* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mark 11: Cleansing our temples

After another healing story, in which a man's faith is reported to be what cures his blindness, the gospel of Mark moves into the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, often called the "triumphal entry." The other gospels echo and elaborate on the entry into Jerusalem as depicted in Mark, and this scene leads into the passion narrative, which culminates in the crucifixion scene (or the resurrection scene). While some have elevated the passion story above other teachings of Jesus as conveyed in the canonical gospels, these pseudo-historical events do not actually instruct anyone as to how people should live. They are largely constructed after the fact (at least 35 years after the fact) with the agenda of imposing Hebrew prophecies about a messiah (some of which weren't originally intended as prophecies about a messiah) onto the Jesus figure, in order to "prove" him as the Messiah. As such, the passion narratives serve primarily to bolster the faith of people who already believe in the divinity of Jesus and to portray what we already know about the power of fear.

The author of Mark has Jesus do a bit of teaching amidst the scenes of the passion narrative, however, and these teachings are of more potential use to those among us who are willing to recognize "divinity" as a human characteristic and those among us who see human beings as having inherent worth and dignity rather than seeing people as broken and in need of saving. Indeed, if Jesus' actions as stated in the passion stories really took care of "sin" once and for all, then there is nothing more for people to worry about on that front. We can all focus on the important work of building better relationships with one another, rather than judging ourselves and everyone around us and trying to determine eternal matters that no one can prove or know anything about anyway.

In Mark 11, Jesus does three things when he first enters the city of Jerusalem. First, he curses a fig tree for not having any figs, even though it isn't the season for figs. Petty, perhaps, but there it is. Next, he causes a scene at the temple by disrupting trade. This is worth a closer look. Then, he refuses to establish any outside authorization for his actions or teachings. This, as it turns out, is related to the incident with the fig tree. For now, we'll keep ourselves to the "cleansing" of the temple, a rare story in that all four gospels have a version of it. The version of this scene in the gospel of Luke is almost identical to the version in Mark. The gospel of Matthew expands it to indicate that people who had been prevented from access to the temple (people who were blind or lame) were able to approach Jesus there for healing. Placing this scene much earlier in the narrative, removed from the passion story, the gospel of John includes a prediction about Jesus' resurrection in the temple cleansing.

One must assume from the accusation against the people driven out of the temple that they were making a profit off of people coming to offer the sacrifices required of their faith. In changing coins from Roman currency (which depicted the emperor) to currency that had no hint of idolatry, it must be assumed that the moneychangers were charging a fee of some kind. In selling the sacrificial animals for people to offer in the required Jewish rites, merchants were essentially taking advantage of people's faith, making money because of the devout practices of others. The original idea behind the Jewish sacrificial system was that people would offer the best of what they had to Yahweh, but it was not intended to keep anyone from accessing Yahweh's grace and mercy. Jerusalem's temple had been turned into something even worse than a profit-making enterprise. People who were indigent or infirm were essentially unable to participate in Jewish ceremonies to the same extent as everyone else. Worship had become something for those who could afford it; God had become a commodity.

There are many who will proclaim how much good religion has done in the world, but one thing that religion seems to do very well is delineate who is in and who is out -- who belongs and who doesn't. It usually has nothing to do with any sort of god; it's more about who we're comfortable with and who makes us uncomfortable. At the temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish authorities had developed a system that helped to invite acceptable people into God's presence while keeping the unacceptable people on the fringes. The author of Mark, and perhaps a historical Jesus, had a serious problem with that system. Everybody in Jewish society was meant to have equal access to God. In fact, one of the main culminating points of the passion narrative is that the old priesthood is obsolete -- the old way of managing human access to God was eradicated. Which is a fine message, except that the church continued to find new ways to regulate access to God for centuries. In many ways, it still does.

I believe that the cleansing of the temple suggests that all people matter -- that just because someone is poor or sick or inconvenient or unsightly or annoying or somehow not like me, it doesn't mean that they are worth any less than I am. Without any belief in an actual god, I assert that all people have inherent worth and dignity, and I am challenged by that when I encounter people who are in circumstances I wouldn't want to be in. We set up barriers within ourselves, protections that we thought necessary during times of vulnerability, and those protective barriers sometimes prevent us from recognizing the deep truth, beauty, and creativity within us. When we have trouble connecting with our authentic selves, we have trouble connecting meaningfully with other people. The temple cleansing may represent the kind of housecleaning we all need to do within ourselves to dismantle the barriers we've created around our deepest, most noble selves in some misguided attempt to protect ourselves.

I also believe that people will always be drawn to help those who are less fortunate because human beings are compassionate. I don't suggest that everyone is equally willing to respond to the compassion they feel, but I do believe that there is some part of every person that cares about people who are sick, injured, poor, malnourished, abused, or oppressed. Sometimes our fears get the best of us and override that compassion, but that doesn't mean that our feelings of compassion aren't there. I believe that we, as a species, are inherently compassionate toward those who have their homes destroyed in natural disasters or who lose loved ones to violence. We don't necessarily like feeling that tug of compassion, because there isn't always something obvious that we can do. We don't like feeling helpless.

Like the temple in Jerusalem, we might decide that some people are in the circumstances they're in because of some divine proclamation. "God is in control, so whatever happened to those people is his will." We are absolved from feeling inconvenient or uncomfortable compassion when we concoct a scenario by which things are the way they're "supposed" to be. Like the temple in Jerusalem, we might also develop systems by which we can outsource our compassion, which means that -- to a certain extent -- we can more or less ignore our feelings of both compassion and helplessness and move on. Whether we are religious or not, we have a tendency to invent systems to welcome desirable people into our lives and keep undesirable people at bay.

Sometimes, though, religion helps us outsource our compassion. We can pray for people without ever having to come into uncomfortable contact with them. We can write a check or hand over some cash to a non-profit organization, and while this actually sources a lot of good for people, our monetary contributions don't necessarily address our unwillingness to be with people we see as poor, sick, hungry, abused, oppressed, or inconvenient -- to look those people in the eye and say, "You matter." Religion sometimes serves as a buffer for us, but it doesn't have to. It's possible to contribute some money to a worthwhile organization, offer some prayers, and look people in the eye and say, "You are a human being, like me."

Even better, I think, would be to scrap the whole idea that a supernatural has any control over what people experience in life. Human beings created the problems that we experience in the world, and human beings can create solutions to those problems. If we abdicate responsibility by assuming that some higher power is in control, though, we won't necessarily feel any sense of personal attachment to the kind of world that we create. Compassion is a feature of being human. It isn't something to try to dismiss or protect ourselves from. Compassion isn't weakness. We feel helpless sometimes because the real work that needs to be done is on the level of systems and structures that go way beyond what any individual can control. 

Our sense of helplessness can feed into old lies we hold about ourselves and other people, vows that we have made about what we must be or do, and fears about being taken advantage of or being worthless -- our feelings of helplessness bump up against whatever barriers keep us from being the people we most want to be in the world. Like Jesus taking radical action in turning over tables, letting loose caged animals, and whipping the perpetrators of injustice, we sometimes have to take radical action within ourselves. We have to be more conscious of what keeps us from being honest about who we are. We have to be more conscious of what we do that keeps other people at arm's length. We have to be more conscious of how we respond to feelings of compassion. We have the capability to do something different, if we choose to. 

When we recognize the importance of living by the principle that every human being matters, we can start creating something better. When we refuse to outsource our compassion, even as we continue to fund organizations that are doing meaningful work in the world, that emotional fuel can ignite our creativity. When we accept that we need one another in order to build a better world, we can forge stronger relationships and find ways to confront the issues that keep people poor, sick, hungry, abused, and oppressed. Tough circumstances can prevent people from recognizing their own inherent worth and dignity. At the very least, we have the opportunity to help people see that circumstances do not define a person's value. If we commit to the work of breaking through some barricades within ourselves, we influence more lives than just our own. As we continually dismantle whatever fears make our compassion seem uncomfortable, people may stop seeming inconvenient, and might just start seeming like people. Like us.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Isaiah 7-8: Calm Down, Trust Yourself, and Act with Integrity

Recalling the historical narrative of Judah from 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, Ahaz was king of Judah when Israel and Aram joined forces and set out to conquer Jerusalem. Isaiah acted as adviser to Ahaz during this time, offering him reassurance, encouraging him to stand firm, and illustrating his advice with the imminent birth of a son to the young wife of Ahaz. This use of children as images of hope is augmented by Isaiah's two children in this passage as well.

Like the symbolic names of Hosea's children, which proclaimed judgment on an unjust and unfaithful society, Isaiah names his children "A remnant shall return" and "The spoil speeds, the prey hastens." The name of the first son is in reference to Isaiah's confidence that the people of Judah will not be utterly destroyed, and the name of the second son is an indication that Judah's enemies will be utterly destroyed. Although Ahaz names his child Hezekiah, while Ahaz's wife is still pregnant, Isaiah refers to the child by the symbolic name "God is with us," which may indicate that this portion of Isaiah was written after the conflict with Israel and Aram was resolved and after it was clear what kind of leader Hezekiah would be.

Christians have appropriated this name, "Immanu-el," and this word of reassurance by Isaiah to Ahaz, as a reference to Jesus, but this makes little sense. Isaiah is obviously offering some near-future hope for Ahaz, indicating that the immediate enemies of Judah would be no threat at all by the time a child about to be born was eating solid food. As it happens, Hezekiah was a young boy when Israel fell to Assyria, and his leadership as king was a time of hope for Judah, as he ushered in a wave of internal religious and political reforms. As we shall see, Isaiah was an adviser to Hezekiah, too. In a case of the apple falling not far from the tree, both Ahaz and Hezekiah ignored Isaiah's advice; Ahaz voluntarily made Judah subject to Assyrian rule, and Hezekiah made a dangerous alliance with Egypt against Assyria.

There's no real need to go into whether El was really the same deity as Yahweh. There are plenty of other people making hypotheses about that sort of thing, and we can't really know for sure what the author of Isaiah was thinking. Our task here is to discover if there is something of value for us in this report of advice given to a king over 2500 years ago. Believers might claim the promise that their version of God is with them and has their best interest in mind if they only trust and wait (what Ahaz was instructed to do). This is somewhat flawed theology on a couple of levels. First, the words of Isaiah 8 are clearly to a particular individual about a particular situation, and to other people in different situations, different prophetic advice is given. Second, it's easy to overlook in our assertions that our supernatural will hear our prayers that other people may be praying for the exact opposite thing -- or at least something that is incompatible with what we're praying. Third, if the only point of human existence is to trust a supernatural and wait for everything to just be worked out for us, then we have no real purpose and human life is rather meaningless.

If we consider that there is no external deity orchestrating things on our behalf, but that whatever we call divinity is something within us -- something that is a human characteristic that all people have within them -- we can look at Isaiah's words a bit differently. It's true that circumstances do change, and it's true that patience often serves us better than reactivity. Isaiah's words might be taken here to mean that we should not become anxious at every apparent obstacle or threat in our lives, but that we should respond to our circumstances out of a deep connection with our innermost being. We should not work so hard to defend ourselves; we should instead confidently be ourselves. Rather than try to convince other people of our perspective, we might get more traction out of simply living out our deepest, most noble selves.

Permit me a personal story, if you will. I once worked for a company that had a number of anxious people. A systematic reinforcement of poor communication skills combined with a pervasive sense of entitlement and a lack of clear shared vision resulted in what was, for me, a toxic environment. I had some ideas about how to improve things, not only for my own preferences, but for the sake of everyone connected to the company. I also have an unusually high tolerance for change, and at the time, I did not appreciate or respect that few people share my eagerness to change things, even if it is for the better. The more aggressive I was in promoting a different way of doing things, the more aggressive the resistance became on the other side. In some ways, my situation was like that of Ahaz.

Had I been a little more patient, the situation may have turned out differently. Personnel changed, and people who were more interested in purposeful improvement assumed leadership positions. By then, though, I was long gone. Being more patient, however, would not have meant doing nothing. Developing and maintaining a deep connection with oneself is work. Listening compassionately to other people's anxiety can be work, too. Managing one's own anxiety and dismantling one's own fears is work. Being patient with a set of circumstances doesn't at all mean that no work is being done. In all honesty, in my own Ahaz situation, I had not done the work I needed to do within myself to support the kinds of actions I was suggesting.

It's easy to react to what we perceive as threats. We want to fight back, or defend ourselves, or just roll over and make the anxiety go away through passivity. When we feel threatened, it's important to be realistic about that anxiety. Sometimes, there is some action that we can take, and sometimes there isn't as much of a threat as we might think. Even if there is something we can do, though, it's important for us to act with integrity to who we most want to be in the world, rather than acting out of rabid defensiveness or overwhelming anxiety.

Isaiah was really suggesting three things to Ahaz, which I'm interpreting here into a non-religious context.

First, calm down. Whatever it is in your life that allows you to bring your own anxiety under control, be committed to doing that. If you don't know what brings your anxiety under control, be committed to discovering that. Knowing how to become less anxious (and actually doing it) is the most important thing you can do in your life, for your own well-being and for the well-being of everyone around you.

Second, trust yourself. Your deepest, most noble self is trustworthy. There may be lies that you have come to believe about yourself, other people, and reality, and there may be vows that you have made about what you must or must not do or be. Beneath those artificial protections, though, you are capable. You are trustworthy. You are enough. You are creative. You are beautiful. You are insightful. You have inherent worth and dignity. If you don't know and trust this about yourself, commit to discovering this truth about you. Develop a discipline of introspection. Engage in self-discovery activities. Work with a trusted friend or coach to learn how to be more connected to who you really are and what you really want. You cannot be who you most want to be in the world if you don't know who that is. This is important because you are important.

Third, act with integrity. I don't mean here "integrity" in the sense of keeping your word; sometimes promises need to be broken. I mean "integrity" in the sense that we say a bridge or a building has integrity. I mean allowing your words and actions to be congruent with your authentic self. Once you have managed your anxiety and honestly analyzed the threats, and once you have connected with yourself beyond the fears and lies we all carry around and recognized who you most want to be in the world, be that person. Act in accordance with who you are. This goes beyond horoscope-style adjectives; who you are engages the very things that nourish you, your passions, your convictions, your commitments, your dreams. Acting with integrity means creating the world we most want to live in.

That's what Isaiah was suggesting to Ahaz. It takes a bit of work. No wonder Ahaz had a hard time following through. It's possible, though. It's possible for you. Whether there are no apparent threats on your horizon, or whether you feel constantly under fire, you can calm down, trust yourself, and act with integrity to who you most want to be in the world. One big help is having people to journey with, people who embrace the same commitment in their own lives. We are bound to stumble a bit; we are bound to get anxious or act out of line with who we most want to be. When we journey together with others, it seems a lot easier to be graceful with ourselves and get back on track.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Mark 10: Inappropriate Shame

Following some difficult words on wealth, Mark 10 contains a third prediction about Jesus' death, which can be taken as a literary device of either foreshadowing or framing the stories of Jesus' activity. We will consider the implications of these predictions at greater length when we come to the passion narrative. Then, there is a request by James and John to be given a place of honor in the kingdom they think Jesus is establishing. As the gospel of Matthew tells the story, it is their mother who makes the request on their behalf, and the gospel of Luke's version not only doesn't mention James and John by name, but also suggests a place of honor for all of the disciples, in contradiction of the message about being of service. Given that the author or editors of the gospel of Luke may well have been attempting to legitimize the authority of the leaders of the early Christian sect, it is perhaps more worthwhile to look at what these passages hold in common.

Incidentally, this same message is conveyed through Jesus' act of washing the disciples' feet portrayed only in the gospel of John. To wash one another's feet in the context of that time and culture was to perform the lowest duties of the most base servant, making the message in the gospel of John even more extreme than the more bland teaching of the gospel of Mark. What is it that the authors are suggesting through Jesus' words and actions? What value does that have for us?

In the first century, as now, prestige had value. One's position in society was an indication of one's worth and value -- a sign of one's merit. James and John are asking here for positions of authority in the new world order they believe Jesus will establish. These fishermen desire to be in positions of power. They seem to have missed the point of Jesus' teaching up to this point. Jesus corrects them by pointing out that things don't have value just because the world thinks it so. He is not establishing a way of being that looks just like the old way of being, just with different personnel. He is establishing a new way of being -- a new way of defining self and others and relationship. He is defining a way of being that does not revolve around having power over other people, but rather of recognizing one's own power to positively effect the lives of others. His disciples, like many believers today, seem to have thought that the rhetoric was just a nice way of expressing regime change and a domineering claim over society. Doublespeak. Spin.

One of the most devastating issues that humanity has yet to deal with effectively is the issue of shame. We use shame to control other people, and it's a very effective control. I think we use shame against others, though, because we don't know what to do with our own shame. Shaming others makes us feel superior, which alleviates our own sense of shame, however inappropriate or misguided any of that shame may be. James and John may have felt some shame at being fishermen and having no real power in their society. There's no real reason for this, except perhaps that they believed what their society said about some people being worth more than other people.

In our own society, we still use shaming others to make ourselves feel better. When one says to a panhandler, "Why don't you just go get a job instead of begging for money?" the panhandler is not often given the chance to respond, "Because I have a mental illness and no access to adequate medical care. I don't even have enough money to keep a roof over my head, and I don't know where my next meal is going to come from. I have no way to shower for a job interview and no clean clothes to change into, and I've developed an addiction because it's the only respite I have from this hopeless way of life."

We have become accustomed to shaming the homeless. We shame the uneducated. We shame the mentally ill. We shame the poor. We shame the unemployed. We shame people who need assistance to provide for themselves and their families. We shame addicts. We even try to find clever ways to shame people who look different from us, come from different cultures than us, speak a different language from us, or love different people than we do. We think of and treat those people as if they are worthless, or if not utterly worthless, at least worth less than we are. Therefore, we can feel proud of our jobs, our education, our homes, our mental health, our resources, our marriages, and our more socially acceptable addictions. We can ignore our own shame because there's someone we can point to who "should" feel more shame than we do. Sometimes our jobs, our education, our homes, and our resources are actually sources of shame for us, so we try extra hard to turn them into points of pride.

Some of our shame is appropriate. The shame that we feel when we have caused harm to another person is appropriate shame. It isn't pleasant, though. So, often we contrive a way to shame the victim in order to alleviate the shame of the culprit. Nowhere is this more blatantly apparent in our society than in the issue of rape. There is nothing that a person can do to warrant being sexually assaulted, and yet by shaming the victims for their behavior or clothing or naivete, the culprits somehow become satisfied that their actions were justifiable or permissible. In all honesty, those culprits most likely feel some degree of shame -- I have to believe that their humanity demands that they feel some degree of shame. Yet, we may not even recognize the feeling of shame if we've spent a lifetime blaming others for our own harmful behavior. We may even see ourselves as victims who deserve more power, authority, wealth, or respect, without ever considering how the pursuit of those things aligns (or fails to align) with our guiding principles or the world we most want to create.

We can't actually even know our guiding principles clearly if we are bound by shame. Even those of us who carry around inappropriate shame (which is probably all of us) have to figure out what to do with that shame. Most of the time, we choose one of two responses. We either give in to lies about ourselves or we combat them with every ounce of our being. Many of us buy into the inappropriate shame that someone put on us and believe that we are lazy, worthless, stupid, ugly, unlovable, incompetent, failures, or at the very least, less important than everybody else. We live out that identity in our decisions and our relationships, playing a role less than the reality of our authentic being. This does not truly serve anyone.

On the other hand, many of us do everything we can to convince ourselves and the world that we are not those things. We overwork ourselves to prove that we are not lazy. We earn as much as we can to prove that we are not worthless. We enter into and remain in shallow or abusive relationships to prove that we are lovable. The problem is that we can never do enough to eradicate the fear that the lies are true -- that deep down inside we are shameful beings. And despite what some people may tell you, no amount of positive affirmation will convince you of something that your mind just doesn't believe.

How do we address inappropriate shame, then? One way is to stop trying so hard to prove ourselves. We may discover some truths about ourselves just from being willing to look honestly at who we are and what matters to us. Dismantling lies that we have held onto since we were kids, though -- that can take some time. It's almost a lifestyle choice to look honestly at why you believe what you do about yourself and to decide who you want to be in the world. Self-examination is a discipline, and like many disciplines, it is often easier to practice in community with other people. Certainly, such a community must be a safe place, and finding that can sometimes be a challenge. If we are committed to releasing inappropriate shame from our lives, however, we absolutely must get to the heart of the lies we believe about ourselves and dismantle them.

How do we know what the lies are, though? Maybe we are honestly ugly or stupid or lazy, right? Well, first of all, the reality of who we are is probably not the same as our poorest, most critical image of ourselves. Secondly, we don't need to define ourselves only by superficial characteristics. For instance, why does our physical appearance matter so much? If it's a matter of wanting to be healthier somehow, there are probably some habits that we can change to improve our physical health. If we're worried about our physical appearance just because we think we need to fit with someone else's ideal of beauty, then that's a lie worth dismantling. Understanding why we believe the things we do about ourselves is hard work sometimes, but what we get out of that is the ability to be more authentic and whole in our lives.

This authentic wholeness is what the conversation in Mark 10 tends toward. Positions of power can't ever convince us that we are worthwhile individuals if we believe or fear that we are worthless. When the title can't convince us, we may try to extend our power or we may abuse our power to control other people's lives. Even then, there is never enough that we can do to prove our own worth if we are trapped in inappropriate shame because of some lie we've been told about our identity and value. When we stop trying to prove ourselves and inhabit our authentic selves more fully, we have the opportunity to see other people more authentically as well. When we recognize our own inherent worth and dignity, we can connect more meaningfully with others. The work of dismantling our lies about ourselves yields the opportunity for us to connect with our own deepest, most noble selves as well. We can create a purpose for our lives beyond trying to prove ourselves or trying to shift our shame to someone else. We can discover what is truly meaningful for us, and we can live that out more consistently, more joyfully, and more courageously.

Ultimately, we can hopefully recognize that we are enough as we are. We do not have to feel shame for not living up to someone else's expectations. We do not have to be anything more than or less than who we are. This is not a selfish declaration, although it is something that focuses on accepting who we are, honestly and authentically. Dealing with our inappropriate shame, dismantling the lies that we believe or fear about ourselves, serves the world too, because it allows us to engage more meaningfully and passionately in creating something better than what we know today. Let's stop carrying around inappropriate shame, and let's stop foisting shame on others. Instead, let's do what we can to find out what a world full of authentic, compassionate, courageous, creative people looks like.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Isaiah 6: Dull Ears, Blind Eyes, and Calloused Hearts

Well into the book of Isaiah, in chapter 6, we finally see a typical version of a prophetic calling story, which we have noted in books named after other prophets. Here, the author describes supernatural creatures with six wings who shake the temple with their song of praise to Yahweh. Moreover, the author claims to have seen Yahweh himself, before the temple is filled with smoke. Isaiah's purification (so that he can deliver his prophetic message) takes the form of a hot coal, with which a seraphim scorches his lips. This action is said to remove Isaiah's guilt and sin, which is remarkable in an ancient Israelite context in that no blood is spilt. Then, Isaiah receives his first message about the people of Israel.

Obviously, this credentialing of a prophet is either fabrication or is an internal experience of the messenger. At the time, such supernatural legitimization was respected -- indeed, expected -- as evidence that a message was from God. For us, the truth of a message can suffice to determine its worthiness. Isaiah may have been addressing the ancient Israelites specifically, in the time preceding the Babylonian captivity. His words may have value for twenty-first century readers as well.

He accuses his people of being willfully deaf, blind, and calloused. The truth is all around them, but they choose not to acknowledge it. So, Yahweh decides that they should stay that way -- that their blindness, deafness, and lack of understanding should be kept in place, so that they have no chance to turn and find healing for their society. Isaiah asks how long that will go on, and he is given a rather ominous answer: until everything but the barest stump is destroyed.

First of all, this presents Yahweh as a rather small-minded and vindictive deity. People have been disobedient, and so he chooses to eliminate the possibility that they might straighten up and fly right, at least until they have experienced the full measure of consequences. He actively forces the Israelites' heartlessness, spiritual blindness, and ethical deafness. Not very nice. Of course, Isaiah may well have been reporting on the condition of things, portraying God as being in control while still acknowledging the sad state of affairs. If God is all-powerful and people are behaving like heartless jackals, then God must have chosen for them to behave that way, right?

Second, though, the state of affairs in ancient Jewish society was not all that different from what we see at work in the world today. People typically only take in information from sources with which they already agree, so their worldview is rarely challenged. People often select theological positions based on what makes them most comfortable. Our sense of morality and ethics is often clear in the abstract and murky when it comes to specific decisions in our own lives. We sometimes choose to be blind to the injustices going on around us, if our involvement would be risky or inconvenient. We sometimes choose to be deaf to the data of scientific discovery, especially if dealing with certain issues would cost us a bit of money or require a change to our lifestyle. We sometimes harden our hearts against the people around us, and we call it "tough love" when we aren't outright critical or vindictive. We sometimes even say, "I wish I could do something," when we have no real interest in learning what we could actually do to make a difference.

Most likely, the people of Isaiah's day didn't really need any help from a supernatural to keep their willing blindness, deafness, and callousness in place. People seem to be pretty adept at turning a blind eye to the things they don't want to address in their lives and in the world. It's also likely that the Assyrians -- and later the Babylonians -- would have overrun Israel and Judah and taken people into exile, because those actions were based on the irresponsible decisions of a few leaders and not the behavior of an entire nation. So, there probably is no actual cause and effect relationship between the destruction that Judah and Israel experienced and their culture of willful blindness. That doesn't mean that being deaf, blind, and heartless is a good idea. It just means that we can be motivated by something other than wrathful destruction.

If we choose to, we can open our eyes, ears, and hearts to the people around us and to the world we all share. We can give a little bit (or a little bit more) to organizations that make changes in people's lives. We can vote for representatives that stand on the side of social justice rather than on the side of partisan power mongering. We can reach out to the people in our communities who are less fortunate and volunteer a bit of our time to teach them, feed them, clothe them, befriend them. Sometimes having open ears just means being willing to listen to someone tell their story. Sometimes having open eyes just means acknowledging another person with a smile and a kind word. Sometimes having an open heart just means giving up a fancy cup of coffee once a week so that the money we would have spent on caffeine can allow someone on the other side of the world to eat.

And sometimes having open eyes, ears, and hearts means a little more. Sometimes it caring enough not to mind being inconvenienced when your neighbor needs a little help. Sometimes it means listening to the same story you've heard a dozen times because your friend just hasn't gotten through this particular issue yet. Sometimes, it means broadening our concept of who we're willing to befriend -- who we're willing to treat like a human being of innate value.

We are busy and overburdened people, and some of that is not by our choice. There is no deity deciding one way or the other whether we will be blind or have our eyes wide open to the world; we are the only ones who can decide how much we are willing to see, hear, and feel. The world is an incredible place, though, and the people who share it with us are even more incredible. We need one another. None of us is utterly self-sufficient. So, let's open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts a bit. Let's model a way of being in the world that inspires others to have more open eyes, ears, and hearts. Whatever it costs us, we will reap in dividends of human connection and personal satisfaction. There is something deeply satisfying about caring, particularly when we are clear about the principles that guide our lives.

Open your eyes.
Open your ears.
Open your heart.
And let others know when you need them to open their eyes, ears, and heart to you a bit, too.
Sometimes we all need a little reminder.