Consider the liles and other Scripture I don't like...
They’re all ‘comfort texts.’” Isaiah 43 and the waters won’t overwhelm you. Luke 12 and consider the lilies, don’t worry, etc. Psalm 23...
Don’t miss “Things Done and Left Undone: The Confessions as a Call to Right Relationship” on Earth & Altar this week!
This week I started the long version of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises as laid out in the book The Ignatian Adventure by Kevin O’Brien. As opposed to the original retreat which was a solid month, this book creates a longer experience that is meant to be woven into the fabric of everyday life by stretching from fall until roughly Easter.
I skimmed the first selection of Scripture texts to be mediated over and thought, “Fine. This’ll be easy. They’re all ‘comfort texts.’” Isaiah 43 and the waters won’t overwhelm you. Luke 12 and consider the lilies, don’t worry, etc. Psalm 23. I only started on Tuesday so that’s as far as I’ve gotten, but I’ve had issues with every. single. one. Yes, even Psalm 23.
I can just imagine being asked to preach on Isaiah 43. “Our text today is a classic one of comfort and assurance of God’s presence. Also, I hate this passage.” I’m sure I’d be a big hit.
It took me three days and many pages of journaling to unpack why these texts were bothering me. You see Scripture was written by people living in a certain context. Some of the things they said meant different things than they do now. I come to Scripture with my own context and indeed, my own baggage.
And I’m not too sure what to say about this “when you walk through the waters, I will be there, and you won’t be drowned” business. I mean, I guess I haven’t drowned so far, but there’s been a lot of times where it feels like God’s asleep in the boat and I’m doing all the paddling and my arms are tired and about to give in. And what’s this about walking through the flames unscathed because I sure as heck have been burned.
Of course there’s a larger context. This passage isn’t talking about individuals, it’s talking about the nation of Israel. It’s covenant language assuring the weaker state that the more powerful state will hold up both ends of the covenant and there’s nothing the weaker state can do to void the covenant. God is the powerful state in this case and the people of Israel are the weaker state, and the fact that God will both make and keep covenants with fickle humans really is something to note.
And back to the personal, I’ve said many times I’m still a Christian because God wouldn’t let go of me. So maybe there is a personal meaning to the whole walking through waters together thing.
But then one of my other problems with this is nations and people’s being given for my ransom. If I take it personally again, I don’t want other people given for my ransom. What kind of a God does that, anyway? Jesus gave himself for my ransom, entered into suffering for my sake, and gave of himself, not these unnamed peoples. I don’t want to be special when other people are suffering and it’s a little hard to read this any other way.
In case you were wondering that’s also my problem with the lilies and the Lord is my Shepherd bit. There are plenty of people in the world who don’t experience the care that the lilies of the field experience, nor the green grass, good pastures, and still waters promised in the 23rd Psalm.
Unless… unless the green pastures and still waters and lilies and presence through the water and fire is just that. What if all of that is the presence of God in our lives throughout… throughout everything? Throughout political stress, pandemic anxiety, loss. And really, that’s the point of all the language in Isaiah 43 as well. Even the nations given in ransom: when you are a tiny people who feels that everyone is against you except for God, then I could see how thinking that God would give one’s oppressors (in the case of Egypt anyway) as ransom would be something comforting.
I read an article the other day (that I can’t find) that talked about how during working disasters, the author found there was a six month wall. They always hit this wall where they wanted to leave, but there was nowhere to go. And of course, in the states, we just passed the six month mark of this pandemic, and it’s taking its toll on the living through the losses, the anxiety, the huge life changes, financial stress, to say nothing of the literal death toll that just marches steadily on.
And in the midst of this I don’t know how to interpret these passages except as both eschatological (that is: the world which is to come) and as promises of presence no matter what. It’s all too easy to interpret them as promises of safety, except that isn’t a guarantee and thus such promises would be empty. It’s also easy to assume for the relatively unafflicted that these promises have to do with the quantity of one’s faith, especially if you misinterpret the whole “ye of little faith” comment in Luke 12.
But as one commentator (I’m pulling this from memory so I don’t remember who, I just can’t take credit) noted, that isn’t a pejorative. “Ye of little faith” is an observation of where the people Jesus is addressing in that passage are in their faith. And a little faith as we’ve seen in the mustard seed passage isn’t anything to be dismissed lightly. A little faith can move mountains. And God will be with us through the fire and the water and the pandemic and the election and whatever is to come because God will keep God’s covenant with us both in this world, and in the world to come.
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