Your mysteries are madness


I would like to read the sentence “do you remember so and so” without feeling an immediate sense of dread. I would likewise appreciate texting out “Did you ever know so and so” without having to follow-up with “they’re not dead, I just have a story.”

As a social scientist, I rather enjoy statistics most of the time. The few times I don’t are when I realize one person 25 or under from some aspect of my life has died every four months since I graduated high school. To put that in perspective, I graduated exactly three years and one month ago.

Where is God in this death and dying? Where is God in the middle of the deepest valley? Where is the Healer in the coffins of 18 and 19 and 20 and 21 and 23 and 25 year olds? Where is that God?

Karl Marx once wrote that religion is the opium of the people, referring to the drug-like properties of religion in reducing suffering and illusions of strength and peace. With any due respect, Marx never got himself around to the root of faith. The root of faith is not the comfort in the mourning or the cry to God (or gods) at a moment of weakness. The root of faith is looking a sunset in the face and trying to reconcile the nature of a God who paints the sky each night and plucks children from their parents before they have a chance to really start their lives. The root of faith is anchoring yourself into a vast and bottomless ocean and trusting that somehow, someway, sometime, the metal will clink on rock and you will be saved. But the root of faith is not in the clinking of the metal, but in the free-falling of it.

This free-fall, this disbelief, this insecurity is where I write to you from today. Take it or leave it, but it’s all I have left in this season of death and mourning.

Isaiah is a collection of prophetic writings written between 800 BCE and 500 BCE. Isaiah 55 is the last chapter of what is known formally as Second Isaiah, and was written by an unknown prophet during the Babylonian exile. Primarily, the author wishes to tell God’s people that, despite how it looks, God is still in control. Despite how it looks to a mortal eye, God has a plan. Is it any wonder I chose this chapter for this month’s devotion?

Read Isaiah 55:1-5 either in your own Bible, or below.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because  of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for The Holy One has glorified you.

What we learn from these verses is that this world does not matter. The author of these verses does not begin by speaking about actualearthly, thirst, but something deeper than that. Nor does this prophet speak of bread you could find in the store. Not only does The Lord promise a satisfying harvest, The Lord questions our motives in even working so hard to get something so temporary. The world is worthless compared to what we’re offered.

The author goes on to speak of impending rescue and triumph over the enemies of Israel, even those enemies that Israel does not know. The prophet here speaks of a true rescue, and later, Jesus will call himself the Water and Bread of Life. Redemption. Rescue. Heaven.

We believe this to be true, as Christians. We believe that it is truly better to be in the House of the Living God than the House of Human Kind. And yet grief still afflicts us. Yet we mourn. Yet we cry out to God, beat our fists against the cheeks of the Spirit. Likewise, the people in exile heard these words and, sure, some felt hope, but most had their doubts. Rescue from exile seemed impossible, crushing, final, much like death might to our veiled eyes.

Continue on to read verses 6-11.

Seek the Lord while the Lord may be found, call upon The Holy One while God’s self is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that the Lord may have mercy on them, and to our God, for God will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,  and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

I’m struck most, if you couldn’t tell, by Isaiah 8. My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways, declares the Lord. What looks like prison, is freedom. What tastes like defeat is victory-lying-in-wait. What I would swear to be death and destruction is glory and light. For, as the prophet foretells to the people in exile, God does not speak empty. The words of the Creator are planned and purposeful, even when it looks like all hope is lost and God has no other way to work a miracle. It succeeds, not half-way through the plan, but by accomplishing the very thing it was sent out to do.

When you look at the scope of God’s story, much is unbelievable, much is unclear to our mind.  We are told it takes a sperm and an egg to form a baby, and yet the Savior of the World is born to a virgin. We are told that when you are dead, your story is over, and yet a man comes back to life, spitting in the face of death and the devil. We are told that we are damned, and yet a room has awaited us in the house of the Maker of Heaven and Earth since even before we were stitched into our mother’s womb.

Your thoughts are not my thoughts. For, if they were, grace would not exist. I would not be saved.

Your thoughts are not my thoughts. This is frustrating and infuriating and undeserved and amazing and awe-inspiring. It is many things at once, and that is okay.

Finish with me (and thanks for making it this far) by reading 12 and 13.

For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

You will have deep suffering, my dear and beloved friends and siblings in Christ. Deep and unending. But you shall still, beneath and through that, go out in joy. You shall meet with chaos and randomness but you shall be led back in peace. The mountains, which look firm and unmoving, shall sing. The thorn which makes us bleed shall give us the air we need to breathe.

The Lord’s ways are not our ways. The Lord’s ways are not our ways for good and for bad. Lay that burden of belief down, stop working for it. Eat the bread of heaven. Rest in the waters.

This is the messy, disorienting, cloudy Word of the Lord. And through my doubt, through my pain and my anger, and not in spite of them, I choose to say: Thanks be to God.

Notes and References

Madness by Citizens & Saints is Copyright (C) 2016 Gospel Song Records.

Background information on the book of Isiah comes from The Harper Collins Study Bible.

All verses are typed by me (and may have errors) from the NRSV English translation, with edits for gendered language of God (Why edit the gendered use of God?).

Bryce Van Vleet is a psychology undergraduate based in the Pacific Northwest. He is a lover of words, terrible video-game player, and frequent drinker of soda and other sugary drinks.

The next Word Wednesday will be posted on August 8th.

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