IMG_0340.JPG

Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...

 

Isaiah challenge...

I've had quite a weekend. World suffering, Isaiah, and new resolves, oh my. It all started Friday night, with a twenty-something service in which I heard an impassioned sermon on the Fatherhood love of God. Our pastor ended with the vivid illustration of bringing his four, sheepish little boys onto the stage so that he could pray a father's blessing over their fidgety heads. There was awe in that room. At the amen, he brought thirty or so elders and godly older men to the front and invited any young person there to come forward and let those men pray the same sort of blessing over their heads, let them stand in the place of fathers who had abused, abandoned, or broken the hearts of their children. At least a third of the thousand-person group went forward. Who could know how many people secretly bear the heart of an orphan?

Saturday night, I was back at church for an evening arts and awareness event by an organization called iEmpathize. This is a group of musicians, photographers, and videographers, who have seen first hand the horror of human trafficking and slavery. Their mission now is to raise awareness of this evil in our world, to challenge believers to act in the name of Christ against this huge (8 million children in slavery) injustice. In a sort of interactive worship service, they led our tiny audience (why weren't there more people there?!) through a medley of Scripture sung and read, all centered on the justice of God; how the broken cry for it in anguish, how God yearns for his people to defend the poor, and how, in the end, he himself comes to save, restore, redeem. We were free to wander, view the photos of teenagers for sale on garishly lit streets in Asia, see the tiny sandals of an abused child, read eloquent prayers begging for God to act on their behalf. I looked and then stood back in a shadowed corner, and held my hands, my spirit, open to Christ. What, God, do you want me to do?

Sometimes in the face of such a thing, it is easy to be immobilized. Slavery and orphan hearts added to daily news reports and statistics about a lost generation. The need is so rampant, the bad so active, the good so slow to grow, it almost freezes our hands. How do I ever choose a single cause, can my tiny investment tip the balance of good over evil at all?  During my trip to China last year, I asked those questions in a way I never had. I had always wanted to be the brave one, Frodo, or Aragorn, or any fairy tale hero who fought great evil. But on one particular train ride from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, after a week of outreach and speeches (and that on the heels of three months of conference ministry), I looked out my window to see row on row of communist era blockies (concrete apartment buildings). Each of them dozens of stories tall, with  grates over the windows that made the homes look like a prison from which ragged strings of laundry fluttered like signals of distress. They represented thousands upon thousands of lives, all broken, all in need of God. And suddenly, I felt so helpless, I might as well have been a baby for all the help I felt I could bring to the world. I happened to be listening to a Mat Kearney song with a chorus of, I can't break her, I can't break her fall, I can't take it, I can't take anymore, and it was the song of my heart.

A struggle began in me then that grew when I was home and became a theme of my year. The urgency of human need was with me like pain, but so was bewilderment. I wanted to fight but had no idea how. I was tempted to inaction in a way that I think is common to modern believers. We are so bombarded in a media and travel age with the gigantic scale of human need that we wonder, which particular brokenness should I choose to heal? The more overwhelmed I became, the stronger came the urge to withdraw. As any reader of this blog knows, I'm a bit of an idealist (a bit, hah!), love beauty, love to create environments that are rich in loveliness and joy. It would be easy to back into my own little life and shut the door, pull small beauties like books and music and home and friends around me like a blanket. There are tired times when your soul has a moment of thinking maybe its work enough for God that I stay pure myself, maintain a holy little life because the anguish of the world is so great, where do you begin?

God and Isaiah snapped me out of it. Sometimes a particular book of the Bible comes into your life and so remakes the foundations of your belief, you aren't the same after reading it. I studied the book of Isaiah that spring; I spent early morning hours in a line by line excavation of Isaiah's words, and my mornings began to feel epic. One of the first things I felt, was an epic grief. You can't spend much time reading the prophets before the anguish of God for all the helpless ones seeps into your soul.  It gets to be a hurt in you that prods you to evaluate just how you're spending your life. One morning, a particular verse leapt up to my eyes and upended all my bewilderment and exhaustion and angst:

The afflicted and the needy are seeking water, but there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst; I, the Lord, will answer them Myself, as the God of Israel, I will not forsake them.

First, abruptly, I saw my weakness, and even my accidental pride. It is God, not me, who is Savior. God himself, out of his own force of love, is the rescuer, the helper, the warrior. He helps the needy because his own heart is so incredibly merciful. This galvanized me in a strange way. I realized afresh that the gigantic task of healing the world belongs to God and he will bring it to completion with or without me. Yet there is this siren's call, the aching cry of holy God for his people to bear his heart and bring his grace to the world.  In a way I cannot always understand, God needs, God desires us to make him real in the earth. It is the hands of his obedient people that bring his salvation to the orphan-hearted college kids, the little slaves in Asia,  sick children in remote African villages, and alienated teens here in America. The whole book of Isaiah, the world-altering prophecy of ultimate redemption, begins with the haunting scene of God pleading for someone to go for him. The  Lord of Hosts, King of angels, cries out: Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? (Isaiah 6.)

When I was sixteen, I wrote next to that verse in my Bible, send me God! And that spring, and all throughout this year, my heart has come back to that affirmation: here I am, send me. Because the other epic thing I found in Isaiah was a love so magnificent, so eternal, it took the whole of me, filled me, lighted my eyes and soul, and pushed up against the door of my heart, ready to flow into others. I found that to be loved by God means you are compelled to love in turn. Love is like a raging river that remakes the landscape of your heart so that it is free to flow in and out. To be righteous, I found, is not to be a rule-keeper, but a lover. Righteousness is love acted out in justice, mercy, and worship. We are healed, so we become healers. We become pure, so we fight for purity on behalf of those who can't. And realizing this helped me to come back, rise again to the sweet, aching burden of helping the helpless, freeing the prisoners, preaching peace to the poor. I was ready.

But I was also a lot more at ease, because the last epic thing I found in Isaiah was God's strength, which is most definitely not my own. It is God who acts, and all he requires of me is a ready spirit. Isaiah's main merit was that he offered himself to be used, but it was God who spoke through him. I don't mean we are to be inactive; what we do is bring God exactly what we have and are. We take too much upon ourselves, try to be God I think, when we believe we must be responsible for saving the world. No one person is going to extinguish modern slavery. But one person can take their little ability of money, or influence, or medical skill, or compassion, and God will use it, sure as all that's good. He might send you to Africa or he might send you to have a conversation at the coffee shop down the street, but if you put a ready spirit in his hands, he'll let you be part of his saving work.

I remembered all that as I stood in the service the other night. I shook off my angst, looked up at God and said, well, I don't think I'm meant to take off for Asia right now (though I'm perfectly ready for such an adventure), but here's what I have: I can write, I can love, I can create, I can teach. Send me. And he is. For the past several days I've been in a hazy excitement of ideas. Now that I am based in Colorado, I have felt strongly the push to root, to begin a Bible study for girls and pass on all the mentoring and discipleship I have been given. I am hoping to teach; to get a bunch of unruly high school kids together and get them excited about life and heroism by helping them to write and read the great stories of literature. I want to invite the lonely into my home (and the double good is that then I'm not lonely either!). But one thing especially came to my mind Saturday night, and it was this place, my blog.

I want this to be a place where the doors of our minds and souls come open to what God wants us to know, and do, and be. I realized that I had never articulated the conclusions I came to after China and my spring of Isaiah. I decided the first thing I'd do would be to tell you all what I had learned, and say, let's all begin to think together about how we can heal this world, bring beauty into its corners. Because, the whole point of being thoroughly alive is so that God's own energy can flood right through us, fill us with joy, and continue on into the world. To be thoroughly alive is an Isaiah sort of work.

You all know that I love beauty. I love celebration. I love mystery and the arts. I love these things because I believe we live in a culture that is distracted from God's sparkling presence. We are woefully dulled in spirit by busyness and media and cynicism. Paul said God was evident, blatantly obvious in every nook and cranny of creation, but I think we moderns are so separate from quiet, nature, beauty, and family, that we no longer see it. I want to fight for richness of soul, for kindled wonder alive in all of us again. But I don't pursue beauty merely for the enrichment of myself. I seek a life thoroughly alive, a dancing, feasting, laughing life, so that God may be present through me in this earth. I live out all God's loveliness so that others can be drawn and healed by his presence in me. Jesus came that we might have life to the full, but his liveness comes from the generosity of his heart. The essence of beauty is that it is a gift from God; one that demands to be given again if its splendor is to live on.  The life of God, this crackling, blood-quickening loveliness in our veins, requires movement to keep its vigor. If we close the doors of our hearts, the windows of our eyes to needy, broken people, the life God gives will grow stale and cobwebbed within us. The form of it may remain visible, but the sweet scent of living air is gone.

So. There you have it. In the end, my weekend of submersion in the need of the world galvanized me. I challenge myself to answer God's call, to stand with Isaiah in thorough aliveness of soul, poised to act, speak, love, and create.  I pass the challenge on to you with a question. What will all of us to do be as Isaiah and say... here I am, send me, and be as thoroughly alive as God desires?