Burning Ember of Divine Fire: Resistance!

Psalm 27:8-10 Even now God lifts up my head above my enemies round about me. Therefore I will offer in God’s dwelling an oblation with sounds of great gladness; I will sing and make music to Abba God. Hearken to my voice, God, when I call; have mercy on me and answer me.

Introduction

Recently I encountered a little reminder: “Your feelings let you know that you’re alive.” My knee jerk reaction was: “Maybe I could use less knowing??” I feel so much right now. Every day seems to compound the previous one, ushering in deeper hues of the feelings from before accompanied by new ones or ones long dormant. Huh, I’ve not felt that shade of gray in a while… A lot of it revolves around being dissatisfied with the way things are, dissatisfaction threaded through with worry that this is it, this is all, this will be the new normal from now on. I know I’m not alone; I think we all carry heavy emotional burdens right now. There’s a lot to feel; and feeling the feels carries great risk. What if it is too much for me to bear and it crushes me?

It might. That’s the risk. That’s why we numb.

The urge to numb our dissatisfied inner worlds is on the rise. There are times to numb, you’ll never hear me advocate for human life sans devices helping us catch a break from the turmoil of our external and inner worlds. However, it seems that for the past three years the need to numb is more prevalent. If I’m numb I can’t feel that subtle worry settling in the marrow of my bones. If I’m numb, I can ignore the deeper shades of gray. If I’m numb, who cares if things stay the same or get better… If I’m numb, I can’t feel that dreaded dissatisfaction. I can’t feel anything in fact.

One of the marks of the living is the ability to be dissatisfied; to be dissatisfied is to disagree with death. To feel our feelings—whatever they are, even if they are painful—opens up the door to the reality that somehow and somewhere life is coming more in line with the principles of death rather than the dictates of life. To dare to feel means taking straight-on the real feeling of being truly dissatisfied. What if it is too much for me to bear and it crushes me?

It might. That’s the risk. That’s why we resist.

Isaiah 9:1-4

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness–
on them light has shined.

Isaiah’s text emanates hope completed and yet to be realized. The light has shone and his audience will see it. In a deliberate play of verbal tenses, Isaiah’s hope is visceral and tangible. You can feel Isaiah’s excitement as he proclaims these words to a downtrodden people, those trapped under mills-stone sized oppression, those stripped of their liberty and reduced to the margins of society.

Isaiah is one of the great prophets of Israel who stands between God and God’s people, representing God’s love and desire for the people and representing the people’s angst and dissatisfaction to God; the prophet is the sympathetic one, the one who identifies with God and with the people.[1] The divine pathos—the divine passion—of God for God’s people encourages Isaiah to declare to the people that their cries are heard, their tears counted, their pain felt (personally) by God. In the same breath, Isaiah is given the courage to stand and step against the death dealing characteristic of the kingdom of humanity; with divine passion, Isaiah articulates the divine no! to oppression and violence.[2] Judgment has come for those who harm God’s beloved.

Isaiah’s language fluctuates between speaking on behalf of God and for the people; this fluctuation highlights the duality of Isaiah’s existence trapped in this articulation of mutual love.[3] He carries the emotional, thundering content of divine speech into the world to ears longing for liberation like parched tongues eager for water, and then moves to articulate the depth of gratitude and praise from God’s people to God.[4] Isaiah, and all prophets who came before and follow after, are aligned to the divine concern and the human concern—they’re sympathetic to what is going on both in heaven and on earth and they are eager not only to speak God’s loving and liberative reign but also to act cooperatively against human tyranny.[5]

This human tyranny, for Isaiah, works against the livelihood of God’s people, restricts thriving to an elite few, submerges feeble and weak human bodies deep into the waters of misery, injustice, and alienation; and, for Isaiah, this isn’t acceptable. In sympathy with the people and with God, Isaiah is committed to pronouncing the judgment of God[6] on those who oppress God’s people, and is empowered to proclaim a better way to live in the world and to communicate a strength to respond to the dissatisfaction of the way things are.[7]

For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Isaiah, in this brief section, articulates the longed-for liberation of the people. Their yoke (of oppression) that stretches across their shoulders is broken. This is not merely a spiritual thing that Isaiah articulates, it’s not as if God’s people are burdened by the violence and condemnation of structures wired against them but they aren’t really; it is this way and the response is to ask God to break the rod of the oppressor and to rid themselves of this yoke. But it’s not about Israel rolling over and waiting for God to show up; God is with them, the prophet represents this fact. Isaiah wakes the people out of slumbering numbness and asks them to look and see their plight. They are in darkness; they need light. They are yoked; they need liberation. “THIS IS NOT NORMAL!” Isaiah Thunders! He joins them up into God’s love for them, the beloved, and exhorts them to feel what has too long been buried and trapped, refused for fear.

Life demands feeling even the very worst of emotions, so Israel can live in a way that resists death. For death is not just of the body, it can happen before, as they walk around and go through their days. Israel must be summoned into their plight, to feel it, to remember they are alive…even if it might be too much for them to bear, even if it might crush them. Because…

It might. That’s the risk. That’s why they resist.

Conclusion

You [God] have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.

To wake up, to feel one’s dismay, to be dissatisfied with things as they are is the deep calling to deep, it’s the divine summons to take up the cross and follow, it’s the loss of self that’s the gaining of self, it’s being alive. Ultimately, it’s the beginning of our resistance to that which is dead set on stealing our life and refusing our liberation to be fully thriving human beings. To be dissatisfied with the way things are is the burning ember that becomes the divine fire of love that is resistance against death on behalf of life. To resist death, we must live; we must risk the vulnerability of being human and fleshy, thinking and feeling creatures and live…even now, even when things are gray and bleak, midwinter humdrum. We must respond to Isaiah’s summons and wake up and look around, and be on our guard against slipping back into hibernation. We must remember that the God whom we encounter in Christ by the power of the Holy spirit is, to quote Dorothee Sölle and her husband Fulbert Steffensky, the very God who

“…stands on the side of life and especially on the side of those to whom life in its wholeness is denied and who do not reach the point of real living. God is not on the side of the rulers, the powerful, the rich, the affluent, the victorious. God takes sides with those who need him. He sides with the victims.”[8]

As those who are positioned to follow Jesus out of the Jordan, we are exhorted through Isaiah’s words to live and not just barely. We’re exhorted to live as those who have seen a great light, those who have reason to rejoice, to celebrate, to live tremendously, to live fully, to fiesta,[9] to have joy, so that we can mock, resist, and refuse death and destruction its façade of power over us. We are exhorted to join in life’s great songs against death; we are called to identify and sing with those who suffer more than we do.[10] In life’s desire to live we must advocate and raise our voices in celebration of life—for our neighbors and siblings, thus for ourselves—to remind death we’re still alive, dissatisfied as hell but still very much alive.


[1] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 308. “In contrast to the Stoic sage who is a homo apathetikos, the prophet may be characterized as a homo sympathetikos. For the phenomenology of religion the prophet represents a type sui generis.”

[2] Heschel, The Prophets, 308. “The pathos of God is upon him. It breaks out in him like a storm in the soul, overwhelming his inner life, his thoughts, feelings, wishes, and hopes. It takes possession of his heart and mind, giving him the courage to act against the world.”

[3] Heschel, The Prophets, 308-309. “The words of the prophet are often like thunder; they sound as if he were in a state of hysteria. But what appears to us as wild emotionalism must seem like restraint to him who has to convey the emotion of the Almighty in the feeble language of man. His sympathy is an overflow of powerful emotion which comes in response to what he sensed in divinity. For the only way to intuit a feeling is to feel it. One cannot have a merely intellectual awareness of a concrete suffering or pleasure, for intellect as such is merely the tracing of relations, and a feeling is no mere relational pattern.”

[4] Heschel, The Prophets, 309-310. “´It is such intense sympathy or emotional identification with the divine pathos that may explain the shifting from the third to the first person in the prophetic utterances. A prophecy that starts out speaking of God in the third person turns into God speaking in the first person. Conversely, a prophecy starting with God speaking in the first person turns into a declaration of the prophet speaking about God in the third person.”

[5] Heschel, The Prophets, 309. “The unique feature of religious sympathy is not self-conquest, but self-dedication; not the suppression of emotion, but its redirection; not silent subordination, but active co-operation with God; not love which aspires to the Being of God in Himself, but harmony of the soul with the concern of God. To be a prophet means to identify one’s concern with the concern.”

[6] Heschel, The Prophets, 171. “No one seems to question her invincibility except Isaiah, who foresees the doom of the oppressor, the collapse of the monster.”

[7] Heschel, The Prophets, 309. “Sympathy, however, is not an end in itself. Nothing is further from the prophetic mind than to inculcate or to live out a life of feeling, a religion of sentimentality. Not mere feeling but actin will mitigate the world’s misery, society’s injustice or the people’s alienation from God. Only action will relieve the tension between God and man. Both pathos and sympathy are, from the perspective of the total situation, demands rather than fulfullments. Prophetic sympathy is no delight; unlike ecstasy, it is not a goal, but a sense of challenge, a commitment, a state of tension, consternation, and dismay.”

[8] Dorothee Sölle and Fulbert Steffensky Not Just Yes & Amen: Christians with a Cause. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1985. p. 82

[9] Ada Maria Isazi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. p. 131.

[10] I’m influenced here by the work of The Rev. Dr. James H. Cone in The Spiritual & The Blues. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1972. p. 130. “Whatever form black music takes it is always an expression of black life in America and what the people must do to survive with a measure of dignity in a society which seems bent on destroying their right to be human beings. The fact that black people keep making music means that we as a people refuse to be destroyed. We refuse to allow the people who oppress us to have the last word about our humanity. The last word belongs to us and music is our way of saying it. Contrary to popular opinion, therefore, the spirituals and the blues are not songs of despair or of a defeated people. On the contrary, they are songs which represent one of the great triumphs of the human spirit.”

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