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April 1, 2008

Prophets, Like Us

Susannah Heschel is the daughter of Abraham J. Heschel, an esteemed Jewish scholar, professor, and author. She wrote the introduction to her father's 1962 tome, The Prophets, and begins with these words:

"What manner of man is the prophet?" asks my father in the opening pages?A person of agony, whose "life and soul are at stake in what he says," yet who is also able to perceive "the silent sigh" of human anguish?For my father, the importance of prophecy lies not only in the message, but in the role of the prophet as a witness, someone who is able to make God audible?The prophet hears God's voice and looks at the world from God's perspective.

To make God audible. A message. A witness. Speaking, weeping, wailing, and often raging. All are part and parcel with the prophet's call to utter words on God's behalf - to reveal God's heart to the people.

Heschel continues by saying, "[the prophet] said No to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism. He was often compelled to proclaim the very opposite of what his heart expected."

Not surprisingly, Heschel uses the masculine pronoun. But no matter: the words ring true. The Biblical prophets were people who communicated a different message than the world around them and most often one the world did not want to hear. Their speaking involved personal cost, high risk and often great harm. It also involved an unquenchable, unstoppable inner fire that compelled them to speak. And most of the ones we've heard about were men.

Here's what strikes me, though: these words could describe many of the women I know!

I know women in positions of leadership who are constantly pushing boundaries to honestly, and with integrity, speak what must be heard. I know women who have treaded into deep and painful waters in their marriage because they could no longer keep their heart hidden inside, remaining silent to their deepest desires. I know women who have willingly entered realms of darkness and harm to advocate on behalf of those sold into sexual slavery, those experiencing the untold horrors of sexual or physical abuse, those hidden in a violent world of domestic violence. Every day I am surrounded by women who are, indeed prophets.

Here's what I believe: whether by conscious choice or circumstantial demand, women inherently and instinctively are prophets. And further, I think that's by God's design - whether we like it or not. Most of us don't.

We don't want to incur the risk of speaking truth and we must. We don't want to bear the cost or harm of saying what others don't want to hear and we can't not. We're caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. Clearly, we are prophets. And we are in good company. Listen to Jeremiah:

"O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout?If I say, ?I will not mention [God], or speak any more in [God's] name,' then within me there is something like a burning fir shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot" (Jeremiah 20:7-8a, 9).

Again, I'm struck by how familiar this feels. If I choose not to speak, not to act, I can hardly bear it! Though I'm tired of having to speak and then live in the midst of often-painful truth, not speaking it creates an inner turmoil that I cannot bear (at least for long).

I wonder what would happen if we intentionally began to see and understand ourselves as prophets. I wonder what would happen if we acknowledged how incredibly difficult it often is to say what others don't want to hear and chose to speak the truth anyway. I wonder what would happen if we began to be honest even with ourselves - acknowledging the ways in which we've been silenced, remained hidden, and not been the prophet God has called us to be.

There is a whole legion of prophets that surround us every day - and of whom we are one. God's voice and presence are aching to be heard and seen - through female prophets, through you and me.

Will you tell the truth? Will you risk? I bet you already have. May you stand boldly and confidently in the reality that you, as articulated by Heschel, "can perceive the silent sigh of human anguish (even your own) and then make God audible." You are a female prophet.


I liked this statement: "The Biblical prophets were people who communicated a different message than the world around them and most often one the world did not want to hear."

And then I suddenly didn't like it either. For I thought, we prophets sometimes have to communicate a different message than the world inside us too... a message we ourselves may not want to hear. Maybe this is the other reason we weep, wail and rage.

I like the statement that "God's voice and presence are aching to be seen and heard." I feel this very strongly-in fact I feel it more and more each day. I pray for the guidance and opportunity to be His voice. At the same time, it can be a little scary. While I feel God's love and support, I know also that there are those nearby who would prefer to keep me silent. Thank you for this uplifting article.

what do you do as a woman when your spouse cannot bear the hostility that comes from others when you speak out and he though acknowledging you are speaking the truth says you shouldn't since 'it is not your responsibility' alone. And you ache to keep quiet when God says speak. Especially in the African setting where women are not regarded.

Nike: I wish there were an easy answer for you AND I continue to believe that God is not only faithful, but also dwells - intimately and palpably - in the darkest and loneliest of places. The pursuit of life (not death) is what we are called to - not just as prophets, but as women, as human beings. May you find shards of light and life in places of darkness and death. And may you also be surprised by the places in which your voice is heard and resounds!

Amen! Amen. It is true that the prophet is like a thumb on the hand, being a part of the body but with a very different and vital function. If you fnd yourself this type of gifted person, get used to it, you will be thought of as harsh although they love you and wonder why; they will not however, want to have coffee with you. The 'real fakes of the faith' will hate you, because you read their mail and say what they do not want to hear. The actual way that it works is that God reads their mail and He speaks through you. Prophets are God's to speak His thoughts and while it is a tough calling remember that God warns..."do my prophets no harm."

In scripture, prophets were often revered, yet also often lived in isolation...because they carried a message that others could not understand or did not want to hear. Yet they stayed true to the calling and continued to speak the truth. Women in leadership, particularly in ministry, have a responsibility to embrace our roles as prophets - to speak the truth that others may be challenged to hear - for the benefit of those who come behind.

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