The Difference Between Priests and Prophets

Well, as I wait in the limbo that is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s first call process, I have been considering my situation.

I’ve have interviewed with three different congregations. One said “no” quite emphatically and quickly, for that I am thankful. I could have been pastor there, but honestly, the place was not my first choice and so I’m rather glad they said no.

I have interviewed at another church in a Chicago suburb, about four months ago, and they kept in touch with me and told me to hang on, they were having some difficulties with their process and then … nothing. I have contacted them, and they have not responded.

Nor has the Metro Chicago Synod responded to me for the last two weeks. It’s a little nerve wracking, and you’d think it wouldn’t be hard to send an e-mail with a “hold on” or “they made a decision” or something. I’m not asking for much.

Of course, throughout this process, I am also keenly aware — a previous candidacy committee refused to approve me, did so for reasons they mostly kept to themselves, but they did tell me they did not believe I was fit to be a pastor in the ELCA, and that given how badly our encounters went during the candidacy process, they had a hard time imagining how I’d deal with a church council. Which, to be honest, was a fair concern. At the time. It’s something they could have helped with, if they’d wanted to. But they didn’t.

I deal with this some in my upcoming book, which will be published by Wipf & Stock sometime in late spring, I think. My editor has my second draft, and among all the other things I am waiting for right now, I am waiting for his critique.

Bleh. I hate waiting.

At any rate, the process of dealing with first call stuff has gotten me to think a little bit about what people seek in a pastor and what God seeks in the people God calls.

Because they aren’t always the same thing.

Let me boil it down to a dualism — priests and prophets. The priest’s primary job is to represent God’s people before God. The prophet’s primary call is to represent God before God’s people.

And these are not the same tasks.

What do I mean by representing God’s people? Well, the job of the priest is is to present the people’s petitions before God, to speak their hopes and dreams and seek God’s favor on those hopes and dreams. Among settled people — and most human beings, wherever they are, are settled people, rooted to land and community and kin — those hopes and dreams are typically for ample rains (good fortune), a bountiful harvest (wealth), many children (again, a kind of wealth, but also to fill the world with kin), and victory against enemies (success in endeavors). The priest takes the concerns of the people, and offers them to God, as a sacrifice, in petitions. The priest mediates between the people and God on the people’s behalf. And all the priest does is focused on the people’s needs.

We are your people, O’ God, the priest says. Continue to bless us.

American Lutherans are a settled people. They look primarily to priestly figures to represent them before God.

But God calls prophets too. And prophets do something different — they represent God before God’s people. The words that prophets speak, the things prophets do, and the way prophets live, are all difficult for settled people, and sometimes jarring and even very offensive. But the whole point of the prophetic is to remind the settled people that God’s will for them is frequently much bigger, and sometimes entirely different, from what the people want — good fortune, wealth, lot of kin, success in life. The prophet speaks the word of God, the judgmental word and the comforting word, in times of failure, misfortune, defeat, death. The prophet tells us that strangers and enemies are beloved of God too. The prophet speaks a word of redemption, a reminder that the dead (to whom settled people are very attached) have no say, no vote, no voice.

The promise of God is for the living. For the future. For us, but also for people we will never know.

Prophets are unsettling because they are unsettled. They have been ripped from place, from kin, even from their past (because past, and place, and kin can get in the way), so they can more clearly see some of what God has promised.

God is blessing you, the prophet says. God is faithful. You just have to understand, it doesn’t look the way you think it should.

Two things come from this for me. First, I am much more prophetic than priestly. And I say that only because people keep telling me. And I suspect that will make finding a call, in a church where we like our priests and don’t really know what to do with prophets (we think simply saying “rich people suck” is prophetic, but it isn’t), difficult. I don’t like it, but I’m okay with it. It’s not like prophets in the Bible have stable careers, health insurance or pension plans. If this is who I am, then who am I to argue with God?

But there’s another point, one I suspect I will spend more time in the future contemplating.

The Bible is frequently called “counter-cultural,” but that term gets so misused that frankly, I do not like it. (Again, there are those who claim that saying “rich people suck” is counter-cultural, and it isn’t.) Rather, the Bible is prophetic. It is a prophetic witness to a settled people that what they want, that what they think God has promised them (God to Abraham — land, blessing, lots of children), isn’t going to work out in the way they think it should. There are a few priestly figures in scripture (Ezra comes to mind as the most prominent), but most of the serious characters in scripture are prophets.

Those prophets say absurd things. In the midst of the great siege, surrender. Go over to the enemy. You aren’t coming home any time soon. Loving God’s people is like loving a prostitute.

And they do strange things. They cure the enemy general of his leprosy, and do this without making any demands he stop the war or change sides. (And he doesn’t.) They marry prostitutes and give their children strange names. They bury their underwear, dig it up later, and wear it for all to see.

The Bible is a prophetic reminder to a settled people that God’s love is bigger than their hopes and dreams. It is a reminder to a settled people where oldest sons inherit and strong men protect that crafty, second-sons get the blessing and whiny nancy boys can end up saving the world. That the king can be a murderer, rapist, and indecisive boob and yet God still loves the stuffins out of him. And makes promises not just to us but to the entire world through that really awful king.

The Bible is a prophetic reminder to a settled people that the future does not necessarily depend on the past. That God’s promises are for the living, for the survivors, for the remnant. The future is God’s to make. And not ours.

The Bible is a prophetic reminder to a settled people who want freedom, power, and glory that our salvation, our redemption, and our liberation are the gifts of a God who surrendered to our violence, who gave in, who died ignominiously, on a cross, as a criminal and a traitor. And that those gifts don’t necessarily mean what we think they ought to mean. Or look the way we think they ought to.

Honestly, I do not know when — or even if — I will find a call in this church. I trust God, and while I’ve been at this more than some (and it’s hard not to be a little angry about that), I’ve been waiting a lot less than some others I know. I trust God. I do sometimes wonder if I’ve been led into the wilderness to die. But I trust God.