Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 33:1-16) transports me to one of my earliest memories; I couldn’t have been much more than three years old when my parents took me on a day trip to visit Ghost Town in the Sky, a tourist trap on top of a mountain in western NC designed to replicate an old west town. My memories include the uncomfortable chairlift ride up the mountain, drinking a sarsparilla in the saloon, watching the line of dancing women in ruffled skirts, and hopping on a horse to ride the merry-go-round. My clearest memory, though, is what took place that afternoon. What had been a bustling little town with people walking through the dirt main street, in and out of stores, suddenly became like a real ghost town, as word spread for everyone to clear the streets and get to a safe space. I didn’t know what was happening, other than my folks moved back under the saloon awning and squatted down behind the horse trough. I was holding on to my dad’s britches leg for dear life. The street got completely deserted, and they even had some tumbleweed blowing through for effect. All of a sudden a gunslinger strolled onto the street, taunting some unseen enemy to come out and meet him like a man. Slowly, another gunslinger came out, and another, and before I knew it one of them drew a six-gun and shots were fired. One of the gunslingers turned in our direction and fired a shot above our heads, and lo and behold, another gunslinger who had been perched above us fell off the awning and landed with a thud in front of the horse trough. I can’t begin to tell you how terrified I was, not understanding the difference between reality and make-believe at that age. I was screaming and crying and begging my dad to get me out of there. He carried me into a restroom at the back of the saloon, and tried to settle me down. The last part of my clear memory is that I noticed a window partially open, and my dad had to climb up onto the sink to close it before I would calm down.
The Prophet Isaiah could have been scripting an afternoon ghost town shoot-out, not in the old west, though, in the old middle east. The highways are deserted, he says, and even the bravest of men are crying aloud, scared out of their wits. The land has dried up, so you can picture the tumbleweeds blowing through the town. It’s not just the three-year-old sarsparilla drinkers that feel the terror; the Message translation says You spoke in thunder and everyone ran. You showed up and nations scattered. What caused the divine uproar that sent everyone into hiding? They had broken the covenant, the treaty of peace that was designed to build community. Instead of producing a nation that nourished the soul, the prophet says they had conceived chaff and given birth to straw. It was a recipe for disaster, and God was lowering the boom. Who could abide such terror? Isaiah responds to their question – The answer’s simple: Live right, speak the truth, despise exploitation, refuse bribes, reject violence, avoid evil amusements. There is the clear recipe for turning the disaster of a ghost town back into a thriving, nurturing community.
I sometimes wonder if we don’t need to recover the capacity of a three-year-old to understand the terror of violence. What we do seem to have in common with three-year-olds is the inability to distinguish reality from make-believe. We turn violence into amusement, complete with sarsparilla on the side and saloon dancers and tumbleweed effects. Movies and video games have long replaced day trips to old west replicas when it comes to the thrill of gunfights. In reality, though, we don’t need to take a chair lift ride to experience genuine violence. There are real deserted streets in our cities, parts of town where only the gun-slingers dare walk. Real bullets are killing real people as concentrated poverty and wealth and exploitation create a recipe for disaster. Culturally speaking, if not in an apocalyptic way, it feels like a boom is being lowered on us. What are we to do? The answer is simple, if we are to believe the prophet. Tell the truth. Despise exploitation. Refuse the seductions of power. And remember to close all the windows on the ways of violence and evil amusements, even if you have to climb up on a sink to do it.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc.