What to do when your ass speaks…

18 03 2010

‘If God can speak through Balaam’s ass, God can speak through anyone.’ It’s an old, bad joke. A joke, sadly, I’ve never quite grown out of.

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…

Take a chance on me…

13 03 2010

Any priest who encouraged their congregation to take a punt on the ponies would probably not be surprised to be summoned to see their bishop. Gambling has probably rightly been seen as difficult to reconcile with Christian discipleship. It’s forever associated in the Christian imagination with the game of dice that determined which of the soldiers that had brutally executed Jesus would get to keep the shirt off his back. Gambling is associated too with the frivolous waste of resources – the opposite of good stewardship – and with greed and vice. Games of chance seem at odds with a somewhat more deterministic Christian worldview. Letting things turn on the roll of a dice appears the inverse of seeking to learn the will of God.

And yet at the very beginning of the Church’s life we see a pretty major decision being made on the basis of a game of chance. Choosing the successor of Judas was settled by the casting of lots (aka cleromancy [sorry I love jargon]) according to the book of Acts.

It’s not the only time it features in the Bible when people are trying to hear from God or in the next case, the gods. In the story of Jonah, the stormblown sailors work out who the ‘Jonah’ is by casting lots. According to some writers on t’internet there are 70 references to ‘lots’ in the Hebrew Scriptures and a handful in the New Testament. That may be right or it might not. To be honest I can’t be bothered to trawl through and check it out. Maybe I should cast my urim and thummim to find out…

Thinking about the choosing of Matthias over Justus led me to wonder about the role of chance in the process of discernment.

If you’re a reasonably regular reader of this blog then you’ll probably have been wondering if there was ever going to be anything new on here anytime soon. But leaving that aside you probably also know that I’m in the process of writing my MA disssertation at present. It’s on the subject of discernment in pioneer ministry. This is no pure ‘academic’ exercise for me. There are some really puzzling questions facing my colleague and I and the churches and communities we serve. Finding out what shape is taken here by the ‘thy will’ that we want to ‘be done’ in Somerstown as in heaven is very much on our agenda. I’ll say more in coming posts about what we might mean by God’s will and how we engage with it. For now let it suffice to say that I don’t think it’s as simple as working out what God wants and then just getting on with it.

Thinking about casting lots came about as I puzzled over how to help my little mission community – the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s – into taking part in and responsibility for discerning a way foward for our ‘Sunday Sanctuary’ endeavour as we went away together for the first weekend in March. I was taking a trawl through the book of Acts looking at occasions when the Church in mission engaged in a process of discernment as its members wrestled with questions of direction. And this choice – who should replace Judas as one of ‘the Twelve’ – was the first that we looked at. At our weekend away, I suggested four features of that process that might help us in facing the questions that lay before us. I’ve since thought of a fifth. So starting with that new thought, here are five features of the discernment process that I discern in Acts 1.12-26.

    This is pretty much the first decision that the band of Jesus’ disciples had to make following the ascension of Jesus. Here for the first time they’re on their own. They’re not simply following where they’re led anymore. The responsibility lies with them. I think that’s significant. It’s not simply a matter of seeing where Jesus is off to next and tagging along. It calls for a degree of maturity, independence even. I don’t mean that they are no longer dependent on Christ. But their relationship has changed. He is simply not physically there any more. The disciples have to come to terms hwith his abscence. His promised presence comes to them through the gift of the Holy Spirit. In terms of the Acts account, the fullness of the Spirit is yet to come at this point. They’re not quite on their own. But they’re not just followers any more either. It’s down to them. They have to grow up.
    But as much as they have to grow up from their dependence on Jesus’ constant physical presence and direction, they are absolutely grounded in prayer. They don’t approach this question cold, their response comes out of their prayer. According to the writer of Acts they are ‘constantly devoting themselves to prayer’. I think this isn’t so much about just becoming empty vessels through which the Holy Spirit can speak. Prayer is the means by which they continue to be formed as disciples; to become themselves; to grow up into the people God is calling them to be.
    Judas was a pretty bad egg. At least that’s what the writer of this text wants us to think. None of this hanging himself after being overcome with remorse as in Matthew. (Take note anyone who wants to deny that the Bible has errors or contradictions.) In contrast to Matthew’s account, the Acts writer depicts a smug Judas getting his come-uppance. God gets ‘medieval on his ass’. Anyway none of that is really the point! The point is that despite having had a really bad experience with one of the Twelve (whom incidentally, Jesus chose), they don’t think: ‘well, eleven apostles is enough’. It doesn’t even occur to them that there should be fewer than twelve. The deep sacramental significance of the number is not a matter of small importance for them. It was what they had received from their Lord and it echoed the symbolic division of tribes in their own sacred history. There was no question for them but that their should be a twelfth apostle.
    I suppose this is very much linked to the first point, so maybe that wasn’t such a new point after all. But it comes from a different part of this story of discernment. There are about 120 people together at the point of making this choice. Some of these will have joined the growing (and, on occasion, shrinking) band of disciples at different points in Jesus’ ministry. But the original Twelve were chosen from a bigger band of followers who had been there from the start: Jesus’ baptism. So I think it’s unlikely that the two names were the only two possible names that could have been put forward at this point. This group have taken responsibility and narrowed down the options. From a larger field of candidates they have got it down to two between whom they cannot choose. They’ve got two good options. If there was only one obvious choice, they wouldn’t have needed the next step. It would have been settled by default. But the writer wants us to see that the unsuccesful candidate was a jolly good egg. Joseph Barsabbas (son of Sabbas) has the latin nickname ‘Justus’ – meaning fair-minded.
    This is the bit that is the most difficult for the modern mind to cope with. But when it came down to it, they left it to chance. They drew straws or threw dice or coloured stones. We don’t know exactly how they ‘cast lots’ and it’s a good thing that we don’t. Otherwise we might have ritualised that particular action instead of being able to see the metaphorical possibilities. There is a place for chance, or happenstance if you prefer, in finding a way forward.

At the beginning of our weekend away we drew straws to see who would end up reading which Bible passage of the half a dozen or so we would be hearing over the course of the weekend. I suggested to people that if they got one of the Bible readings they might look for what God wanted to say to them through this particular reading. And to those who didn’t get a reading, I made the invitation that they look for what God was wanting to say to them through not having a specific passage to look at.

Does that mean that I think God chose this particular reading (or lack of a reading) for them? I honestly don’t know.

I suspect not.

I think it’s more about the openness to hear from God that’s important. I believe that God, by God’s Spirit is gently calling, speaking, leading us all the time. That openness, if people achieved it, will have created the space for them to connect with the still small voice and so grow into what God has for them. Do you understand what I mean?

I guess I’d say the same about that group of disciples. Was Matthias the only right choice? Was there some flaw in Justus’ character that meant he would have been a disaster? He surely couldn’t have been worse than Jesus’ personal choice: Judas. So maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe both men would have been an equally good choice but in the end there could be only one. So let chance happen and see what emerges.

But what both men had, I think, is character. They were formed through their experience of Jesus and their deep and constant engagement with God in prayer. In the end it was about the whole community being shaped by Christ together and then seeing what happened. As I’ve said before I think this is a more authentic way of reading the stories of Jesus himself. I don’t think his ministry is about him following a minutely laid out plan. So that at every point he is hearing form his Father what to do next – turn left up ahead you’ll meet a blind man, heal him; breathe in, Son, now breathe out – no I really think Jesus just wanders about and stuff happens because of who he is. Wherever he goes, there’ll be a blind man or a troubled woman or a demoniac or a dead child. So maybe for us too, discernment is more about the formation of a Christlike character in us as individuals and communities. Making some choices ourselves using the brains what God has given us, then, taking a chance, letting stuff happen.