An Awkward Silence, Please

Isaiah 6:1-8 – First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Trinity Sunday – for June 3, 2012

“Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar…” (Isaiah 6:6)

Most Bibles, regardless of the translation, contain footnotes . . . and for good reason.

Thousands of ancient manuscripts, from fragments to fully intact books, were used to compile the “Old” and “New” Testaments. Some documents had multiple versions of the same verses and a footnote highlighted the different sentences or words. One well-known example is the end of Mark’s Gospel. Does Mark officially end at 16:8 or, because of other reputable, and very early, source material, does it end at Mark 16:20? That footnoted example is not one of a few, but one of thousands found on the pages of the “sacred text.”

Frankly, I’d love to create a personal footnoted version of scripture to make the Bible less intimidating! Since I read the 6th chapter of Isaiah this week, I’ll use the “Old” Testament prophet for my example . . .

6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’A,B,C And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

ASome authorities add:  And I looked around, hoping the seraph did not mean me, but it became clear I was the only one in the throne room of the Holy of Holies.

BOthers include:  And verily, desirous of pleasing the Lord and yet fearful of making a mistake, I kept mute until the seraph smote me with its sixth wing.

CA few reliable sources instead read:  And I said, ‘Why not choose Hosea or Jeremiah? I predict they will be excellent prophets for any task the Lord God Almighty might desire.

This passage from Isaiah, a vision of angels, divine thrones and fiery coals able to burn away guilt, is one of the Bible’s best-known call passages. Who will I send, God asks. As written, the Hebrew prophet answered quickly and boldly. Why couldn’t Isaiah be more like me? Have him hem and haw when God calls. Or how about an awkward silence when God asks, “Whom shall I send?”

Or . . . a response from Isaiah like, Let me pray about it before I give you an answer. Truthfully, that’s often what I prefer before tough decisions. I need time for self-reflection and a selfless openness to God’s gift of a new future. Or, more truthfully, I plead Let me pray . . . to buy a few extra minutes hoping the Lord God Almighty will come to His or Her Holy Senses and realize I’m the worst person possible to respond to God’s call for witnessing or whatevering.

About a month ago the director of the Center for Grief & Healing program asked me to consider a part-time position at the hospice where I’d been volunteering. I knew the potential job meant I’d likely continue making phone calls to grieving families, but there might be additional responsibilities. I asked for a job description. The director emailed it to me the next day, a Friday. My first glance at the document caused me to think it was a boilerplate form, not yet including all the details. On my third or fourth read-through, I noticed the title on the job description included Angel Babies.

Gulp. The Center for Grief & Healing also supervised the Angel Babies program . . .

The Angel Babies program offers a perinatal hospice program designed for families whose unborn child has been diagnosed with a terminal condition, offering support during pregnancy and providing ideas for creating loving memories…

Gulp again. Was I being asked to support families “whose unborn child has been diagnosed with a terminal condition?” I admired the current counselors involved in this work. But could I do that? I stewed and prayed and doubted and trembled and anguished all weekend long after discovering Angel Babies at the top of that boilerplate form.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send?” Could I, a cranky old pastor with a thousand cliché-filled sermons and a thousand failures in my past, a person with gray hair, no children and an ample supply of self-doubt help any family face this worst of experiences?

The director and I met the next Monday.

“Do you really want me to help with the Angel Babies program?” I choked out, barely able to make eye contact.

Her eyebrows arched. She smiled. “What makes you think that?”

I mumbled something about the job description, about my weekend of endless anguish.

She laughed. And then explained it was indeed only a boilerplate form, an incomplete job description hurriedly sent to help my decision. She reassured me I’d still be focused on contacting families struggling with the death of a spouse, a parent, a sister, a grandfather and so forth. None of those are easy—and all feel like a response to my restless, ongoing call to ministry—but none, in my view, are as demanding as supporting a family grieving a child’s death.

The director added, “Maybe it was good for you to struggle with this.”

She wondered if I could help in the Angel Babies efforts in the future.

“Often,” she said, “when a child is diagnosed with a life-limiting illness, the focus is with the baby and mother and a father’s feelings can be overlooked. Would it help to have a man be part of our response, to make sure a father’s not ignored?”

Who knows? Maybe I’ll have more anguished prayers down the road! I believe it’s good to struggle, to honestly ponder what we’re called to do and become. Each person has gifts. How terrible to keep them only in dreams or regrets. I also believe every true call to ministry (or teaching or medicine or engineering or _______ . . .) needs affirmation from others in a person’s community. Sometimes a supportive friend or colleague will discern gifts we don’t yet see.

Still, I prefer my version of Isaiah 6:1-8. I want to put brakes on the old “Old” Testament prophet before he shouts, “Send me!”

But whatever version you claim, this I believe . . . God never ceases calling. And yes, it was your name spoken and you are the only one currently near the throne of thrones!

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  1. Part A
    I have about 15 paper copies of the Protestant Bible, and I have not had the temerity to write a single word in any one of them, even in “The New Induction Study Bible”, which has wide margins especially designed to annotate with your own thoughts. Nope, not a single jot or tittle. That, in spite of the fact that my favorite New Testament professor has a Bible which is amply hand annotated. Even better, my favorite theologian, Jonathan Edwards, among his 74 volumes of collected works, is a “blank Bible”, wherein he made notes about many passages. For those of us who are similarly inhibited, this is one of the great assets of e-books such as Kindle. One can apply notes to the text to ones heart’s content, and feel absolutely no regret, remorse, or recrimination about defacing the Holy Book. The only problem is that the tribe of vendors who sell Bibles as e-books have not provided the extra navigational tools needed to toodle around well indexed texts such as the Bible, the Qur’an, Shakespeare, Plato, or just about any other classical work. To find Paragraph 340b in The Republic is a real pain in the keester, even though in my old Bollingen Series Plato, I can find in quickly. What Kindle needs is custom software for various genres of books. It is super for novels, nice for scholarly works with lots of footnotes, but dreadful for dual language books, atlases, and How to books with lots of diagrams.
    Part 2
    The story of Isaiah reminds me of the pivotal scene in The Fellowship of the Ring (Book 2, Chapter 2, The Council of Elrond) where the council is trying to decide who can take the One Ring to Mount Orodruin to be destroyed. And the least of those in attendance, Bilbo Baggins, volunteers. We all know that his courageous offer was politely declined, but this is an example of someone who has “been there, done that”, when he faced down the mighty dragon, Smaug (well, being invisible helped). It is always hard to do the first time. Each succeeding time becomes not easier, but at least with less resistance to taking on the challange. And it is often those who appear least well prepared to dealing with things who are the most successful. In my life, I was constantly assessed as being a weak reed by my parents and by my fiance, and yet I took care of them and planted them all with dignity, after caring for them for several years. Bottom line seems to be making the decision often seems more difficult than doing the task, whether it be braving the unruly Israelites or the horrors of Mordor. One may even take comfort in the thought that when the situation actually arises, you will probably not have the chance to think about it, but be cast into the furnace only half prepared, with no time to muddle.

    1. Hey Bruce…I wasn’t suggesting scribbling on a Bible, though I personally do write notes in mine. I’d just like to have a few added “formal” footnotes here and there to remind a reader that even the so-called saints struggled a little.

      Your comments do cause me to ponder: I wonder how many folks NEVER write notes in their Bible (or any book) vs. those who happily scribble away…

      Sometimes I’ve glanced through old college textbooks, discovered one of my random, incoherent notes, and thought, “What the heck was I thinking back then?!”

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