Intro: For this morning’s message I’d like to talk about the Journey Inward based on Isaiah 6 by first telling a story that some of you may have heard or read.
Boards with Names
Imagine that you enter a hallway that looks over the steps leading into a basement of a large meetinghouse. As you walk down the steps, a dank smell and dim light overcome you.
You are with a guide, an older person, softly spoken, gentle, but the flashlight she holds in her right hand announces her confidence in her role.
As you come around the first corner and down a gradual slope, you notice that all the floorboards and studs are exposed. And on each floorboard is a name; some of them carved, like the names of lovers knifed into tree bark, some are written with pencil, some permanent marker.
This peaks your interest so you turn to the woman. You ask:
Why are there names on each of these boards?
She responds, almost surprised by the question,
Those, those are the names of the people who put those boards there. Those are the people who built this house.
Some of the names you recognize. They are names that have been told in stories that older people in the community share. They are names labeled under pictures. These are names you recently found in directories that were filed away for decades.
As though she read your mind she continues,
All of these names are important. Not one of them stands above the other. See this one, she was the clerk of our meeting for 20 years. See this one here, he was a single-dad who was a part of our meeting for a few years before his family moved to the Mid-West. Here was a widow whose deep love kept this meeting afloat through many trying times. This one, he journeyed with us for a long time before he moved on. He used to ask the most challenging questions. These people here, their commitment and time went almost unrecognized. All these names are special, not one is above the other.
You nod in understanding and continue to stroll along the wall of a great room.
Then off in the distance you see a light. Walking toward it, you assume this is where the guide was taking you. As you approach the far end of the room, you feel the warmth from the solitary hanging light bulb. The soft glow illuminates the wall and the exposed boards come into greater focus. These boards however are different from the others. For one, the names have faded. And all these boards have begun to show their age. Some are decomposing; the effects on the structure are evident.
Time stands still. The silence overwhelms you. You know what this all means, the message is an obvious one, but the guide clears her throat and speaks nonetheless.
Now we will need to find new people to fix, repair and replace these. We need new boards and new names. But it is so difficult these days to find people willing to submit to caring for one way, one building, one home. These days, we would rather be on the move than dig in our heels. There are many reasons; many feel they are no good. Many feel they do no have the time or the adequate skills. Some are perpetually seeking for fear they might one day find and actually be called upon. And some are sure they have found and thus think there is no need to be adjusted to fit into these spaces. Even if we were to use the materials from this building to rebuild something new, there is one lingering question: Who will say, ‘Here am I, use me?’
Isaiah, Thin Places and Embracing Wholeness
As in the story I just shared, Isaiah also has an important journey inward. In his vision he does not go downward into a basement, he goes upward towards the high and lofty throne of the king. The text tells us that Uzziah, the king of the southern kingdom of Judah, has just died.
Isaiah’s vision is of another king, YHWH, who is on the throne. The vision reveals that he is mightier and holier than any earthly king. He is like a bright glowing light that draws people to him. There is meant to be a contrast between Uzziah and YHWH. Even though Judah is under threat of invasion by the Assyrian Empire, Isaiah is given a vision of reassurance that YHWH is the throne reminding him that it is God who sustains, God who calls, and God who can raise up new people to do his work.
But Isaiah is not yet ready to answer the call upon his life. So the vision is also about Isaiah entering what we might call a “thin place.”
As one author puts it on her blog: A ‘thin place’ is a place where the veil between this world and the Other world is thin, the Other world is more near. Link.
It is anyplace place where the borderline between heaven and earth is so thin that not only is God’s presence made-known, but our best defenses against God are dismantled.
A thin place might be physical location:
ILL. When Emily and I visited the Notre Dame in Paris a number of years ago, I was impressed not just by the majesty of the place, but the weight of spiritual presence there. After all, in a place where people have been worshipping, praying and visiting since its construction was first completed in 1345, you might expect God to be a little more tangible there.
Mt. Zion was a thin place for Moses, as was the place where Jesus is transfigured. It could be a special trail, a certain room, or even a dream or vision we have while we’re sleeping.
Wherever they are, they reconnect us to God. In these thin places our hidden and true-selves are often revealed.
And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Upon seeing YHWH Isaiah recognizes that he is broken, unclean, and his true-self is hidden. In this “thin place,” he sees that there is some obstacle, a veil that keeps him from being transfigured.
Remember I suggested transfiguration means, “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state [of wholeness].”
We can know that we have brokenness in our lives, that we are in need of healing, that there is a response required of us, but until the veil is removed we will continue to be blinded and unable to truly see ourselves or others.
Ill. the story of the brothers
Elizabeth O’Connor tells a story about two brothers,
…The Black Knight and the White knight, and they sett off on a quest, each on his own, one going north and the other one south. After many years they met in a dark wood, and did not know each other. They immediately assumed that they were enemies until, when both were lying bleeding to death on the grass, they undid their helmets and recognize that they were brothers. (O’Conner 2).
We are confronted with the questions: are our eyes covered, is our true-self hidden from ourselves and from others so that we cannot even recognize one another.
To put it back in Isaiah’s words,
“Woe is me. I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
He recognizes that until he is grounded in God, rooted in the living waters that can make him whole, he is walking a treacherous path.
The Journey Inward moves us towards this unveiling. The journey inward opens us up to God’s Holy Spirit who can gives us new eyes to see the world with.
Isaiah’s confession “Woe is me” is his surrender, his willingness to reposition his self in proper juxtaposition to the almighty. Isaiah’s embracing his whole-self will of course present new challenges.
…Embracing one’s wholeness makes life more demanding – because once you do that, you must live your whole life. One of the most painful discoveries I made in the midst of the dark woods of depression was that a part of me wanted to stay depressed. As long as I clung to this living death, life because easier; little was expected of me, certainly not serving others (Parker Palmer Let Your Life Speak, 71).
And this is exactly what is taking place here. We don’t know if there is resistance in Isaiah, but we do know that Isaiah is confronted with the fact that in order for him to embrace the inward reality of this experience of YHWH – and the outward call to serve that follows – he must be able to choose to take that harder, narrower path, the path downward into the very depths of his own soul.
All The Way Down
The Journey Inward is often a journey that takes us “all the way down.” Basements are not always beautiful places, but they are the places where the structure of our lives are exposed. If we have rotten boards, they will need to be replaced. If we have beautiful boards with names on them, they will need to be cared for and honored. The journey that takes us all the way down is one in which we are taken with a holy and present guide, who knows his way and will lead us back home again.
The Journey Inward can also be a journey upward. A reminder that God is beautiful, powerful and transcendent. We are taken to a new place, brought out of our despair and placed on solid ground. We need to find these thin places so that we might witness Jesus in our midst, and find ourselves unveiled. In these movements upward, we are reminded that we are made in the image of God’s own beauty, and even when we are unclean we learn that God alone can cleanse us.
Both of these journeys, whether downward or upward involves involves a choice on our part. Just like Isaiah, we are always given the choice of which road to take, and we can always turn back.
But may we be like Isaiah and accept the cleansing touch of God’s own love on our lives, and be purified in Christ so that we may begin the journey inward, and outward in complete freedom.
So that We may then freely say to Christ who calls each of us: “Here I am, send me.”