This week, I was introduced to a new online newsletter called “Common Grounds” that’s aimed at progressive, liberal religious workers and leaders. I read with particular interest the article contained within entitled “15 Faith Leaders to Watch in 2015”. (This article is available to be read in the back parlor.) While there was only one of these clergy whom I’d heard about before, I was gratified to notice that 7 of the 15 were women, and that not only Christian folk were named. The one person I knew of –Rev. Amy Butler, is the new senior minister of The Riverside Church in New York City, who will continue to encourage this church’s political activism, emphasizing dialogue and open communication. Archbishop Blasé Joseph Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, who is Pope Francis’ first major appointee in the U.S. is destined to continue the work on issues he prioritized in his earlier posts—civilty and kindness, immigration reform, and income inequity, along with the local concerns of Chicago Catholics– education, hospitals, and charity. Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdal who is senior rabbi and cantor NYC’s Central Synagogue. She is the first woman who is ordained as both cantor and rabbi, as well as the first Asian American in either role. Her emphases include innovative worship, and justice in economic and social concerns. Finally, this article names clergy in Ferguson, MS as being the first to respond to the needs of the community after the death of Michael Brown. They continue to lead the growing interfaith movement to end violence and police brutality.
While the areas and interests are very diverse among these 15 clergy, all are well educated and verbally articulate; AND they’re all already making news. While I am in respect and admiration of each and every one with their unique and important roles and positions, I also noticed that these leaders are in direct contrast in some ways to the type of prophet that is described in the Deuteronomy passage we heard this morning; the prophets who will be raised by God’s self to be those who speak for God.
Scholar Beth Tanner describes the circumstances surrounding this scripture:
The literary setting for Deuteronomy is at the end of Moses’ life as the wandering Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land. Moses is the only leader they have ever known, and his impending death puts the community in jeopardy. Deuteronomy represents Moses’ last words to Israel, both present and future. The style is one of a sermon. In other words, it is not simply information, but it encourages and cajoles, calling the people to belief and a life lived according to God’s instruction. It is the equivalent of Moses’ ancient life instruction book to the people of Israel… This passage begins with the reason why prophets are needed. It reaches back to the giving of the law in Exodus 19 and 20. When the people heard God speak they were so frightened, they begged Moses to speak with God and be their mediator. Prophets, then, are selected by God for the sake of the people. Prophets answer to God, not to the people, so they are free to speak the truth. Prophets also come “from among their own people” These speakers of truth are home grown. They know the ways and the hearts of the people they speak to and connect with them. They who speak for God must also be paid attention to, for to ignore their calls is the same as ignoring God.”[i]
The specific roles prophets fill include being God’s mouthpiece, and their proclamations come without the flashy acts that accompany the declarations made by the sorcerers, soothsayers, or oracle pronouncers present in this culture. Prophet are NOT foretellers; but FORTH tellers, the ones who speak the truth of God’s ongoing presence and activity. They were also seen to interpret the messages they give to the people. We encounter self-proclaimed modern day prophets on the streets, or on cable TV announcing to their listeners that “God loves them” or that “they are going to hell”.
My questions concern the validity of their messages, and how we can know for sure that these people are in fact speaking for God. WHO are the legitimate prophets among us these days and How DO we know that what they offer is truth? Here I must share my conviction that we DO STILL need help sometimes to hear God well, and I believe that God will DO ALMOST ANYTHING and USE ANYBODY to get us to listen and respond. But also, there are some key attributes that can be noticed in order to discern whether the person and the message are Truth.
Daniel Clendenin, author of the website “Journey With Jesus” strongly recommends we use what he calls our “sanctified common sense”[ii] – a kind of internal personal gut check—“do I think God is using this time and this person to speak to me?” I would say that this is made holy—or sanctified—by including God in the query. A “what would God say about this?” kind of supposition. Also, remember that speaking truth does not mean you never offend someone.
A “word of the Lord” can also be validated by noticing the demeanor of the person in the prophetic role:
“people who speak truly for God operate with a healthy sense of the audacity of what they are attempting. They are acutely aware of the presumption inherent in claiming to speak for God. Who in their right mind would hazard such a claim given the combination of human frailty and divine inscrutability?!… This “holy hesitancy” is well-founded, too; in the Deuteronomy passage,…the penalty for false prophecy was death.”[iii] Most prophets are going to shun attention and notoriety. Those who reveal truth want no attention beyond the communication of their message.
Secondly, we should notice what accompanies the prophesy. The early dessert monastics were certain that concrete acts of love accompany genuine claims of divine knowledge.
Clendenin notes “In Mark’s Gospel we read that people were amazed at Jesus’s authority and his “new teaching.” But in marked contrast to how the religious establishment operated, writes Mark, his was an authority that authenticated itself by fostering human healing and wholeness. [the dessert fathers]called this “integral wholeness,” and we wish it not only for ourselves but for every human being…
they counseled an unqualified compassion toward human weakness, a consideration for frailty, and heartfelt empathy for those who struggle. Christians truly close to the heart of God “never frighten with bleak despair those who are in trouble or unsettle them with harsh words.” They gladly, fully, and freely proclaimed that God alone was “the gracious arbiter of hidden strength and human infirmity.” They looked “with a kind of overwhelming wonder at his ineffable gentleness.”[iv]
Beth Tanner offers other attributes that accompany the authentic prophecy. These are gleaned from her research on the examples of Old Testament prophets:
–the true prophet seeks neither self-promotion nor riches
–the true prophet speaks God’s word; not his or her own. And they often speak words that are uncomfortable, to say the least.
–the true prophet bears a resemblance to what has come before. They remind us of Moses or Jeremiah or any other biblical prophet.
–the true prophet is known by her or his “fruits”. Does the prophet encourage others to follow themselves or Jesus? Do their messages lead to repentance and transformation?
The Quaker perspective on prophets and prophecy is somewhat unique and relates to what we understand about being faithful conduits for Truth. Anyone can come to know the reality and activity of God and then share it! As Friends worship, we allow time and space for the prophetic to come alive in us…Messages from out of silence can have a particularly prophetic impact, as the discovery of knowing God as Truth becomes the reality that shapes and guides the listeners’ lives. The guidelines for sharing these revelations verbally in meeting line up in synch with what we’ve already heard as attributes of legitimate prophecy…Many Friends speak of an almost overwhelming sense of hesitancy that comes after they discern that they might have a message to share. Some folks won’t speak unless they feel a shivering of the hairs on the back of their necks—a sort of “quaking”. The paragraph describing the process of speaking in worship from the online Quaker Information Center conveys the care and caution implicit within the activity:
“If you find yourself “prompted” to offer a message, the first step is to ask yourself whether it is a genuine leading of the Spirit. Does the urge to speak seem to arise from a deeply spiritual motion, rather than simply being a desire to share your own active thoughts? Does it seem that the message is intended to be given to the assembly, rather than being personal guidance just for you, or something you may feel called to say to an individual later? Is your inclination to speak free of personal motives or “hidden agendas”? Does it seem that now is the moment that you are called to speak? (These are not easy things to discern, and it takes practice, including trial and error, to become confident. Do not be afraid to be wrong!)”
Friends also understand that speaking Truth can come anytime, any place, by anyone as a product of their conviction that the Divine works effectively in our ordinary and everyday lives—NOT only in a worship setting.
Here then are some specific examples of prophetic speech that I have encountered…
–First off and foremost the messages that have come in worship to a participant that seem spoken just to or for me in often unsettling and challenging, but also comforting ways
–the words of my son spoken just as I arrived back home from the experience of offering pastoral care to the victims of the Ethan Allen boating accident on Lake George. Andy declared that we –and I in particular –had been brought to this place in order to be available for ministry in this situation.
–The invitation and exhortation of Sara King Niccoli as she leads gatherings, offers information about social justice issues, and provides opportunities to participate as activists in response to inequality and oppression. I am attending the Moral Monday prayer vigil tomorrow at the state assembly, in response to the discomfort she has created within me about specific topics facing the state legislature and the proposed budget.
–And then there was the time that I “of all people” was given a prophetic message to share. During the farewell luncheon for the outgoing pastor of First Baptist Church in Glens Falls, I rose to give what I thought was an affirmation of that pastor’s ministry and the places I’d experienced it during his tenure. And then, a couple of sentences in, I found myself saying “A word of the Lord for you” and then offered reassurance and encouragement to the congregation there as they began to search for a new leader…nothing earthshattering really, but DEFINITELY from God. I said, somewhat hesitantly and tentatively “It’s going to be OK. Things will work out alright.” I then sat down to begin a process of asking myself what I thought I had been doing…I have no way of knowing if anyone actually heard what I was intimating to the congregation. But I continue to be clear that I was called by God to speak those words…
–There are tons of folks down through modern times who we identify as prophetic: Dietrich Bonheoffer, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and more recently Malalah Yousafzai; the Muslim teenager shot in 2012—when she was 15– by terrorists; for advocating for education for girls…
On those scary nights when she double checked all the doors and windows, Malala also prayed. “At night I used to pray a lot. I’d pray to God, ‘Bless us. First our father and family, then our street, then our whole ‘mohalla’ (district), then all Swat.’ Then I’d say, ‘No, all Muslims.’ Then, ‘No, not just Muslims; bless all human brings.'”
Today Malala is an outspoken critic of all forms of “detestable practices” done against all people, and in particular against women and girls. Stated positively, she’s an advocate for the inherent dignity of “all human beings.”[v]
Truly prophetic, I’d say…AND so would God, I’d expect.
So Friends as we continue to consider who speaks for God, let us be guided by what we know about prophets from the Bible and through our own experiences; and about how God works through them. It is my hope that all 15 of the clergy named in that article do actually give prophetic witness this year, AND that the world hears them.
Additionally, let us be ready to also become the prophet when called by God. I pray that as we are led, so might we recognize the opportunity, as well as speak the Truth given to us.
May we all be blessed by the witnessing and speaking and the acting out of the word of the Lord.
[i] Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:15-20 by Beth Tanner, Preaching this Week on workingpreacher.org
[ii] Journey With Jesus, Dan Clendenin, journeywithjesus.net; post on January 23, 2006
[v] Journey With Jesus, Dan Clendenin, journeywithjesus.net; for February 1, 2015