The Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
This last weekend was my first real work with the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC), and as I started out in this very new territory, I realized I was facing a steep learning curve.
When I met my new colleagues, a couple of times they asked if I was an attorney before seminary.
I remembered how my polity professor, the late great Howard Rice, once asked me the same question because I seemed to “get” the polity so well. I told him I wasn’t a lawyer, I was just raised a Presbyterian. But being on the GAPJC really tests one’s level of polity geekness as well as an attention to detail. GAPJC decisions carry the same authority as the Book of Order, so they work hard to ensure that what they write, and how they write it, will stand the test of time. And they have developed their own kind of quasi-legalese, a mix of legalisms and Presbyterianism that I might call PJC-ese.
Once I got past the panic, I realized that the documents were describing situations that happen in the life of the church, when people and churches—and presbyteries and synods—find themselves in the kinds of conflicts that are at the heart of all this legalese. And you can see how the folks are trying their best to speak this PJC-ese, though they are as bewildered by the requirements of the Book of Order and Rules of Discipline as any of us are.
But as it happens, the first two cases I have worked on present new challenges for the GAPJC. In these cases, these people and churches—and presbyteries and synods—speak Spanish and Korean, while the GAPJC meets in English. And, of course, we are attempting to hold these hearings by Zoom, with people all over the continent and in Puerto Rico. Now a few people on the GAPJC do speak Spanish and one speaks Korean, though some of these folks had to be recused. So here we are now trying to discern God’s justice through intricate legal processes, in multiple languages, via Zoom. It seemed a good time to appreciate this new frontier we were working in.
As I started to get overwhelmed by the complexity of these multiple languages—PJC-ese, English, Spanish, Zoom—I thought of this passage from Habakkuk. Once, many years ago, I was involved in leading churches in a missional church transformation process that introduced new terminology and concepts that were very confusing to the church members and pastors. At one point they were getting so flustered that I shared this passage with them:
Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.
A church matriarch laughed and said, “You’re making that up! That isn’t really in the Bible, is it?!” But in fact it is, and it is one of the messages of comfort—and challenge—that I often fall back on.
Actually, as I reflect on it, I realize that there are many references to changing communications technology throughout the Bible. We start with God speaking the universe into creation. We see the power of language that God confounded at Babel, and the power of the Holy Spirit overcoming this confusion on the Day of Pentecost.
The Habakkuk passage evokes many profound images in just a few words: the Lord speaks through a prophet, commands that a message be written in plain language on tablets, with a runner delivering it—hopefully not as long as with the legendary first marathon runner. Even more powerfully, we remember other ways that we hear from God:
Moses sees a burning bush and later meets with God on the mountaintop; dreams come to Samuel and Joseph,
angels speak to Mary and humble shepherds, and
of course Jesus speaks to his people, unrolling a scroll in the temple and declaring that the Spirit of the Lord has anointed Jesus to bring good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
God speaks to us through the many literary forms in the Bible, through the words and deeds of the people of God, through the beauty of nature and the arts and maybe even the wonders of science, and through the still small voice of love and hope and redemption and peace that can easily be missed in the craziness that is this year, the year 2020.
In turn, we are called to spread the good news of Jesus Christ through proclamation and sacrament; through the word spoken, written, sung, emailed, and tweeted in many languages; and through our very lives, as individuals and as the body gathered, in worship and discernment, gathered however we can, even connected by Zoom. We can be confident that God will always find ways to communicate with us humans —and God willspeak through us if we are faithful, and if we are not, God is prepared to speak through strangers and enemies, through stones in the street, and even the occasional donkey, if need be.
In this strange new time, may we be open to be filled with the Pentecost power of the Holy Spirit, that we may communicate as God wills it, in the many different languages we speak in these days of diversity and technology. Let us take a moment to stop and take a breath, breathing in the Spirit of the Lord, empowering us but also comforting and calming us for our ministries, our relationships, and whatever life has waiting for us.
And when things feel complicated and clumsy and unfulfilling, may we lean into God’s power to communicate through us, in ways beyond our own understanding. May we live with gratitude and grace, sharing God’s mercy and wisdom to all who need to hear, through whatever means necessary. AMEN.