[Photograph by Jared Fredrickson]
Alice Atkins planted hostas, foxglove, and lily-of-the-valley on the two-tiered banking that marks the edge of the back yard. In her last years (and the year between her death and our buying the house), Alice couldn’t tend to the beds; ivy and bittersweet covered everything. It took hours and a lot of hard work to clear the banking of the invasive plants a few weeks after we moved in – Fall of 2002. The work brought a beautiful gift in the Spring: all the plants that had been dormant came back, and myrtle grew to cover the thin, poor soil that could not sustain anything else.
Since that Spring, I have been the second caretaker of this garden, cutting back the choking ivy and thorny bittersweet to give what was lovingly planted a good place to grow. Each year, I say a prayer of thanks to God for the faithful return of perennials, and for Alice’s devotion to planting them and keeping them in the first place. When my time here is over, I hope someone else will become caretaker #3.
I didn’t appreciate the Bible’s garden metaphors until I started tending garden beds myself. Now, it’s a truth that resonates in my bones: when I tend to the life God has given to my care, a beautiful and holy life thrives. When I don’t, I get buried in thorns and choking vines instead. My inner life or my outer one – it applies equally.
Instead of thorns shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. [Isaiah 55:13-14, NRSV]
For you shall go out in joy, and return in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. [Isaiah 55, NRSV]
This morning, I’m sitting at Kiskadee Coffee, gazing out on the cars lining a rain soaked sidewalk. The wind is blowing the limbs and leaves of the two trees across the street. A jogger just zipped by Preferred Properties, headed toward Water Street; a local guy with a Red Sox cap brought a coffee to his friend just outside my window. With people going about their work day, it’s just an average Thursday morning in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Isn’t it?
As I read Isaiah’s words, I wonder how many of the people I can see left their homes with a sense of joy this morning. How many will return home in peace – or find peace when they enter their own doors? My mother used to say that children could handle pretty much any of the world’s challenges if their home was stable and loving. It didn’t have to be perfect, but it had to be a place where everyone felt welcomed and accepted as is.
Perhaps that’s what Isaiah is getting at: the fruition of God’s creation is a cosmic home where everyone belongs. To be at home in the world, no matter where in the world you are, is heavenly. You can leave every morning, finding joy in the day’s adventures; you can return every evening to a peace that refreshes the body, mind, and spirit. It doesn’t have to be perfect or easy – and it won’t be in this lifetime – to be holy.
On a day like today, rainy and windblown, I can almost hear the hills at my back singing for joy, and see in the movements of the still-leafed branches the trees applauding…
[For more on this series, click Isaiah 55 above]
Sisyphus spends every day pushing a boulder up a steep incline only to have it fall back into its original position – a punishment for trying to cheat death through trickery. No matter the effort, the result is the same: eternal lack of progress. Sisyphus will never get his boulder up the incline, and all his work won’t change a single thing.
I wonder about my own work sometimes. Does anything I do change my life and the life of the world? All the labor I put into my garden beds doesn’t stop the weeds from moving in the minute I take a breather, and the perennials I cherish will return next year with or without my help. The words I write might have a negligible effect during my lifetime, but will fade into obscurity when I leave this mortal life. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. No one will remember my name a hundred years from now.
But that’s not really the point, and it’s not really the truth that matters. Who I am as far as a recognizable name isn’t who I am: it’s just the outer edges. If that were all there was to me, life would be a tragedy. Not just mine, but every life. But that’s not the whole truth or the heart of the story.
I am, before anything else, a child of God. Through my life, God rejoices in creation. In my unique existence, I can see the wonderful creatures God has created; I can see in their beauty, loving acts, and never-to-be-repeated lives a glimpse of eternity. No life is lived in vain, even if I can’t see it or understand it. God’s purposes will be accomplished in surprising ways and on a scale I can’t begin to comprehend. But I can see it in my own, very limited way – and I participate in it through the work of my hands and the prayers of my heart. Nothing isn’t the final word or state – not for me, and not for you. God is.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. [Isaiah 55:10-11, NRSV]
One of my favorite things is figuring out how other people see the world. When I read a book, I imagine that it’s a doorway into the writer’s world – as true about non-fiction as it is about fiction. When I listen to others, I catch a glimpse of how they see the world. What a marvelous thing to see the world around me from a different point of view!
But a glimpse isn’t the whole picture. There is much more to see and understand, and that’s a gift. Isn’t it a marvelous truth that there is always more to someone than what I can see?
This is particularly true when I catch a glimpse of God’s world. There’s no way I can see and understand the holiness of the Creator, and I kid myself if I suppose otherwise. The mystery only deepens with every encounter, every revelation. If I’m wise enough to remember this truth, my life will be open to the infinite possibilities of God’s revelation…
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. [Isaiah 55:8-9]
Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy upon them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. [Isaiah 55:7, NRSV]
Bad habits and destructive patterns can’t be given up easily; they weigh heavy on our hearts, channel our thoughts, and take hold of our very souls. What is monumentally difficult becomes nigh impossible if making the effort only lands us before the judgement seat of an unforgiving God. Why make such an uphill climb to be cast back down into hell?
But the judgement of God isn’t retribution for all past sins, it’s the chance to stop inflicting on the world the hell we hold inside.
If we have the chance to save a soul from torment, why wouldn’t we? If saving that single soul transforms the world, why would we do anything else? If someone can do the same for us, wouldn’t we want them to make the effort?
That’s what God’s mercy and pardon does, transforms hell into holy ground – for us, for those we love, and for those we don’t. Most especially for those we don’t.
Can we find enough grace in our hearts to rejoice in such a change?
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near… [Isaiah 55:6a, NRSV]
Isaiah didn’t advise us to seek God only on Friday nights at sundown or Sunday mornings at 10am. We are to seek God while he may be found. That means now, and it will mean now tomorrow, next week, and ten years down the road. The Lord may be found at any time, but there’s no time like the present.
Isaiah didn’t ask us to seek God exclusively in a chapel, meditation garden, synagogue, or mosque. We are to seek God while he is near. That means right where we are standing at this very moment, where we will drive tomorrow, and wherever we happen to be after Valentine’s Day 2023. There’s no place better than this one to call on the Lord.
Every where and every when belongs to God; we can come to God any where and any when. We carve out special times and places not because God has limited availability, but because we require a time and place to be available to God.
But if we happen to be waiting in the drive-through for our morning coffee, why not seek the Lord? Why not call upon God while putting that fourth load of laundry in the washer? What are we waiting for?
See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
Isaiah 55:5, NRSV
Brian McLaren quoted an unnamed mentor in Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammad Cross the Road? [New York: Jericho Books: 2012, p. 40]:
Remember, Brian: in a pluralistic world, a religion is judged by the benefits it brings to its nonmembers.
The question we must ask ourselves isn’t how are we serving our own?: the question we must ask ourselves is how are we blessing everyone we cannot claim as our own?
I think this is one of those truths that must be voiced and upheld in every single generation. If it isn’t, our religion is apt to oppress those outside of it to the spiritual damage of those on the inside. It’s a piece of ancient wisdom that is as difficult to understand today as it was in Isaiah’s time.
Living out our faith in a way that blesses outsiders is just living out our faith. After all, Jesus reminded us that everything boils down to loving God with everything we are, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. We just have to remember that people everywhere are our neighbors.
Nothing new here, just the Gospel truth.
My life isn’t something I brought into existence. My DNA is a gift from my mother and father, who received theirs from their parents. I am one branch of a living vine joining the past of my ancestors to the lives of my children, nieces and nephews, and beyond.
The same is true for you. You came from somewhere and someone. But these genetic strands linking us to some and not others are not all there is to us: the most fundamental truth I know is that we are all God created and God related. We are incarnated with specific genes, in particular families, but our primary identities reside in the love and creative power of God. Our genetic dust will return to the ground, but our true selves will return to God.
It is the love of God that defines us, and endows us with gifts to serve others. It’s a good thing for us to ponder. It’s so easy to idolize David: he both accomplished much and failed spectacularly. But he wasn’t self-made; at his best, he joyfully embraced his God-given and sustained life.
We won’t be modern day Davids, and we aren’t supposed to be. We are created, talents and flaws, to be ourselves; God made us who we are for a reason. This verse is for us as:
See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. [Isaiah 55:4, NRSV]
I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. (Isaiah 55:3b, NRSV)
In William P. Young’s The Shack, whenever God mentions someone, she says she is especially fond of him or her. Every single person, every child, is a favorite. No one is half-loved or a quarter-appreciated in comparison to someone else. Every single person resides in the heart of God, a beloved child.
In a world where competition and favoritism exclude the majority to the dubious advantage of the few, this makes no sense. How can there not be the favorite? But God doesn’t choose favorites: everyone is a favorite, beloved for whom he or she is.
The shepherd-musician-king, David, is God’s beloved; God surrounded David with love and chose him for a holy life. The very same is true of you and me – and everyone else in this world. God is especially fond of you. You are a delight in the eyes of the Lord:don’t let anyone or anything convince you otherwise.
[Young, William P., The Shack, USA: Windblown Media, 2007]
Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
(Isaiah 55:3a, NRSV)
One of my graduate school super powers was being able to block out the noise and activity around me. I could write while someone else watched television and read in a noisy, crowded cafeteria. Traffic noise, neighbors arguing, popcorn popping – none of it could break my focus on the academic task at hand. That skill served me well in those years, but it should have come with this warning:
Do not mistake this work skill for a life skill! Taken out of its proper context, it causes more harm than good.
Efficiency in a task at the expense of awareness of those around me isn’t a virtue if the task is trivial. Conversation around the dinner table, listening to my husband and sons talk about their ideas and daily adventures – these shouldn’t be tuned out in favor of doing a Sunday crossword puzzle every Sunday afternoon. There’s a time to focus on a single task, and a time put it away to engage in the world around me.
I think that’s what Isaiah is saying: attend to what is important and life-giving. Listen, don’t just hear the voices of others as background noise. And if this is true about the people around us, isn’t it also true of God?
An abundant, godly life requires active listening to God’s call, the self’s disclosure, and the deepest longings of neighbor. If I incline my ear to these, if I seek God, only then will I truly live my life.
[For the full text, click “Isaiah 55” above.]