What is our prayer for this new year?
Right off the bat, I can think of about a hundred things I would like God to take care of this year. The Coronavirus, obviously. Climate change. Poverty. Cancer, Alzheimers, ALS. Gerrymandering that benefits whatever political party. Depression and anxiety. Catalytic converter theft. I could go on, and so could you.
Today’s scripture from Isaiah is a kind of prayer for the people of ancient Israel. You might remember the general arc of the book of Isaiah. The first part, more or less, is the prophet warning the people of Israel that they have been unfaithful to God and there are about to be some bad consequences. The second part, more or less, is the prophet comforting the people living in exile that God is not done with them yet. The third part, more or less, is the prophet speaking to the people after they have returned to their homeland and left their exile.
While scholars don’t necessarily agree on this, let’s think of this passage as being addressed to the people who have returned to their homeland only to find that it’s not flowing with milk and honey but a pile of ruins. Rebuilding awaits them. But, Isaiah promises, God will be with them in the rebuilding.
They had come through a terrible, devastating time. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it this way. “What you need to know is that Isaiah 60 is a very old poem recited to Jews in Jerusalem about 580 b.c.e. These Jews had been sent away from Jerusalem in exile in Iraq for a couple generations. They came back to the bombed out city of Jerusalem, and they found it in shambles without a viable economy and without much ground for new possibility. They were disappointed and ready to despair, for who wants to live in a city where the towers are torn down and the economy has failed and nobody can think what to do about it.
“In the middle of that mess in Jerusalem about 580 b.c.e, there was this amazing poet who invited his depressed, discouraged, contemporaries to look up and hope and expect newness in the city that God would give again. He promised that everything would change in Jerusalem because God is about to do good….” (Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004. P. 129.)
I must tell you that when I read what Dr. Brueggemann wrote – “who wants to live in a city where the towers are torn down and the economy has failed and nobody can think what to do about it” – I thought of our Portland.
A few weeks ago I was at the Walmart in North Portland trying to take care of the Angel Tree gift cards, and as I went to my next errand I drove through the Delta Park area. Have you been there lately? I saw tent after tent after tent, pile of stuff after pile of stuff, burned out cars, and a few of the people who live there.
My reaction was at it always is, when I see this at Delta Park or downtown or wherever: both deep sadness that people live this way and anger that people live this way. What have we come to when we think it’s okay for people to live in this filth, without heat or running water? And why don’t these people want better for themselves?
And so we have news article and editorials and tv segments about all of this. Is Portland over? Will we ever get tourists back? Will businesses flee from downtown? Can we build temporary shelters, transitional housing, affordable housing? Will we prosper or will we perish?
I know that the situation is complicated.
Sometimes people lose their housing because they do not have enough money to rent a place, much less buy one and that involves not making a living wage and the high cost of living here.
Sometimes people live without shelter because they have an addiction and have lost all their chances to be a part of mainstream society.
Sometimes people live without shelter because they live with a mental illness that makes navigating the systems for help difficult or frightening.
The economics of it are also complicated and I’m not sure that capitalism has an answer. There are plenty of people in our city who make plenty of money, however you define “plenty” of money. Some are very generous with non-profit causes. And some ask the question, “Why should I give away my hard-earned money to those people?” The system itself is stacked against those without resources, especially if they are people of color. We live with the legacy of Portland’s history of redlining, not allowing people of color to buy property in certain neighborhoods.
To the people of Isaiah’s time, coming back to their devastated homeland, the prophet offers a vision of prosperity. “the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”
As Brueggemann says, “This is a great cause for celebration, because God, in this poem, has promised to make the great city of Jerusalem work effectively in peace and prosperity. The poem contradicts the present dysfunction of the city. This is a promise from God, thus very sure.” (p. 130) He goes on to describe this text as the description of a way that will allow the people of Israel to return to normalcy.
Isn’t that what we are longing for – a return to normalcy? Prosperity for our city? Restoration?
I think it is, but I also think we must be careful and thoughtful and compassionate as we move in that direction. What will ‘normal’ look like after this pandemic? What will prosperity look like in Portland? What will restoration look like for any of us and for all of us?
As we think about these things, maybe we start with our values, hoping that those shape the answers to these challenges. As people who follow Jesus, we place the highest value on love and grace, which might look like compassion, empathy, forgiveness, and mercy.
As people who follow the God of Isaiah and all the prophet, we place a high value on justice, which means, as we read the scripture, making sure that the most vulnerable among us are provided for in whatever plans we make. As people of faith, we value hope – hope that God is not finished with us, with our city, or with our world, that God desires goodness for all of us, even more than we desired it for ourselves.
And so a cleaned-up Delta Park or a bustling downtown must include, using the values of our faith, a plan for shelter, for addiction treatment, for physical and mental health care. It’s not enough that the soccer pitches are clean and safe; it’s not enough to move the unsheltered to a different place. We must also provide for them, those who live on the margins.
And oh my goodness, that takes so much work. And patience. And hope. It may be true that some who live in dire situations do not want help. That saddens me, because I make the assumption that they do not think enough of themselves to want better, and I have a hunch my assumption may be totally off.
So what do we do? How do recast Isaiah’s vision for our city?
First we look at what is already being done. The city is looking into creating three villages with very modest, temporary cabin-like structures where the unsheltered can live. Other non-profits, including Westminster and a consortium of faith-based communities, are in the process of building affordable housing. That is an exciting expression of faith.
For those living with addiction – what do we do? I imagine every one of us knows someone who is addicted to alcohol, painkillers, or some other substance that tears apart the body and soul. We might examine our own tendencies toward addiction, to develop our empathy. We might learn about the neuroscience of addiction. We might press our elected officials to offer better services. And we might have to accept that some people will never escape their addiction, and might die from it, and know that they too deserve our love and compassion.
For those roaming our streets who live with untreated mental illness – that is a hard one. We have all sort of medications and therapies that help those who live with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or other illnesses, but – compliance in taking the meds, and access to the meds are stumbling blocks. We simply need more services to help with mental illness – Unity Center for Behavioral Health is utterly overwhelmed.
Over all of that is our understanding of what prosperity means for Portland. Does it mean business having record earnings, and stocks increasing in value? Does it mean big bonuses for executives? I hope not. I hope prosperity means that everyone lives with the basics – shelter, food, clothing. I hope it means that everyone has access to medical care for body and mind. I hope prosperity means that people find community, maybe a church community, maybe a 12 Step group, maybe tiny village of temporary cabins.
What is our prayer for this new year? We always pray for those on the margins, and pray for God to show us our role in their prospering. We always pray for strength and courage to face whatever comes our way. But in 2022, I think we add prayers to move with openness into whatever our new normal is.
As we transition from the old year to the new, and as we move from Christmas to Epiphany, let us remember these words, this prayer, from Howard Thurman.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
To the glory of God.
The Reverend Beth Neel
Westminster Presbyterian Church
January 2, 2022