Sunday, July 15
By Keara Ette
Back in graduate school, I spent one summer immersed in two sets of intensive, 3-week theology courses. I lived, breathed, ate, and even exercised with the texts of these classes, taught by some nationally- and world-renowned theologians. One of the classes – on the Hebrew Scriptures – was an impossibly intense class during which we needed to read the 67 books of the “Old Testament” as well as an 800 page book (written by the professor) that guided us through each historical, literary, and theological movement.
It was an incredibly challenging course that overlapped with an emotional time in my life. And as I learned more about the context of the meta-narrative happening in the Hebrew Scriptures, I discovered things that changed the way I understand the church, the way I understand humanity, and the way I understand the experience and relationship of prayer.
Among the many spirituality-altering things I learned that summer was a new understanding of the role of the prophets in the life of the People of God. My understanding up until then was, I have to admit, rather juvenile: prophets were people with special powers called upon to give voice to messages from God to leaders and people in the Jewish community. What this class and the larger-than-life professor offered me was a powerful shift in perspective. I came to understand that the prophets in the texts were far from the unidimensional characters I had presumed them to be. Rather, they were dynamic, complex, and very human individuals whose lives and voices were used to change the direction of society and religious life. Like the saints – they were far from perfect and they were filled with unique temperaments and personalities. But their voices were of critical need to the God who simply could not and would not stay above the fray, disengaging with the people with whom God had entered into a loving covenant.
My studies that summer allowed it to finally dawn on me that even though the Christian tradition more-or-less stops using the designation “prophet” and starts using the word “saint” after Jesus arrives “on the scene” of the human story, the need for and work of prophetic voices was far from over. For, prophetic voices are about taking a stand from within a community or society and calling out the ways we have become disoriented, lost our way, and even turned our backs on who we are and who we are meant to be. Prophets were never about “predicting the future” — they are about courageously crying out messages that, if heard and heeded, might help rewrite the future.
In the midst of the polarizing political discourse, social complexities, and contexts of incredible suffering, people around the world are finding ourselves to be unsatisfied with the way things are. And right on time (as always), the Spirit is working. Prophetic voices are ringing out – from every culture, society, and even faith – calling out where we have lost our way. These voices can be hard to hear and maybe even harder to listen to once we hear them, because these voices …
• are often jarring and highly uncomfortable
• rarely ease into the message
• don’t necessarily use beautiful, poetic words
• don’t get caught up in a lot of risk-reward calculations (theirs is mostly the work of risk)
• don’t waste time making sure to first stroke the ego
• do not prioritize making sure everyone gets something they want
• aren’t concerned with maintaining the preferred balance of power
And while I don’t know exactly how God chooses to call forth prophetic voices, I am deeply aware that I have witnessed them in my own time and in our own context just as I have read about them in the history of our people. I know some of their names and have been the recipient of their love, dedication, courage, and sacrifice. Their voices are used differently and they preach distinct and even sometimes disjointed messages. Their messages and even methods often make me uncomfortable, sometimes even seeming to push “too far” or not give enough thought to how they are being interpreted. And then again, the question is triggered for me: is the Spirit at work in this one? The Spirit who, in the imagery of the Celts, resembles a wild goose: un-elegant, noisey, untamed, rather than smooth, graceful, soft, and harmonious?
I believe with my whole being that any time and place in human history that is filled with suffering, injustice, and people who can admit and cry out “this is not who we want to be” … the Spirit sparks prophetic voices to bear messages of truth and reorientation to God. It is critical that all of us (not just the queens, prime ministers, senators, or bishops) do the work of listening, discerning, and being transformed in ways that reorient our society back to who we are meant to be. And after the message is taken in, we get to the work of transforming ourselves and society.