Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Daily Old Testament: Isaiah 6-7 and My Own Book "Leadings: A Catholic's Journey Through Quakerism (Part 15)

Isaiah 6 – This chapter tells us the story of Isaiah’s call. It happened c. 740 BC. Isaiah says he “saw the Lord Yahweh seated on a high throne” (6:1). Two “seraphs” stood above him, each with six wings (two covered its face, two its genitals – here called feet – and two for flying). They cried out, “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Sabaoth [the Lord of Heaven’s Armies]” (6:3). “Their voices shook the Temple to its foundations, and the entire building was filled with smoke” (6:4).

Isaiah feels he is doomed. He calls himself “wretched” for being a “man of unclean lips” (6:5), a man who lives “among a people of unclean lips” (6:5). One of the seraphim comes to him and touches his mouth with a live coal to purge him of his sin. “Then I heard the Lord asking, ‘Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?’ I said, ‘Here I am. Send me.’ And he said, ‘Yes, go, and say to this people, ‘Listen carefully, but do not understand. Watch closely, but learn nothing.’ Harden the hearts of these people. Plug their ears and shut their eyes, nor hear with their ears, not understand with their hearts and turn to me for healing” (6:8-10).

Isaiah wonders how long this state of things will last. God tells him they will remain unresponsive until “towns are empty, their houses are deserted, and the whole country is a wasteland” (6:11). If even a remnant remains, “it will be invaded again and burned” (6:13). The stump that remains “will be a holy seed” (6:13).

Isaiah 7 – During the reign of Ahaz, king of Judah, the king of Aram [Syria] plans to go against Jerusalem with Pekah, son of the king of Israel; they will not take the city, but the “hearts of the king and his people trembled with fear, like trees shaking in a storm” (7:2).

Isaiah is instructed to take his own son and go to Ahaz and tell him not to fear the assault. It will not succeed. And as for Israel, “within sixty-five years it will be crushed and completely destroyed” (7:8). Don’t forget that at this time, Israel and Judah are separate kingdoms; Israel will be the first to be conquered by the Assyrians.

A second message then is sent to Ahaz telling him to ask Yahweh for a sign, but Ahaz says he will not “put Yahweh to the test” (7:12). Then comes the famous prophecy: “The Lord himself will give you a sign. It is this: the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel” (7:14). This child will “know how to refuse evil and choose good” (7:15).

According to Lawrence Boadt, no book of the Old Testament was looked to as much as Isaiah in early Christian attempts to understand Jesus’ importance to them.

The “army of southern Egypt and . . . the army of Assyria . . . will swarm around you like flies and bees. They will come in vast hordes and settle in the fertile areas and also in the desolate valleys, caves, and thorny places” (7:18-19). But the Lord will also “hire a ‘razor’ from beyond the Euphrates River – the king of Assyria – and use it to shave off everything: your land, your crops, and your people” (7:20).

There will be little left to feed the people, but “few people will be left in the land” (7:22). “The entire land will become a vast expanse of briers and thorns, a hunting ground overrun by wildlife” (7:24).

From Leadings: A Catholic’s Journey Through Quakerism
Part 15
The peace that came to me in submitting to this call to speak in Meeting was not lasting. We moved from Raleigh up to Asheville, North Carolina. I toyed with the idea of joining the Unitarian Universalists because they had a Sunday school program and more structure to their worship time – singing, corporate prayer, things I felt I needed and that would be good for my children. But the chaos that came with the breakup of my first marriage ultimately brought me back to the Quakers.

I needed something different. I needed the quiet and intimate sense of support and comfort I knew I would find among Friends. I needed to be able to pour my heart out and ask people to “hold me in the light.” I needed to reflect on what I had done to get myself into such a mess and ponder ways of getting out of it. Meeting gave me opportunities to do all these things. At some point after starting back, a man came up to me after Meeting and introduced himself to me. This man, who three years later would become my second husband, would become for me in this moment of my life an instrument of God’s grace. I didn’t realize it at first. We talked about the situation I was in, how I was holding up. He told me that he was also going through domestic turmoil. He said he was finding comfort in reading the Scriptures for the first time, looking to God in a way he had not been willing to do earlier in his life. He was excited about the prophets. They “spoke to his condition.” as Friends said.

I started to go to the weekly Bible study he had at his place. We got to know each other. We walked around his neighborhood or mine, talking about our problems, sharing our thoughts about religion. He had been raised a Catholic but had left the Catholic Church in college. He hadn’t lost faith entirely though. He continued to feel the pull of the divine, just not in terms of organized religion. Like many in the late sixties and early seventies, he found a degree of spiritual satisfaction in the back-to-nature movement that was big on American college campuses in those years. His hero was Henry David Thoreau. In the years since college, however, with his marriage and entry into the world of private school teaching, he had struggled with depression and felt the need to reattach himself to a spiritual community of some kind. Through a Quaker friend of his wife’s, he became interested in Friends and started attending a Meeting near the school where he was teaching. As with many people attracted to Friends during this period, the traditional Friends commitment to things like social justice, peace, and environmental responsibility weighed heavily with him, but he also loved the unadorned Christianity he met with there.

I was in a completely different place with respect to bother religion and my marital troubles. I was pretty much a mess, spiritually and psychologically. I had no sense of where I was going religiously at all. For years I had wrestled with feelings of nostalgia for the Church and what it represented to me, but my mind could not seem to find a way back. It wasn’t enough to yearn for faith or have an amorphous sense of a transcendent dimension to human life. These I could easily attribute to my psychological neediness. I was morbidly preoccupied with the state of my mind. I had separated, in part, out of a fear that my mind would not hold up over time to the unhappiness I experienced in that union, and what I was going through now made me even more afraid. I kept thinking of something I had read about Virginia Woolf and her descent into mental illness, about how it was like sensing sharks in the waters around her mind—the fear of its inevitability, the inner awareness that the attack was coming and that she was powerless to defend against it. I wanted to believe—now more than ever—but I just couldn’t. I was willing to concede that something “spiritual,” something we could not know distinctly but called God, might exist; but the whole Christian thing—the man Jesus, the miracles, his dying for our sins, the resurrection, the gospel, the church, the whole array of doctrines and moral mandates—all of this was simply beyond me.

I particularly remember one conversation my friend and I had about Jesus when he asked me what I thought about Jesus’ crucifixion. I said I couldn’t understand making so much of this one death, terrible as it was, that thousands of men had been crucified by the Romans and that people died all the time for love of others or for causes they thought worthy or good. There was nothing in that story that compelled me intellectually. It would be nice to be able to believe in it, but I couldn’t.

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