by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM on January 10, 2016
Happy New Year! My prayer for you is that this year unfolding before us will hold every blessing of peace and good health for you and those you love.
And in this new year, you are most welcome to my new blog, “Mining the Now.” This first post was written and ready for sharing during Advent 2015 but was delayed in posting until now as we worked through some technical details. However, the theme of “Ready and Waiting” speaks to us at any time of the year, so I’d like to share it with you now midway through the first month of 2016.
In 1993, I went to Haiti on a human rights delegation. We were charged with collecting the stories of people who had suffered human rights atrocities during a brutal regime and bringing those stories home to share with the rest of the world. One day, our entire delegation was crammed into an old van driving very slowly and carefully up the steep hills to Cap-Haitien. Let me tell you that you haven’t seen a pothole until you’ve seen one in Haiti, large enough to swallow our entire van with room left over. The road we were navigating was so narrow that no car could pass in the opposite direction. Thank God, our driver was going very slowly and was an expert in maneuvering around the potholes.
Suddenly a band of ten-year-old boys holding shovels leaped in front of our van. They shouted to our driver to stop, and then began to excitedly explain their mission. All day they had been waiting, they said, for a car to come along. They were hoping to earn a few dollars for their family, and so they made us an offer: if we hired them as a group, they would walk ahead of us, they would accompany us on the road to Cap-Haitien, and they would fill in the potholes ahead of us.
It was such an incredulous proposal that my initial response was to laugh at their imaginative plan. And then, I began to think: Was it possible?
In Isaiah 40 we read:
“Every valley shall be filled in.
Every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The uneven ground shall become level
and the rough places, smooth.
The glory of God shall be revealed
and all people shall see it together.”
What do we feel when we listen to those words of the prophet Isaiah and place them alongside what we see and hear in the news of our country and our world? Isaiah envisions a world where warfare has ended, where what is crooked has been made straight, where what is unjust has been smoothed into kindness and where what is unequal has been re-distributed. Valleys filled in. Mountains lowered. All people at home and at peace in the world Isaiah imagines.
At the heart of Isaiah’s words and my story from Haiti are hints of how we might stand rooted in hope not only during Advent, but all year long. Even though the potholes on that mountain in Haiti were impossibly large and would have taken days to fill in, the boys weren’t discouraged. They were ready and waiting. They had a vision. They stood together. And they were willing to accompany and be present to us on our journey for as long as it took.
Their situation of filling the impossible potholes sounds like something else we hear from the prophet Isaiah: “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse.” The wonderful prophet of the imagination, Walter Brueggemann, says that the stump is any closed-off possibility, any place that may have failed or collapsed or ended in despair. We should not be fooled by the look of this stump, he says, because its outward appearance—what we see—is not all there is. Isaiah imagines that God can and does raise up new life where none seems possible.
“Every valley shall be filled in.” Really? It’s a challenge to our faith and our hope, because much as we want to fix everything that’s broken or wounded in our world, we can’t. We’re called instead to accompany and be present to others in their time of suffering, to stay with them in their pain and anxiety even when, and especially when, we can’t change their situation.
Accompaniment, staying power, is the shoot that shall sprout from the stump of Jesse. It’s a gift we can offer for the healing of our world: to remain, to stay, to accompany one another just as Emmanuel, God-with-us, accompanies us.
Henri Nouwen writes of the vision of the peaceable Kingdom, in which all violence has been overcome and all men, women, and children live in loving unity with nature. It’s Isaiah’s description of God’s dream for our beautiful, yet wounded world.
Instead of being an escapist dream, Nouwen notes, it challenges us to anticipate what it promises. Every time we forgive our neighbor, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we pray, forgive, offer care to animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations, we are making the vision come true.
Of all the possible names that could have been bestowed on the Son of God, one of the most beautiful and consoling is Emmanuel, God-with-us. This is a God who will not run away. This is a God who does not abandon. This is a God who remains and walks with us, even when, and especially when, the world seems to be in the End Times.
So here we are, called to do the hard and hopeful work that those Haitian boys were ready to do for the potholes on the mountainside.
Today and every day, may we examine our lives for the valleys that are in need of filling in with greater compassion, with more mindful prayer, with acts of justice.
Today and every day, may our shovels be ready, and may we and our world be blessed.
For what, for whom, are you waiting?
For what, for whom, is our world waiting?
Isaiah insists that God can and does bring forth life where none seems possible.
Are there places in your life where new directions or hopeful beginnings seem an impossible dream?
We are called to have our shovels ready to put to any parts of our lives that are in need of God’s loving repair and re-imagining. Where or what in your life might you begin to “dig” and fill in?