A few weeks ago, we all took in the passing of Fred Phelps and none of us quite knew the proper way to respond. Phelps was a hate-filled whisp with a keen knack for projecting a large shadow. We all wrestled with his passing because we felt guilt over the relief and– Lord forgive us–maybe joy he wouldn’t be around to inflict his brand of hate any longer. Theologies degrees weren’t needed to know that Phelps’s “God Hates __________”websites and pickets didn’t originate at one of Heaven’s zip codes.
Its fairly simple to sniff out those who don’t speak for God. Prophets are like prison wardens. Aspiring to hold the job disqualifies you from it. Self-importance is a strong musk. When we pick up its scent on someone its second nature to work our way to the door. And we move twice as fast when that person happens to be holding a Bible.
This past week I attended a conference for writers. Between sessions I walked the exhibit hall and came across a table filled with stacks of books warning about some impending doom or other. I picked up a booked and studied the harsh cover art. The copy of the back cover explained how the author solved the riddle of prophesy just in time to warn America of its impending judgment. A bee-hived woman with Buddy Holly glass sitting at the opposite side of the table asked if I was curious and if I had any questions. Yes and yes, I thought. I wondered how much money the author and invested in his paranoia and hatred to get these books self-published.
Instead, I politely lied , said I was good, and scanned the room for the nearest exit.
God didn’t speak to my heart in the exhibit hall, but I heard echos of his voice at several points during the week.
God whispered to me during Shannon Polson‘s workshop “Memoir as Lament.” Shannon shared tips on structuring a spiritual memoir, but she also invited us into her experience of losing her father and step-mother in a horrific bear attack. She admitted the process of writing the memoir was terrifying as she was forced to reexamine her faith, a faith she wasn’t sure could hold up under the scrutiny of her grief and doubt. God spoke to me in Leslie Leyland Fields‘s workshop, “Writing Toward Reconciliation” as she cautioned us that our own attempts at forgiveness would be imperfect and wobbly, but even so they still reflected God’s nature. Anne Lammott gave a nod to her condition as a sober alcoholic, acknowledged the circus of voices in her head, and then admonished the audience to take up radical self-care while expecting us to do the work of life and writing anyhow.
I heard God’s voice in all three of these sessions, but neither Shannon, Leslie, or Anne postured themselves as God’s spokesperson. None of the presumed to be a prophet or a Bible expert. Not one of them reeked of self-importance. But each person had suffered well. Each person had gone through some type of Hell and managed to pull the pieces of their lives back into something beautiful. Each imitated God’s capacity to redeem beauty from ashes. They quietly did this work– at times with clenched teeth and tears blinding their eyes– bearing witness that God cares and is in the business of restoring his hurting children.
God told Jeremiah, “If you extract the precious from the worthless, you will become my spokesperson” (Jeremiah 15:19).
I’m beginning to suspect the people who God speaks through don’t even know it. I’m wondering if God chooses to speak to people who are preoccupied with the burden of extracting a precious narrative out of the meaninglessness of a personal tragedy and pain that had left them broken and robbed of meaning. I suspect the people God speaks through are too busy calling out order from Chaos, that they don’t realize they give silent witness to a God who makes all things new.
Maybe “speaking for God” looks like this: We bring out brokenness to God and invite him to use it as the stuff of creation. We agree to co-create with him, like a young child “helps” his father on work under the hood of the car. And somewhere along the line, our lives begin to resembling a genesis that only a loving Creator could have brought into being.