Sunday morning I came into church a little late and slid into the pew beside the spouse of Carla, our Minister of Christian Education as she was gathering the children at the front for their time together. One of the things I love best about our church is the way our children are taught and encouraged to be a part of worship, and to feel that we are being taught and encouraged to welcome them. As Carla began, Lindsey nudged me and said, “Listen closely.”
Carla began asking the kids questions about various people who lead in worship treating like a quiz show, tossing out clues until the children called out the name of the person she was describing. “This person dresses up during Advent,” she began, “and comes down the aisle singing and pretending to be a prophet.”
“Milton!” they called out.
“Pretending?” I said to Lindsey. “Pretending to be a prophet? Really?” Then we had a good laugh.
As long as I have been a part of a UCC church, I’ve been singing and prophet-pretending during Advent. In fact, the first time the folks in Winchester, where Ginger had just begun as Youth Minister, saw me was when I came down the aisle singing, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” and then declaring, “I am the prophet Isaiah and this is the word of the Lord.” I got the part, then, because I had the long hair and beard to fit the stereotype. I’ve kept the part, now at three different churches over nearly two decades, because I love doing it. Oh, yes, I’m the great pretender.
And I think I’m in good company. Beginning with Moses, none of the Prophets We Know By Name was quick to claim their pedigree. In one way or another they responded to God by saying, “Are you sure you have the right person?” God persisted through their objections, they pushed through their fear and whatever else they needed to push through, and they grew into the role. Frederick Buechner, in his book on preaching, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, likened it to the story of the man who put on a mask of a handsome face to woo the woman that he loved because he thought he was ugly. When she finally coaxed him to take it off, he face had taken on the appearance of the mask. “You can act yourself into a new way of feeling,” my first therapist told me as I began to learn to deal with my depression. Whatever God, the Cosmic Midwife, helps to birth in us doesn’t arrive fully formed. We grow. We pretend. We become. We are born again and again and again.
Nora Gallagher’s account of her process of discernment as she moved towards the Episcopal priesthood, Practicing Resurrection, is subtitled, “A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace.” In one of the sessions she describes with her discernment committee (would that we all had one of those!), they pondered the question, “What is a prophetic priesthood?”
“I guess a prophetic priest would be someone who calls out of the people their gifts and calls the church itself into the future,” Ann replied. “Basil Meeking, the Roman Catholic bishop who preached at Dan Corrigan’s funeral, said Dan was a man who never lost hope for the future, that he was set free by hope.”
“A leadership that is too conservative and rigid is suffocating,” said Mark Benson. “And one that is too far out on the margins is too exotic and solitary. A prophetic priesthood exists between these two extremes; it would be generative and procreative.” (92)
Generative and procreative: calling us to be born again and again and again.
Somewhere along the way, we’ve painted the prophets as bearded know-it-alls, holier-than-thou curmudgeons who came to town to call for repentance even as they secretly hoped for fire and brimstone – a mean cop, a bad piano teacher, and a self-righteous television evangelist all rolled into one flaming mass of raging indignation. Maybe that’s why the talk radio and cable news channel guys get so much play. We’ve allowed ourselves to believe those who shout loudest and act like they know they’re right are who we’re supposed to listen to because they are so good at telling us what is wrong.
That’s not prophetic, it’s judgmental.
Prophets are those who imagine dry bones dancing and the rivers and trees bursting with applause. Prophets are those who are heartbroken by all that alienates us from God and from one another, those who call us to give hands and feet to our faith, those who live lives of discernment, as Gallagher defines it, “looking everywhere for traces of God.” And, in a country bent on being right and best and most powerful, prophets are those deemed either irrelevant or naïve, or even dangerous because they are looking for God in a culture where most are looking out for themselves.
One other thing: we are all called to be prophets. The guys with the books named after them stood out because they took the call of God seriously. That possibility is open to anyone who will say, “Here I am, Lord, send me.” The opportunity for any of us to live prophetically – generatively and procreatively – is right in front of us. We can be midwives to peace and civility and inclusiveness and hope and love, should we so choose to allow the Spirit to dance in our bones.
The reason we can change the world is not because we have a corner on the truth, but because we have stumbled into grace and are set free by hope.
Prepare ye the way of the Lord.