Hineini!

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

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

photo (c) Katherine Brown

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

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

Offer up your son as offering.   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See.  Me.

Say his name!

photo (c) Katherine Brown

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.  But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.  So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you.  As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”  So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.  And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.  He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. 

Genesis 21:8-21; lectionary text for Sunday June 21, 2020

Sarah’s urgency and Abraham’s inertia and God’s inscrutable assent to the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael make this a hard text at any time.  To read it these days as the nation continues to roil with racial reckoning long past due is even harder.  Convicting.  On its face this text seems to unquestioningly endorse the separation of the two brothers — God enjoins the act — yet the narrator’s sympathy is with Hagar and Ishmael.  The text seeks to be read from their point of view.  I have imagined Sarah’s years-long plight of being but Abraham’s ‘barren’ wife, going when and where and because Abraham goes with no voice of her own, mute even as she is offered by her husband to one king and then another, suffering knowing that she is too old for any newness now.  But now I feel the anguish of being sent away out into the wilderness as if I myself am Hagar.

We were just at a feast, celebrating the safe birth and weaning of Isaac, God’s promise-child, Sarah’s long awaited Laughter.  It was a great feast.  And now?  Now I am sent away with my child — our child, Abraham, our child!  The son that you and Sarah together got of me.  The feast may continue for you, for them, but for me and for our son, this 16 year old boy-man, there is but some bread and a skin of water.  How long will that last in the midbar, the desert wilderness in which water is scant?  We were just at a feast rejoicing that nothing is too wonderful for the LORD, that Laughter had been born and heard and named in our midst, and suddenly everything turned.  For what?  Because our son, Ishmael, was ‘joking’? ’playing’? ‘mocking’? ‘Isaac-ing’?*  Because suddenly Sarah is frightened for her son, our son must be driven out?  

There was a moment I might even have laughed with Sarah’s God-brought laughter.  She herself foretold that all would.  Yet already I’ve forgotten whatever mirth there might have been.  Sarah’s own joy is already ended.  She cut it short herself.  Her vision is too small.  She looks at our son, Abraham, yours and mine, and sees him only as an alternate Isaac, a reminder of those barren years before and a competitor for her son’s future inheritance.  What is that inheritance, Abraham?  Is it not that all the earth should be blessed?   In her zeal for her son’s full measure, Sarah has cut off her own joy.  She had laughed and spoken the world to laugh with her.   Now Sarah speaks to cast out half the world — as measured in sons of Abraham.  

Our son.  Ishmael — say his name, Abraham.  Though Sarah does not, you at least should name him, for he is your son too, on whose account you are distressed.  Say his name, Abraham!  Say it aloud! ‘Ishmael’ — ‘God hears’ — Ishmael, our son, yours and mine.  Our son is as truly God-named as is your son with Sarah.  Both of them have names given by the LORD.  Why can you not say his name aloud?  Is it because you are afraid to say aloud the truth that ‘God hears’?  That God heard my cry before our son was born?  That God might hear our cries again?  

Say his name, Abraham.  Ishmael.  God hears.  Say it!

God does hear.  God will hear.  

Will God hear?

I cried out at Abraham.  I demanded our son’s name from his mouth.  

Or did I?  

Was it only in my head that my voice was heard?  Was I, in reality, as silent as Sarah who — having spoken that word of expulsion — spoke no more?  

Ishmael.  God hears.  My lips move.  But do I say it?  Can I any longer trust the name’s claim when the God himself did not speak it to Abraham, did not speak either of our names, but gave us the titles that Sarah had used, that Abraham had used.

We have wandered.  Our water is gone.  I have left him.  Cast out because of him, sent away with him, now I walk away from him.  I will not, cannot watch him die.  I lift my voice.  Does he?  Does he cry?  Does he hear?  

Which ‘he’ even do I mean?

ve-Ishma-el-ohim reads the Hebrew text.  ‘And God heard.’  The name of my son held in that phrase.  The name that Sarah would not say, that Abraham could not say, that the LORD God did not say. Ishmael, God hears, now cries out from the text itself.  As the blood of the murdered Abel cried out from the ground.  As the cutting off of peoples causes stones of the house to protest and plaster of the wall to respond.  As the stones of the city will cry out the presence of the Christ if his followers themselves do not.  The text telling my story returns to me the name of my son.  No more is he ‘the boy,’ ‘the child,’ son of ‘Hagar the Egyptian,’ ‘the slave woman.’  The text becomes the testimony.  Murmurs my son’s name in the larger claim.

ve-Ishma-el-ohim:  ‘And God heard.’  Saying the name moves the story from desperate need to divine response.  God heard.  And God called and renewed and expanded God’s promise and opened my eyes to the life-giving water. ve-Ishma-el-ohim:  ‘And God heard.’   

‘A future with hope’ unfolds.  

‘Make strong your hand in his,’** God tells Hagar. 

The story inserts itself into my own hand, clenched as it is in anguish for persistent division and in aching uncertainty for how to move towards justice.  The text pushes itself in, makes itself strong within my palm.  My fingers ease and curl around its strength.  I am lifted to do the next thing:  to name aloud the claim that within the story God himself does not utter but does fulfill. 

Ishmael.  God hears.

Say the name.  Say all their names.  That act shifts the whole story.  Align myself with the text’s own subtle work of inclusion and reconciliation and wholeness.  God’s promise for each and for all.  That all the families of the earth will be blessed.

* The Hebrew verb in 21:3 is a form of the verb ‘to laugh,’ from which the name ‘Isaac’ comes.  The Hebrew text reads ‘Sarah saw the son of Hagar, whom she bore to Abraham, playing.’  The phrase in the NRSV ‘with her son Isaac’ is in the Greek, not the Hebrew.

** This is the literal Hebrew of God’s command in Gen 21:18, ‘Hold him fast with your hand.’

All God’s People Prophets

Photo (c) Katherine Brown*

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent.  Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. 

Numbers 11:24-25; excerpt from 11:24-30; alternate lectionary for Pentecost Sunday, 5.31.20

Sundays I get up and start coffee and check church email early, to learn any changes to the order of worship before we’re all logged on to Zoom.  Last Sunday morning I saw a message that my church and another, about four blocks up Georgia Avenue, planned to line the road on either side for a COVID-appropriately masked and distanced demonstration in support of racial justice.  I read the email and my first reaction was an almost wild frustration:  I already have plans, I don’t have time for this, I have things that I need to do.  My second reaction — nearly coincident with the first save that nanosecond’s difference that requires me to admit the order in which they came — was a deep shame that as a white woman I could choose to avoid dealing with this issue when so many others have no choice in the matter.  That shame came with an accompanying conviction — welling up swiftly, as if in flood, and overwhelming me with its power — that the fact that I can choose to abstain is the very reason why I cannot choose to abstain.   I found a piece of cardboard, and I crayoned on my phrase*, and Sunday evening I joined several hundred standing along both sides of the road, holding up to oncoming traffic the words that had hauled us from our homes and plans and required of us presence, and statement.  The light was clear; the air was mild; the breeze was sweet.

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’  

Numbers 11 had held me already a week by then, as the news turned from a primary focus on the COVID-pandemic to the nation convulsed with a fresh recognition of racism’s horrifically persistent and destructive pervasiveness.  (Periodically we toy with renewing this recognition. When will we move on to true reckoning and transformation?)  I lived that turn through this text.  Reading its telling of 70 elders and the spirit.  Reading news stories of deaths — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd only the most recently famous — of demonstrations and riot police and photo ops.  Reading text, and reading context, and reading each reading each other the while. 

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’  

The LORD puts spirit on the elders, and they are caught in its power, carried out of themselves and into a frenzy. That’s what it is to prophesy in the Bible:  to be overcome with the power of the LORD (1 Sam 10:5-13).  The encounter knocks you flat then pulls you standing (Ezek 1:26-2:5).  Even when the work is described in terms of speech rather than ecstasy, it is a word that burns and cannot be contained, a flame that must be shouted aloud (Jer 20:8-9).  To prophesy is to be subject to the power of the spirit, to be the word’s servant rather than its master.  One does not grab the word and hold it aloft.  One is grabbed by the word, held by the hair, lifted up and away (Ezek 8:1-4).

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’  

The seventy elders have been gathered for this encounter because the community in the wilderness is convulsed with a fresh set of complaining, ‘strong craving’ and weeping (Num 11:1-9).  Moses himself is ‘displeased’ and angry with God.  I didn’t conceive or bear or birth this people, Moses argues, ‘I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me’ (Num 11:10-15).  God responds and directs Moses to gather seventy elders who will share the work of leading the people through the wilderness.  This is the backdrop to the elders’ experience of the spirit and their however-brief/however-timeless frenzy of possession. 

This context of a people riven by strife and the need for leaders to ‘bear the burden of the people’ (Num 11:16-18) revises my idea of what is what is at stake in the elders’ experience.  What I had thought mattered so that the community would see that these seventy were God’s appointed leaders, I now realize mattered so that the seventy themselves would have had this direct and destabilizing encounter with the LORD.

The LORD who sees and hears and knows the sufferings of the oppressed, who does not stand far off but comes down to deliver (Exod 3:6-10).  ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Exod 34:6-7).  The LORD who is ‘God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing’ (Deut 10:17-18).  

The elders need to be overwhelmed by that awareness and alignment and commitment so that — initiating prophetic frenzy past — they can lead the people as God wills.  Attuned to the oppressed.  Executing justice for the vulnerable.  Extending love beyond kin, beyond neighbor, until even the ‘stranger’ is fed and clothed and fully folded into the whole.  The elders’ experience of the spirit was necessary not as an end in itself but as a means of giving that glimpse of God’s end for them all.

Last Sunday was a hundred years ago.  Every day since, there has been news of another protest, summons to another rally.  Yesterday (Friday) at 5 p.m. communities of faith lined 16th Street from Dupont Circle in Washington D.C. up until and beyond the district line.  We stood in vigil holding signs near the end of 16th Street, just before 16th curves and joins Georgia Avenue.  Cars and vans and buses passed; many honked or flashed lights in support.  About 5:45, the rain started.  It came down in buckets, soaking through signs and clothes and shoes.  Still we stood, signs held high, heads bowed against the sky’s crashing sobs.  We stood until the lightning and thunder came together, then we fled back to our cars through rainwater rivers running swift down the sides of the streets.

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’   The nation continues to convulse.  I pray it is a birth, not another false labor.  I pray that our encounter with the spirit’s compulsion persists even after the frenzy of protests and rallies and vigils is past.  It should pass.  The summons to protest is not an end in itself but a necessary stage along the way.  May this spell of God-sight guide us into and through the spiritual and social and legislative work of reckoning, repentance, and reconciliation.  

‘Would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!’ (Num 11:29).

*My daughter pointed out that the Bible verses written in ink on my sign would not be legible to passing traffic. I replied that the verses were written there for me; these were the words that required me to get up and go. The sign made for Sunday was soaked through by Friday’s rain. The crayon letters remain on the now-dried and oddly twisted cardboard but the ink was washed away. No matter. The words remain written in this image and remain written in my heart.

Night Waiting

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:  This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. …

Exodus 12:1-2, excerpt from Exodus 12:1–4, 11-14, lectionary text during Holy Week, 2020

I am writing this on Good Friday.  It is night.  All day today the wind blew, great gusts of wind, soughing through the trees and around the house.  I sat at my desk and looked out the window at tall trees swaying back and forth and smaller trees bending on a swifter, tighter arc.  I watched and imagined the new green leaves of the pear tree and the cream blossoms of the dogwood holding tight as the wind played crack the whip with their branches.  I took a walk outside.  The wind buffeted my body and roared around my ears.  The afternoon was bright blue; white clouds scudded across the sky.  

Now it is night.  I listen and hear quiet and realize the wind has fallen.  The rising, rushing vigor of the day has ebbed.  Now is the dark; now is the waiting.

Exodus 12 is the text for Maundy Thursday, the celebration of Jesus’ last supper with his closest disciples.  Exodus 12 gives the Passover command, ‘take a lamb,’ and tells the reason.  The LORD is about to execute judgment on all the gods of Egypt, the false powers that enslave and oppress and destroy, but will ‘pass over’ the households which have marked their identity with the blood of the lamb.  Death shall not destroy these households that have marked themselves as God’s own.  Exodus 12 works well for this night too, for the Lamb has been lifted up.  There has been blood — enough for sign.  The work is completed.  But the work is not over.

I am writing this on Good Friday.  It is night and dark and quiet.  And I am waiting for the rest of the work. I am waiting for beginning.

‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.’  Of the whole passage, that is the phrase that has held me this week.  This month the beginning of months.  It came upon me unexpected.  I had remembered the lamb, the command to share, the girded loins and hurried eating.  I had remembered the preparation.  I had forgotten the beginning.  The word came as an unlooked-for present — a treasure to hold cupped in one’s hands, a tender seed to brood over and watch until it cracks and sprouts, sends forth roots and shoots and leaves, grows into something too great to be contained in one’s own grasp, something that withstands the strongest of winds.

‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.’  Beginning.  Not starting over.  Not returning again to some earlier point.  Beginning.  Going on through to the next.

This is the strangest Lent of my memory.  We gave up church — congregating our bodies as body, I mean.  We gave up going to work and school (aware of our fortune in being able to work and teach and learn from home).  We gave up going to the grocery on a whim, leaving the house even just to walk without a thought (aware of our fortune in having a house, a space in which to walk).  We gave up gatherings and plans, a careless ease, and — as a nation — any illusion (ill-founded as it was) of some inherent immunity to instability, to pain, to loss.

‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.’  Not going back to before, but beginning, going on to a new that cannot yet be seen, that can barely be imagined beyond the promise in the word itself — Beginning.

Tonight is Good Friday.  We held worship via Zoom, a liturgy of scripture readings and dramatic monologues.  A candle was extinguished after each; seven candles, one by one.  A soloist sang from his home, a capella, into his computer screen, ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord …’.   One candle was left.  The last speaker held it cupped in her hand, its flame lit her face as she prayed, then she placed it again on its stand.  Its light was small but steady against the dark.  A woodwind played ‘What wondrous love is this.’  On a whim, I changed to gallery view and saw on my screen the faces of forty-some households, each shown in its own neat square.   So many faces.  Each face was absolutely individual, yet all seemed to bear a common mark — an expression equally mixed of ache and of hope — borne of the words and of the music —  an awareness of separation and a longing for reunion.  Or so I read their faces, before tears came to my own eyes.

‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.’  Tonight is Good Friday.  It is night and dark and quiet.  I am waiting for beginning, and all the world as well, marked with the ache that is God’s own.

In a Broad Place

Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me in a broad place. 

Psalm 118:5; from Psalm 118

Psalm 118.  This is the psalm that welcomes Jesus into Jerusalem, Christians into Holy Week.   I preached with this text just a month ago.  A lifetime ago.  Before the virus was named pandemic and lock-downs were ordered and people lost jobs and tallies of illness and death took over the news.  I cannot re-cut that week’s word for this week’s need.  Can there be a new word?

Psalm 118.  I read it, and I reread it.  As if just reading will make the text grab like an insistent kitten — the text taking hold with tiny claws, pricking through the miasma of news and worry wrapped so thick around me, calling me to new attention and new hope.  I read the psalm, and it feels disjointed.  Too many themes and remembrances.  Snatches and pieces arranged in a crazy-quilt jumble, no coherence apparent. Individual patches stand out, if only for familiarity’s sake:  ‘The LORD is my strength and my might, he has become my salvation’ (v. 14); ‘This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it’ (v. 24).  These verses are more familiar in stand-alone form.  They seem strange set together and surrounded by the rest of the psalm.  Maybe the solution is not to seek meaning in a pattern but instead to go back to the start.  Turn to the first first-person recitation that follows the communal litany.  The opening imperative is plural:  ‘Praise!’  But then comes this verse, a recollection of when ‘I called’ and when the LORD ‘answered me.’

‘From distress, I cried out — LORD!  The LORD answered me in breadth.’  

The Hebrew gets its hooks into me. My translation is so rough as to seem literally meaningless.  God’s answer seems a non sequitur:  I cry ‘from distress’ and LORD answers ‘in breadth’?  As if God is not really harkening to my cry but humming along some other route, which scenic openness has no connection to the place of my pain.  No.  Go more deeply in.  The answer parallels the cry, and the parallel resonates in a way that catches me up short, pricks my attention, draws itself to my need.  My surprise at its rightness itself is almost delight.

‘From distress, I cried out.’  The word ‘distress’ is more literally a narrow place, a straits where one is cramped, restricted, hampered, constricted,* where one is hemmed in or bound up by enemies, circumstance, a virus.  From social distancing, I cried out.  From home-quartering, I cried out. From limitation, I cried out.  The LORD’s answer, then, is perfectly responsive:  

‘From constriction, I cried out — LORD!  The LORD answered me with breadth.’

The Jewish Publication Society translation preserves the parallel — ‘distress’ and ‘relief’ — while obscuring the spatial aspects of the cry and response.  The NRSV maintains the spatial aspect of the response but translates it as action, ‘the LORD answered and set me in a broad place.’  But is it that?  Is it that the LORD removes the psalmist from one place to another?  Or is it that the LORD renames the place, so that the psalmist reviews his own sight?

From the straits of pandemic-precautions and restricted outings and limited in-person interaction, I cried out.  And the LORD answered with breadth, open space.  The LORD said Lift your eyes and look out the window.  The day is fine and bright.  The wind blows white clouds across the deep blue sky, and the treetops that yesterday were all tan, a twiggy fringe against the sky, today are beginning to be hazed with green.  The LORD said, Listen!  The wind!  It rises and rushes and roars through the trees, sways the branches back and forth against the blue.

Part of life is narrowed now.  That narrowness is necessity — sensible precautions take for self and for others.  The necessity does not obviate the grief and stress.  Perhaps, instead, it makes plainer the grief and stress of the whole world, caught in the throes of this virus, the havoc it is wreaking on bodies individual and social.  It does, indeed, cramp my heart.  The psalm does not say otherwise.  The constriction is distress, is pain.  The LORD’s answer lays another truth alongside; the LORD’s answer comes with a broad space.  As if this breadth is equally true.  The breadth of a blue sky, the beauty of green leaves so sharp-shaped and yellow-new that it seems the tree branches are lined with tiny candle-flames.  

‘From distress, I cried out — LORD!  The LORD answered me in breadth’ — bringing me not out but deeper in, and on through, until the narrow strait opens into a broad place.

LookListenBreathe.  There is light and life and wind rising high.  For now it is enough.

*The range of possibilities comes from The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.

Bodies together; Body alive

The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.  He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”  Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.” 

Ezekiel 37:1-6; excerpt from Ezekiel 37:1-14, lectionary text for Sunday March 29, 2020

Tuesdays and Thursdays, I am up before light and I drive to Baltimore to teach.   Tuesdays and Thursdays, I get to the campus in time to walk across to the chapel before my first class, in time to go in and sit in its dim, in time to be bathed in the blue light of the great rose window above the altar, quieted by the quiet of the space, murmuring my heart to the listening silence.

Except now I don’t.  I don’t drive to Baltimore.  I don’t walk to the chapel.  I don’t sit in its sacred space.  Which shouldn’t matter.  God is not more present in that mystic-blue-rose-windowed sanctuary than in my florescent-lit basement, where now I sit and log on to Zoom, and see my students on Tuesdays and Bible study on Wednesdays and church on Sundays.  The physical space shouldn’t matter.  Yet it does.  Because I am a physical creature, a living being of breath and dust.  My soul needs my body’s walk across the green, the opening of the door, the entry in through the narthex, the encounter with that amazing blue glow.  These days, none of that can I have.

So I take my body upstairs to my bedroom desk.  I sit my body down and I open my book.  The light through the window is milk-pale in this grey day.  I take my pen in hand and set it to the page; I watch and hear the line of writing take shape — the black ink forming letters, the slight whispery scritch of pen’s progress across the paper.  Creating a space in which to listen, a space in which to be heard.  A valley for encounter.  Bodies all together:  me and the page and Ezekiel and God and the bones.

Ezekiel among the exiles, all of them having been carried off by an invading army, removed far away from the place the LORD had planted them, and ‘scattered’ among the nations.  Their home had fallen, city and temple and all. The ways they had experienced the LORD’s presence before were no longer available.

‘The hand of the LORD came upon me and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD’ — God’s body and the prophet’s body intersecting.  The ‘hand’ (in Hebrew a feminine noun) comes upon the prophet.  The LORD (‘he’) brings out the prophet by the spirit — ruach, a noun that recurs throughout the passage, translated ‘spirit’ (37:1, 14), ‘breath’ (37:5, 9, 10), and ‘wind’ (37:9) — and ‘rests’ the prophet in the valley.  A ‘valley’ filled with bones.  Many bones; very dry.  These are not even bodies anymore, but bones, sere and scattered.  

Where is the valley?  It is not the place where the exiles live.  What is the valley?  It is neither ‘wilderness’ nor ‘garden.’  It is something else, somewhere away, liminal.  The valley is the place of divine encounter — a happening so potent that the prophet’s body is significantly moved, whether falling on his face, lifted to his feet, brought up, set down, led around and around (37:2).  The prophet circumambulates the bones; listens to the LORD; is called to prophesy until bones are reassembled and re-enfleshed (37:8), until breath (spirit, wind) comes into them, and they stand erect and live, ‘a vast multitude’ (37:10), the ‘whole house of Israel’ (37:11), the body of God’s people.  

Our faith is the stuff of bones and flesh.  Even our worship participates in this physicality.  We stand to pass the peace, to hear the gospel reading.  We bow our heads and close our eyes as the prayer is said —  to see this movement across the pews is like seeing a field ruffled by the wind.  Wind, spirit, breath.  Do our physical postures summon that breath or respond to it?  Or is the synchronicity so perfect that the movement of the spirit and of the bone comes as one?  We worship without these particular postures right now.  Yet even as we cannot now bring our bodies to the same place, we are sharing glimpses of each other’s places — dining rooms and living rooms and desks set up in bedrooms and the pets wandering in to the Zoom screen — intimate glimpses of each other’s material settings  that oddly, perversely, make us more aware of each other in as material bodies in them, of our need for material encounter.  (Zoom worship ends, and folk stay online, waving and calling greetings.)

That awareness itself has the potential to transform, to recenter and remind us that Incarnation — God’s, our own — is our core claim.  God’s ‘Word became flesh,’ a flesh we gather to eat and to be: ‘body of Christ’ names both our central meal and our gathered identity.  Ezekiel experiences it in that valley.  God’s body is as active a participant in the encounter as the prophet’s:  God’s hand; God’s speech; God’s breath.  Then God’s words and the prophet’s voice together (Ezekiel prophesying as commanded, 37:7, 10) raising the bones into bodies, reviving the bodies into Body, the whole house of Israel, the entire people of God. 

Pause in my writing.  Look out the window.  Think further. God’s body present with and through us.  God’s body present as us.  Not because God needs our bodies in order to be present in the world or even sufficient in God-self, but because God does not want to be body without us.  The whole of us. 

Ezekiel’s valley is bodies brought together, transformed — the prophet’s caught up and called to walk around and speak aloud (‘Prophesy to these bones’), the bones revived into the living multitude, the whole house.  Ezekiel’s valley is here, and now.  We are newly aware of ourselves as bodies, newly aware of ourselves as Body, that awareness of ourselves accompanying encounter with the LORD.  The next movement is already promised:  we shall live (37:6, 14).

The right use of fear

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me; 
your rod and your staff -- 
they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4; from Psalm 23, lectionary text for Sunday, March 22, 2020

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, 
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. 

Proverbs 9:10

Thinking much about fear this past week, particularly the relationship between fear and faith.  I’m not the only one.   The Washington Post reports that in a certain Bible app, ‘searches for “fear” went up by 167 percent last week, and “fear not” by 299 percent.’*   

Institutions throughout my area — including the university where I teach — closed and moved work online.  Churches closed too.  More accurately, church buildings closed.  ‘Church’ remained open, with the community’s worship and prayer and study moved online.  News stories and social media feeds started covering this aspect of the coronavirus as a distinct thread within the larger tapestry of the new social pattern COVID is creating.  Of the various slants relative to the closing of churches, one that continued to recur was the tension claimed between fear and faith.  Most negatively, the relationship between fear and faith was presented as an intrinsic opposition, so that failure to gather physically for worship was failure of faith in God, elevating the power of the virus over the power of God.  In a more benign form, fear was admitted as natural, a human condition that we could offer to the LORD in trust of God’s comfort and cure.

‘Fear not,’ God repeatedly instructs, from Genesis (15:1) through Revelation (1:17).   ‘I will fear no evil,’ the psalmist sings, in laud and thanks of the LORD’s presence and comfort.   

But:  ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.’  The proverb offers fear in parallel with knowledge, not as something to be avoided. 

Fear does not oppose fidelity.  Rightly ordered, it is part of it.

Fear may be irresponsible or destructive — panic that destabilizes and debilitates individuals and communities.  Yet I wonder whether our fear of fear, so rooted in our national ethos (‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself,’ FDR famously said) is depriving us of an important learning about ourselves as creatures and our place in creation.  Fear reminds us that we are not in control.  The Bible reminds us that we were never meant to be in control.  Made in the image and likeness of God, yes; given ‘dominion’ over creation, yes.   Just ‘a little lower than God,’ yes.  But ‘like’ and ‘lower than’ God.  Not God.  We were never meant to be God.  Fear reminds us that we are limited. Fear may allow us to recognize and admit, again as if for the first time, the power that is outside of us, the power that is other, the power that is beyond.

Perhaps this is the value in the practice of fear.   Perhaps this is the lesson of a time such as this.  The scope of the risk is unknown, at this point unknowable.  We are required to acknowledge our ignorance and to admit our finitude.  Even — effectively — forced to admit the fear that is the shadow side of so much of our bright life, the worry both quotidian and ultimate that we hide under the thrum of busy-ness, the hectic pace of work or play, the anxiety that comes out only sometimes, in the wee hours of the night when the surrounding dark seems vast and terrible.  Daybreak comes, we push the night terrors down and away, and we spend the hours of light — again — acting as if we are in control, which pretense has as its implicit corollary, that we are God, or at least that we know God already so perfectly as to be able anticipate and respond to every circumstance.

The current pandemic proves the power of this virus.  Fear of it is not faithlessness.  Fear may be, instead, the beginning of the beginning of wisdom.  As we acknowledge the fear of what is finite, as learn to revise our own actions in response to its power — a power as impersonal as a wave — we may begin to realize how to practice the fear of what is ultimate and infinite.  Of Who is ultimate and infinite.

Fear does not oppose fidelity.  Rightly ordered, it is part of it.  It has the potential to teach. As we learn, may we be drawn further on and in to deeper and dearer relationship with God.

‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight’

*The Washington Post, ‘Worship goes virtual in age of social distancing,’ print 3/21/20

Weekly Shop in a Testing Time

He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” 

Exodus 17:7; from Exodus 17:1-7, lectionary text for Sunday March 15, 2020

I have never seen the grocery so busy on a Friday morning.  I take the last of the small carts and wipe it with the last of the sanitizing wipes from the dispenser.  Workers are restocking, yet there are gaps in the displays.  ‘No carrots?’ I say aloud, surprised.  The man who manages produce thinks there may be a case in the back.  (There is.)  A woman nearby tells me ‘They’re out of toilet paper.  It was the first thing I checked.’  Her daughter in California told her that toilet paper is not to be found; she herself is stocked up from Costco; she may send some rolls to her daughter.  The store is not lacking in vivid green St. Patricks Day cheer:  cardboard shamrocks sign displays of Kelly-frosted cupcakes, green-sugared cookies, and Irish soda bread (which is normal soda-bread color).  

The sense of something looming seems palpable in the presence and intensity of so many shoppers.  None of us here is obviously sick.  We don’t know when or if we will be.   Yet whatever anxiety each of us feels is shown — at least on this morning, in this place — in gestures of fellowship.  Confidences about the procurement of toilet paper; wry grins and comments in the checkout line.  (A line in which none of us maintain the recommended six foot distance.)   There is a camaraderie in the shared circumstance of unknowing.  Maybe because as yet the crisis is coming, but not fully here.  Is there something of this waiting time not just to savor but to save?  Something that we need to remember, to carry us through whatever it is that may come?

Israel in the wilderness.  Out from Egypt and not yet to Sinai.  Just saved from slavery, and on the way to covenant, and already this is the third instance of ‘grumbling.’  The people grumble for sweet water, instead of bitter (Exodus 15:24), and for food to eat (16:2-3), and now again for water to drink in this place where there is none (17:1).  The conflict has intensified.  The people ‘quarrel’ as well as ‘grumble’ (in the NRSV:  ‘complain’).  Their hostility has increased with their desperation.  They are unified in their demand:  ‘Give us water’ — all of us, as one, require drink.  

In the Hebrew, the demand then takes an interesting turn:  ‘Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill me and my son …?’  See what happened there?  The collective has become fragmented.  Suddenly what matters is not our need but my own, not our children, but my child.  It’s awkward in the Hebrew — the sudden singular ‘me/my’ — and entirely elided in the English translations, which maintain the plural ‘us/our’ throughout, as if that middle shift in number was a grammatical hiccup to be corrected instead of a signal of the people’s fear.  The need is real.  Water is necessary but there is no water for the people to drink.  The panic has set in — what’s at stake, each realizes, is my life, my child’s life.  Where there had been an all the people now there is each one of them.  For the moment of that phrase, the desperate urgency of their need revealed in the insistence on individuality.

The text ends with the place name explained — Massah-Meribah, Trial-Quarrel.  The people quarreled with Moses and tried or tested the LORD.  The final line, the accusation the people are accused of making, is what their quarrel sums to:  ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’  There is either the LORD in their midst or there is nothing.  This demand for water is a demand to know that the LORD is among them. God’s response to Moses takes seriously the need.  Water will be provided; the people will drink.   God will be present.  More than that:  God is present.  

‘See — me!’ the LORD tells Moses (‘hinneni’), or in the old form of the King James ‘Behold! — me — standing there in front of you.’  God’s speech can be translated and read as if its point is proper attribution of the miracle that will occur:  God will stand there, before Moses, and therefore Moses’ gesture will result in the life-giving flow of water.  But what if God’s speech is not just about divine power?  What if God’s speech is about divine presence?  After all, this is what the people’s demand for water sums to:  Is the LORD among us or not?  ‘See me,’ the LORD tells Moses.  It’s not just about the water.  It’s about God.  See:  God is standing there.

I walk home with a bag of groceries hanging from each shoulder.  The first yellows of spring — forsythia and daffodils and crocus — are being joined by soft pinks and creams of blossoming trees — magnolia, pear, cherry.  The wind is blowing and the branches sway and the air is billowing warm.  It is a beautiful day.  It is a strange season, unnerving with virus as well as flowers blooming.  We are all out of our ordinary.  Wandering this period of patterns disrupted and no idea when new ones will be set, or can be set, or even what they might be.  

At least one particular morning, in one particular grocery store, the result of each of us shaken out of our pattern seems to be that more of us were seeing each other.  Recognizing each other’s presence with comments and smiles and an unusually patient waiting in line.  Maybe that’s what we need to save and carry on into this unknown future, near term and far.  When the crisis comes full, when the fear becomes acute, when desperation overtakes — resist the urge to regard and cry out only for me, for my own.  Even when we keep our ‘social distance,’ spend days apart from others, move work and teaching and worship online, we must keep seeing each other — not only looking out for ourselves.  See especially those who are not online but restocking grocery shelves, caring for children, nursing the sick.  See each other.  Regard the ‘us’ of community.  

Is the LORD in our midst or is nothing?  That’s the question that the LORD answered, in providing the water and in speaking to Moses:  ‘See — me, standing before you….’  

Maybe the start of seeing the LORD standing, the LORD present in our midst, is by looking to see each other, the ‘us’ among whom the LORD is present.

Wandering Home*

Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there.  The days of Terah were two hundred five years; and Terah died in Haran. 

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the LORD had told him.

Gen 11:31-12:4a; expansion of lectionary text for Sunday March 8, 2020.

My name is Abram.

You will know me as Abraham Father of many.   You will know me as the rock from which you were hewn, your father of old, whose trust was reckoned as righteousness, who did not withhold even his own son.  You will know me as one who was called to go and who went.

But I am not Abraham yet.  My name is Abram.  And here, at the start of it all, I am not stepping surefooted into any future.  I am standing stunned in the remainder of what was.  I am seeing it as if for the first time clear-sighted.  I am realizing that what I’d taken for shelter turns out to be open to the sky.  I wonder if the ruin I now realize is something new or if I have only just noticed what always has been.   The shelter seemed sufficient; I never felt the rain.  But maybe it had not really rained before.  The ground around me is strewn with stones, as if the remains of a fallen building.  Not a home.  Maybe the foundation for one.

We left our homeland years ago, my father Terah and my wife Sarai and my nephew Lot and myself.  My brother already had died.  Our father determined to go.  We left our homeland, and we set out for Canaan, but we settled elsewhere on our way.  It was a place.  Good enough for its while.  It could not be home — always we were come-theres, not from-theres — but it was a place.  We spoke our language and we ate our food and we worshipped our gods and we were together.  And I was Abram.

Still I am Abram, but I am no longer sure who Abram is.  Was I more Abram when I lived in Ur, with my circle of kindred surrounding?  What happened, then, when my brother died?  When we left the land of my birth?  When we journeyed to another land?  The words and food and gods were different.  How was I Abram then?  And now?  My brother is died; my father now too. I have only just realized that I am adrift.  Not anchored in any place.  This no-place is is not in the land of my birth nor the land we had traveled toward.  We had settled here, and I had thought we had built here a stable shelter.   But now I look up and see broken walls unroofed, open to the sky.  Now I look around and see the  ground strewn with stones.  Maybe events have tumbled the building; or maybe we never had built the edifice we had imagined, the shelter we had thought we lived in.

Gather myself.  Clear the rubble into some sort of order.  Set the larger stones here; the smaller pieces there.  Maybe a new foundation can be laid.

Gather myself.  Or feel myself gathered.  Comes a voice.  A call.  The beginning of a new wondering.  Maybe the stones are not for building a home with walls and a roof.  Maybe the stones are for laying a road.  

I am Abram.  Called by God to get up and go. I am Abram, responding to God’s promise that through the process of wondering, and of wandering, I will arrive at the place that is called home.

* Genesis recounts Terah’s death immediately before the LORD’s calling of Abram, as if the two events occur in this order.  Elsewhere, Genesis lists the ages of Terah and Abram from which information it can be calculated that Terah did not die until well after Abram had left Haran.  But the text on its face suggests a chronological narrative:  ‘Terah died in Haran. Now the LORD said to Abram ….’  So that is how I read it this week.  See ‘Abraham and Sarah:  Genesis 11-22,’ in Narrative in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford Bible Series) Oxford University Press; (1993) by David M. Gunn and Danna Nolan Fewell.

Choosing to Choose

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…

Deuteronomy 30:19; from Deut 30:15-20, lectionary text for Sunday Feb. 16, 2020

Choose.  That is the imperative I respond to tonight.  Choose.

The full phrase is actually ‘choose life.’  It is embedded in a longer passage.   Moses has been talking for 30 chapters, all the way from Deuteronomy 1, reminding God’s people of all God has been and done for them, of all they are called to do and to be in relation to God.  Here, in his culminating peroration, Moses sets out the dual possibilities (prosperity and adversity; blessings and curses; life and death;  Deut 30:15, 19), and crowns it all with this exhortation to choose life.

Choose, Moses says.  The imperative resonates.  Choosing is required of me.  But I am tired.  Bone-tired.  Too tired to look again at the text, too tired to ponder it more, too tired to write what I wonder.  The exhaustion is real, drags at my body, dulls my understanding.  I need some undemanding activity.   Reading words is too hard.  Wording thoughts feels impossible.

Choose, Moses says.  As if choosing is possible for me.  As if I have agency.  For all that I feel bound in my tiredness, burdened by To-Do’s yet undone, constrained by choices already made and carried out that have led to me here and, yes, tired.

Choose, Moses says. There is no better time than now — there’s no other time than now.  You were tired yesterday and, honestly, you’ll be tired tomorrow too.  Yes, you are living the sum of so many other choices already made — but so is everybody.  Every single one of us has it so.  We live now with the choices made yesterday and a year ago and a decade before that; we live the result of the choices that we made in those years past and the choices others made as well.  It is a complicated web that connects and ties us all.  And it is a web still being woven, threads untied and re-tied and new-spun into wider weaving.

Choose, Moses says.  Choosing is required.  Choosing is possible.  The past has happened, yes, and I am here, and I am tired.  Yet I am not ended, the web is not closed, the future is not determined.  There is the next choice to be made and walked on into and through, and then the next after that.  My agency is limited.  The ultimate sum is beyond my control.  But I can choose some of the addends.  I can choose to resist exhaustion that comes so close to hopelessness.  I can choose to persist in intentional effort.  I can choose to read and to ponder and to write my wondering.

Choose, Moses says, granting me choice as both duty and as gift.

And, choosing the text, I find that my exhaustion recedes that bit.  There’s energy gained as well as spent (none wasted) in the work of wording my wondering, energy come from imagining — hoping — that my words truly are resonating at the same frequency as the words of the text.

The energy ebbs.  The tiredness is true, after all.  But the effect of the resonance lingers even as I save the document, close my computer, ready for bed.  I am allowed and able to choose.

Choose the work.  Realize the life.