Sunday, July 15, 2007

So what's up with that floating Axehead?

The company of the prophets said to Elisha, "Look, the place where we meet with you is too small for us. Let us go to the Jordan, where each of us can get a pole; and let us build a place there for us to live."

And he said, "Go."

Then one of them said, "Won't you please come with your servants?" "I will," Elisha replied. And he went with them.

They went to the Jordan and began to cut down trees. As one of them was cutting down a tree, the iron axhead fell into the water. "Oh, my lord," he cried out, "it was borrowed!"

The man of God asked, "Where did it fall?" When he showed him the place, Elisha cut a stick and threw it there, and made the iron float. "Lift it out," he said. Then the man reached out his hand and took it.

2 Kings 6

Our preacher chose this story as the text for today's sermon. He explained that this story disturbs him, not because God made the axehead float, but because God doesn't do a lot of things that are a plainly more important than a prophet's borrowed axe.

We pray, he said, for people who need to be healed from diseases, and they aren't healed. We pray, he said, for people who need peace in their families or joy in their lives, and they dismantle their families or succumb to depression. How do we deal with these disappointments?

Now I don't know about you, but I think that it's pretty ballsy for a preacher to raise these sorts of questions from the pulpit. People need to hear that their doubts are perfectly well grounded -- that there really is something disturbing about the idea that God would float a borrowed axehead and not heal a cancer-stricken mother of three.

Rather than address the question of whether God actually floated an axehead for Elisha, our preacher chose to direct people toward what might be called "everyday miracles" ... rain, gentleness, generosity, things like that. Don't miss these miracles, he said, because you're fixated on floating axeheads, or because you've altogether given up on them.

I think this is a good redirection, and definitely a helpful antidote to the attitude that says, "your prayers aren't answered because you don't have enough faith." (Mark 11) But I question whether this goes far enough. As I've said before, I think the issue is primarily moral: can we say God is "good" if God floats axeheads for prophets but neglects to answer our prayers for suffering families? I think it is much better to say that God doesn't float axheads than to insinuate that prophets' axheads are more important to God than the friends and relatives of ordinary people.

As I was thinking about this, though, I began to wonder about my constant insistence that God be good. What if "God is good" is just as much a metaphor as "Jesus is the son of God?" What if, in using God's goodness as a basis for argument, I am overextending the metaphor "God is good"?

I'm not sure what to do with that thought, but I find it a little disconcerting.