The Friend, The Mentor, The Teacher and The Prophet.

August 16, 2012

A recent conversation with a friend has provoked me to reflect on the vocation of teachers and prophets.

There was a time when I would have fairly and squarely described myself as “all teacher”.  In my heart I often wish this was still true, but somehow       my vocation has taken an unfortunate and awkward twist, and I have turned at least in part advocate, contrarian, resister – in summary – prophet.

The conversation laid bare for me the uncomfortable position I inhabit that to be a prophet is not the pathway to being liked, the difficult truth (in some ways this friend was taking a little of the prophetic role themselves) that I am not always a welcome voice or conversation partner. (Ouch.)

Friend: “what sort of Prophet would you be if I liked it all the time?”

Me: “a useless one, narcissistic” (I conceded)

Friend: “populist”

(Ouch, in a different spot.)

For someone who was once a singer, you can imagine how affronting it is to hear that mine are no honeyed lips offering sweet soothing songs.

Though feeling a bit pricked by this conversation, it has needled its way around in my thoughts, and caused me to think about the value of stitching the role of prophet and teacher together. I am thinking that the role of teacher might help keep prophets connected into community. That teachers also do well to take from the open ended style of the prophet, and not try to be too deterministic about the shape of their student’s future, but offer their words with freedom. I wonder if sometimes prophets hide in teacher’s clothes to be a little more palatable. I wonder if prophets could recover the idea of the ‘prophet’s village’ in the form of the school or community of scholars, or place of hunger for learning.

I have found out already that there is a price to pay for this ungamely prophetic calling– in the kinds of roles I can occupy, the spaces in which I can be useful to an institution, the use-by date of my words, and on a personal level, in the dynamics of friendships like the one above, in which the truth is, I am “not liked all the time”.

Friends for prophets take a certain kind of style. If you are my friend, you know what I mean. And you know how grateful I am for your grace.

It is also a challenge to find prophet mentors.

News came to me this week that one of my most formative and respected  mentors, a teacher who meant a great deal to me in high-school had recently retired. And as there was no public farewell – for a man who was always self effacing – I decided to write to him in recognition of the impact he had on my life.

And I repeat my appreciative description here, to demonstrate the way a teacher/prophet might do business, in recognition that he also paid the price of the non-populist:

I remember your classroom as a refreshingly fair place. For those who were at the top of the social order, I observed that this was not always comfortable, but for someone like me, who came from behind and below, it was a place of justice, where I was free to work, to fail and to learn. 

I remember your words as well-chosen and wise. 

 I remember your face as full of compassion in the moments where it was truly necessary. I so genuinely appreciated this because I knew that you weren’t easily fooled or manipulated. In the times you were particularly kind (and there were a few) it was powerful and effective. I  trusted your authenticity. I was a very damaged girl, who expected to be treated with abuse, betrayal and exploitation. You were completely safe and trustworthy.

I remember your generosity with time – always with the sense that you were busy at work, but I knew that my question or need for help was precisely the work you were most concerned with, and you would happily integrate this with whatever else you were doing. 

I remember having the sense that you recognised a different shape of student in me, and while expecting and coaching me to be a team player in some settings, also giving license and support to the other distinctive elements of my character.

When I speak of my faith formation (something, which no doubt you realise is inherently precious to me), you are one of a handful of strong positive influences of my adolescence. Your own intellectual strength and integrity encouraged me to test and develop the philosophical structures of belief. Although I knew you didn’t share my specific traditions or convictions, your respect for this aspect of my own internal ecology was empowering and has become exemplary. 

All of this was still true of my experience of you when our paths crossed again professionally a few years ago. Again, simply a reflection of your deep integrity and constancy. 

My faith tradition has a history of prophets. Unlike soothsayers and diviners, Judeo-Christian prophets are not fortune-tellers, but truth-tellers. They do not say how things will be, but cast clear vision for future possibilities,  for in the God of Hope,  all things are open.  But prophets also speak with clarity, not always welcome clarity, about the very present moment. They tell it how it is. 

Most people who know me well, place me in this vocation. My voice in speech and in writing have grown strong, with an edge of advocacy. 

It is not necessarily an enviable role. Not a populist role. And a role in which mentors and models – people of courage, ethics, justice, determination for open and fair possibilities, catalysts and agents of change – can be hard to find. 

 There have been just a few people for me, markers along the way, who have demonstrated what this sort of prophetic, visionary work might look like, embedded and committed to community. And you were one of the first. I owe you so much.


  1. I’m in the process of packing up and moving house and I came across a letter from a lady I visited once in prison. I did or said nothing special – I was way out of any familiar territory. But she seemed delighted that someone listened well, responded thoughtfully, and prayed for her. I hate to think what i might have said, but as you suggest here: sincere, authentic, respectful relationship can be affirming, liberating, even inspiring. If only we were always so. I cringe over attempts at humour, ambiguous remarks, offhand dismissive comments, concealed contempt, etc that all too frequently enter the discourse.

  2. I’m not surprised to hear that your no-frills but totally fair-dinkum pastoral presence had that effect. Here’s to the simple art of being so present, that we don’t get in the way.
    Although we don’t share as long a history as I do with this particular teacher, you also stand on my shelf of prophets worth studying, Geoff.

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