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December 1, 2002

Isaiah 64:1-9

by Tony Grant


Truth Technology

It is getting harder to lie these days. All sorts of technology is being developed to tell when we are lying. Now you might say, we have had lie detectors for a long time, but not really. Polygraph machines measure physiological reactions, which often suggest that a person is not telling the truth, but polygraph machines are unreliable. Back in the old Soviet Union, the Russians regularly and successfully trained spies to pass lie detector tests. Our justice system has always known that polygraphs are not much good which is why they are not acceptable in court. The problem is that an individual can fake a response and fool the polygraph. Another problem is that some people are naturally anxious and even when they are innocent, they may give a stress response that indicates to the machine that they are lying.

All that could change soon . A new computer program developed by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University is so sophisticated that it is expected to approach 100 percent reliability. The program, called Automated Face Analysis, is able to analyze thousands of facial expressions, and can discern which are spontaneous and which are fake. The potential applications involve much more than just law enforcement. Perhaps the program is a giant step toward computers that will respond to the user's facial expressions. There also can be mental health benefits. For example, doctors could tell which patients really are suicidal, and psychological researchers will not have to infer what a patient is feeling, but will have actual information to go on. As with much technology, this development is both scary and promising, and its worth will depend on how humans choose to use it. ["A real truth detector," The San Angelo Standard-Times, September 14, 1998,]

But other truth technologies are being developed. Seventeen-year-old Scott Newman from Arlington, Virginia has received lots of attention—including a spot on the Today show—for devising a new way to catch liars in the act. According to The Washington Post, Scott's invention uses a special infrared camera to detect changes in skin temperature that occur when someone tells a lie. His device won three top prizes at this year's Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. When showing off his invention on the Today show, Scott caught Al Roker lying when he said that his first job had been in a machine factory, manufacturing gears.

"When you lie, you get a feeling of heat and anxiety, just like when you blush," says Scott. However, because the infrared camera costs about $50,000, few employers are likely to use it to weed out dishonest job applicants. Still, Scott is in the process of applying for a patent.

There are still other truth technologies. Terry Harrington, in prison for the murder of a police officer, walked into the sunlight a free man not long ago, after spending twenty-two years behind bars. He spent the better part of a generation incarcerated in a cell, and he was innocent. He can thank a new truth-telling technology for his freedom: No not DNA identification, but Brain Fingerprinting. Here's how it works: The brain stores information much like a computer, filing away images and scenes. Wherever we go, whatever we do, the brain is recording information. Therefore, if we participate in a crime, our brains have saved every image of the crime. Whatever we did wrong, it is in here. The crime scene, the face of our accomplice, the weapon used—all are permanently registered in our brains.

When the FBI showed Terry Harrington images of the crime he supposedly committed, his brain waves were measured, and Harrington's brain did not recognize the pictures. Details of the murder that would be familiar to the perpetrator failed to register in Harrington's knowledge assessment. His brain showed no familiarity with the crime. Thus, he was the wrong guy. Terry Harrington was released after being wrongfully detained for over 20 years, and an alleged witness to the crime was subsequently charged.

Brain fingerprinting was invented by Dr. Larry Farwell. He can tell you are lying if only you will let him fit you for one of his patented headbands equipped with sensors which allow him to measure your brain wave responses. This system watches for a particular brain response that happens automatically whenever the person sees something familiar.

Dr. Farwell says, "What you do is you take information that only the criminal would know; for example, if he had robbed a bank, he would know certain details about that specific bank robbery. You flash that information on the screen and you measure the brain responses. If the brain response contains what is called a MERMER, that indicates he recognizes that information. If he recognizes the information, he must have been there." (MERMER: Memory and Encoded Related Encephalographic Response). This response is automatic. There is no way to suppress it and fool the system. Brain Fingerprinting simple measures information located in the brain. If that information is stored in the brain, it means the individual was there and did the crime. [Dick Wilson, "Farwell Brain Fingerprinting," CNN Headline News, Retrieved June 18, 2002.]

But we need to add a word of caution. Since brain fingerprinting only deals with memory, it cannot detect many kinds of lies. For example if the lady asks you, "Do these pants make me look fat," you can diplomatically reply, "No dear, you look as thin as a rail" even though you may be thinking, "Well, actually, you look like a doublewide trailer." And Brain Fingerprinting would not betray you since such statements do not involve memory of being in a certain place or doing a certain thing.

Second Isaiah’s Astonishing Ideas

And let’s admit it; there probably are some social occasions when a harmless white lie is appropriate—some but not many. Generally, we recognize that the truth is important. Truth is the basis of all long-term relationships. Lying is the destroyer of relationships. Truth is especially important in any relationship with God. In our text today, Isaiah is facing some unpleasant truths about God’s relationship with Israel.

It has been a long time since God sent pillars of cloud by day and fire by night, rained food from the heavens or sent plagues upon Israel's enemies. God is keeping his distance. The people are idolatrous and disobedient and they don’t seem to mind that, to all appearances, God is no longer with them.

It has been generations since the exodus and now once again the Hebrews find themselves in despair. After exile in Babylon, they had returned home to Judah, but the trip was hardly glorious. They returned to harsh living conditions and an economy that offered little hope for a resurgence of prosperity. And so, the Hebrews fell into the old but familiar habit of bowing to the pagan gods the Babylonians so admired.

Apparently, Second Isaiah hoped to force the one true God out of retirement and back into action. What Judah needed were some images that would jog the brain and the soul. Isaiah longed for the old days when God might tear open the heavens and split mountains.

"Hit us, O God," Isaiah seemed to plead. "Give us your best shot. Something we can't even imagine. Help us recover our memory of you!"

Isaiah remembered God and he believed that these same images were filed somewhere deep in the recesses of Israel's memory bank. The memories were there, though the Israelites might deny them. The Israelites' history with God had not only left Brain Fingerprints in their collective memory; their relationship with God had left permanent imprints upon their souls as well.

Do they not remember, on some level, that they are clay and God is the Potter? That they had been utterly sinful and unfaithful? That they had once called God's name and fiercely took hold of God for stability?

And did not God remember also? Did not God remember that he is their Father? That they are God's people? Isaiah fussed and fumed that sinfulness had resulted when God hid his face from them. No wonder we sinned, O God, he complains in frustration. You have caused us to sin because you stopped revealing yourself to us.

Our scripture today from Isaiah utilizes unusual vocabulary, striking imagery, and uncommon theological ideas. Isaiah 64:1-9, offers a plea to God to remember that the chosen people remain, despite their vagaries and rebellions, chosen.

The image of tearing open the heavens is found only here. Although the Hebrew verb is common enough, it usually refers to garments, in the well-known biblical gesture of tearing one’s clothing in mourning or grief (e.g., Genesis 37;29, 34; 44:13; 2 Samuel 13:19; etc.). Other things may be torn, rent, split or opened, but only here is the image applied to "the heavens."

But the thing that really strikes us about this passage is the idea of deus absconditus, the hidden god. This idea is found in a few passages in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the Psalter (e.g., 13:1, 22:24, 27:9, 44:24; 69:17, etc.), but it is certainly not a prominent theological doctrine. The idea found in v5, that Israel sinned "because you hid yourself," is the opposite of the bulk of writings on the matter in the Hebrew Bible. Much more typical is the idea found in Deuteronomy 31:18, in which God will hide his face "on account of all the evil they have done." Thus, God departs from Israel because of Israel’s sin. Sin is the reason God hid his face. The vast majority of prophetic pronouncements, in fact, indicate that Israel sinned despite God's presence, rather than because of God's absence.

But Isaiah employs unusual images and ideas to convey his sentiments. We might ask: Is Isaiah blaming God for Israel’s problems? Is he is falling into that well-known human trap of trying to create God in his own image?

Thomas Moore says, "We feel the need for a certain source of security and so we design a God tailor-made for our purposes. Then we defend this image against all others." But then Moore adds, "But the purpose of the name of God is to crack us open, lifting us out of our finitude and self-absorbed anxiety, and this religious enterprise requires an idea of God beyond any fixed notion we might have." [Thomas Moore, The Soul's Religion (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), 132.]

God is not Me Made Magnificent. God is beyond anything I can imagine.

Also, God is always the loving parent. Although the image of God as father will assume gigantic proportions with far-reaching consequences in the New Testament, the image of God as father of the chosen people is rare in the Hebrew Bible. It is found, in fact, in only two passages, both in Second (or Third) Isaiah, here and at 63:16: "For you are our father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O LORD, are our father ...."

We also find it odd that Isaiah used the image of God as father and of God as potter in the same verse. The potter image seems harsh and arbitrary. If the potter does not like the way the clay is working out, he smashes it flat and starts over again. If the pot cracks, then the potter throws it away. But Isaiah, by combining the potter with the father is saying that God is not like that. Yes, God is absolutely in charge, the way the potter is in charge of the clay. God is sovereign God. But God is also loving father, and so God does not use his power to harm his people. Isaiah says that God is almighty God and do not ever forget that, but also do not forget that God loves you like a perfect parent. And he says that those two images—the potter, the father—convey to us a way to understand our relationship with God. Isaiah admitted that the sins of the people angered the Potter. But Isaiah also hoped that such iniquities could forgiven by an infinitely compassionate father.

Perhaps the relationship God had with the Hebrews was set forever, imprinted not only on their brains but on their souls as well. Perhaps God, also, bore the eternal imprint of these chosen and loved people. God had saved them from the Egyptians. God had given them the kings they requested. God had loved them with an undying love even throughout years of infidelity. That's a SoulPrint memory that no one can forget.

The SoulPrint determines who we are and what we are. We are God's people, related to the ones who were led out of Egypt, exiled to Babylon, returned to their land only to find God missing.

Actually, God was not missing. And when Isaiah says that the reason we have sinned is because you are not around O Lord, he does not really mean that. He is speaking out of his frustration, trying to force God to act, to make himself known. And yes, we can sympathize with Isaiah. We long for God to make himself known, and sometimes, God does not. Sometimes, God is silent. Even so though, we cannot give up on God, for God has left his mark on and in our souls. Our SoulPrints reveal that we were created to be in relationship with God. Sometimes God is silent and sometimes we are silent, but the relationship remains eternal.

Our SoulPrints reveal that we were created to enjoy and serve God. That is what life is about. Sometimes we falter, forget, but still, this information is imprinted upon our souls and we cannot forget it. Our SoulPrints reveal that we were created to worship God, and even when God is silent, even when we do not see God’s awesome power, we still worship. Our SoulPrints reveal that we have been molded like clay by a Potter who created even the clay. Clay has the tendency to break down, melt down, and shut down. Sinful clay that we are, we need frequent forgiveness and compassion.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes, "I remember a classmate of mine, a Lebanese Presbyterian, who threw a theological temper tantrum during his first semester in seminary. "All you Americans care about is justification!" he howled. "You love sinning and being forgiven, sinning and being forgiven, but no one seems to want off that hamster wheel. Have you ever heard of sanctification? Is anyone interested in learning to sin a little less?" Traditionally, the way off the hamster wheel of sin has had at least four steps to it: confession, pardon, penance, and restoration to community. [Speaking of Sin (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 2000), 86.]

Our loving father restores us and receives us into his everlasting arms, and we desperately need that restoration. The God who fashioned both the extraordinary human brain and the brilliant scientists who increasingly discover just how extraordinary it is, fashioned us in such a way that our souls would bear a gnawing desire to connect with the Holy. Even when God is silent, even when we realize that our own transgressions have distanced us from God's presence, something deep inside each of us detects that presence nevertheless.

Abba Mios was asked by a soldier whether God would forgive a sinner. After instructing him at some length, the old man asked him: "Tell me, my dear, if your cloak were torn, would you throw it away?" "Oh, no," the soldier said. "I would mend it and wear it again." And the old man said to him: "Well, if you care that much for your cloak, do you think God does not care as much for a creature?" [Yushi Nomura, Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2001), 11.]




If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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