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Sunday, March 29, 2020

Of flint and spit and baby birds: some thoughts on Isaiah 50

Of flint and spit and baby birds: some thoughts on Isaiah 50

“I have not turned my face
away from insults and spitting…
I have set my face like flint…”
--Isaiah 50:6-7

There is something quite visceral and troubling in that image of “spitting.” I can’t imagine not turning my face away from someone spitting at me. Even simply on a instinctive level, it seems an almost animal reaction to be horrified by someone spitting on you… And yet here we have this image of the prophet suffering this indignity willingly.  He will not turn from insults and spitting.  He has set his face like flint and will not turn back.  He is committed to the task at hand. But, what is the task?

This is from the third “suffering servant” song.  In these passages the prophet employs the image of a suffering servant to express God’s love, God’s willingness to suffer for us.  These 4 songs, all found in Isaiah 42-53, speak of God’s enduring love, God’s commitment to Israel, to redeem her from sin—no matter the cost.  He has set His heart on it and will not turn away. Even though it bring shame and insult, God will suffer anything for His beloved.  That single-mindedness, that sense of courage, commitment and dedication to a purpose… it is something I too often lack. I will set a goal, I will make a promise, I will commit myself to some plan of action and then, before too long, I will find myself forgetting, or delaying, even making excuses for why I should just give up. I’m too tired, I should wait until after I rest, and while I rest maybe I could watch just one more episode of Midsomer Murders. Or what’s the point of cleaning the bathroom? It will just get dirty again!  How many times have I committed myself to working at least an hour a day on my novel… And how many times have I just let that hour slip away because I felt ashamed, or disheartened, afraid of failure, afraid of insults and spitting…? Or what about that commitment to morning prayer? To a half hour of meditation every day? Or 15 minutes even? I might look foolish, people might judge me, or worse—no one will notice! That’s a real slap at the old ego…

And yet, God never gives up on us.  Every day, every hour, every moment of our lives He is right there at our side, reaching out to us, whispering our name.  In fact, according to Isaiah, He has engraved us in the palm of His hand (49:16).  You, me, every single one of us… even the sparrow that falls from its nest…

Don’t be afraid of your promises, your commitments, your renewals. Yes, we all have failed, we all have stumbled, we all have turned away… But, now is a time to be renewed. Now is a time to refocus our attention and set our face, like flint, on the goal.  Listen for that still, quiet voice that whispers your name.  Where is God calling you? How is God calling you?  What great adventure does God have planned for you?  Is it to renew your family through prayer, is it to serve a neighbor who lives alone, perhaps buy groceries, pick-up medicine, or mow the lawn for them. Maybe you are being called to reach out to someone who is lonely. Call them up and ask them how they are doing, and take the time to actually listen. Ask questions about their day, their life, what they are doing to get through this anxious time.  Maybe God is calling you to get outside and smile at your neighbors and the people who pass, greet them and compliment their children. Let them know there is still hope in the world.

The other morning I saw a beautiful example of this.  I was out for a walk and saw a commotion of people busily and somewhat awkwardly bustling about in a neighbor’s front yard. There were three of them all seeming to be in a state of intense focus, and yet from the yard kept coming laughter and joyful sounds of encouragement and what can only be called: effortless delight.
I stopped and one of the neighbors paused long enough to explain that they were anxiously trying to rescue a baby bird that had fallen from its nest –which had been built in a hanging planter on her porch.  It seems that nest itself had also fallen, so these three neighbors were busily scurrying about trying to rebuild the nest and get the baby bird back into it. They were completely focused on the task at hand, and there was wonderful seriousness—almost a solemnity—about their work. Gathering pine-needles and leaves, looking for just the right kind of nest-making materials, even comically debating which items the mama bird might prefer.  The moment was filled with joy.  Their faces were set like flint on the task at hand, and though they were clearly anxious for the safety of the bird, there was also delight in selflessly doing what they could. Unafraid of looking foolish or being ridiculed, they were being true to the call of that little quiet voice.  There was no thought of being spit on (or pooped on, I bet...) What a blessed witness that moment was for me.

Maybe you too are being called to help a baby bird, or maybe you are being called to sit down and write a letter to someone you haven’t spoken to in a long time. Let them know they are not forgotten. They are loved. Inscribed in your heart, even.  Or maybe it is that novel you’ve been meaning to write. Don’t be afraid of looking foolish, don’t be afraid of failing, just set your face like flint and follow the sound of that voice calling you always deeper into the love of God.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Why be afraid?--some thoughts on anxiety, autonomy and God's love

Why be afraid?

“Who surrendered Jacob to the plunderer
and Israel to the pillagers?
Was it not the Lord…?” –Isaiah 42:24

“Do not be afraid…”  --Isaiah 43:1b

I’m already growing tired of isolation. Already the adventure is getting old. The thrill of staying home and having so much quiet is becoming exhausting –so quickly.  How long has it been? A week? Barely… And, besides… we haven’t even run out of beer yet! 

So, why? Why does doing so little, sacrificing so little, feel so very exhausting? We have food, we have shelter, we have internet access and streaming movies! What is it about all this that weighs so heavily on my shoulders that my back physically aches? And anyway, this is Lent, right? I’m supposed to be making a sacrifice, right?  I know. But, come on God… This…?

In all this quiet, with all this time for thinking, I keep wondering…  What’s the trouble? Why does this seem so overwhelming? Perhaps it has something to do with feeling helpless. The sense that I can’t just do what I want, or go where I want, when I want.  Heck, we are so worried about accidentally bringing the virus home to our daughter, I can’t even run over to the grocery store whenever I like.  I have resorted to ordering everything on-line or calling a neighbor for help. Our one-legged neighbor up the street has done grocery shopping for us –zipping around the store in his motorized wheelchair picking up gluten free and vegetarian items for us—another neighbor just sent her son to Buchanan’s in the Heights to get us some milkweed for the caterpillars.  I have supplies, I have help… what am I worried about? I wonder if it has something to do with feeling like I am losing control?  And looking around I keep hoping for some sign that someone, somewhere knows what they are doing. That someone is in control…

But who? Who is in charge?  Is it the president? The governor? The mayor? The CDC? Or is it something else? Something bigger? As the spread of the Coronavirus continues and the strange quiet of a self-isolating world grows, it is much too easy to grasp at every news update for some announcement of a breakthrough or sign of waning in the virus.  Some sign that the powers in charge have gotten it under control.  But…  who is actually in control?

Which brings me to my scripture passages.  Yesterday reading Isaiah 42, I came across that first passage. The voice of the prophet chastising the people for not understanding who is in control.  Historically, he is referencing the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity,  speaking to a people who put their trust in human powers: political treaties, military strength, economic systems, storehouses of gold, etc.  God’s prophet is calling out God’s people: Come on team… if you get dragged off into slavery, who do you think allowed that to happen? Who handed you over to the plunderers? Who gave you up to be pillaged? Who is really in charge, here?

Reading this passage at the end of what was supposed to be my Spring Break, those words seemed to hold a message as immediate as any news update.  Yes, this is a frightful time, but we need to remember—we are never in charge. Not any of us. No matter how rich, no matter how “powerful,” no matter how well-connected. We are never in charge. President Trump is not in charge. The governor and the mayor are not in charge. Not even the doctors and scientists! Not even the CDC.  I applaud all those efforts, don’t get me wrong—but in the end all our efforts to protect ourselves from harm are in vain unless the Lord’s hand guides us, strengthens us, holds us safely in His palm.  As the psalmist sings:
Unless the Lord builds the house,
    the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
    the guards stand watch in vain. (Psalm 127)

One hears in Isaiah’s words, a message of warning. The people and their priests and prophets were blind and deaf to God’s teaching (cf. 42:18-21), and stubborn in their unwillingness to learn. What I hear in this warning is a sense of God’s frustration. God has tried everything else; He’s tried being nice and gentle and loving, but the people won’t learn their lesson. So, now He’s going to try something like what we might call “tough love!”  

And yet, it is love, not resentment and fury, not bitter judgment that God bestows on His people. He surrenders them to the Babylonians not out of bitterness and frustration, but out of desperation. As if it were a last chance, a final hope. He loves them so much He surrenders them to the horrors of destruction and captivity in order to save them. Which calls to mind another time God surrendered someone to captivity and destruction, out of love. The time He surrendered His Son even unto death, death on a cross (cf. Philippians 2:8). The ultimate act of love.

And Isaiah reminds us of that love in the first verse of the very next chapter. Speaking for God, he writes:
“Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by your name
and you are mine” (43:1b).
Assuring God’s people that they have nothing to be afraid of, reminding them of God’s love. They are His own. And like a loving parent, God calls each of us by name.

When we are in the midst of a crisis, a fearful time, experiencing a kind of dark night of the soul, we can begin to feel hopeless.  Abandoned.  But what we see here in Isaiah is that God tells the people, even in the midst of their suffering, in their darkest days: “Do not be afraid. I have redeemed you… you are mine.”

Reading this, thinking about it, praying those words over and over, I found myself reassured. Yes, we are in the midst of a pandemic, and I have no idea what will happen next. Each day we hear dire reports and new statistics read by voices tinged with gloom. We see helpless figures standing at podiums, trying to reassure us, trying to look like they know what they are doing… trying to look like they are in charge.   But, in fact, we know that regardless of their position or title, they are just as powerless as the rest of us.  We know who is really in charge. 

And we don’t need to be afraid.  Even in the midst of a crisis, when our so-called leaders seem as confused and frightened as the rest of us, we don’t need to be afraid. The fact is, no matter what comes next, the happy ending has already been announced. We are loved. We are redeemed. And even in our darkest hour, when we feel utterly helpless and alone, there is a tender voice that calls each of us by name. And it is the loving voice of one who is and always has been in control.