I grew up believing that some people had the gift. They could see into your heart. Prophets are what they were called in the church of my youth. Prophets had a special anointing from God that allowed them to perceive your private lusts, sense your darkest secrets, know your deepest hopes, and discern what the future held for you. Prophets were rare individuals who preached once or twice a year at our church’s revivals. They traveled under the title of evangelist or revivalist, but their appeal rested upon their prophetic gifts. After an hour or so of preaching about salvation, sanctification, predestination, or something on that order, the evangelist would switch from being a preacher to being a prophet. After all, a revivalist wasn’t fit to be heard if his word wasn’t backed up with signs and wonders. He had either to heal someone or predict someone’s future, or both. (Women weren’t prophets in my church. No one questioned why not. Not even me back then.)
It wasn’t until I went to seminary that I discovered that the prophets who came through my church weren’t prophets after all. They certainly weren’t prophets according to mainline Christian circles (e.g., baptist, methodist, presbyterian, lutheran). Prophets, according to this tradition, take a particular stance toward issues of justice and peace, stances that typically make them a threat to the status quo. Think Martin Luther King, Jr. Think Nat Turner. Mainline traditions look to the example of the Old Testament to argue that prophets are folks at odds with the dominant culture. They are called to unmask powers, critique social ills, remind government and individuals of their responsibility to the poor and downtrodden. At the same time true prophets find language that helps audiences imagine an alternative future and new ways of living in community with each other. Hardly anyone qualifies in modern times to be a prophet according to mainliners.
Have there been any prophets in recent years? I think so. I remember years ago when I was in seminary hearing the late Tom Skinner preach and sitting there spellbound and convinced that I was in the presence of a prophet on the order of John the Baptist. I haven’t met any prophets lately, unfortunately. But just because I don’t know any prophets doesn’t make them any less real today. After all, the prophets of old (e.g., Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Ezekiel, and Habbakkuk) were pariahs and fugitives and not celebrities, despite the image of prophet we carry around in our head today from watching television.
Did I mention that I was always being called to the front of the church when prophets came to my church to preach? No surprise there, huh? And I always got up when I was called out even when I had my doubts about the prophet. I went just in case. I believed God spoke through prophets– not always, not all of them, but enough to warrant, if you’re around one claiming to be a prophet, getting up and going to check out what he or she has to say. Just in case. Even now, despite all I know, and despite what I’ve seen of fake prophets, bishops, and apostles, I still believe that certain people have the gift. They see more than the rest of us.
Finally, while I don’t know if there are any prophets around today, I do believe that there are prophetic moments each of us is called to. From time to time, now and then, here and there, you find yourself in situations where you are called upon to be a prophetic voice. To speak truth to power. To speak up on behalf of someone with no voice. To risk your comfort and safety for a higher good. To tell the hard truth despite the cost. And when you do just that, you know it had to have been God, the anointing, a calling, for you to have done what you did– because if you were in your right mind, if it were left up to you, you would have kept silent and left it to someone else. But something got a hold on you.