A few weeks ago, as the middle and high school students in my Sunday school class packed up their Bibles and shoved a final munchkin or two into their mouths before entering “big church”, we had a little conversation about the books of the Bible we most enjoy reading. It was fun to hear their responses, and undoubtedly a little wonderful to know that most of them read their Bibles on their own time.
Kind of awkwardly, I mentioned my love for the prophets. It’s weird, I know, and I admitted as much. No shame in my game. I have no idea where my penchant for these books of lament and grief and doom comes from, but I don’t tend to view those books that way. No. When I read them, I am overwhelmed by the hope and grace that flows out. I am wooed by this relentless God who loves these broken, broken people. I am in awe of the singular voices who call everyone back, and who are brave and faithful enough to speak of a reality that seems impossible to those listening.
In a lot of ways, the prophets frame the gospel for me. They prepare my heart to want Jesus, to believe that his coming means something. They convince me to take hold and believe God for my own impossible realities.
I was twenty years old before I ventured into all of those strange books in the middle of the Word. I remember the first great adventure: I was sitting in my family room in a swivel chair, my Bible on my lap, and I got lost in Isaiah for a couple of hours. I challenge you here and now—read Isaiah 54-55 and try not to be swept off your feet by this God. This compassionate, gracious, tender God.
I finished reading, closed my Bible, and in a moment of rushing anger, threw it all the way across the room. It hit the wall.
Why did no one introduce me to this God before now?
Such a shame.
I have been reading Walter Brueggemann’s book The Prophetic Imagination this winter, and at the same time, guiding the youth through this one question:
God, where do you want to transform us?
The idea to talk about transformation first came to mind back in December. I was on a cruise. It was warm and sunny and there was a whole lotta reggae looping in my head. I’m sure I’d had one or two of those drinks-of-the-day. I thought: Wouldn’t it be cool to not only teach people that God can transform them, but to become people who ask Him to do it and see what happens?
Great idea, Kristin.
At the same time, I had Walter Brueggemann whispering lines from his book into my subconscious.
What the prophetic tradition knows is that [reality] could be different, and that the difference can be enacted.
Yahweh makes possible and requires an alternative theology and an alternative sociology. Prophecy begins by discerning how genuinely alternative He is.
…things are not as they should be, not as they were promised, and not as they must and will be.
All of my thoughts boiled down to this: if we are following Jesus, there should be something different about us. Brueggemann calls us to an alternative reality because we are following a God who is different from all of the other so-called gods and systems of the day. Paul commands us to be transformed in our minds and actions. Jesus challenges us to leave our stuff and our jobs and our families and follow him. And God makes this all possible somehow.
And if following this different God into a different reality looks exactly the same as the American dream, or consumerism, or keeping up with the Joneses, and the only difference between me and everyone else is that I go to church and read my Bible, I have to question whether I have maybe misunderstood something.
God, what alternative do you have for us? I wondered. Transform me, God. Show me. Open my eyes.
I have discovered something: transformation feels a lot like death. It seems to start there, in the dying.
I guess it makes sense. Things that are already good don’t need to transform into something good. There is no need for the places in me that are trusting God and following closely to die and find new life. On the other hand, the places that are barren, lacking God, opposed to Him, have to die first and wait in hope for the newness.
This spring, as I was leading the students in asking God to transform them (the students, it’s all about the students, God!), He took the opportunity to show me (more than) a few places where He wanted me to submit to my own dying.
It was not pretty. By March, I was about spent.
It’s a hard and vulnerable thing, to suddenly see your sin. To be aware of the places in you that are prideful and hateful and bitter and angry. And to know that they are that way because you fundamentally don’t trust God as much as you trust yourself.
But in the midst of sure death, the prophets start prophesying. And their message is not one of punishment and condemnation, but one of hope. It was true for Israel, and it is true for me.
Yaweh creates life from death—from nothingness, even. Again and again in those books, I read that. When all hope is lost, when reality overwhelms, He steps in and creates a new reality, reveals His perpetual hope.
I start feeling as if new life is being breathed in, sweeping the dead things away.
On our final night of youth group for the spring, we testify to how God has been faithful. To how He has transformed us.
Oh, and He has. He is. He will.
We pray prayers of gratitude. We build ebeneezers and lay hands on thick on one another’s behalf. God, don’t let it stop! we pray.
And I leave them with this: one of my favorite passages lately. Appropriately, a prophet. Because I want them to know, I want myself to know, that this is our God.
The desolate land will be cultivated instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass through it. They will say, “This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden, the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited. Then the nations around you that remain will know that I, the Lord, have rebuilt what was destroyed and have replanted what was desolate.