Posts Tagged ‘hope’

ISAIAH 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
    so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
    and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
    so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
    you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
    no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
    who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
    those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
    because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
    and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
    or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
    and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
    we are the clay, and you are our potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
    and do not remember iniquity forever.
    Now consider, we are all your people.

“Now consider, we are all your people.” You can hear the desperation, mixed with frustration, in the prophet’s words.

The collection of oracles in which they are found is know as “Third Isaiah,” written shortly after the exiles had been allowed to return home to Judah and its once-glorious capital, Jerusalem. First Isaiah (chpts 1-39) is attributed to the eighth-century prophet Isaiah himself and addresses the tense time leading up to the Assyrian invasion of 701 BCE. The anonymous writer of the so-called Second Isaiah (chpts 40-55) sought to extend and adapt the essential message of Isaiah to the crisis of the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE) and the harsh conditions of living in a strange land. Now, upon their return home, another anonymous contributor to the tradition (chpts 56-66) reworks it once again, this time in face of the challenge of clarifying a new destiny for the people.

The task of rebuilding Jerusalem was now a shared effort, between the returning exiles and their compatriots who had been left behind in the ruins a half-century earlier. But in addition to the physical repairs, there was some serious psycho-spiritual healing that needed to happen as well. The arrogance and complacency which the prophet Isaiah had predicted would end in national calamity, was now replaced by a rather serious guilt-complex and a crippling shame. There is reaffirmation of the moral balance holding reality together, but the dark interval of suffering in exile has definitely humbled (we might better say humiliated) the community’s sense of entitlement as God’s chosen people.

We don’t deserve security, happiness, or long life (the community admits via the prophet), and we are entirely at the mercy of God’s will. Perhaps we (the returnees) were spared total extinction in exile, but for what exactly we cannot know. We desire a prosperous future, but we are neither capable nor worthy of it. It’s all in your hands, God.

… But don’t forget, we are all your people!

This calling on God to remember his covenant promises would be a refrain throughout Jewish history, becoming especially fervent during and after the Holocaust under Hitler.

EZEKIEL 34:11-16, 20-24

11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

20 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

While his contemporary Jeremiah was announcing a New Reality to the Jews left in the devastation of Jerusalem, Ezekiel was rebuilding the hopes of those exiled in Babylon, uprooted from their homeland and heritage. The Babylonian army had swept down in the year 587 BCE, breached the walls of Judah’s capital and leveled its temple, deporting a vast number back to foreign territory. In both locations, amid ruins and in a strange land, the people had similar questions: Why did this happen? What are we to do next? And most importantly, Where is God?

The question of God’s presence is less an inquiry into the whereabouts of a deity than a deep anguished search for grounding in a time of pain, bereavement, and disorientation. By grounding we mean a sense of internal support, a provident uplift of peace, comfort, and healing strength coming up through the very center of our urgent need.

Due to the constraints of language, our effort to speak about and make sense of this grounding mystery inevitably generates the impression that we are talking about something external to us and essentially outside our experience. Soon enough, symbols are mistaken for the mystery they suggest and metaphors are flattened to literal meanings, further elaborating the misunderstanding that God is “out there” and must be called upon to intervene on our experience from outside.

Rather than speaking on God’s behalf and bringing a message from somewhere else, Ezekiel – and this is the peculiar spiritual psychology of the prophets – was himself the very mouthpiece of the grounding mystery and provident uplift of God’s presence, addressing the exiles out of the epicenter of their grief and loss. He lifted the vision of a New Reality and called them to faith in God as a present grace and future hope.

1 PETER 4:12-14; 5:6-11

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

Theism is generally the belief in a god (or gods) who exists in some higher (supernatural) or hidden (metaphysical) location, supervising human affairs. A god may be more or less directly involved with these humans (commonly called believers or devotees). There is typically a reciprocal relationship between believers and their god, where worship, offerings, and obedience are directed toward the deity in exchange for protection, blessing, and perhaps beatitude in the next life.

Early polytheism entertained a variety of deities – and devils, who were mischievous or malevolent deities – representing the forces of nature and concerns of cultural life. When the Mosaic revolution in Judaism rejected the existence of any god but Yahweh, something had to be done with them besides simply dismissing them out of hand, along with their diabolical counterparts.

One solution was to preserve the existence of these other deities and devils, but demote them to subordinate status as angels and demons. A variant of this was employed later, in the idea of a divine council assisting Yahweh in his administrative duties. As a member of this heavenly committee, Satan was depicted as “the adversary” who tested the faith and loyalty of Yahweh’s human subjects (as in the literary example of Job).

At about this same time (sixth century BCE), a prophet known as the Second Isaiah suggested the more radical idea that Yahweh is the only one behind the “weal and woe” that humans experience. For this writer, having one supreme cause behind everything that happens was a way of giving meaning to the universe and all possible events. This was his way of answering the national tragedy of exile by the Babylonians (587-538 BCE).

Eventually, however, the generally accepted solution to the problem of good and evil was a dualistic one. God was put in charge of the good (blessing, prosperity, salvation) and Satan was moved out of the heavenly boardroom and into his own nether region, where he orchestrates the cause of evil (iniquity, calamity, and damnation).  As a messianic movement within Judaism in the first century, Christianity carried forward this dualism, joining it to an apocalyptic expectation of a fast-approaching end of the world.

Wherever we may stand on the issue – one god with several angelic and demonic ministers, a single supreme will behind everything, or a polarity of agencies in the war of good and evil – the key to remember is that all solutions are efforts to make meaning of what human beings sense, suffer, care about and hope for. Truth is not really a question of accuracy, but therapy in helping people work through the challenges and opportunities of life.

1 PETER 1:3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

We have already been introduced to the idea that the kingdom movement inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus eventually changed direction into an institutional orthodoxy centered on the redemptive violence of his death, his literal resurrection, and the promise of heaven for true believers who await his end-time return.

The architect of this fateful redirection was the apostle Paul. In his writings (letters to churches) we can discern the “fork in the road” where the pressing concerns of managing a nascent religion steadily diverged from a more mystically grounded and peace-oriented spirituality.

The church in Corinth, for instance, was so unstable that Paul had to draw some pretty hard lines around Christian identity to keep the congregation from falling apart. As things go, his timely (situational) letters of encouragement and reproof were soon taken up as timeless (universal) holy scripture into the emerging institution of Christianity. Paul’s missionary career came to an end with his likely execution under the emperor Nero in the mid-sixties, a half-decade before the first narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry (Gospel of Mark) was written.

This Letter of Peter was certainly not written by the disciple and erstwhile fisherman of Jesus’ original company. The polish of its Greek vocabulary, the intellectual sophistication of thought, and the late-stage development of its doctrine all point away from him. At the very least, the references to a heavenly inheritance and the outcome of faith as salvation of the soul put it at odds with what we know as the authentic teachings of Jesus. If he was among Jesus’ first student-followers, this author has almost completely lost the social urgency and this-worldly concern of his teacher-master.

So let’s ask: How exactly did God give us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus? Is it just that we now have a way out of this damned world, to a heavenly security waiting for us on the other side? Is our “hope” that we will be better off  later? Is the task  now simply to believe rightly and win God’s protection of our faith until the final prize is gained? Is the writer assuring us of this destiny by the warrant of Jesus’ resurrection, whereby the savior got there first and unlocked the door for the rest of us?

Christian orthodoxy, then and now, answers ‘Yes’ all the way down that list of questions. Christianity soon promised a way out of this mess of a world, whereas Jesus showed us the path deeper into it tangles, with an aim of loosening the knots that bind our human spirit.

Each of us today stands at that same fork in the road.

JEREMIAH 31:1-6

At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.

2 Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
3     the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
    O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
    and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
5 Again you shall plant vineyards
    on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
    and shall enjoy the fruit.
6 For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
    in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion,
    to the Lord our God.”

Jeremiah was the son of a priest and very likely had been one himself, when he felt God’s calling out of the religious establishment and into the streets as a prophet. Mounting tension in Judah’s international relations was causing concern for many, especially as the superpowers of Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt and Persia were becoming increasingly interested in its prime real estate.

The response from the religious establishment was effectively no response at all. Generally the belief was that God would protect his temple, the holy city, and its people from harm since they had been chosen for a long and bright destiny. God wouldn’t let his most important project fail, and since the Jews figured so centrally in that project, he wouldn’t let any harm come to them either.

But as we know, the city walls did come down and its temple was destroyed, an event that was not only a political catastrophe but an existential crisis of the first order. All at once, the fabric of meaning was ripped to shreds and the foundations of security were shattered into pieces. Jeremiah had sounded the warning, but no one listened. Now in the aftermath and amid the wreckage, he could only say, “I told you so.”

But he didn’t. Instead, he helped his generation through a process of serious self-examination. Their self-righteous complacency and sense of entitlement had made the nation vulnerable to collapse. It wasn’t the Babylonian army that overpowered them, and it wasn’t because God had abandoned them. Rather they had lost their vision, forgotten their divine appointment, and allowed their once-vibrant faith to recede from the edge of risk and fall asleep under the hedges of orthodoxy.

                                                                                                 

Only after coming to terms with their own responsibility in this tragedy could the survivors really find healing. This has always been true. When your circumstances close in around you, when it feels like God isn’t hearing your prayers and other people don’t care, it is tempting – almost irresistible – to look outside yourself for both the culprit to blame for your troubles and the savior who will rescue you from them. In either case, the locus of creative control is deferred somewhere other than where it really belongs, which is inside yourself.

That’s not to say that you must take the blame, or conversely pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Taking responsibility is importantly different from taking blame. Blame is really a story you tell yourself for the purpose of assigning a cause to your pain and anger. Beyond pinning your troubles on someone or something else, blame has the additional benefit of letting you do nothing but stand there and point. Or if you are blaming yourself, it can leech like a paralyzing anesthetic into your soul. As a consequence, your personal challenges can slowly evolve into chronic problems – not going away but instead getting worse.

To take responsibility you need to stop looking behind, around, or even up ahead for the solution you seek. While it is certainly true that these dimensions of your situation can contain insight, resources, and guidance, your salvation starts as you find your center and place both hands on your pain. However it got here, it is yours. Insisting that someone else did this to you doesn’t take away the responsibility of dealing with it.

The way of healing and freedom begins at the point where you realize that you have control over whether and to what extent you allow this ordeal (loss, hardship, betrayal, or abuse) to define you and determine the rest of your life.

Jeremiah grieved with his people as they stood in the rubble of their beloved homeland. He helped them take responsibility by accepting the reality of their experience. But then he challenged them to hold a different frame around their pain, one that could let them see that this experience was not just an ending but the start of something new.

PSALM 130

1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
2     Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my supplications!

3 If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    Lord, who could stand?
4 But there is forgiveness with you,
    so that you may be revered.

5 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
    more than those who watch for the morning,
    more than those who watch for the morning.

7 O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with him is great power to redeem.
8 It is he who will redeem Israel
    from all its iniquities.

There are times in life when the solution or answer we seek cannot be found inside our present circumstances. No matter how much we rearrange the furniture or change out the pictures on our walls, the “box” we’re in remains a box.

Let’s be careful to understand that by “circumstances” we are not simply referring to the external conditions around us. Even more important are the mental categories in our minds that assume, explain, classify and predict reality into a corner known as “certainty.” When we are certain about something, curiosity, imagination, as well as critical thinking fall into disuse – and may even go extinct.

The common state of psychological depression typically occurs when our world is shaken by chronic pain, abrupt change, or permanent loss – experiences that force us into serious disillusionment concerning the security and meaning of life. Down inside that emotional pit, our view of reality is drastically reduced in scope – even more so as we start to turn inward on ourselves and ruminate on our misery.

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” We do have a choice, even down there in the deep emptiness of loss. We can persist in turning the pain over and over in our hearts until we are exhausted and ready to give up, or we can give it over – breathe through it, then take it gently in both hands and surrender it entirely to the provident mystery of grace in this moment.

Once we can let go of our categories, reality has a chance to surprise us. And it’s always more than we could have imagined. Instead of more illusions to replace the ones that were taken with our disillusionment, we are finally open and ready for insight.

EZEKIEL 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

Resurrection is a metaphor found throughout world mythology, and likely originated in early agricultural societies where local economies looked with expectancy to the return of life in the spring. Stories across cultures tell of the god or goddess who dies or is taken into the underworld in late autumn and rises again in new seedlings and green shoots.

Because his people had languished for so long in Babylonian captivity, the prophet Ezekiel saw them as having lost their chance at fulfilling God’s destiny for them. Back home in Jerusalem, his contemporary Jeremiah was working out this same grief and struggle for hope on behalf of those who had been left behind in the city’s ruin. Although their contexts were different in that regard, both Jeremiah (at home) and Ezekiel (in exile) were searching for signs of divine presence and purpose in the midst of human suffering.

What can you say to a generation whose faith in God has been drained of life and left strewn on the ground like sun-bleached disjointed bones? Other writings of this Exilic period (587-538 BCE) – the Book of Job notable among them – had already fallen into disenchantment with the god who protects the righteous and punishes sinners. This generation was barely old enough to remember, and many of them were not yet even born, when the foreign army of Babylon had invaded their land, toppled the city walls, devastated the temple, taken their leaders away in shackles, and left the “tree of Jesse” (the father of David and his royal line) a mere lifeless stump.

How can you give hope to a people who can’t even remember what home was like? There are no commitments left behind that they can look forward to picking up again, no nostalgia under the ashes that can be poked and stirred and fanned back to life. It’s as if they need to start with an absolutely new beginning, with a new cycle of time, a fresh creation and their own identity.

                                                                                        

Resurrection, then, is more than a recovery of what might once have been. Its literal meaning has to do with “being raised up” from a state of profound discouragement, hopelessness, paralysis or death. This literal meaning is widely used as a metaphor of an experience that is widely contemplated across the world religions, of not just coming back to life as it was, but transforming to a new quality, vibrancy, or fullness of life.

The help his despondent generation, Ezekiel had to first get them together – thus the sound-imagery of rattling bones clicking together, the sight of flesh covering skeletons, and of  the ground cluttered with corpses. Only with the body thus reconstituted could the breath (spirit) animate it with life and new hope.

We need to be reminded that Hebrew anthropology did not accept the oriental and Greek idea of a body-soul dualism. For the Hebrew, “soul” is the unique individuality of a human being, a synthesis of a material principle called body (basar), and a spiritual principle called breath (Heb. ruach, Grk. pneuma, Lat. spiritus). Once the breath leaves the body, it is dead and the individual soul simply ceases to exist.

Unlike their cultural neighbors farther West (Greeks) and to the East (Hindus), the Hebrews didn’t engage in speculation over the metaphysical status of the once-embodied soul. The metaphor of resurrection for the Hebrew, then, wasn’t just about getting a departed soul back into its former body. It was an event of new creation! God is starting again with a fresh word: Let there be!

This was good news for a community that had all but given up.

 

JEREMIAH 31:7-14

7 For thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
    and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
    “Save, O Lord, your people,
    the remnant of Israel.”
8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
    and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
    those with child and those in labor, together;
    a great company, they shall return here.
9 With weeping they shall come,
    and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
    in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
    and Ephraim is my firstborn.

10 Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
    and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him,
    and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”
11 For the Lord has ransomed Jacob,
    and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
    and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
    and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
    and they shall never languish again.
13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
    and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
    I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
    and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,
says the Lord.

There is a critical difference in significance between those things that happen to us, those that are made to happen by us, and those that happen through us. Considered from a spiritual perspective, we might distinguish these distinct modes of experience with the words encounter, achievement, and evolution.

Each of these, in turn, calls forth from us a response that is peculiar to its own dynamic: sustained attention in the case of what is happening to us, moral commitment with respect to our goals and objectives, and radical trust in the guiding wisdom of our personal growth and transformation. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, if only we could raise the degree of sustained attention, moral commitment, and radical trust in our lives, the world would be a totally different place.

Staying with these themes a while longer, we begin to notice that they correlate to the major trimesters in a human lifespan – youth, maturity, and late adulthood.

In the first trimester of youth our experience is predominantly focused on what is happening to us, which must mean that the skill of cultivating sustained attention is one of the major tasks of this period of development.

As we mature and find our place in the culture-play of our profession and family life, we become producers, managers, custodians, and laborers – responsibilities that call upon our moral commitment to achieve outcomes of real value and lasting impact.

And in our later years we begin to relax into being, and come to rediscover ourselves as vehicles of a timeless (but always timely) wisdom and inner peace.

                                                                                          

After a detailed explanation of the great themes and their respective trimesters of emergence in a human lifespan, we must press on to acknowledge the obvious fact that, in any given moment, life is happening to us, by us, and through us.

Furthermore, depending on where we are in our life at that moment, our urgent need and higher calling may be for greater attention, stronger commitment, or deeper trust. (The theory of trimesters in human development is still helpful nevertheless, as it highlights the shifting accent of concern and opportunity throughout the course of life.)

Jeremiah envisioned the day when God’s people, both young and old, women and men together, would join as one chorus in praising their redeemer. It is important to remember that at the time these words were being proclaimed, God’s people were languishing in exile.

To this oppressed and dispirited community Jeremiah announced that something extraordinary was going to happen, that they needed to prepare for its coming, but that its accomplishment would require their full surrender to God’s unfolding purpose through them.

In a sense, the circular path of Israel’s biography represents the journey each of us is on: beginning in God, advancing into ego-consciousness, and coming home again.