Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you.
“Ah, Lord GOD!” I said,
I know not how to speak; I am too young.”
As I ponder my own vocation, my place within the Church, and the confusion around us, I try to free myself of individualism. That is the familiar opinion that sings, "I gotta be me" and "I did it my way."
I have taken pride in my own creativity and my own unique expression only to discover that I have reinvented someone's wheel and echoed someone's cliché. What I thought belonged exclusively to me is familiar to everyone.
The prophet Jeremiah has been described as history's first individual. The prophetic spirit set him apart from his family and society and forced him to oppose the authorities of Jerusalem. He predicted doom and destruction while the leadership, in a desperate effort to maintain morale, predicted victory. Consequently, he paid for his individuality.
Jeremiah was the loneliest of prophets, and the most Christ-like. But, unlike today's self-styled individual -- the artist, the malcontent or the ne'er-do-well -- Jeremiah did not aspire to uniqueness. He took no pleasure in the beat of a different drummer. Rather he experienced his prophetic vocation as a great cross, a burden of responsibility more like a curse than a blessing. He found little comfort in his intensely intimate relationship with God.
The call to individuality, if there is such a thing, is the call to take up one's cross and follow Jesus' steps into profound loneliness. There is nothing to boast about.
It is to experience uncertainty about one's self. Do I exist, matter or make sense? Will anyone notice if I disagree, fail to contribute, or if I walk away? If the Lord calls me to solitude will anyone notice I am not in community?
If, hearing the word of God, I make a prophetic statement, I need not suppose it will make a difference. It won't. The world around me must plunge on toward its own destruction, much as Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians despite Jeremiah's warnings.
The call of the prophet, unlike that of the individual, begins with God, who says, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you...."
His or her life begins with someone else's expectation, but it's not that of the parents', siblings, friends' or enemies'. The prophet's identity -- we can call it vocation -- appears in vision; it is heard in silence and expressed with words that sound in a wilderness, where no echo reassures that one has been heard.
The individual's call begins with a problem. It may be a maladjustment to a dysfunctional situation, a reaction to betrayal, or a stepping out in arrogance. It leads nowhere.
Prophetic courage is not angry or rebellious; it's strength is not in reaction to something. Rather it arises in God's reassurance: "They will fight against you, but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you." Jeremiah, like Jesus, continued to believe in God even as the world fell apart around him.
One who aspires to be a prophet is a fool, but some people are called to it; and in stepping into that crucible of loneliness they become wise.