Becoming Prophets from the Inside Out

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Who in their right mind wants to be a prophet?

No one who’s read the Old Testament, that’s for sure. God kept asking prophets to do weird things, like go naked for three years as a warning (Isaiah 20:1-6), or marry a prostitute just to make a point (Hosea 1:2), or incur the wrath of people in power and end up left to die (Jeremiah 38:1-13). Ask Jonah about prophecy: he endured great trials to deliver a message from God, only to have God change course.

But all these prophets were prophetic in the best sense of the word: they sensed a message from God for their times, then brought it to the cities and cultures of their times. More often than not, that message stung, and the powers that be reacted badly.

Fortunately, very few people are called to be prophets in this way nowadays. Not so fortunately, we might be called to something else—something similar, and also risky.

Earlier this year, at the annual conference of Spiritual Directors International, those of us in attendance were treated to a series of talks from the Interfaith Amigos. If you haven’t heard these guys—an imam, a minister, and a rabbi, no joke—check them out. They are funny, they are warm, and their insights about interfaith dialogue (and faith in general) are astonishing.

At one point, the three of them laid out what they see as the core teachings of their respective faiths. For Rabbi Ted Falcon, it was an “evolving awareness of the One;” for Pastor Don Mackenzie, “unconditional love;” for Imam Jamal Rahman, compassion. Then Imam Jamal noted that “we learn from history that we do not learn from history. So we need prophets to call us back to these core teachings.” To which Rabbi Ted responded, “We’ve reached the point in our spiritual maturity where we need to call ourselves back.”

Very few people have the inner resources to explore our own icky depths.

Uh-oh. That’s hard work. It requires an extraordinary level of self-awareness, perseverance, and the courage to explore our own icky depths. It can be every bit as painful as preaching destruction to a big city. Very few people have the inner resources to do it alone.

Thank God that, as Christians, we don’t have to do it alone—because we never are alone. Not only does our God permeate all of life, but we are invited into a deep, daily connection with the divine. That connection can serve as solid ground in which to set down roots to survive life’s windstorms. It gives us help, support, courage, succor.

It gives us, in a nutshell, the psychic resources we need to look ourselves, and our culture, square in the eye and speak the truth.

Now seems an important time to take up this path. The tumult throughout the world—and particularly in the U.S. since November—demands reflection and truth-telling and raising one’s voice. When we call ourselves back, we root in a place where we can call back the culture with clarity and the goodness at the core of our faith tradition.

This calling back is not easy, and it is not painless. No one wants to look at their own psychic plumbing. No one wants to risk seeing the wider culture—in which all of us are enmeshed—in new ways that might estrange us from others and transform the way we live. It takes work. It is also an adventure. And we take this adventure with the Source of the universe.

Is this kind of “prophecy” for everyone? I don’t know. I do know that our world desperately needs it, and together with challenge it can bring joy—both to the “prophets” and to those liberated by their message. That, as Hamlet said, is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

A spiritual director, contributor to Huffington Post Religion, and associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman writes and speaks about contemplative spirituality and its surprising relevance for today’s deepest issues. He authored Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths) and his articles have appeared in numerous faith-based publications. He has presented at a range of conferences, including the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

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