For Church magazine December 2022
When you look at a dark sky and say “it’s going to rain” you are being a prophet. When you advise a child not to step off the pavement until they’ve checked the traffic you are being a prophet. It’s not about magically telling the future—it’s about reading the signs. When I say that the government will be thrown out at the next election I’m using available information to assess probabilities. It’s not rocket science.
Jesus, you may recall, was not slow in laying into his mates for failing or refusing to read the signs of the times.
Church congregations don’t read the signs of the times. Numbers are shrinking. People are dying and not being replaced. Costs of keeping churches going are rising alarmingly. People can’t afford to give as much as they used to. And yet people expect churches to continue as before: everything is forever until one day—phut!—it vanishes. “We never saw that coming” they say. They must be blind or stupid or both.
A caller at the vicarage: “Father, can you help me?” Can you guess what’s coming? A child in hospital, a mother dying in Birmingham, needs money for bus fare, food, accommodation. Yup, spot on. All of ’em.
This is common enough. He might be telling the truth. Shall I look at his teeth for signs of crystal meth use? Shall I ask to see his forearms for signs of needle use? I think: ha, I’ll see if a few questions will catch him out. Where does he live? Which hospital? Has he been to social services? But I know there’s no point asking questions. He might be lying. I would lie if I had to. I am naive, he is smart. Anyway, who am I to judge? Of course, I part with money. He goes off: a small victory for him. I’m tired, and there’s something on the TV in two minutes, and for a moment I’m relieved. Then the nagging guilt: I should be doing more. I can’t blame him: what do I expect from someone who hasn’t been dealt the same cards as me?
Take the people who gather outside the Town Hall waiting for their fix. Or the people who gather at the free lunch place on Rangemore Street. Or the people who chuck used needles and syringes over vicarage garden walls.
All these people are prophets.
Prophets are not nice. They are not agreeable, diplomatic or polite. They tell us about our society. Prophets make us uncomfortable. Prophets say what others dare not. Prophets reveal our values. They hold up a mirror to our own priorities—yours and mine. People went to see John the Baptist in the desert then complained because he was smelly, dirty and forthright, What in God’s name did they expect? A man in suit and tie smelling of roses? People are dense.
Prophets force me to judge myself: have I ordered my life to attend to what is most true, most important, most essential? Or do I go for the easy option every time so I can watch my favourite film while stuffing After Eights into my gob?