I have the privilege of walking with people through life’s tough seasons. While my official role places me most often with college-aged young adults, I have been invited into the lives of adults of varying age, life status and perspectives. This is an honor. Often, I’m asked how I am able to handle listening to the grief and sorrow of people while maintaining my own positive outlook. Truth is, I find myself mourning and grieving deeply with those I am listening to – but I mourn differently than most. My grief leads me to questions, those questions keep me thinking, and thoughts are the fuel of my life. Yes – over-thinking is what keeps me from burning out. Maybe I’ll blog about that one day. Back to the questions.
As I attempt to love and support those around me who are suffering, the questions sprout up in my brain like wild flowers. I rarely ask the questions I really want to ask because I’m not sure it’s the right time or if I’m the right person. But when my friends and colleagues are experiencing tough moments of dysfunction and anxiety with people in their lives, I desperately want to ask one question: how have you contributed to the state of things?
It’s a tough question to ask, and I often don’t ask because I sense they aren’t ready to own any hurtful language or passive actions they have done. But man — isn’t this the root of the issue? I can confidently say that in my life almost every struggle I have had with another human being includes something I said or did that hasn’t helped the situation. Once I muster the courage to acknowledge my part, I’m capable of figuring out what to do next. That kind of self-reflection isn’t pretty. The apology that comes as a result leaves me feeling vulnerable and losing the argument seems inevitable. But I also find myself freed to dive deeper into the problem and solutions become easier to find. I want this for so many of my loved ones. If only they would be willing to process that one question.
I’ve been running to the prophet Isaiah for years. Personal and broader historical events of 2016 have given me a fresh motivation to seek the wisdom found in this book. The first chapter doesn’t offer much comfort at first. The prophet, speaking Yahweh’s heart, says in verse 2,
“Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.”
Then again in verse 4,
“Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly!”
My honest response is, “you couldn’t be talking about me; I can’t imagine you’re saying that to me.” At the same time, I begin to think about the people Yahweh must be talking to: those folks whom I deeply disagree with on a variety of issues. They are the reason why things are so bad; they are the ones who need to open their ears to these words. It probably goes without saying, but listening to the prophet in this way is a lesson in missing the point.
When Isaiah spoke those words, he wasn’t talking to pagan nations or hard-hearted foreign leaders. Isaiah was talking directly to the people of Yahweh, those ransomed by the hand of one true living God and called to be a worshipping people for the sake of heaven’s justice in the world. He was talking to people who knew the ancient words by heart, and sang the spiritual songs on key. The prophet’s words were directed to a people whose actions have been right in their own eyes, and have turmoil and chaos as a result. Isaiah essentially says to them, you are part of the problem – time to own up to it. Isaiah believes that the problems of war, famine, dysfunction, and anxiety the people are facing are directly linked to their estrangement from the Holy One of Israel. If they want things to change, Isaiah tells them they have to change first:
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”
Yahweh’s heart appears to be, “things aren’t great right now, and you have contributed to some of it, own your stuff and repent.”
When I think about the state of our nation and the last election, I wonder if all Americans are willing to ask the question: how has my group, on either side of the aisle, negatively contributed to the state of things?
When I think about my denomination, the UMC, I wonder if we’ll pause our social media rants long enough to ask the question: how has my group (read: caucus) negatively contributed to the state of things?
When I think about the status of longtime friendships in my own life, it’s difficult but necessary for me to ask the question: how have I negatively contributed to the state of things?
Many of us in Jesus’ family are celebrating the first Sunday of Advent today. Although Isaiah 1 isn’t a part of this week’s lectionary text, I wonder if the Spirit is asking the people who are waiting on the coming of the Lord: how have you rebelled against Yahweh and negatively contributed to the state of things?
Through the voice of the prophet, Yahweh says:
“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land…”
It’s a call to own up to our role in the mess we are in right now. The rebellious will always reject and deflect this question. The repentant will greet the question with courage knowing there is freedom in confronting the truth. In the day you hear the voice of Yahweh, do not harden your heart.