Isaiah 44: Doing the right thing for the wrong reason…was the message that simple?
In a recent chapel at the institution where I teach, an English professor, who epitomizes the kind of person I want to be in this world, offered a meditation on Isaiah 44: “When meet ends are met.” Meet is an archaic word meaning proper, fitting, or correct. It was one of those moments when God speaks gradually through my pondering of my own experience, my reading of other people’s words and now, in this instant, as I listened in chapel and new understandings emerged.
Again and again, I struggle with what I do; more specifically how what I do matters. Not so much my teaching, the relationships I build seem right even though there is tension between dismantling hierarchies of teacher and student and being the “most knowledgeable” one in that relationship. I spend time wondering about other academic work that I was acculturated to do in graduate school. It has been my experience that some of my work has little to do with what matters. After listening to this chapel talk, I am wondering if maybe I am asking the wrong questions.
I have gifts that sometimes seem paradoxical—like dilemmas to be solved. Instead of asking, “do I do this?” when opportunities present themselves, my question might benefit from a change. How do I, or even do I, do this for the “right” reason?
Dr. MacDonald, the chapel speaker, said that it is not a matter of the “things” themselves, rather, Isaiah 44:12-20 recounts an example of Israel’s improper use of those things. In these verses, craftsman use their skill and resources for right ends and for wrong ones. Each tool and gift a craftsman uses, for example, has its own value or end and it is up to that craftsman to discover that value and make proper use of it. Dr. MacDonald summarized that in its highest sense, “fitting” grows out of respect for the true order of things; finding the true value of something and recognizing it in some appropriate way.
My troubling revelation from my colleague’s chapel meditation was that I’m looking to the wrong things to “save me,” to make me count in the grand scheme of life.
We all are a part of the kind of Exodus story that Isaiah recounts. We, too, invite distress by an unknowing or even a defiance of God’s presence and purpose.
Dr. MacDonald wondered, “But in the people of Israel’s oppressions and neglects, what were they really doing? Were they, too, seeking salvation and deliverance from something that could not provide that for them?”
How would changing the reason I will write an academic article or present at a conference with other academics (whose opinions matter for all the wrong reasons to me) change what I do?
I’ve been on the look out for something more tangible or maybe intangible to transform what I have felt compelled to do for my academic worthiness. What could change my practice into something that reaches into the core of what matters or do I change what I do?
A couple of summers ago I attended the Buechner Writing workshop at Princeton Seminary in search of putting more of my “heart” in my academic writing. As a result, I began this blog—a very different purpose and practice of writing, or is it? This blog writing has everything to do with whose and who I am; yet, doesn’t hinge on what I am.
I will admit my continual angst about naming my degree, a job title, a kind of education, a kind of place where I work that results in tension. I was using all of those things to save me…to give me a platform…to validate my intellect…to put me above others in particular ways when that was the very thing I was fighting against. Using the right tools to do the wrong job?
While those questions persist, the good news in this story in Isaiah, as Dr. MacDonald pointed out, is in the poetry that frames the prose that troubled my work. In my dilemmas, I also experience the promise and transformation of the opening verses that remind me that I belong to God.
But now hear, O Jacob my servant,
Israel whom I have chosen!
Thus says the Lord who made you,
who formed you from the womb and will help you:
Do not fear, O Jacob my servant.
…I am the Lord’s… The Lord’s.
I am the Lord’s; more than I intend.