Prophets: patterns and examples – By Jane Orion Smith

prophetic witness

Theological Reflection – Sunday May 12, 2013

Jane Orion Smith serves as the General Secretary of Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers). She served on the Board of Directors of KAIROS (2000-2010), including as Chair and as Treasurer.


And this is the word of the Lord God to you all…be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come that your carriage of life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one…[1]  ~ George Fox

The Quaker evangelist George Fox’s words are a call to a life of prophetic witness. What would it be to live in a world where we are all patterns and examples, cheerful, answering that of God?

There was a similar vision 40 years ago in the formation of the ecumenical coalitions – creating the means for prophetic witness by the churches together.

Prophecy is a call to a life that honours creation and upholds human dignity. At their best, prophets not only name injustice, they offer visions of what we can be together as a blessed community: visions of the glory that is hidden in plain sight.

“Prophet” and “prophecy” come from the Hebrew “nabi” which literally means “to bubble forth, as from a spring,” hence “to utter”. Water can bubble forth; it can also wear away rock.

Prophecy requires divine inspiration from being grounded in God. And to be grounded in God requires “listening hearts”. 1 Kings (3:5-9) has God saying to Solomon, “Ask for whatever you want.” Wow, that’s quite the wish-granting statement. What would you ask for?

Many English translations note that Solomon asked for wisdom when, actually, he asked for a listening or discerning heart.

Wisdom gives rise to prophetic witness when a listening heart has been cultivated – and cultivation of a listening heart requires spiritual disciplines. Without them, crises and even daily life become overwhelming and exhausting. Spiritual disciplines (worship, prayer, study, mystical abandon) vitally help us to rise above our tendency to self-reference the world. They keep us oriented to the Holy, and they remind us of the depth of meaning to be found in life.  For prophets are not their own messengers, they are God’s. I find the words of Isaac Penington helpful as I follow my path:

Give over thine own willing…give over thine own desiring to know or be anything, and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart and let it be in … and grow in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee.[2]

Life is a journey to come into the fullness of our authentic self, rather than who we (or others) think we should be.

There is no opt-out clause to the call to prophet-hood—other than to refuse to hear. Scripturally, all are chosen, and from there it is a matter of listening. God –from the Old German “Gotte” – means to call upon, to hear a call. A prophet is one who hears the divine call of justice and answers- warning us of the consequences of our actions and that our personal transformation is requisite for that other world to be revealed.

Moses said, “Would that all God’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them.”[3] In embracing a priesthood of all believers, Moses implies we cannot leave our load to a select anointed. While a world of prophets would be rather noisy, we need a mass of spiritually grounded people to bring about the end of the ways of the world, the priority of greed over justice, of comfort over compassion, of apathy over action. We have a precious inheritance and, like the buried talents of the parables, we can resurrect it from the back yard and put it to work.

In a time such as ours, let us hear the words of W.E.B. Du Bois: “The most important thing to remember is this: To be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.”

Prophecy is a way of life, a road of personal transformation that seeds societal change. Prophecy, like God, is really a verb. The task of living in the Spirit requires us to do as John and his community did in the time of the Roman Empire: to lift the veil that reveals our complicity, to see the world as it is, to transform ourselves and, by extension, the world, to realize a truly new world order, the peaceable kin-dom.

Living with the EarthAnd what an amazing journey it is for we know the Truth—its name is “Love”—and it will set us free. It is time to become all that we are and can be—daughters and sons of God—by bringing our living and testifying into alignment with the values and beliefs that we profess, by grounding ourselves in the spiritual disciplines that will prepare us to be so inspired, and by answering to that of God in everyone as we walk the world. Let’s take the last breath of life as we know it and start anew, not in the desert, alone, but in the communion that is KAIROS.

[1] From “An exhortation to Friends in the ministry from George Fox”, 1656.

[2] (Isaac Penington, 1661)

[3] Numbers 11:29b, NRSV

Filed in: Spirited Reflections


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