The Yin/Yang of Prophetic Communities

A people with a prophet or a prophetic people?

That question’s been kicking around in the Community of Christ for decades. President W. Grant McMurray included these words in his inspired counsel in 2004:

Listen carefully to your own journey as a people, for it is a sacred journey and it has taught you many things you must know for the journey yet to come. Listen to its teachings and discover anew its principles. Do not yearn for times that are past, but recognize that you have been given a foundation of faithful service, even as you build a foundation for what is yet to be. As a prophetic people you are called, under the direction of the spiritual authorities and with the common consent of the people, to discern the divine will for your own time and in the places where you serve. You live in a world with new challenges, and that world will require new forms of ministry.
–Doctrine and Covenants 162:2

In his first message of counsel to the church, President Stephen M. Veazey included these words to the 2007 World Conference:

God is calling for a prophetic community to emerge, drawn from the nations of the world, that is characterized by uncommon devotion to the compassion and peace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Through divine grace and wisdom, this faith community has been given abundant gifts, resources, and opportunities to equip it to become such a people. Chief among these is the power of community in Christ expressed locally in distinctive fashions while upholding a unity of vision, foundational beliefs, and mission throughout the world. –Doctrine and Covenants 163:11a

yinyangThere are two parts to this concept, a Yin/Yang, if you will–two halves that together complete wholeness, as well as the starting point for change. First is common consent through prophetic discernment by the whole body. This requires intense listening to one another as a way to listen to the Spirit. In 2012/2013 national church conferences in Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and the USA used deliberate methods to deal with questions related to ordination and marriage for people in same-gender relationships. Those were breakthrough experiences for the church and ultimately pointed to major changes in sacramental practices.

The other component calls for prophetic action on social-justice issues. This latter area provides the focus for my new book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile. I use the examples of ancient Hebrew prophets to identify the principles and practices  to speak a “word of God” in our 21st-century societies and then act on it.

As Western Christianity moves away from its centuries-old understandings of Christendom (various forms of church & state) it has opportunity to rediscover its roots as the Way of Jesus. That will mean examining itself as both institution and movement. Included in that is a rediscovery of its prophetic function to exist alongside its pastoral and priestly ones. The task facing Christianity, both locally and as a worldwide body, is outlined by noted author Brian D. McLaren in his book, The Great Spiritual Migration:

Each generation faces some great work, some heroic challenge that summons its children to courage and creativity. The great work of this generation will be to respond to the quadruple threat inherited from previous generations: an ecological crisis that, left unchecked, will lead to catastrophic environmental collapse; an economic crisis of obscenely increasing inequality that exploits or excludes the world’s poor while dehumanizing the rich as well; a sociopolitical crisis of racial, ethnic, class, religious, and political conflict that could lead to catastrophic war; and a spiritual and religious crisis in which the religious institutions that should be helping us deal with the first three crises either waste our time or make matters worse.

To face one of these crises would be difficult enough; to face all four simultaneously will require all hands on deck–including the best potential contributions of each of the world’s religious communities. To save the world from this quadruple threat is the great work for which all people of faith and goodwill, including Christians, must be mobilized. –p. 166

Obviously, this is not an undertaking exclusively for Community of Christ, or any other single denomination or religion, for that matter. Yet to even phrase the task in this way indicates how far the Community of Christ (known before 2001 as the RLDS Church) has come. No doubt there are many sane, sober, and rational voices within the church that would counsel caution right now, considering the precarious financial situation the leadership has identified for the membership. (Full disclosure: I am a retired church employee myself;  my own job was eliminated eight years ago during one in a series of “downsizings.”)

There is wisdom in such counsel, of course. There is wisdom also in these words attributed to Jesus: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25 NRSV). Can we take these words as including “the church”? If so, how do we bridge the gap?

To accept the challenge of truly being a prophetic community is risky business indeed. Would it be best to wait until the church’s financial spreadsheets offer a more favorable report? Naturally, some would jump in at this point to argue we should have been more frugal in the past. That discussion may not be helpful in moving forward. In any event, I don’t have answers for all the questions and issues raised in this regard. That would appear to be an ideal scenario for prophetic discernment.

What I do know is I wrote Speak to the Bones in response to what I felt was the urging of the Spirit. I care deeply about my faith community and what is happening in my larger community, nation, and the world. The example of prophets such as Nathan, Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, and others gives me hope that we 21st-century folk can when necessary speak truth to power and challenge inequality, injustice, and idolatry.

Our faith community, which began as a movement during the Second Great Awakening, continues to cherish and uphold a vision of Christ’s peaceable reign. God hasn’t given up on us so far. Neither should we.

speak-to-the-bones-1Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book.The experiences of ancient Hebrew prophets are presented as a guide for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in social-justice action. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use.

Speak to the Bones Now in Print

speak-to-the-bones-cThe print edition of my new book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is now available on Amazon.com here. It joins the Kindle e-book edition, launched last week, here.

The print edition is available on several Amazon sites outside the USA: the United Kingdom, Germany, France,  Italy, and Canada, The book is available in those countries and in additional ones as a Kindle e-book. Amazon provides a free app to adapt Kindle to other e-book formats.

Speak to the Bones draws on the example of ancient Hebrew prophets to help 21st-century Christians navigate a future as a significant social-justice force. Such a modern-day prophetic people would, like their ancient counterparts, speak truth to power and point out injustice, inequality, and idolatry in today’s societies. Guided by the Holy Spirit and grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ they will not only seek to heal wounds but address the systemic causes of injustice.

The book’s 10 chapters each include discussion questions for use in a class setting. Of course, it is also ideal for individual study and meditation.

The US list price on Amazon is $12.50. Amazon offers free shipping for all book orders of $25 or more.

What Was Paul Thinking? (published by Isaac’s Press in 2010) is also available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon.

Kindle E-book Now Available

speak-to-the-bones-1My new book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is now available in Kindle format here. That link is for the Amazon USA site. The e-book is also available from Amazon Canada, U.K., Australia, and in numerous other nations. Other e-book formats, including Nook, will be added soon. (Keep in mind that Amazon offers a free app to adapt the Kindle file for other devices.) A print edition of Speak to the Bones will be available by the end of February on Amazon, as well.

This book will be ideal for use in church-school classes for senior-high age to adults. Each of the 10 lessons includes questions for discussion and reflection.

Christians are wondering just what’s going on in the church these days. How to discern what’s behind the changes keeps scholars as well as church leaders and members busy. Is Christianity dying in North America? Or has the death knell already sounded and we’re just waiting for burial? If there are answers, are they religious, political, social, or generational? Is this about the institutions themselves or the spiritual nature of human beings these days? Have all the rules changed and nobody’s told us yet?

One response to this complex situation is for local church communities to rediscover the prophetic roots of Christianity. Both Jesus and the apostle Paul functioned as prophetic voices in the movement that emerged out of Judaism. But ever since Emperor Constantine effectively merged the Roman empire with the rapidly expanding church, this essential element has been downgraded if not lost entirely.

The example of the Hebrew prophets (and, yes, Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus belong in this category) offers a way forward for Christians to become prophetic communities. They can and must speak truth to power. Just as those ancient prophets in Israel and Judah identified injustice, idolatry, and inequality in their times, so too can a modern-day prophetic people address their own era. Those same basic issues from more than 2,500 years ago are still bedeviling 21st-century, Western societies.

Speak to the Bones (whose imagery is drawn from Ezekiel’s remarkable vision of the Valley of Dry Bones) tells the stories of Nathan, Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, and Paul. Their examples offer a pattern for 21st-century Christian disciples to speak, not merely as individuals but as inspired communities dedicated to the “kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.”

New Isaac’s Press Book Set for Early 2017 Release

SAM_0144-ACurrently I’m putting the finishing touches on a scripture-study book, with an emphasis on prophetic ministry in the Old and New Testaments, as follow-up to What Was Paul Thinking? It examines the current situation of the church in North America and how to turn it around.

Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile examines eight Hebrew and Jewish prophets who lived before, during, and after the Babylonian Exile. The event of the Exile radically changed the religious understandings and core sense of “peoplehood” for the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. It forced them to reassess their relationship with God, and at the same time they were forced to the margins of contemporary society.

I believe there are parallels for 21st-century Christians (and, in particular, for members of my own Christian denomination, the Community of Christ) in how we increasingly are called to live and minister from the margins of society rather than from its center. From that perspective we are called to engage in prophetic ministry.

The book’s title draws on the visionary experience of Ezekiel who was shown a vast valley of dry bones, which represented the remnant of Israel/Judah during the years of Babylonian Exile. God commanded Exekiel to “prophecy to the bones” to begin the process of bringing them back to life. The vision appears in chapter 37 of the Old Testament book that bears the prophet’s name.

The earliest Christians lived on the margins of their society, in a remote outpost of the Roman Empire. About three centuries later, however, from the time of Constantine on, Christianity moved from the margins of acceptable society to its center. That era became known as Christendom and extended for several centuries but eventually began to weaken during the Enlightenment. Our own 21st-century era has moved into what’s referred to as post-Christendom. My purpose in this book is to compare the time of the Hebrew prophets and pre-Christendom to today (as Christians are found increasingly on the margins of society rather than in its dominant center).

Some 2,000 years after the time of Jesus, Christianity has become, at least for many people, all about personal salvation and a way to escape the trials and tribulations of this world to enjoy an eternal existence in a heavenly kingdom. But that’s not what the Gospels or Paul’s letters are about! Rather, the Gospel writers proclaim the great, good news that God in Christ Jesus has come into our world to transform its kingdoms and empires into the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Paul creatively broadened the boundaries of the family of God.

Of course, the concept of “empire” today is different from 2,000 years ago, yet there are commonalities between the political, social, and military dominance of the Romans with contemporary global capitalism, especially as it is supported by U.S. economic, social, and military influence. As you might expect, my book will have a strong emphasis on justice and peace issues.

My plan is to release Speak to the Bones in early 2017 in print, e-book, and audiobook editions.