* 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

Friday, May 23, 2014

Isaiah 21-22: When Judgment Hits Close to Home

I had begun to write about the historical relevance of some of the statements in the oracles in Isaiah 21-22, but it struck me that none of that really matters in our lives today. Ancient history is interesting, and it's worth noting that predictions like, "Within a year, according to the years of a hired worker, all the glory of Kedar will come to an end," simply didn't happen. Kedar isn't around anymore as a nation, but it didn't happen within the span of a year, and this prophecy is very clear that what's intended is a literal one-year-in-the-life-of-a-laborer period of time. If nothing else, a glimpse at history helps to explain what the author(s) may have meant, but it doesn't necessarily prompt us to change anything about our lives.

The gist of the whole series of oracles against the nations is that the people of Judah looked with judgment on all the other nations who were worshiping the wrong gods, engaging in unclean cultural practices, and -- most of all -- posing a military threat to Judah and Jerusalem. Words of condemnation against those nations were comfort to the Israelites, and prophecy against people who were living differently offered hope to those Israelites who were suffering while living faithfully. We all need words of comfort sometimes, and one easy way to provide an illusion of comfort is to degrade someone else. That isn't real empowerment, even though it might make us feel better in the moment.

Here's the real kicker, though: When you get to Isaiah 22, the pronouncements are no longer about other nations. Suddenly, the prophet is condemning Jerusalem and some specific leaders who were not living exemplary lives. It's all well and good to criticize the people who aren't behaving the way you want them to, but it stings a bit sometimes to be honest about how much our own actions line up with our beliefs.

We get distracted sometimes by minor things, by pettiness, by things just not going the way we want them to. Particularly, we get distracted by our fears and by the false beliefs we've developed about ourselves, other people, and the world we all share. Pronouncing judgment on others is not going to get us very far toward the kind of world we most want to create. Even pronouncing judgment on ourselves isn't going to create the lives we want. Shame is not a solid foundation for anything.

What matters is that we recognize one another as human beings capable of doing amazing things. We are capable of taking personal responsibility in our own lives and recognizing the limits of our control over other people. We are capable of setting healthy boundaries that define what we stand for and still allow for connection with other people who think or believe differently from us. It feels powerful to stand against other people, but the real power is in standing for other people. This is not always easy to do. We have to understand our own guiding principles, and we have to be willing to allow those principles to actually guide us. In our own lives, we can model what it is to live courageous lives of integrity and intentionality, not to shame or condemn anyone else, but to provide empowerment and hope. As a wise person has said, "Be the change you want to see in the world."

So when we write our own oracles, let's not compose oracles against others or against ourselves. Let's cast vision for a best possible version of ourselves and live into that vision to the best of our ability. Let's look at other people as potential partners in creating a better world, even though sometimes fear presents an obstacle. People have inherent worth, and we can build some pretty incredible things on that foundation. The more we are able to stand in the face of other people's fear (and our own fear) and have a calm sense of integrity to our guiding principles, the more we are able to transform our own lives and the lives of people around us.

It may take a bit of practice, but we can nurture our lives and the places in which we work and play toward well-being in every dimension. This is what we get to practice, then: (1) Know what you stand for. (2) Stand for it. Take care not to stand for something based on fear, and be sharp about the temptation to phrase things so that your hostile stance against something or someone looks like a committed stand for something. Maybe talk through things with someone else who is committed to living intentionally and purposefully. Then, keep standing.

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