaiahs who speak to entire civilizations at one time (although those are necessary, too). ¬†This can also be a prophetic imagination that can penetrate every crevice in every heart. ¬†It may well be the call of “everyday Christians” to speak words of hope into places of despair. ¬† To our family, friends, and neighbors who are grieving or suffering, we can use our words and actions to proclaim hope and the possibility of new life.

And Brueggemann offers this caution to those engaged in the prophetic ministry:

“Hope requires a very careful symbolization. ¬†It must not be expressed too fully in the present tense because hope one can touch and handle is not likely to retain its promissory call to a new future. ¬†Hope expressed only in the present tense will no doubt be co-opted by the managers of this age.”

Or, as Emily Dickinson wrote:

Hope is the thing with feathersSingingBird
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

(singing bird image taken from

Prophetic Imagination for a Broken World

10 08 2009

Last week, Jordan and I got into a discussion about pacifism and non-violence as a viable strategy for social change. ¬† “I think it’s a great idea, and I’m certainly not a violent person,” he said. ¬†“But do you really think it’s practical to expect that we will never have wars? ¬†Or would you really blame someone who uses force in self-defense? ¬†What about World War II? ¬†Would it have been better to just let Hitler be?”

I turned to my standard response: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian and conspiracist who plotted to assassinate Hitler (and ultimately, was arrested and executed for his role in this failed attempt). ¬†For him, it was a necessary choice between two evils: Bonhoeffer never thought that he could ever be “in the right” for killing anyone, even Hitler, but he could not let the injustices of the Nazist regime continue without doing something.

“He’s an extreme example,” I said. ¬†“I think we accept violence all too often without even questioning it. ¬†We use arguments like self-defense to justify anything, when there might be a better way. ¬†We need a paradigm shift, that will allow us to at least believe in the possibility of non-violence.”

prophetic-imaginationReading chapter 3 of Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination got me to thinking: Of course violence is a part of our world. ¬†Of course there is war and murder and domestic violence and bullying and genocide and hate crime. ¬†Of course there are Hitlers. ¬†Of course we co-opt the “self-defense” excuse when it serves our purpose.

After all, we live in a broken world.  We are saturated in our brokenness, to the point that we often do not even see it.  We delude ourselves into thinking we are whole and that we have everything we need.

In short, we believe the lies of the empire. ¬†In several books I have read lately, I see a ¬†trend arising, equating the American culture — of the American empire — with the “royal consciousness” that pervaded Israelite society. ¬† Brueggemann writes:

“We are children of the royal consciousness. ¬†All of us, in one way or another, have deep commitments to it. ¬†So the first question is: How can we have enough freedom to imagine and articulatea real historical newness in our situation? … We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable. We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by the royal consciousness that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.”

I would dare to believe that God’s way is always counter-cultural. ¬†But when we have churches and pastors and books and websites that merely serve to prop up the culture … when the gospel is manipulated and contorted to proclaim the American dream … when people inside the church look and act just like people outside the church … surely, we must know, deep within us, that something has gone awry.

It’s like an addiction. ¬†And the first step in breaking free, in finding healing, is acknowledging our brokenness. ¬†That’s not all, of course. ¬†Eventually there will be repentance: turning around and beginning again. But the first step — and the greatest act of imagination — requires us to challenge the notion that “all is well” and instead, cry out to our God. ¬†This, Brueggemann says, was the message of Jeremiah, the gloom-and-doom prophet. ¬†It wasn’t just pessimism that drove him, but a profound grief and sadness. ¬†He proclaimed his own grief as well as God’s grief at his people’s brokenness, and then, at their stubbornness and apathy.

Imagination and acknowledgment are the first steps.  Then, from grief will come mercy; from death will come new life.

This is the story of redemption.

Transfiguration and the Prophetic Imagination

6 08 2009

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters‚ÄĒone for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

– Matthew 17:1-5

Although I’ve always thought Peter’s suggestion (“Lord, let’s build three shelters”) is incredibly random and slightly ridiculous, I do understand the sentiment behind it–or at least, I thought I did. ¬†This is a “mountaintop experience,” and Peter wants to hold onto the moment for as long as he can, as if by erecting tents he might be able to prolong the vision. ¬†Jesus doesn’t even acknowledge the suggestion, because, of course, there’s work to be done below.

That’s the interpretation I’ve always heard. ¬†However, if you could not tell from yesterday’s blog post, I am in the midst of reading Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination. ¬†And as I made my way through the second chapter, I began thinking about the Transfiguration in a different light. ¬†So here goes:

In Matthew 5, Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.  And previously, I thought chapter 17 was a pretty clear allusion to that fulfillment: Moses represented the Law, and Elijah represented the Prophets.  Obviously.

But Brueggemann expands the notion of prophecy to include Moses as a prophet, as well, and devotes the entire first chapter to the alternative consciousness that Moses represents, in complete opposition to the Egyptian empire. ¬†The gods of the Egyptian empire were “static” — meaning, the religion existed only to serve the ruling elite. ¬†Under such a system, the poor and oppressed — that is, the Israelite slaves — had no reason for hope; after all, if the gods were on Pharaoh’s side, why should they care about their plight?

But the Israelites cried out to the LORD, and he heard them. ¬†And into this prosperous and stable empire entered a God who would change everything. ¬†Omnipotent and all-knowing, this God answered to no one. ¬†He did not confine himself to a temple or to the Pharaoh’s palace; he was, in Brueggemann’s word, free. ¬†Free to do as he wished, free to answer the cries of the Israelites.

This God was a god of the wilderness.  He led his people through the wilderness, and in spite of their complaining and at times, lack of faith, they followed their God through the wilderness, hoping to reach the Promised Land.  His Ark of the Covenant lived in a tent, and that suited Him just fine.  He, of course, was not confined to a tent; he appeared in a burning bush, in a cloud of smoke, in a pillar of fire.

This was the community from which arose the prophet Moses.  This was the God for Whom he prophesied.

Fast-forward several hundred years. ¬†God, of course, did not change; he never does. ¬†But the community of Israel had left the wilderness and moved into the cities. ¬†Against God’s wishes, they appointed a king and set up an empire. ¬†They even built a temple for God within the city of Jerusalem. ¬†They wanted their God to stay in one place, where he might be more manageable. ¬†Brueggemann notes that “Solomon was able to counter completely the counterculture of Moses: 1. He countered the economics of equality with the economics of affluence … 2. He countered the politics of justice with the politics of oppression … 3. He countered the religion of God’s freedom with the religion of God’s accessibility.”

But, of course, God did not just go quietly into his little temple and stay there.  No, he commissioned prophets to confront the kingdom and imagine another consciousness for the people of Israel and their religion. This alternative consciousness was concerned with justice and with sacrifices that actually meant something; it recalled a time of wilderness for both God and His people.  These were the prophets who shaped our collective understanding of prophecy: Samuel, Nathan, Abijah, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, Daniel, Amos, etc.

And then we have this passage of the Transfiguration from Matthew 17. ¬†What should we do with it? How should we understand Peter’s suggestion?

Like Moses and Elijah, Jesus spoke out against the prevailing culture and religion of his day. ¬†Interestingly, he spoke often of the kingdom of God, even proclaiming that the “kingdom of God is at hand” ¬† (Mark 1:15). ¬†His audience loved it. They thought their Messiah was igniting a revolution against the ruling Romans and paving the way for Israel to re-establish its kingdom. ¬†They expected a king-Messiah who would use force to take over and save them.

They were missing the point. And so was Peter. Whether consciously or not, I think Peter’s suggestion displays a Solomonic affinity for temple-building, for putting down roots and erecting long-lasting structures. ¬†But the kingdom of God of which Jesus spoke was vastly different from the Davidic monarchy. ¬†He had not come to build a temple: he was the temple (John 2:19), free to call and choose and love both Jews and Gentiles, and by so doing, to set them free, as well. ¬†Like Moses and Elijah before him, Jesus was in the business of proclaiming an alternative consciousness and an alternative kingdom. ¬†His was the sort of counterculture that could — and can — only be found by stepping into the wilderness and meeting God there.

Listen to Him! Listen to his vision, his prophecy, his new Law, his transformative message! Listen to His voice, crying out in the wilderness to proclaim His kingdom! Listen!

Sing a new song!

5 08 2009

Yesterday in my violin blog, I shared my new favorite quote, by cellist Pablo Casals:

“Perhaps it is music that will save the world.”

A nice idea, surely, and one which gives legitimacy to the role of music (and by extension, any other creative pursuit) within our society. Community arts initiatives repeatedly testify to the fact that art, music, and theatre can be effective tools of inspiration,  affirmation, and transformation.  But do we really believe that the arts, by themselves, are really that powerful?  I know that even I tend to downplay the importance of artistic initiatives when compared to, for example, social justice programs.  And in the church especially, the arts definitely take a backseat when compared with missions, evangelism, or spiritual formation (**Not that such things are not important, because they certainly are.  But what about an integrative vision that incorporates and nurtures the arts as an essential aspect of ministry??**)

In¬†The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann suggests that igniting the church’s imagination is vital to its very capacity for prophetic ministry. ¬†As an example, he analyzes the Song of the Sea (Ex. 15:1-18), in which the people of Israel, newly liberated from Egypt, sing praises to YHWH for their deliverance.

“It is only a poem, and we might rightly say that singing a song does not change reality. ¬†However, we must not say that with too much conviction…Only where there is doxology can there be justice, for such songs transfigure fear into energy.”

Art for art’s sake? ¬†May it never be! Instead, ¬†O God, may we use our creative abilities to imagine another world as it bursts forth and blossoms into our new reality!