I suppose some people who’ve found their way to this page after typing in ‘ass’ as a search team are going to be seriously disappointed.
Er… Because there’s not a lot of donkey-related information on this page.
The ass I’m referring to belonged, according to Numbers 22, to a Canaanite prophet called Balaam. The story is from the period when the people of Israel are hanging around in the lands east of the river Jordan, beating up the locals. This is okay, apparently, because God had told them the land was theirs and they should turf out those wicked people who were going around the place wickedly minding their own business and stuff. Shocking. Sounds to me like they deserved everything they got.
So the people dishing out the righteous justice have already seen off the Amorites and ‘Og, king of Bashan’ (what a quality name) and now, understandably, Balak, king of Midian, is getting a bit perturbed. (He and his people have also it seems been minding their own business. The infidels!) So Balak calls on Balaam (local purveyor of sooths what needs saying) to go and put a curse on the Israelites.
As an interesting aside, it seems that Balaam receives his oracles from none other than YHWH – God of the Israelites. I’m not the first person, and certainly not the cleverest, to suggest that the evolution of Hebrew monotheism might not have followed the straightforward path outlined in the Bible. I wonder if there’s a hint here that YHWH might have started out as a Canaanite deity. If so, it seems someone has forgotten to airbrush it out.
Anyway. According the text, it seems that Balaam isn’t a false prophet. Balak’s invitation to dish out a bit of cursing is getting the thumbs down from the big G. Balaam stays at home. What happens next is a bit odd (but not the oddest thing that happens in the story). First off, God tells Balaam that it’s alright for him to go with all the king’s men. Then, it seems, God is cross that Balaam goes with all the king’s men and sends Arnie the Angel to stand in the way (complete with flaming sword). Now call me old fashioned, but if you say it’s alright for someone to do something, it’s a little bit unreasonable to be cross with them when they do it. Actually, I can think of more than one occasion where my wife has done the same…
Anyway poor old Balaam sets off on his poor old longsuffering ass. Apparently donkeys can see things people can’t. So Balaam’s ass sees Arnie the Angel. And being more than a little intimidated by big shiny fellow with flaming sword, tries to turn around. Balaam, being a grumpy old sod, whips his ass. I know. I know. I just can‘t resist…
It’s at this point that the even stranger thing happens: Balaam’s ass speaks. Nothing especially profound. Pretty much just, ‘stop hitting me with a big stick!’ It’s at that point that Arnie the Angel stops being invisible (not really very fair of him/her/it in the first place) and tells Balaam to listen to his ass and turn back.
Talking donkeys. Invisible angels with fiery swords. It all sounds more than a little far fetched, doesn’t it! It all sounds like a bit of a bad trip. So why on earth would I make it the text for the Saturday morning session of our recent weekend away?
Well because I wanted to suggest to people that guidance can come to us from the most unexpected of sources. We shouldn’t expect that God will communicate only to and through the people who call themselves God’s people. Guidance may not even come through people at all. Now I don’t mean we should be listening more carefully to what our animals are saying. If someone came to me and told what it was God had told them through the voice of their hamster, I would back away slowly and then, when I was at a safe distance either a) run away or b) get them sectioned. In fact I’d probably react in the same way to anyone who told me they’d heard the audible voice of God in any way. What I mean is that interpreting the story, once again, metaphorically, we should expect to hear from God in circumstances, maybe particularly those that have something of the uncanny about them. (More of this when I post about St Peter’s vision in Acts 10.)
What’s interesting on this occasion is that the guidance is about not going in a particular direction. About some sort of imperceptible obstacle to taking a particular way forward. I often hear people talking about guidance in terms of the opening and closing of particular doors. You have to be careful about this because tit could end up sounding like you should only ever take the easy option. I don’t think it’s that. Actually, Balaam in this story is trying to take the easy option – doing what the king asks instead of standing firm on what he is fairly confident is right.
This reminds me of the occasion from Acts 16 when St Paul and his companions are prevented from going into Turkey by the ‘Spirit of Jesus’. I was reminded of this story by my dissertation supervisor when we were discussing the relationship between discernment and spiritual formation. So, to develop the point I was making in my last post, if the key is spiritual formation, then maybe discernment becomes about being steered away from unhelpful options rather than being shown the one and only way forward from a set of options.
For the parish congregations that my colleague and I are working with, the voice from ‘outside’ the community is not closing a door but potentially opening one. The civic authority has made an invitation that looks like an amazing opportunity to set the Anglican mission in Somerstown on a very sure footing for a very long time to come. We are seriously exploring it.
The other aspect of this story that I wanted to explore is the notion of prophecy itself. In the popular imagination, prophecy is about foretelling – the supernatural ability to predict the future. But, as many commentators have pointed out before, in the Bible, prophecy is very much more concerned with forthtelling. It’s about the people being called to account for themselves and their faithfulness to their values and tradition. Prophets often speak in the midst of a crisis – identifying current troubles as a judgement on a failure to be faithful.
There’s a notion too though, within the pentecostal and charismatic traditions that prophecy is a ‘charism’ – a special ability to speak on behalf of God to the Christian community. This might be a momentary gift or a more longstanding gift; such that the New Testament identifies prophet as a distinct ministry in the life of the Church. My own experience within these traditions and my growth away from them inclines me to be skeptical. But I have been challenged by thinking about this whole notion of discernment to consider again whether (again in the words of my dissertation supervisor) these experiences and gifts might be in my future as well as my past.
So with all that in mind, I invited the people at that Saturday morning session to invite God to speak through them prophetically in response to the invitation we had heard from outside the community.
In a discussion, it’s perfectly normal to expect people to influence one another and for the conversation to develop a dynamic of its own. But if we were to hear in a way that went beyond our collective voice, I thought we needed to approach this question differently.
So I invited people to go and find a space on their own; to spend 10 minutes in quiet, asking God to speak through them; and then to write down what they thought they’d heard. I then asked people to put their piece of paper into a bowl. In then invited everyone to take a piece of paper and read what was written on it. It wouldn’t be fair to share the individual contributions. But there was a sense I think in which there was both an encouragement and a challenge. There was an encouragement to engage in the process we were being invited into without knowing what the outcome would be as well as a challenge to remain true to our emerging core values. I think the sum of those contributions was bigger than its parts and there was a sense that this process moved us on. The door remained open. The way was not barred by any angels with flaming swords that we could detect. But then of course, I could be speaking out of my ass…