Now that You’re Here, What Will You Do?

road in desert
Photo credit: <a href="">Chalky Lives</a>

Isaiah 40:1-11

“Comfort my people,” says God.
“Speak softly to Jerusalem.
And sing to her that she is free,
Her debt paid in full,
And she has received twice as much from God as she deserved.”

So a voice shouts:
“Make a road for God through the wasteland,
Make a highway for God run straight through the desert.
Fill in every valley.
Bring down every mountain and hill.
Level off he uneven ground.
Flatten the bumps.

“When it’s ready, the greatness of God will be obvious,
And everyone will recognize it in that instant,
Because God said so.”

A voice shouts:
“Shout it out!”

And I said,
“Shout what out?”

People are like grass,
They’re as flimsy as wildflowers.
The stalks dry up and the flowers wilt
When the wind of God blows on them.
Surely, people are grass.
The stalks dry up and the flowers wilt,
But what God says is permanent.

Go to the mountaintop,
Messenger of Zion’s good news,
And there shout out,
Messenger of Jerusalem’s good news.
Don’t be afraid to say it loud
To the cities of Judah:
“Here is God!
Here is God coming with power,
Arm upraised in victory,
Bringing the victor’s trophy,
God’s prize is God’s vanguard.

God will tend the flock like a shepherd.
God will gather the lambs in an embrace,
And hug them close,
And God will gently lead the ewes.

In spite of impermanence there is hope.

All we, like the wildflowers are here today and gone tomorrow. All we, like sheep, are just another dot on the landscape. And yet this poem has the audacity to claim that there is hope. Somehow, we are significant to someone somewhere. Someone cares. Cares enough to take up our cause, to make a way to us, and to lead us home again.

It’s an even more audacious claim now than it was then. Now we know that our existence is as one among the 7 billion inhabitants on the planet, and one planet among the billions scattered across the universe. Could it be true that some divine element or being “out there” has marked us, personally, for some kind of special significance? Or is the prophet merely hearing voices in his head?

Consider, though, that the occasion for this poem was the emancipation of a captive people. After being held in exile for a generation, they were being told they could finally go home. And that was, historically, something that happened that nobody had any reason to expect. It was an overwhelmingly fortunate turn of events. The kind of event that happens (or we hear about it happening to others) and we say, “Someone must have been looking out for us.”

A near miss of a traffic collision. A lucky break at work. No fatalities when a plane goes down in the Hudson River. Even the Goldilocks conditions of the universe that makes life possible on this planet seem to collude in a way that appears to replicate intelligence and care. (And this is the basis for the argument of intelligent design.) It’s the dream of hitting the lottery made all the more addicting because someone somewhere does hit the lottery every week with statistical certainty.

But for all the poem’s majesty and exaltation, the most compelling words are the question implicit in what’s sung tenderly to Jerusalem: Now that you’ve hit the lottery, and (however it happened) you’ve showed up on the planet with twice as much as you deserve, what are you going to do with it? How will you exercise your freedom, now that you are free?

Will you pay it forward, and make a road for someone else to get to freedom so they can sing too?

Maybe You Are a Victim, But…

pleading rocks
Photo credit: Patrick Tanguay

Isaiah 64:1-9

if only you would rip through the sky and show up
the mountains would erupt to see you,
the fire would kindle the deadwood
and the streams would boil.

If you would reveal your name to your enemies
the nations would cower before you,
like when you did all those awesome unexpected things,
when you came down and the mountains erupted.

From the beginning, no one has heard or seen
any god but you, who are on the side of the faithful.
You do right by those who willingly do right – those who acknowledge you.

But we screwed up and you got angry,
and when we got it wrong you went into hiding.
And now we are all contaminated,
so that even what we do right turns out a bloody mess.
We shrivel like leaves, and like wind our injustice blows us away.

No one is left to call you,
or even to try to reach you,
because you’re hiding,
and you’ve abandoned us to come what may.

And yet, God, you are our creator.
We are clay. You are the potter.
You handcrafted us.

Chill out, God!
Don’t hold our mistakes against us forever.
We’re your people. All of us.

Of all the gamut of human emotion, the feeling of abandonment must be up there among the worst. Betrayal followed by utter loneliness. Worse, when the abandonment is perpetrated by God.

Here, the community in exile in the memory of Isaiah pleads with God who, like a spoiled child, or a fickle lover, or an immature parent, is using withdrawal as punishment.

The prayer begins in reflection and ends in accusation: “Maybe we really did do something to deserve this. We’re not sure what it was, but we’ll admit to being wrong if only you’ll come out of hiding. But in the end, it’s God who needs to get over it. A God who made us ought to know that to err is human. Meanwhile, we’re just going to wallow in nostalgia for a past that never really was as good as we remember it.”

But, of course, God never does show up on demand when and where we want God to. And no amount of psychological game playing works to manipulate God the way we can sometimes manipulate one another. The game playing is, in fact, part of the mistake the people are continuing to make. They have all the right words to describe God: powerful, creator, awesome, unique. But still, they’re trying to use manipulation to get their way.

Perhaps, if they stopped blaming God for their situation and imploring God to get over it, they would find that God is not hiding, but waiting for them to stop hiding. Behind playing the victim.

I’m not saying that some people aren’t victims. Or that victims are to blame for what has happened to them. Or that people shouldn’t seek justice. But it’s one thing to be a victim and another entirely to allow being a victim to define who you are.