By Steven Bouma-Prediger
Flourish Magazine, Fall 2010
Homelessness. Hopelessness. Living in exile. One philosopher describes life today as “coping with the flux”—learning to get along in the concrete details of life without the guardrails of metaphysics or stable systems of thought. Our time is a time of ever-accelerating change, motion, movement: faster computers, smaller cell phones, cell phones that are computers, next-day delivery, minute rice. And finding your way is for many a dizzying and confusing endeavor. Living in a whirlwind is disorienting. All the familiar landmarks seem to be gone or are, at best, only vaguely perceived.
This sense of coping with the flux is related to a pervasive sense of rootlessness. Many people perceive themselves as homeless wayfarers. As Frances FitzGerald puts it, “Rootlessness and the search for self-definition” are “characteristic features of American life.” Or as psychologist Paul Wachtel observes, “We are not only restless but rootless. In the pursuit of more, in the effort to better ourselves, we must leave behind what we previously had.” Or in the poignant words of one twenty-something nomad, “I have no beliefs. I belong to no community, tradition, or anything like that. I’m lost in this vast, vast world. I belong nowhere. I have absolutely no identity.”
Such is the context of Isaiah 54. The people of Israel are in exile, homeless, hopeless. All is in flux. Their identity is at stake. Indeed their theology is in crisis. Where is God in the midst of our suffering, our exile? In a foreign land, away from the temple, feeling deserted and abandoned by God, their hope had disappeared as fast as a drop of water on a sun-scorched weed.
In the midst of their homelessness and hopelessness comes the voice of the prophet: “Sing…burst into song and shout,…enlarge the site of your tent,…lengthen your cords” (vv. 1-2). And more: “Do not fear,…do not be discouraged,…forget the shame of your youth” (v. 4). The excruciating pain of exile remember no more. What could possibly warrant such outrageous hope? What could motivate such impossible actions? What could render believable such dangerous promises?
Redeemed out of rootlessness by the One who created us
Only one thing, the text tells us. Only one thing: The remembrance that our Redeemer is our Creator, and that this God is a God of steadfast love. And peace. And compassion. The poem is candid. It frankly acknowledges hopelessness, abandonment, and despair—indeed, that God “for a brief moment” abandoned Israel (v. 7). Yet it affirms, against the oppressive reality of exile, God’s longsuffering fidelity and great compassion. Verse 10 exclaims, “The mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart”—God’s covenant of shalom shall not be removed.
As the prophet has already reminded us in chapter 49, verses 14-16, God is like a nursing mother who shows compassion for the child of her womb. Or as he makes clear in chapter 52, verse 7, against all human expectation the messenger brings gospel, good news, that God is triumphant over the chaos-making powers of Babylon. The peace of God—when the king rules with justice and righteousness, delivering the needy and the poor and the oppressed so that all creatures flourish and sing praises to God, and God’s glory fills the entire earth (Ps. 72)—is here in Isaiah affirmed in the very midst of violence, oppression, and exile. For the homeless, there is a mind-boggling promise of homecoming. For the hopeless, there arises a bright morning star of hope. Because of who God is. Our Redeemer is our Creator, a God of unfathomable love.
Ecological exiles find a home
All of us are (or have been) in exile—shorn of faith, forlorn of hope, seeking shelter in a loveless place. For some it means being in a new place, with new people (and perhaps a new language), facing questions such as, Is this where God wants me to be? For others homelessness is the death of a loved one—the exile of loss, of a long loneliness, of a grief that seemingly knows no end. There’s a hole in the world now, and it no longer feels quite like home. For yet others exile is the death of a dream, a cherished relationship, some long-awaited hope now unfulfilled.
In addition, increasingly we feel like exiles on the earth—ecological exiles. As our sense that things are ecologically out of kilter increases, we feel homeless on our home planet. For example, Australians are feeling homesick because their landscape is dramatically changing due to global warming. Writes Clive Thompson, “They no longer feel like they know the place they’ve lived in for decades.” Thompson reports that Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht has coined a new term, solastalgia, to denote this “pining for a lost environment.” We grieve the loss of what once was. We worry about what may be. We yearn for an earth filled with God’s shalom. In whom and for what may we hope?
Isaiah’s words hit home. Wherein lies hope? This text powerfully reminds us of this: in a world of wounds, there is hope amid hopelessness, for our Redeemer is the Creator—a God of unsearchable compassion and unquenchable love. The One who woos us with his costly love is the same One who wrought us and this world in the beginning and who will renew and restore all things in the end.
Steven Bouma-Prediger (PhD, University of Chicago) is professor of religion at Hope College and the author of The Greening of Theology: The Ecological Models of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joseph Sittler, and Jurgen Moltmann. He is the coauthor of Assessing the Ark: A Christian Perspective on Non-human Creatures and the Endangered Species Act (with Virginia Vroblesky) and Evocations of Grace: The Writings of Joseph Sittler on Ecology, Theology, and Ethics (with Peter Bakken).
Excerpted from For the Beauty of the Earth, 2nd Edition by Steven Bouma-Prediger, Baker Academic: A division of Baker Publishing Group, 2010. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.