4 Life Lessons from Isaiah

What life lessons can we learn by reading the Old Testament prophets? Given the current state of our political and spiritual discourse, is there wisdom to be gleaned by re-reading Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel? Do they offer a coherent philosophy beyond their visions and mystic experiences? I think so. Fortunately, we need to look no further than the sixth chapter of Isaiah for a bit of guidance, wisdom, and advice.

1. “I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple.” Isaiah 6:1

Look around at your surroundings. Take a chance on letting the world inspire you to a new sense of awe. There’s no need to comment on everything. Parts of life are so engaging, we need only observe what’s right before our eyes.

2. “The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting and the house was filled with smoke.” Isaiah 6:4

We are surrounded by noise, some of it good and some bad. We need to be able to distinguish between the two. Sometimes the shouting isn’t about us or something we’ve done wrong. Instead, it’s a way of getting a message out to those needing to hear affirmation and encouragement.  Many people are unable to speak for themselves or have been silenced by their circumstances. The real message isn’t in the shouting or the smoke. We wait for the pauses and silence that follow.

3. “I said, ‘Mourn for me; I am ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips and live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!’” Isaiah 6:5

We are taught and formed to be self-critical. In a world that feeds on negativity, our fragile self-images are easily overwhelmed when we encounter the smallest acts of kindness and goodness. On many occasions, we are doubtful of any good intention we encounter. As this text shows, we don’t have to live this way.

4. “He touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed and your sin is removed.’” Isaiah 6:7

Our emotional and moral baggage is not a permanent part of our lives. Was our “sin” present in the first place? Was the “sin” truly “sin” or was it another bag we’d been given to carry? 

Four verses with four lessons. Take a look around and ask some questions. Where do we need to stand to see the world, listen to something other than the cultural noise, and realize we’re not the sinners we imagine ourselves to be?  Isaiah 6 gives us a place to start.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Have You Tried This?

1. Establish a daily routine. Manage your life by managing your time. What is it you do each day? What comes first every morning? Make your schedule standard, beyond an ad-hoc assortment of tasks and ideas. Claim the time and space around you. In moments of chaos and change, you know how to give and take because you understand the nature of your routine.

2. Look and listen. Experience the world around you. Feel the fresh air, warm breeze, and see the textures of the blue sky. Listen to the birds or the wind. What are the sounds living beyond the noises created by humanity? Do these sounds speak to each other? Do they talk to you?

3. Feel. The texture of an old growth tree, the stonework of an old building; what does time feel like? Do you sense the years of storms, growth, wind, and rain flowing beneath your hand? Who touched this same tree? Do we walk in their footsteps?

4. Say thank you more often than you need. What do we take for granted? Do we underestimate how often we should and to whom we should say, “Thank you”? What if we went further with gratitude than we ever thought possible?

5. Speak out of love. Words delivered out of love transcend the boundaries of faith, mystery, and knowledge. We can speak of love and live loveless lives. The unqualified love which holds our tongues and gifts us eloquence is not a love we can measure. Yet without this love, we lack certain defining features which makes people human: patience and kindness. Without this kind of love, we are more likely to be boastful, arrogant, and rude. We need this “spoken” love to define us as individuals and as a community.

6.  How can listening to others,  expressing gratitude in new ways, and loving without adjectives help you to better tell your story?

Richard Lowell Bryant

The New Rules for Summer 2018

1. Jesus turning over the tables in the temple isn’t a catch-all excuse for Christian rudeness or violence. Stop blaming your mental health issues on the writers of the New Testament. Get help with your anger.

2. Engage the world. It’s easy to build our own utopias, ignore suffering, avoid evil, and live in our well manicured bubbles. That is not living; it’s existing. Life is found in engaging reality, authentically, one moment at a time.

3. If we keep track of the sins of others, we’ve made a serious decision to take life in an unhealthy direction. Emotionally, physically, and psychologically this will eventually ruin everything we cherish.  Keep track of good things.

4.  What does it mean to live a good life?  Ask hard questions that push your beyond your comfort zone.

5. Remember, you don’t know what other people are going through.  Cut people some slack.  There’s probably more going on in their lives than you realize.

6. Before writing or speaking , ask, “Will any good come from this?” If we can’t say “yes”, something is wrong.  Don’t be that person.  

7. Can the world see behind our sunglasses? Have we carefully constructed an image (not with clothing, cars, houses, or boats), emotionally speaking, to tell the world who we are? Do we deploy that image selectively? Are we able to be ourselves, all day, every day? What stops us?  Be authentic.

8. Everyone falls behind at some point. Because we’re disciples of Jesus, we can’t be selective about who we help. Christians don’t have the luxury of choosing who to assist, raise funds for, and who is deserving of God’s blessings.  Be generous.  

9. Fill up your tank with gas. You never know you when might need to take a trip to the hospital.

10. Don’t limit yourself to 280 characters. Spoken language is also an effective means of communication. Talk (with real words) to (real) people more often, even those with whom you disagree.  

Richard Bryant

Status Quo Gratitude

Gratitude should come easy.  Yet, it’s sometimes hard to put our thankfulness into words.  Most of us, when asked to list the things we’re grateful for, have to pause.  We think for a moment, take a deep breath, and then consider the things we should be thankful for.  When compiling our gratitude list, we want to include the “must haves” of health, family, friends, and the like.  This is because it’s important not to seem ungrateful or forget something (or someone important).  It’s a little like winning an Oscar.  When the recipient is called up to give their acceptance speech, the winners sometimes choose not to thank specific people.  This is because they don’t want to leave anyone out.  We don’t want leave anything off our lists either.

If I were to survey one hundred people, many would express thankfulness and gratitude for similar feelings and ideas.  Home, family, health, and friends would come up time and again.  Why is this?  Sometimes we say we are grateful because we feel compelled to express certain emotions.  You may be thankful for your fancy new boat (iPad, phone, car, gun, or house) but social convention forces you to look a little deeper at the world around you.  We don’t want to be the person who expresses thanks for things that are superficial or lack any long-term value.

For most people, gratitude rises out of our shared human experiences.  Being in community with others causes us to reflect on the benefits of food, shelter, love, and health.  Either way one approaches gratitude, we end up in the same place.  Most of us are grateful for the basics of life.  Whether we’re forced to reflect on it or not, gratitude is really an acknowledgement that relationships matter, stuff is only stuff, and living is about more than finding your next meal.  If our basic needs are being met, we ought to be grateful.  However, to paraphrase the Bard, “there’s the rub”.  I think our greatest spiritual and moral challenge is to be grateful for the status quo.

Our most profound expressions of gratitude are usually reserved for moments of intense celebration.  When someone gets married, has a child, graduates from high school, we will hear speeches and expressions of thankfulness and gratitude.  Listen to the people who win sports championships.  The thanksgiving is effusive.  Status quo gratitude is hard.  We don’t win, marry, and celebrate achievement each day.  In fact, most days blend into the next.  Life is both hard and unfair.  Diseases are diagnosed and people die.  How are we to be grateful for the status quo?

I wish I had an answer.  The first step is to name the problem.  I do know that being grateful is more than saying a prayer over a turkey once a year.  Thanksgiving is bigger than an annual Facebook post where you rattle off a few names and pictures.  Gratitude ought to be a head on confrontation with the status quo.  The mundane moments of today need to be examined for traces of thanksgiving.  Gratitude is there, waiting for each of us, like an undiscovered country.  It may be under the car seat, between the couch cushions, washing dishes, or paying a bill.  Seek Gratitude.  You never know when you may be found.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Living Through The Suck Called Grief

The Swing, 2017

It has been just over a week since my wife’s sister died in an automobile accident.  She was 41 years old.  Following the sudden death of a loved one; seven days might as well be forever.  It feels like the time between the big bang and the formation of life on earth: fits and starts stumbling through the ongoing darkness.  The present slows to an interminable crawl of erratic sleep, strange dreams, waiting, watching, and hoping someone doesn’t expect you to speak more than a mumble.

On Sunday morning, while I was preparing for worship, one of the choir members asked how my wife was doing.  I told her, “she doesn’t feel like coming today.  Everything is still a bit overwhelming.”  To which the choir member replied, “I know, it just s-u-c-k-s.”  Liz was right; it does suck.  Death sucks, whether expected or accidental, it s-u-c-k-s for the living.  How do we live with the suck of death all around us?

Here’s the good news.  We’re not the first (nor will be the last) people to ask the question.  This may be one of the oldest questions humans have asked.  How do we live with the pain of loss?  Where do we place this pain; given already complex demands on our lives?  Whether you were a nomad on the plains of Central Asia 2000 years ago or a 21st-century person today with access to technology and health care, you still die.  Death is a reality we cannot ignore.  What connects us to our ancestors, no matter how primitive they might have been, is death.  We mourn, we ritualize death, and we all feel sadness and loss when someone dies.

  1. Acknowledging the “suckiness” of death is one of the traits which identify us as humans. Other animals and species do not grieve as we do.  If we deny our grief, we deny our humanity. 

How do we live with the pain of loss?  Where do we place this pain?  I would argue that grief is something we accept and acknowledge.  Grief need not be embraced. Trouble has found us and already enveloped our lives.  We do not need to recognize the presence of the sun or moon in the sky.  They are constants in the sky, whose daily (or nightly) positions we accept.  The light of the sun finds us each day.  We acquiesce to its presence (even hiding inside doesn’t take the sun away) and acknowledge its light. However, you can take precautions from being sunburned.  The sun remains powerful, but you retain an element of control. 

  1. The more we engage with our grief, the more control we have over our grief. When our grief is identified, described, and occupied instead of remaining dormant (like a sleeping black dog), we are living through (versus in) the suckiness. 

How long should you feel this way?  How long does it take to get over such a tremendous loss?  Every person is different.  People grieve in various ways.  Moving on is different for everybody.  I will say this, from my work with different families, people seem to know.  Even in the midst of the suck and sorrow, stories should be told and laughter heard.  Humans are designed to hold two opposing ideas in their brains at the same time.  We can feel sorrow at losing someone we love but we can laugh at stories and memories in the midst of that pain.  The pain may not go away anytime soon.  However, there is a difference between sharing and dwelling.  When we dwell, we give more power to grief than the grief deserves.  When we share stories and memories (in a community) we are retaining control and maintain the delicate balance between living in and living through the suckiness. 

In the Old Testament, Moses gives the Israelites instructions on how long to grieve.  Moses picks up where we began; to ignore the need to grieve is inhuman and wrong.  Indifference in the face of death, like a Roman stoic, isn’t what the Israelite God directed or Jesus modeled.  Jesus grieves and weeps.  Moses wants to tell God’s people an appropriate way to grieve that reflects your humanity and the covenant you’ve made with God.

  1. “You are children of the Lord your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen you to be His treasured possession” (Deut. 14: 1-2).

Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead for you are a chosen people of God.  Moses says this is an extreme form of grieving.  Why?  The idol cults, the people who worshiped Gods other than Yahweh, had strange hair cutting and body mutilation practices such as the ones described.  These may have reflected the traditions they witnessed in Egypt.  That’s the kind of behavior we saw the Prophets of Baal engaging in during the battle with Elijah on Mount Carmel.  “Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “O Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.” (I Kings 18:26-28)  Hurting yourself, physically (or mentally) isn’t the right way to mourn or remember the dead.  Your life, the life you’re living now, is valuable, that’s what Moses is saying.  Do you need to be reminded of this?

  1. This is why the law tries to create harmony between too much and too little grief.

Over the centuries, the Rabbis outlined various ideas about the appropriate lengths of time for mourning.  A year for parents, 30 days for relatives other than parents, a week of mourning for community members, and a week set aside between death and burial.  To our western ears, raised in a therapeutic culture, these limits sound arbitrary and even absurd.  How can one place time limits on grief?  The truth is you can’t.  No one knows how long it takes to get over the death of someone you love.  We do know the pain and loss sucks to high heaven.  I think the Rabbis were trying to give us an idea when no good ideas were available.  Parents were essential, next came friends and family, and then we had to take our own lives from there.  I see it as the living honoring the dead in a befitting way so the living might go on living.  Even if that living, for the moment, is through the suck called grief.

How To Survive Western Civilization (Part One)

 

survival

One day you’re going to find yourself out in the big, bad world.  What are you going to do?  How are you going to survive?  What skills might you need to make it from one day to the next?  I’m not going to lie; it’s going to be tough.

My first question:

Do you want to survive or thrive?

You can do both.  You will have to survive before you thrive.  Survival precedes everything.  You need to be alive.  Let me help you stay alive.

What do you need to stay alive?

You need food and water to stay alive.  Snickers has it right, you’re not yourself if you’re hungry.  Eat right, regularly, and stay hydrated.  Survival starts with these three basics.  Drink some water, eat right, and eat regularly.

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Bring a sweater. Sometimes it gets cold.  Life gets cold and you’ll rarely be the one who is in charge of the thermostat.

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Space is important.  Not for you, though, for other people.  Give space to other people.  Give other humans room to exist.  Call it the benefit of the doubt, grace, time, patience, or whatever you want to call it.  Space changes the dynamic of life.  Everything isn’t supposed to be slow dance.  Let something precious grow in the space, something that might nourish both you and someone else.  Dancing from a distance, give it a try.

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You need to remember “again”.  Once is never enough.  One smile doesn’t do it nor does one wave.  Scrooge was visited by three ghosts.  If you want to change the world, multiply goodness.  Carry a box of matches.  One light, one action, one fire, one chance to spark a fire can illuminate total darkness.   Look at this guy.  He practices this look.  He should practice smiling, laughing, or waving. Again, I say, again.

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Are you holding on to extra baggage?  Everything you’re carrying isn’t crucial to survival.  Ask yourself, “What is crucial?”  Do you need that scowl?  People who scowl die alone in civilization?  People who smile get help much quicker.    It doesn’t have to be a scowl.  It might be a tendency to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

baggage

 

If you’re not surviving, ask for help.  Survivors ask for help.  No real survivor lives in bunker or shelter alone.  Help is good.  You need it.   Ask.  Life is not like hiring a friend.  Humanity isn’t a commercial transaction.  People who help you, in this wilderness, shouldn’t want anything in return.  If they do, keep asking.

Conceptional chalk drawing - Help needed

 

You can survive in increments.  Here’s what I mean.  Today’s key to survival may mean taking a small bite of something, a tiny sip of life, or finding that inch of space.  Do another bit tomorrow.

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Remember:  you can’t plan for the unexpected.  Plan for what you need.  Expect the unexpected.  Roll with the punches.  Get up again.  There’s that word…again.

Minimize risk by going to bed before two o’clock in the morning.  Nothing good happens at that time of night.  Put up your tent.  Find a pillow. Seriously, go get some sleep.  You’ll thank me.

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Birthday cards tell you that age is just a number.  I’m telling you living isn’t about moving from crisis to crisis.  Life isn’t measured in moments.  Can you weave those moments together into a blanket to keep you warm at night?  Stop measuring and start learning.  Survival takes you into tomorrow and is practical.  Use the moments you made today, whether good or bad, to grow.

Know what to care about and what to blow off.  Do you chase the raven or kill the bear? Most of the things you taking up your survival time are inconsequential.  Be Kenny Rogers. Know when to walk away, when to run, and when to say, “you know what, I just don’t care, this whole situation isn’t healthy and I’m moving on to find people who love and care about me.”  Or some variation thereof.

You have flaws and limits.  Despite this, you can survive.   You can even have a good day.

End of Part One