* 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

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.

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