A few years ago in our Sunday School class we read through a really thought-provoking anthology on the topic of peacemaking. The authors included the likes of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh and Mahatma Gandhi, along with many, many others. When we had worked our way through most of the book, a rather disquieting sense of forboding settled over the group. For months we had been applauding these brave and prophetic voices from our past. But increasingly, we realized it was hard to lift up prophetic examples in our present. At this point in history, when we seem to need those wise voices serving as a moral compass, certainly as much as at any other time in history, it begs the question, where have all our prophets gone?
If we turn to the Bible for counsel, then in the interest of honestly, I have to admit scripture doesn't present the prophetic job description in a terribly attractive light. To demonstrate, let's use Jeremiah and Jesus as Biblical examples. First, Jeremiah.
Jeremiah spends 50 years pleading with Israel to repent, warning them that if they do not, they will bring about their own devastation. In the meantime, competing prophets reassure the people and tell them they are in the midst of a new era of peace, no worries. Jeremiah is eventually imprisoned two different times, and only escapes the second time through the mercy and intervention of a well-placed friend. For fifty years Jeremiah gets to see doom creeping ever closer. His warnings become increasingly strident and shrill. And it’s all for naught. He is ignored. The Babylonians invade and Jerusalem falls. Even after Jeremiah is proved tragically right, still people don’t want to have anything to do with him, at least not in his lifetime. Does this sound like a way of life we’d like to sign up for?
And then we have Jesus. He is in his own community, announcing the start of his ministry, wasting no time getting down to prophetic business, which includes telling his friends and acquaintances that while he has great power and will accomplish many wonderful things, he won’t be able to do anything for them, because they won’t ever truly believe. What follows is the first assassination attempt on Jesus’ life and yet somehow he passes through their midst, unharmed (Luke 4). Yeah, that sounds like fun, right? Speaking really hard words of truth to the community that’s supposed to love you the most and then facing their rage and blinding hatred?
Jeremiah’s no fool. He knows no one in their right mind would volunteer to be a prophet. When God comes calling, Jeremiah says, “God, I’m not a good speaker and besides no one’s going to listen to me. I’m just a kid (Jer. 1).” But God sees in Jeremiah exactly what he’s looking for. And thank God for that, because we have been learning from Jeremiah’s courage, his conviction, his passion for the past almost 2,500 years. We need prophets. We need the voices of prophets speaking from the past, but we also need their voices in the present.
In this age, we do have minor prophetic voices speaking, but we are missing the major prophets - the lightening rods that seize national attention and stir tremendous controversy and dialogue. It’s not a good sign, when the major prophetic voices fall silent. And while I think this is what has happened, I can’t say for sure why it’s happened.
Part of me is tempted to blame technology. In some ways, all our gadgets with their ever-increasing capabilities to plug us into trivial games and entertainment sites, seem to dull our senses and numb us to some of the harsh realities being played out under our noses. Technology has also made prophesying a lot less hazardous and therefore less powerful. We can prophesy from the safety of our homes. And so in some ways the prophetic voices are innumerable, but they all kind of blend together into a white noise that seldom pierces our consciousness.
Part of me blames a watered down understanding and practice of Christianity. In the church, we’re taught to be nice. And it’s not nice to step on people’s toes. What other people think matters and so we tailor our message to accommodate rather than to challenge. Some people think pastors play a prophetic role. Maybe to a degree, but this is also a pretty watered-down version of prophecy, for several reasons. But prophecy tends to be more effective when it hits you with your defenses down. Two, a pastor's livelihood depends on a congregation's goodwill. As a pastor, I know about how far I can go before I need to stop. And I am grateful my congregation gives me a lot of latitude. Still, there’s a line drawn in the sand that I’d better not cross over if I want to continue to being a pastor. And three, speaking just personally, being nice is pretty deeply ingrained in my psyche. I don't like making people uncomfortable, or even worse, angry.
One, a congregation can ready itself to hear a challenging 20 minute sermon one morning a week.
Part of me blames churches that don’t even try to nurture prophetic voices in their midst. Most churches do not work at teaching people how to speak truth to power. Why? Because budding prophets are going to need practice. And guess who they’ll need to practice on? And what church needs that? Certainly Jesus’ hometown synagogue wasn’t up to the task.
Blame fixing isn’t a terribly productive enterprise, but we also need to come to terms with the dangerous situation we are in, in order to do something about it. The worsening condition of our environment comes immediately to mind. There has been no shortage of prophetic voices going back decades telling us we need to change our ways, or life as we know it will cease to exist. But there’s been a real disconnect between this prophecy of doom and the prophetic appeal to rectify the situation. Most vocal voices, urging people to do their part, accommodate far too much. They are way too nice. They suggest that if we make a few painless changes here and there it will be sufficient. But there’s a profound disconnect between environmental catastrophe and the proposed remedy of changing out light bulbs and driving less. Either things aren’t quite as dire as some environmental prophets would have us believe or the prophets we rely on to tell us very specifically how much we need to change our lifestyles don’t have the courage to speak. I know a lot of people prefer to think it’s the former. Prefer to think this whole issue has been overblown. But the science tells us, actually screams in our faces warning us the threat is not only real, but everyday is becoming less a threat and more a reality. Therefore, I long for some sort of public and powerful figure to start giving it to the American populace without mincing words. I want someone to tell us all exactly what we need to do, the life-changing sacrifices we need to start making. And I want this voice of authority backed up by a government who is more concerned about our future well-being than it is about it’s re-election prospects. I don’t want anymore kidding around. I want us to hear the painful truth and I want that truth backed by very unpopular action. If the silence continues, I fear we’re going to go sailing over the edge of no return with our heads still stuck in the sand.
That’s not to say we won’t go sailing over the edge even if we have that prophetic voice grabbing hold of our ears and yanking our faces up out of the sand. Humanity has a poor track record when it comes to listening to its prophets. But at least the prophetic voice offers us the hope we can still do something to change everything around. And maybe this time we’d even listen. I love the book of Jonah because the people actually listened to their prophet and averted disaster in the process.
I don’t want to abdicate responsibility here either. If we know we need to make changes, there’s no sense lollygagging about, waiting for some prophet to come around and tell us to get busy. And yet, sometimes what we need to finally tip the scale in favor of action is a prophetic voice telling us to get off our behinds and get to it.
We are not all called to be prophets. But I think we are all called to nurture those prophetic voices in our midst. Here are some traits I think God would look for in a prophet. A few are obvious.
* The individual would need to have a very real sense of God’s call. Often a call from God can feel kind of wishy washy. Is it a genuine call or is it just our imagination? I think a prophetic call has to go beyond wishy washy.
* A prophet also needs to have a burning passion and conviction, otherwise his or her words won’t ring true. No one will even pretend to listen.
* An earnest striving for humility is also called for. Humility probably doesn’t come very naturally for most prophets and yet, even prophets can get it wrong. He or she must know how to tread lightly enough to acknowledge if they’ve inadvertently headed down a dead-end or they run the risk of becoming a false prophet. Maybe another way of saying this is that prophets need to seek out an accountability structure.
Those are the obvious ones, but there are a few other essential qualities too.
*A prophet needs to be an individual who can nurture hope. Prophets aren’t going to win a whole lot of popularity contests, but they do have one really big thing going for them. If they are urging change, they must think that change can still make a difference. They must still have hope. And hope can energize a massive amount of change. It can nudge people from immobilized fear into tentative action. Prophets must be people of hope.
*Prophets must also have a capacity for love that goes beyond what is ordinary. "And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing (I Cor. 13:2)." Actually, this entire I Corinthian passage is like the core component of the prophet’s training manual. A prophet has to love people to such a degree that he or she feels compelled to do all they can to bring people back into a right relationship with God - even when it means speaking difficult truths. The only time it is appropriate to call a person or a people to task is if it is done with love. Love is not a sappy feel good emotion. It is strong. It is strident. It is also a smidge scary. Too many would be prophets do not have the proper understanding of or capacity for love.
*I’m going to add one more to this list, all though there may be some exceptions to this one. Most prophets will get their start when they’re young. There’s a reason God came to Jeremiah when he was only a teenager. Think back over the list of qualities I’ve named. Some of the most discerning, passionate, convicted, hope-filled, idealistic and loving people I know are children, adolescents and/or young adults. And there’s a couple more things young people have going for them. They aren’t yet tied down.....on so many different levels. But speaking in practical terms, they usually don’t have children and are often single. They don’t have mortgages or long-term commitments to a career. They are less future oriented and more present focused. It is exceptionally difficult to speak hard truths when you know your family might bear the brunt of your honesty, or when you know your job or livelihood might be put at risk. Youth also have a certain confidence, some might say arrogance, that gives them the assurance they need to stand up for what is right at any cost. Youth have energy to spare, they are brash. Life hasn’t yet drilled it through their head that it is wisest to look before you leap.
If people don't feel called to be a prophetic voice themselves,then it seems we all should at least be about the business of nurturing people, and in particular young people, in our spheres of influence. And I say this with a trembling heart, because I have a child who has many of these qualities in spades and I am working to nurture these gifts I see in her with a sense of ambivalence. Do I wish the role of prophet on anyone I love, much less my own child? So yes, I nurture with a little reluctance thrown into the mix and I know that someday this means she might turn her prophetic eye on me and knowing my daughter as I do, I predict she will be uncompromising and probably uncomfortably right in her assessment. How will I respond? I don’t take criticism well. I can only imagine that tendency will have to be multiplied several times over when the critical source is my own child.
But that’s how it works, isn’t it? If you aren't called to be a prophet or if you decline the call, then your other option is to be of help in encouraging others and this means being willing to listen and take their words to heart. Prophesying is lonely work, but it’s essential too. We need our prophets and so we must figure out a way to help them be born and to mature. That’s got to be a foundational call for the church.
I've heard many young prophetic voices in books and online. My favorite is a youtube video dating back to 1992. The clip shows Severn Suzuki, a 12 year old girl, bolding addressing the United Nations as a representative for The Environmental Children's Organization. Her words and warnings are even more timely today, 20 years later. I applaud not only young Severn, but her parents, her community, her teachers, everyone who played a role in encouraging Severn to find her voice at such a young age. Today Severn continues her work on behalf of our environment as a social activist. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZsDliXzyAY
My prayer - May the prophetic silence soon be broken and may we be willing to listen.