I looked forward to being the prophet this morning at church.
The verses that were mine to inhabit as I put on my robe and walked down the aisle of the church are some of my favorites from Isaiah 61:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
God has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
I love the verses because of their beauty and power, because of the way Jesus appropriated them to say what he was about, and because of their compelling call to justice that has echoed down the centuries. But that was not what caught me this morning. As I practiced before church, I had an English teacher moment as I read: I was moved by a pronoun and its antecedent.
Verse three continues the sentence from above:
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that God may be glorified.
They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
They – those who will be the carriers and perpetrators of love and redemption and justice are Those Who Mourn. Compassion and justice are born out of mourning, out of pain, out of woundedness. I was reminded of the definition of compassion I learned from reading Henri Nouwen many years ago: compassion is “voluntarily entering the pain of another.” And we can do that when we know what it is to hurt, to mourn, to miss.
Last night, our friend Diane took us to hear Amy Ray, one half of the Indigo Girls, who was playing a solo gig at Motorco Music Hall, a wonderful little venue here in our neighborhood. During the evening, Amy gave the mic to a woman who was calling us to action to help defeat the referendum in May that would restrict the definition of marriage in North Carolina. As she talked, she said, “Remember justice means we have to think about more than just us.” The word play hit home. I thought of Micah 6:8:
What does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Every action he mentions calls us to notice more than just us, to open our hearts, and to share in the pain of those around us. God moved over time from the words of the prophets to the Word who became flesh: the Incarnation is a living, breathing call to compassion.
I gave into the temptation to read the article on the Huffington Post about Mitt Romney offering a $10,000 wager to Rick Perry over whatever as though $10,000 was chump change. Neither of them can count themselves among those who operate out of the their understanding of the pain people are carrying – or at least they don’t show that side in their public personas. When it comes to discussing politicians, they are far from alone. As Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke or led marches or did whatever he did, he was able to foment real change because he was living right out of Isaiah’s words. He knew mourning by name and he knew how to make meaning out of pain. Leadership in the truest sense is not about power or charisma or connections or money. It’s about compassion, about relationship. The angel’s only comfort for Joseph, whose future had been upended by the reality of a pregnant fiancée, was to say, “The child will be called Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us.’”
With. Us. Those words call me back to one of my old standards when it comes to poetry, “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
The hope of the Incarnation comes alive for me in the prophecy – and reality – that the world will be changed by the brokenhearted. Come, all who mourn, all who grieve, all who ache for loves lost, all who are acquainted with failure, all who know all too well that they are not enough, for God is calling us to proclaim liberty for the captives, to set the prisoners free, to bring good news to the disenfranchised, to comfort others who mourn, to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk side by side with God.
Power didn’t come down at Christmas. Neither did orthodoxy.
Love came down at Christmas. Love is what matters most.
P. S. — There’s a new recipe.
This is what I needed this morning. I remember reading Mary Oliver’s beautiful, “soft animal” poem to my “small church” group of lovely women a year ago or so, and the reading from Isaiah (along with your description of Jesus’s use of it) have been in my head all season. Thanks, Milt — have an excellent day, and say a tiny prayer for me.
You’ve got it.