Archive for November, 2014

Nature and Spirituality

Whenever I asked students about the location that evokes spirituality, one of the most often quoted is that of being in nature. The explanation is simple, it is being in nature that allows one to be in touch with God’s creation. This seems like a really good explanation. Perhaps there might be another. A while back I over heard the song ” A Horse with No Name” by America.” There was something very intriguing about the lyrics and so upon returning home I started playing the music. There was a line that caught my attention “In the desert you can remember your name. For there ain’t no one for the give you no pain.” This line just adds an interesting dimension to the spirituality of being in nature for me. Because out there among the mountains and the valleys and the rivers and trees there is no social stratification nor  hierarchy. You can truly remember your name because it is no longer defined by any one else but you. You come to know your name at a place where social order cease to exist.

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“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers in silent, so he did not open his mouth.”

The historical context of Isaiah 53 was Judea caught in a critical situation. She had to decide how she was going to respond to Assyria because Assyria was expanding. Assyria was aggressive. Assyria was powerful. It would be reasonable and even responsible to think political strategies, count ammunition, stock weapons, recruit people, train soldiers, align oneself with powerful nations. But in the midst of all these threats came the message of Isaiah. If you want to win this war, turn to God. This does not make sense. It is like saying, if you want to pass your exam, don’t study, eat lots of vegetable and take a nap. It does not make sense by God is known to have done strange things.

Verses 4 and 5 of Isaiah 52 God says: “At first my people went down to Egypt to live; lately, Assyria has oppressed them. And now what do I have here?” declared the Lords. “For my people have been taken away for nothing, and those who rule them mock,” declares the Lord. “And all day long my name is constantly blasphemed. Therefore my people will know my name.”

Isaiah 52:5 God is saying, “I will help you.” Verse 13 tells us God’s plan to help His people. “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.” So God says, don’t worry. Turn to me and I will help you by sending my servant.

It would be reasonable, even expected, for God to send a servant who is strong, a master strategist, a great warrior, a Jewish version of Sun Tzu who wrote the Art of War, smeone who demands attention and respect from the people. But God’s way does not always make sense. Isaiah 52: 14 says, “Just as there were many who were appalled at him—his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness.”

In the midst of conflicts against this mighty army, God said, don’t worry. I will send a helper, I will send my servant, and my servant will be “so disfigured, his formed marred beyond human likeness.” Why would God send someone so disfigured to help fight the enemies? This does not make sense. And when we continue reading in Isaiah 53, it even makes less sense. Isaiah 53 offers a picture of a servant promised by God to help God’s people achieve victory.

Verse 3: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” Verse 7: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers in silent, so he did not open his mouth.”

What is God saying? God seems to be saying, “Don’t worry about forming any military strategies. Don’t worry about the great army of Assyria because I will send my servant to help fight this great army. He will be disfigured. He will be despised and rejected by men. He will be sad. He will be oppressed and led like a lamb to the slaughter.”

God does not seem to make sense. God’s war strategies seem irrational. First God says, if you want to fight your enemies, turn to me. Second, if you turn to me I will send my servant and he will be disfigured, he will be weak, he will be sad, and he will be slaughtered. How can a suffering servant help? How can a dead servant help? How can we make sense of Isaiah 53?

Traditionally we have circumvented this by turning this text into an eschatological theme. The suffering Christ makes salvation possible for us. The suffering Christ gives us hope for the future. The suffering Christ offers life eternal.

Although I agree with this traditional interpretation, I believe there is something much more then the promised eschatological deliverance. I see Isaiah 53 as a political statement. It is about the kingdom of God here and now.

How do we fight our enemies? How do we conquer our enemies? How can we have victory over our enemies? It is human to think, we need more power, we need more weapons, we need more ammunition, we need advanced technology, we need more force. But Isaiah 53 speaks otherwise. Not by power, by might, by authority, by technology, or by force. As Mahatma Gandhi has eloquently pointed out, “An eye for an eye and the world turns blind.” We conquer our enemies through the suffering God. We achieve victory through the God who is weak and powerless or in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “God allows himself to be pushed onto the cross. Only the powerless God can help.”

In his struggle against discrimination in South Africa Mahatma Gandhi proclaimed, “They can hurt us, they can kill us but they can’t take away our dignity.” Based on his interpretation of the sermon on the mount came the principle of Satyagraha, “The opponent must be ‘weaned from error by patience and sympathy,’ weaned, not crushed; converted, not annihilated. On April 5, 1930 Gandhi arrived at a seashore in Dandi, Ahmedabad, and started another act of civil disobedience through non-violence. He challenged British’s claim to monopoly on salt. To Gandhi, salt belongs to India and initiated the business of making and selling salt. They were met with great resistance from the British police forces. They were beaten, savagely kicked, and dragged into ditches hour after hour, day after day. They were bleeding, their bones were broken, and some died. But they kept going, walking toward the salt factory, group after group, refusing to use violence, holding fast to the principle of ahimsa. But they responded through non-violence. Watching the incarnation of the principle of Satyagraha in the lives of these Indian Louis Fischer writes, “India is now free…The British beat the Indians with batons and rifle butts. The Indians neither cringed nor complained nor retreated. That made England powerless and India invincible.”

Not by power nor by force because the kingdom of God is the kingdom of the heart. Because kingdoms, armies, domination, technologies shall pass but the heart lives forever. Power and forces come and go. But when the heart is touched, it becomes immortal.

Isaiah 53 is a political statement. It is a statement that says to the enemies, you can beat me and I’m still here. You can push me away and I’m not going away. You can curse at me and I remain with you. You can make me bleed, you can pierce nails through my hands, you can reject me, you can be mad at me, you can push that thorns on my head, you can place that cross upon me but I’m not going away. I’m here and I love you. You can kill me and I’ll be back.

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