the pattern of the prophets

the pattern of the prophets
Fall Creek Gorge, Ithaca, New York. Fall 2000.

When I was in college I wrote a reflection for my congregation’s Lenten daily devotion booklet, called “The Prophethood of All,” echoing the priesthood of all but for prophetic ministry. I grew up in churches where “prophet” meant someone God revealed the future to, someone naming sin, someone foretelling Jesus. By the time I wrote that Lenten reflection, “prophet” meant something similar, only replacing “sin” with “injustice,” not so much knowing the future as reading the signs of the times, and promising a future hope that in later centuries some saw fulfilled in Jesus.

Before Richard Rohr’s teaching on the prophets, I had never considered prophets as grounded in the contemplative tradition. The prophetic pattern he introduced—that all major prophets in the bible move from anger to sadness to love—is also new.

I see that pattern in my own life in my relationship with my dad, whose long struggle with untreated depression and rage and patriarchal Christianity created a traumatic home environment. It took me a long time to get to anger. As long as I lived with him, it wasn’t safe for me to feel anger, let alone express it. The anger that first came was directed at God who was just like my rageful dad, or so it seemed. In safety I could fight with this angry, judgmental, demanding God. Until I realized that wasn’t God and all, and God had been on my side the whole time. An intuitive contemplative practice participated in this revelation of a God of unconditional love. With this God, I was able to negotiate new boundaries with my dad, even as he mellowed out. I also discovered his real love for me, whether because his capacity to express it or my capacity to receive it grew.

It was only in my 30s that I really contended with my anger. For fear of becoming my father and in jealousy of anger’s power, I had played hide and seek with my own anger for a long time. A bit like Jonah, except running from anger instead of love. But you can’t numb out only one feeling! That and the out-of-proportion anxiety and fear I experienced in daily life motivated me. So with the help of a trauma therapist, I vomited up the poison, which involved giving full voice to all my primal but denied childhood anger. Rage-screaming into pillows. Yelling curses when I drove alone in the car. Punching the couch. It wasn’t pretty or pleasant but it was necessary. Liberating. Unburdening. There was blame in there, blaming my dad—”How could you do this do me?” But also love for myself, now I was doing it to myself and I for my own sake had to get it out of my body, so I could stop. “It” being the poison of my dad’s garbage that, in his rage and emotional distance, he dumped on me. “It” wasn’t exactly my anger about this. Because my anger was, at least in part, an expression of love for myself. The defiant voice of that hidden wholeness that remained unbruised.

My dad died a few years ago, and by the time he did, I’d moved through sadness to love. I lived at a distance from him, but I cared for him by managing his finances and medical decisions. I made many trips back to him, some of them planned in advance. And what his death revealed was the great miracle of this healing journey. My grief was pure. Free of bitterness or resentment. As a pastor walking with people through grief, I had seen variations of the alternative. And I really rejoiced in this pure grief. And I rejoiced that my dad had passed through death into new life and was now healed too. His love was now pure. And I’m still marveling and receiving what this means for me.

Part of that “Prophethood of All” reflection was about guts. To me, being a prophet means being courageous. Not reckless or foolish, but brave. I learned in my family about power, abuse of power, power dynamics. And justice has become a core value. As Cornel West says, justice is love in the public square. The practice of faith-based or congregation-based community organizing has been a part of this healing journey. Both for good and ill! But what I’ve discovered in community organizing training and practice is that the world does not change with words, but with power. Relational power. Power with. Sermons, speeches, arguing with people will not do it. The right words will not do it. Only power.

And it takes guts to step into our powerful selves, into the power of the Holy Spirit if you like, to shed the bad habits of powerlessness and victimhood, to resist the temptations of domination and revolution, and to invite the people around us to step into their power and greatness too, so we can be powerful together. You’ve got to exorcise some demons along that way. There is a place for anger and sadness and above all love in this work. As anger and power serve love, free of blame or the need to control, does it lead to true justice.