February 26, 2008

Virtue: A Lament

Christians abuse our values a lot. The more educated we get, the less it seems we care about the things we say we care about. Words like humility, servanthood, purity, justice, mercy, compassion, grace ... they're tossed around like so many limp noodles. Nowhere is this more evident than in my own life. I'm not very humble, really, and I don't serve very well. I don't worship with the passion and fervor and dedication I should (or that God deserves), and I certainly don't practice justice and mercy and compassion very well. I want what I want, and even though I know that doing those things would be what God wants, I seem to have this idea that merely talking about those things will suffice. After all, I'm busy, I'm important, I'm in grad school and so of course I must GET IT.

You're probably wondering where this is coming from.

I was in ethics today, not paying much attention, when Dr. Pohl brought out Isaiah 58. It's a passage like any other in style - slightly dry, a bit dated, and written for an audience that lived three thousand years ago. But then we started recontextualizing it, and suddenly it started to bother me a whole lot more. That's the trouble with reading the Bible - you can never be sure that you're not taking it and compartmentalizing it away as irrelevant to you or your society. It's so easy to take an old book like this and make it useless today; we treat it like it's got nothing to say to us. Or at least, I often do. Even if the stories weren't true, even if they were only stories, it still doesn't mean they don't apply. But you have to dig a little, do some cross-cultural translation work.

Isaiah 58 is a passage that talks about fasting. This is not really why I was bothered by it, but I will admit that I haven't fasted - from anything - since I was trying to decide if I should propose to Liz. It's been a long time. But what struck us as a class was how the author basically says that the Israelites aren't much good for their rituals. They do them, and they seem to long for God, but the way in which they practice their faith is lacking. The rituals have become an end in and of themselves.

Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Isaiah is telling them that their rituals aren't doing for them what they're supposed to be doing. Instead of uniting them, allowing them to love and learn from God, they are merely divided and bitter, arguing and bickering over the things that don't actually matter to God. They practice their faith for themselves, not because it is true or right or good.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter —
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
So writes Isaiah. In practicing the law to the letter, they have missed its spirit; instead of following its principles they have only followed its rules. And the rules have not even been followed that well.

And this is where I find myself on this blustery, rainy, rather ugly february morning. I find myself questioning why we do what we do; why I think what I think if I'm not going to let it translate into action. And of course, how does it translate? Do I drop all I'm doing and like the guy in the story, sell all I have? I think there would be mixed response to that, depending on who you talk to (I'm quite sure my wife and daughter wouldn't be too happy about it). So where does that leave me?

And where does it leave the Church? We have buildings upon buildings, money stuffed where you'd never expect it, but no people in those buildings. I just read an
article that just goes to prove this to anybody who wasn't already convinced. Do we sell all our buildings, give all we have to the poor? Maybe, but again, not everybody is going to be happy with that, nor am I even saying it's the right course of action for everybody. But maybe for some of us.

But we have to start somewhere ...

O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.

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