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.

A New Year

photo by Katherine Brown
For thus says the LORD: 
 Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, 
 and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; 
 proclaim, give praise, and say, 
 “Save, O LORD, your people, 
 the remnant of Israel.” 
 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, 
 and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, 
 among them the blind and the lame, 
 those with child and those in labor, together; 
 a great company, they shall return here.  
 With weeping they shall come, 
 and with consolations I will lead them back, 
 I will let them walk by brooks of water, 
 in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; 
 for I have become a father to Israel, 
 and Ephraim is my firstborn.

Jeremiah 31:7-9, excerpt from 31:7-14; lectionary for Sunday January 3, 2021

When does the new year start?  When the clock counts down to midnight — voices joining the last ten seconds before the ‘ball drops’?  When the explosions of neighborhood fireworks (illegal), have ended, another 15 or 20 minutes past that?  Or does the new year not really begin until after sleep has set its bound around the old year, newness coming not with the clock but with the dawn — however late and low the light appears.  Although even then…. Is morning itself sufficient, or is the first cup of coffee a necessary measure for eyes to open and see the day?  

We’re in January, now.  The ‘new year.’  Yay.

When does the newness begin?  And how?  And when and how do we know it?

‘Sing aloud with gladness,’ says the LORD.  Really?  The exhortation to song seems tone-deaf to the mood of the year, a command difficult to fulfill.  It seems an odd fit for Jeremiah, as well, prophesying as he did so horrifically of judgment and of end.   

‘For thus says the LORD:  Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say ‘Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel.’ 

Glad songs and shouts of praise and demands for salvation.  

Commentaries and translations note the difficulty in verse 7.  It would make more sense if the songs of gladness were of salvation already realized rather than salvation for which the singers still cry.  Why sing when it’s incomplete?  When the hurt has not been healed, the wounded continue lame, the blind still need leading.  How is it possible to sing gladness and — in the same phrase — demand saving?  How is it possible to sing aloud while weeping, to walk and to plead and to not stumble on the way?  How resolve the contradiction of the proclamation that the LORD will gather Jacob home, that the people will be radiant over God’s goodness, and that the LORD already has ransomed and redeemed, and that we — hearing the words of Jeremiah to whom the word of the LORD came — are called here and now to ‘Sing aloud with gladness … and say ‘Save, O LORD, your people.’

‘Save, O LORD, your people.’

When does the newness begin?

I’m not immune to the idea of New Year’s Eve.  I watch the crowds on TV:  the lights and the energy and the thrum of anticipation that rises as the hour grows near.  I know the falseness of the thought that a critical tick of a clock will suddenly transform the world (Cinderella and her pumpkin coach at midnight notwithstanding) — but even if the the basis is a fictional construct (this particular measurement of time rather than that one), there is something real behind it.  Time does turn.  Night’s dark does give way to day.  Now that we’re past the winter solstice, each day’s light lasts a tiny bit longer than the one that came before.  There is truth in the claim that time turns on into new.  The mistake is not claiming that newness is, nor longing for that newness in our lives.  The mistake is misunderstanding what it is, or imagining it as something we can grasp rather than something we are given, even something that grasps us.

Maybe this is why this passage is set as a text for Christmas.

Birth comes through the world broken open.  

‘Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry.  I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will give the priests their fill … And my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,’ says the LORD.’ As if newness begins with recognition of what’s been shattered.  As if newness begins with the awareness of mourning and sorrow, of insufficiency and lack.  With the acknowledgement of what we’ve suffered and of what suffering we’ve caused.  With the admission that we cannot save ourselves.

This text does not deny the reality of a broken world, a suffering people, creation groaning.   It’s not all shining delight.  The way is walked by blind and the lame and the laboring.  Supplications shall be raised along with the song.  ‘With weeping they shall come,’ the LORD promises.  Last week I read news stories of those who received the first doses of COVID vaccine and found themselves weeping.  Their tears came as surprise, a belated reaction to all the tears that had been swallowed of necessity, pressed down until it was hard as rock within, there being no space nor energy to spare in the midst of so much suffering.

Weeping signs the pain that could not be allowed until the promise had broken in.  Hope cracks the stone, new-seen as seed.  The seed shows its seam; a hint of green unfurls.

‘Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel.’

Newness begins as we cry out for it.  Even while our eyes are still confused by exhaustion and by gloom.  Even before the coffee.  Even before the dawn.  

Newness begins now.  In gladness sung to the one who can save, demanding the salvation that only that one can give. 

Cast the Line

Hear my cry, O God;
    listen to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to you,
    when my heart is faint.

Lead me to the rock
    that is higher than I;
for you are my refuge,
    a strong tower against the enemy.

vv. 1-3, from Psalm 61

Psalm 61 is a call uttered from a place of loneliness, a cry sent from the end of the earth, the

‘Just a cloud?’ photo by Katherine Brown

Psalm 61 is a call uttered from a place of loneliness, a cry sent from the end of the earth, the space where the psalmist sits solitary. This is her faint heart’s final plea. She centers herself for one last desperate cast, doubles the force of the imperative by its repetition – Hear me, Listen to me – throws the line with all the strength she can muster in this place of bitter pain.

Psalm 61 is a call uttered from a place of loneliness, a cry sent from the end of the earth, the space where the psalmist sits solitary. This is her faint heart’s final plea. She centers herself for one last desperate cast, doubles the force of the imperative by its repetition – Hear me, Listen to me – throws the line with all the strength she can muster in this place of bitter pain.

And the line catches. This line – thrown from the ends of the earth with whatever force a faint heart can rally – catches hold, grows taut, pulls the psalmist past the force of her own throwing, and up to the rock that is higher. The plea for ascent becomes the means of ascent. The psalmist’s prayer draws her out of her own overwhelmed heart in its feeling of small and solitary insufficiency to the recollection that there is a rock above, a strong tower, a pair of sheltering wings. This high refuge rock reorients the psalmist’s vision. She sees that her plight is not solitary, not hers alone, nor the sum of all that is. 

She is drawn beyond the earlier, enmeshing fear to recall past mercies, reclaim promised loyalty, re-member herself among all those who fear God’s name. Her practice of prayer pulls her from the particularity of her own pleading and reweaves her into the web of the faithful. Her cry reconnects her to the whole of the community, even to the king.

The needs and joys of all the congregation are offered up by this yet-single but no longer solitary “I”, as she commits to keep casting her line in the glad joy of knowing that that God’s steadfast love and faithfulness thrum through its taut-held length, vibrating with praise her heart now sings.

Cast the line. Feel it catch. Hold tight. The pull will come.

Listening to the Wind*

crossing the Bay, Oct. 2000; photo by Katherine Brown

The wind’s a wild one tonight.  It whistles and roars. The halyards rattle and clang against the mast.  The boat rolls and rocks.  It’s not especially comforting, the sound of that wind rising and rising and rising.  The boat seems very small to be afloat in such a huge and solemn sound.

We are anchored in Reed Creek — ‘A bit tricky to get into that following breeze,’ Paul had said as we bounced up the Chester River.  Breeze indeed.  It was bona fide wind by my definition, blowing us along at seven knots — even with two reefs in the main — and whipping the river into a foamy chop.  The girls, five and two, had started the sail in the cockpit with us, but then the wind rose and the temperature dropped sharply, and they retreated below.  Elizabeth unpacked coloring books and crayons for them both.  Paul and I took turns going below to put on more clothes, layering on everything we’d packed against the windy, bright cold.  After a while, the girls gave up coloring and rolled themselves in their sleeping bags, foot to foot on the wide settee, half-dozing, half-enduring the wild ride up the river. 

Now, anchored in the creek, we’ve all retreated from the cold cockpit.  The computer voice on the VHF weather channel says it may dip below 40, frost warnings inland.  We are crammed into the tiny cabin; tumbling over each other as I prepare dinner.

‘This is the best part,’ Elizabeth says, ‘all close together eating dinner on the boat.’

After dinner, Paul reads the girls a story.  In the middle of it, Margaret rolls off his lap, curled up like a little hedgehog and, surprisingly, soundly asleep.  Elizabeth is awake and helpful as we maneuver Margaret into a fresh Pamper and sleeper and bed.  I look at my big girl and smile and say how glad I am to have an adventure with her.  She looks at me and smiles back but doesn’t reply.  She seems slightly puzzled at the thought.  I wonder if this actually is an adventure to her.  She brings the same casual intensity to this boat, the real one, as she does to her pretend cruises at home, sailing the coffee table on the bounding rug, wearing a real life jacket and chatting with imaginary friends from books.  Burt Dow and the Giggling Gull are right there with her as she sets out in the Tidley Idley to rescue Little Tim and the Old Sea Captain. Those are her adventures, not these real outings on the Bay.  What she likes about the real boat, I think, is the intimacy, not the adventure.  She has the people she loves the best in the world right to hand, literally.

In the marina last night, we saw a boy trailing his dad back toward their boat, talking nonstop all the while.  ‘I like the boat, Dad.  I mean, it’s not like home.  There’s a lot of different things to do at home,’ the boy had paused, considered.  ‘And, well, actually, there is nothing to do on the boat.  But you and me and Mom, we are doing it all together.’

Still the boat rolls.  The low banks of the creek are not much protection from the wind.  It rises and roars, and the boat quivers accordingly.  The girls are asleep.  Paul and I are awake listening.  My eyes are dry and tired:  too much sun, too much wind.  But I am awake because of the wind’s ceaselessness and because of the girls’ trusting sleep.

Paul goes on deck again to make sure the anchor is holding, and that the rode isn’t chafing.  All is safe, despite the sound.  I go to close the open hatch against the cold and, glancing up, am caught instead by the sight of the round white moon shining through the moving, broken clouds.  I am held by its brightness and by their motion.  Paul comes below again.

‘Did you see —’

‘The moon,’ he says.

The stricter discipline of small-boat living creates a wider quiet in my mind.  It is not a deliberate refocusing but the natural result of embracing a more immediate responsibility and a closer connection to the world around.  I plumb more deeply where I am, what this is.

Rising wind.  Flying cloud.  High white moon.

I am surrounded by the water.  Together with my husband and my daughters right to hand.  Rocking on the water, listening to the wind.

*essay originally published in Chesapeake Bay Magazine, Jan. 2003; cruise taken Oct. 2000. The emotions associated with being on a small boat on a wide water in a wild wind are not limited to that literal circumstance — which is why I chose this essay to blog now.

Recognizing Joy*

Boats anchored near St. Michael’s, 2017; photo by Katherine Brown

The bliss of boating is how quickly you are very far away and how connected you are to everything around.  We have shipped not only our lines but, for a time, our workaday world.  We are sailing across the Chesapeake in a 30-foot Cape Dory, chartered out of Annapolis, now sailing to St. Michaels.

It is a chilly day, drizzly and dim.  Paul has on his oilskins; the girls and I are in slickers.  Elizabeth is three, a gallant, gay sailor-girl in a bright orange life-vest, a too-big green slicker, a purple hat and bright blue rubber boots. Her braids curl with the damp.  She leans over to watch the waves and hums happily to herself.  ‘The water is like Play-Doh,’ she says. ‘It has fingerprints in it.’  Margaret is four-and-a-half months, a snug bundle tucked on the floor of the cockpit.  Her little face is framed with the hoods of two jackets; her hands are inside her sleeves. She waves her arms for a while and smiles at us, then slips off into sleep, in a small boat on a wide water.

We arrive in St. Michaels before dusk and anchor in Fogg Cove.  The maritime museum and its Hooper Strait Lighthouse are behind us.  The velvet green lawn of the Inn at Perry Cabin is before us.  We’ve been in St. Michaels before; we’ve looked at this water from those shores.  But now we are seeing the land from the Bay.  It’s an unfamiliar view of a familiar place, and we relish the unexpected charm of the known made strange before turning to chores — changing damp socks for dry ones, heating chili for supper.  We hear the chime of church bells and a clock striking and the honking of geese overhead.  The two girls are in the V-berth; Paul has cribbed it in so neither can fall out.  Elizabeth coos, ‘Go to sleep, Margaret.’ Soon we hear them snoring, and we look at each other and smile.  Paul checks the anchor light. ‘Katherine, come.’  In the dark, a swan is swimming by.

Annapolis to St. Michaels, St. Michaels to Rock Hall, Rock Hall back across the Bay.  A wonderful run:  the wind steady and strong, we on a beam reach.  The main is up, and the jib, and the only sounds are the creaking of the lines, the squeaking of the wheel, and the slap of the waves against the hull.  The sky is blue but cluttered with clouds.  We sail past the Baltimore Light.  We sail into the Magothy and past Gibson Island and past Dobbins Island.  The light is growing quiet by the time we put the engine on; pale, green beams shine through the clouds onto the shore.  We motor on in search of an anchorage, sliding around a curve and into a quiet secluded little cove.  A wooded shoreline, the trees touched with russet, just starting to turn.  A few houses, with docks and boats.  No one out but us.

Our last night aboard.  We have beef stew and the last of a cheap bottle of wine.  The light grows clearer and more golden.  Clouds lit in peaceful glory.  We take mugs of milky coffee back on deck and watch the fading of the light.  The water very still, reflecting the pink and blue of the sky.  The highest clouds are lit coral-pink by the sun, the lower clouds purple-grey.  We see a great blue heron, here a screech owl, listen to the fish splash and see the ripples they make, circles that catch the light.  Margaret dozes in Paul’s arms.  Elizabeth leans into my knee and sighs and says, ‘This is very nice.’

The morning is pearly:  cloudy at dawn, then clearing slightly for the sun, mist rising off glassy water.  Elizabeth climbs into the still damp cockpit.  ‘Elizabeth!’ we call. ‘Come back down — it’s still wet out there!’  ‘I’m looking at the world,’ she tells us matter-of-factly.  ‘It is very beautiful.  Did you know God made the world?’  Paul and I look at each other, then turn to see the world with Elizabeth.

We bundle the girls again into sweaters and life vests and hats.  Margaret is in a jolly mood.  Elizabeth is happy winding a short bit of line around a winch.  We leave a curve of tiny bubbles as we motor slowly out of the cove and into the broader river.  The world here is all pearl.  The light is a suffused, pale, creamy grey.  The water is gently rippled glass, carrying in it the shapes and colors of the clouds above.  Water and sky match, endless and shining.  And in this spell-world, our small boat is caught between gleaming oyster sea and cloudy oyster sky.  We are connected to familiar things in unfamiliar ways, and recognizing joy.

* Another old essay revisited; this an edited version of ‘Recognizing Joy’; originally in Chesapeake Bay Magazine, April 2000.

Learning to Read*

photo by Katherine Brown: BHS open to Genesis 22

The book arrives two days after I order it online. The UPS man drops it off, bangs twice on the door and is already halfway back down the walk when I retrieve the package. I open the box. The book slides out into my hand. It is a small, heavy volume with a red-brown cover: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. I riffle through pages that still cling to each other. The print is small and squared with tiny flourishes and dots. It looks random, not like letters. It takes faith to believe that these shapes can be read.

The first morning of class, we chant the alphabet through: “alef, bet, gimmel, dalet.” We are all seminarians. We are also social workers, teachers, headhunters, lawyers, associate pastors. We are Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Reformed Church of America and United Church of Christ. We are single, married, divorced and widowed. Megan is pregnant; Ann’s husband is in Iraq. We are 11 women and three men gathered for six summer weeks at Wesley Theological Seminary to learn Biblical Hebrew.

I spend the first night murmuring the letters, copying them until my arm aches. The next day we meet the vowels, the tiny dots and dashes generally placed under the letters. We sound out words. We dive into translating texts. I struggle with the shapes and sounds washing over me, unable to imagine them ever resolving into meaning. “Trust me,” the professor insists briskly, “You’ll get it. In two weeks you’ll be reading this page.” I am overwhelmed, as in a wave, swirled head over heels until I’m not sure which way is up, dumped sandy and spitting, eyes streaming, on the shore. And then the next wave is along. No sure footing, no knowing how to swim under and through in this wide sea.

“Why are you studying Hebrew?” my husband asks. Even in this first week I can tell him.  Already we have glimpsed the wonderful and terrifying breadth of the language. The noun that means “words” also means “events” or “actions” — speaking twined with doing. The verb that means “to be” also means “to become” or “to happen.”

We learn to parse verbs. Hebrew verbs carry their own subject an object in the affixes and suffixes attached to the three-letter root.  We learn to peel away the extra letters, to add back the missing, to consider again the whole.

I learn to read with my tongue, as well as my eyes. Sometimes this doing — reading aloud, involving my body as well as my mind — leads me to understand what I think I do not know.

I start to recognize some of the words. The four-letter word that English Bibles translate as “the LORD” is one of the easiest to see. Faced with a new passage I look first for this word; this leaves that many fewer words to translate. Scholars suggest that this Tetragrammaton is derived from the verb root “to be, to become, to happen.” The very name of God, then, encompasses not just static perfection complete and achieved but the causing yet to be, creation yet becoming.

Week after week we take quizzes. Each time my initial response is a flight of panic — the wave curving over me again — how can I tell the meaning of so many Hebrew letters? (No longer do I doubt that they hold meaning, only my own ability to access it.) I limit my focus.  Attentive discipline and wild flights of try-this, and word by slow, abiding word the text emerges from the murk.  I catch echoes of the English I know, but the familiar stories are given new and true force in their unfamiliar guise.

We learn grammatical rule after rule, each of which seems compounded with as many exceptions. (In intermediate Hebrew, we joke, the professor will reveal that there really are no rules.) The patterning is apparent but elusive, as much art as science. Slowly we start to build a sense of what is present and must be peeled away; what is missing and must be added. We are not memorizing the language but we are beginning to internalize it. Not yet swimming, but entered into the rocking water.

The class picks up speed. We are getting through entire chapters — although still, the occasional selection of wrong verb root results in a Mad Libs-type translation. We are giddy, enthusiastic, frustrated, amazed. One by one we dream Hebrew: dancing letters, difficult passages. We design a T-shirt with the legend in Hebrew.

The final exam is three hours of translating a passage we’ve not seen before. When we finish we gather on the hill for a picnic — a half-planned potluck with boiled eggs and falafel, pita and hummus, just-picked tomatoes. We stand in a circle, holding hands, hearing the blessing in Hebrew. Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe.

I didn’t learn to read Hebrew in six weeks. I learned that I shall be reading this sea for the rest of my life, even knowing I will never understand it all.

*Another throw-back post, in honor of the semester starting next week. This is a slightly revised version of the essay run in The Washington Post as ‘Taking the Plunge into Biblical Hebrew,’ Aug. 30, 2004. Then I was the student. Come next week, I am again the instructor, for the first time online.

Running Blind

Preparation for fall teaching — multiple classes, institutions, and online platforms — is keeping me from writing weekly posts. Rather than let this blog go entirely dark, I thought I’d republish essays originally printed elsewhere.

This originally appeared in the Sept. 2004 issue of Chesapeake Bay Magazine.

Fog off the Miles River; 2017; photo by Katherine Brown

I am crouched in the bow of the boat, shivering in the chilly damp, peering out into a surrounding blanket of white, trying to find our mark.  Stop thinking metaphorically — this is a literal fog. Keep your eyes open; keep looking.  As hard as I work to keep my attention focused, though, a part of my mind clicks separately.  So, this is what it is to be wandering blind.

We had waked to pearly gray fog obscuring the shores of the small cove where we’d anchored.  The trees on the nearest bank were barely visible; those opposite were totally hidden.  We waited out the morning, pleasantly idle at anchor.  The first white spot of sun showed around ten; it took another hour to burn through the fog and warm the cradle of our cove.  We lifted anchor around 11 and motored slowly out of the creek.

The sun shone hazy white and warm on the smooth ripples of the South River.  We went slowly, in no rush.  We were headed to the West River — barely a morning’s ride away.  As we approached the mouth of the river, just past Selby Bay, I went below to get lunch.  I came back up a few minutes later to find that the fog had rolled back in.  Blown in from the open Bay, perhaps.  We had just come up on a mark, and even as I watched, the fog started to spread shreds of white between it and us.  Paul quite matter-of-factly said, ‘Hold her here while I go below and check my compass course to the next mark.’  We have no GPS or radar, so he works with compass and parallel rule and paper charts.

So here we are in the fog again, deprived of the sun’s warmth.  Paul is back at the wheel, I’m at the bow, staring into the thick nothingness.  Eight-year-old Elizabeth stands in the cockpit to see over the cabin; she calls out crab pots in our way.  Five-year-old Margaret looks behind; she calls out crabpots in our wake.  We pick our way slowly forward.  The fog is thick gray-white.  The water is gray with odd black gleams.  All we can see is this circle of soft fog, this circle of strange water glinting like fish skin.  Another boat motors slowly toward us out of the fog then passes away into it again.

Paul heads for where the mark should be.  He has plotted a course between the marks which are closest together rather than those which are linked most directly to our destination.  We hit the first few marks dead on.  The wind is light, and Paul’s course is true.  One lays more to starboard than it should have, but close enough to spot.  Paul shifts course slightly and keeps going slowly forward.  The girls call out in excited voices.

And I, crouched and cold, look at the strange sea.  My mind beyond attentive eyes wanders still to simile and metaphor. Remembering an older woman who once told me, ‘It’s not knowing the answers.  It’s learning to live with the questions.’  So this is what it is.  This steady procession from mark to mark to mark even as we study the surrounding shining for signs and a wider view.

The circle of fog does not surround us evenly — sometimes it draws close on one side and seems broader on the other.  I look not only for the marks but also to try and hold this unearthly sight.  To try and hold this weird sense of being surrounded, suspended and separate, outside all normal space and time.  We have no view of the farther shore.  We can see only fifty yards to one side, a hundred toward the other.

I wonder whether I am starting to perceive an intimation of blue above.  But we are headed toward the sun, and the fog is thickest and most dazzling white at this angle.  Impossible to see anything ahead.  To the right?  No … Yes!  Definitely a line of shore somewhere between the fog and the water.  A reddish-sandy shore at the base of a cliff. The water still glinting sharkskin and the fog soft white, yet between them, the welcome sight of Dutchman Point and its sheltering, white-winged building.  The autumn-rich tones of the grass and trees and the overlaying vagueness of the fog look like a painting by an old master.

As the fog burns off further, we can see above it towering cumulus clouds, white on white, lit with just enough blue to be blinding.  The next mark is for the Rhode River, and the next after that for the West.  The fog is mostly lifted, here, though we can see a hint of white, still, behind us toward the Bay.  I go back to the cockpit.  Paul and I look at each other with unvoiced relief.  The sun is warm.  The view is lovely, shore and houses and boats together.  The rest of the trip is easy.  Soon we are back in the slip, unloading and cleaning up for the drive home.  All the normal chores.

Still, though, I can close my eyes and see that fog.  The thinking shining white, the weird glinting water.  Still, in my mind I hold that since of blindness made visible as we traveled strange water toward home.