“Front Porch Prophet”
I believe prophets still walk the earth. You will rarely see them behind pulpits or on television; they are more likely to be sitting on front porches, working in vegetable gardens, building birdhouses, or pitching horseshoes, without anyone knowing their whereabouts or even their names.
I believe my grandfather is such a prophet, and realize the unconventionality of that belief; it might, in some religious circles, be thought heretical, especially now that once-holy words have become drenched with superstition. Those who think of them at all tend to think of prophets primarily as future-predictors. We often forget, or are uncomfortable remembering, that the biblical prophets were mostly God-ordained social critics who spoke with such sense that the masses considered them loons.
When I was younger, I went fishing with the preacher from the little white church of my grandfather’s small Georgia town, and while we were out on the pond, a catfish jumped into our boat like a whiskered evangelist bringing the good news from the muddy depths. I told Papa about this, and he said that just because a preacher could verify the story did not add a lick to its credibility. I didn’t quite get it then, but now I think that even Isaiah couldn’t have put it better.
Papa would just as soon stay at home and have a glass of cornbread and milk for supper as go to a restaurant. He rails against Wal-Mart (though that is where my grandmother gets his socks), and says that the Interstate has ruined our country (though he takes the Interstate to visit his family on holidays). He loves company but distrusts society. I suppose it would be easy to write him off as some eccentric old man, as many have done and will do. But then I remember God’s words to Jeremiah: “Tell them all this, but don’t expect them to listen; shout out your warnings, but don’t expect a response.”
I believe prophets are men and women whose eyes remain fixed upon holiness in unholy times, despite their own shortcomings and fears. I once drove down to visit Papa in a place that we both once thought of as the country. When I got out of my truck, I heard a jackhammer pounding away at a driveway across the street. Papa was sitting on the porch, and said, “The sound of all that construction means you’re getting closer to Gwinnett County.” (I asked whether he meant Gwinnett County or the gates of hell.) It was a bit of country humor, but his words were also visionary: Soon our mechanized society will swallow everything, and the days of old men sitting peacefully on porches will be the stuff of fables. Papa says that he was born a hundred years too late; I believe that—like the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, and even Thoreau—he is so far behind the times that he is ahead of them, and was born a good many years too early.
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