July 25, 2005

Prophetic ministry:
Calling out the house of cards

About a year ago, I was speaking with a cherished Friend about my difficulties with feeling accepted and welcomed at one particular meeting. The Friend replied, "It's hard to be a prophet in your own land."

It's taken me a long time to understand what that Friend meant, maybe because I wasn't raised in a Christian household. Maybe because, in my experience among Friends, I hadn't heard or integrated the phrase "prophetic ministry."

From Britain Yearly Meeting's Faith & Practice [emphasis mine]:

...This is the ministry of inspiration, the prophetic ministry in the true sense, when the spoken word pierces to the heart of our relationship with God, unveils the living presence of Christ in the midst of the worshipping group and in its separate members, opens to our sight the way we must tread if we would realise that Spirit in and through our ordinary daily activities and find the creative response to the challenges of our time....
Sure: there are times when Friends who have a prophetic ministry are invited to share their ministry--as long as it's not in our own backyard, on the front porch, or in the parlor.

When a Friend or minister touches on a topic that "hits too close to home," challenging Friends to look at the foundation on which our faith is built, some Friends are reluctant or are unable to stay open to the message being given. It may threaten to "pierce to the heart," or to "open to our sight" the ways we have fallen short, have let others down, have been unfaithful.

House of cards

In the Quaker identity workshop recently, Friends participated in an exercise to identify what they each saw as a core element of Quakerism. Each element that was named was written on an index card and placed in the center of the room. The group then began thinking of how to use these to build a symbolic house of cards, representing the foundations and supports of our Quaker faith.

Sometimes prophetic ministry makes us look at the house of cards we have built and calls on us to pull out a faulty card.

Sometimes it's the card that happens to be holding up the rest of the house.

For some, the fear or pain of watching our house of cards tumble is too great to bear, and we instead challenge or get angry with the minister; entrench ourselves further into the belief that there's no problem with our house; or leave the room--emotionally if not physically.

There's a vulnerability in being able to reply honestly to the prophetic minister:
What you say terrifies me. I fear that my house, my beliefs will collapse. How shall I live? How shall I ever have faith enough to rebuild...?
But is prophetic ministry really a spiritual homewrecker?

Prophetic ministry as an opening for God's grace

My partner and I are homeowners and it's taken us time to acknowledge that there's too much sunlight and too much heat and too much moisture being collected in the upstairs of the house. We had to wait for water to be dripping in from the ceiling--during winter--and filling up a light fixture upstairs before we realized something significant was happening along those hairline cracks that we had convinced ourselves "were nothing."

We needed some help to understand what that "nothing" was, and we called in our contractor.

Who in turn called in an expert in humidity, air circulation, and the air-tightness of a house.

By being humble, by finally acknowledging that something was not in good order in our house, and by asking for additional help from someone else--who in turn was humble enough to ask for help from another someone--we could begin to address the high-humidity, lack-of-air-circulation flaw of the second floor. We were going to have to embrace the difficult task of taking steps to correct the situation, beyond the cosmetic fix of sealing up the current cracks and drying out the lights.

Grace can enter our lives when we allow ourselves to be "pierced to the heart," when we allow ourselves to be, not broken, but broken open.

Grace enters our lives when we can trust that when we fall, we shall be caught; when we are weary, we shall be carried; when we are broken open, we shall be companioned along the journey towards a new wholeness.

Prophetic ministry and restoration

Our spiritual homes, of course, are not always as likely to give us such tangible clues when something is amiss. Part of the life, vitality, and significance of worshiping among Friends in a covenant community comes from being known at all sorts of levels: social, vocational, psychological, familial, emotional, and spiritual.

Consequently, part of the challenge and discomfort that comes with participating in a covenant community of Friends is that there will likely be times when a Friend approaches us when we are distressed:

Your spiritual home seems to be having some sort of trouble, Friend.

How often are we approached in such a direct manner, though? How many times must we wait for the cracks in our spiritual home to start leaking water, or for the Light to start to sputter and dim before we ourselves reach out for help, or before others notice and feel a need to say something?

I have only recently been reminded by the writings of Lloyd Lee Wilson that prophetic ministry calls us to restore God to the center of our lives; to have our lives revolve around God and not the other way 'round.

Yes, it is not the most pleasant of tasks to inspect the foundations of our home, of our faith. It is often inconvenient, to say the least, to have inspectors and contractors intrude in our house and in our personal lives, pointing out code violations, faulty construction, items for repair or replacement.

I certainly can wait for the leaks in my house to get worse, for the electricity to short-circuit. Or I can willingly invite inspection, aware that it may do me well to address the concerns that are brought to my attention.

Similarly, Friends can take a deep breath and invite the minister back into our own parlor for awhile, opening ourselves to the possibility of transformation and grace; an opportunity for the restoration of our spiritual home.


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P.S. I am posting this on the eve before I am scheduled to head to the annual sessions of Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative. I expect to catch up with readers' comments after next First Day.


Anonymous said...

"But is prophetic ministry really a spiritual homewrecker?"

Yes, but indeed it _need_ be so at times.

The point, which I sense that you already
have at the tip of your tongue, is that the house
has to already contain enough love to begin with
that we know the marriage will not dissolve.

The ugly truth that no one wants to admit
is that ALL marriages have irreconcilable
differences. ALL. It's just that the successful
ones have understood that it is still important
to say "I still love you with all my heart."

And so it is with the Some-Like-it-Hot spirit
that Churches and Meetings must operate:
"Nobody's perfect" says the character at the end,
upon finding out the true gender of the
supposed love interest.

If our homes be wrecked so easily as by
prophetic ministry that tells it likes it is,
then no home have we. End of story.

Liz Opp said...

Thanks, David. I agree that a deep love and care towards one another needs to be in place if any ministry is to be received with the L/light in which it is offered.

I'll also add that occasionally I am reminded that part of my most powerful connections among Friends is an extension of the experience that each of us is connected to God, and God speaks to each of us through each of us.

The humanity of who we are can make it difficult to get past the seemingly irreconcilable differences; the divinity of who we are, and how God is revealed through us, helps us transcend those differences.


Unknown said...

Thank-you for this posting I feel there is much wisdom in it.

I'm also fascinated by your use of the word covenant. I suspect for many Friends the notion we are a covenanting community is alien enough to be one of those prophetic gestures that collapses the house of cards.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes, covenant. When I was at 15th Street Meeting in NYC, a Friend there frequently reminded the meeting for business that we were a covenant community. I was a bit mystified at the time but have some better understanding now. Liz, the image of fixing the foundation -- and the drywall -- is helpful. As is the one of sticking out the irreconciliable differences that David mentions.

On the topic of covenant community, I highly recommend Doug Gwyn's The Covenant Crucified: Early Quakers and the Rise of Capitalism (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Books, 1995). His introduction and first chapter frame the discussion in terms of covenant community among the ancient Hebrews, the first Christians, and the early Quakers. Unfortunately, it's out of print and sells for a lot of dough on Amazon (it's not listed on www.quakerbooks.org but they can search for used books for customers).

There's also Heaven on Earth: Quakers and the Second Coming by Doug Gwyn, Timothy Peat, and Ben Pink Dandelion (Woodbroke/something, 1998). I found both the above in my meeting's library.

- Chris M.

Paul L said...

I can second Chris's recommendation of The Covenant Crucified, especially the chapter on covenant that starts it off. It's the best discussion I've ever read.

I'm sorry it's out of print; I'll have to return the copy I borrowed from the meeting's library more months ago than I care to admit -- you can find it there, Liz, when you get back from IYM-C.

Liz Opp said...

Chris and Paul, thanks for those book references. I find that my book list is growing exponentially, thanks in part to these Quaker blogs and the readers who comment on them.


David Bridger said...

Thank you for this post, Liz. Today I ventured into the Quaker blog community for the first time and, almost immediately, I found this post speaking directly to my own experience.

It is indeed "hard to be a prophet in your own land". I've noticed we often seem to find it easier to accept prophetic words of encouragement spoken through another believer, though, than we do prophetic words of warning or caution spoken through the same believer.

It can be a lonely ministry sometimes, but if it's God's word it will reach its target. If I fail to speak it, he'll give it to another messenger.

We are in his hands. Small things may divide us, but what we have in common is vast.


Liz Opp said...

David, you write:

if it's God's word it will reach its target. If I fail to speak it, he'll give it to another messenger.

I agree, and I also wish to add:

If I fail to speak it, God will give me other opportunities to do so.

I say this because such has been my experience. It has been a sort of training ground, through which I learn to be faithful to the promptings of the Spirit.

Thanks for dropping by.


Anonymous said...

"If I fail to speak it, God will give me other opportunities to do so."

Our faith tradition as Friends tells us pretty clearly that there will not be _unlimited_ other opportunities. Many old journals tell of the author's conviction that, after numerous previous failures to speak when rightly led, there came a time when the Friend understood that if (s)he was not faithful _this time_, there would not be a next time. If we consistently decline the Divine invitation, eventually God stops inviting us into that particular ministry. So be careful to bring forth fruit in season ...