Looking at the past, it’s all too easy to see why, for some, it provides the opposite of hope. Human history can seem like an endless litany of wars, political rivalries, genocides and betrayals.
And yet, there are glimmers of hope throughout history. I find my spiritual community as I learn about people who have heard and spoken about God across time. One of my favorite things about being a Bible and church history professor is rehearsing each semester the long human history of ways God has broken into human history in profound and life-changing ways. Yes, the Bible and church history have their share of recorded wars and political intrigue, legalism and petty quarrels, but they also show us a picture of a God who shows mercy, grace, righteous anger against injustice and who promises deep relationship with those who will walk in God’s ways. The prophetic and wisdom texts of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) remind us of the true center of faithfulness: acting in ways that uphold justice for the oppressed, even when it doesn’t feel like there’s any meaning to life. Jesus comes and offers the hope of the Kingdom of God here, now, and coming to fruition in new ways all the time. And in church history, right alongside the Crusades we see monks and nuns with a mystical bent like Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, Francis and Clare of Assisi and many others who connect with God intimately and passionately, and who are called toward right action for the lowly of their society.
My more immediate spiritual community is my denomination: the Religious Society of Friends. Quaker history fills me with hope. We haven’t been a perfect denomination by any means, but at our best we are a people who seek after the Living God, who intentionally look for God and are led into situations where we see a need and work against injustice: prison reform, mental health reform, abolition, women’s suffrage, fair and healthful working conditions, fairly traded products, the list could go on. I’m so grateful for the kindred spirits I see in Friends history: ordinary people taking small steps against injustice and making a real difference in the direction of human history—ordinary people becoming prophets.
It’s important to note that Friends often reject the first prophetic voice(s) on any issue for a number of years, like John Woolman. But I love that in so many cases in our history, the voice of the prophet has (eventually) been listened to and then many Friends have joined social justice efforts.
Recently I read that the original meaning of the Hebrew word for “prophet” had more to do with the strange actions of a person rather than that person’s words. Prophets were people who looked different from those around them because they were focused on the spiritual world and committed to living in that world fully. These prophets looked strange because of their intentional, Spirit-led actions, and only then were they given a voice to speak against the injustice in their cultures.
But am I, are we as 21st century Friends, willing to listen to the prophets of our time? Are we willing to BE the prophets of our time? Prophets in the past lived in ways that showed up injustice, calling for their society to change in ways that might require letting go of some measure of comfort for those at the upper income levels of their community. Are we willing to make such "sacrifices" so that justice is available to everyone the world over, not just the wealthy, not just United Statesians or people of whatever country we live in? Are we willing to help build a spiritual community, the Kingdom of God, across time and without borders?
In hope: part 3, expect to hear a bit about my own story, personal challenges and questions about holding onto and living into hope, and some queries for us all.