Memo to Myself: Avoid Domesticating Our Prophets

Wednesday, October 1, 2014 - 4:10 am

Memo to Myself: Avoid Domesticating Our Prophets

I once heard a politician who calls himself a Christian say, in effect, “While Jesus encouraged personal acts of compassion for the poor, it doesn’t follow that he wants us to use other people’s money [i.e., tax revenues] to put an economic safety net under the poor. That’s compassion on the cheap.”
I disagree with that politician on so many counts I can’t enumerate them right now. Instead, I’ll put a slight spin on a line from Anne Lamott:

“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God agrees with your tax policy.”

But the politician in question is not alone in making this kind of intellectual and spiritual mistake. So here’s a Memo to Myself:

“Avoid the bad habit of domesticating the prophet of your choice, turning him into a cheerleader for your way of thinking and way of life. Remember that all the great prophets were courageous and outrageous folks who railed against the powers-that-be, challenged self-satisfied piosity, threatened the prevailing social order, and would find you falling short in some significant ways.”

I can’t speak for Jesus, but I’d bet the farm that he’d be very unhappy with certain features of American life, not least its gross economic inequities and its calloused culture of violence. I’m also pretty sure that many of my fellow Christians would be extremely uncomfortable with Jesus were he to show up in their churches.
That’s why I love this remarkable but little-known poem by Mary Oliver, who reminds us that Jesus was “frightening,” “demanding,” and full of “melancholy madness,” among other things. The poem is wake-call for anyone who assumes that the prophet of his or her choice would be all comfort and no cutting edge.
And for Mary Oliver fans who know only her soothing, uplifting pastoral voice, this poem reminds us that it’s as big a mistake to domesticate a great poet as it is to make a household pet out of great prophet!

Maybe
by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems, Volume One

Sweet Jesus, talking
his melancholy madness,
stood up in the boat
and the sea lay down,

silky and sorry.
So everybody was saved
that night.
But you know how it is

when something
different crosses
the threshold — the uncles
mutter together,

the women walk away,
the young brother begins
to sharpen his knife.
Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes
like the wind over the water —
sometimes, for days,
you don’t think of it.

Maybe, after the sermon,
after the multitude was fed,
one or two of them felt
the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight
before exhaustion,
that wants to swallow everything,
gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy,
as they are now, forgetting
how the wind tore at the sails
before he rose and talked to it —

tender and luminous and demanding
as he always was —
a thousand times more frightening
than the killer storm

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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