Made in the likeness

photo (c) Katherine Brown

‘The tongue is a fire…’

James 3:6; excerpt from James 3:1-12, lectionary for 9.12.21

When we woke up, fog obscured the lake. Somehow that’s part of this telling: that when we woke that morning, all we saw was thick grey-white.


Now the fog is gone. We’ve paddled onto the wide water, pointed out a kingfisher darting, a great blue heron laboring into flight. Paul casts for fish, and I sit and look at the world as we drift. The sky is bright, light blue. The clouds are dense white mounds, gently flattened on the bottom. The blue and the white show not only in the sky but in the lake. The water is so glassy as to hold the image of the heavens. Made in the likeness, I think, is this what James meant…?


Connections with James continue uncanny. ‘Not many of you should become teachers,’ James writes, and I, starting a new semester, wince and laugh. ‘The tongue is a fire,’ James writes, and I hear voices rising strident, angry and afraid, speech consuming communion. I marvel again that in telling his world, James is reading me my own.


Have I found a key to reading in likeness? James has been using family references throughout: calling God ‘Father’ (1:17, 27; 3:9), addressing ‘my brothers’ and sisters (1:2; 2:1; 3:1; 3:10), stressing relationship in community. Reference to ‘those who are made in the likeness of God’ shifts the stress. ‘Likeness’ is also relational, but the primary relation is to the original, to God who created us in God’s own ‘image,’ according to God’s ‘likeness’ (Gen. 1:26-27). The relation of image to original comes first and is universal. The relation between images, all made in the same likeness, follows. And if the first relation of ‘likeness’ is universal, then the secondary between images is not limited by the corporate bounds of the community but defined in God.
I am sitting in the canoe, floating on water that bears the likeness of the sky. The sky speaks blue, with clouds. The water echoes. There are no words but a sort of speech is heard (Psalm 19:1-4). The water has to hear the light to tell it back.


‘Hear!’ God proclaims; the command to hear is the necessary preface to the command to love (Deut 6:4-5). God who commands hearing is also God who hears (Exod 2:24; 3:7; Psalm 18:6), God who holds us all in mind.


Should we not also strive to hear and hold each other?


James-the-letter is all-tongue, shaping words for others to hear. James-the-letter-writer also has ears. James hears a community facing trials (1:2), angry (1:19-21), divided in itself (2:1-13), mirroring the world instead of the Lord (1:24). James hears, also, the word that is full, perfect, complete, and James wants this breaking body to hear the likeness it was made to bear. James writes so that the body will be reminded to listen, tuning ears to the perfect law, told by his imperfect tongue, through his imperfect pen.


‘The tongue is a fire.’ I cannot control the ‘whole body’ (3:1-2) whether it is my own or the body corporate. I can bend my part of it towards the goal of perfect love. Neither shout nor be silenced. Listen without deferring to the fog of fear or hate. Tune ears to hear amid the cacophony the finest thread of love, the shared yearning for wholeness. Turn tongue and pen to persistently make plain the vision.


Bless Lord and Father and those made in God’s likeness.

The Law of Liberty

A boat in need of being made whole. Photo (c) Katherine Brown

‘So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.’

James 2:12; excerpt from James 2:1-17, lectionary epistle for Sunday Sept. 5, 2021.

James 2:12 catches me in particular this week and only partly because some lectionaries omit vv. 11-13 from the formal reading. Whenever verses are cut like this, I wonder whether they’re trimmed to avoid too long a reading or too difficult a point. I’ve enough of a contrarian streak to resist the lectionary’s limit. More than that, though, verse 12 catches me because of its phrasing: ‘So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.’

‘The law of liberty’ sounds an oxymoron when compared to the way in which ‘liberty’ is usually construed these days. News reports and social media quote or proclaim ‘liberty’ as the nation’s primary value, seeming to define it as freedom to do or to refrain from doing as each individual chooses. Yet if ‘liberty’ is the freedom to do what you will without constraint, then how can it be a ‘law’? Even if ‘law’ is interpreted as making ‘liberty’ the absolute value, that by which all of us are bound, there remains a tension in the idea of being bound to unrestraint. Besides that, James explains that the ‘law of liberty’ is that by which we are ‘judged.’ If liberty is the freedom to do what you will, without constraint, then how can it be a ‘law’ whose keeping (or lack) is judged? Judged by whom? Who has the right?

The rhetoric around masks and vaccination grows only more vituperative. The fervor is surely a measure of the stress weighing on us all. Both sides cry ‘liberty’ but neither defines it the same way. For one group, liberty means not being required to act; any imposition of responsibility is resisted: each should ‘do the good in his own eyes’ (the context of Judges 21:25 shows the lack of approbation of this view). Others point out that doing nothing in the context of disease (viral or otherwise) is not a neutral action, and argue that liberty means not being required to bear the negative consequences of others’ choices.

James seems to understand ‘liberty’ differently. It’s not ‘individual,’ not ‘personal’ (the adjectives which modify, if implicitly, ‘liberty’ in current rhetoric). James knows ‘liberty’ in the context of ‘law.’ The ‘law of liberty’ is ‘the perfect law,’ the mirror that tells us who and whose we are — if only we look into it (James 1:25)! It is the royal summons (James 2:8) to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18), so that they and we together are caught up in the connected web which is kingdom living.

‘For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it,’ James writes (2:10), and having already called partiality a violation (2:9), goes on to talk of murder and of adultery (2:11) as if to make excruciatingly plain that the law is not a list from which we pick and choose. It is a whole, with its own integrity.

The royal law of liberty is perfect, complete, full, indivisible. Because we are partial, we come to know it partially, in bits and pieces and numbered lists, and we each keep the part of it that we touch. I’m not meant to hold the whole world in my hands but I am meant to keep the whole law for that part of the world which I do hold, and to learn thereby that my touch is not the limit of my reach. My speech and my silence, my actions and my inactions, all affect others. Theirs affect me. Whether we seek to live in a ‘more perfect union’ or the kingdom of God’s will done ‘on earth as in heaven’ (Matt 6:10), we are bound to one another. The perfect law is the liberty to work out life together, not to freedom to think [prefer?] death (James 2:17).

‘So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.’

Summer’s End

photo by Katherine Brown

‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.  In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.’

James 1:17-18; excerpt from James 1:17-27, lectionary text for Aug. 29, 2021

This is not where I thought I’d be at summer’s end.  I remember April and May.  The relief of being vaccinated.  The satisfaction of submitting spring semester grades, wrapping up the entire, grueling, academic year, with only two summer courses to teach.  The pleasing surprise of coming awake one morning before my alarm, sunrise summoning me up and out to walk, to recover that daily rhythm of summers past.  

Now it is the end of August.  Sunrise is an hour later.  We’ve gone from azaleas to crepe myrtle, from ‘Brood Z’ cicadas (95 dB) to ‘oak leaf itch mites’ (don’t ask!).  I planned a family funeral repast, taught my two classes, graded papers, preached, anticipated re-opening, walked in the mornings, read the news, was increasingly undone.  COVID is coming back around, more virulent than before.  Division persists, expands, embitters; the disharmony is its own distinct pain.  Smoke from western wildfires hazes the eastern sky.  Haiti endures assassination and earthquake.  Hurricanes Fred, Grace, Henri, and Ida sweep through in swift succession.  Afghanistan suffers violent collapse.  I am swamped, over-aware of my inability to make a difference, paralyzed by my own puniness.  Also I broke my toe, so morning walks are paused.  ‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved’ (Jer. 8:20).

I’ve journaled all summer but not written to post.  A half-dozen false starts, each easily deleted as it existed only electronically.  I revert to pen and page, write on a leaf bound into a book, something I cannot easily delete nor discard.  I push to write on through, pray the unfurling line of ink is a line to haul myself out into, again, a broader place. I open my book, take pen in hand, and hitch my line to the letter of James.   

The lectionary text begins mid-way through chapter 1.  The references to ‘giving’ and ‘gift’ seem a non-sequitur after verses discussing temptation and testing and desire and sin.  There’s an echo, though, of earlier verses, where James wrote of God’s own generous, ungrudging ‘giving’ (James 1:5), and of the ‘full work’ of endurance: that we (‘you’) are full, perfect, complete (James 1:4).

Full, perfect, complete.  None of these do I feel now.  I am more aware of incapacity and lack.  James writes of looking into a mirror and promptly forgetting the self you’ve seen.  What I read is an injunction to catalogue flaws as if self-recrimination had not already overwhelmed me in the face of the world’s needs.  I turn away.  Seek distraction.  I’d open a browser if I wasn’t tethered to a pen.  Turn back.  Reread what I’ve written.  Reread what James has written to me, and realize why:  not to shame but to sustain (James 1:3-4, 12).  Look where James is telling me to look: into the text, ‘the perfect law, the law of liberty’ (James 1:25).   

The law, the gift, the work of endurance:  each is described as ‘perfect,’ meaning ‘complete,’ ‘lacking nothing.’   ‘Look into the perfect law,’ James urges.  Be reminded of who we are.  Beloved (1:16; 1:19).  God-birthed.  First-fruits — we described as God’s own choice offering (Deut 18:4; Jer 2:3).  Given by God, given to God.

I am small.  My hand cannot hold the world.  I cannot put out the fires, hold back the storm surge, cure the pandemic, end the rancor, stop the war.  This is true.  But it is not completely, fully, perfectly true.  If I allow myself to be consumed by that incomplete, partial, imperfect realization, I become even smaller, more less-than than before, not self-emptied so to be filled with God (Eph 3:19), but too scant and scattered a soil to bear the implanted word (James 1:21).

I am small.  So.  My hand can hold the word.  And a page, and a pen.  I can write a line.  I can plan a syllabus and teach a course.  I can pray for my students, for family and church and world and self.  I can look into the perfect law, and I can look at the world, and I can remember that I am God-birthed and God-beloved and God-given to bear the word on.  May that be enough for now, to carry me through the next step, and the step that comes after that.

Leaf Candles

photo by Katherine Brown

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

John 20:30-31, from John 20:19-31, lectionary text for Sunday after Easter.

The dogwood is emerald-candled.  Its leaves are new and small, precisely shaped, slightly flared. Glowing green.  Each leaf-pair is poised at the tip of a slender branch.  The sun shines, and the leaf-cups appear each a lit glim held aloft.   The light seems to be radiating from the leaves themselves as if they, not the sun, are the source of their shining.  Then clouds pass across the sun, and the light dims, and the leaves are again leaves.  Just leaves.  New, small, precisely shaped, slightly flared.  Flat green.

Easter evening, Jesus came and stood among the disciples, and the disciples who saw him rejoiced (John 20:19-20).  Christ-light had shone, and I imagine them radiant in its glow.

Thomas, one of the twelve, had not been with them that night.  ‘We have seen the Lord!’ the others told him.  Thomas refused the news.  See the insistent shake of his head, the stubborn hunch of his shoulders?  Thomas recites the litany of the sparks necessary to kindle his belief:  he must see, he must touch.  Not his lord — the one they said they had seen (20:25), the one with whom he had been willing to die (John 11:16) — but the marks of the nails in Jesus’ hands and side.  As if the proof of resurrection is in the marks of suffering.  Only if Thomas can encounter the body that he knows was broken will he believe that his Lord has risen.

So obdurate is Thomas’s resistance to his fellows’ joy that I wonder at his presence when, a week later, the disciples are again in the house (20:26).  Thomas is with them.  He had seemed to feel their resurrection report of Easter evening was more injury than invitation.  In the face of their joy, he had insisted on his loss.  But the following week, he was among them.  Did he come because of the others’ witness or in spite of it?  Did they welcome him in hope their joy would spark his own or because all of them together, in joy or in pain, were Christ’s own?  Is it their welcome, even?  Or is it reunion, and Christ the welcoming host?

Is it about the leaves or the light?

A week after Easter, Jesus stood among them and told Thomas to see and to touch.  ‘Do not be unbelieving but believing,’ Jesus says (20:27).  Thomas is shaken out of the fixedness of his disbelief by this encounter with Jesus’ nail-marked body.  ‘My Lord and my God!’ he exclaims (20:28).  ‘You have seen me,’ Jesus tells Thomas, then Jesus tells all of us after, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen but believe’ (20:29).  John’s gospel continues Jesus’ address to us with a reference to its own body, the thing ‘written so that you may believe …’ (20:31).

A body pierced by nails, twisted on a cross; broken by the world to overcome the world.  A community still claiming more than it lives, striving to live what it claims, falling short and having to try again and again.  Things written in a distant idiom — vocabulary, grammar, imagery — that must be learned and studied and read again and again.  A world of bodies.  Each in some way marked, twisted.  None complete.

Don’t mistake the leaves for the light.  Don’t mis-order the priorities.  Do recognize the relationship.

The clouds pass away, and the sun shines full.  Again, the dogwood is emerald-candled, each leaf-pair lit from within, seeming to show its true self, its very life.  

The daylight lets me see the dogwood leaves.  The leaves make that light visible as it otherwise would not be.  The leaves let me see the light.

People; pages.  Inadequate bodies all around.  Yet somehow the proof of Easter shows through these bodies that together — written, reading, lit, radiant, alive — make resurrection visible.

Gracious encounter.  That you may believe and, believing, have life.

Building New





photo by Katherine Brown
To the leader. A Psalm of David, 
when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. 
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions. 
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me. 
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment. 
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.  
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. 
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.  
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me. 
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me. 
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, 
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Psalm 51:1-12, lectionary psalter for March 21, 2021; from Psalm 51

This is how spring comes in the neighborhood.  Birdsong backed by notes of yard work and home improvement projects.  The rustle of a rake pulling last season’s leaves from the garden, then scraping across a paving stone.  A new fence going in:  the buzz of saws cutting wood, and the sw’thuk of the power hammer fixing pickets to the rail.  We walk past a house being renovated.  For weeks this winter, that house had trash set for bulk pick-up (old furniture, luggage, board games, stuffed animals that looked at the sky from atop the pile).  I’d mourned the dismantling of a family home and prayed at the passing of people I did not know.  Now the for-sale signs have been replaced with a home design board.  A dumpster sits by the curb.  The battered metal awnings are gone; windows replaced; bricks fresh painted.  A new porch is being put on. The smell of sawdust hangs in the air.  We wonder if the interior is being totally gutted.  We wonder when it will be done.

I’ve been in Psalm 51 since Ash Wednesday.   I wonder when it will be done.

‘Have mercy on me, O God … blot out my transgressions.’  Wash, cleanse, blot, purge.  A litany of demands, starting from that first:  ‘Grace me, as is your faithfulness, as is your compassion,’ your rechem, or womb-love.  The psalmist’s ‘I’ pleads with the ‘you’ of God.  As if these two (we two?) are the only two in the world.  ‘Against you, you alone, have I sinned,’ the psalmist proclaims, yet the proclamation of exclusivity rings false to me because the ancient superscription connects this psalm with a context.  The psalmist’s sin against the LORD was suffered in the bodies of a woman taken and her husband killed.  The superscription opens up the psalm, resists sin’s spiritualization.   Sin, transgression, iniquity:  these are more than imperfect ideation.  The suffering we cause our neighbors is the suffering we cause our LORD, the offense from which we need to be cleansed, the brokenness which needs restoration.  However ardent the plea, it is a sham unless the reconciliation between self and God is broadened to include reconciliation with the other.

The litany proceeds from wiping away the old iniquity to creating a clean heart.  It’s not a steady progress.  The first series pertains to erasing what was:  wash, cleanse, purge.  Verse 8, then, is Janus-faced:  bones already crushed naming the hope for joy bone-deep.  But not joy yet:  ‘Hide your face from my sins.’  Are God’s eyes covered?  Maybe God’s gaze is not averted so much as intensified:  looking past and through all the evil that has been, back to the goodness of creation’s original intent and future hope.  Rebuilding the psalmist in that sight.

‘A clean heart create in me, God, and a firm spirit renew within me.’  William Ross** argues that the psalm’s verbs evoke damaged structures reconstructed by God:  ‘do not scrap me … refurbish the joy of your salvation for me, reinforce me with a willing spirit.…’   Crushed bones as broken walls, self as built city.  ‘In sin I was birthed’ [v.5] describes the sin of the broken world into which I was born, in which I live, the structures from which I suffer and the structures from which I benefit.  The bones that need to be broken, the spirit re-founded and firmed and renewed, are not just mine alone but those of the community.  Yet the psalm makes plain that I am not absolved from my responsibility.  Suddenly its ardent individuality seems not fraud but summons:  I am involved in the world.  I myself need to repent.  I myself need to ask for — and to work for — holy joy, renewed and firm and amid — leavening? — the whole.

I’ve been in Psalm 51 for weeks.  I’ve read it, resisted it, returned to it.  I wonder when it will be done.  So much needs to be ripped out.  Some was good for a time but not good for all time.  That too must be given over.  Torn out, broken, crushed.  The metaphors are so violent!  Dust clouds over the dumpster as pieces of an old life are hauled out and thrown away.  It hurts.  Who wants to have part of your heart torn away?  Maybe the only way it can be borne is in community.  All of us needing to repent.  Each of us saying to God, ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned.’  I can speak only in the midst of others also confessing in the voice of the psalm’s ‘I’; all of us together trusting that the tearing out of the old will result in a newer-firmer, wider whole.

I can’t make myself new in this same-old life.  The psalm reminds me that I’m not expected to.  The newness is God’s work.  Mine is study and prayer and proclamation in community.

This is how spring comes.  The first green of the daffodils spears through the ground.  We look daily to see the spires grown higher.  One morning the green is topped with yellow.  It is as if the daffs had waited for us to look away so to surprise us with the flowers’ arrival.  Oh.  Spring.   

‘A clean heart create in me, God, and a firm spirit renew within me.’  

** William Ross, ‘David’s spiritual walls and conceptual blending in Psalm 51.’  JSOT 43(4) p. 607-29, 622-223 (2019).

Psalm Upside Down

photo by Katherine Brown
You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! 
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.  
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him. 
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the LORD.
May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him. 
For dominion belongs to the LORD,
and he rules over the nations.  
To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him. 
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord, 
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.

Psalm 22:23-31, lectionary psalter for Feb. 28, 2021

The light has had a peculiar intensity these past days.  It’s not brightness, exactly, at least not the sort that gilds the tree trunks or glows on the house bricks.  It is clarity.  In the afternoon the sun shines strong through the back windows and fills the kitchen.  It’s not just that light shows more clearly the kitchen contents — cupboards and countertops, cups and crumbs — but that the kitchen has become a container for this other thing, for light itself.  

We’ve had so many grey days, so many days of snow and rain.  I have grown accustomed to the dull light, welcomed it as restful.  It does not occur to me that I need not just rest but reviving until the ‘rains are over and gone,’ and a gusty wind has blown the sky clear.  This happens every spring.  I do not look for the turn of the year.  I settle into a holding pattern of wool sweaters and shawls and mugs of hot tea and do not feel how deeply the long dark has settled into me with its own holding weight.  Then comes this light so clear and strong, and I realize I have missed it.  I put on rubber boots and walk the neighborhood.  Yards that were snow dusted are now purple-carpeted with blooming crocus. Birdsong is piercing sweet.  In the muck and gravel beside the road, there is a shape of shining light, a puddle showing sky and treetops upside down.

I had read this psalm one of the grey mornings.  Snow fell and smoothed the untidy ground into a certain unity of shape and shade.  I sat at my desk, and milk-pale light lay across the page, and cold radiated from the window glass, and I wondered that we should read just the ending praise from this psalm that starts with a cry of God-forsakeness. How can the exultant proclamation that ‘future generations will be told’ of God’s salvation make sense without the recitation of the abyss from which the tellers were delivered?

But maybe — sometimes — that pit itself is not known until one is plucked out of it.  The fall is not always so precipitous as to call attention to itself.  It may be a creeping dullness, a subtle descent, its nadir not recognized until a outstretched hand has brought you out to a broad place.

Notice the parallel in the lines of verse 26:  ‘They shall eat, the afflicted, and they will be sated; they shall praise the LORD, those who seek him.’  Satiation is the answer to affliction. Praise is the result of seeking.  Hunger — for food, for the LORD — is implied but not stated, nor is finding listed as the necessary precondition of praise.  Seeking is.  

And, as seeking leads to praise, so praise may be the start of seeking.  Glimpse the sky in the puddle and let yourself be tipped with delight to lift your eyes and look at the sky.  There’s not a leaf nor a cloud hiding its brilliance.  Realize together both the light and your hunger.   

Dine on praise.  Pray your seeking be sated by God.

Sifting Shifting Witness

photo by Katherine Brown (color enhanced)
The mighty one, God the LORD,
 speaks and summons the earth
 from the rising of the sun to its setting. 
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
 God shines forth.  
Our God comes and does not keep silence,
 before him is a devouring fire,
 and a mighty tempest all around him. 
He calls to the heavens above
 and to the earth, that he may judge his people: 
“Gather to me my faithful ones,
 who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!” 
The heavens declare his righteousness,
 for God himself is judge. Selah  
Psalm 50:1-6, from Psalm 50, psalter for Transfiguration Sunday
Have mercy on me, O God,
 according to your steadfast love;
 according to your abundant mercy
 blot out my transgressions. 
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
 and cleanse me from my sin. … 
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
 and put a new and right spirit within me. 
Do not cast me away from your presence,
 and do not take your holy spirit from me. 
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
 and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Psalm 51:1-2, 10-12; from Psalm 51 for Ash Wednesday

‘The LORD speaks and summons the earth.’  The LORD calls the earth, cries out the earth, from the sun’s rise till its going in.  I read the line, and the LORD calls the earth to be, summons it to unfold itself, as if creation does not exist but for God’s daily re-call.  In my mind God’s speech unfurls rainbow banners across the heavens.  I look out the window and see pink glowing from sky to snow-ground.

This summons, though, is not to being but to judgment.  The LORD who flames from perfect-beauty Zion in fire and storm consuming, whose righteousness the heavens declare, calls a gathering ‘that he may judge his people.’  ‘For God himself is judge.’

This is where the lectionary selection for Transfiguration ends.  As if it is safe to summon the shining-bright LORD as judge and not recount the judgment.  As if it is honest or true to not read on to God’s arraignment of God’s own people.  As if the mountaintop was itself the end and not the transition (literarily, liturgically) into a next phase of relationship.  Lent.

Where am I in this psalm?  Who is God speaking to?  Who is the LORD speaking of?

Having called the earth as if to be, the LORD calls to heavens above and earth below to witness the charges.  I am not called as witness, however.  As I count myself among God’s own, numbered among God’s ‘faithful,’ I must count myself among those arraigned, against whom God testifies.  We are not invited to overhear God’s speech to others but to be addressed by God.  We are summoned to ‘Hear!’

What we hear is both censure and assurance.  God’s people — we, I — are arraigned not for our failures of worship but for something else.  Sacrifice as we practice it is not an inherent offense.  Nor is it needed by God.  All is already the LORD’s.  Who are we to set aside some portion only?  As if it all — as if we — are not already God’s own.  As if God has a hunger that can be slaked only by our burnt offerings.  The LORD rejects our offerings as necessary for God’s sake, yet the psalm continues on into exhortation:  sacrifice thanks; pay your promises; ‘call on me in the day of trouble.’  The LORD does not reject us or our offerings.  If there is rejection, it is of our ordering.  We are the ones who need this discipline taken on, that distraction given up.  The LORD, of grace, accepts our need as offering, and God promises to deliver.

But the psalm does not end there any more than it ended after that initial summons to judgment.  The LORD castigates the wicked.  How comforting it would be to think this address, at least, is against ‘others,’ and this is the part I can overhear.  These harsh words against those who ‘hate discipline’ and ‘cast my words behind you,’ who befriend thieves and adulterers, who speak evil and deceit and slander against their own kin — I would rather witness these words than take them to myself.

Except that these words, too, are addressed to those who carry God’s covenant on their lips.  These words, too, are addressed to those counted as kin, which is why their falsity is such an offense.  If I draw that line between, am I not risking the same slander?  It is the LORD who is not like us, not we who are not like each other.  I must see that if I am to see at all.

I need re-creation as much as anyone else.  To be ‘washed of my iniquity, cleansed from my sin,’ ‘restored to joy and sustained in willing spirit.’

I need not just to listen but to hear to bear God’s promise truly on my lips and know God’s word present in my heart, so that I may bear God’s name in the world.

Let me not forget you, LORD.  

Let me learn to see myself with your eyes that I may see you with my own.

Psalm as Snow Day

photo by Katherine Brown

‘Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them….

‘The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.’

Psalm 111:2, 7, from Psalm 111, lectionary psalm for Jan. 31, 2021

Every week, I read the text — whichever text it is — a first time.  I will read it again and I will do research and I will read it yet again, seeking the spark that arcs across from the ancient word to my own world.  Sometimes flame flares so swift and strong and bright that words flow without much effort.  Sometimes the spark catches but smolders; there is something there, but I struggle to know it.  Sometimes there seems no spark at all, and I think I’ve chosen the wrong text of the lectionary four.  I worry at the words like a dog worrying at a bone, working that a spark might fly, worrying that this time none will.

Every week — or two — I read the text a first time.  Looking to see a light to see by.

The week I read Psalm 111, I immediately knew v.7 was the intended spark:  ‘The works of his hands are faithful and just.’  The works of God’s hand.  This is a phrase I’ve studied much and know well.  Humans are God’s handiwork.  This is where I would spend the week:  pondering my identity as a made-creature, my calling to be faithful and just.  With a sigh of satisfaction, I read the rest of the psalm, turned out the light, and settled to sleep, secure that verse 7 would spark.  I would gather the tinder — translations and lexicons and what commentaries I have — strike the text, watch it flare, tend the flame, and write the fire.

The tinder didn’t catch.  Because the text did not spark.  Because in the Hebrew, the predicate in v.7 is a pair of nouns:  ’The works of his hands truth and justice.’  The meaning shifted in my mind.  Not that God’s handiwork — otherwise unnamed — has the quality of being faithful or just but that God makes truth, God makes justice.  Truth.  Justice. These themselves are the works of the LORD.  The lexical study surprised.  I checked multiple translations hoping one would give me back the adjectives of the NRSV.  None did.  I felt bereft.  I had thought myself spoken of, or to, reminded of being God-made; reminded to be faithful and just.  ‘The works of his hands truth and justice.’  I felt as if a door had closed and shut me out of the psalm entirely.  I circled the psalm again.  Noting the way ‘works’ ties it together:  ‘works’ are great, are studied and delighted in; ‘works’ have power, are shown; ‘works’ are truth and justice; God’s instructions are ‘worked’ in truth; those who ‘work’ them gain understanding.  ‘Works’ are a definite thread; but do they connect to me?

Sunday snow came.  Monday snow came.  The ground was covered over.  The air moved with the falling of the flakes.  The world was transformed.  I had a snow day — entirely unexpected.  Entirely unexpected as well was the way the snow drew me out and into it.  Crunching across the ice-glazed, snow-covered grass.  Wanting to see and hold in my mind’s eye a picture of just snow and sky and trees.  Shades of gray, white to near-black.  Wanting to go deeply in.  Apart.  No houses, no cars, no wires, none of the messy interconnectedness that is human life in this close-in suburb.  Wanting to see the world that is not-us — deep green holly, dark cool evergreen, bare tree branches stretched out and up — all overlaid by this grace of snow — its shape and shading at once stark and soft, striking and subtle.  Other.

Snow day as Sabbath unexpectedly imposed, unexpectedly allowed.  Snow shifting the quality of the light.  I’d been reading for a spark to summon me to examination of self and world, to whatever next-work is needed (and so much next-work is needed).  I’d been following the thread in search of a knot to keep it from pulling loose.  Snow shifted my sight to show psalm and snow day were the same gift.  Stop tugging at the thread, stop worrying for a word of exhortation.  Stop.  Experience a word of wonder.  This psalm is about the LORD.  It is a summons to sit and study honor and majesty and greatness and power and mercy and grace and truth and justice. Stand.  Snow cold underfoot.  Snow coming down.  Listen.  Snowfall has a sound of its own even as it makes all the other sounds different.  Look with open eyes, soft gaze.  Snow light changes sight. 

Look to see the LORD whose work I am.  Only then can I see the work I am made to be.

This is wisdom; this is delight: wonder in the LORD. 

Perfect hate; perfect love

photo by Katherine Brown
How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! how great is the sum of them!
If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: 
when I awake, I am still with thee.
Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God: depart from me therefore, ye bloody men.
For they speak against thee wickedly, and thine enemies take thy name in vain.
Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee? 
and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?
I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts:
And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
 

Psalm 139:17-24, excerpt from Psalm 139, lectionary text for Jan. 17, 2021

(King James Version because that’s what I’d memorized way back when.)

I memorized this psalm when I was in college.  I wandered campus reciting it, gestured with my hands to show ‘beset behind and before,’ quickened my speech to pull the darkness over me, then slowed my cadence to count thoughts more numerous than sand.  With dramatic passion, I rejected the wicked, then with a hastening urgency addressed the LORD directly, alibiing my firmness.  ‘Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee? And am I not grieved with those that rise up against thee?’  See me, God?  I have ranged myself with you against all those ‘bloody men.’  I am on your side.  So you are on my side.  Yes?  My tone implied the question; hinted at uncertainty; perhaps accounted for the difficulty I had in memorizing the last verses.  ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart:  try me and know my thoughts….’   I chanted them formally, as if to distance the risk of such a prayer.

Psalm 139 has felt so privately mine that I am surprised to find it in the lectionary cycle.  It expresses a relationship too intimate to recite in community — ‘You have searched me and known me ….’  The lectionary portion reinforces that sense as it includes only the verses that dwell on the relationship of psalmist and LORD — omitting any reference to the wicked, to enemies, to any other that would complicate or contradict the connection so intense and pure and personal.  As if this is the only axis of relationship that is. Yet for two weeks, now, of all the psalm’s poetry, the lines that have lingered are those omitted from the lectionary.   I find myself pondering ‘perfect hatred.’  The phrase catches and sticks in a mind still disturbed by the violence at the Capitol as a symptom of anger and fear and hate that is not new only newly fomented.  The inauguration was at most a pause in the storm.  Division persists.  

This practice of writing words is personal.  This is a devotion, not a manifesto.  I write for my own need and faith relationship; theology (if that), not politics.  The presenting offense that day was against the Constitution, not the Bible.  It pertains to the way we relate to each other in and as this nation, regardless of how any of us relates to God.  Except, except … I am commanded not just to love the LORD but my neighbor.  I cannot ponder my own personal escape into the ‘uttermost parts of the sea’ and ignore the violent tearing of our national fabric.  Yes, it was a a fabric flawed in its original weaving, but the pattern of its dreamed ideal has a beauty worth furthering.  This leaky vessel should be rewoven not ripped apart.  We are all in the same sea and so far away from shore.

A day or two after the insurrection, The Washington Post quoted a demonstrator still crowing over the battle for the Capitol, justifying the violence by distinguishing opponents from neighbors: “These police are protecting the villains inside that building. Somebody back in a small town, that’s my neighbor,” [the interviewee] said.  Maybe it was happenstance that the man quoted defined the ‘villains’ of Congress in opposition to those whose identity he construed in terms of literal proximity.  To me, though, ‘my neighbor’ connected immediately with Jesus’ command to love neighbor as self, and the man’s definition was at odds with Jesus’ teaching how to love as neighbor, stretching ‘self’ across a striking line of division. Love of neighbor is God’s ‘royal law.’ The law goes farther still:  Love the stranger among you as yourselfLove your enemy

That one quote — of the entire article — went deep and twisted.  It evoked words I love and claim and am claimed by, yet its undermining revision passed unremarked.  Either it was overlooked or was seen as more of the same from one among a crowd which had perpetrated violence under — literally — the banner of Christ. I was angry.  I hurt.  These words that to me are treasure were mistreated, made to be of little account.  Into this miasma of exhausting emotion came Psalm 139.  Its proud proclamation of ‘perfect hatred’ complicated my pondering of neighbor-love.  What is ‘perfect hatred’?   How does it fit in a faith that is lived not just as a private intimacy between me and the LORD but in relationship with the national neighborhood?  

Some commentaries assert that these verses are ‘unpleasant,’ ‘ugly,’ yet justified as an example of honesty before the LORD.  The honesty — not the hate — is what we are to emulate:  name the hate so that God can transform it to love.  I am not convinced.  The flow of the psalm itself does not suggest that the hate is meant to be a transitory state, set aside as perfection in love is reached.  The hate described is perfect, complete, full.  How can the proclamation of perfect hate be a part of the process of being perfected in love?  

Perhaps the answer begins in following the flow of the psalm.  Say it aloud.  Allow the cadences to pull me in and pattern my thoughts.  Begin with the declaration of God’s presence, close as breath.  Recite the impossibility of escaping from God — and then the truth that enemies make it difficult to experience God’s presence.  ‘Depart from me therefore!’  Then pause.  Remember.  Neither I nor the wicked can depart from God’s presence.  All those prior verses made that plain.  We are bound together in this world, its morning wings and sea surrounding, its light and its dark, its already-written, still-imperfect, yet coming-to-be.  Take a fresh breath and pray those last two verses.  Claim perfect hatred not as passionate emotion against the other but as passionate commitment to the LORD.  That commitment requires the risk of the prayer to be divinely searched, divinely tried, that I may learn to oppose in myself that which opposes the LORD, that I may oppose it as well in any other.  The end of the psalm takes me back to its beginning, the declaration that, bidden or unbidden, God has searched, God has known.  God will do so whether we ask or not.   Bidding God’s knowledge of me, I bid my own of God.  This is the axis of relationship that makes the others possible.

‘Lead me in the way everlasting.’  

Lead me in the way of love.  Lead me to long and work and live for love’s perfection.  Love of God, love of neighbor, love of stranger, love of enemy, love of myself.  Love of this fragile vessel that is our national neighborhood.    

Cup my palm as if God’s right hand, holding us afloat on this wide sea that is not our own.

The word that breaks in.

photo by Katherine Brown
Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.
The voice of the LORD is over the waters; 
the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; 
and in his temple all say, "Glory!"
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!

Psalm 29; psalm for Sunday, January 10, 2021

Newness is not to be grabbed.  It is gift to be received, to be grasped-by. So I sit upstairs at my desk to read and write and look and listen.  I am given the particular text; I am given the particular time.  I work to connect the two, and I pray for newness to come.

It is a grey day.  The light is low.  The sky is soft, folds of greys, ranging from creamy-pale to a subtle violet.  The trees are black against its ground.  Their bare branches stretch tall, seem to reach, bend and sway as the wind blows.

An aptness at the outset connects text and days, liturgical and political.  Psalm 29 is the text given for Sunday.  The day I sit to it is Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, the celebration of the arrival of the Magi — ‘three kings’ in tradition’s claim — who follow a star and ask King Herod where to find the child born king.   The focus of Epiphany is usually on the Magi, and their miracle star.  At stake is a clash of kingships, and of kingdoms.  And on this very day, Congress meets to ceremoniously process the tally of Electoral College votes so to effect the ideal of peaceful transfer of power according to the people’s will. 

I read Psalm 29.  The cedared height of Lebanon skips like a calf in my mind’s eye as the trees outside my window dance in the wind.  I imagine a forest flinging itself around in some mad jig.  At first there’s a playfulness to the picture.  Then I re-read and realize:  the forest is flung.  The trees don’t dance of their own accord but as the wind takes them.  As the voice of the LORD thunders and breaks and flings and flashes, convulses the wilderness, whirls oaks and strips the forest bare.

As the voice of the LORD makes be.  

Give glory to the LORD, O heavenly beings, the psalm begins.  Give to the LORD ‘the glory of his name’ — a definite glory, peculiarly God’s own, not to be confused or conflated with the glory or strength of any other being.  Give glory to the LORD whose voice sounds with terrible power through the rest of the psalm — over the waters, through the forests, upon the mountains, within the wilderness, until all who see and hear and feel God’s power cry out ‘Glory!’

‘The LORD sits enthroned as king forever.’  

At stake in the psalm — as in the day, liturgical and political — is the clash of kingships.  Heavenly beings are not to set themselves above the LORD, nor is anything on earth.  The imagery is violent.  Creation itself is overwhelmed.  The voice of the LORD has a destructive power.  Its end, though, is not chaos but the conquering of chaos.  The voice of the LORD does not destroy for destruction’s sake but for the sake of life, for shalom — that is peace, and more than peace, wholeness.

‘The LORD sits enthroned as king forever.’   

I hear helicopters passing over. I wonder if they are headed downtown, if they carry news crews or the National Guard.  The morning’s planned ‘protest’ of Congress’s ceremonial attestation has morphed into a mob action.  I leave my desk for updates.  I see photos and videos of the crowd streaming onto the Capital grounds, surging up the steps, smashing doors and windows, swarming through the hallways.  They bear American flags and Confederate flags.  They bear massive banners emblazoned with Trump’s name.  They bear banners that say ‘Jesus Saves’ and ‘God Wins.’  The relative sizes suggest that Trump is the senior member of this trinity.  I text friends.  I turn on the television to flip through the news updates.  The aptness of the psalm is unnerving — its claims of God’s sovereignty are literally contradicted on the streets, Trump and God conflated in the signage borne.  The psalm reminds of what’s at stake: ‘The LORD sits enthroned as king forever.’   Kingships clash.

Day turns toward dusk, and flash-bangs light up the Capitol.  Dusk turns to dark, and events continue to unfold.  Congress is back in session.  Senators speechify and commentators opine.  I talk back to the television, in fervent response to the violence itself and to the sanctimony of the belated disavowal of such mayhem.  I am angry with those whose dismay seems self-serving.  I am angry with those whose words seem sincere yet dangerously mistaken.  ‘This is not the America I know,’ they say, as if their experience is the sum of national identity.  ‘This is not who we are,’ they offer, as if history effectively contradicted the claim.

This is us.  Conflating the unholy with the holy.  Confusing the dominion delegated to us with our own will. Shrinking our conception of neighbor to the one near us.  Excluding the other.  Grabbing after power.  Trying to save ourselves alone. We articulate other ideals, even strive to live them.  But this is who we live.  This is who we are. Name it truly.  This is not who we want to be; this is not who we are called to be.  Tell the truth; make space for transformation.

I want to write flames and thunder and trumpets.  I want words that blaze high enough to light the dark, brass that rings clear amid the din.   I am shocked at my own urgency.   It is not my anger alone that takes me aback but my intense desire to word it.  Why bother?  Why add more words to the myriad already spoken and texted and posted and published?  Where are such words to be found?  What difference do they make?

‘The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters. …  The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.  The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness.’

Words do things.  Words divide.  Words incite.  

‘The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”’  

Words strengthen and words bless.  Words have power to make things be.  

I am given these words — already aflame — that acclaim as king the LORD, God who will not suffer any other to share the glory of his name or throne.  Feel their force stripping away false claims.  Let myself be grasped and moved by their power.  Add my voice to the throng saying ‘Glory!’  The chorus praying peace that is healing and wholeness for all lives, not some, that words and voice together may further that end.

Birth breaks the world open. We are broken of our own doing. Pray birth, now, of God’s own in-breaking.