For three hundred years, the voice of prophecy had been silent in the land until John appeared, brusque and outlandish, one “crying in the wilderness.” How odd that they came to him in droves, even as he addressed them as a brood of vipers, announcing an axe poised to cut them down at the roots. Even hard truth catches some inner, discerning ear. They were baptized by the hundreds, Jesus among them.
The voice of prophecy may not be totally silent in our time, but where is it being sounded with vigor and volume, with relentlessness and outrage? Then again, who would choose the role? In a time of escalating fear and hopelessness, will we nurture a new generation of prophets? Will they be unafraid to stand against the empty promises and illusions of security offered by an ethos of domination and power? Who will arise to boldly trust in God’s promises of fullness and grace and reconciling love?
I remember a workshop participant at a church with a history of tension and discord, who even as she said these words laughed at herself, “I wish we could do everything with graciousness and goodwill like they did in the Bible.” The Old Testament narratives are rife with dissension and rebellion, competition and conflict. The positioning and rivalries among the disciples dismayed Jesus. And virtually no one signed aboard for a second missionary junket with Paul. It doesn’t take reading between the lines to see how deep the conflict was between Peter and Paul, though Acts 15 narrates its resolution. Biblical characters, failing to close the gap between differences, bridged them. The issue is not whether there will be broad and ardently held differences of opinion, but how those differences will be expressed. In a time when civility is in collapse, when public discourse is riddled with innuendo or outright assault, the church can model an alternative. Sometimes it does. Too often it does not.
A sad tale unfolds in a downtown church in a major East Coast city. It is not pretty. And it is not unfamiliar, but I find it infuriating. A denominational judicatory is holding its monthly meeting, three hundred delegates in all, clergy and laity, a six-hour agenda at hand. Although the chatter accompanying coffee and pastries seems innocent and amiable, smaller circles of kindred spirits tighten, whispering tactics anticipating the engagements of the day. The “issue that will not go away” is on everyone’s mind—you can fill in the blank yourself. At day’s end, with everyone weary and bloodied, the issue looms larger and more potent than ever, and ardent adversaries are more wounded and divided than when they began. Given an opportunity to speak and listen with open minds and hearts, even as they speak their truth with vigor and persuasiveness, they collapse into a cacophony of name-calling and assault.
Imagine they had called a mission agency in advance of that Tuesday meeting, offering three hundred people to be deployed around the city for six hours. Eighteen hundred person hours! Imagine the senior citizens they might have visited, the kids they might have read to, the meals for the homeless they might have prepared! They might have attended to homes that needed to be weatherized for the approaching winds of winter or patients in a mental hospital who would benefit from a visit. It was no one’s conscious choice, but choose they surely did—to do pitched battle in a musty old sanctuary, in take-no-prisoners combat, impossible as in most wars to declare victors or vanquished.
As I look back over my longest pastorate, one of the things that stands out is the members’ ability to face and engage one another even in the face of sharp and potentially destructive differences of opinion on even the most divisive of issues. The congregation marshaled a sensitivity and courage in fully integrating the prophetic mandate with a gentle and loving pastoral ministry. Though in many cases my political leanings were rather transparent, I made a commitment not to advocate partisan positions from the pulpit—a decision that was not received with universal appreciation. I maintained the right to speak my biases vigorously and persuasively, but only when my preaching robe was off.
Three particular strategies employed across those years are worthy of sharing. In the midst of some national debate, a member felt prompted to place a large table in the back of the church, with a sign that read Faith and Social Concern, inviting people to place reprints of articles that articulated their point of view on any pressing issue. Soon the table overflowed with reprints advocating opinions on various issues, local, statewide, national, and international. Worshipers were urged to select broadly to become informed about differing points of view. Few left church without a stop at that table.
A second strategy emerged during a season of run-up to war, when the mission committee was leading worship one Sunday. After fifteen minutes of typical liturgy, worshipers were dismissed to one of two rooms prepared for their arrival. In one waited a representative from the Quaker Annual Meeting of Philadelphia to speak against the contemplated war; in the other a general from the War College to advocate for the war. The instruction was to choose the speaker and point of view opposite to the one you held and, once there, to speak only to ask questions for clarification. Your task was to become as fully, deeply understanding of that viewpoint as you were able. We returned to the sanctuary for a closing liturgy that urged open-mindedness and prayer for discernment and wisdom for all key decision-makers.
Third, I remember how familiar it became to see petitions on various issues circulating in the coffee hour, sometimes several petitions, often on differing or even opposite sides of a given issue. On one particular Sunday, members learned that the following Saturday two rallies were scheduled at adjacent locations in Washington, D.C.—a pro-life rally and a pro-choice rally, and each group had arranged charter buses to carry participants. Sign-up lists for each rally appeared at coffee hour. This would surely test the limits of our tolerance. I watched, a twinge of anxiety stirring, as individuals, approached by others with clipboards in hand, promptly signed up. That was easy enough. But I also watched a conversation that left the sheet unsigned—clearly pro-life and pro-choice women chatting. I’m no stranger to strained, coarse, and hostile exchanges between adversaries on this difficult and delicate issue, and so my anxiety spiked. Such exchanges typically end, at best, in cool and dismissive silence. My anxiety dissipated and my eyes teared watching these women of divergent and strongly held views smile warmly, embracing. I wished the world were watching.
Over time and after lengthy and patient discussion, the congregation reached consensus on a basic principle—the affirmation of a fourfold process for relating our faith to social issues.
First, become broadly informed on issues at hand, open to as many points of view as integrity and conscience allow. Second, study Scripture and pray, bringing neutrality and openness to that exploration. Third, as study, biblical research, and prayer yield sufficient clarity, articulate your position, boldly and humbly. Fourth, advocate for that point of view unapologetically, speaking and listening with equal care.
It is important to note, as we ponder this invitation to assume the prophet’s mantle for our time, to distinguish two kinds of biblical prophets. There are the bombastic prophets, who speak from outside the political and religious establishment, who sweep in from hometowns far away, their message sharp and explosive, uncompromising and unrelenting. Then there are the pastoral prophets, who speak the prophetic word from within the political and religious establishment, along the streets and lanes of familiar neighborhoods, in the town square and marketplace of their hometown. The bombastic prophetic voice must be soun
ded, but becoming a steady, sensitive, unhesitant pastoral prophet may be the more pressing challenge.
Adapted from Gifts of an Uncommon Life: The Practice of Contemplative Activism by Howard E. Friend, Jr., copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Gifts of an Uncommon Life: The Practice of Contemplative Activism
by Howard E. Friend, Jr.
This book of ten essays is a breath of fresh air, a source of inspiration, a wake-up call, and a bold challenge for pastors, congregational leaders, and church members—both active and lapsed—who long for a new perspective, even a touch of creative irreverence. Howard Friend offers forthright, at times disarming, candor as he shares his personal pilgrimage of activism rooted in contemplation. Drawing on a range of stories from th
e Bible and his own lived experiences, Friend invites us to meet real people—pastors, leaders, everyday folks—who dare to dream a new dream, journey toward a far horizon, walk with tireless determination, and press on with awesome hope.
Lost in the Middle: Claiming an Inclusive Faith for Christians Who Are Both Liberal and Evangelical
by Wesley J. Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner
There exists a deep and broad population of Christians
who feel the labels of “liberal” and “evangelical” both describe their faith and limit their expression of it. By working to reclaim the traditional, historical meanings of these terms, and showing how they complement rather than oppose each other, Wesley Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner stake a claim for the moderate Christian voice in today’s polarized society.
Found in the Middle: Theology and Ethics for Christians Who Are Both Liberal and Evangelical
by Wesley J. Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner
As a follow up to Lost in the Middle?, Found in the Middle! offers a foundational approach to the theology and ethics that undergird a congregation where moderate Christians can thrive. Wildman and Garner serve as helpful guides on a quest for a humble theology, an intelligible gospel message, a compelling view of church unity, and a radical ethics deeply satisfying to most Christians with both liberal and evangelical instincts.
Managing Polarities in Congregations: Eight Keys for Thriving Faith Communities
by Roy M. Oswald and Barry Johnson
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A polarity is a pair of truths that need each other over time. When an argument is about two poles of a polarity, both sides are right and need each other to experience the whole truth. This phenomenon has been recognized and written about for centuries in philosophy and religion, and the research is clear: leaders and organizations who manage polarities well outperform those who don’t.
Church on the Edge of Somewhere: Ministry, Marginality, and the Future
by George B. Thompson, Jr.
George Thompson asks congregations to explore the meaning of being in the world but not of it—a church on the “edge of somewhere.” Thompson envisions a church that is deeply engaged in ministering to the community while calling on others to commit to doing the same. By analyzing the interaction between a congregation’s focus of identity and its stance with the world, Thompson helps congregations see where they currently stand so that they can discover where they must go in the future to fully live out their call to be God’s people in the world.
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