Finding the Prophetic Voice for Our Time

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. —1 Corinthians 14:1

Dear Friends, beloveds, what does the Lord ask of us? That we are the salt of the Earth, that we are a light unto the world, that we are streams of living water, that we feed God’s people. Earth, light, water, nourishment—we are asked to tend God’s garden, we are asked to tend God’s community of heaven, we are asked to tend all God’s people.

I have come to realize mine is a quiet voice, my form of prophetic witness is usually without words. I think it is often so that the truth is more easily shown than narrated. Having something to say about finding the prophetic voice for our time is, for me, based on having endeavored, with God’s grace, to let my life speak.

In my own experience, a prophetic life is one that is full of grace, grit, grief, and growth. I think there are five parts to living this kind of life and each part needs to be absolutely grounded in God. The first part is seeking and expectant waiting, being ready to change. We can think of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane—that pivotal movement of change—George Fox on Firbank Fell, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. The second part is discerning God’s call, though it might be costly, challenging, or unpopular. Think of the prophets, Samuel, Jonah (he had a bad time), Isaiah, or the disciples walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee who gave up friends and family and their own place. The third is being willing to use our gifts and acknowledge them; being willing to live in the fullness of them with gladness, with joy, and also with humility. Think of Francis of Assisi, Elizabeth Fry, Caroline Fox, and Nelson Mandela. These three stages are preparation for living a prophetic life.

The next stage is really living up to the light, witnessing to God’s call in the way that you are led. Think of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Margaret Fell, James Nayler, and John Woolman. This means actually being a prophet, but recognition by others might come a lot later, be half-hearted, or not come at all—do not be concerned about that recognition, but rest in the knowledge of a connection with God, of speaking the good news, and of living it.

The last stage is remembering to nourish that witness and find balance in your life. Jesus celebrated at the wedding feast in Cana, then walked into the desert to be separate, to pray, and to be tested. He talked with his friends, and he worked like the rest of us. This prophetic life is a life of discipline, devotion, divestment, discipleship, and also, sometimes, of delight. Friends, are we ready to live like this? I believe that this is what God invites us to do. If we live this kind of committed life, it will be a life that is a countersign to the spirit of the age in which we live. There will be blessings and rewards, but we should be under no illusions; there are times of great loneliness, and prophets are singularly unpopular in their own communities, whether with friends or the place where they live. Prophets can die in the wilderness, and their message can be lost.

So what does prophecy look like today? Prophets can be bracing, gritty, challenging; what they have to say and do can make us uncomfortable. They may sound full of shoulds and oughts, guilts and sorrows. They might be loved and respected, but not liked very much. Prophets can also be joyful, encouraging, hopeful; they can speak of God’s love and live it amongst us. They can be a blessing to their community, affirm our choices and aspirations, feel easy and pleasurable to be around, and bring us a deep sense of connection with the Spirit at work in the world.

These are holy people, saints perhaps. Maybe we call some people saints or describe their holiness so that we might feel less worried about failing to live as they do, as though it is their saintliness that has enabled them to do what they do, rather than seeing that it is endeavoring to live up to the Light that has led them to live a life we might call holy or blessed by God.

Amongst Friends, we have a tradition and theology of living as though the kingdom of heaven is at hand, of living like it’s heaven on Earth in holy obedience to that reality. Not just as though it might come at some unspecified time in the future, but as an experience of Christ already present amongst us. This means that holy obedience to God’s call is open to us all if we stand in the way of it, if we listen.

This manner of living in holy obedience answers the question, "What are Quakers for?" Just as early Friends were, so are we still all called to be ministers, priests, and prophets, answering the call to heal the world. We might tell when we are getting it right by testing ourselves against the fruits of the Spirit, as listed in Gal. 5:22.

If our prophetic life is grounded in God, then these fruits will be present: love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Paul obviously thought hard about this; he talks about it too in Col. 3:12, and there he speaks of compassion, humility, meekness, patience, and something that is so important: forgiveness.

To me, living a prophetic life means not just being able to see the future and what it holds, it means being willing to see what is right here, right now, and to see what is required to answer the needs of the present.

In listening for God’s call, in answering the needs of now, I have been challenged and I have been changed. My experience of endeavoring to live up to the Light I have is that more has been given to me. I say that with humility, with gratitude, and also with a clear understanding that I might just as easily have stopped my ears and my heart and gone on a different path. The word obedience comes from the Latin, which means "to hear." It has been a willingness to listen that has been crucial for me in finding and expressing a prophetic voice.

I do believe that we are all called to listen through the prophetic voice within ourselves and to mediate God’s love to the world; that together we are called to be a countersign to what is happening in our world—perhaps out of compassion for the planet, an understanding of the human condition, or maybe an urgent sense of willingness to act on God’s call.

There are many different ways of doing this: some of us are called to speak out, to build or demonstrate the alternative, to celebrate, pray, and praise, to take symbolic or practical action, or to hold to a vision of the kingdom come.

I have realized my kind of prophetic voice is one that is lived, danced, and expressed with tenderness through action rather than through words. I am neither driven by fury at evil times nor forced on by anger or fear. Love has overcome these things. I have been angry and fear has whispered in my ears, it has closed my eyes and held me rooted to the spot. But I say again, love has overcome these things.

I have a short rule to live by; it is adapted from Micah, 6:8: to act justly, to love tenderly, to walk humbly, and to live joyfully. This is how I am led to be in the world, my form of testimony, how I let my life speak.

Our testimony, our own form of prophetic voice, will vary because we are each different, unique, precious, a child of God. What we feel led to witness about will be different too. What matters is that we pay attention to God’s call and that we answer it.

We live, dear Friends, in an extraordinary time. We are greatly blessed to have an opportunity before us to listen to the ministry of both people and the planet. We have the chance to hear God’s will for us and to live truly as though the kingdom of heaven were already here.

Across the globe, communities, individuals, and ecologies are all in crisis. We have the opportunity to acknowledge our place and our current role in this crisis and to respond. We are all invited to listen to God’s will for us, to respond in love and to reconnect to ourselves, to one another, and to the Earth, which is our home.

The threats posed by climate change are not a future theoretical possibility; for millions of people, for many people here, they are already a lived reality. Drought, food scarcity, violent conflict over dwindling resources, floods, forced migration and displacement, changes in weather patterns, altered biological relationships: all these are just some of the effects experienced now.

In the future, we will see a global rise in temperature, increased sea level rise, intensified loss of species diversity, and mass population movements. Consequently, there will also be increased levels of violent conflict over materials, territory, and resources.

There are a number of responses open to us—ones I encounter amongst Friends include grief, despair, hopelessness, and sometimes apathy and denial, or a sense that it is now too late to make the necessary changes in our own lives to have any meaningful impact on levels of carbon emissions.

In the latter part of the 20th century, Friends were moved to witness against nuclear weapons. In many ways this was simpler to tackle. We petitioned governments, or people out there, to act.

Climate change is different. The science is complex, there is a wealth of misleading and inaccurate information and propaganda, and we are all implicated, responsible, and required to change. In the rich northern hemisphere, we are in the midst of living out an entitlement theology that has developed strongly over the last 100 years. Many of us seem to worship in shopping malls, and many of us regard what we buy and consume as a primary source of status, happiness, self-expression, identity, and fulfillment.

In the industrialized world, it is hard to give up this sense of entitlement—we may think of it in terms of stewarding, sharing, or using the gifts of God’s creation. In the industrializing world, it is hard not to want this level or form of consumption and the corresponding lifestyle it brings. If we are to continue with this lifestyle, then I believe that this level of production and consumption will have to be available to all, and those of us with the financial means should put our money where our mouths are. If we truly believe in equality, then we in the north should be willing to financially support sustainable technology and renewable fuel sources. Those of us who live in countries that have mostly exported industry to countries with low wage overheads, cheaper energy, and raw materials, should invest in making sure that the environmental and social consequences are not unevenly borne.

If, in the north, we want this kind of lifestyle, we should pay the full costs and not expect to be subsidized by the health, well-being, or lives of the poorest nations, nor the health, well-being, and life of the planet. I say "if" about this kind of lifestyle and these sorts of levels of consumption because I think as Friends we know a different way. This is important because there are costs beyond the physical and material to this addiction to energy and material consumption. In the northern hemisphere, many are slaves to work that brings no satisfaction, perhaps because we are tied into cycles of credit, debt, and mortgage repayments. We are slaves to our diaries and schedules with no room for the Spirit or inspiration, where meetings for worship are scheduled for an hour on Sunday with 45 minutes of fellowship afterwards.

We may be absorbed by the false idols of status symbols: a car, different clothes, a house, different work, so much so that we can have the hope and happiness sucked out of us. We don’t have time to recognize or celebrate what we already have and who we already are.

We in the rich countries also export our addictive attitudes and behaviors around the world without a health warning, a warning that this kind of behavior promotes no happiness at personal, local, or global levels.

We think we have it all, but what it has turned out to be is an addiction to unsustainable and unhappy lifestyles. As we consume we should be under no illusion: we are consumed by a world that is full of fakery and falsity.

When we recall our Testimonies: Peace, Equality, Truth, Simplicity, Justice, Integrity, and Community, when we use these as the touchstone for our activities and our lives, when we inhabit these so that we become them and they are not merely abstract concepts, then we may live truly in the promise of God’s love.

When I endeavor to go my own way, I struggle; when I go God’s way that struggle ceases. Over the last 25 years I have paid attention to different aspects of my life that contribute to climate change, and with God’s help my life has been transformed. I have been led to a place where I have committed myself to living a more sustainable life: more sustainable for the planet, more sustainable for communities. It is more sustainable personally, too, though it is particular to my context living in Britain.

My testimony to the integrity of creation means not driving a car. I never learned. I gave up flying six years ago. It meant I had to change jobs and the work that I could do, and that there are some parts of my family across the globe I may never see again in person. I became a vegetarian when I was 14, I gave up dairy and eggs five years ago, and I now use no animal products at all. I have moved this year to be close to work so that I no longer have to commute by train and bus. This has meant letting go of the worshiping community that I love. I use renewable electricity in my home. Overall I use very little energy or water. I compost and recycle 99 percent of my garbage. You can’t throw away; there is no such place as away. I grow some of my own food, and I cook from scratch. I do lots of knitting and sewing; I make some of my own clothes. I don’t own a television, or a mobile phone or a microwave, and I don’t use the Internet at home.

I am involved in my local community. My local Member of Parliament sometimes comes to tea, and we correspond regularly. He says he has transformed the movement in the United States that said, "What would Jesus do?" into "What would Quakers do?" I have worked at both the grassroots and at national policy level seeking truth with power and with love.

I want to say again that it has taken me 25 years to be able to live God’s will for me as well as I am able. I continue to learn both obedience and joy.

There are times of feeling truly that I am living as I am called to live, answering the design of my creation, and I don’t do any of this with a heavy heart; I do it with hope. I don’t do it with a frown on my face, but with joy. I don’t wear a hair shirt. I see my life as an experiment in faith, of really endeavoring to live faith fully, and that means for the most part it is a life that is filled with grace and gratitude for what I have and where I am led.

All of the small things I do are about demonstrating what it is possible to do; they are practical, they mean I have a small carbon footprint—tiny by Western standards—but it is also a symbolic life. It is a life I have been led to, a life freely answering God. It is such liberty.

It is not something I talk about a lot. This is probably the first time I have put it all together. In my head and in my heart I hear a prophetic song, and it is this to which I dance my life.

We can learn to be the change we wish to see in the world. These things can help sustain us when grief, gracelessness, and the hard grind threaten to overwhelm us.

The prophetic life, dear Friends, is one that can have a profound impact on the world and those around us. Living like this will change us for the better, too. I believe we have hands, hearts, and voices to speak of the continuing creation of the world. We have the capacity and the potential to be a prophetic song for this time. All we need to do is open ourselves to the prophetic call and then give voice to it joyfully.
This is an edited version of an address given at the Friends World Committee for Consultation Triennial in Dublin, Ireland, in August 2007.

Lizz Roe

Lizz Roe is the off-site coordinator at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Britain. A member of Hereford and mid Wales Area Quaker Meeting, she worships in the tiny meeting of Newtown (tucked away in Montgomeryshire in rural mid-Wales). She was previously the tutor in practical theology at Woodbrooke and has been living out a concern for sustainability and simplicity over the last 25 years. Part of this has involved gradually reducing her carbon footprint to majority world levels in addition to finding ways to communicate the liberation possible through simplicity with grace, joy, and good humor.