I’m unbelievably tired these days, and I know I’ll feel more so after this week’s surgery. I’m tired from the drugs I take, tired from the pain in my back and leg, and now tired from the tumor inside me. The end of Isaiah 40 seems to speak to that weariness. The words are famous:
“Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall. But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
I’ve heard and read those words many times. Roughly translated, they seem to say: when we fall, God picks us up. Sometimes it works that way. But often, I find that when I fall, I stay down – or fall farther. Life is not always a happy picture of obstacles overcome, difficulties surmounted. Rotten things, like cancer and chronic pain, happen. Healing happens too, but not always. There are no guarantees.
Actually, that well-known passage in Isaiah 40 speaks well to people in rough circumstances, and not by promising some magic wand that will make those circumstances disappear. Rather, the passage speaks of the intersection of two different and opposite realities. One is diseased and twisted – notice: youths grow tired; young men stumble. An upside-down, backwards world is being described here, a world in which the wrong people are tired and tripping over their toes, a world that seems out of joint. Anyone who has suffered chronic pain knows that feeling. You simply cannot shake the sense that this is wrong – that backs and legs are not meant to feel this way, that life is not meant to feel this way. Cancer patients are told, basically, that our bodies are attacking us, eating away our insides. Talk about a house divided against itself: the world can’t get much more warped than that.
But behind that world lies another. In verse 21 and again in verse 28, the writer uses the refrain: “Do you not know? Have you not heard?” – a reminder that what follows is old news – and then proceeds to describe a God of boundless energy and strength, presiding over a reality that isn’t backwards or upside-down. That reality stands outside this one yet also runs through it, as a river runs through the surrounding valley, bringing life-giving water to nearby farms and cities. I may live in the world of stumbling, but I can still touch the world of soaring eagles. More precisely, that world can still touch me.
C.S. Lewis liked to say that our reality is a shadowland, a pale reflection of another, better reality. I hesitate to suggest that C.S. Lewis got something wrong – the ratio of what I know to what he knew equals the ratio of a grain of sand to a beach – but I think his Platonic metaphor doesn’t quite do the job. Our world is indeed a reflection of something larger and better – but like all reflections, it reverses the picture; it distorts that which it reflects. Reality is screwed up, as a fun-house mirror screws up the image it displays. Certainly my reality is screwed up: weariness and pain are everywhere; nothing works as it should. And yet, that fun-house-mirror world we see and feel and touch and taste is not all there is. The mirror reflects another, different world that operates by different rules. Somehow, in some way I can’t fathom, that other world is working in this one – even in my small circumstances, and even now. Somewhere, an eagle is soaring. Though I sure can’t feel it, maybe I’m soaring too.