isaiah

Jean Vanier: A Prophet for the 21st Century

Photo via Christopher Bremrose / Flickr

Jean Vanier and a resident of L'Arche named Kathy in L'Arche Bognor in Trosly, France. Photo via Christopher Bremrose / Flickr

The problems of the world can overwhelm us. When we are confronted by the Divine in the cries of human need, we may, like Isaiah, feel unworthy and ill-equipped to respond. However, if we allow this Divine experience to transform our human weakness, we can find the courage and strength to answer that call, as Jean Vanier has, with a bold, “Here I am!” What follows may be more difficult than we can imagine, but we can be confident in the knowledge that the work we do is Holy work.

 

You Don’t Want To Be A Prophet

Photo via Prixel Creative / Shutterstock.com

Photo via Prixel Creative / Shutterstock.com

You don’t want God to ask you to be a prophet. You really don’t.

When God calls you to some holy task, you might expect a contemplative path, a quiet life of service, and love of neighbor. You might expect a comfortable life of piety and hopefulness, grace, and caring.

But true prophets know better.

Prophets tend not to have such idyllic hopes for God’s call. Prophets know too well that the call of God to speak hard truths is paved with difficulty. The prophet’s road is lonely not because she escapes the hubbub of everyday life in order to retreat and draw near to God. No, the prophet’s road is lonely because she is called to the most troubled corners of the world, places which existence we would rather deny or ignore. The prophet’s road is lonely because she must speak boldly to an upside-down world that doesn’t realize it is upside-down. The prophet sees the world as it really is while we see the prophet and marvel that she is walking on the ceiling.

In our readings for this week, we encounter two prophets who speak bold words to a world predisposed to ignore them. We encounter two prophets who speak a word of deliverance to the downtrodden and judgment upon the powerful. We encounter two prophets engaged with the most pressing matters of all. We encounter two prophets that we still refuse to heed.

Voices Crying Out: Comfort and Transformation in an Age of Mass Incarceration

Photo via maxriesgo / Shutterstock.com.

This reading of Isaiah 40 may make it more difficult for many of us to relate to the ancient historical setting of the text. There are many among us, however, who are refugees, forced to migrate to find economic opportunity or even because of poor decisions or systemic injustice that forces a disproportionate amount of our minority population into the prison system. Bereft of personal and economic freedom, our nation’s prison population might find both hope and justice in these words from the ancient prophetic text.

There is no doubt that many in our nation’s prison have committed crimes, just as the ancient people of Judah did according to Isaiah 1. There is also no doubt that we need a system of incarceration that separates dangerous criminals from potential victims. But the words concerning disproportionate judgment also call us to question the fairness of our current system in the United States, which boasts the largest prison population in the world at 2.2 million.

Moreover, just as God did not give up on the people of Judah, God has not given up on those in the prison system. What would happen if we as Christians partnered with God to help transform lives and offer hope to the women and men who fill our prisons?

It's Time Again: Depression and the Holidays

Photo via hikrcn/Shutterstock.com.

Don’t check your watch. This is something else all together. We know it will soon be the end of November and the end of Thanksgiving weekend. In the Christian calendar, it’s the beginning of Advent, the season leading up to Christmas. For many people, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a tough time to get through. There are too many reminders of loss:

           -the empty chair at the Thanksgiving table;

          -the time when being alone turns to loneliness as everyone talks about family (some stores were closed on Thanksgiving to show support for families, but what if you are estranged from your family?)

          -the bright red lettering over Macy’s front door proclaims “BELIEVE” — but believe what? The very word can remind you that you don’t believe anything anymore. What time is it in your life right now?

Can we be as honest as the Bible?

For God, Country, and Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola Super Bowl commercial screenshot

Coca-Cola Super Bowl commercial screenshot

The highlight of the Super Bowl for me was Coca-Cola’s "America is Beautiful" commercial. The images of the American landscape are amazing and the song was beautiful. At first I was a bit confused by the different languages singing "America the Beautiful" (I’m slow…), but I caught on about halfway through. When the commercial ended, I looked over at my wife and said, “Wow. That was beautiful … Not worth four million dollars, but that was good.”

For the moment, let’s deal with any cynicism that the Coca-Cola Company is simply trying to sell us their product. Of course they’re trying to sell us their product; that’s why they spent millions on their ad, but along the way, Coke pointed to the reason that I love the United States. I love my country because it is a nation that welcomes the “Other.” Indeed, we haven’t always been good at this, and we still struggle with it, but the United States is a nation of immigrants. Even Native Americans, who have tragically been excluded from the land they’ve lived on for thousands of years, were originally immigrants who were welcomed by this land. This land has a long history of welcoming people into it, and so any act of excluding immigrants goes against its ideal of welcoming the “Other.”

On Scripture: A Hard Word to Hear This Winter (Isaiah 58: 1-9a)

Photo Courtesy of the Odyssey Networks

A Hard Word to Hear This Winter (Isaiah 58: 1 – 9a). Photo Courtesy of the Odyssey Networks

This has been a hard winter — from Minnesota to Alabama. It’s been a very hard winter for Tanya and Red and Jamie and Andre and Adrian and Mercy. They are my neighbors here in New York City. It’s not that the heat was shut off in their apartments because they didn’t pay their bills. They have no apartments. Since last fall, they have made their beds on the steps of Riverside Church, under the scaffolding at Union Seminary and on the benches near Grant’s Tomb.

“Will you be warm enough tonight?” I asked Tanya. “Oh, we’ll be plenty warm,” she said as she showed me their outdoor bedroom: the first layer was carpeting, then stacks of blankets for padding and many more blankets for covers. “Once you’re in here,” said Red, “it’s too hot to keep your jacket on.” I was grateful to hear that because, well, then I wouldn’t feel so terrible going inside my warm apartment.

On Scripture: An Unexpected Servant -- The Leadership of Pope Francis (Isaiah 49:1-7)

Philip Chidell/Shutterstock

Pope Francis in a Popemobile on Easter. Philip Chidell/Shutterstock

As the New Year brings reflection over the past year, we have heard much about Pope Francis and the ways he has surprised Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The suddenness of his predecessor’s resignation this past spring, the fact that he is the first Pope from the Americas, and his apparent commitment to his namesake St. Francis’ concern for the poor and displaced all contribute to the sense that this Pope embodies the unexpected.

Especially indicative of the way this Argentinian, who for a short time was a nightclub bouncer, has surprised people is being named “Person of the Year” by The Advocate, a popular U.S. magazine devoted to gay and lesbian rights, culture, politics, and entertainment. Although he did not (nor will he, likely) reverse the Church’s stance on gay marriage, this accolade was given to the Bishop of Rome based upon his apparent change in tone about gays and lesbians, reportedly having said to reporters, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about the issue. Clearly, this humble response has endeared the Pontiff to many who have been excluded from the fold, yet still yearn for hints of acceptance.

The period of Epiphany is a time in which the identity of the Divine’s chosen is revealed and often this identity entails some element of surprise. In the same vein, this week’s Old Testament text, Isaiah 49:1-7, highlights the unforeseen nature of the servant who restores Israel.

Hope and Despair

Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

Sunrise in the Gulf of Mexico. Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

Editor's Note: New Vision Renewable Energy connects Christians with opportunities to provide renewable solar lights to people in the developing world. Their Christmas Lights Advent Devotional features daily readings and questions from prominent Christian thinkers, including Sojourners president Jim Wallis. This Day 10 of Advent devotional from Jim Wallis is reprinted and adapted with permission of New Vision Renewable Energy. You can find the full Christmas Lights Advent Devotional guide and solar light kits here: http://nvre.org/devotional-order.html

Proclaiming Jesus as light of the world is an audacious statement. It directly challenges all those idols that persistently attempt to replace God as the center of our lives and our world. In our culture, a selfishness that denies any obligation to anyone or anything beyond our own self-interest may be the greatest idol of all. It denies that demanding more and more energy at great cost to our environment and the people who live close to the land has problematic consequences. We have lost sight of the common good and the consequences have been devastating.

In many places, hope has turned into despair. Darkness seems to be crowding out light. From where will our help come from?

Keep Doomsday Religion Out of the Syrian Conflict

Crosses on a monastary in Maalula, near Damascus. Photo courtesy Valery Shanin/s

Crosses on a monastary in Maalula, near Damascus. Photo courtesy Valery Shanin/shutterstock.com

As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons at the outskirts of Damascus and President Obama mulls a U.S. military response, some theologians hope for an alarming endgame to the 30-month-long Syrian conflict.

For these Christians and Muslim, the civil war in Syria heralds nothing less than the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Before you label the premise as a conspiracy theory, consider that there are a number of Muslim videos and several Christian websites — not to mention conservative talk radio shows — all making promoting versions of this unfortunate connection. And that’s wrong.

 

On Scripture: The Ballad of Sour Grapes

Grapes frozen on the vine, jecka / Shutterstock.com

Grapes frozen on the vine, jecka / Shutterstock.com

If, through broader networks of power, injustice is linked, it is no less true that injustice is encountered locally in neighborhood markets, schools, churches, and even corner fast-food joints. Today it is useful to begin not with the unseen oppressive power networks in our society but with their effects on those closest to us. Just ask the single parent serving dollar ice cream at a favorite fast-food hangout if he or she would like better hourly wages.

While fast food CEOs average a daily salary of $25,000, workers at fast-food companies in New York City make only 25 percent of the money they need to survive. Single parents earning the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour are, as Jillian Berman of the Huffington Post describes, not able to survive even in America’s cheapest counties. The Wider Opportunities for Women estimates that women are 50 percent more likely than men to earn the minimum wage. Compound this with the status of single motherhood and the needs of the household intensify exponentially.

Dependent on minimum wages are children, who like any other child in the U.S., deserve access to healthy food, clothing, affordable shelter, and descent education. Within the current reconfigurations taking place in the U.S. economy, the new modes of production continue to privilege those like the CEOs of fast-food companies. Yet, as Isaiah’s ballad reminds us, these wider realities have a local impact on the everyday friend, who routinely rises every morning to try and make ends meet on meager wages. The current vineyard of the fast-food industry has not stopped producing sour grapes, which is the massive sale of cheap empty calories at the wage of $7.25 an hour.

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