I was hoping to only be scrolling for cat pictures at the end of a long day yesterday but happened to come across two tweets that seemed to me a fitting end to another week of the Internet we have all come to know and, well, love is not the word.
The first is Pete Buttigieg and his person adopting two babies and posting this picture. The second is a recent tweet of Jory Micah screenshotted. [You’ll have to click both for the rest of the post to make sense–can’t figure out how to embed them, sorry!!]
What I like about the mashup of these two tweets, as you might expect, is that the question of freedom is, rather ironically, a “standpoint” problem. That is all the rage right now—your lived experience is the grid by which you are able to judge the truth claims of something. If you are white, male, and evangelical, it is not possible for you to apprehend the truth, you need other people to come along and tell you what it is, and then you need to accept what they say. Mr. Buttigieg, on the other hand, is able to know it to some degree, because he is not straight. And Ms. Micah is able to know it because she is not a man. “It” in this case is whatever anyone desires to do at any particular moment. This is what is called “freedom,” and having it is a matter of “agape.”
Scrolling through Twitter, I felt rather sad that the two people who won’t have any “freedom” and “personal autonomy” for a long while yet are those two babies. A lot of decisions have already been made for them and will go on being made, that will, as they say, “impact” not only their whole lives, but all their decisions in the future. Their freedom is abundantly constrained by the fact of who their “parents” now are, and how they came into the world, and all that sort of thing.
And this is as it should be, because the way that children come into the world—dependent, mute, weak, blind, dumb, unable to get up and run around—is a metaphor for the human condition. Though most people as they grow gain the ability to talk, to see, to stand up, to do work, to have some kinds of “agency,” yet, in a tragic sense, they are severely limited by a lot of factors. Inevitable death is one, disease is another, confusion, other people, and yes, even things like governments. I think a lot of people around a year ago thought they had a lot more power to make decisions about their lives than it turned out that they did. And then, within the realm of possible decisions, determining which one was right turned out to be an unhappy business because no one could see the future.
This seems to me a most suitable backdrop to consider some of the lections for the morning, the first one opening with the haunting and most alluring line: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart…” You might be ready to leap up and letter that out onto some kind of fancy card stock so that you can start memorizing it. This is going to be good, you might think. I’m anxious. I’m not feeling quite up to snuff. God is surely poised to make everything ok for me! And you will be right, of course. This is a glorious passage, not least because of how it ends—with all the singing and the everlasting joy—but because of the strange part in the middle about healing and water in the desert. But to get to that part, you have to go over the next line of the verse which goes like this:
“Say to those who have an anxious heart, Be strong; fear not! Behold your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”
I don’t know about you, but the injunction not to be anxious, enjoined on me by a vengeful and recompensing God, does not actually lower my anxiety. Who is he angry with? What has been done that requires recompense? And how will anyone be saved? It’s a quickly missed line that potentially throws everything into confusion, especially depending on your “standpoint.”
The easy and facile answer to those questions is that God will come in vengeance against his enemies, of which all bad people are to be numbered. Just figure out who is bad, and those will be the people that God is coming against on his way to save. And who is he saving? Why the good people who are being persecuted by the bad people. That’s who. It’s not hard to figure out. Of course, who is good and who is bad changes by the hour. Last year, for example (and I’m not going to go looking for the links because screenshots are abundantly available), vaccine hesitancy was a virtuous position. This year, it is sheer wickedness.
By the by, I love the term “vaccine-hesitant.” Aren’t all of us, at this moment, really hesitant about everything? Isn’t anxiety—because we don’t know the future—our very bread and butter right now? For everyone? Part of the problem is that an infectious illness married to a global economy necessarily means that people are going to get sick, and a lot of people are going to die. This we have all seen. I don’t want to get into the politics of it. I trotted off for my Moderna shot as soon as I could because, well, I have so many other hills I’m willing to die on. It’s not because I wanted to be virtuous or even avoid covid. Having endured a lot of shots in my life, like a full round of rabis ones after I was bitten by a dog, and, like my hundred-year-old grandfather who got it a few months before he died, wanted to go out to eat in restaurants, I do not fall into the category of “hesitant.” That word applies to me for things like trying to teach a teenager how to drive. This is neither a morally virtuous calculation, nor an anxious one. Though of course weighing risk and freedom together goes on being, to put it mildly, stressful for everyone.
Leaving some of that aside, the idea of God arriving on the scene to pay a lot of people what they are owed should give a certain amount of pause to every person who ever drew breath in this life. The trouble is, because we draw breath, even though most of us have grown up to see and walk and hear and speak—all the things named in this passage—the spiritual condition, or lived experience if you will, of each of us is that we cannot see, cannot hear, do not speak what we should, and cannot put our feet into the way of holiness. The very fact of being alive and human means that we, both corporately and individually, are constantly incurring the vengeance of God on our heads by just waking up in the morning. Does that seem too harsh? Well, who do you love more? God or yourself? Other people or yourself? And don’t lie. Of course you don’t love God more than you love yourself. Of course you don’t do what he says. Just teetering on the edge of the question is enough to let you know that you have broken his law. You have so many other gods before him—freedom might be one, your own sense of your own virtue, your propensity to scroll through Twitter when you should be doing literally anything else. God is holy and perfect. You…well, God himself just said it, you are anxious.
Anxious because of sin, death, feebleness, all the stuff that characterizes the human condition. The very command to “strengthen the weak hands” can’t be obeyed.
But that was only the first line. The last bit was that God—this vengeful God—was going to come and save you. And this is the muddling part. This is the bit where everyone trying to read the Bible comes all to pieces, because when no one falls into the “good” category, and God is angry with everyone, everyone is going to need to be saved. And God is going to have to do something with his vengeance that somehow accomplishes salvation. I mean, you probably know what it is. But most people don’t. Most people don’t want to know. The comfortable blind, deaf, muteness of personal goodness is too warm and delightful to let go of. Which is why we don’t let go of it. We always double down, over and over again.
Which is why all the action in the latter part of the chapter is accomplished by God. Observe the passive voice: “shall be opened.” Someone—God—will do these things. He will open the eyes, unstop the ears, loose the tongue, heal the legs, and make water to spring forth in a place where there has never been water before.
Should he be allowed to do this? Without asking anyone’s permission? Is this tyrannical? Is he allowed to pour down his wrath against sinners on himself on the cross and then drag the lame and blind and deaf out of their own personal darkness and join them to himself? Should he come first and ask us if we wanted to be born again into this bright kingdom? Why he would respond to the treachery of human sin with salvation is one of the great mysteries of all the cosmos. I wouldn’t do it. Jory Micah wouldn’t do it. Pete Buttigieg wouldn’t do it. But God does it. He does it over and over and over again because He is agape. That is, he pours out his love for the good of everyone whom he has made, even unto death on a cross.
From his standpoint, he used his perfect freedom to save those who hated him so much that they would rather have been blind, deaf, speechless, and in a hole in the ground than be with him. From our standpoint, our best response, having the tongue loosed and the eyes opened and the ears unstopped is to fling ourselves into the great road that he builds, the great Highway of Holiness that goes straight up into his City, his presence. It doesn’t matter what else happens along the way. How many kinds of covid sweep over the world, or how many politicians make laws in one direction or another, or how many bad people tweet anything. Nothing is strong enough to limit the free salvation of such a God.
See you in church!