Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.
I became a Christian aged 16, having toyed with whole idea of faith for a couple of years before that. It was a very mundane conversion experience; no flashing lights or voices from heaven, just a commitment to live differently. I was a six-former heading towards a career in medicine but it wasn’t long before my life had turned upside down. Within a year I was withdrawing from a place at Edinburgh University and applying to study at Cliff College. It was during my year at Cliff that I trained to be a local preacher and prepared to offer for ordained ministry. At the age of 20, I entered theological college not in Belfast, as I had originally thought, but in Cambridge, preparing to serve a different Methodist Church. As I look back on that period from the distance of three decades, I am still amazed at how much my life changed in a relatively short space of time.
I am extremely glad that I began my journey to ordination within the Methodist Church in Ireland. Rather than count my age against me ( I was 19 when I qualified as a Local Preacher and began the process of candidating) they positively embraced the idea of a person willing to offer the whole of their working life to the church. Yet, still the doubts came and I was drawn back to the assurances within the first chapter of Jeremiah:
Do not say, ‘I am too young’ …
I have no idea how old Jeremiah was then those words
of calling came to him, but they became a constant source of encouragement and inspiration to me as a made my way through theological college and beyond. As the ‘baby’ of the college, one college review sketch insisted that I would need to remain in training until I was old enough to get a driving licence! As the years have gone by since then, this text has continued to inspire and sustain me in ministry. No longer does the youth bit apply, sadly, but the affirmation of God’s deep knowledge and care in my life still lifts me when I need it.
Ordination is, to the modern eye, a weird concept. The notion of someone being inducted in a role for life is increasingly at odds with the culture of a fast-changing world. But, for me, that particular moment when hands were laid on my head and the Spirit invoked embodied the words given to Jeremiah:
…before you were born I consecrated you.
That we are put on the earth to make a unique contribution to the life of the world that will take a lifetime to complete is an extraordinary claim. Not just that we are given that role, and the wherewithal to undertake it, but that it is given by a God who knows us utterly and yet still continues to trust and entrust.
‘Prophetic’ gets overused in the church these days and carries with it mixed connotations. It is often a euphemism for the outspoken, controversial or just plain loud-mouthed. On the lips of those in positions of leadership, it is a polite way of saying ‘tone it down!’ In public, prophetic voices are lauded for their bravery and integrity; privately, they are kept well away from power.
“… I appointed you as a prophet to the nations … You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.
… I have put my words in your mouth … to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”
For some in the church, ‘prophetic’ is synonymous with courage, if not foolhardiness. Actions or words we agree with but find hard to vocalise are labelled prophetic, and we are extremely thankful that we don’t have to be the ones to stand up and say them. When the change the prophets fought for eventually becomes a reality, we take kudos from being on the side of right all along (even if no-one else knew!) My fear is that too many believe that prophetic people are made of different stuff from the ordinary mortal. Like Marvel superheroes, prophets have taken on mythic proportions where their extraordinary character and virtues set them well apart from the likes of us. Because we are not like them, we are therefore absolved of any responsibility to act or speak like they do.
The Hebrew Bible is not a Marvel comic, however, and the calling to be a prophet is not accompanied by the bite from a radioactive spider! The ‘superpower’ each called to prophetic ministry embodies is obedience, by which I mean, a willingness to be open to God’s future and to trust in God’s support. Most took a good look at themselves and saw all kinds of reasons not to be suitable for the task - speech impediment, age, morality, their past behaviour. Nevertheless, when it came to it, they stood up and spoke out.
I don’t reckon much has changed since Jeremiah’s day in this regard. Being prophetic isn’t a question of temperament or talent, nor is it for the especially courageous.
It is for the faithful who have nothing much to offer but their willingness.
It is for the comfortable who recognize that their privilege comes at too high a price for others.
It is for the foolish who, despite all evidence to the contrary, continue to believe that justice is possible.
It is for the hopeful who refuse to quit building tomorrow, today.