Archive for February, 2017

Habría sido difícil esbozar la trayectoria establecida por los ‘cánticos del siervo’ del libro de Isaías y llegar al perfil concreto de Jesús. La retrospección y la reflexión, por otro lado, son matiz de materia diferente. (more…)

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En ocasiones, los profetas relajan el notable silencio de la Biblia hebrea con respecto a lo que podríamos llamar  ‘el mundo invisible ’. Los textos del Antiguo Testamento no gastan mucho tiempo negando que pudiera haber una estela de acciones más allá  de lo que podemos ver y escuchar por los medios convencionales.

En pocas palabras, los textos siguen siendo agnósticos y sugestivos en ese punto, proporcionando sólo lo más breves vislumbres de un mundo que se abre paso a lo invisible y que está en guerra, así como estamos en guerra tan frecuentemente  aquí abajo.

Deuteronomio 29.29 parece captar esta posición, que es al mismo tiempo autoconsciente, disciplinada y sostenida.

Lo secreto le pertenece al Señor nuestro Dios, pero lo revelado nos pertenece a nosotros y a nuestros hijos para siempre, para que obedezcamos todas las palabras de esta ley (Deuteronomio 29:29 N.V.I.).

La pasión espiritual en nuestros días coincide regularmente con una inclinación a la especulación sobre el ‘mundo espiritual’  y oculto  que está en desacuerdo con este enfoque. Sin embargo, podríamos sentir cierta comodidad por el manejo de  una espiritualidad que se arriesga a cuestionar el materialismo sofocante que ha sido nuestra ideología oficial durante uno o dos siglos.

Habiéndome liberado de esta declaración de cautela, encontramos después de una pausa en uno de los ‘oráculos contra las naciones’ de Isaías un fascinante vislumbre de lo que podríamas llamar los dos niveles de la creación.

En aquel día el Señor castigará a los poderes celestiales en el cielo y a los reyes terrenales en la tierra. (Isaías 24:21 N.V.I.)

Este texto de Isaías no es el único que identifica una cierta correlación entre lo que ‘las naciones’ hacen en el mundo que conocemos, por una parte, y la rebelión y a veces la guerra intra-celestial  de parte de—¿qué los llamaremos?—los poderes celestiales.

La reiterativa repetición del verso—la hueste del cielo en el cielo y los reyes de la tierra en la tierra—parece subrayar una insistencia profética de que la realidad viene en dos sabores y que las actividades en las dos esferas realmente de hecho tienen correlación.

El libro de Isaías es al menos tan insistente como cualquier otra porción de literaria del  Antiguo Testamento sobre el punto que YHWH es incomparable, y por lo tanto es único. Su autoridad no es la única autoridad, pero no tiene comparación alguna con otra.

La seguridad que el profeta ofrece a la pequeña Judá se dirige modestamente a un temor latente en los desamparados nacionales o existenciales: que el rescate o la redención pueda venir, pero  sólo de forma  parcial.

No, dice al profeta, extendiendo sus manos hacia los polos  llamados ‘el cielo y la tierra’. En aquel  día, todos serán tocados, todo será sujetado y  todo perro de guerra hecho sumiso.


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Some thoughts offered to the students of the Honors College at LeTorneau University, 23 February 2017

My wife Karen is studying Spanish, because we’re moving to Colombia in a little bit. She spreads out her grammar books on the table, asks me to explain to her one more time about the difference between a direct and an indirect object, fires up Duolingo on the computer, and declares truths to her laptop like ‘My little dog eats food’ and ‘I am a horse’ with incredible emphasis. I chisel away silently at my work in the next room.

Then she starts her two-hour classes via Skype with Magdalena, her wonderful Spanish teacher in Colombia. Karen turns up the volume on her laptop and—again—speaks at Magdalena on her computer screen with an overflowing passion. Things like …

¡Yo vivo en una casa! (I live in a house!)

¡Yo tengo un esposo! (I have a husband!)

¡Él se llama David! (His name is Dave!)

¡Él también vive en una casa! (He also lives in a house!)

She follows this up with a number of additional transcendent truths, which she speaks with world-changing fervor as though the survival of our human race depended upon these things.

Then, when it’s all over, and Karen and Magdalena have exchanged all the small-talk that the minuscule command of the other’s language that each of these magnificent women manages will allow, my wife closes her laptop and pads into the room where I’m working.

As the kind of attentive husband about whom entire books are written, I ask …

So how did it go?

She always feels like she’s failing …

Because she is.

Let me explain.

But before I do … and some of you are saying to yourselves, How can he talk about his wife that way …?, let me tell you about my friend Matt.

Matt is my personal trainer at the YMCA. When I mentioned to Dr. Liebengood that I might bring this up in my talk, he said to me with that straight face of his and that boyish twinkle in his eye, ‘Oh, Dave … please don’t tell them you work out … you’ll lose all credibility right up front …’

Matt is a hulking, scowling, personal-training phenomenon. I drag myself into the YMCA at regular intervals and submit to Matt’s training regimen. More accurately, I go in there for my ritual butt-kicking. Matt’s favorite lines are …

Shall we put a little more weight on that … ? GOOD! … 5 pounds or 10?

In spite of the torment, Matt has become my friend, though I alternately love him and loathe him as he forces me to do more than I know I can do.

When I was getting used to Matt’s method, I was frustrated that I could never seem to finish the third of three sets on any given lift. I would actually say to Matt, just after he’d kept some brain-crushing amount of weight from falling on my skull or merely—in less extreme cases—taking out all my teeth …

Sorry …

‘Cuz I thought I was supposed to finish all three sets. I mean, What else was I supposed to think?

Then my youngest son came home from the Army for a break and we went to the Y to ‘lift’ together. Now Johnny is also a hulking, speeding, athletic phenomenon. It is my peculiar late-middle-aged torture to be surrounded by such people. Dr. Liebengood was actually Johnny’s youth group leader when he was a young teenager but—happily—my son was able to get on with his life without obvious signs of irremediable damage.

Somewhere along the line John explained to me that working the weights is all about failing. In fact, you ‘work to failure’. It actually has a name!

It’s the only way you can advance. The spotter is there to spot precisely because you’re expected to fail. I had thought the spotter was like a guardrail, just there for safety in the unlikely event that you ran off the road. But you’re actually supposed to need your spotter because you will fail. Your spotter is a normal part of the process, not a margin of safety against the abnormal. Failure is what you work towards, because it’s how you get stronger. It’s the whole point. If you don’t fail, you remain a wimp for life and your survivors write on your tombstone …

‘He was a nice guy, I guess, but what a wimp …’

Just a word about Karen and her Spanish learning: Evaluators of language learning push the student to the point of Linguistic Collapse.

I’m not kidding you. It’s really a thing, and that’s what they call it. It’s a freakin’ technical term. The only reliable way for them to assess how much you’ve achieved is to push you to your point of failure. Then they say, ‘Well done. You’re proficient to level A or B’, or whatever it happens to be.

Do you see my point? Nearly all worthy human pursuits require that we become accustomed to failing … even to failing regularly.

Dr. Liebengood might well remark that I’ve become particularly adept at failing, which may explain his strange invitation to come out to LeTorneau and talk with all of you about this topic.

You know what’s extraordinary about this?

Loads of people spend their whole lives working as hard as they can never to fail.

They never dare to dream big. They never imagine things that are not.

They do small things in small ways over and over and, as a result, they become little people.

They never say what they really think. Or they always say what they really think. But, either way, they never enter that dangerous space of actually engaging human beings and shaping the future.

In times when we are all desperate for someone to step up and lead, they never do.

You know why?

Because they might fail!

Well of course they’ll fail. And so will you. And, if you fail on the path to becoming stronger, then as our Australian friends would say, ‘Good onya!’

Because, especially if you ever want to lead anything or anybody, failure is an option. In fact, it’s a requirement. You’d all better get real good at it. It’s often the only evidence that you’ve wisely engaged challenges that are bigger than you are.

And that’s the only way to live.

I’ve done my share of failing, that’s for sure. And here are some things, humbly offered to you today, that I think I’ve learned from my penchant for failing.


For years, I’ve actually had these three words on a StickyNote on the screen of my laptop so that I’ll see them all the time.

You know why? Because I love to look away.

I usually feel that I want to run from interpersonal conflict, financial shortfalls, underperforming colleagues, political differences, difficult conversations, etc. I am fully in touch with my Inner Coward. Looking Away is my most authentic impulse. It comes from deep within. It requires no encouragement to take control of a situation and quickly resolve it. I am never truer to myself than when I am looking away.

I can tell you that I have done damage to organizations I’ve led and to the human beings within them by Looking Away. It’s one of the ways I’ve failed, mostly because I have not summoned the strength to look the problem square in the eyes and hold it in my gaze until it’s dealt with and put behind us.

One of my all-time favorite movie moments happens in the film Apollo 13. Maybe you remember it.

The Apollo 13 crew never made it to the moon because of that explosion in their craft as they were headed in that direction. Long story short, they and the people down at Mission Control in Houston had to improvise a way to bring them home. Gene Kranz is the storied director of the White Team that worked one of the long shifts at Mission Control during the entire Apollo 13 mission. Kranz orders up a box of all the objects and implements that the astronauts on the stricken craft have available to them. Then he gathers his team leaders in a work room, dumps the box out on a table, and tells them ‘This is what we have to work with. Let’s find a solution.’

All hell breaks lose in that room. Up above, the spacecraft is breaking up. The three astronauts seem sure to die. The sky is falling. People are yelling, arguing, despairing, spinning their wheels.

Kranz (played by Ed Harris) says these phenomenal words:

Let’s work the problem, people.

Everyone calms down and begins to do just that. And somehow, almost unbelievably—except that it really happened—they get those three guys home.

That’s what leaders learn how to do: look unforgivingly at what is real and true, and work the problem in that environment and not in some other more pleasant environment that they can imagine.

Leaders don’t get there overnight. At least I haven’t.

But I’ve learned this from failing: When difficulty strikes, Don’t you dare look away.


I want to read to you a passage from Rowan Williams’ recently published book, Being Disciples, that I find quite powerful. Williams was the until just a few years ago the Archbishop of Canterbury, and therefore the head of the worldwide Anglican community. He’s now the Master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge, an institution to which Dr. Liebengood was not offered admission.

Williams writes that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is at its core a matter of awareness. It’s a matter of being able to pause prayerfully and attentively in the midst of the chaos and ask …

What is God doing right here, right now?

It’s a kind of contextual awareness that only comes with full engagement and usually with the accumulation of years and wisdom.

Rowan Williams combines this awareness with expectancy. This what he writes:

And for us today, trying to be Christ’s disciples, awareness and expectancy are still central. We are not precisely where those first disciples were. We are post-resurrection believers and we ought to understand a little more than Christ’s first disciples in the gospels did. In theory at least. We have the Holy Spirit to direct and inform, to energize our awareness, to kindle our expectancy. Like those first disciples, we look as well as listen. We watch with expectancy the world in which live. We listen for the word to come alive for us in scripture. We look at the great self-identifying actions of the Church in the sacraments, asking the Spirit to make the connection come alive.

But not only that; we look at one another as Christians with expectancy—an aspect of discipleship that is not aways easy to hold to. Yet it can’t be said too often, the first thing we ought to think of when we are in the presence of another Christian individual or Christian community is: what is Christ giving me through this person, this group? Given that we may not always see eye to eye with other Christians we mix with, that can be hard work (and no doubt it’s at least equally hard work for them looking at us). Nonetheless, Jesus has brought us together precisely so that we approach one another with that degree of expectancy. It doesn’t mean that you will agree with everything the other Christian says; simply that you begin by asking, ‘What is Jesus Christ giving me here and now?’ Never mind the politics, the hidden agenda, or anything else of that kind, just ask that question and it will move you forward a tiny bit in discipleship. Can we live in a Church characterized by expectancy towards one another of that kind? It would be a very deeply biblical  and gospel-shaped experience of the Church if we could.

I love that: awareness and expectancy.

I am learning through failing at leadership and—more generally—through the ongoing process of maturing in leadership, that these qualities of discipleship require the discipline of making eye contact. You really need to engage with your world and with other human beings and with other Christians in a way that subjugates the tyranny of the urgent as well as your passion for your own projects in order to receive from the world and from those around you all that Jesus Christ has to give to you through them.

May I get a little practical?

I have the bad habit of waking up in the morning dreading some of the encounters that are on my schedule for that day. I’ve discovered that many bad habits respond to early prayer, and this is one of them. I try to discipline my heart and mind to begin the day by thanking God for what this person and that person and my 3:30 appointment will bring to me … that is, what Jesus Christ will give to me through that person. Sometimes I know a confrontation is brewing. Sometimes I know the conversation is unlikely to be aesthetically pleasing. But I am learning that in almost every encounter of that kind, if I truly make eye contact and engage, there is a gift for me waiting to be received.

I am learning to live and to lead with awareness and expectancy. This has taken me a long time, and I can’t say I’m very far across the border on this one.

Leaders who make eye contact are too scarce in our world. Our culture prizes the powerful man or woman who is capable of imposing his or her will on others and, in those venerable words that are our culture’s own Scripture, getting things done.

Such leaders are seldom loved and their output often fails to endure.

It is, rather, leaders who make eye contact who shift our world in one direction or another in enduring ways that become part of the fabric of our shared life.

I dare to hope that among you there are some leaders like that.


You have come of age in a pragmatic culture that insists on measuring the Return on Investment (ROI) of everything you choose to do and then on predicting what will be worthwhile for you based on those measures.

While you swim in that tsunami of culture-based instruction, let me be for the moment a lonely voice with a different message. I happen to think it’s good news.

I’ll abbreviate it in this way:

Nothing gets wasted.

Now like all attempts to cram truth into an aphorism, this one can be exaggerated and even misdirected until it means the opposite of what I want to communicate. So let me unpack those three words—nothing gets wasted—just a little.

If you engage God’s world with zest and curiosity and delight and discipline, you will be amazed at how much of what you learn comes round to help you out in practical ways when you least expect it. I can’t explain why this should be, other than to say that I suspect the Lord of Creation honors our honoring of his world by making it pay off in ways we could not predict. That’s a theological hunch, but I stand by it.

Now why do I say that this claim comes from a lonely voice?

Because a whole generation of self-designated experts on what education is for will tell you that, especially as adult learners, you know exactly what you want to learn and that what you want to learn is what you should learn.

I beg to differ.

I don’t think we know what we should learn. I think that biblical wisdom and popular wisdom and grandparents and Great Books curricula and professors of Latin and math teachers and great magazines (The Atlantic, First Things, The Economist, the late, great Books & Culture …), and all sorts of other sources know that there are things we would never pursue if left to our own devices because the frontiers where our ignorance meets the world are simply unmarked.

A quick decision that ‘I don’t need to learn that!—sometimes articulated with dangerous arrogance as ‘What do I need to learn that for?!’—very easily cuts off our organic development as human beings who lead.

And, please, may I beg you to avoid one stupid statement that you will be tempted to make in your first five years out of LeTorneau University?:

They never taught me how to do this at LeTorneau!

The statement assumes that this university’s job is to teach you how to face every challenge that you will confront five, ten, and thirty years down the road. No competent educator at LeTorneau would ever buy that vision for this school.

Nor should you.

The principal reason for universities like this one is to shape you as a human being who will continue to learn through what may well be a turbulent lifetime with vigor, discipline, and delight.

Now if this all sounds very earnest and maybe a little harsh, let me turn myself around and engage this matter from a different direction, a positive direction:

For some bizarre reason, almost nothing gets wasted.

If you truly learn, if you expose your heart and mind to areas of human endeavor that may or may not hold intrinsic interest for you, I promise you—I’m way out on a limb here, but aware of my environs—that almost every bit of it will come back around to you as a gift or a tool.

Your math class will give you entree into a conversation with a businessman with whom you are seeking common cause. You probings at psychology will provide you a place to stand when a friend has entrusted to you that she has thoughts of taking her own life. Your Latin class will set you up for a life of delighting in the sheer, extraordinary gift of words. Your summers spent scraping out the bottom of industrial barrels will mean you’ll never underestimate the battle of a 61-year-old working man who has only ever done that.

Your encounters with your own ignorance, your own crossing of cultural boundaries will help you feel … help you actually feel … something of what it means to be an immigrant or a refugee in a land as strange as this land. Your memorization of Scripture—sure, you could just look it up on your smartphone—will provide you with a reservoir of reality that bubbles up from inside you by day and by night.

And so on … and so forth … for a lifetime.

It’s the strangest thing:

Nothing gets wasted.

And, frankly, no one wants to be led by somebody who has only ever learned one thing, somebody who only knows one thing.

I don’t. You don’t. Nobody does.

The world is full of people who only know … one thing … people who never imagined that nothing gets wasted. People who are deeply, sadly un-curious.

I have had to lead some of them. You will have to lead some of your own.

But you don’t have to be one.

So don’t test out of that math test if you’re borderline on numbers. Sign up for Latin. Take that literature elective. Learn how to lay bricks or plant trees or fix a Harley.

Then when you fail at leadership, as you will, you’ll have all manner of resources to sustain your heart and your mind as you bounce back. You’ll be a happier person,  a less cynical person, too.


Speaking of bouncing back … I’d like to talk with you about being resilient.

You’re going to need to be resilient.

Failing profitably at leadership only happens when the leader himself or herself is resilient.

The important thing is not really how badly you feel on the day …

√ you bomb that exam.

√ your students hate you.

√ your business goes bankrupt.

√ your board of directors beats you up.

√ your employer lays you off.

√ your spouse walks out on you.

What really matters is who you are the next morning.

I think I’ve learned this over the years, and I hope you’ll hear me out on it.

I’m almost tempted to say, in the light of the provocative title I’ve forced upon you today, that resilience is everything. I won’t say it, because it would be an exaggeration. But not a very big exaggeration. It would almost be true. Resilience really is almost everything.

For those of us who attempt to engage life from the angle of faith in Jesus Christ, resilience is the power of God in us. The Scriptures teach us that God is strong and that he does not hoard his strength, but apportions it to us. More often than not, I have become convinced, we experience God’s strength as what we would call resilience.

We are often knocked down: Karen speaks all the Spanish she knows and cannot come out with another word. I flame out half-way through the third set of Matt’s training regimen. Or much harder blows than these are landed upon is. It almost crushes us, but somehow it does not crush us.

We bounce back. We face another day. We wake up stronger. We re-enter the arena.

I once gave a back-of-the-envelope talk to a group of South Asian pastors on this very topic. I called it ‘9 things I’ve learned about resilience’.

This is what I shared with them:

  1. Resilience does not require super-human strength.
  2. Resilience is a symptom of God’s own strength in us.
  3. We can train ourselves to expect resilience.
  4. Resilience comes in small doses.
  5. The night-time must precede the morning.
  6. We don’t always need to ‘show our work’.
  7. Worship postures us for resilience.
  8. People will mistake resilience for high spirituality, special strength, or immunity to pain.
  9. It’s not smart to tempt resilience.

As I look back on that somewhat impromptu talk from the angle of today’s topic, I think I learned those things by failing at leadership. By exhausting my own capacity over and over again, by suffering deep loss and then coming back the next day to start over.

I hope you have become resilient, too. Or, if you have not, that you will.


When you lead, you translate 24/7. The non-leader has the luxury of speaking in, listening in, and mastering a single dialect, a single way of speaking, a single way of thinking, a single vocabulary.

After failing at getting people to understand his or her native dialect, the leader renounces this luxury and takes up the task of being an always-on translator.

Let me see whether I can explain what I mean.

When in 2004 I moved back to the USA after sixteen years of working in and eventually leading a seminary in Costa Rica, I did so in order to take the position of President & CEO of Overseas Council (OC). OC is an organization that works very effectively at building capacity in about 300 theological seminaries in the Majority World.

A major part of my responsibility was to get to know businessmen and women who showed an interest in Overseas Council and to make the case that they should become or remain donors to this cause. Although I generally love meeting new people, I often came away from these meetings with a full stomach and a vague sense of irritation. ‘They just don’t get it’, I thought.

I felt as though I was failing to connect, and that this failure was caused in the main by the inability of my conversation partners to ‘get’ how riveting a thing training Christian leaders is in the parts of the world where the church is experiencing explosive growth.

I managed to discover enough resilience to keep it up, to keep engaging these conversations. Some of them were fun and productive, others were not.

Eventually, I came to understand I was not failing as a friend or as a persuader. I was failing as a translator, and my foremost task was essentially that: the duty of a translator. I learned, over time, to speak the language of the business professional, the vocabulary of the entrepreneur, the jargon of the theological educator, and the patois of the pastor.

Now here’s where the key learning was for me: in learning to speak the same truth in these different dialects, I was not becoming a traitor to myself or to my cause. I was simply coming to understand the inevitable reality that the leader must learn to speak his or her truth to many kinds of people, including to his bosses and to those who answer to him.

It’s hard work. It takes extraordinary patience and constantly growing prowess.

About the time I was beginning to understand this, I sought some mentoring from a retired U.S. seminary president. He shared with me that experience of giving up or at least putting on hold his academic work in order to serve an institution as its chief executive. I lamented to him the fact that I was ‘no longer teaching’.

He didn’t let me get away with it for a second. He said, ‘Oh, but you haven’t given up your life as an educator. You are an educator in every moment. When you’re with your staff, you’re educating them. When you’re in the boardroom, you’re educating your trustees. When you’re having lunch with a donor, you’re educating your donor. You are always and everywhere still an educator.’

He could have been saying ‘translator’ instead of ‘educator’ and he’d have been just as right as he was.

I learned this truth by failing. I could never have learned it otherwise.

  *   *   *

I hate to think of you as people destined for failure. But you are. Hallelujah, you will fail!

And in the failing, you will grow strong, wise, resilient, and fruitful.

You will learn so many things from failing at leadership that these little home truths I’ve stumbled upon will soon be in your rear view mirror.

It doesn’t matter, my friends, how you feel at the end of a brutal day, or a brutal semester, or a brutal year, or a brutal decade.

It matters who you are in the morning.

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Cuando los profetas del Antiguo Testamento satirizan, no es causa de risa. Es decir, cualquier regocijo provocado por sus irónicos o ataques verbales—y algo de esto es bastante gracioso para los ojos modernos también—está destinado a despertar en sus oyentes que la realidad creada ha sido transgredida. Y pronto, o eventualmente, será rectificada.

En el siguiente pasaje, los dioses de los opresores babilónicos absorben la fuerza de este sátira acre.

Bel se inclina, Nebo se somete; sus ídolos son llevados por bestias de carga. Pesadas son las imágenes que por todas partes llevan; son una carga para el agotado. Todos a la vez se someten y se inclinan; no pudieron rescatar la carga,  y ellos mismos van al cautiverio.

Escúchame, familia de Jacob, todo el resto de la familia de Israel, a quienes he cargado desde el vientre, y he llevado desde la cuna. Aun en la vejez, cuando ya peinen canas, yo seré el mismo, yo los sostendré. Yo los hice, y cuidaré de ustedes; los cargaré y los libraré (Isaías 46:1-4 N.V.I., ligeramente editada).

El sofisticado juego verbal presente es muy rico para ser explicado en la traducción. Pero déjenme intentarlo.

Estos dos breves párrafos proféticos (por lo que la versión hebraica del ‘Texto Masorético’ los considera) juega sobre los temas que Isaías sostiene, vemos algunos giros hacia adentro y algunas exploraciones, así como J.S. Bach explora la capacidad del sonido dado en una fughetta barroca.

Éstos son algunos de esos temas que aparecen en las líneas que he citado.

En primer lugar, el momento histórico parece comprobar los poderes de los dioses de babilonia, incluso para descartar cualquier discusión en el rostro de su evidente magnificencia. La nación babilónica, después de todo, reina en supremacía. Como podríamos decir hoy, es como  una imagen de  una superpotencia unipolar. Los príncipes babilónicos son reyes, se jactan ellos. Son la definición misma de la voluntad invencible de ejerecer el poder. El lenguaje isaiánico de la altura entra en juego aquí, donde ‘la alta’ significa la gloria y la autoridad y ‘la baja’ significa derrota e incapacidad.

En esta luz, la afirmación de Isaías de que ‘Bel se inclina’ y que ‘Nebo se postra’ convierte las circunstancias en su cabeza. El pensamiento del profeta, ofrecido en contra de las evidencias, es o bien enterado y provocativo, pues quizás el profeta discierne más que nosotros. O es simplemente el delirio.

En segundo lugar, las ideas gemelas isiánicas de peso y fatiga se despliegan ingeniosamente y, en mi opinión, poderosamente. Permítanme tratar de descomponer de una forma ordenada que lo pueda compartir sin drenar la imagen de su fluyente potencia.

Satíricamente, Isaías sugiere que la representación física de los dioses babilónicos es  sencillamente demasiado pesada como para ser cargada sin que la gente se agote en el proceso. Es decir, estos dioses no ayudan a su gente. Más bien, sus adoradores son reducidos al simple hecho de transportar a sus ídolos, con la energía que ellos mismos carecen. Este tipo de religión, según las reclamaciones del profeta, es agotadora.

Los componentes verbales que hacen de esta sátira posible, son palabras comunes para describir el soporte (נשא), la relacionada con carga (משא), una palabra exquisitamente empleada aquí que implica carga y transporte (עמס), y—por último—una palabra que es potente en manos de Isaías que significa estar fatigado (עיף).

Ahora veamos de nuevo el pasaje, esta vez con comentarios intercalados en cursiva:

Bel se inclina, Nebo se somete; sus ídolos son llevados por bestias de carga. (Aquí los grandes dioses de Babilonia se reducen a pesados objetos materiales y que la gente utiliza patéticamente a sus valiosos animales, forzándolos a llevar la  carga.)

Todos a la vez se someten y se inclinan  (¿Quién hace esto?, ¿los dioses, las bestias de carga? Es muy probable que este último–la bestias—luchen, se esfuercen y se quejen bajo la carga). No pueden librar la carga, sino que ellos mismos son llevados al cautiverio.

Escúchame, familia de Jacob, todo el resto de la familia de Israel, a quienes he cargado desde el vientre, y he llevado desde la cuna.  Aun en la vejez, cuando ya peinen canas, yo seré el mismo, yo los sostendré. Yo los hice, y cuidaré de ustedes;  los sostendré y los libraré.

Ah, y ahora vemos que en los oídos de Isaías es YHWH quien lleva y carga a su propio pueblo. No los somete a la fatiga de arrastrar a los dioses inertes, sino que los carga sobre alas de águilas, de modo que hasta los fatigados logran encontrar nuevas fuerzas.

Así que la sátira Isiánica es  luz en lo que realmente está sucediendo en un momento en que Babilonia y sus dioses aparentan triunfar y Judá se esconde como una de las muchas víctimas que fenecen ante esta poderosa nación.

Echemos un vistazo a un juego de palabras más, en este impresionante pasaje.

Esas bestias cargadas—cargadas de ídolos, si esta lectura es la lectura correcta—no pueden ‘salvar la carga’. La palabra traducida aquí como ‘salvar’ es profundamente familiar en el contexto isaiánico del exilio y el retorno, de la subyugación y de la redención. El  verbo en  hebreo מלט, aquí  al parecer, significa que las bestias desgastadas de tropiezo no pueden salvar a la carga de los ídolos bajo cuyo peso muerto son  impulsadas siempre hacia adelante. Pero sólo unos cuantos versículos más adelante, leemos acerca de la afirmación de YHWH: ‘voy a llevar y a salvar’.

Este extracto de cuatro versos del libro de Isaías es gema de sátira profética, que se puede admirar por motivos literarios por sus matices penetrantemente inteligentes. Sin embargo, ha sido preservado, leído y atesorado porque habla de cosas aún más profundas: La religión muerta  engañada lleva una nación al agotamiento. Muy por el contrario es el ofrecimiento de  YHWH; él carga y sostiene a los que son suyos.

El lector cristiano puede encontrar que las palabras de un profeta posterior vienen a la mente:

Vengan a mí todos ustedes que están cansados y agobiados, y yo les daré descanso. Carguen con mi yugo y aprendan de mí, pues yo soy apacible y humilde de corazón, y encontrarán descanso para su alma. Porque mi yugo es suave y mi carga es liviana (Mateo 11:28-30 N.V.I.).

No tomaría nada de estas últimas palabras, ni de su orador, si uno especulara que la sátira isaiánica—atesorada, reflexionada e incluso memorizada—estaba en el centro de la llamada de Jesús a una cierta ligereza misericordiosa.

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El gran swing en el libro de Isaías, la gran bisagra sobre la que gira, es el movimiento entre el juicio y la misericordia.

Más particularmente, el libro entrega  al lector este gran swing—si se me permite llamarlo de esta manera—en función de un golpe personal de parte de YHWH y luego su misericordia sobre Israel/Judá.

Un vistazo viene en la anticipación efusiva del capítulo 60 del embellecimiento de Sion en manos de extranjeros y del  lujo de su producto económico y cultural más fino.

Los extranjeros reconstruirán tus muros, y sus reyes te servirán. Aunque en mi furor te castigué, por mi bondad tendré compasión de ti (Isaías 60:10 NVI).

El castigar en cuestión es el exilio de Judá a Babilonia, sufrido en tiempo delimitado. Por el contrario, la restauración impulsada por la misericordia es abierta y sin conclusión. Por lo tanto, existe una relación asimétrica entre uno y el otro. La ira y el golpe son temporales. El favor y la misericordia están destinados a permanecer.

Isaías expresa temas como éste casi en el estilo de una fuga musical, donde se afirma un tema y luego re-expresa en variaciones aquí, allí, y luego otra vez. El profeta extiende su su trato del tema de la asimetría aún más, mediante la implementación de la lengua del breve momento.

Te abandoné por un instante, pero con profunda compasión volveré a unirme contigo. Por un momento, en un arrebato de enojo, escondí mi rostro de ti; pero con amor eterno te tendré compasión—dice el Señor, tu Redentor— (Isaías 54:7-8 N.V.I.).

Se nos dice que el duro trato de YHWH a Judá es bastante diferente al trato de su regreso hacia su pueblo en misericordia, al menos de dos maneras.

  • El primero es corto, mientras el segundo es largo.
  • Isaías parece presentar el juicio como necesario, pero ajeno a la conducta acostumbrada de YHWH. La misericordia restaurativa, por el contrario, fluye ferozmente de su propio corazón.

A riesgo de perder nuestro camino, esta mirada a la asimetría puede o no ayudarnos a entender una palabra sorprendente y oscura sobre el juicio en Jerusalén/Sion que ocurre antes en el libro:

Sí, el Señor se levantará como en el monte Perasín, se moverá como en el valle de Gabaón; para llevar a cabo su extraña obra, para realizar su insólita tarea (Isaías 28:21).

Sea o no el caso, el libro aporta información adicional sobre el pathos divino en el tierno soliloquio materno que nos espera en el capítulo 49.

Pero Sión dijo: «El Señor me ha abandonado; el Señor se ha olvidado de mí».

« ¿Puede una madre olvidar a su niño de pecho, y dejar de amar al hijo que ha dado a luz? Aun cuando ella lo olvidara, ¡yo no te olvidaré! Grabada te llevo en las palmas de mis manos; tus muros siempre los tengo presentes »  (Isaías 49: 14-16 NVI).

Isaías está plenamente convencido de que el camino hacia la redención de Judá debe pasar por el horno del fuego judicial. No obstante, el profeta no puede permitir que esta aflicción se acerque en demasía al centro de los propósitos de YHWH para su pueblo. A riesgo de disminuir la experiencia de aquellos que nunca regresaron de Babilonia, el exilio aparece aquí como un momento necesario, lamentable y breve. Es sólo la antesala de la Jerusalén resplandeciente.

El bien merecido sufrimiento de Judá aparece aquí en el texto como un breve momento de deserción, una llamarada momentánea de ira justa que transciende un momento antes de que un Dios misericordioso tenga su anhelada oportunidad de amar de nuevo con ese amor que define el amor mismo.

El lector podría preguntarse cuán importante era esta realidad para el profeta y para los custodios de su mensaje, que ellos se arriesgaron a utilizar estas imágenes profundamente humanas para caracterizar al Dios que permanece invisible.

Solo así.


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The polyvalence of Isaiah’s imagery makes one feel as though he treads familiar ground. Yet just before he gains mastery of that terrain, the imagery shifts before the careful reader. Shadows are everywhere, and movement among the shadows.

When introducing the servant of YHWH in chapter 42, the book of Isaiah rehearses the paradox that it is the lowly and the shattered who stand closest to YHWH. Precisely because the servant is YHWH’s agent, he will be gentle with those who are weak. The text deploys the image of a faltering wick, faintly burning and about to fail against the darkness. YHWH’s servant, we are instructed, will not quench that kind of bravely flickering flame.

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:1–3 ESV)

Yet a chapter later, when we read that Babylon’s might is no hindrance against the New Thing that the Lord is about to accomplish, the text ransacks the vocabulary of the ancient Exodus from slavery in Egypt to press towards hope that Judah’s forced slavery in Babylon will soon prove just as futile. A wick appears once more, this time with the assurance that it shall be quenched.

Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: ‘For your sake I send to Babylon and bring them all down as fugitives, even the Chaldeans, in the ships in which they rejoice. I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King.’

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: ‘Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’ (Isaiah 43:14–19 ESV)

This is the way of the prophet Isaiah with words, the way also of his reverent traditioners with the deposit they steward and declare. The reader who sits at such feet learns to expect irony, reversal of imagery, truth carried along by the careful stewardship of language’s gift, a surprise at mid-stride.

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The prophet Isaiah describes YHWH’s anticipated conduct in bringing his exiled children back home in a way that manages to combine tenderness and infinity.

He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.  Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? (Isaiah 40:11–14 ESV)

Isaiah’s poetry ornaments the deeply rooted biblical conviction that YHWH is uncontainable. He answers to no man, his arm is not too short for any purpose that befits his regnal character.

The emphasized words argue that YHWH is also and finally inconceivable to mere human minds. This hardly means that he is unknowable or that he evades relationship. To the contrary, he discloses himself and delights in being known. Yet the prophet, for all his originality, is close to heel with the biblical witness in affirming that YHWH cannot be exhaustively known. YHWH is free to act as he will, and his judgments in this respect are beyond measure.

The contrast between YHWH and rough-hewn idols carved out by a hard-breathing man’s hatchet in Isaiah’s anti-idolatry polemic throws this feature of Isaiah’s persona into still starker relief.

There is freedom, the prophet might well insist, in worshiping a God of this kind. He is alive to his own purpose, free to create a future that aligns with his good intentions, unrestrained by the mud that sucks at our heels.

YHWH is beyond measure and beyond measuring. Little captives, daring to begin to hope, might well find an anchor in this infinity, this Lover both uncaptured and uncapturable.

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YHWH’s redemption overwhelms human failure. Such is the nature of grace, not so much to take mercy’s captives by violence as to call them into something far better than they are. The history of theology has words for grace like this, ‘irresistible’ being one of them that is not universally endorsed but nonetheless makes the point of grace’s strong persuasion.

The beautiful vignette at the hinge-point of the long book of Isaiah sketches the unlikely drawing of a highway through the foreboding desert. It is a path that will carry YHWH’s band of redeemed captives from Babylon back to their homes. Around it, the parched ground blossoms as threat cedes its grip and a future moves in.

A tiny turn of phrase touches upon human vulnerability of the kind that is impossible to admire, now finding itself taken into the embrace of YHWH’s mercy.

A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. (Isaiah 35:8 NRSV)

Fools go astray by nature. They are clueless when passive, and rebellious when active. There is no good in a fool’s way, only dead ends and slow-motion train wrecks both large and small.

Yet in this snapshot of redemption the text allows that upon this highway to YHWH’s welcoming future not even fools shall go astray.

Grace persuasive, grace protective, grace that leads the clueless all the way home.

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Rarely do I sit down to review a book feeling so conflicted about the thing.

Dillard Johnson’s page-turner puts me in that place. On the one hand, I appreciate the insight into battle as American soldiers have experienced it in Iraq. Carnivore shines light on the extensive planning, the battle tactics, and oscillating adrenaline rush and sheer terror of battle. Because one of my own sons commanded the men in a Bradley Fighting Machine and both have commanded scout platoons, I found that the author’s depiction of armored tactics with the Bradley and the Abrams tank in close coordination made for a fascinating read. This, for me, is where Johnson’s work holds value.61e2tlp4dl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

But there are negatives …

The first one is the nature of Johnson’s claims for his own performance, which has generated bitter resentment on the part of fellow soldiers who believe Johnson has penned an egotistical and inaccurate version of one man’s role in a decidedly team effort. The first-person singular is very frequent in Johnson’s account, not to the point that he does not credit his buddies, but to the extreme that one wonders if the credit is enough. One senses that the author’s better and lesser angels are fighting it out, with the latter winning more often than it should. Despite Dillard’s obvious appreciation of his fellow soldiers, they are pushed to the margins of his record. Arguably, the picture of the fight in Iraq that results is rendered inaccurate by this singular focus.

The second negative is that Dillard’s rhetoric about killing astonishing numbers of Iraqis runs deeply casual. Any prettiness on this front is a first casualty of war—always a flawed and terrible thing—as it should be. On the other hand, ‘Carnivore’ from time to time seems less the moniker given to Johnson’s Bradley than a chosen nickname for the man commanding it.

I find it hard to criticize an American soldier who has left home and family to fight, even more so because I write as the father of two Army officers and the step-father of two long-serving enlisted men. I’m grateful for Dillard Johnson’s service. I’m glad I’ve read the book he’s written about it. I just wish he’d shaped his story into a different one.

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The prophet Isaiah did not invent the language of seeking God, but he speaks it as his native tongue.

The whole business so quickly degrades into meaningless platitudes that we must hurry along to some further inspection. Oddly, an oracle against Egypt may be the best place to begin.

Egypt shall be drained of spirit, And I will confound its plans; So they will consult the idols and the shades And the ghosts and the familiar spirits. (Isaiah 19:3 JPS)

English translations typically settle on the verb to consult or to inquire of when rendering the Hebrew word דרשThese are adequate translations because they capture the reality that the subject is in need of knowledge that he or she expects to come by revelation from some external religious source. Consult and inquire of do just fine up to that point.

Yet in Isaiah’s discourse, there is an assertive moving after, a thrusting towards, even a desperate neediness that is missing in such English translation. Oddly, the verb to seekwhich in English-language religious circles so perversely devolves into the esoteric and the contemplative, seems better here. It connotes that something hidden is much desired and that it will take some energy on behalf of the ones who need it if they are in fact to lay hands on it.

If that’s the case that calls for a certain English translation, then what can we say of Isaiah’s deployment of the expression?

Before we come to the kind of seeking and searching that the prophet commends, we should look at the ironic ways in which seeking revelation is in fact an exercise in futility. The Isaian discourse sees seeking after spiritual sources other than Yahweh to reflect a confusion, even a moral stupidity, that is the opposite of true wisdom. In Isaiah 19.3, which is representative of this diagnosis, consulting with or seeking the idols and the shades, and the ghosts and the familiar spirits happens because the Egyptians have become drained in spirit and because Yahweh has confound(ed) their plans. The wise, the stable, the reliable don’t do this kind of thing. Confused people, like doomed Egyptians for example, seek religious revelation from unreliable sources.

This is not a one-off satire. The book of Isaiah sustains its critique of this particular kind of lostness. Alas, it is not just benighted Egyptians who fall prey to such asinine folly (see, importantly, Isaiah 1.3). Israel/Judah finds the prophet’s light shone on their behavior as well:

And when they say to you, ‘Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,’ should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? (Isaiah 8:19 ESV; the first two examples render דרש, the third makes the verb explicit in English though it is only implied in Hebrew.)

The people did not turn to him who struck them, nor inquire of the Lord of hosts. (Isaiah 9:13 ESV)

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord! (Isaiah 31:1 ESV)

Seeking in the wrong place is a contemnible failure to engage reality. Failure to seek YHWH probably comes to the same thing; that is, in Isaiah it likely denotes not a failure to seek at all, but rather a seeking after other sources rather than the single true and reliable one.

If this rather long discussion of failure to seek well serves as an adequate introduction to Isaiah’s use of the dialect of searching and seeking, let’s move on to what it means for this prophet to seek well. Unsurprisingly, the answer is both nuanced and variegated. We are after all, reading the book of Isaiah, where things are only occasionally complicated but nearly always complex.

First, we discover that seeking justice is laid before us as an arguable synonym for seeking YHWH.

When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:15–17 ESV)

(T)hen a throne will be established in steadfast love, and on it will sit in faithfulness in the tent of David one who judges and seeks justice and is swift to do righteousness. (Isaiah 16:5 ESV)

Indeed, there appears explicit recognition that one can fake seeking YHWH, going through the religious motions without giving a damn about YHWH’s passion for justice. We ought not overlook that Isaiah 58.2 plays sarcastically upon two venerable religious activities—seeking YHWH and delighting in his ways—that are great when they come in the context of lives aligned with YHWH’s broader purposes but an abomination when they stand on their own as superficial piety that has run tragically amok.

Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. (Isaiah 58:2 ESV)

Astonishingly, Isaiah does not relegate properly seeking to the esoteric margins of piety, but rather holds it at the core of life’s defining convictions. It can be argued that Isaiah would contend that seeking justice (משפט) is nearly the same as seeking YHWH. One’s search may begin in the barrio or at the court where the privileged line up against the defenseless poor or in the temple at morning prayers, but all of these for Isaiah are cut from the same cloth. The reduction of any of it to simple religious performance makes YHWH disgusted, weary, and sick.

Finally, when we find our way among the Isaianic texts that depict proper seeking, we find that this searching can be mediated. We discover also that divine grace seems to catch up with and then finally to outrun the human activity of seeking YHWH.

With regard to mediation, the ‘book of YHWH’ appears in a way that suggests that seeking is at the very least multi-faceted. Apparently, one can read or listen one’s way to YHWH’s revelation.

Seek and read from the book of the Lord: Not one of these shall be missing; none shall be without her mate. For the mouth of the Lord has commanded, and his Spirit has gathered them. (Isaiah 34:16 ESV)

And then, perhaps unsurprisingly as one becomes intimate with the dynamics of mercy’s acceleration that tease the reader who dares to track with this book’s long march forward, we find that Israel/Judah and perhaps even responsive gentile nations not only seek but become sought by YHWH.

In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:10 ESV)

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near. (Isaiah 55:6 ESV)

And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken. (Isaiah 62:12 ESV)

I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that was not called by my name. (Isaiah 65:1 ESV)

Sharon shall become a pasture for flocks, and the Valley of Achor a place for herds to lie down, for my people who have sought me. (Isaiah 65:10 ESV)

It seems then that seeking YHWH, for this prophet, means caring about and thrusting after his purposes in a way that excludes alternative revelation and embraces YHWH’s care for the community’s well being, especially for those who become cast off in the exercise of influence and power. It is an activity that associates easily with community crisis, though probably not exclusively. In the effort, one discovers paradoxically that to seek YHWH is also to discover that YHWH ‘seeks back’ in a way that relativizes Judah’s and our efforts to discover and live in his purpose.

‘Who ya’ gonna’ call?’ is a question that might have sounded familiar to those who walked within hearing range of this prophet. Isaiah might even have allowed himself to be numbered among the Ghostbusters when it came to debunking the range of futile options on offer when Israel/Judah found herself in need of rescue and revelation.

The question remains pertinent these centuries hence.

Who ya’ gonna call?

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