“Put your Whole Self In”
February 9, 2020
Isaiah 58: 3-9, 12
- “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator[a] shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
I am a summer camp counselor through and through. I spent all of my college summers plus a couple more working at Camp Royall in Pittsboro, North Carolina. Every summer in late May, counselors from all over the country and the world would come together, and we would spend our first day together playing icebreakers. If you’ve ever worked at a summer camp, or participated in any kind of wacky leadership bonding activity, this may sound familiar. In one game that we played, each team had a PVC pipe with holes drilled all around and up and down it. Our goal, as a team, was to all hold onto the pipe and somehow get every single hole covered so that when someone poured water down into the pipe, it would fill up, allowing a ping pong ball inside the pipe to float all the way to the top and be snagged for a win. If my memory serves me well, I think my team got way more water on ourselves than we ever got in the tube. Every time we thought we’d plugged every hole, and started to pour water in, there would suddenly be another one we hadn’t even noticed, forcing us to start all over again.
Of course, that was just a game, but I find myself getting that same feeling over and over again—when I think something has a simple solution with no holes. As many of you know, I’m a seminary student, and being a student comes with an abundance of one thing in particular: books. As far back as I can remember, I’ve bought all of my books on Amazon. They show up at my door the next day, they’re way cheaper than they are at the Duke Divinity bookstore, and I don’t even have to leave my own couch to get them. Nothing to worry about but a ten second search and one click. This seems to fill the holes of being simple, and convenient…but water starts to seep out if I look up from my own interests. I start to think about the workers who aren’t getting paid enough to get those books to me, and all the single-use plastic they will inevitably come in, and all the gas the Prime drivers must be using, and is there a better way to be sure the author gets paid for their work? Probably, but can I afford that? Would they get here fast enough? Sigh, numb out the uncomfortable thoughts, click confirm purchase. I can’t get my hands to cover all of those holes and breaches in our systems, and the water keeps spilling out while I frantically jump from realization to worst case scenario to realization, over and over and eventually give up. “Hopeless” seems like the default these days.
It isn’t hard to imagine the Israelites as hopeless, too. At this point in Isaiah, nearing the end of the book, the people of God have recently returned from a very dark period of exile. They return to their homeland at long last, just to find their homes and the land they once knew and loved…destroyed. Left un-tended to and un-cared for as they served their term. I imagine it felt a bit like a trick at first, like God who said “Comfort, O comfort my people,” upon the end of their exile couldn’t possibly have meant to send them back to a broken land. And yet, there they were. No rivers flowing with milk and honey, no pristine temple, just the land, the ruins, and each other. And so, this hopeless, destroyed people went back to the basics. They fasted, they prayed, and in their distress and dismay they returned to what they knew, the same behaviors that led to their exile in the first place—looking out for only themselves, thus supporting the oppression of others, avoiding generosity, hiding from those who needed help. It is so easy for me to read this text and slap a label on the Israelites—villains, hypocrites, bad followers of God. It’s uncomfortable to look deeply enough to see parts of ourselves in texts like these. But I wonder if the Israelites felt stretched too thin, if they couldn’t bear to look out on the ruins of their land without retreating into themselves to make it all go away. I wonder if they felt hopeless, like if they couldn’t hold their whole world together, why even try. I don’t know about you, but I’m not necessarily my best self either when I feel like my world has fallen apart.
Kate Bowler talks about something similar in her book, “Everything Happens For a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved,” in which she chronicles her struggles with life and faith after a terminal cancer diagnosis. She tells her readers this: “it was an easy lie that has wormed its way into my mind: I am the center that must hold. It is a thought I picked up so early on in my life that I can’t bring myself to question it. It is something closer to a reflex. Life is unstable because it is life. But I am steady.” When everything is in chaos, Bowler reasons, it must be up to us to be the center that holds—each of us, individually. I can’t imagine that the Israelites’ thinking was too far off. If they could just keep their heads down, keep their fasts, and keep their thoughts on God instead of on the world around them, they would be the center that held their crumbling reality together. I wonder if the Israelites were afraid—to do anything but focus on themselves, and keep themselves grounded and strong, no matter what the expense.
And while God was certainly not commending the Israelites for their behavior in this text, God doesn’t just chastise them and then call it a day. Instead, what we hear from God is “if you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil…you shall be called repairers of the breach, restorers of the streets to live in.” No one believes in the flawed and hopeless Israelites more than God does. God tells them that not only can their torn apart world be stitched back together, but they can do the stitching. God seems to step in through the prophet Isaiah to tell them “I see you. I made you good, and if you just look up, and out, you are so fully capable of repairing these breaches that plague you.” God sees something in the Israelites, and even when they’re focusing only on themselves, only on their personal relationship with God, and not on the community of people around them suffering, God is not hopeless. There is no “too far,” no line drawn in the sand where God walks away. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt. You shall raise up the foundations of many generations. No maybe’s, no might’s. God is sure about the Israelites. And God is sure about us.
It sounds too good to be true, right? Like, alright, sure, God knows we are fully capable and prepared to turn things around, but how the heck does God expect us to jump from “bonds of injustice” and “serving our own interest on the fast day,” to “our light breaking forth like the dawn,” in one fell swoop? It seems like a quick decision is demanded, on whether to ignore the breaches, or close them all at once, which isn’t particularly…reassuring. Theologian and priest Kwesi Dickson has a different take. He reminds us that “the light of dawn does not break all at once; it creeps up until it finally lightens the horizon…similarly, healing can be a slow process.” The dawn will break on the Israelites, God is sure of it. Their vast, deep breaches will be healed, but it will be slow work, and work that they must do together.
Things outside of these walls can seem dark, and dreary; chaotic, and confusing. We are surrounded by breaches—in humanity, in our systems, in the climate of our planet, and they seem to go on and on. I assume the breaches you see most clearly are different from those that fill my vision, or that of the person sitting next to you, but I imagine that that are plaguing all the same. So why not turn our eyes downward, why not put all of our energy into being the center that holds? If we are each strong buoys, all floating along a warming and rising ocean, is that not better than drowning?
But God is with us. God shows us time, and time again that we will not drown. God who pulled Peter from roaring waters, God who brought the Israelites out of captivity, and God who knew they could be repairers of the breach. Friends, that is our God. I wish I had a perfect solution—something specific you could do–but I don’t have that. What we have, like the Israelites, is a God that holds the center, who trusts and hopes in us, and who empowers us to look up and work towards healing and bridging the breaches we cannot ignore. And maybe that only releases one percent of the pressure that we feel as doubt and dismay creep in, but know that it is true.
We don’t have to hold it all, we don’t have to reach out and get our hands onto every breach or hole we see. But we follow the model set before us—by the Israelites, and so many others, who have repaired breaches that seemed endless. And just as God asked of them, we can start by looking up, looking out, and knowing that God made us with everything we need to be repairers of the breach. God made us good enough to do something, to not just retreat into ourselves, but to put our whole selves into this world.
In 1979, Cardinal John Dearden wrote a prayer, and I would like to close with a piece of it.
“No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”