Archive for the ‘Book of Isaiah’ Category

Raising the Ruins

December 14, 2008


Raising the Ruins
© Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, Advent 3: Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11

When I made my trip to Rome several years ago, one of the things that fascinated me was the presence of ruins. The Eternal City offers a layered landscape; everywhere we went, the strata of history were visible to us. Past and present inhabit the terrain as companions. I had more than one occasion to wander around the Forum, where there’s a particularly high concentration of ancient ruins: basilicas, triumphal arches, temples of gods and goddesses, the House of the Vestal Virgins.

I’ve been mentally revisiting those ruins as I’ve contemplated this week’s passage from Isaiah 61. The text overwhelms with its imagery of repair and restoration; the author lavishes the reader with his stunning litany that lists the ways that God will bring healing and release to those in captivity of various kinds. To those who have lived with imprisonment, oppression, and grief, the writer offers a prophecy of how they will receive garlands instead of ashes, the oil of gladness, the mantle of praise. He tells of how God has garbed him with the garments of salvation and covered him with a robe of righteousness like a bridegroom decked with a garland, like a bride who adorns herself with jewels. There is further visual fare: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots,” he exults, “and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before the nations.”

In the midst of this dizzying litany, the writer tells of how those whom God heals and frees “shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.” It was this image, amongst the many that he drenches us with, to which I kept returning as I pondered this passage. And it was the Roman ruins that I thought of, those leavings that persist in the present landscape, reminding their visitors of what has gone before.

I wonder what it does to a person’s psyche to live in a place that’s old enough to have ruins, how it is to be perpetually reminded that we humans are part of a pattern of history. And I wonder what it does to a psyche, and to a soul, to live in a landscape that is largely devoid of ruins—in the typical sense of them, at least—as those of us living in the United States largely do. The absence of ruins makes it more challenging to remember how we inhabit our history, and to recognize and reckon with what haunts us. The ruins we do have, we tend to hide: the burned-out buildings, the falling-down dwellings, the places not considered worth building up. We route traffic around them, or sometimes construct walls along the freeways so those who pass by don’t have to see them.

It’s easy to become romantic about ruins when they are ancient, when they are lovely, and when we have a less immediate sense of the events that brought about their ruination. In the absence of really knowing those who first lived among them, it’s tempting to project our own ideas and imaginings onto what is left behind and to smooth away the sharp edges of memory. Largely removed from the visible past, we don’t have to wrestle with it so much.

But there are plenty of ruins that we carry inside, individually and collectively. It’s sometimes harder to see them, more difficult to discern the interior terrain of people and families and communities and churches marked by loss, abandonment, struggle, private battles, migration.

What does it mean to rebuild those ruins? When it comes to the losses and devastations that we harbor within us, how do we discern what God might be inviting us to restore?

Rebuilding a ruin, literal or metaphorical, doesn’t allow for much nostalgia. Doing the work of restoration—redeeming a place instead of living with its remnants—gives us little room to hold on to the way things were, or how we thought they were. Reclaiming a ruin—tangible, intangible—challenges us to go into the rubble and to see clearly what yet remains: to discern what is yet solid, to find walls that can bear weight, to sort through the debris and retrieve what we can use. Rebuilding a ruin calls upon our imagination in a deeper, sharper way that romanticizing it does. To restore what has been destroyed, we have to resist seeing the landscape only the way it was, and learn to imagine what is possible now.

Isaiah has gotten me thinking about what has fallen into ruin in my life, and what God might be inviting me to rebuild. How about you? Is there a broken relationship, an abandoned project, a dream you left behind? How do you discern where God might be calling you to begin the work of restoration? Not all ruins are meant for redemption, after all; some are best to flee. How do we tell the difference? What helps us see the ruins clearly and to resist the hazards they may hold: the overabundance of nostalgia that keeps us from imagining what is yet possible in that place (or some better place), or the enchantments that deter us from moving on, or the pain that clouds our vision?

Luke tells us in his gospel that when Jesus got up to speak in the synagogue, he opened the scroll to this passage from Isaiah and, after reading it, told his hearers that on this day, the scripture had been fulfilled (Luke 4.16-30). In this season and beyond, may you know the presence of the one who came as the embodiment of redemption and restoration. Blessings.

[To use the “Raising the Ruins” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

Where I’m From

December 7, 2008

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Where I’m From © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Advent 3: John 1.6-8, 19-28

If you’re experiencing a bit of déjà vu in reading next Sunday’s gospel lesson, it’s understandable. This passage from John circles us back around some of the textual territory that we visited in the gospel reading for Advent 2. John approaches his subject in a different fashion than does Mark, but, as in Mark, John the baptizer makes an early appearance in the gospel. Once again we hear words about making a way in the wilderness. Yet where Mark, along with Matthew and Luke, borrows those way-making words from Isaiah and editorially applies them to John the Baptist, using his authority as a narrator to make clear that the Baptist is the one of whom Isaiah was speaking, John takes an intriguing turn in his gospel.

In John the evangelist’s version of the story, the priests and Levites approach the baptizer, asking him, “Who are you?” He begins by saying who he is not: “I am not the Messiah.” They persist. “What then? Are you Elijah?” John emphasizes he is not Elijah, nor is he the anticipated prophet. They ask him again, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” In his own voice, John responds,

I am the voice of one crying out
in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’
as the prophet Isaiah said.

Where the other gospel writers linked the Isaiah passage with the story of John as an editorial comment, John the evangelist places Isaiah’s ancient words on the baptizer’s own lips. His narrative choice imbues the baptizer with a deep clarity about his role in the story of the Messiah. Though not the promised prophet for whom the people had long waited, John the Baptist’s claiming of Isaiah’s words to describe himself places him firmly in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. He knows he comes from Elizabeth and from Zechariah, but with his answer he places himself in the lineage of those for whom the wilderness, both literal and metaphorical, was their home, their place of formation as messengers of God. John’s response to his questioners is not only a way of saying who he is, but also where—and whom—he has come from.

In pondering John’s clarity about where he has come from, and how this informs his understanding of what God has formed and fashioned him to do, I’ve found myself thinking about a poem that recently circled my way. Written by Appalachian poet George Ella Lyon, “Where I’m From” offers a litany of the places and people, the artifacts and experiences that hold the poet’s roots. “I am from clothespins,” she begins,

from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)

[Read the whole poem here.]

Lyon comments that the poem has traveled widely, circulating as a writing prompt. “People have used it at their family reunions,” she writes, “teachers have used it with kids all over the United States, in Ecuador and China; they have taken it to girls in juvenile detention, to men in prison for life, and to refugees in a camp in the Sudan. Its life beyond my notebook is a testimony to the power of poetry, of roots, and of teachers.”

In our mobile society, it’s sometimes hard to say where we’re from, hard to name the roots that hold us as more and more of us live at a distance from the places (which may have been many) and people we grew up with. And yet Lyon’s poem reminds us that roots happen in a variety of ways, sometimes but not always tied to one particular place. Our increasing physical rootlessness is perhaps itself a kind of wilderness, akin to what John the Baptist experienced—but the wilderness, as John knew, is a place to be from, too.

So on this Advent evening, inspired by the baptizer and by an Appalachian poet, I’ve been thinking about where I’m from, and what direction my roots are turning me toward.

Where I’m From

I am from orange groves
and old Florida,
from a house my parents built
in a field my grandfather gave them.
Black-eyed Susans grew there in the spring,
so thick we played hide and seek
simply by kneeling among them.

I am from a town
with more cows than people,
from Judy and from Joe,
from generations that have grown up
in one place.

I am from peanut butter and
honey sandwiches every morning,
from my grandmothers’ kitchens,
from Thanksgiving feasts in the
community park,
from Christmas Eves in the
white painted church
among the pine trees.

I am from the dictionary we kept
by the dinner table
where we ate words like food,
from hours and days in libraries,
from miles of books.
I am from the path they have made.

I am from solitude and silence,
from the monks and mystics who lived
between the choir and the cell,
from the scribes bent over their books,
from parchment and paint,
from ancient ink and from gold
that turned pages into lamps,
into light.

I am from women less quiet,
women of the shout and the stomp,
testifying wherever they could make
their voices heard.
I am from Miriam and Mary and Magdalena
and from women unknown and unnamed,
women who carried their prayers
not in books
but in their blood
and in their bones,
women who passed down the sacred stories
from body to body.

I am from them,
listening for their voices,
aching to hear,
to tell, to cry out,
to make a way for those
yet to come.

So where are you from? What are the places, the people, the experiences that formed your path? What holds your roots? How does where you’re from help you understand who you are? How does it enable you to make a way for the one who comes in this and every season?

Wherever you’re from, wherever you’re going, peace to you as you continue to find and fashion your path. Blessings.

[To use this image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

The Pilgrim’s Coat

December 5, 2008

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The Pilgrim’s Coat © Jan L. Richardson

Lection from the Hebrew Scriptures, Advent 2: Isaiah 40.1-11

When I returned home from my Thanksgiving holiday, I found the latest copy of Selvedge waiting for me. Published in England, Selvedge is a wondrous magazine devoted to textiles from around the world. Though I don’t do a lot with textiles (in my artwork, I mean; I do make good use of them, for instance, as a wearer of clothes), this magazine has become a source of enchantment and inspiration.

Savoring my way through the pages of the newly arrived issue, I lighted on a picture of a garment that immediately seized my imagination. The caption identified it as a Japanese pilgrim’s coat from the early twentieth century. Painted with Buddhist mantras in flowing Japanese calligraphy, a simple coat such as this would have been worn by a person as they traveled from temple to temple on their spiritual journey. Each temple had its own stamp, and a typical pilgrim’s coat is laden with vivid cinnabar imprints gathered from the temples. The coat of a pilgrim who had been traveling for some time would have looked something like a cross between a passport and prayerbook, with the cinnabar stamps and calligraphic mantras mingling together to enfold the wearer.

A web search for “pilgrims’ coats” turned up the intriguing Sri Threads site, which specializes in antique textiles and has a section devoted to what they describe as “Buddhist Pilgrim’s Accoutrements.” In describing the pilgrims’ coats, the folks at Sri comment that the temples that the pilgrims visit “are situated on a single holy mountain, and getting on foot from temple to shrine to temple is an act of faith and bravery. These pilgrims’ coats,” they go on to observe, “are an outward manifestation of the faith of the wearer, who endured much hardship and showed much fortitude in pursuit of perfecting his faith.”

With my love of fabric and calligraphy and tales of pilgrimage, I could hardly fail to be seized by the imagery of these artful, sacred garments. So my imagination and I got busy and headed into the studio, taking along this wondering:

What would an Advent pilgrim’s coat look like?

As I pondered this in my studio, I found myself thinking of this Sunday’s lection from Isaiah, the passage from which the gospel writers draw in describing John the Baptist. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God,” the text begins. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term…” The writer of Isaiah 40 goes on to describe a voice that cries out,

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Writing to a people in exile, this author promises a pathway that will lead to redemption and return. The transformation of creation that he describes with such vivid imagery will envelop the people as well: within the community, within the individual, the interior landscape will change utterly, and through it will appear a road for the God who will come to redeem and restore.

It is a passage about wilderness, about making a sacred way, about transformation that happens within and without. These are classic images of pilgrimage, that sacred journey in which we become more than tourists, more than bodies merely moving through a landscape. The ancient practice of pilgrimage beckons us to find the places of connection between the terrain we carry inside us and the landscape beyond us, whether it’s the landscape of the natural world, or of a story, or of a season. Pilgrimage calls us to give ourselves to a terrain that we may find foreign and unsettling, and to open ourselves to the sacred and surprising places that it holds. Altered by our engagement with those places, we are able to reenter the familiar terrain of our lives and to see it with different and deeper vision.

So, there at my drafting table, I made myself a pilgrim’s coat for the season of Advent. In it I embedded a portion of the passage from Isaiah, taking his wilderness words as a blessing, a prayer for this Advent journey. Pondering this image, I wonder what sacred places God has in store for me on this Advent path, and whether I’ll be open to seeing them, and how they will change me.

What kind of pilgrimage might the season of Advent invite you to? What would your pilgrim’s coat look like? What prayers would you paint upon it, to bless you on your way? What are the names of the temples, the holy places—within or without—that you long to visit in this season, and what kind of imprint would they leave on your coat; how would they mark you? How open are you to the surprises that God might have in store on your Advent path? In whose company will you travel?

I’m happy to share my pilgrim’s coat with you, till you find or fashion one of your own. With gratitude for sharing the path, I pray for blessings and traveling mercies on your way.

[To use this image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

Advent 1: No Between

November 26, 2008


No Between © Jan L. Richardson

Lection from the Hebrew Scriptures, Advent 1: Isaiah 64.1-9

Whenever I lead a retreat, I take along some art supplies for folks who want to do some creative work in our times of reflection. Paper collage—the medium through which I began to experience myself as an artist—is a particularly user-friendly medium that I love to use with groups, and so I always bring an array of gorgeous papers of wondrous patterns and textures and hues. I tell people that it’s okay to tear the papers, and that tearing them often creates more interesting effects than simply using scissors. I know my own work took a richer turn when I gave myself permission to be less precise and to trust the unpredictability that comes with ripping the papers. I can’t always control the direction the tear will go. That is the challenge, and the gift.

People often have a hard time tearing into the papers. “They’re too pretty to rip!” they say. When they make one small tear, however, and see the edge that’s revealed, something in them shifts. One of my favorite sounds is a quiet room filled with the music of paper giving way and new edges appearing, meeting, joining.

I will admit, though, that I found it hard to tear today’s collage. I really liked how it looked when it first took shape: a slice of a universe, twelve square inches of firmament pieced together there on my drafting table. I had gone into it knowing I would, in due course, rend it. But when it was time to tear my collaged cosmos, I balked. What if it didn’t tear the right way? What if I ruined the little universe I had so painstakingly fashioned?

I tore. The piece, after all, is a visual reflection on this week’s lection from Isaiah, in which the writer cries out to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” He is pleading with the Creator to rip apart the cosmos, to come close, to cross the distance that the writer and his people are feeling so keenly.

The author of this portion of Isaiah most likely wrote these words during the time following the Israelites’ return from their exile in Babylon. Having made their way home, they were wrestling with questions of what their life, their community, their relationship with God would look like now. Isaiah 64 gives voice to their longing for a God who seems absent, even as they grapple with guilt over their own brokenness.

“You have hidden your face from us,” the writer says to God. His accusation haunts me, as does God’s response in the following chapter: “I was ready,” God replies, “to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that did not call on my name” (Is. 65.1).

It might be easy to chide the writer for accusing God of hiding when, in fact, the people of Israel seem to have been the ones turning their faces from God. Yet I know that very impulse in my own self, am well acquainted with the part of me that yearns for God even at the same time that I put up resistance.

In the midst of that “Come closer, go away” dance that I sometimes do with God, I periodically stop to wonder, what is it that I’m doing anyway, asking for the living God to become known to me? I think of Annie Dillard’s question in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, where, in reflecting on the ways we speak to God in worship services, she asks, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” She goes on to observe, “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

That’s the crux of it, that latter possibility that Dillard offers: at the heart of my resistant longing for God is the knowledge that to call upon the living God, to ask the Creator to tear open and rip into my universe, means giving myself to the prospect, the surety, that God will draw me out to places from which I can never return. Like tearing into the paper, but on a vaster scale, I cannot control the direction this will go.

That is the challenge, and the gift.

This business of asking God to come close, though, to tear through the separateness in order to reach us: that’s not how it really works, of course. The tearing doesn’t go in that direction, as if God needed to punch a hole in some far-off heaven in order to come down to us. The incarnation, which we anticipate and celebrate in this season, reminds us that God is ever present, immanent, closer than our breathing. Just this week I came again across this reminder from Julian of Norwich: “Betwixt us and God,” the medieval English mystic wrote, “there is no between.”

If God pervades all creation, pervades us, then the barrier that needs to be torn away isn’t outside us; it’s within. In our own interior universe, in the cosmos we carry inside us, God lives, moves, breathes. What do we need to tear away, to tear through, to tear down, in order to receive this? What do we balk at tearing because we think it is too precious to us or because we fear to lose control over the direction it will go? How do we need to unhide ourselves in order to find and welcome the God who is already with us? What door in our souls does God long for us to open? In these Advent days, how will we turn our faces toward the God who welcomes the exiles home?

Betwixt you and God, may you know no between. Blessings.

[To use the “No Between” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]

Door 10: Hitting the Highway

December 10, 2007

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To Zion with Singing © Jan L. Richardson

I’m hitting the road early this morning, making a sad trip for the funeral of a woman who was a big influence on me when I was growing up. She was encouraging almost to a fault—meaning she wasn’t very good at taking no for an answer, once she got it into her head that you should pursue some opportunity—and the fact that I can speak in public without fainting owes a lot to the stuff she got me into as a kid.

It’s a good day to be thinking about this coming Sunday’s reading from Isaiah. Advent 3 has us in Isaiah 35.1-10, which reads, in part,

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing….For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way….And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

I’ll be thinking about that holy highway as I make my way up the turnpike this morning. Wherever you’re heading today, safe travels to you. May there be some crocuses along your path.

[To use the “To Zion with Singing” image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Advent Door possible. Thank you!]