Prophecy against the grain: testifying to the Light
02/11/2018 § 2 Comments
Many people these days, among them Friends, feel a calling to prophetic action, prophetic witness, prophetic utterance. The times are pressing us to be as clear, as honest, as faithful as we can, in proclamation, in calling others to join us in earnest and whole-hearted commitment — in action as well as word — to the Gospel life. This is no doctrinal matter, but rather an understanding and enactment of Christ’s call to compassion, to truth, to justice, to servanthood, to transformation: To any who received him, who believe in him, he gave the power to become children of God. (John 1:12).
Alive to the urgency of crises like climate change, and the willful blindness of the wealthy and powerful, we long for prophetic outcry, disruption and denunciation of the veneer of a moral, well-running social order. It is hard work to seek,under divine guidance supported by all the wisdom, know-how, and community life that we can muster, actions that effectively say, Wake up! Turn back! Choose life!
But the task before us is even harder, because Christian prophecy has two themes: the first is, “You must change your life!” and the second is “Christ offers us the power to become children of the light!”
This week, this passage from Isaiah (Isa. 30:9-11) came back before me:
this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD; Which say to the seers, ‘See not’; and to the prophets, ‘Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits. Get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us.’
I was struck by the realization that it can be an unwelcome message, a rough thing to hear, that our understanding of our prophetic task is too narrow. In the liberty of the gospel, we need to be free of our own habitual ways of thinking. I realized that the rhetoric and the emotion of protest can absorb all our search for prophetic witness, so that the underlying message is fear and anger. Bad things are coming, and anger at banal evil is justified and needed. But one of the “right things” that must be prophesied is the presence and power of the Light, as we can testify to it and demonstrate it.
John the Baptist denounced the immorality of Herod, called people to repentence, demanded righteousness from soldiers and government agents, advocated material generosity, and warned that if righteousness was not restored, the wrath would come — the axe is already laid against the tree!
Yet in an important sense, these diagnoses and denunciations did not make him a prophet. He was a prophet, because he called people to make way for the coming of God and God’s dominion, which would come in a form and in a way quite unlike anything expected or longed for. He recognized and pointed out the Lamb of God, whose path our renewed minds would make straight, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire: the purifying power of the Light, and the creative power of the Teacher, the comforter, the inviter to the feast.
William Taber, beloved Friends teacher and minister, described the functions of the prophet thus:
- To know (or rediscover) the Law and to tell it (interpret it);
- To show how the Law is to be lived — point out paths towards faithful embodiment of the Law;
- To make spirit available — inviting others into the prophetic work
The only way to make spirit available is to live in it, and to accept its lessons, knowing that our efforts will seem (perhaps even to ourselves) foolish — our efforts to wait, to mind the light and life, even in the poverty of our spirits, where the holy birth is to be found — and to speak truth and judgment in love to the souls (not the feelings) of those to whom we are called to witness.
I decided to know nothing among you except Christ and him crucified. I came in weakness and in fear and much trembling. My word and my proclamation were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in a demonstration of the Spirit and power. In that way, your confidence would be the power of God, not in human wisdom (1 Cor. 2:2-4)
If the motion of love is not interwoven in our witness, intrinsic to it however challenging we are led to be, then indeed our seeing and our prophecy will be more partial, more flavored with our own stuff, than the gift of it promised.