Plaint and Praise

Egg by Elizabeth Brown; photograph (c) Katherine Brown

And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of the word of God and because of the witness which they had. And they cried out in a great voice saying, “Until when, O Master, holy and true, do you not judge and vindicate our blood on the ones dwelling upon the earth?” And it was given to them each a white robe, and it was said to them that they would rest yet a little time until they would be fulfilled also their fellow-servants and their brothers the ones who were about to be killed as even they.

Rev. 6:9-11 (my translation; NRSV linked)

The lectionary text is Rev. 7:9-17, but I’m sitting with 6:9-11. I’m cheating on the lectionary because there is something in me that wants to protest with the souls under the altar and is not yet ready to skip ahead to praise. Besides, notes from Rev. 6 resonate in Rev. 7: white robes (6:11; 7:9, 14), slaughter and tribulation (6:9; 7:14), a great-voiced cry (6:10; 7:9-10). In Rev. 7, the multitude cry praise; in Rev. 6, the souls cry plaint. The protest comes first. The text itself requires it. The fifth seal must be opened (6:9) before the sixth (6:12).

The first four seals have called out four horses, white and red and black and pale green, and death rides the pale green horse (6:1-8). No additional rider nor convulsion of earth or sky occurs when the fifth seal is opened. Instead, the opening discloses something that seems to be ongoing, ‘tas psuchas’ are already underneath the altar. Psuchē, here translated ‘soul,’ is a term that suggests life and animate existence. Yet these psuchēs have been ‘slaughtered’ for the ‘word of God’ and ‘witness they had’ (6:9)

What ‘witness’ did they have? What does it have to do with the arc of the action: the insistent demand, the reported response? And why is ‘witness’ — of all of the details in this tight-packed pericope — the note that calls me, when I had been so sure ‘protest’ was the summoning tone?

Witness is a significant motif throughout Revelation, as noun and as verb, ‘testimony’ and ‘testify.’ John declares he ‘witnessed to the word of God and the witness of Jesus (1:2). This word and witness is the reason John is on Patmos (1:9), though it’s unclear whether John is there because of John’s witness to Jesus or the faithful witness (1:5) Jesus’ own witness. It’s unclear whether the souls were slaughtered because they witnessed to Jesus or because they held Jesus’ faithful witness. Maybe these two possibilities are the same, a holding fast to the one who is ‘holy and true’ (6:10) with such sublime assurance of that one’s faithfulness that great protest can be cried. ‘Until when…!’ The souls have suffered the gulf between earth’s justice and the Lord’s, yet they have glimpsed God’s reign and cannot un-see it nor refrain from saying what they have seen. They cry out for vindication as if vindication of them is vindication of God. God’s faithfulness can be demanded because God is faithful.

‘Until when!’ It’s not a request for information but an insistence on response. Response is given: a white robe and the instruction to ‘rest yet a little time,’ an implicit promise not only of nearness but of purpose in the reference to unnumbered others still to be ‘fulfilled.’ That word resonates with implications of an expectation satisfied, an end accomplished. The one called ‘holy and true’ is also ‘faithful witness,’ seeing and hearing the souls whose witness led to their slaughter, and insisting on response, insisting in response that fulfillment is near. And it comes — at least in part — through the tenacity of this mutual witness work.

I came to this text identifying with protest because I am tired. Each hopeful turn in time seems uncurled by the next day’s news. I came to this text identifying with protest because protest seems the dominant note in every day’s news — yet protest defined in bullhorn-blared absolutes that brook no dissent on either side. I know the exact same urge to cry out. I need another model of demand. I came to this text identifying with protest, and I leave the text carrying its insistence on identity in relationship, reiterated cry and reply. Faithful witness as protest that speaks to the other in expectation of answer; faithful witness as heeding protest and giving reply (the white robe, the promise words); faithful witness as protest that receives that response and moves forward through it towards an end, holy and true.

I witness to God’s righteousness not by blaring it trumpet-loud at another but by living it with another. In discussion and dialogue and, yes, argument, so long as it’s argument with, not at. I witness to God’s righteousness by living it in relationship with God’s word and with my neighbors’ words, a conversation that calls all of us to account for how we occupy the spaces in-between and how we acknowledge all the in-between-ness of our inherently partial discernment of God’s absolute being.

I witness to God’s righteousness as I navigate the present gap between word and world in the way of the faithful witness, who was dead and is alive: seeing and hearing and knowing this world, suffering its brokenness, loving it dearly, speaking and working to lift it toward life.
‘Until when, O Master, holy and true…?

First, we worship

Egg and photography (c) Katherine Brown

After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! […]

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,


“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,


“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
forever and ever!”

And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.

Rev. 4:1-2; 5:11-14 from Rev. 4-5.

The Thursday before Easter, I drove to church for evening worship. The sky was still light; the fading day was not yet done. Other cars were on the road, pedestrians on the sidewalk. I read their bags and backpacks as showing them headed home from work or school; maybe some — how many? — were headed to church themselves. I drove past a road down which lives one of my seminary-sisters, and I thought of her already, like me just then, headed to her own Maundy Thursday service. The thought made me smile: each of us in her own way an agent setting the stage for this act of underground theater, distributively produced, dispersed in myriad settings, with different music, liturgy, vestments, but a sameness of end: the lauding of Christ.

I’d text later, I thought, not just her but the group.

I received a text even before I’d sent one out; I saw it after worship, once I was home. Another of my seminary sisters sending prayers for strength for us all as we worked our way toward the cross and on beyond it. A flurry of texts then followed, as we each checked in, confirmed our companionship along the way and, so doing, confirmed our commitment to the way. The awareness of being accompanied helped firm our will and ability to keep on keeping on. The contact knit us more closely together and together knit us more closely to Christ as we renewed awareness of so many acts of worship in varied times and places, and the way our own particular parts fit within that heavenly whole.

Reading Rev. 4-5, I think again of the texts sent that Thursday night, texts sent Easter morning; a Triduum of text connection. John is on Patmos on account of the word of God and the witness of Jesus; John is a brother enduring in tribulation (Rev. 1:9). John is given a revelation to proclaim to the churches — not just a word of per-church instruction for each of the seven (Rev. 2-3) but a glimpse for all of ‘what must take place’ (1:1, 19; 4:1). Yet in order to see what will be, John must ‘come up here’ and see what currently is (4:1). What John sees is worship. Worship of the one on the throne (4:2-11). Worship of the lamb ‘standing as slaughtered’ (5:6-12). Worship of them both — the enthroned one and the slaughtered one — both worthy of acclaim for having created all (4:11) and for having ransomed from all, saints, for having made a kingdom and priests to God (5:9-10). John looks and John hears worship (5:11): ‘Every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing … blessing and honor and glory and might’ (5:13).

Every creature. I in my car on my way. The one who texted me on hers. All of us as we plan and prepare and vest and process … and log onto Zoom, and copy-paste the prayers in the chat … All of us in our own times and places and ways joining our worship into one, joining ourselves on earth with the ‘up here’ of heaven.

John is granted a glimpse of ultimate worship he may not have known he needed. But the one who called John knows what John needed — what we need to witness so that we can tell it on. In heaven a door stood open and summons was trumpet-sounded, ‘Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this’ (4:1). John must see and hear and recognize worship before John is able to see or hear or recognize anything of what is about to be. Worship tunes his perception. Worship tunes our own, reminds us of company, firms our will and ability to keep on keeping on, enduring through tribulation in hope, in trust of God’s promise, knowing that our earthly praise echoes and is echoed by that which was first and is last.

We worship because the LORD is God to whom our worth is due.

As we worship, we re-member ourselves as a kingdom of priests, each charged to live a particular part within God’s heavenly whole. We re-aim ourselves towards the practice of resurrection, until our acts of underground theater expand the sites of production from set-apart spaces and times to perform all the dailiness of being and needing and longing and joy with the conviction of sustaining love.

The Tribulation and the Kingdom

Easter Egg and Photo (c) Katherine Brown

‘John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.’

verses 4-7 from Revelation 1

Easter has come. For the first time in two years, we celebrated it in church, physically together. The chancel was decked with flowers and a butterfly banner made by the Sunday School. The organ peeled. Voices rose in song. Hallelujahs returned to the sanctuary as the pastor proclaimed ‘Christ is risen!’ and the people replied ‘He is risen indeed!’

Easter has come. In the US there were multiple mass shootings that very weekend, more since. War between Russia and Ukraine continues, with horrific news of destruction and death and atrocities beyond those considered ‘appropriate’ in a theater of war. COVID rates are rising again, even as assessments of risk and response continue to divide the nation, along with judgments regarding race, sexuality, January 6, and too much else.

Easter has come. Christ is risen. What has changed?

Everything, says the book of Revelation. Do we trust its testimony?

The book is written by John, a record of what he saw when he was on the island called Patmos ‘in the spirit on the Lord’s day’ [1:9-11]. The revelation, though, is not his own. The revelation, the apocalypse, the uncovering, is ‘of Jesus Christ’ [1:1]. John’s written vision is challenging to read. Its imagery is bizarre, difficult to picture — starting with a flame-eyed, bronze-footed, sword-mouthed, torrent-voiced Son of Man [1:14-16]. In places it is unpalatably violent. (The lectionary skips these, as if the imagery is beyond that considered ‘appropriate’ in a theater of worship.) Yet this vision is written to send, to be read aloud [1:3, 11, 19].

‘John to the seven churches ….’ [1:1] Seven for completeness; seven including even us, as stuck in the middle now as they were then. A community come into being because Easter has come and been proclaimed, yet living still in a world of division and suffering and violence.

I’ve studied Revelation before. Its awareness of its own writtenness connects with other texts similarly struck. I came to Revelation this week assuming that note would again sing loudest in my hearing yet trying to will my mind to allow another note to sound. (My pre-reading prayer as hedged about with qualifications as John’s own visionary descriptions: one ‘like’ this, a thing ‘like’ that.). I floundered. Nor am I over with that work — floundering still! Yet on the umpteenth time of reading aloud, I was caught by an unexpected interplay. As I pronounced John’s self-introduction, I heard in my head a different rhythm. John proclaims himself one who shares ‘the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance’ [1:9]. I heard ‘the kingdom and the power and the glory,’ then recalled my mind to my own voice and read aloud and listened again.

‘The persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance.’ Three nouns in the Greek. ‘The tribulation and reign and steadfastness.’

The kingdom as God’s reign come near [Mark 1:14-15], as God’s will come here, on earth as in heaven [Matt 6:9-10] — that is familiar. Yet the other two seem slant to John’s earlier doxology [1:5-6], a Looking-Glass version of the Lord’s Prayer as we commonly recite it. Kingdom not as preface to power but conjoined with persecution and endurance, suffering and steadfastness.

How does ‘kingdom’ look in this unexpected frame? What are we missing if we twine ‘kingdom’ only ever with glory and overlook this tribulation named in the word, the brokenness known in the world? What if, instead, we follow John’s cue and claim identity in a different share, identity in sharing? Your hurt becomes my ache. Injury done to them is done to us. The work of resurrection becomes ever more urgent; our endurance in it ever more pressing, and, through Easter, ever more possible.

Easter does not contradict the cross. Christ died. Easter overcomes it. Christ is risen.

Easter does not contradict the world’s brokenness nor shy away from the reality of suffering. Easter overcomes it. So the world’s brokenness does not itself contradict Easter but may become the stage on which our suffering and endurance testify to resurrection in our witness of shared tribulation and steadfast hope.

We are a kingdom, priests to God; God’s is the glory and the power [1:6], the sustaining through which Christ’s faithful witness [1:5] becomes our own, a testimony which is trustworthy because it does not pretend the world is whole, transforming as it persists through us towards the world’s healing.

Easter changes everything. May our witness be true.

Made in the likeness

photo (c) Katherine Brown

‘The tongue is a fire…’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Law of Liberty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer’s End

photo by Katherine Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaf Candles

photo by Katherine Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it about the leaves or the light?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building New





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm Upside Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sifting Shifting Witness

photo (c) 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.