Isaiah 35 selected verses; Hebrews 12:1-3, 12-13a
“Resilience: we are strong.
Shoulder to shoulder, keep moving on.
Resilience: make a new plan.
Stand up again and say, ‘Yes we can!’”
(Resilience from Justice Choir Songbook)
Composer Abbie Betinis wrote that simple song to encourage and celebrate what she found within herself. By the time she reached the age of 40 she had survived cancer three times.
“Resilience,” she says,
“Is a mindset born in the hardest days, when you’re scared or sad or tired, when progress toward your goal is slow, and the barriers seem impenetrable…and yet you keep going, because somewhere deep down you know that what you’re fighting for will be so much better.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mimM4uxjE-Y&list=PLug1maEKaeSlrE2zltWVcjbZHcOEjJjNv)
People in our congregation understand this. They’re receiving treatment, or facing a serious diagnosis, or dealing with yet another loss, or living with unrelenting disregard for their full humanity. Or waiting for some sign of a let-up in the pandemic. Or hoping for substantive change in the direction of our nation. All of us are struggling to find resilience these days.
Betinis composed the song in 2017. It reflects personal experience, but when women incarcerated in Shakopee sing it as the Voices of Hope Choir, it offers fresh perspective.
Resilience. We’re learning it on the way through our pandemic-driven isolation and this overdue time of reckoning with our nation’s racist history. The road is long. And then long again. And then longer still.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews must have faced their own long road.
“Therefore,” the letter says,
“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1)
Let us run with perseverance the race set before us.
After five months of living with the uncertainty and social dislocation and unrelenting death of Covid-19, and with the exhaustion of multiple lifetimes of collective racial trauma, thank God for perseverance. The writer of Hebrews, facing something 2000 years ago that must have felt similar to the challenges of our time, sends us a note to encourage us: “You will find strength to keep going. You will persevere. And remember, even when the goal seems out of reach, you do not run alone – a great cloud of witnesses runs with you.”
For the past three weeks my wife Beth and I have been living in a place where the land reminds us every day of the resilience of the earth itself. In the high desert of northern New Mexico every living thing – from the lizards and buzzards to the sage and juniper and piñón – has learned to survive in harsh conditions. Here we see the capacity of the earth to live through bleak and barren times.
Deserts are like that: they teach the patience of long seasons. The driest place on earth is in northern Chile, the Atacama Desert. Average annual precipitation is 6/10 of an inch. Every seven years or so – it happened last in 2015 – as if in the rhythm of the biblical Jubilee, rain pours down from the heavens and suddenly, the seeds that had been sentenced to wait all that time are stirred to life. The Atacama becomes el desierto florido.
Just as the prophet predicted.
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” (Isaiah 35:1-2a)
Ghost Ranch sits on 21,000 acres in the Chama River valley about 12 miles north of the little town of Abiquiu. It’s the high desert: cool nights and warm, dry days. For our first week here this summer, the humidity each day ranged from 6%-9% – that’s even dry by the standards of the Atacama in Chile.
Beth’s family has been coming here since the early 1960s; in order to become part of the family I had to like the place. It worked; I married into the Ranch.
Twenty-one years ago this Sunday, Westminster called me to serve as its 13th senior pastor. Every year since then, I’ve spent two to three weeks at this Presbyterian conference center in New Mexico, preparing to preach in the coming year. This year it seemed right to speak from the place that offers so much inspiration.
If you’ve ever seen the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe you’ve seen Ghost Ranch. O’Keefe fell in love with the austere magnificence of the place and moved here. When the Ranch was given to the Presbyterian Church in 1955, O’Keefe came with it. She lived among the Presbyterians for three decades, until her death in 1986. Beth remembers as a little girl running into a rather cantankerous older woman walking around the Ranch, dressed in black.
The Spaniards who pushed the Native people off the land and colonized this area called it Piedra Lumbre: Shining Stone. The bright red, yellow, and white mesas look out over the brown valley below – and everywhere the earth shows its patient resilience.
We can learn from the perseverance of a desert juniper tree. Junipers live on harsh, arid land. Their tap root can grow down 40 feet to find water, breaking through stone to anchor the tree to slopes that often erode from underneath. Their lateral roots stretch for up to 100 feet close to the surface to help stabilize the tree and catch any water that should happen to fall. The tree limits distribution of water to its limbs; only some branches will host green needles and berries. Wind blows relentlessly across the desert, slowly twisting and flattening trunks and branches in trees that can live for up to 750 years. (https://www.kyrene.org/cms/lib2/AZ01001083/Centricity/Domain/2262/secrets_of_survival_the_ancient_utah_juniper_1030_passage_and_questions.pdf)
The juniper is not alone. Every living thing in severe conditions learns to adapt to survive.
It may seem counter intuitive that going to the desert each year has helped me get ready to lead a congregation in the heart of the city – but I’m not the first to discover that seeking the solitude of desolate lands and the beauty of bleak places is good for the soul.
Besides that, it’s biblical to go to the desert. Jesus spends 40 days there, and the Israelites 40 years. The prophets of old do their best work in the wild places, imagining how God’s love and justice could renew human community as rain does the desert. After two or three downpours at the Ranch – they call them monsoons here – suddenly the landscape transforms.
Few places reveal the resilience embedded in creation quite like the desert. That may be why the prophets choose to speak of the potential hidden in the wilderness, in the rough places, as a way to assure people crushed by circumstances that God will make a way where there is no way. They believe in the God-given resilience of the human spirit.
We are strong. Shoulder to shoulder keep moving on.
Make a new plan. Stand up again and say, Yes, we can.
America has been in a desert of our own making since the beginning of the nation, when incoming Europeans displaced Native peoples to colonize the land. With that violent start, we allowed systemic racism to become a foundational building block of our culture and economy, our politics and social relations. The trauma of racism has been handed down to each succeeding generation of Americans, year after year, life after life.
For too long our nation has chosen not to hear the lament lifted from the wilderness, a cry that reaches across history and resounds still in our time. We have permitted this scourge to define us and divide us. But the human spirit has a deep tap root. It will draw strength when all seems lost.
The letter to the Hebrews speaks of the long race, and the perseverance needed to run it. We heard this week at the funeral of John Lewis of the long march for justice in this land. We are in the long race – with Covid and our haphazard response to it and the economic consequences from it, but also with the deconstruction of a racialized society.
In times of extended suffering, or exile from home, or long wandering in the wilderness, the ancient Hebrew people knew their God had not forgotten them. They trusted in the righteous fury of the Lord: “Draw near, O nations, to hear,” the prophet Isaiah says 28 centuries ago.
“Let the earth hear, and all that fills it…For the Lord is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their hoards.” (Isaiah 34:1-2)
The Hebrews counted on the anger of God. The voice of the prophet, sounding from desert wastelands, reminded them that God was coming, that freedom would one day be theirs, that healing would soon commence, that long shadows of brutality would give way to the brightness of new life. Their trust in God’s justice, in God’s shalom – the healing of every individual and the entire human family – their trust in God’s presence, coming like rain in dry places, was an unceasing source of resilience for the ancient Hebrew people.
“Strengthen the weak hands,” Isaiah says,
“And make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” (Isaiah 35:3)
The Hebrews of old knew the meaning of the desert. It’s part of their story. Like those on the receiving end of cruel history in every age – including ours – they knew the hardship of barren places. And yet they had seen that God could make a way out of no way.
“The Lord will come with vengeance,” the prophet says. “God will come and save you.”
The old spiritual echoes that confidence: “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King.”
God goes to people forsaken, to those caught in the desert of human malice – and when that happens, when rain falls in the desert, the prophets say, the wilderness will be transformed.
“A highway shall be there,” Isaiah declares, refusing to yield to the calamity enclosing the people.
The prophet even predicts an uprising in the barren places:
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…It shall…rejoice with joy and singing.” (Isaiah 35:1-2)
The highway there will lead the people out of ruin.
“It shall be called the Holy Way…It shall be for God’s people…The redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing.” (Isaiah 35:8-10)
Over many summers at Ghost Ranch I’ve watched the desert bloom and the land rejoice. I’ve observed the renewal of creation and been reminded that even in this stark landscape the earth is resilient. The same must be said, the prophets remind us, of the human community: we will find a way out of no way.
The source of our strength, of our perseverance, of our resilience, is the one who himself had a long, hard road – Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2)
To have faith is to trust in the one we follow, whose very life, death, and resurrection assure us that rain will fall and the desert will bloom; that the long night will end and the dawn will come, that the journey, though difficult, will bring us home.
Thanks be to God.