It’s Time We Talked – Geoff New

Geoff New is the Dean of Studies at the Knox Centre for Ministry & Leadership in Dunedin

In the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, there is an intriguing dynamic. The whole book (prophecy) is in the first-person with hardly any narrative or editorial comment. The whole book is really God speaking about the people of God to the people of God. God rehearses conversations that God has eavesdropped on and plays it back for them. The rhythm of these conversation transcripts follows the same basic pattern:

i. God: “I heard you say . . .”
ii. God quoting Israel: “But you say, ‘When did we ever say anything of the sort?!’”
iii. God: “When you said . . .”

It’s pretty embarrassing to be called out like that and even worse to be presented with the evidence. Yet the prophet presents it all and the evidence ranges across the theological and worship spectrum. They are guilty of gossiping about God whether God loves them; dishonouring God and the nature of worship; complaining about the apparent lack of response of God; wearying God and asking where is the justice in this world and from their God; complaining that they don’t know the way back to God; bewildered at the suggestion they have robbed God; and called out for speaking harshly against God.

At one level, Malachi reads humorously; why would anyone argue with God like that? They have been caught-on-tape so to speak. God has been listening, watching and experiencing it all.

Are there such conversations that are held today whereby God might say:

i. God: “I heard you say . . .”
ii. Us: “When did we ever say anything of the sort?!”
iii. God: “When you said . . .”

I suggest there is one such conversation. It is a conversation I suspect is especially chilling for ministers and so private that it is a self-conversation which rarely has begun; let alone with someone else. To have the conversation with someone else would have the feel of confession and that demands a fair dollop of courage.

If I may, allow me to use the language and rhythm of Malachi to raise the conversation in question:

i. God: “I heard you say you are bored in ministry. And have been for some time.”
ii. You: “When did I ever say anything of the sort?!”
iii. God: “When you said . . .”

Well – sometimes it wasn’t so much as what you said as much as the feeling of being trapped.

Sometimes it was the well-intentioned but misplaced and mistimed call for change.

Sometimes it was in the way that you spoke to your Session or Parish Council; and the sleeplessness that accompanied it later that night as frustration gnawed at your soul.

Sometimes it was in the messianic status placed on the latest packaged church programme.

Sometimes it was in the weight of expectation you placed on your study leave – or at least the expectation that things would be different upon your return.

Sometimes it was behind why you entertained, if not responded, to the call to another context.

Oft-times it was in the way you prepared worship and your sermon.

Frequently it was found in your conversations with God; including the lack of them.

Frequently it was seen in your activism not your passivism. Searching. Seeking. Desperately. Before someone noticed what was really going on for you.

For the people in focus in Malachi, after God published the transcripts of their conversations, Malachi 3:16 records a turning point in the way they talked about things and the way God listened:

“Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord took note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name.”

And lest you are thinking that maybe I am talking about myself rather than others: yes, there was a time I was in this kind of space. It took a lunch-time meeting whereby I put before an elder my spiritual reasons for considering change. And he had the audacity to say, “I think you’re bored.” It didn’t help that within an hour of that conversation my spiritual director echoed similar sentiments. And it did help to hear the principal of a theological college soon after that, without knowing any of this, tell me that he was noting a lot of pastors were suffering from boredom.

So maybe it’s time to talk. Seriously and honestly.

And in doing so, may you bear in mind the beauty of Malachi 3:16, that your very conversation on such a matter is taken as prayer.

And while this prophetic book then speaks of a range of responses; I am being selective in my selection of a quote. But I feel like this blog has been hard enough for one day and so:

“But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” (Mal 4:2)

[1] This basic pattern is evident eight times in the book: Mal 1:2-3, 6-7; 2:13-14, 17; 3:7, 8-9, 13-14