Saint Ignatius Loyola warned us: “Nothing worthy of God can be done without earth being set in uproar and hell’s legions roused.”
So began a conversation I had with a lovely religious sister from India, who spoke exquisitely “broken” English. It was like directing a retreat for the poet e.e. cummings. Inspired by her, I have coined the “Principle of Creative Negation.” That is, I append a hyphenated “Not” to describe conditions of lack that are characteristically mine. In addition to the Not-Patience (I’m the guy who yells at the microwave to hurry up), I have what I call the “Not-Prophesy.” I can be just awful about predicting the future. “Oh, there will never be a Jesuit pope!” I pronounced confidently just a few years ago.
Unfortunately, that treatment of prophesy is rather misleading. In the popular mind, prophesy is some kind of mystical prediction of the future. That’s a dangerous game to play, because such prophetic pronouncements have such a bad track record. William Alnor, in his “Soothsayers of the Second Advent” criticized his fellow Evangelicals for playing, “Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Antichrist.” People can make a nice living as doomsayers, but eventually, the Not-Doom catches up with them. I recently heard an economist say, “Don’t get into the business of predicting the end of the world, because you can only be right once.”
The future is not irrelevant to prophesy, but making predictions is not a prophet’s primary job. So, what is a prophet’s job description? T.S. Rendall, in his thought-provoking, “Jeremiah, Prophet of Crisis” offers a useful outline of the prophet’s vocation: “A prophet is a man with God’s words in his mouth. The mouth is human; the words are divine. Those words may touch on any subject the Lord wishes conveyed to His people. Often we define prophecy as the disclosure of the future; this, however, is too limited. The words of the Lord may relate to the future, but equally they may relate to the past, or to the present….In chapter after chapter Jeremiah gives to his people the words of the Lord. They are words that blast and bless; that wound and heal; that destroy and build.”
The prophet’s vocation is a blessing and a burden; it is likely to bring him rejection or get him killed; it can bring him heartache even as it brings him hope.
The prophet is sent by God when something goes very wrong. If there were no sin or disobedience, no idolatry or injustice, there would be no need for God to send a prophet. The prophet and his message constitute an embodiment of the inseparability of God’s mercy from God’s justice. The work of the prophet is to say to a rebellious people: “Persistence in sin will bring judgment; repentance from sin will bring mercy.”
Perhaps the source of the deepest heartache for the prophet is the clarity with which he sees the consequences of sin, along with the stubbornness of the people he addresses. He speaks because he has true compassion for the suffering that inevitably follows unrepented sin. And he speaks for the love and obedience owed to a just yet longsuffering God.
It’s the rainy season now here in Southwest Florida. The sky is often split between light and dark, between bright white clouds and an ever-encroaching blackness laden with storms and lightning. Perhaps that is why (along with constant access to headline news), I have been thinking about prophesy, and in particular, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Try to imagine the anguish undergone by a man called to prophesy, as he anticipates the loss of life and souls that undefeated evil always brings. Imagine awakening and seeing that the “world”, that web of lies and illusions so carefully constructed and so vigorously defended and so adamantly taken for granted is just that—a world of lies and illusions. The “perennial” structures of society, the “well-established” practices, the “enduring” sources of peace and prosperity, are suddenly seen as a house of cards about to collapse. If you saw that, if you were certain of it, if you knew that you had one chance to warn people to prevent the collapse or at least prepare to flee the wreckage, what would you say? How would you say it?
A few years ago, I started a short story that I never finished. Perhaps I didn’t finish because it didn’t need an ending or maybe I was just afraid to write an ending. I think it may be a summary of the odd combination of clarity, sorrow, determination and hope that a man may experience as he begins to find within himself the vocation of the prophet:
Can one grieve over the future?
I look at what will soon be lost, and I feel sorrow. How can I not? So much that is lovely or fragile will be lost, along with nearly all of the familiar.
Yes, of course, I feel sorrow, but I am not inclined to mourn, for much of what will be lost will just have to be lost. It was not real enough. It was real enough to weigh us down, but not real enough to endure, and surely not real enough to keep.
So much of what will fade or fall is just noise and smoke, the hazy stupor of dishonest dreams.
When I was a little boy, my father would admonish me: “Wash your hands and wash them properly, or I will wash them for you.” I knew that he would use a brush and burning water and nothing mild. So, I would reluctantly see to my hands myself. Cleansing is tedious but at least I would be gentle.
But we, we who are old enough to know better, we have unclean hands that must be made clean. Now it is too deep, too dark, too late for anything but a scouring. The time is passed for a gentle cleansing.
A scouring storm is coming. It may be slow, as water wears away rock. Or it may be quick, as a flashflood carries off and wipes away everything before it.
I know that it is coming but I cannot name it.
I know that it is coming but I do not know when.
Even if I had the words, who would believe me? Who could even understand me?
Everywhere I search for higher ground. I hope to survive long enough to love my children into safety.
I hope to survive long enough to teach our children the lessons that can be learned from our mistakes.
On the morning of the American presidential election in 2012, I stumbled upon Alfred Jay Nock’s 1936 essay, “Isaiah’s Job.” That essay has since had a lasting influence on my preaching and prayer. In a witty summary of the call of the Prophet Isaiah, and a wise application of it to his own world (and ours), Nock writes that God calls Isaiah to preach a word of warning and hope to a rebellious nation that will vehemently reject Isaiah and his words. Understandably, Isaiah asks, “Then why bother?” Nock (justifiably, I think) presents God’s reply as: “ ‘Ah’, the Lord said, ‘you do not get the point. There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it.’”
How does a prophet preach to the Remnant? How to speak a word of unblinking clarity and unyielding hope to those who are able to hear it? Here we would do well to turn to the Prophet Jeremiah, ably guided by T.S. Rendall. Rendall makes clear that Jeremiah fully lives the prophet’s call—its pain, its power and its promise.
Rendall’s reading of Jeremiah makes clear that the prophet’s vocation is a painful one: “Serving God in a day of crisis involves bearing the cross. No principle of the spiritual life is more certain than this. In a day when God’s cause is not popular, when His Word is rejected, when His grace is spurned, the man who seeks to serve Him must once and forever turn his back upon the world and its approval and set out, bearing his cross…Do we profess to serve God in our century of crisis? Then let us faithfully undertake our responsibilities for God; let us willingly accept restrictions in our life and ministry, in order that we may communicate God’s message to those around us; let us bravely face the ridicule and reproach of the enemies of the Gospel; and let us suffer rejection at their hands, seeking ever to tread in the steps of Him who was ‘despised and rejected of men’ (Isaiah 53:3).”
Faced with such prospects, who would not be inclined to turn away? Jonah at first fled to sea when called to be a prophet for Nineveh. (Jonah 1:1-16) But God provides for those whom He calls. Again, reflecting on how God prepared Jeremiah for his difficult mission, Rendall writes: “We have seen that the man God uses in a century of crisis is a man elected, equipped, empowered, and enlightened by God. He is also a man encouraged by God. He finds his strength and hope and confidence in the Lord… We who live and minister in an age of crisis may learn from this example. It is comparatively easy to write scathing denunciations of the contemporary scene; we may preach against the trends of our times; we may proclaim the divine judgment upon a materialistic and irreligious age. But our greatest work will be done on our knees before the Lord. Jeremiah was a man of prayer…How shall we pray in a day of crisis? We must pray with an adequate conception of the God to whom we pray. This is essential. We must entertain no limited conceptions of His greatness, glory, and grace.”
The prophet will face both natural and supernatural opposition. Saint Ignatius Loyola warned us: “Nothing worthy of God can be done without earth being set in uproar and hell’s legions roused.” If a prophet puts his trust in his own strength, wisdom and fidelity, then he is no prophet but only delusional and inevitably disillusioned. The faithful prophet is not only God’s mouthpiece but also the intercessor for God’s people. He humbles himself before God because he knows himself to be weak, and because he knows his people to be needy. In prayer, the true prophet finds that God is sufficient, His people are loveable, and he himself is provided for. That is why he is able to accept and live the vocation of the prophet.
When I write next, I will speak of the power of prophesy. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
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