Are you a prophetic presence for God? You may not feel it, but God’s still, small voice in you is calling you to learn more about what needs to be shouted.
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where…I felt my heart strangely warmed.” ~ John Wesley, 1738
I’ve been having a good time preparing for what I hope is a lively and inspiring message at First United Methodist Church Middletown this Sunday. I’ll post the sermon next week, but I thought that I’d share something that I experienced that led to my choosing the story of Elijah’s passing of prophetic power to Elijah as the focus of my sermon.
You see, I can identify with the back-story of Elisha – a back-story that has almost no details, really. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah finds Elisha working in his father’s fields, and tosses his mantle on him. Just like that. Not “Hey, Elisha, what up, guess what you’re getting today?” – nope, just wham, tag, you’re “it.” Elisha responds to this sudden calling to follow God’s prophet by fixing a big feast from the remains of his cattle (sorry, cows!), and heading off with nary a look back. And that’s it for Elisha – we don’t hear a peep about what happened in his years with Elijah and the other prophets who followed him.
Ready for the Calling? Not.
This is what it felt like a bit when my first real consciousness of a calling to ministries in God’s church came to me many years ago. I was a summer camp counselor at Camp Aldersgate in Swartswood, New Jersey. Camp Aldersgate had week-long programs for kids of all ages, and camp counselors like me would be expected to lead small units of kids through campfire cooking, hiking, swimming, nature walks, and faith-building. After a week of this, we’d get the “week off” working in the kitchens for the various programs using the camp.
Was I prepared for any of this? Not really. I had been to summer camp as a kid, sure, but I had never led much of anything in my faith life. I was a “back bencher,” with a devotion to reading the Bible, and a deep appreciation of worship, but when it came to me expressing my own faith or leading others in finding it – not so much. I had gotten a little less shy having to sell Fuller Brush products door to door my first summer out of high school (“Are you having trouble with your tile and grout?”), and acting in plays and speaking on the college radio station had encouraged me further to get over a deadly fear of speaking in public, but, mostly, I was a pretty quiet little mouse. Ready for a calling? Not. At. All. Mostly, I was just listening to a still, small, voice within, putting one foot in front of the other.
“Christ Knows no Hour!”
At Camp Aldersgate, those steps added up over a few seasons of camp counseling. I gained a sense of value and trust in a Christian community of my peers, with experienced leaders showing us the way. I was a novice, but, without pressure, I was beginning to gain confidence in my faith, and in my ability to be a vital part of a faith community. Christian songs, prayers, and worship around campfires and in outdoor churches, in buses on journeys into the countryside, and in fellowship halls – all of these began to create more fertile ground for faith in my life.
In my last season at Camp Aldersgate – I think that it must have been August, because it was a little cool – my co-counselor and I decided to pitch out sleeping bags out in a big field at the camp for a special sleepover. It was a brilliantly clear night, and we could see clearly many meteors slipping by in the sky. The kids were amazed by it all, and so our conversations soon turned quite serious. They started to ask about God as Creator, and so I opened my Bible and read from Genesis 1 under a flashlight. The talk turned to Jesus, and so I read from John 1 in the New Testament also. I think that it’s the first time that I really “preached” anything to anyone, and God’s Holy Spirit was lifting up my words from my heart.
Well, I wouldn’t say that we were making a ruckus, but we were certainly making enough noise that it drew the attention of the camp leaders for that week, who marched up to the field and asked us to get to bed. I am not sure whether it was the tone of their voice, or the warmth that I felt in my heart along with these kids, but all of a sudden I found myself shooting up off of my sleeping bag and throwing my flashlight to the ground. “Christ knows no hour! Christ knows no hour!” I shouted. I don’t think that I had ever, ever done anything remotely like that in my life before. It was a prophetic voice inside of me that I had never heard speak before like that – a fiery love for God in God’s Holy Spirit that just could not be un-heard, un-spoken.
A prophetic mantle…and then what?
What was this voice that God had given me? It felt right, it felt powerful, but it all felt so very new. I imagine that Elisha must have felt somewhat the same way when he got that prophetic mantle thrown over him in his father’s field by Elijah. What is this thing, he must have wondered? It feels so strange, so powerful, so right, and I am ready to find out what it’s all about, but…I have a lot to learn. I think that this is where the literal purpose of a mantle is important to remember. It’s an outer coat – a protection against rain, cold, wind, whatever – something sturdy and reliable to shield you. Like God.
I think that this is the greater meaning of a “prophetic mantle” that comes on us when we are called by God for a greater purpose, whatever it may be. God is asking us to get out of our comfort zone, yes, but God is also at the same time extending protection to us. God knows that the journey will not be possible by our strength alone. “God doesn’t call the equipped, God equips the called,” goes an old saying, and so it seems in my life, and in Elisha’s. We both had a lot of learning to do – a lot of learning what to ask for from God. So Elisha drops everything, and goes to learn. And, then, learn some more. It is only after many years, when Elijah is ready to move on to heaven, that Elisha seems ready – and then some.
“Strangely Warmed” – for a purpose
This “strange warming” of Elisha reminds me of the “strange warming” of John Wesley, the principal founder of Methodism, on the evening of May 21st, 1738 in London. Wesley was down in the dumps – a misfit of sorts, really: Well-educated, but having a hard time finding God’s authentic voice of love and grace within him. He had failed miserably in his first big assignment as ordained clergy in the American colony of Georgia, and returned to England rather forlorn. But he had kept on plugging along, trusting in God’s protection, and opening his heart to others’ faith. He dragged himself to a prayer meeting hall on Aldersgate Street, and heard words of faith that cloaked his heart with God’s protecting grace, so that he felt “strangely warmed” by God’s assurance of forgiveness of his shortcomings.
John Wesley would not become one of the greatest preachers and church organisers of all time by his own power alone. Like Elisha, he needed the assurance of even more protection from God than he had first received upon his ordainment years before. And Wesley would need far more gifts from God than he had ever used before – including the gift to reach everyday people in the fields of England with God’s word of salvation and new life. Wesley may have felt like he was “late to the game” that night on Aldersgate Street. From God’s perspective, through, he was right on time, getting what he needed, and accepting the right protection from God.
Warmed to get what I needed
Twenty years after I first shouted those words in a field at Camp Aldersgate, I arrived early for an appointment at a building on Tabernacle Street in London. I wandered into an old courtyard next to the building’s modern lobby, and poked around a simple memorial at its centre. The inscription on the memorial started: “To the memory of the venerable JOHN WESLEY.” I was thunderstruck – the man who had been touched with a prophetic mantle on Aldersgate Street had come into my life again, and the protective warmth of that night in a field in Camp Aldersgate twenty years earlier returned to me – and has never left me. I started to worry less about what I wanted, and started to ask God more for what I needed.
Like Elisha, I have much more to learn about playing a prophetic role, but I am grateful for the warm protection of God’s calling, and the journey that it takes me on every day. A calling from God exists in every person of faith, and we can rejoice that we have protection from God in that call to learn more, to trust more, to do more, to love more. And that, in and of itself, is prophetic, to be sure. May you be warmed by God this day, and always.