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from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel
This month’s Reading is an excerpt from an address delivered by Marion MacNaughton this past August at the FWCC Triennial in Dublin, Ireland on the theme "Finding the Prophetic Voice for Our Time." MacNaughton is a Quaker Tutor at Woodbrooke College.
Finding the Prophetic Voice for Our Time
There is a whole spectrum of prophetic possibility open to us as Quakers calling for our attention. Do we practise it all, or do we settle for just a part, just one place on the spectrum? I see our diversity as an uncomfortable challenge that we hold out to each other for all of us to be more than we are being at present. Some of us concentrate on silent waiting, some on proclamation, some on mission, some on social action. All of these things are part of the prophetic tradition and maybe none of us fulfils them all. So we serve as uncomfortable reminders and loving prompts to each other; "Friend, is there something you are neglecting?"
What kind of Quaker prophetic voice is needed today? What will enable people to hear the voice of God, what will bring the changes we long to hear? Let us go back to Jeremiah for a moment, prophesying for 23 years without anyone listening to him. His name has been immortalised for this. The dictionary says:
a Jeremiah: someone who is pessimistic about the present and who foresees a
calamitous future; a person given to woeful lamentation and complaining.
I don't know about you, but I find it incredibly hard to listen to someone filled with woeful lamentation for 23 minutes, let alone 23 years. The Hebrew prophets were always ready to blame the people for refusing to hear the word of God. But I have to wonder, was it something to do with the way the word of God was being preached? Did the prophets fall into the trap of expressing their own frustration and anger? Did their own despairing voices sometimes speak louder than God's?
I was recently at a conference when a Friend who was deeply concerned about a matter of great spiritual importance stood up and lectured us all for a long time about how urgent this was, how we must all stop what we were doing and turn our energies to this one problem. We listened with sinking hearts. When he finished and sat down the person next to me leaned across and whispered "This nagging has to stop."
How can we help each other from falling into this trap? Let us think for a moment of the self-appointed prophets that we all know, that we all turn away from. They are well intentioned, but they drown us in their urgency and their fear. They make us feel guilty and inadequate, they blame us, they depress and immobilise us, they are doing their best, but they are having no effect. This nagging has to stop.
If we want to bring the kingdom of heaven we must have insight, skills, compassion, abounding love, and methods that work. We must be people who fill other people with hope, not despair. It is no good being right for 23 years if no one is listening to us.
Effective prophecy energises and encourages, it acknowledges people's failures and inadequacies but it doesn't blame, it comforts and consoles. It believes in people. It is an invitation to return to God. And because it is deeply rooted in God it can bring others to God's presence. Open Isaiah at chapter 40 and hear the unknown prophet we called 2nd Isaiah pour out love and consolation: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned." This is a prophetic voice that we can respond it to, it lifts our hearts and renews our strength; we can, as 2nd Isaiah says, "mount up with wings like eagles."
So what do we need in prophecy that will enable people to hear the voice of God? It is very simple: Jean Leclerq, a Benedictine, has said: "We must love the age we live in. From the point of view of faith, the best age for each of us is the one God has placed us in, the one He has given us which we must give back to Him."
We must love the age we live in. Sometimes this is very hard to do, but it is our task.
"If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing."
Effective prophets work from a place of love. They nurture us, they inspire us to engage with our faith in deeper and deeper ways. We lead committed lives which return us always to our spiritual core. It is circular. Our outward lives are shaped from within, our actions in the world bring us closer to God and we live God's truth in the world.
Because whatever form it takes, prophecy is essentially mystical. God breaks through. The world is imperfect – a broken and still breaking world. But it is wholly of God, wholly divine. The prophets are those that enable us to see that God is always available to us, the kingdom is always about us. Rosa Parks, one of my inspirations, one of the enablers of the American Civil Rights Movement, sat down in the middle of a bus and enacted the kingdom of heaven, a world of justice and equality. And God's voice was heard. One of the people sitting at the back, unable to move, said later: "It was holy in that bus."
When we can prophesy with this kind of love, this kind of clarity, this kind of holiness, God's voice will be heard.
We have come a long way as a people of God, we have grown and changed, we have found new ways and held on to old ways. We are still gathered, still waiting to hear God's voice, waiting for prophecy to flourish amongst us. We will hear God's voice again and again saying familiar and comforting things, saying challenging and uncomfortable things. In love. Let us listen with open hearts.
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