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. 

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).

Open the Door

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.  Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Isaiah 58:1-9a; lectionary text for Sunday, February 9, 2020

A voice like a trumpet wails shrill and harsh.  I read God’s anger at the powerful for their abuses.

Yet in the LORD’s “as if” I imagine not some rapacious ruler but a greedy child who cannot understand why his demands are not met:  I said please; I asked nicely.  A child trying to play the game without having read the rules through; mistaking both the object and the process.  A child stubborn in his mistake, insistent on his own way, loudly protesting and beating his pudgy fists against the door.  A child hauled from an expectation that all would be well into a world where it is not.  Where the cry is unheard; the door is left shut.

Why?  Why?  Why?

I show up on Sunday.  I give of my gifts.  I’m courteous to the grocery clerk, let the car merge in front of me, throw my litter into the proper bin, volunteer at my children’s school.

The trumpet-voice is tempered. Flailing fists are caught and firmly held, hard questions asked.

For whom are your good manners truly given?  Are your gracious courtesy, your public tidiness, your carefully-calendared exertions owed only to yourself?  Do you give because of who you are – or because of who I Am?  Do you worship your own humility – or My glory?

The trumpet rings clear again.  This is the end of it all; this is the way to that end:  love God and love your neighbor – love God by loving your neighbor – love your neighbor because you love God.  With your bread and your clothing and your home.  With your heart.  With yourself.

Now the trumpet sings infinitely gentle. It is all one: end and beginning and way.  Love. 

I love you.  My light shall dawn upon you; my glory will be given you; I will always be with you.  

Stop pounding on the door as if it is locked.  Turn the handle. See?  It opens. Won’t you come in?

Here I am. Here I am.

*originally written Feb 2011

Telling Stories

Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the LORD has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD.”

“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:1-8; lectionary text for Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020

Our larger family gathered mid-January this year, a delayed Christmas reunion.  The house grew full of bodies and of voices and the good smell of food.  We talked and calculated and realized with some surprise that it had been a few years since all five grown siblings had been in the same place at the same time.  We shared news of job changes, house moves, graduations, school and sport accomplishments.  And then — almost as if that catch-up was but ground-clearing — as ever we do, we found ourselves telling the stories that we always tell, stories of hilarious catastrophe, not forgetting the one that culminates with one sibling saying ‘Superba by Hobart!’ while another laughs herself to tears. It’s as if those old stories are some necessary touchstone.   We need to retell them to renew ourselves in relationship.  So that we can tell new stories to each other, together.

Stories.  Accounts.  Narratives.  Words strung together into meaning.  I’ve been thinking again how much they matter.  I try to tell one person about another and I can offer lists of adjectives — ‘She is this … or this other’ — but it’s the story I can tell about an experience shared that tells so much more.  The mother of one of my friends was someone profoundly interested in other people and their stories.  When introducing one person to the other, she offered each acquaintance to the other as if offering a treasure, something precious and profound — trusting that each would be enriched by knowing the other, by learning something of their story.  

And so I come back to this Micah text.  It starts with a dispute form — a call to rise and plead your case, a call to creation to hear the LORD’s controversy.  It ends with the beautifully simple summons to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly.  And it pivots on the evocation of story retold and people reminded.  Reread those middle verses:  ‘I brought you up from the land of Egypt … I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.’  Remember Balak and Balaam, from Shittim to Gilgal… This is not a list of the LORD’s actions, a drumbeat of debts accrued by Israel.  This is a litany of remembrance.  Remember the story of Exodus?  Remember how Moses and Aaron confronted Pharaoh?  Remember how Miriam led the people in song?  Remember how Balak tried to have God’s people cursed and Balaam refused?  Remember how God invited the people to be ‘for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation’?  Remember, remember, remember.  

This is a treasure,  precious and profound.  Remember the stories.  They are where the text turns.  We cannot get from dispute and controversy to renewed commitment without going through the stories because the stories are how we learn and relearn ourselves in relationship.  So that we can tell new stories, to each other, with the LORD.

This is a treasure.  Picture it so:  the LORD’s arms outstretched and cupped in God’s hands, held with infinite care and offered with generous grace, all the stories of God in relationship with God’s people. We are enriched by these stories. We are brought into ourselves. Doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God.

Red Sky in Morning

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Isaiah 9:2-4; from Isaiah 9:1-4, lectionary text for Sunday January 26, 2020

The days I teach, I set off for work in the dark, and by the time I arrive it is day.  Driving through earth’s quotidian turning is one of the consolations of having to wake so early.  How does the light come?  I close my eyes and try to see it on the insides of my eyelids.

How the light comes.  First the sky begins to glow.  Night’s midnight blue takes on a suffused purply hue then softens to lighter shade.  When the sky is clear, light’s coming shows as a nuanced series of variations as the sky shades from mystic violet to indigo to chambray, each shift so fine that I realize the series only when I recognize the sum of them:  Oh, the sky is blue.  It is different when there are clouds.  The sun begins to light them even before it has risen above the horizon.  Still itself unseen, the sun tints the clouds raspberry and coral and peach and lemon.  The clouds catch fire, flare with amazing colors, become the sun’s heralds, proclaim coming.

‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’  

It is the clouds that make light’s coming so wonderful, that blare it with such fanfare.  Yet they proclaim not just light but storm. ‘Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.’   

‘For the yoke of their burden and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.’  This is a battle image.  Gideon and his 300 and the LORD’s triumph of blaring trumpets and flaring torches and shouts and clamor.  [Judges 7]  It is not a peaceful dawning but victory sounding.  God breaking apart the enemy — loudly, violently, irrefutably.

I’m not sure I like that part.  In my mind’s eye I was watching for the light.  Now suddenly I’m waiting for a storm, listening for the wind to rise, to hear trees creak loudly as they sway, and to wonder what will happen if one comes crashing down.  

I have walked in darkness.  I pray for light.  For the bars that weight shoulders to be lifted away, rods wielded by oppressors to be broken.  But I am aware that privileges of my life burden others, and structures that sustain me oppress others.  The rod broken by the LORD may be to me both freeing and jarring.  (What did Israel do once fear of Midian no longer united them?  Was the rejoiced-over spoil enough to divide or did the plunder cause new division?).  

I have walked in darkness.  I pray for light.  Light to break the dark and light to show the brokenness in the day.  Light enough to see by and light enough to have my sight transformed so that I can rejoice and not resent, can greet it with without fear but with exultant joy.

I pray, LORD, that I may pray for light.  I pray, LORD, that I may welcome it as it comes.

Spending Strength

Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.”

And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the LORD, and my God has become my strength – he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Isaiah 49:1-6, excerpt from Isa 49:1-7, lectionary for January 19, 2020

Another week in one of Isaiah’s ‘servant’ texts.  Last week the LORD was the speaker.  We read and saw God as if gesturing to an audience, saying, ‘See — my servant!’ (Isa 42:1), then turning and addressing the chosen one directly:  ‘I have called you … I have given you’ (Isa 42:6).  This week the servant — first spoken of, then spoken to — becomes the speaker:  ‘The LORD called me … said to me …’ (Isa 49:1, 3).  Not every word is the servant’s own — the LORD is quoted — but the LORD’s words are recited in the voice of the servant, who recalls and repeats words first addressed to him:  ‘I will give you as a light to the nations …’. 

But whose voice is the servant’s?  

I wonder this every week as I read.  What license do I have to take the words of scripture as addressed to me, an individual?  How can I appropriate them to my own need when they were spoken to and for and gathered by a community of faith?  Should I not always search the words of the Bible for the Word of the LORD given to the collective, God’s guidance to the public ‘We’ of the community, persons gathered across space and time, not just the personal ‘I’?  

In whose voice — for whose need — should I read?  In whose voice does the servant speak?  Is the servant a community (‘You are my servant, Israel’)?  Is the servant an individual (one formed in the womb to gather Israel in)?  How can Israel gather Israel?  Perhaps this puzzle is itself a cue to a solution?  After all, if the text can so persistently blend and blur the identity of community and individual so that the servant’s identity is more ‘both/and’ than ‘either/or,’ is that not license for me to do the same?  To say this text is to me and not only to me.  To say I can only understand it to the extent I can read my own life through its lens — and it through my own life.  And to say it can only be understood to the extent that it is read and lived in community.

The curve encompassed by this passage is experienced by individuals and by communities:  the conviction of failure, of having spent one’s strength to no avail.  Is that not an implicit disappointment in the LORD who had called so beguilingly in the first place?  

(My mouth made like a sharp sword; my face flint-firm; my stance solid on a sure foundation — Wait! It is wobbling underfoot! I throw out my arms to regain my balance.  And I wonder anew.)  

Read the arc of it how you will:  individual or community. Both pursue calling. Both make decisions about missions and buildings and relationships. Both look up to wonder if they/we/you/I are adrift after all, somehow off-target to the understood goal.  Both ask for what has that strength been poured out?  

This wobble — the speaker’s worry that labor has been wasted — is where the text turns, the arc sharpens.  In v.4 the servant mourns his strength all spent; in v.5 the servant claims God his strength — and in this renewed sense of relationship and possibility (not just God calling the servant ‘mine’ but the servant using the possessive pronoun of God) — comes a new insight.  The servant’s fear of failure is borne of mistaking a waypoint for the end goal.  The servant Israel has thought in terms of Israel alone.    The servant (he/I/you/we) was focused on this particular and mistook it for God’s whole.   But the LORD says Oh, Israel is too light a thing — I am sending you to the world.  To the world.

Is that the lesson?  It is too slight a thing for me to gather just myself (for a community to consolidate just its own existence) — yet even that too-small burden is beyond my capacity.   Stop spending my own strength.  Spend, instead, the strength of the one who called me and formed me and gave me to go.  To the world.

And in being given, and going out, may I find myself (may you find yourself; may we find ourselves) gathered in with all the nations, as God’s salvation reaches the ends of the earth.

Holding Hands

Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Isaiah 42:5-9 (excerpt from Isa 42:1-9, lectionary text for Sunday, January 15, 2020)

My route home from work passes within a few blocks of an elementary school.  A florescent-vested crossing guard monitors the six lanes the students need to cross.   A woman comes with a small child.  They walk hand in hand, step in step.  A daughter holds her father’s hand.  His grip seems inadequate for her desiring:  she takes her other hand and carefully folds her father’s fingers around her own, tightening his clasp.  A woman calls to a child who is lagging behind.  He is studying the ground — that stick there is very interesting — and shows no conception of the passage of time, the need to get across the road, or of any next thing to be done.  She calls again, and holds her arm behind her, hand outstretched, and the child trots up and extends his own and she latches hold of him.  He seems still preoccupied with the various excessively interesting details of the world all around, but as her hand takes hold, his own seems also to respond and grasp.  She holds him, and he holds her, and the two of them cross.

‘I have taken you by the hand,’ the LORD says.  My own hand opens.  I study it as if seeing it anew.  ‘I have taken you by the hand.’  Called, yes — that’s a church word for vocation.  Called and righteousness and keeping and covenant.  All church words.  But not only — not even first — words for use in a sanctuary on Sunday.  Words for everyday.  Words for crossing the street.  Calling.  Taking hold.  

The LORD calls and not only stretches out his arm, extends his hand for my own to hold (the parent not looking behind but waiting for — expecting — the feel of the smaller hand inserted into her own), but the LORD takes hold of my hand.  The LORD grasps.  The LORD holds on to me.  Do I need to carefully curl God’s fingers more closely around my own fist or is God’s clasp already close enough for comfort and strength?  How do I feel God’s hand holding mine?  How do I reach to hold on to God’s?

Looking at my own hand, my own palm.  Fingers curl sightly inward when my hand is at rest; forming a slight hollow, a curve, within it.  I stretch out my arm and reach and grasp my Bible with my hand.  I feel the texture of the cover, the slight heft of its whole within the curve of my palm.  Jesus was handed the scroll and unrolled it (Luke 4:17).  Jesus held God’s word in his hand.  I hold God’s word in my hand.  I open and touch the smoothness of the page with my finger.  Let my eyes rest, again, on the tiny black type.  I am reaching for God’s own outstretched hand.  I am taking hold.  I am held and kept and pulled along (that little boy!) into God’s next new thing.

‘I am the LORD,’ God declares.  ‘My glory I give to no other,’ God proclaims.  But my hand I give to yours, God promises. And you, God says, I give to the work that we shall do together:  open eyes, invite light.  Hold my hand.  It’s time to cross.

Arise, shine…

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;

but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around;

they all gather together, they come to you;

your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. 

Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice,

because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 

Isa 60:1-5; from Isa 60:1-7, lectionary for Sunday, Jan 5, 2020

This has been a burdened season — not without its moments of connection, even joy — but overall heavy.  Nor did the turn of old year into new do much to lift the weight of it.  Our daughter re-capped the past few days:  Jan. 1 ‘Happy New Year!’; Jan. 2 ‘Australia’s burning’; Jan. 3 ‘World War III’s begun.’  The specter of international conflict seems to be solidifying as we watch.  National news reports more racial and anti-Semitic violence.  Nor let us forget presidential impeachment voted but not yet (if ever?) tried.

I spend New Year’s Day in the Isaiah text.  I just read it, first.  Read it with my eyes.  Form the words with my lips.  Try to hear them in my mind.  The first line sings to me in choral crescendo — I can see the singers increasing their volume, lifting voices and shoulders and faces in joy.  The first line sings to me celebration.  And maybe, I think, that is right.  All those singers rejoicing in the season, in the Christ Child born, in the Magi coming, in the gifts presented.  ‘Arise, shine!’ the singers sing with heady energy — already risen, already aglow — as if what they sing is the lyric of their own shining delight.  As if they sing to share their gladness, to invite others — me — into it:  you, too, may know; you, too, may rise as we do!   But that is not the prophet’s lyric.  The song is not of joy-attained, the chorus of the already-glad inviting me to listen, even perhaps to sing along.  The song is of joy-promised.

‘Arise, shine,’ the prophet urges a woman.  The imperatives are singular, feminine.  The ‘you’ throughout the text (‘the LORD has risen upon you’; ‘your light’; ‘your eyes’; ‘your sons’) is grammatically the same:  singular, feminine.  The woman addressed is not yet risen, nor yet shining — else she would not have to be summoned to it.  The woman addressed is aware of the darkness.  She needs news of the light.

‘Lift up your eyes and look around’ the prophet urges.  Now my mental picture changes.  No longer the choir triumphant (perhaps a bit smug in its own gladness?) but a woman weighted with grief.  Her shoulders are slumped.  Her head is bowed.  What she sees is the ground.  Within the book of Isaiah, it is ground that’s been trampled by war.  Within the book of Isaiah, it is ground to which some survivors have returned but found that the dear-claimed earth did not bring forth for them new and abundant life but remained a patch of briars from which hard-scrabble living had to be wrested.  Within the book of Isaiah, it is ground over which the community itself squabbles, hacks itself into divisions, re-opens injuries already suffered, revives the cut of the expected future lost.  This is the one to whom the lyric is addressed.  This woman with her burden so heavy that her  body is bowed under it.  Within the book of Isaiah, she is Zion, the holy city, the daughter-people.  Outside of it, she is any of us weighted and aching, all of us waiting in the dark.  

‘Arise, shine.  … Lift up your eyes and look around.’  The lost future grieved is returning to you — not in the same form as before (the sons and daughters, so grown they are!) — but a future sprung new.  

‘Arise, shine’ — it is possible, not of your own light, but of the LORD’s.  God’s glory risen (60:1).  God’s glory soon to appear (60:2).  There’s a tension between the tenses — has the LORD’s glory already come or is it yet to be?  Yes, the text says.  The tension recurs in v.4:  ‘they all gather together’ is already to be seen; even as the coming and being carried is yet to be.  Maybe that paradox of disparate tenses is what draws the woman in and on towards the possibility of joy:  ‘you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice’ (v.5) — the action couched as yet incomplete, but promised sure.  And because of that promise, of the interplay of already and not-yet, the woman to whom the whole is sung can see and hear and know the pattern well enough to anticipate and live its next turn.  Rounding back to the beginning of the text, she can get up and she can shine because shining already is, because now she can see the dawn even before the sun has risen above the horizon.

‘Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice’ (v.5) promises the NRSV.  The literal Hebrew says your heart — her heart, my heart — will tremble and be opened wide.  Grief curls us inward.  There is risk to opening an already-aching heart.  Hence the trembling perhaps.  It comes of hope, of amazement: that this wonder should be!  But the text proclaims it is. And I want to see it come.  Not to wait until it taps me on my shoulder and bids me rise, but to straighten as I can at the sound of the news, to lift my head and look to the horizon for the light that is coming and the light that has come and the glory appearing, even now.

‘Arise, shine.’  

Night Hearts

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.  For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Isaiah 35:4-7; excerpt from text for Sunday December 15, 2019, Isaiah 35:1-10

The sound blares, breaking the night.  The dark that had come as a comforting unity as soon as I turned off the lamp is split into bits.  I find myself standing beside my bed, phone in my hand, bare feet somehow colder than the bare floor, with no conscious recollection of how I went to vertical from prone.  It is not good news.  It never has been, these calls that come in the dark.  This time, at least, I am being told, not summoned.  I can return to my bed, which is still warm.  I can pull the covers over.  I can fall back asleep.  Except, of course, I cannot do the last.  Not immediately.  I am still too aware of my heart’s pounding.

‘Say to those of fearful heart,’ the prophet addresses the people.  The opening imperative is plural, ‘You, all of you, say …. ’  The once-removed addressees are plural as well:  all of those whose heart is hastening.  Those who need the word are multiple, yet they are one in the characterization of their shared heart.  It is not in the Hebrew, ‘fearful’:  the word used to describe the heart is different than the verb in the command not to fear.  Their heart is ’hasty,’ ‘swift,’ ‘rash,’ or ‘impetuous.’  (The alternate glosses come from other verses where the same verb is used.).  Their heart is racing.  Whether the news come is unexpected or long-dreaded or still only anticipated, not yet here, they find themselves standing in the cold dark, heart pounding, with no clear recollection of how they got there nor a clear vision of what comes next.  

The prophet gives them the latter, at least.  The prophet promises their God coming with ‘terrible recompense’ to save.  Rather, the prophet commands the people (‘You, all of you, say’) to say the word of saving.  Not just to save generically, generally, but to ‘save you.’  You plural.  You whose heart is racing in apprehension, in reaction, in fear.  Be strong.  Do not fear.  The prophet foretells sight and hearing, leaping with the height and grace of a deer, songs exultant rising to the sky.  The promise is wonderfully, deeply embodied — this salvation is not something away from this world but something that transforms our experience of this world, something that transforms the world itself.  The desert springs with water.  Burning sand becomes a pool.  Human and earthly reviving are woven in together, as if each — both — are necessary parts of the exact same whole.

The transformation has not come.  Not yet.  Nor does the prophet say that it has.  Eyes shall be opened; ears shall be unstopped.  Shall be so — surely so — just not yet.  But even to say it coming marks a change.  The prophet previously heard from the LORD regarding the people’s heart and eyes and ears:  the heart made fat, or dull, the eyes shut, the ears stopped (Isa 6:10).  Some 30 chapters on, that period of incapacity is coming to a close.  This heart is not dull, insensitive, unable to respond.  This heart pounds, races, in reaction to what has come.  The people are becoming again awake.  Awake again to know their need.  Awake again to given a word of renewal of sight and hearing and dancing and song, the desert itself rejoicing and the dry land made glad.  All creation redeemed by its creator.  Be strong.  Do not fear.

I don’t live in a desert.  And, in truth, the awareness of my own heart’s racing is (again) too new for a word of comfort to be heard, for the promise of saving to feel near.  But it matters, yet, to know that the word is said, that God’s purpose has turned from one phase to the next.  As if I and others might — in time — be turned with it.

I walk on the paved path by the creek.  Sometimes, the water seems glass-still.  But the water cannot be still.  This is a creek, not a pool.  Sligo flows to join the Northwest Branch, and together they run into the Anacostia which flows into the Potomac which joins the Chesapeake which itself flows into the ocean.  I look, and I see glass rather than motion.  But the water cannot be still.  There must be motion because this is a creek.  I have to stop walking to see it.  I have to stop walking and look a long while at the water’s glassy brown color and the leaves floating atop it.  Only when I myself have stopped walking and have looked and have fixed my sight on the leaves, then I begin to be able to see:  the leaves are moving; I can measure their subtle progress against the bank.  But I had to look long to realize it was happening all along. The word of the LORD is told in the motion of the water.

Yes, my heart is pounding.  Yours is racing too, for whatever night noise brought you awake, for whatever dread outcome has occurred in actuality or expectation.  It is awful.  And it is not the end.  It begins the summons of the LORD — God speaking to all of us, for none among the people (not even the prophet) have not known that fear, that grief, that ache.  So all of us are called by God to strengthen the weak hands, firm the feeble knees, and share the news with all of us — each other — we whose hearts race and flutter and pound in our chests:  Be strong, do not fear.  The LORD our God is coming to save.  The movement is subtle but it is sure.  You do not need to sing, not yet.  But know that — soon — creation itself shall sing for and with you.

Root and Branch

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.  His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

Isaiah 11:1-3; excerpt from Isaiah 11:1-10, lectionary text for Sunday Dec. 8, 2019

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” […] But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire

Matthew 3:1-2, 7-10; excerpt from Matthew 3:1-10, lectionary text for Sunday Dec. 8, 2019

When are we in God’s work as a dresser of trees.  How far along?   That’s what I wonder as I read these two texts together.  I am struck by the confluence of images and the dynamic possibilities between.  Isaiah writes of a shoot springing from Jesse’s stump, of a new branch growing from old roots.  Matthew recounts John the Baptist’s threat that ‘even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.’    Is God is the middle of hat-racking the bush that out of it a new branch might grow?  Or is God rigorously chopping at the very root, cutting down the fruitless tree to burn the wood?  Or are these perhaps the very same when:  is the ax John describes as lying there at the root, set on the ground for work yet to come, as if this ‘even now’ is not yet the last moment.  In which case, what is the next now to anticipate?  And what do we do with this one?

To ‘hat-rack.’  A verb I did not know until a few years ago when Paul so extensively chopped back our overgrown holly bush that only bare branches remained, branches looking unusually naked without their usual dress of leaves and berries.  Not a single leaf was left; nor any twigs.  Not even a single leaf.  Surely the bush was as good as dead.  But it was not so.  The sturdily bare branches broke out in bouquet-like clusters of twigs; leaves reappeared, as dark and glossy a green as any of those that had been hacked off; the bush’s life seemed revived.

Jesse’s stump is no shrub, of course.  An oak is a tree which is felled, rather than hat-racked.  Yet now when I read Isaiah’s text the memory of that hat-racked holly shows through the primary image of the rough-cut stump.  Jesse’s stump is not desiccated and dead, with the new shoot an unexpected miracle, so much as the tree cut back to allow or encourage that new shoot to appear.  The branch is a promise not as a surprise.  It is springier than the old wood, and a slightly brighter color, and once it appears, the deep green leaves are soon to follow:  wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the LORD.

I have always read John the Baptist’s words as a description of God’s wrathful judgment: the ax already set to its work; the tree already being cut down; the end already begun.  But this year, I read Matthew’s text in conversation with Isaiah’s, and I realized the ax is ‘lying’ at the root.  It is not striking wood.  It is not being swung.  It is lying there.  Waiting.  It will be used, John says, to fell the fruit-less trees for burning.  It will be used to fell the fruitless trees.  So bear fruit, John urges.  Yes, John calls the religious leaders viper’s brood.  Yes, John speaks of wrath and of flame.  The gospel is not a gentle text.  It is violent in its urgency.  ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Bear fruit.  Bear fruit.  For the kingdom.

Because the shoot from Jesse’s stump has sprung, with the spirit of the LORD upon him.  But we are not yet in that peaceable kingdom that the prophet describes.  The wolf and the lion do not live peacefully with the lamb and the calf and the little child.  We do not even live peacefully with each other.  We hurt and destroy ourselves and our world, and the earth is not yet full of the knowledge of the LORD even as the sea levels are rising.  Isaiah’s vision is full of grace if it’s read just in itself.  But Isaiah’s vision is judgment when it is read against the world, when it is read against we who call ourselves the body of the branch which sprang from Jesse’s stump.

Then I go back to the violence of John the Baptist’s proclamation and hear that the divine dresser of trees is not done.  Even now the ax is resting at the root.  Maybe it will cut back the fruitless branches for new growth.  So that we may do as we can, as we are charged to do.  Bear fruit.

The shoot from the stump of Jesse has sprung, the branch has grown out from his roots.  The kingdom of heaven has come near.  Even now.

Bear fruit.