On Beard Pulling
After a week that has been dominated by work on our local refugee project, I finally sat down this morning to spend some focused time with the lectionary texts for Sunday morning. The passage I had agreed to preach on was Isaiah 50:4-9a, one of the famous “servant songs,” that contains these words:
I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
After reading these words, I (unwisely) proceeded to go online. I was greeted by a handful of unpleasant messages, including one from someone who had evidently encountered some of the media coverage that our group has done this week, and was manifestly not in favour of welcoming Syrian refugees to our community. The message contained some of the vilest and most insulting language that I have come across in some time. There wasn’t exactly any beard pulling or spitting, but there was plenty of racism and venomous anti-religious sentiment (for both Muslims and Mennonites). Not the brightest way to start the day.
Now, a nasty email hardly qualifies as… well, as anything, really. All it means is that someone fortified with a generous dose of anger and ignorance had an Internet connection and a few minutes to kill. These sorts of messages are the ubiquitous fruit of living our lives online, where impulsively assembled and hastily delivered insults are just part of the furniture.
But it was interesting to observe my response. I instantly wanted to respond in kind. Perhaps a blistering dose of sarcasm and condescension would do the trick. How about a snarky comment on their abysmal grammar? Or, maybe I could be a bit more virtuous and deign to educate this person on the myriad fallacious assumptions that their email laid bare. Or, better yet, I would write a blog post!
At any rate, one thing was clear in my mind. I needed to be vindicated.
This will probably not come as a surprise those who have read my blog for any length of time. My instinct is to (drearily) respond to every accusation, every baseless assertion, every misguided opinion, thereby demonstrating my pitiable need to always be right selfless and eminently laudable desire to help others come to the light. I don’t like not having the last word. I don’t like being misunderstood and misrepresented. I don’t like people walking around with opinions about me that aren’t true. And, of course, I don’t particularly enjoy being insulted. Nobody does.
Well, with this roiling mess of reactions and intentions percolating in my brain, I kept reading in Isaiah 50.
The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.
Now, it would of course represent the very loftiest pinnacles of hubris to compare an unpleasant, easily deleted online message with Isaiah’s suffering servant or anything more generally resembling “persecution.” But it occurs to me that in matters both small and large, leaving the vindicating to God is among the more important lessons that people of faith will ever learn. Part of what it means to really trust God involves the gradual unclenching of proud hands determinedly clinging to the wheel of the “constantly managing other people’s impressions of you” bus.
Because God alone sees and evaluates truly, after all. God alone both honours the good and forgives the wrong reliably and faithfully. God alone is the one who can vindicate. To genuinely trust requires the recognition that our fragile and precarious identities and reputations (not to mention our beards!) are truly safe with God.
I guess I’ll probably just leave that email alone.