Isaiah 11:1-9 (NIV)
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth...
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
SO THE HOPE OF HUMANKIND THAT THINGS ARE GOING TO WORK OUT--DESPITE ALL THE EVIDENCE THAT SUGGESTS THAT THINGS WON’T WORK OUT
--Will be embodied in this great leader from God who will make everything okay. And he’ll be absolutely fair and just And on the one hand he’ll be a great rule-keeper as he follows God, but he’ll also have a sharp eye out for making things right for people who’ve gotten a raw deal. He’ll be wise and just and righteous. And what else will happen as this really godly and centered guy shows up?
WELL, WE GET THESE STRANGE, BUT REALLY MEMORABLE PICTURES OF VULNERABILITY IN THE FACE OF REAL THREATS… BUT THE THREATS DON’T MATERIALIZE IN THIS IDEAL FUTURE.
- The wolf lives alongside the lamb
- And the leopard alongside the goat
- And the calf next to the lion
And some child is leading them--also apparently not threatened. In maybe the most vivid image of all, we get:
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
AND WHEN THIS HAPPENS,
When these threats are no longer threats, THEN “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord/ as the waters cover the sea.” When our adrenaline is not constantly primed for battle, then the whole earth will experience the God the Bible describes.
WELL, THIS PERSPECTIVE IS AT THE HEART OF THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM.
Their farm is effectively Eden--which is why I think my kid felt so good being on it through the magic of the movies. And their whole premise is that all of the threats to the farm have a place on the farm--that they’re part of the story too. So as the coyotes kill almost all of their chickens, their commitment is not to kill the coyotes, but to understand and empower the coyotes to play the role they’re supposed to play in, basically, Eden. Yes, they’re a tremendous threat, but what’s their role on the farm? Kind of a crazy perspective for farmers to take, but a really inspiring one.
BECAUSE, OF COURSE, ONE WAY TO EMPOWER THE LITTLE CHILD TO PLAY ALONGSIDE THE COBRA IS TO KILL ANY COBRAS THAT SHOW UP.
The way all of us deal with threats is to oppose them and do our best to triumph over them. Understandable--and the way I’ve lived my life to be sure! But that does mean that we have to live our lives in a low-level, constant high-alert. And that’s expressly not the picture we get about what actually is what we’re craving, per Isaiah 11. And it’s not the story of The Biggest Little Farm.
FOR THE LAST YEAR OR SO--IN MY R&D-FOR-JESUS WORLD--I’VE BEEN WORKING WITH A PILOT GROUP AROUND THE SORT OF SPIRITUALITY WE SEE IN THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM AND ISAIAH 11.
Which Christianity has historically called “contemplative spirituality.” This is the basis of this online group I mentioned. Christian faith started talking about this stuff--well, in the Bible, but then certainly in the 3rd century with the desert fathers and mothers-- Christianity didn’t start loudly talking about it until the 14th century when there was a sudden explosion of books lobbying for this as a centerpiece of Christian practice.
So books like: The Imitation of Christ and The Cloud of Unknowing and Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena and a whole lot of others who also pushed for this.
Why? What changed then?
Well one central thing that changed then was the bubonic plague killed half of England’s population and a third of Europe’s population. What Christianity largely taught up until that time was FAITH--was believing in a God powerful enough that, if you could have even a small faith like a mustard seed, you’d see miracles. But that faith ran into problems with the bubonic plague, where, for instance, parents would leave children alone to die, for fear of infecting the rest of the family.
SO LEARNING THE KIND OF STILLNESS OF CONTEMPLATIVE SPIRITUALITY
Turned out to be a powerful way to weather even such an existential threat as the bubonic plague.
I’M GOING TO GIVE YOU A PUNCHLINE OF THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM WHICH WON’T DIMINISH YOUR ENJOYMENT OF IT IN THE SLIGHTEST, BECAUSE THE MOVIE IS ABOUT A WHOLE LOT MORE THAN THIS PUNCHLINE.
So they face all these existential threats. Coyotes, birds, snails, gophers, disease...
And what they learn to do is nothing--rather than to immediately fight the threat--say, to start scraping off tens of thousands of snails from their trees--instead to just look at the problem and continue looking at it until a creative solution emerges. Like, if they take their hundred or so ducks from their pond and set them loose in the trees, the ducks will eat the snails and so get the protein they need.
It turns out that contemplation--being spiritually still--is the road to seeing how wolves and lambs can be in the same space. In their view, this is the only way to enable the kind of Eden, as it were, that Isaiah 11 describes and that they are trying to empower. By contrast, quick decisions always involve trying to kill off the threat, which means we live constantly at war.
SO LET ME RUN TWO EXAMPLES BY YOU, ONE SPIRITUAL AND ONE PRAGMATIC.
SO I’M AN ENTHUSIASTIC INTO-GOD’S-HOLY-SPIRIT KIND OF CHRISTIAN.
I founded a big church where one of the key selling points was that we had people who would pray for you with power and who would teach you to do the same if you so desired. And, in that world, a big insight is that there’s a huge, invisible world around all of us that, though invisible, is a big deal, which impacts each of our experiences of day to day life.
And I completely buy this. I’m totally into this for many reasons, not least that for good and ill, I’ve experienced myself as sort of spiritually sensitive. Maybe you’re that way too.
More than many of my friends, I seem to be able to feel spiritually oppressed and just feel lousy until I realize that that’s what’s going on and do spiritual stuff to address my problem. Which involves things like taking authority over these rotten spirits and fighting them with spiritual power.
WHICH HAS ABSOLUTELY BEEN HELPFUL,
But you’ve likely picked up that THIS CONTEMPLATIVE THING TAKES A WHOLE DIFFERENT APPROACH. Like in The Big Little Farm when they see coyotes or flocks of birds going for their fruit, rather than fighting them, they observe them and see if a creative solution comes to mind.
So the other day I was watching a classic, Scandinavian play with a friend which, while not half bad, was sort of long and slow as classic, Scandinavian plays sometimes are. And sort of feeling stuck as I watched this play, I realized I felt bad in this spiritual way; I felt oppressed.
And, rather than fighting whatever this was--as I’ve so often done--in this case I just--while still watching the play--observed whatever I was feeling. In classic contemplative fashion, I paid attention to my breath until I could get still enough to notice and name what I was feeling. It’s what Psalm 46 talks about as “being still in order to know that God is God.”
And then, having named the specific bad things I was feeling--maybe I was feeling judged or anxious or whatever--in classic contemplative practice, I just noticed those things, went back to my breath and saw what else came up. And pretty soon, without having done battle, the oppressive feeling just sort of dissipated and drifted away. As if, like on The Big Little Farm, observation and stillness, rather than blasting away at the threat, allows the threat to stay--even as you realize how it might, in a surprise, pose no actual problems.
THERE’S A WORD THAT THESE SPIRITUAL TEACHERS USE TO DESCRIBE WHAT THEY WANT FOR YOU AND ME ON OUR JOURNEY OF EXPERIENCING THIS IDEAL WORLD TAUGHT IN ISAIAH 11.
It’s equanimity--which basically means not freaking out in the face of threats, but being still and observant.
I WAS TRYING TO EXPLAIN THIS IDEA TO ONE OF MY SONS THE OTHER DAY.
He likes sci-fi and fantasy novels, so I said, “Am I remembering right that the tagline for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is ‘Don’t panic’? If so, I think that’s a rephrasing of this same idea.”
WHEN JOHN AND MOLLY SEE TENS OF THOUSANDS OF SNAILS DESTROYING THEIR TREES AND GROUND COVER,
The only way the problem actually gets solved is if they don’t panic--ripping the snails off the trees just means that more will show up by nightfall. If they sit with the problem for a bit in stillness, they discover that the creative solution presents itself. And that’s a risk of the powerful Christian Holy-Spirit-Power tradition. Again, I remain a very enthusiastic Holy Spirit person--I love to experience all the gifts of the Spirit and to pray for healing and miracles and prophetic words from God for other people.
I love it! And yet I especially love it as I practice it with eyes wide open that I’m doing a spiritual activity that’s often called “spiritual warfare.” Warfare. This is the “kill the cobra so the child is not harmed” school of Christian faith. Which is often needed! But we do want to do it with awareness--or our adrenal glands are constantly going overtime as our whole life becomes a kind of fight. We want to do our spiritual practice realizing there are other alternatives, as the most-enduring Christian writers during the bubonic plague were so intent upon telling us.
SO IF FEELING OPPRESSED AT THE PLAY IS MY SPIRITUAL EXAMPLE,
My pragmatic example came earlier this year as a series of reversals meant that my family--who’s been very well-provided for by God in our crazy R&D endeavor--unexpectedly lost a noteworthy chunk of our income. To the point that, looking for a solution, we put our home on the market in order to regroup in a less expensive place. But then our house was slow to sell and, as we waited and continued life as contemplatives, God seemed to suggest--just like in The Biggest Little Farm--creative solutions.
And so suddenly we found ourselves not moving at all, but trying new things that seem really hopeful.
HERE’S THE BOTTOM LINE: GOD’S ULTIMATE VISION FOR YOUR AND MY LIFE, ACCORDING TO ISAIAH 11, IS THAT APPARENT THREATS BECOME BENEFITS.
And it’s this process that Isaiah says leads to all this righteousness and justice and wisdom from this godly leader who will come. What leads us to be unjust to others is when we feel threatened by them, which destroys wisdom and godliness. Which you could imagine would be relevant to questions of justice and, I’d think, relationships, as we’ll no doubt be talking about.
SO HOW DO WE DEVELOP THIS EQUANIMITY WHICH ACCOMPLISHES ALL OF THIS GOOD STUFF FOR US?
- Don’t panic.
IF YOU’RE LIKE, LET’S SAY, OTHER HUMAN BEINGS, WHEN YOU FACE SCARY THREATS, YOU DO PANIC.
Meaning that your adrenaline kicks in and you immediately look for ways to vanquish the threat. “Not panicking” means not making any sudden moves but just, with God, observing the threat and seeing how God speaks.
2. Try out contemplative spirituality.
MY GOAL TODAY ISN’T, SADLY, TO TEACH YOU HOW TO DO THIS.
But more, I suppose, to cheerlead for it.
THAT SAID, WE SOON SHOULD HAVE A STARTER SET OF SHORT VIDEOS ON THIS.
And, as I mentioned earlier, we do have an online small group along these lines which you can get connected to by emailing email@example.com.
3. Ask God for it.
IF THIS IS REALLY WHAT GOD HAS IN MIND AS THE ULTIMATE GOAL FOR EVERYTHING,
I wonder what would happen if you, say, asked God for newfound equanimity every day for, say, 30 days. I wonder how God would respond to that earnest request.
HERE’S THE BIG STORY OF ISAIAH 11.
There are creative solutions to the most challenging problems you face--that God is eager to pass onto you. Your part is learning the kind of stillness that--as he did for Isaiah and John and Molly and Elijah and the Psalmist--he can speak into.
THAT’S IT FOR THIS WEEK’S JOURNEY ON.
Thanks for joining me for the maiden voyage!
Don’t forget to let us know if you’re interested in this online small group, again at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or if you’re in the Los Angeles area and would like to check out a live group, let us know that as well.