you shall be
your strength. Isaiah 30: 15
The verse was not what I expected or hoped for. I wanted a word from the Lord, which was snappier with more glory and fortune cookie flair. For example, “So the Lord restored Job’s fortunes and doubled all his possessions. … and all his brothers and sisters and former acquaintances and friends gave him a sheep and a gold ring.” Job 42: 10-11
Instead, Isaiah 30:15 dropped into my consciousness almost before I had finished my request: Holy One, give me a verse of scripture to guide me in the coming year. I need a point of true north to align myself with and measure my life against, a place of solid ground in the midst of chaos.
One of my Facebook friends took suggestions for her verse from friends, who offered rich verses for her to reflect on in 2011. She came up with her own: Paul’s lovely advice to the Philippians: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true…, honorable…, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4: 8. There is enough in these words to keep one’s head on straight for a whole year.
I got unbidden, rushing in even before I could think of something better or ask my friends, this humble little verse, from Isaiah. No Sweetie, no high drama, livestock, or gold rings for you. Turn back. Sit down. Be still. There you will find all you need.
I chaff with this because I have already carried (or been carried) by this verse for years. Haven’t I gnawed all the meat off it and sucked it dry of all its juices? Apparently not. So in obedience to the one I serve, in 2011 from time to time I will post about some aspect of this unpretentious verse.
Today, we start with the first two words – In returning. Around 734 BCE the prophet, Isaiah, spoke these words to the people of God as part of a scathing denunciation of the blindness and incompetence of their leaders. He was speaking to those who relied on their own resources rather than the power and wisdom of God. He pointed out their pride, idolatry, and greed. Rather than trusting in God, they trusted in deceit and oppression. The remedy to this path of destruction began with a returning to something once known, but tossed aside in a frenzy of anxiety and lack of faith.
Returning, turning, going back is what I have been doing a lot of the past year and will continue to do in the year ahead. Every month or so I go back to the small town in Iowa, where I grew up, and gather with my brother and sister to sort through over sixty years of accumulated household goods and memories in my parents’ home. I turn over the remnants of our lives together, lift them out of dusty boxes, and sweep cobwebs away. I pull down an aged, wooden Kraft Cheese box tucked under the eaves in the garage. I unfold yellowed, newspaper clippings and read letters I sent to mom and dad from Cedar Falls, Iowa; Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, Michigan; and Louisville, Kentucky.
I gaze at a photo of myself I had not seen before. Who is that little girl sitting on the chair? I peer at a snapshot of mom and dad at some fancy dinner, both dressed to kill, vibrant and smiling. In one Father’s Day card we found, mom wrote, “You are a wonderful husband, lover, and father.” We whooped and giggled.
At week’s end I arrange the piles and boxes, run the sweeper, turn down the furnace, and lock the door. Elijah, my black lab, and I walk to the car. He jumps into the back seat, littered with rawhide chews and toys, and we return to Kansas, driving west across southern Iowa to catch I35 south down to Missouri, and then turning back west on I70 to Topeka.
I do not know how many more returns I will make before the auction is over, the papers signed, and the house keys turned over to a new owner. In such returning the prophet promises salvation, healing, some kind of cure for his nation’s disease. In such turning back and turning toward, life unwinds and furls us out, then draws us back again to lie curled round some center like the string of a yoyo.
Isaiah tells the people, flinging themselves toward their own devices, that it is the Lord they are to return to. The question is where in our turning do we find that hidden manger, that center, that core of unnameable, untameable truth? Is in the Tupperware, breeding plastic cartons on the floor of the pantry, or the stack of Styrofoam cups mom washed and saved? Is it in the notebooks, where dad recorded the dates when he replaced the faucet washers, changed the oil in the car, or put in a new furnace filter?
The other night, back here in Kansas in my bed, I heard my cat scratching outside my door, wanting to return to me and rest on my bed, where she likes to lay as close to my face as possible and tickle me softly with her whiskers. Somewhat allergic to cats, I rarely let her in. Having been alone, except for the boy who comes to feed and water her, she reached her paw under the door, pulling a throw rug and making an insistent ruckus.
In the morning I held her while I drank my coffee. She turned and turned on my lap, kneading my stomach, finally resting curled and purring, pressing her head against my chest.
Going back to recover old ground is an ancient dance. Any given life is so full of wonder, terror, and mystery that it deserves returning to over and over. There is always more to be seen and learned about the hands which wrote the note, “This wooden butter paddle belonged to my grandmother Van Doren.”
In one box mom saved programs from important events of family members. I found my high school commencement program. The top six scholars in my class spoke on the topic: 1960-1964 Years of Achievement and Turmoil, Events that Have and Will Affect Our Lives. Individual speeches covered Man’s Progress through Science; The American Image – Latin America; Tensions – Europe and Southeast Asia; The Passing of an Era – November 22, 1963 (the assassination of John F.Kennedy). One of the few African Americans in my class, Kathy Wells, spoke on Man’s Attempt to Overcome Bigotry. My title was Progress – Local and State.
No one can turn up his nose at the quality of the education at my alma mater.
I recently heard someone speak about “God’s plan” for us. The phrase sort of grated on me. “Plan” seems to me to be such a human notion with its linear quality, bound by time, space, and mortal reason. I do not think God has plans in the way we might think of them – a neat ending to a story, a way everything will make sense to us, or a satisfying tying up of all our loose ends.
Rather, I think of God as eternal unfurling with ever increasing nuance and connection until we see all lives as dancing flames rising and falling and rising again.
Meaning is something we tack on to Reality to comfort ourselves with a sense of having a handle on things. But Reality more likely slips through our fingers, whizzing past us, leaving trails of newspaper clippings, baby shoes, an old watch, and a tortoise shell comb worn by your great grandmother.
Today I think, rather than One who has plans, God is an endless returning, retracing, weaving in and out, a grand do si do in waltz time, circling back and forward, all the while holding out his hand for us to join the dance, seeing the same place over and over, as if for the first time.
What we call the beginning is often the end.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
T.S. Eliot “Little Gidding”
I would love to know the wisdom you will be carrying with you in 2011. What is your verse, or piece of direction to see you through the coming year? Leave it here in the comments, or post it on our Facebook page.
A very blessed New Year to you!
The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer
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