Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 40:18-36) transports me to mid 19th century Song Shan, aka Mount Song, on the south bank of the Yellow River in northeast China. Mount Song is the home of the Shaolin Temple and Monastery, the birthplace of Zen Buddhism. This era of the Qing Dynasty in Chinese history is marked by continuing power struggles and great upheavals caused by internal corruption and increasing pressures of the outside world. In the midst of this time of uncertainty, an elderly, blind man is talking with a young boy: I have three treasures which I hold and keep. The first is mercy, for from mercy comes courage. The second is frugality, from which comes generosity to others. The third is humility, for from it comes leadership. The boy responds, Strange treasures. How shall I hold them and keep them? Memory? The blind man answers, No, Grasshopper, not in memory, but in your deeds. I heard snippets of these conversations and got glimpses of this temple every week between the ages of 11 and 14, via the mesmerizing tv show, Kung Fu. The young boy, Kwai Chang Caine, grew into adulthood and made his way through another place of upheaval, the American Old West. As he spent week after week avoiding bounty hunters and battling evildoers, he had flashbacks of his early life and his training in the Shaolin Temple. In addition to, and more important than, his martial arts instruction, was the education in the philosophy and perspective of Shaolin wisdom. His mentor, the elderly and blind Master Po, easily defeated the young man in a combat scene in the pilot episode, provoking this exchange, with the blind mentor instructing young Caine: Never assume because a man has no eyes he cannot see. Close your eyes. What do you hear? Young Caine: I hear the water, I hear the birds. Master Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat? Young Caine: No. Master Po: Do you hear the grasshopper that is at your feet? Young Caine [looking down and seeing the insect]: Old man, how is it that you hear these things? Master Po: Young man, how is it that you do not? This is where Caine got his nickname, as Master Po always addressed his young student as Grasshopper.
Isaiah lived in a period of great imperial upheaval, as the forces and pressures of the outside world bore down on the people of faith in the Promised Land. They had to deal with corrupt leadership at home, and oppressive leadership from abroad, with the Assyrians and Babylonians and Medes and Persians taking turns ruling over Jerusalem. The prophet saw this drama unfold, and presented a series of flashbacks, with the voice of God sounding for all the world like Master Po, reminding us about our beginnings in creation, and calling us “Grasshopper.” Can you not hear, Grasshopper? the Master poses the question. The One who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them like a tent to live in, brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. It is a lesson in perspective, in seeing the big picture, and remembering who we really are and whose we are in the whole scheme of things. In the face of injustice and violence, the prophet spends little time training the people in self-defense or hand-to-hand combat. He teaches them to listen, to hear the voice of God and to have hope as they trust in the voice that spoke mountains and oceans and stars into being.
We are surely living in another one of those eras of upheaval, not so different from 19th century China or 6th century BCE Israel. The forces and pressures of the world are toppling tyrants left and right, and we stay on the run, trying to avoid the bounty hunters of a material world that constantly threaten to capture our spirits. We would do well to flash back to our own Mount Song, where Master Po and Isaiah can help all of us grasshoppers hear our heartbeat and feel the constant pulse of God in the midst of this uncertain time of change, so that we can carry the treasures of mercy and courage and generosity and humility in all of our deeds.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.