Remembering a Lesson I Once Heard, before I Moved to Texas

Remembering a Lesson I Once Heard, before I Moved to Texas

I hear you teaching about Isaiah 49:16: “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.”  I hear your passion as you draw the parallel between this verse and the cross.  I cannot deny that it is there, the dual reference to hands: the nails in His hands, the palms of His hands.  I see how it touches you, this parallel.  I hear your heartbreak over your sin; I hear your grief that it would have such a high cost; I hear your breathless relief that there is redemption, as though you were saved from the jaws of death, but just barely.

And then, while you are still speaking, my mind drifts.  I think of the act of engraving, of writing: using the muscles in my fingers to grip a pen to write a word on a piece of paper.  I think of the quick note that I received last week from the one my heart loves, a note about nothing important in particular, very ordinary actually.  I think about seeing my name in his handwriting. How intimate that was, seeing the letters of my name spelled out by his hand, imagining the sound of my name ringing out in his mind in the moment before he jotted it down.

See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.

I trace absentmindedly on my own palm and realize it is quite sensitive to touch, almost ticklish.

And I feel my mind turning in disagreement, pulling away from you. In spite of the loveliness of your interpretation, I start to think that maybe these things are not related at all. I wonder if this verse was not really a reference to the torture of the cross but instead a reference to deep intimacy, keeping in the tradition of the Song of Solomon where the imagery is so fragrant and so personal and so sacred that I sometimes blush to read it.  I wonder if the picture in the writer’s mind was not necessarily a prophetic image of death but rather a sensual picture of devotion: between a mother and her child, or between a king and the people he rules but also happens to love, or between a groom and his bride:

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.”

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me.
Your sons hasten back,
and those who laid you waste depart from you.

Lift up your eyes and look around;
all your sons gather and come to you.
As surely as I live,” declares the Lord,
“you will wear them all as ornaments;
you will put them on, like a bride.”

And I wonder what is lost, when we tend to interpret the Word of God only in terms of our terrible sinfulness and its terrible consequences.  Is tragic too strong a word, when we bring His righteousness and His judgment into sharp focus and expel His delight and His joy to the periphery where they can only stand waiting, hat in hand?  I wonder if God is pleased by our attempts to keep our sinfulness ever before us when He has made it abundantly clear that He does not.  What happens when we insist on re-forming even lush words of intimacy into pictures of judgment?  It seems to me that we are missing something important, and I am surprised that God would let us miss something so important.

Then I stir in my seat and realize that you are still speaking, about to wrap up your teaching, about to pray.  I wonder if we will ever have this conversation, if I will ever say any of this to you.  Because you seem so sure and so passionate that I worry that I would hurt you by disagreeing.  I wonder if my passion would overwhelm yours, or yours, mine.  In my mind, I can see the exchange, see your eyes veil themselves in the face of my differing interpretation, hear you say, “I guess we can just agree to disagree.”  Then I would realize that my questions were to you an attack, so I would probably quickly backtrack, acquiesce, exclaim, “Oh!  Okay!”  My agreement would be falsely bright, an attempt to ward off the hard nugget of awkwardness that could form between us.  And I would worry that my decision to yield would indicate that I am not brave.

Then I know that I will never bring it up at all.

And as we close in prayer, I marvel at the mystery of the body of Christ.  I marvel at the mystery of God leaving Himself so open to interpretation, at the risks He has taken in order that we will not be crushed by Him.  I worship His humility and His gentleness and His love, and I ask, once again, if He would please form my spirit into the likeness of His.

“We don’t yet see things clearly.  We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist.  But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright!  We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!”

*Isaiah 49:14-18, I Corinthians 13:12