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.

Psalm as Snow Day

photo by Katherine Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perfect hate; perfect love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Lead me in the way everlasting.’  

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

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

The word that breaks in.

photo (c) 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 (c) 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 (c) 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.

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 (c) 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 (c) 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.