Heralds, as in the angelic ones that sing – announce things. Like a new born king. Our faith tradition is full of heralds – calling folks to listen, to act, to worship, to be courageous. Heralds in the Bible are usually announcing the word of God.
Prophets – both in the Jewish Bible and the New Testament – bring the quality of vision to this announcing or naming. They are folks who name what others cannot see; who see what others are blind to. They don’t so much predict the future as name a future that could be.
In this season of Advent, the Prophet Isaiah and the Herald John the Baptist play an important role. Listen. Watch. Pay attention to the right things.
I suspect we all have people in our lives that were visionary – who could see and helped bring into being a future that much of the world could not yet see.
I have this lovely old picture from 1913 of my grandmother. She’s one in the center with the ball. The story is that she’s a women’s basketball coach. She’d have been about 20 years old. She wasn’t alone, but she and the others involved in the women’s basketball movement at the turn of the 20th century saw something others didn’t see.
For example, in 1908 the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) took the position that women or girls should not play basketball in public. (not sure if they opposed them playing privatelyJ). Those women must have been persistent, because in 1914 the American Olympic Committee declared its opposition to the participation of women in the Olympics competition.
In this story, you see two things. There were women who looked into the future and saw something not visible in their own time; and they were out of step with the culture at large.
In this sense, my grandmother was a herald and a prophet of her time; one of the visionaries who was willing to work toward a reality that did not exist, was not visible; regardless the cost.
Both our passages are pointing to a future different than the present. In Isaiah, reference is made to comforting God’s people – burdened and beaten from generations in exile, distant from the homeland. In that context, there is nothing to suggest a powerful or positive future. So when the prophet proclaims, …”Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain,” they are making a bold claim, casting a completely counter cultural vision. They are pointing to a future they cannot see, a reality that simply doesn’t exist.
John the Baptist in Mark’s gospel offers a similar truth. Someone is coming who is greater than I. We can’t see them. We must trust, prepare, be ready. He will baptize you not just with water, but the Holy Spirit.
In both cases, a voice crying out – in the wilderness – beyond the edges of the current cultural climate. Beyond the confines of the known world. Beyond the parameters of hope is people knew it at the time. It was both a lone voice, and a voice ‘in the wilderness.’
Why do we repeat these stories each year, repeatedly lifting up a lone voice heralding a new time? Why did our ancient faith tradition build into this season the importance of listening again to prophets of old? Of course it was to remind from where we come. But was it also because the act of looking for, listening too and heeding the prophets of our own time is an important aspect of our faith too?
Who are the heralds and prophets among us – including but not limited to our grandmothers and grandfathers. Who among us is pointing to a vision beyond what we can see in this moment? Who is naming a truth that runs counter to the cultural climate, whose insight and courage transcend the realities of here and now.
Reconnecting a bit with my grandmother’s story is timely because in our current climate, it is more and more important that we look for women who are or have been heralds and prophets. Of course, there are many great men who have been the same; but in this season of a mother and her child, as well as a young woman and her cousin – I’d like to lift up two stories around women who are prophets and heralds for our time, and in being so, invite us to listen more deeply than ever to the voice calling in the wilderness.
The first involves the group known as women religious (nuns and sisters). In 2012, the Vatican demanded that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) come into compliance with the doctrines of the church; saying the nuns cared too much about the very poor, and not enough about abortion and same-sex marriage.
(For context, among those women were noted author Joan Chittister, Nuns on the Bus leader Simone Campbell, and the sweet old sisters – Mary David and Joanne – of Holy Wisdom here in Middleton). The Vatican appointed an Archbishop delegate assisted by two bishops to review, and give guidance and approval of the work of these women. It was seen as a blatant effort by Rome to force the women to surrender their autonomy; the demands for orthodoxy dishonored all their contributions. For many who see these women as pillars of the Jesus Way, it was shocking and disturbing.
Margaret Wheatley, in her recent book, Who Do We Choose To Be: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity, writes about their response to this challenge.
The response of the women can be summed up in the mantra they developed in this time: We are faithful, therefore we are not afraid. The shape of their response was manifold:
- They began by creating principles for how to move through the 5 year investigation process begun by the Vatican. They agreed to not use the media to communicate, they would seek to be respectful, they would prize dialogue and stay open to learning.
- They defined their struggle as one of working on behalf of all women and men, not just the sisters, who suffer from institutional power.
- They relied on their experience with contemplative practices. No decisions were made in haste. Prayer and contemplation were trusted to discern right action.
- They had confidence in their professional skills – consensus building, canon law, theology, politics, women’s rights.
- They never retreated into isolation, but used participative processes to build and maintain trust among themselves.
It was resolved when a new Pope was selected three years into the process (Francis). Please understand me, I don’t tell the story to slam the Vatican. Not my fight. I tell the story less for it’s resolution and more for the women’s vision.
In short, these women offered a clear model of how to call forth the spirit of God in a battered and weary land. Even if they didn’t know what the future held, their faith-based vision could see a way of being community that would define how they traveled. They embraced deeper principles that not only undergirded them in the now; but also pointed them to the future they wanted to inhabit.
Caught in a maelstrom that was not of their doing, they focused in the faith they knew; rather than allowing themselves get caught up in the fear mongering that tried to undo their good work. Not surprisingly, their good works for the poor and the environment and for the spiritually seeking never ceased; even while as women religious they had to attend to unwanted distractions and threats. They have been, and remain, prophets of our time.
Summing up their spirit, Sr. Campbell says, “Faith is like walking through a mist with your eyes wide open. Reminds me of when I was a kid in Long Beach and we’d stand out at the bus stop in the fog, and we’d try to tell by the headlights, was it a bus or was it a truck? You know, what was it? For me, looking down the road, I don’t know. I don’t have a clue. I just know this step is the right step.”
We lift them up for the same reason we lift up biblical prophets – to hold on to and cherish the spiritual practice of listening deeply in a world of chaotic noise. To develop spiritual muscle that focuses intently on biblical values and ideals, even when, especially when, the culture is going another direction. Because however chaotic our time is, we are surrounded by – and can be ourselves – those with a long vision and a present commitment to God’s realm.
A second herald and prophet is a recently deceased activist name Grace Lee Boggs. Born to Chinese immigrant parents, Grace Lee lived to be 100 years old and spent most of her adult life in Detroit. Married to African American activist Jimmy Boggs, together they became, as one commentator said, the heart and soul of the civil rights/worker’s movement in Detroit. As a woman who earned a PhD in Philosophy in the 40’s Grace Lee believed that the work for justice must constantly be adapted and changed as times around us change. When Grace and Jimmy met in the early 50’s, Detroit was home to 2 million people and the highest percentage of home ownership in the country. What activists have learned over time years, however, is that no one is going to bale them out. No government, no corporation, no foundation. “We are on our own” they are quick to say.
Under the leadership of their spiritual elder, Grace, a small but powerful group of visionaries has arisen asking different questions and positing differing solutions.
As the economic turndown picked up speed and homes were abandoned and vacant lots emerged – they asked an important question– how can these lots be the source of opportunity? African American migrants from the south, in particular, saw land that could grow food. ‘Urban agriculture’– emphasizing both community and gardening – sprouted up – long before it became trendy to do so.
As more and more vets returned to Detroit with mental health issues and few job prospects, another of Grace’s followers created a movement called “We Want Green” which employed these vets to insulate and rehab homes. In the process, she saw transformation in herself and in those vets. Using the phrase, ‘the job isn’t the answer’ – these activists saw that the community and self worth created as these work projects were created offered a new vision for those left behind in our economy.
“We are the leaders we are waiting for,” Grace says, as she and her small community of people – many with auto work in their background, first imagined and then created a ‘parallel universe’ within the the Detroit of both abandoned plants and now millennial start ups. (For more, go to http://boggscenter.org/)
Drawing on the life of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, among others, these prophets ask us to listen and learn for new solutions, the evolution of our expectations, and the power that resides in community.
I don’t lift up these stories to intimidate us, or to suggest we should all be a nun on the bus or Grace Lee Boggs. I lift them up as a reminder that in both the ancient ages of our faith tradition, and in the world right around us, visions are being offered up, solutions and pathways through deeply troubling times are being lived out. Our Advent challenge is to listen in love – to take inspiration from the saints around us and to focus less on what we can’t do and more on what God’s people have always been able to do.
- Embrace community
- Embrace a vision of God’s realm that supersedes the current climate of fear and downturn
- Embrace the power of faith to encourage, challenge and guide us.
In this season of deepening darkness – literally and for most of us culturally – there is no better time to look and listen for the prophets among us.
We are people of the night, we long to see your new born light.
Isaiah 40 (excerpts) New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
(The voice of the Holy One calling out…)
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
…A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass; their constancy is like the flower of the field…The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make her paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins… He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but that one will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”