Friday, 14 March 2008

The nature of prophecy

I like to read the Old Testament prophets. Why? Despite the time in which they were written, they continue to have meaning today. There are some attributes of a prophecy that we need to keep in mind. A prophet’s message will usually include some message of judgement and also a message of hope but more importantly, a prophecy speaks to the past, the present, and the future.

A message of judgement should tell us what is wrong and what needs to be done in order to change the situation. They are messages of warning that we can either listen to or ignore but if we ignore then we should expect the consequences carried in the judgement. Likewise messages of hope come with conditions. If you hear a prophet saying all will be well but not providing the conditions that will make all things well then question the legitimacy of that prophet. The chances are they are just trying to sound pleasing to the ear. A prophecy usually grates and is uncomfortable because it is challenging us to think about our situation and what we need to change to improve that situation.

In Jeremiah’s prophecy, he talks about how Israel had compartmentalised God. Their faith was built around rituals that happened in the temple. Their god had become limited to the confines of the temple. When the temple is destroyed, they begin to bemoan that their god has been destroyed. Jeremiah has to remind them that God isn’t constrained by the boundaries of the temple or the national boundaries of Israel. God is everywhere. They should be prepared to settle in the land where God has placed them and seek the prosperity of that nation. They need to learn to live their faith and to be able to seek God in new surroundings. This may mean standing up and being critical of things that the current nation is doing if it is not in keeping with what God desires. What they shouldn’t expect is that the new nation will help them to live out their faith. That is something that they have to work out.

This focus on place had developed to a point where the people no longer saw their faith as influencing their daily lives. It was something that was compartmentalised to the meetings in the temple. God had to shake them out of that complacency and force them to rethink what faith is about. Maybe there is a warning here for those who attend church on Sunday but ignore what it means to be a Christian in the workplace.

There is another message in Jeremiah that is that we can’t simply blame current circumstance on previous generations, governments, etc. (i.e. the sins of the fathers will be visited upon their children and the next generations). There is an element of truth in the idea that we are victims of circumstance but only if we allow ourselves to be. We make choices. We take actions. These help shape where we are and what we are doing now.

Let me describe this in terms of my own situation. I am currently unemployed or more correctly, I am not earning an income by choice. I am effectively a full time student while I write up and submit my PhD. If ensuring that earning an income had been my priority then I would have accepted an offer from Massey University of a demotion to senior tutor or I would have actively gone out to seek a new job. I choose not to because I wanted to complete what was started seven years ago and was almost completed. I was conscious that a decision to take on new work responsibilities would have meant additional pressures that, based on past experience, would have caused me never to complete the PhD.

Now I could argue that the reason that I am unemployed was poor decision making and poor marketing of the department that I was working for or any number of other issues that helped lead to the decision of its closure. They were factors but in the end, I made a decision and I actively sought the outcome that I have got.

Now some would argue, as my supervisors have, that getting the PhD will open up new work opportunities. Yes, if I want to continue in academia then I need to complete the PhD but there are no guarantees that having the PhD will ensure a future in academia or that having obtained the PhD, I will be able to continue on the research path that I have started down. I would actually like both but I have not seen any positions advertised that would give me that opportunity to do both. What does this mean?

I could blame circumstance but as Jeremiah said to Israel, you need to take responsibility and take actions to bring about what you want to see happen. For us, that has already started. We made decisions to go to some conferences and to go to Finland last year because that would open up opportunities in our research area. We are likely to continue to make such decisions even though we are advised against it by supervisors and possibly others. You don’t promote your work by being hidden in a corner. You have to take actions to promote it.

Coming back to prophecy, if you disagree with the direction of the government or of world leaders, they are not going to change or consider your perspective unless you take action to put it before them. The prophets are simply those people who believed that this is what God wanted them to say and then got up and said it. Often they weren’t listened to but that didn’t stop them saying what they believed would happen or saying what people should do to avoid it happening.

How strongly do you hold on to your convictions and do you believe that what you have to say is of value and can be used to change the world?

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