Sunday, June 20, 2010

Prophets in the Camp

Two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the Tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. (Numbers 11.26)

Church Stuff

The World Cup is in full swing, and Walt and I are watching it from the States instead of Paris, where we’ve seen the past three tournaments unfold. Actually, not watching it is closer to the truth. In the US, the Cup is appointment TV. In virtually every other nation, it’s a 24/7 obsession that knows no bounds. It’s everywhere—blaring on every radio and television, projected on huge LED monitors in public squares, plastered across the headlines, and parading through the streets on the backs of people sporting their nations’ colors. It outranks any other human event in its capacity to arrest nearly universal attention. Being in Paris during the Cup means always knowing what match is underway and how its outcome affects your team’s chances. Ordinary boundaries and behaviors are set aside. Social propriety—normally a big deal to Parisians—is moot. It doesn’t matter where you are or who you are, if you’re walking down the street and the city suddenly erupts, you dash into the nearest café or shop to find out who scored. (During our first World Cup in Paris, we were literally terrified when an enormous roar sent people running as fast as they could toward City Hall. We thought a riot broke out or the Métro had been bombed. No. Everyone was rushing to catch the replay of the latest goal on the plaza’s massive screen.)

Watching the World Cup in Chicago not only reminds me how differently America views the event. It also reinforces how similar we all are. Other than the Cup, when we’re in Paris—or anywhere else, for that matter—the same boundaries and behavioral expectations apply. We assign certain activities to certain locations and keep them there. It disrupts our sense of order when people do something where it shouldn’t be done. We’re not supposed to cheer out our windows or dance in the street. It’s inappropriate to sing in the supermarket or discuss sex in mixed company. Nowhere are these boundaries and behaviors more firmly enforced than in matters of faith. The mention of God or prayer or the Bible is enough to clear a room. Bringing them up at coffee break can alienate colleagues. Sharing our beliefs with non-believing friends can turn us into social pariahs. That’s “church stuff,” and church is where it belongs. But how can that be? At its core, it declares a message no human tires of hearing: You are loved. So, if it's not the message that offends, what makes people uncomfortable? It's where the message is delivered. And this creates a dilemma for every believer, because places where the message of God's love and acceptance is least welcome are the very places where it's most needed.

No Place for Prophecy

Judging from Scripture, concerns about confining certain topics and behaviors to certain places have always been with us. In Numbers 11, we find Israel in another desert crisis. There’s not enough food, and people are complaining. God tells Moses to instruct them to get prepared to eat meat. He’s going to send such an outpouring of food He promises they’ll come to loathe it. (Evidently their crankiness has made Him a little cranky.) Then He tells Moses to gather 70 elders around the Tent, Israel’s consecrated place of worship. God’s Spirit descends on Moses and the elders, all of whom begin to prophesy. Two elders, Eldad and Medad, remain in the camp. When the Spirit falls on the elders at the Tent, It also falls on them and they likewise prophesy.

This upsets everyone. The camp is no place for prophecy! That sort of thing shouldn’t be practiced in an unconsecrated environment! What’s ironic here is the people who are so hungry they won’t stop grumbling aren’t too hungry to be outraged when two elders speak God’s word in an “inappropriate” place. They send a young man to alert Moses to this breach of protocol. The news is so shocking Joshua, Moses’s aide and Israel’s future leader, says, “My lord, stop them!” (Numbers 11.29) But Moses doesn’t stop Eldad and Medad. Instead, he puts a stop to the notion of prophetic impropriety. He says, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (v30) He and the 70 elders return to the camp to find it no worse than when they left. Soon Eldad and Medad are forgot in a downpour of more quail than Israel can stomach.

Where, When, and Through Whom

Why is this episode worth mentioning? The provision isn’t unique; God has sent quail to feed Israel before. The descent of God’s Spirit isn’t unique; it regularly falls when Israel’s priests and prophets worship. The only irregular aspect of the story is God’s manifested presence on Eldad and Medad in the camp, away from the Tent. Numbers never explains why they don’t join the other elders at the Tent. Maybe they’re occupied with other things—caring for the hungry and destitute, perhaps—and miss the summons. Maybe they prefer to hang back with people who aren’t deemed righteous enough to worship at the Tent. Maybe they’re radicals who aren’t viewed favorably by their conservative peers. All we know is they’re nowhere near the Tent. Yet God’s Spirit finds them, falls on them, and speaks through them. That’s what makes the incident extraordinary. And it teaches us something very important.

God places prophets in the camp. He speaks where, when, and through whom He wills, often disregarding what we regard appropriate and acceptable. Because of this, each of us is as likely to be chosen to speak His Word as anyone else. We need not be at church or the altar. The company of fellow believers isn’t required, nor is approval of those around us. We may never be selected to join the elite at the Tent. Though we are all qualified, circumstances or instincts may cause us to stay behind in the camp. Yet being away from the Tent has no bearing on our ability to receive God’s Spirit and minister to His people.

When the Spirit breathes words of compassion and justice, wisdom and grace into our hearts, we speak where we are to those who will hear. His word is for them. It is they who are hungry and out of sorts and need the comfort of God’s promises. It’s foolish and selfish to withhold God’s blessings from those around us, waiting until we’re at the Tent to share them to others of like faith. They know whereof we speak. Besides, there are plenty of prophets there, some of whom, like Joshua, don’t understand God’s ways. We’re where we are and speak where we are because God longs to commune with His people in the camp. They may never reach, or have any desire to reach, the Tent. But they’re His children and His heart aches to reach them. That’s why He needs—and we need to be—His prophets in the camp.

God places many of us in the camp to speak His word to people who may never reach or believe it’s necessary to reach the Tent.


TomCat said...

Tim, often the problem is not where or when, but how.

My first exposure to evangelism was at age 18 at a party. A lovely looking young lady approached me. Not believing my good fortune, I said, "Hi." She said, "If you don't put that cigarette out and pray right now, you're going to go to hell." I asked, "And where are you going?" She smugly replied, "Why, heaven, of course." I said, "Cool! Then the other place will suit me just fine!"

After that experience, nobody could even approach me on the subject without me shutting them down or tuning them out for years.

As a believer, now, I'm more open to talk about it, but to this day, when people approach me aggressively, I get turned off.

I hope you are not offended, but whenever Mormons or JWs come to the door to evangelize, I pretend to be gay, pretend to be very hot for them, and laugh as they run away as though old split-foot himself were chasing them.

Tim said...

Tom, thank you for this. You're right, the "how" is a big deal. But many of us who've experienced high-pressure tactics make an across-the-board policy never to talk about faith at all out of fear of being offensive. As a consequence, we create a vacuum for misguided people to fill. That's why the public faith discussion is out of balance, I believe.

Those of us who've experienced true forgiveness, love, and acceptance must not shrink from opportunities to offer this hope to others. And if we approach it "prophetically"--i.e., "this is God's promise"--rather than a recruitment campaign or pronouncement of judgment, it will be received. What I love about Eldad and Medad is they were with the people. They weren't speaking for God, they allowed God to speak through them. That's a huge difference in approach.

The young lady you mention was obviously misguided. She used fear as a lever, which contradicts 1 John ("There is no fear in love, for fear has to do with punishment. Perfect love casts out fear") and 1 Corinthians 13 ("Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, if I don't have love, I am nothing.") I'm always reminded Paul's segue at the end of chapter 12 says, "Now I show you a better way." Those of us that know "the better way"--speaking love--shouldn't be afraid to share that with people who need to be loved. That's what genuine evangelism comes down to, I believe.

As to your ruse with evangelical canvassing types, I'm not offended. In a way, "gay-acting" is more gentle, perhaps, than overt hostility. It saddens me, though, that these folks would run, as it indicates how deeply entrenched their fear of and/or lack of concern for non-heterosexuals truly is.

My mom had a superb strategy for these situations. After the opening spiel, she'd say, "Do come in, I've been praying for an opportunity to lead someone to Christ. God has obviously sent you to me." When they insisted they already were believers, she'd say, "Well, then, I won't waste your time. God bless you." And she'd politely close the door. If they did come in, once the pressure tactics began, she'd say, "I believe there's been a misunderstanding. I never debate Scripture. Thank you for your visit," and she'd show them to the door. After that, we noticed our house became known as the one to avoid...

The situations you mention, Tom, make it tough to serve as prophets in the camp--we're saddled with preceding reputations, I suppose. Yet because of them, I'm all the more convinced we should share God's love with others when we feel the Spirit's urgency to do so.

Blessings, my friend--and thanks again for the provocative, insightful comment!

TomCat said...

That said, you may rest assured that I do talk about faith. I just don't force it. My other tactic for JW's is that I tell them they lost the E. Lost the E? It's 144,000 JEWS, not JWs. ;-)

Tim said...

That's the ticket, Tom. Jesus never forced His message on anyone. It was always, "Whoever will, let him come..."

Ah, yes, that 144,000... one of those Revelation goodies that so many stumble over. (BTW, I live with a former Witness and when I asked why a faith with such limited eternal capacity would continue to evangelize, he just looked at me and shook his head.)

Blessings, my friend,

genevieve said...

IT's part of our life and important so it wonderful to share. I don't force anything on anyone. Many things Jesus did were outside the camp.

Living genuine lives is not confined by time or strict binaries. Many folks will be repelled by and yet some of those same folks want to live the life we live. It costs something but for me the cost is worth it.

Tim said...

Genevieve, I'm sorry for the delay in publishing and responding to your comment. I've been away from the blog a good part of this week and am just now returning.

I couldn't agree more--authenticity is the answer to so much of what we struggle with in our lives, including our witness and responding to needs where we are. Permitting manmade opinions and conventions to shape us disables our abilities to live productive, compassionate lives. Yes, defying norms exacts great costs from us. But what we gain in return is priceless!

Thank you for this. It speaks to my heart, especially during this Pride weekend!

Blessings always,