Prophetic Imagination and the Music-Makers

22 08 2009

I have long loved William Edgar O’Shaughnessy’s  poem “We are the Music Makers,” but reading The Prophetic Imagination has brought its words to life in a wonderfully new way.   Here is the poem:

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world-forsakers,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers,
Of the world forever, it seems.

With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.

We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.

prophetic-imaginationIn particular, sitting outside in the middle of downtown Atlanta on my lunch break, I found myself quoting the line “With wonderful deathless ditties/We built up the world’s great cities.”  Truly, with the skyscrapers of the city line, the overwhelming busy-ness and traffic, the people walking by with their laptops and cell phones, it seems that this culture and civilization as we know it will be here forever.  And maybe that means that I have bought into the lies of the empire.  All of it — the skyscrapers, the traffic, the schedules, the technology — is manmade, temporal, and subject to God’s much longer continuum of time.

By ourselves, we have built up these cities.  And in their glory days, in our golden eras, we trust in ourselves and in what we have created.  So when all of these systems and civilizations fall (as they eventually must), we are out of the habit of trusting God, and we cannot even trust God to give us a new beginning.  And despair sets in, a deep despair that is far away from the comfort of God.

There is a sterotype that people turn to God only in times of trouble, when they need something from him.  But Brueggemann goes even further, and makes the claim that those who have not trusted God before cannot all of the sudden change that orientation.

Yes, maybe we do start praying more when someone is in the hospital, when we’re contemplating a big decision, or when we hit rock bottom.  But, in those prayers, are we really and truly trusting that something will happen?  Do we believe that God is working among us, changing us, offering us a new beginning?  In short, do we allow ourselves the freedom to hope?

If we have spent our whole lives blocking out God, trusting in ourselves, and denying his presence, we may not even have the potential to imagine anything truly different.  We don’t know where to start.

And that is where prophetic ministry comes in: the prophetic ministry of energizing, of amazement, and of hope.

This is not just about the Jeremiahs and Isaiahs who speak to entire civilizations at one time (although those are necessary, too).  This can also be a prophetic imagination that can penetrate every crevice in every heart.  It may well be the call of “everyday Christians” to speak words of hope into places of despair.   To our family, friends, and neighbors who are grieving or suffering, we can use our words and actions to proclaim hope and the possibility of new life.

And Brueggemann offers this caution to those engaged in the prophetic ministry:

“Hope requires a very careful symbolization.  It must not be expressed too fully in the present tense because hope one can touch and handle is not likely to retain its promissory call to a new future.  Hope expressed only in the present tense will no doubt be co-opted by the managers of this age.”

Or, as Emily Dickinson wrote:

Hope is the thing with feathersSingingBird
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

(singing bird image taken from



2 responses

22 08 2009

Interesting thoughts Brueggemann has about only if you’ve trusted before can you truly trust in times of trouble. I think that is true–for the most part. I think of people I know and while they have turned to God or asked for prayers in hard times, once the crisis passes, it seems that their devotion does, too and rarely do they truly believe that God played a part in the situation’s solution. How then, can they come to trust to begin with?
The first verse of the Emily Dickinson poem is one of my favorites. On one of my antique-ing trips, I saw the prettiest painting of a bird’s next with one feather laying in it that had that verse printed on it. I wrote it down in a little notebook because I loved it so much!

22 08 2009

Regarding trust: Brueggemann was talking about a collective context (like for the people of Israel), so I hope I didn’t mess with his intention by applying it to our individual lives today. But that was what I was thinking about as I read it. And I’m with you — I don’t think it’s impossible to start trusting God, if you haven’t before. But I think you do need some sort of impetus (the ability to hope, whether from a “prophet” or some other source) to move into that realm of genuine trust. And for those of us who may be able to provide that impetus for someone, the chapter can almost be seen as a call to action!

And regarding Emily Dickinson: The first verse was the part that kept coming into my head, and that was what I originally intended to quote. But when I looked it up, all three of them worked so well that I just couldn’t leave anything out 🙂

P.S. The image I really wanted to use was the singing birdies from Eclectic, but I don’t have your amazing PhotoShop skills to be able to crop it like I wanted

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