A Hopeful Word Spoken Out of Place

Isaiah 35: 1-10                                                                                    

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

Somewhere around 2008, Isaiah 35 became my favorite bible verse.  Hope did not come easy for me at that time.  I was still working through a divorce that felt more like a war of attrition after three years.  I lived with a colostomy bag on my stomach and waited for a fifth surgery in 18 months.  I had moved in with Jeanne, which was more accurately a crash landing.  We were trying to blend families with teenagers, and my job at a shelter involved dealing with drug relapses and people on a hard road to recovery.  I decided it was time to write, so I started a blog on the weekly scriptures from working in a shelter and my journey of healing.  This scripture about blossoms in the desert fit my desire for hope.  I had just read “The Blooming Lotus” by Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hahn, and suddenly my blog name emerged “Blooming Cactus,” my journey searching for hope in the wilderness.

It seemed incongruous to pick such a hopeful name for my blog.  I didn’t have much reason for hope other than Jeanne was willing to stick with me.  Every part of my life was a struggle to hold it all together.  I did not have much evidence that life would work out or that I had a bright and hopeful future ahead.  But then hope doesn’t come from evidence.  If you are waiting for something good to happen in your life so you can have hope, you will likely stay disappointed and despairing.  Hope is not an equation that can be solved when the correct numbers are in place.  Hope is seldom simply manifest by having more positive thoughts or inspiration post-it notes on your mirror and computer screen.  There are no blueprints or magic keys to finding hope, although there may be 12 steps.  

Where does hope begin?  Ironically, the first step is to look at our situation honestly, admit how bad it is, and realize that you can’t change it through your will, effort, or brilliant ideas.  I don’t believe you can really change until you admit failure, and as AA says, “Let go and let God.”  

Why is this true?  I think that until we admit failure, we will keep trying the same failed strategies and behaviors, thinking with a little more effort, a little more luck, a little more will-this time; THIS TIME, it’s going to work.  This leads to the definition of insanity, “We do the same thing over and over, expecting different results.” Hope begins with sanity, realizing we have failed, so we can let go and let God bring us to a new reality.  Hope is always a word spoken out of place.  It comes when we feel least capable when we have little evidence that something good is on the horizon.  

Our scripture from Isaiah is the hopeful poetry of prophetic imagination that is a word spoken out of place.  New Testament scholar Barbara Lundblad wonders if this scripture is even in the right place.  

This text shouldn’t be here. 

Amid rumors of war and desolation, Isaiah 35 surprises us. A voice speaks without addressing anyone by name, without the particularity of time. This poem follows 

another poem filled with ecological destruction: “The streams of Edom shall be turned 

into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch…Thorns shall 

grow over its strongholds, nettles, and thistles in its fortresses.” Then, without a break or explanation, Isaiah 35 interrupts devastation and despair: 

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad.

Who was the first audience to hear this, and what did they make of these words?  Were the people of Jerusalem watching the armies of Babylon surrounding them?  Were they people in exile, longing to return home to Jerusalem?  Were they the generation who returned to Jerusalem who found it in ruins?  It doesn’t matter which audience, because it could go at any point in Israel’s history, from the burning bush to wandering in the wilderness, to exile, to Roman occupation, to the ghettos and camps and pogroms.  What sense would anyone make of these hopeful words spoken out of place at any of these points?  

I recall more of Isaiah’s words: from Isaiah 2

The lion shall lie down with the lamb,

Swords and shields shall be beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks.

From Isaiah 40:

Comfort, Comfort, Oh my people,

“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord[a];
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God.[b]

At the moment these words are spoken, they make no sense.  The lion will never lie down with a lamb; they will always slay the lamb.  We will always need swords and shields and tanks and missiles.  Increasingly our world is dry land and getting dryer, and no streams are coming to save our thirsty souls.  What are we supposed to do with these words, just wait around for God to make things right?  We are waiting, and waiting, and waiting, so tired of waiting.

Hope doesn’t make sense.  Not until we let go and admit our way is failing.

I thought of this scripture while reading about the Colorado River system in the New York Times last week. The Colorado River system is the most crucial resource in the Western United States.  It carries life-giving water to 7 states and 29 Native American tribes, roughly 40 million people.  Seventy-five percent of the water goes to agriculture, where 15 percent of our nation’s food is grown.  Two great damns, the Hoover and Glen Canyon, supply green electricity for 1.3 million homes.  It is rapidly running dry with nothing to replace it.  Every scenario for the future involves major economic, political and social dislocation as the water runs out.  Water is life.  

The problems did not start with climate change.  The original compact for sharing water in 1922 was wildly optimistic about the volume of water flow, so apportionments were going to drive towards unsustainability at some point.  Now people are rushing into the region, and the river now supports 15 million more people than it did only back in 1992, just 30 years ago.  Phoenix is the fastest growing city in the United States, and it is a complete fantasy that this will last even a generation.  

It is a hopeless situation no matter how you slice it, especially with our current inability to do hard things politically.  But it is only futile if we are committed to the way we have always done things.  There are clear solutions, including difficult lifestyle changes, economic winners and losers, and political compromise.  This situation is solvable.  But not until we admit the system’s failure and start from a position of sustainable common good and not self-interest.  I researched agricultural irrigation and discovered that about 60 percent of water is used to alfalfa and corn to feed cattle.  Our beef habit is making the West into a desert.  Water usage data suggests that if Americans avoid meat one day each week, they could save an amount of water equivalent to the entire flow of the Colorado each year, more than enough water to alleviate the region’s shortages.  

Click to read NY Times article on the Colorado River

If we can admit our failure and act in new ways, then the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad.

As I watched the news this week, I wondered, “Where is the hope?” I listened and read stories about Hurricane Ida, drought and wildfires, Afghanistan, more record COVID deaths, and new anti-abortion gun laws in Texas that make citizens into bounty hunters and vigilantes.  I didn’t hear anything significant that made me hopeful.  Once again, any hope is a word spoken out of place.

What do we do with this profound lack?  It isn’t simply about coming up with solutions.  On any issue from climate change to COVID, there are plenty of solutions based on research, science, and evidence.  I think our despair deepens from the reality that we just can’t get out of our way and do things that make sense.  Decision-making in our institutions is governed by fear, hatred, greed, and manipulation of the truth.  We have been taught to think that reason and research will save us, and I’m all for better reason and analysis.  But the thorny problem that holds us back is in our collective souls.  Where do we find hope?

I think hope is an attitude.  Hope is a discipline that must be fed and nurtured.  It is a state of mind that says I will do the next right thing without calculating the odds of success.  Hope is not about the odds.  If you want good odds, go to Vegas or DraftKings.  

We can’t manufacture hope, but we can receive it.  Hope flows in prayer when we allow our lives to be centered in God.  Hope comes in small acts of love freely given.  Hope emerges when we bear each other’s burdens and accompany one another through our trials.  Hope lives in a community dedicated to walking in all of God’s ways.  Hope does not wait for reality to shift; it calls us to live into a life we cannot yet see, to live according to an ancient promise as yet unfulfilled.  

Hope is always a word spoken out of place.   As the poem “Anyway” says:

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
   Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
   Do good anyway.
 If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
   Succeed anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
   Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
   Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
   Think big anyway.
People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
   Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
   Build anyway.
People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
   Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
   Give the world the best you have anyway.

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