“Why do we get angry about what we believe? Because we do not really believe it. Or else what we pretend to be defending as the ‘truth’ is really our own self-esteem. A man of sincerity is less interested in defending the truth than in stating it clearly, for he thinks that if the truth be clearly seen it can very well take care of itself.” – Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island
For the past couple of weeks I have been daily meditating on Isaiah 43 and Psalm 137. I was directed to these companion scriptures by an essay on the passages from Walter Brueggemann. His main focus being the juxtaposition of the prophet Isaiah’s instruction to relinquish past memory/action (Is. 43:18-19) and the “over-remembering nostalgia” of Israel (Ps. 137:1). The following thoughts are very influenced by his essay.
Psalm 137 tells of a group of exiles who sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept. They had lost the comforts of being served and had now become servants of Babylon. They had lost the prestige of power and the privilege of position in Jerusalem and were now foreigners. The songs of worship they formerly sang in the courts of the temple were now demanded as mere entertainment for their captors. Their new reality of enslavement was shocking to their old theology of blessing. And…it didn’t take long for their lament to turn into desire for vengeance (vs 8).
The same group of lamenting-exiles received word from the prophet Isaiah saying, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
The memory of the exiles was quick to recall former deliverance…but slow to remember the Deliverer. Quick to recall the comfort of political power…but slow to remember God’s politic. In the midst of their tears and anger by the rivers of Babylon, obeying God’s relinquishing instructions from the prophet Isaiah may have seemed impossible; but relinquishing former things was required to perceive God’s “new thing.”
It was more than a geographical dislocation for the people of Israel; relinquishing the former was required to be open to a new way of worshiping/relating to God. The former-things of Jerusalem fixated their memory on power and privilege rather than faithful worship. For rightly-remembered history reveals that Jerusalem wasn’t as faithful as their memory proclaimed it to be. Their beloved “Jerusalem” was more memory than reality, and their desire to return had little to do with singing songs of worship as they proclaimed, but everything to do regaining/maintaining the power and position Jerusalem represented to them.
Such is the nature of religion and traditions; they often become over-remembered (idols) and a misrepresentation of true worship. In reality, Jerusalem had become a place where the poor were oppressed. Where the religious disassociated from the non-religious. Where the sick were abandoned outside the city. Jerusalem was divided religiously, economically, ethnically, and politically. Even the temple was governed by the proud, rich, and powerful. It was not a holy place offering honoring worship to God, but rather it had become a desecrated place. God’s call through Isaiah’s words was to move them toward a different future; and their false-memory was hindering their ability to hear/see God’s new work.
Part of our family’s journey has been learning how to relinquish our former pastoral calling. Our resignation was not just a transition, but a departure from vocational ministry. What we believed to be God’s direction in our life for nearly 20 years suddenly shifted. And for a time, we found ourselves lamenting by the river. Our nostalgia for the connection to position and place hindered our ability to live toward God’s new calling.
It has required the formational practice of relinquishing to perceive the new things. Those new things include a kingdom-embodied life: integrating faith practices into everyday rhythms. It includes the intentional practices of: mealing with neighbors, giving ourselves away in service to others, and living in a posture of recognition and gratitude for the gifts of God.
As we continue to practice relinquishment, and begin to live into the new, we are gaining the ability to perceive how the world is held together by love. Our imaginations are expanding to understand that “wherever there is faith, hope, and charity, there is the church and there is God…” (Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond).