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.

The face of God

 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

Genesis 32:30; excerpt from Genesis 32:22-31, lectionary text for Aug. 2, 2020

photograph by Katherine Brown

The alarm rings at 6:30.  I shut it off, realize I am awake, get up, and slip out of the sleeping house to walk.  Sunlight light gilds the tops of the trees to the west; the rest of the world drowses in its own shadow.  I set off down the hill, counting on its slope to pull me into some sort of pace.  I have trouble walking at first. My stride is shortened by my hip joint catching.  I stop to try to shake or stretch out the click then continue on, attentive to my step until it lengthens slightly.  Maybe this is my entry into the text:  my hip joint sticky and my stride slightly askew.  Me and Jacob limping into the day

Jacob wrestling.  God wrestling.  This text is familiar as these neighborhood streets, grown more familiar these months mostly at home.  I try to pay heed to the slant of the light, shifts in the greens.  I move through air that breezes warm and moist as breath.  As if the world around me is alive, and clinging to my skin as I pass.  Clinging as close as that stranger did to Jacob?  As close as Jacob to he?  Close enough to touch and disjoint.  Close enough to hold for blessing.

I teach this text every semester of Intro.  I point out to students how Genesis 32 connects back to 28, how wrestling and demanding are affirmed as part of relationship.  Look at the names, I say.  Beth-el.  Isra-el.  Peni-el.  House of GodWrestles GodFace of GodJacob encounters God.  Jacob demands, and Jacob wrestles, and for all these pains, Jacob is renamed and blessed

These connections can feel as rote as my route through the neighborhood.  First the downhill, then a longer loop.  Usually I turn right, to the east and have to squinch my eyes against the dazzle of the sun.  Today I turn left, away from the sun.  My shadow stretches long and slender before me.  Not having to half-close my eyes against sun too bright for human sight, I can look and see all that it is lighting.  Pavement.  Parked cars.  Brick houses and grassy yards and leafy trees, crepe myrtles blooming pink and cream and purple and red.  Bright zinnias and giant sunflowers and crinkle-blossom hibiscus. Other early walkers.

Turn differently in this text.  The same streets, verses, words, but a different route.  The relationship between Jacob and God is not itself all that is at stake. Jacob’s reunion with his brother brackets this pivot of God-wrestling.  Twenty years before, Esau had howled in anguish that his trickster brother was truly named — the twin who had grabbed Esau’s heel having grabbed as well Esau’s birthright and blessingJacob has reason to fear Esau.  Heel-grabbing Jacob now grabs at a stranger, grapples and holds, refuses to let go.  Blessing and a new name (blessing as a new name?) are bestowed:  ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ The explanation of the name discloses that more is implicated than relationship with God alone.  Jacob has contended with God.  Now Jacob-Israel must go forward and contend with his twin.  

Limping into the day, Jacob sees his brother coming.  Esau falls on him and hugs him (an embrace as close as wrestling?) and weeps and kisses his twin.  The brothers fence in speech yet amid the glint of their words parrying comes this glowing gem:  ‘Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor.’

Jacob has seen God’s face.  Now he is able to claim the same in the face of his long-distant twin.  It reads as if this glimpse is the reason, the aim, of the other:  encounter with God for the sake of encounter with brother.

Jacob wrestling tells as well why I return to this book so persistently, every day walking words that feel familiar underfoot.  Wrestling with the text, I experience encounter.  The blessing that comes, when it does, is the twist of stride and sight that is less the face to face glimpse of a brightness so bright as to dazzle my seeing and more the realization that when looking on the face of another — brother, neighbor, stranger-among-you — I am seeing what that brightness lights.

‘Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.’

I round back up the hill towards home.

Stitching Stones

photo by Katherine Brown

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.  And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.  Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”   Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.  He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 

Genesis 28:10-19; lectionary text for Sunday July 19, 2020

I’m struggling to tally time now that we’re in the long green season.  Recurring commitments are fewer.  Variable days sum to patternless weeks with no rhythm of effort and ease that I can identify, lean into, find myself carried upon.  Plans for fall teaching remain preliminary; each institution anticipates a different mix of online and in-person instruction.  I should plan my own courses, however tentative they must needs be, but trying to make firm a small ground in a sea of indeterminacy itself overwhelms.  It is exhausting to be in an in-between space.  I have company worldwide, I know, all of us floundering together in the demands of our own dailiness amid pandemics viral and political.  The waves of our efforts alternately criss-cross and pile up.  Notwithstanding such good and broad company, I am tired.  Where do I rest?

‘A certain place.’  The precise imprecision of the phrase tugs.  It sounds as in-between as I feel now.  It is somewhere.  It might be anywhere.  It is the place to which Jacob has come at that point in time, and because the time is after sunset, it is the place where Jacob lies down.  He sets a stone — a small firm ground in a sea of indeterminacy — and he sets himself to sleep in that ‘certain place.’  Jacob is leaving his country, his kindred, his father’s house not because he has been summoned thence by the LORD but because he has been sent away by that very father, from that very kindred, lest his angry elder twin slay him and his mother who loves him lose both her sons in one day.  Jacob grabbed his brother’s share; his letting go of home is the reaping he’s sown.  Embattled brothers — Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau —  the lectionary texts of these weeks chime too closely with the news, which itself overwhelms.  But there’s no rest in just noticing the pattern of disputed inheritance, grappled-for blessing.  There must be something more.  We’ve a long journey to go, all the way to Haran.  There’s justice to bring; a pandemic to navigate; courses to plan; dinner to get; laundry to do.  I haul the basket downstairs to sort the clothes.  I spy a loose thread, tug to follow it back to its source, and realize that the hem on my dress is unraveling, along with so much else.  I pause sorting, find scissors and the sewing box, cut the machine-stitched thread and thread each end in turn through a needle, so that I can restitch the hem, knot it securely off. 

‘A certain place.’  It is a particular place, location undefined.  Then it turns into ‘this place’ — the place where the LORD is, therefore ‘awesome,’ ‘the house of God … and the gate of heaven.’   In the place, in the night, Jacob lay down with a stone at his head, and Jacob saw the ladder, angel-traversed, and saw and heard the LORD.  To Jacob, God reiterates the promise given Abraham, given Isaac:  land and seed and blessing for all the earth.  To Jacob, the LORD adds a word:  ‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’  

Usually I skim God’s speech as repetition of what God had told Jacob’s father and grandfather.  The dream-vision of the stair to heaven is so fantastic as to cast what follows in its shadow.  But Jacob, waking, doesn’t talk of a ladder or of angels.  Jacob, waking, talks of the LORD ‘in this place.’  Jacob, waking, is afraid.  The ladder and the anointed stone are striking brackets, but God’s speech is the center on which the whole turns.  God promises Jacob presence-with and does so distinctly:  ‘I will not leave you until I have done what I promised.’ Read it again:  ‘I will not leave you until ….’  Somehow the ‘until,’ to me, intensifies the promise.  Its implicit contingency — that the abiding will end — adds urgency.   God cleaves to Jacob, a commitment as sharp and clinging as that of marriage, and does so not first for Jacob’s sake but for God’s own fidelity to God’s own purpose.  

Maybe Jacob hefted God’s promise in his hand as a round weight around which his fingers could curl and be comforted.  Maybe Jacob felt God’s promise as a rock in his shoe, a sharp-edged pebble that never settled enough to be ignored but repeatedly shifted in mute insistence on its irritating presence.  Maybe Jacob felt both:  God’s purpose as demand on Jacob; and also God’s purpose as demand for Jacob.  

Jacob wakes and sets up his stone as witness.  Jacob will not stay, but the stone will.  A wordless statement of the encounter.  A small firm ground in the vast and moving sea.  And, having set up the stone, Jacob moves on from there.  That ‘certain place’ was not a large space, after all.  An overnight only.  There are miles to go, flocks to keep, wives to marry, sons to beget.  There will be a day to return, another night — this one spent sleepless.  There will be return and reunion.  Meanwhile, there is this stone of Beth-el, house-of-God.  Meanwhile, there is God’s presence-with.  Persistent for the accomplishment of God’s purpose; insistent on Jacob’s participation in it.  God holding Jacob up; God hauling Jacob on.

The anointed stone does not punctuate the start of Jacob’s story, nor its end.  It is a knot in the thread that keeps the seam from unraveling.  God had a will for the world’s blessing before Jacob was born to be part of it; a will for Jacob’s part before Jacob was grown to carry it; a will to carry Jacob when Jacob will not carry himself.

Is there rest in that for me?  A bit of firmness to hold, be held by?  An overnight, even if vivid dreams inhibit restful sleep?

The machine chimes the end of the load.  I shake the wet wash straight, pull the wrinkles out of cotton dresses, stretch the line from house to tree, and hang the clothes outside to dry in the heat.  I pause and check the restitched hem.  It’s held.  That’s one bit of firmness to add to the text’s reminder that God’s purpose is for blessing and that God’s will is persistent — abiding with me, even in spite of me, insistent for me when I cannot insist for myself.  It’s not rest, exactly, but a knot to my thread as the stone was to Jacob’s, that holds against unravelling.  One cannot go back, but a new seam can be sewn, a new pattern shaped to God’s purpose.  One stone — stitch — at a time.

Hineini!

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”  He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 

Genesis 22:1-2; from Genesis 22:1-14, lectionary text for Sunday June 28, 2020

photo by Katherine Brown

I am circling this text.  Going round and round it, searching for a way in.  I’ve been circling this text for days.  That ache along the back my neck must come from keeping my head continually craned and taut in its direction, fixing my gaze on the it.  Did I think it might stretch out and leap upon me if I relaxed my vigilance?  Or did I circle and watch in hopes of seeing the story crack open of itself, reveal to me its meaning. It’s a hard text to hold as a center.

Genesis 22, the ‘Akedah’ or ‘binding’ of Isaac.  This was the first biblical text I encountered in Hebrew, it being the first full story presented in the textbook used.  We had barely made the acquaintance of the Hebrew alphabet when we were pitchforked into this harrowing tale.  The necessary slowness of our translating increased the tension of the story’s unfolding.  If verse 1 had the charm of first encounter with vocabulary and grammar, verse 2 immediately raised the stakes.  God’s words to Abraham increase in specificity — ‘Take your son, your only, the one whom you love, Isaac’ — son Laughter named at the end of the series of phrases as if the crown of all that had come before — ‘and go to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a whole offering.’  

Offer up your son as offering.   

Did our breaths catch in our throats as we read?  Was our protest of God’s command or Abraham’s silent compliance?  ‘And Abraham rose early in the morning,’ as dutiful in taking his son Isaac to be offering as he had been in sending his son Ishmael into the wilderness.  Abraham had been distressed on account of Ishmael.  Abraham had argued with God about Sodom, for the sake of God’s own justice.  But for this son, this only, this one whom he loves, for Isaac, Abraham does not speak.

We read on, word by painful word.  Abraham goes with a donkey and two ‘boys’ and his son.  ‘The boy I will go there,’ Abraham says and lays the wood on his son and they walk on togetherIsaac says ‘My father.’   ‘Here I am,’ Abraham answers Isaac as he had answered God, adding now, ‘my son.’   The two of them walk on together.  The camera pulls back until the moving figures are small in the landscape, ascending the hill Abraham had seen.  See the two boys and the donkey somewhere near the bottom of the screen; waiting for they know not what.

Then comes verse 9.  The camera comes in close, and the motion slows to a snail’s pace; each step discretely delineated.  Abraham builds an altar.  Abraham lays the wood in order.  Abraham binds his son Isaac.  Abraham lays his bound son on top of the altar, on top of the wood.  Abraham stretches out his hand and takes the knife to slay his son.  The sinews in his hand stand out taut; his knuckles are white.  The knife is held with definite intention.  The edge of the blade is visible, quivering poised.

The turning world stops.  A voice from heaven calls, and Abraham replies — for the third time, ’Here I am.’  And God says, ‘Now I know ….’  God has learned something God had not known.  The offering of Isaac ends in the sacrifice of the ramAbraham names the place.  

The story is ended but does not feel resolved.  I read and read, circle and study and stare, until my eyes are dry and the ache in my neck has spread down my back.

I want a tidy ending.  I want space in which to breathe, green grass to lie down in and quiet waters to drink, a respite to gather myself for the next phase of the journey.  I know more is coming.  I know it must.  We’re only in the 22nd chapter of the first book of the Bible, after all.  We’ve only just renewed our recognition that ‘All’ hasn’t included ‘Black’ since the first African slaves were brought to these shores, if not before that.  There is so much journey yet to go.

It’s not just that I’m already tired, it’s that I cannot see the way to the end.  I can’t count the steps, don’t know how to pace myself to get there.  (God sends Abraham to ‘the place I will show you’ and doesn’t tell him how far away the place will be.). It’s that the promise is old — ‘I will make of you a great nation’; ’all men are created equal’; ‘in Order to form a more perfect Union’ — but still unrealized, its shape unformed, its edges blurred.   It’s that the transforming power of that original vision — ‘in you all families of the earth shall be blessed’; to ‘establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare’ — has been continually undermined by our own failures of trust, of vision, of steadfast commitment.

I’ve spent days in this text.  Not just these most recent nor that first encounter in Hebrew but the teaching and preaching done of it since.  Maybe part of my tired is that the questions that seem to spring soonest are the ones that let us off the hook.  Which is worse:  God having asked the sacrifice or Abraham offering it up? God ‘testing’ Abraham with the ask or God needing to test at all? We are prompt to interrogate the text.  Are we ready to ask the same questions of ourselves?  Is this story of traumatic encounter about Abraham and God only or is it also about us?

After all, we still offer up our own.  Worse yet, we offer up those we do not count as ‘ours.’    We draw lines between, create categories of difference, and claim self-preservation as justification for all.  We hoard our own welfare, present and future, as if we can be sufficient to our providing, if only we are diligent enough, vigilant enough.  Abraham, at least, offers his son, his only, the one whom he loves, Isaac.  Abraham offers up the promise he has been moving towards since Genesis 12, the seed and covenant future that God has named due through Isaac.  Abraham responds to nothing less than the direct and inscrutable word of God, who speaks no promise or condition but only command. 

God calls Abraham and Abraham responds, ‘Hineini’ — ‘Here I am!’ — or in a more literal rendering, ‘Behold — me!’  And maybe in that subtle reference to vision the story cracks itself open just a little bit to my sight, revealing not an answer to a puzzle but a promise that is almost enough.  

God calls Abraham’s name, and Abraham answers, ‘See — me.’  On the third day, Abraham ‘lifts his eyes’ and ‘sees’ the place.  When Isaac asks his father about the offering, Abraham replies ‘God will see for himself the lamb’ — the idiom of provision comes from the statement of God’s vision.  After his hand is stayed, Abraham ‘lifts his eyes’ and ‘sees’ the ram.  Seeing, vision, appearing is held as well in the name Abraham gives the place:  ‘The LORD sees’ for here ‘the LORD is seen.’ 

Maybe we call this story ‘the binding’ less because that verb occurs once within it than because we feel ourselves bound.  Tangled up in the text and its traditions.  Shackled in the circumstances and structures of the past times that have led to us here in our own, that have constrained our present living and our ability to see ahead, limiting the future by our own gaze.  Yet the motif that recurs in this story is God seeing, God being seen, God seeing to what is necessary to God’s goal.  Can we rename the text and re-place ourselves in it?   Not as those waiting the edge, unaware of what transpires on the mountain, but as those for whom that encounter is central.  

God sees.  Truly this claim is insufficient to assuage my discomfort with the text or with my context.  God’s sight does not tell me where the place will be, or how long it will take to get there.  Yet it is almost enough to aim and sustain me towards the next step.  God sees.  That claim of vision tugs me — protest and all — beyond my own sight.  No longer bound by the past but moving into the future divinely envisioned and powerfully promised.  Justice.  Welfare.  Blessing.  For all.

See.  Me.