Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 1) transports me to what we longingly refer to as the “orchard” below our house, next to our garden. Our humble orchard consists of 4 heirloom apple trees. Today was the first day for buds to start emerging, and thus begins a 3-week period of holding our breath, hoping that we don’t have a repeat of last year’s late-April killing frost. In the years when the blooms survive, we enjoy bumper crops of tasty limbertwigs, enough for us not to begrudge sharing them with fruitworms and yellowjackets who also have hankerings for the sweet and sour taste. It’s always a bit of a risk biting into one of these juicy fruits, as many people have stories of swallowing a big bite and then looking down at half a worm wiggling inside the heart of the apple. Langston Hughes, the wonderful jazz poet of the Harlem Renaissance, probably didn’t spend a lot of time in country orchards large or small, but he had enough of an idea of what worms do to fruit to use the image in Tired, one of his prophetic poems lamenting the sorry state of the unjust world he experienced in 1930. I am so tired of waiting, aren’t you, for the world to become good and beautiful and kind? Let us take a knife and cut the world in two — and see what worms are eating at the rind. Ok, let’s give him the benefit of being a city slicker and not quibble over his use of the word rind to make the rhyme, when what he really meant was the core, the heart of the world that was rotting away with some hidden infestation. At any rate, it’s a vivid image of a world corrupt from the inside out, and the futile fatigue that comes from waiting with held breath for something good to emerge.
The prophet Isaiah was, like Langston Hughes, a city-slicker who sometimes employed agrarian imagery to illustrate his understanding of what was wrong with the world. He could mix his metaphors with the best of them, going from cities on fire in one stanza to to cucumber fields abandoned in the next. Here in his introductory chapter, he sounds as fatigued as the Harlem poet with a world that was rotten to the core: Your whole heart is afflicted. From that heart emerged a repugnant body: From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness—only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged. The prophet hints at what he will later fully describe as the agents of this putrifying body politic: injustice, oppression, violence, greed. The irony for the prophet was that the people did not seem able to smell their own stench – they had the audacity to cover their systems of injustice with a facade of faith, accompanied by orthodox rituals and worship practices, believing their oppression to somehow be pleasing to God. But even as the prophet gives voice to God railing against such a twisted mindset, taking his knife to cut away at the world to see the worms eating at the core, there is hope for deliverance from the hankering hunger for putrid power, hope for a new heart, a new core, and an accompanying restoration of righteous rule in the body, marked by peace and justice for the poor.
There’s a great old jazz standard that was penned by some neighbors of Langston Hughes in the same year the poet was writing the lines of Tired. The song speaks to the same longings Isaiah was feeling, a hankering for true covenant community, one in which gracious love was expressed wholeheartedly, body and soul, whose core would be manifested in its corpus. I imagine Isaiah would enjoy listening to some of the tasteful crooners who covered that song – Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Amy Winehouse – and would hear their chorus as a soundtrack to his prophetic vision: I’m all for you, body and soul.
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, email, etc.