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 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 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.  I see 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 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 may be full of grace when it is 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.  

The LORD is my shepherd

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD.  Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.   Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.  I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.

Jer 23:1-4; excerpt from lectionary text for Nov. 24, Jer 23:1-6.

I spent the week coming down with a cold, although I didn’t know it till Friday when it bloomed unmistakably and I realized what had been the problem of the prior days.  I also spent the week pondering the ‘wrong’ text — that is, the lectionary text for Sunday November 24.  I blamed the calendar mixup on whatever virus had been percolating, decided that the text was scheduled right for my life, and pondered it anyway.

The start of the week, I had been focused on the middle line of this passage, the transition where the LORD commits to shepherd the sheep.  Psalm 23 and John 10 are too familiar for me not to read this text in resonance with their rhythms.  Nor will I resist the comfort of the LORD God-self being my Good Shepherd, whose voice I know and follow to pastures green and waters still.

Yet by week’s end, it wasn’t just my cold that had bloomed.  As national investigations moved to a new phase, the opening verses loomed larger in my mind.  Their renewed-to-me prominence sharpened my sense of the shocking premise of the central promise.

Jeremiah is not speaking just of the last kings of Judah in the opening verses.  Jeremiah is speaking the LORD’s word against any ‘who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages’ (Jer 22:13).  The denunciation is scathing.  ‘Are you a king because you compete in cedar?’ (22:15).  Kingship is not living in a ‘spacious house’ — whether multi-winged and white or cedar-paneled and vermillion-painted (22:14) — but doing justice and righteousness, hearing the cause of the poor and needy (22:16).  The word of the LORD is against any who imagines that sheep exist just so that he can be shepherd and does not realize that he is shepherd because there are sheep to herd.

Except that, actually, sheep are gathered and led and watered for the sake of the shepherd.  Whatever may have been the wild origin of the family ovine, sheep were domesticated so that humans could benefit from their fleece and their milk and their meat.  In that sense, the sheep are meant to benefit the shepherd.  The crime of the leaders of Judah is that they imaged that the sheep were meant to benefit them; they did not see that their duty to the nation was their duty to the LORD.  ‘My flock,’ the LORD says, ‘sheep of my pasture.’  The flock — the kingdom — is not the possession of its leaders, to use as they see fit.  The flock is God’s own.  The leaders are merely stewards, charged to husband the flock they hold in trust for the LORD.  

What, then, accounts for the LORD’s commitment to shepherd the flock God-self?  The reference is relatively slight in this particular passage but recurs elsewhere.  God will shepherd God’s flock, seeking the lost, and binding up the injured, and feeding them with justice (Ezek 34:11-16).  For whose sake does God do this?  To whom are those sheep owed that the LORD — God whose arm rules, whose palm has held the waters and marked the heavens — should lead them so gently, and carry the lambs (Isa 40:10-12)? 

It is easy enough to juxtapose the news and the word.  The world is still rife with leaders who imagine the position is about power rather than about service, who do not recognize the obligation owed to others.  The LORD has a word for that.  But that word reveals a puzzle:  that the LORD should so dearly desire the proper shepherding of God’s flock as to undertake shepherd work.  Does the LORD owe this to God-self?  (Far be it from you, the Judge of all the earth, to act unjustly, Abraham argues with God in Gen 18:25; Remember the oath you swore by your own self, Moses reminds the LORD at Sinai in Exod 32:13.). Does the LORD owe it to us, made in God’s own image and likeness, enlivened by the LORD’s own breath (Gen 1:26-27; 2:7)? Or is this but the same obligation, twice-stated:  the LORD shepherds the sheep not only because we are God’s own possession but because in some way we are part of God-self, God’s children, first-born and dearly-beloved (Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1; John 1:12).  Love the LORD your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, God commands (Deut 6:4-5; Mark 12:29-30).  Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18; Mark 12:31).

Maybe the LORD shepherds us because God loves us as we are to love our neighbors, as God loves God’s own self:  with all God’s heart and mind and soul and strength.  Maybe the LORD shepherds us as invitation into God’s own love, for the sake of ourselves and of each other and for God’s sake too.

Habakkuk and the Purple Crayon*

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.  O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?  Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.  So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous– therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.  Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.  For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.  Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Lectionary Text for Sunday, November 2, 2019

Why write?  

I don’t mean why think, or why wonder, or why put those thoughts and wonderings into words.  I mean, having managed to word the thoughts, why write the words?

Why ‘write the vision’?  Why ‘make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it’?

Sometimes, of course, it’s the writing that forms the thinking.  It’s the discipline of putting words on the page (or screen or tablet) that disciplines inchoate imaginings into clear question or answer or insight.

But what of those other times?  What when you’ve already wandered around the neighborhood murmuring aloud, rehearsing the wondering variously and thoroughly?  When you don’t need the writing as aid to thinking, why write?  What is gained, or changed, when the vision is written?  The spoken word is powerful, of course, but it dissipates.  The vibrations hang on the air long enough to hit the ear, and then they are gone.  The word lingers in memory, maybe, but memory is a chancy thing.  It shifts.  It loses.  And it doesn’t always remember what it has lost.

‘Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.’  

What is this vision that Habakkuk is to write?  Is it anything more than the phrase ‘the end’?  Is it the rest of chapter 2?  Might ‘the vision’ be the prophetic book itself which, after all, refers to itself as ‘the oracle’ (or ‘burden’) that the prophet ‘saw.’ So many words of sight and observation then follow:  ‘Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble?’ the prophet cries out to the LORD.  ‘I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,’ the prophet speaks, as if to himself.  Having seen the slackness of the law, the perversion of justice, the prophet sets himself to watch for the LORD.   

Maybe Habakkuk writes the vision because he cannot not know what he views without putting it to words.  Maybe Habakkuk writes the vision to fix what he sees, to resist the possibility of time dulling the gaze, shifting the vision in a sort of incremental creep.  No, this is not the law, Habakkuk protests, this is slackness.  No, this is not justice, Habakkuk writes, but its perversion. 

‘Write the vision…’  Inscribe it on a tablet.  Put it outside yourself.  Make it a material thing.  Turn it over and around in your hands, look at it from all sides, then hand it along to the appointed time to come.

Maybe Habakkuk writes the vision because I cannot see what he has seen without reading his words.  

I read his vision writ plain, and the ‘I’ inscribed on the tablet becomes the reading me.  Habakkuk’s sight becomes my own.  No, this is not the law, I protest, this is slackness.  No, this is not justice, I proclaim, but its perversion.  I ascend to the rampart that Habakkuk’s pen has inscribed.  Habakkuk’s pen has written this watchpost into being.  The lines of his script pile up like stones hewn and stacked into a tower.  My legs ache with the climb.  I put my hands on the stone ledge and lean forward to look out the window and down.  I have a different perspective from up here.  What lies at the base shows smaller but also more clearly.  Then I lift my head and gaze at the horizon.  I watch for the LORD.  I expect an answer.  I will wait to see what word comes.

There is still a vision.  I will see it.  Take in my hand the tablet on which it is written so plain that a runner can read it, so lasting that another can climb it.  Write it anew, build it into being, and hand it again along.

* Apologies to Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955)

The Eaten Years

O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.  The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.  I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.  You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.  You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.

Joel 2:23-28,  excerpt from Joel 2:23-32, lectionary text for Sunday October 27, 2019

I’ve been spending the week in this text, yet only now, as I open my computer and paste the biblical passage into a file in order to write electronically some of what I’ve already written in my journal, do I realize I’d mis-read, or mis-remembered, the line that has rung in my head these past days.

‘I will repay you for the years consumed,’ was the line I had recalled.  

A literal consumption within the book of Joel, of course:  the crops all eaten by a plague of locusts (1:4), the destruction and ensuing famine lamented in detail in the verses that follow.  I was going to mention the locusts, of course, duty-bound to make plain the book-context of the particular line.  But here, they already are.  The hopper, the destroyer, the cutter, eating the years.  It was the eating that had hooked my mind, the image of years consumed — the implication of years wasted, with no growth to show for the time.  

The text — the mis-remembered line — is in my mind as Paul and I go to the boat.  Clouds hang low, but rain isn’t due in till later.  We will try.  Pack the lunch, make the drive, stow the bags aboard.  Paul starts the outboard as I stand ready to cast off the bow lines.  Is that a tiny drop of water on my neck? I wonder as Paul straightens and says in disgust, ‘Is it raining?…’. We stare at the water.  It is dotted with circular ripples.  Rain. We’re still for a moment.  Frustrated.  Why do we even try?  Do we just go home?  The drops are tiny, the fall light.  Don’t read them as the day’s refusal of our plans.  Pull on windbreakers, cast off lines, and enter upon the water.  The sky is overcast and the light dull, but the water gleams — a strange silvery shining.  Hoist the mainsail, pull out the jib, set a course.  The breeze is steady and out of the northeast so we sail straight down the river and out its mouth into the Bay.  Out past the fish trap, far enough out to see Thomas Point Light, and across to Bloody Point, and both ends of the Bay Bridge.  This isn’t productive time, I think, but it is not a waste.  It is a grounding.  A re-grounding of self and soul.  Water and wind and the light glinting so wonderfully weird.

We have to tack back when it is time.  Criss-crossing the wind in wide angles in order to return from whence we came.  The breeze is slighter when we regain our own river.  The pace of our passage slows.  The wind is shaped by the land, flows in odd currents.  We tack across to make a mark, and even as we do, the wind direction shifts, so that we find ourselves sailing back downriver, losing the distance we had gained.  A short loss, really, lasting only the necessary angle till we could tack back again, resume our progress towards the goal of home.

But the text still in my head.  Time consumed, eaten, wasted.  That stretch sailing backwards not waste really, but adjustment in response to circumstance — the wind shifting even as we were shifting course.  But there was the surprise and slight dismay of finding ourselves for that moment going in an unanticipated, unintended direction.  Years eaten, non-productive, lost.  Lost to circumstances (the wind shifting mid-tack), lost to negligence, lost to fault. 

Yet maybe only non-productive within a particular window, and that window too small to accurately reflect the whole.  That tack is but a short stretch, and even that wrong way takes us across at an angle that allows return.  I cannot see what the end point of any particular angle may be, so I must remember that the sail is not over.  The story is still unfolding.  Even the becalmed stretches (so frustrating at times — the resentment of being powerless to command the wind only slightly tempered by awareness that we have a motor, after all) — even these not ‘waste’; it is only that their end is unknown.

Conversations with friends.  Conversations in community.  How to measure productivity in maternity or scholarship or ministry outreach?  How to measure the return on investment of time and energy and funds?  Society’s gauge does not capture the whole.

The book of Joel is not really depicting this sort of ‘waste,’ I know.  The locusts were sent in judgment, the loss real and the loss deserved.  The issue in Joel is divine punishment tempered in response to repentant plea, turning over into grace that stretches so wide as to heal the land, restore the harvest, refill the granaries — and the empty bellies.  ‘You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied.’  ‘My people shall never again be put to shame.’  That line — that promise — repeated.  It matters that much.  ‘My people shall never again be put to shame.’

The years were eaten.  Their emptiness was shame.  Now widen the frame.  That was then.  This is now.  The story continues to unroll.  The eaten years are wondrously repaid.  The shame of their emptiness is entirely removed.  And maybe — maybe — what had seemed a gap, a waste, a tack backwards that was unintended and undesired, proves to be a key re-angling of the route that allows passage forward, and home.

The LORD promises this and more:  I am in your midst.  Be glad.  Rejoice.  Praise God.

Reading Writing

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD.But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Jeremiah 31:31-34  (excerpt from lectionary text for Sunday, October 20, 2019:  Jeremiah 31:27-34)

How many cashmere sweaters does it take to fill a hole in the soul?

This is a trick question.  Cashmere does not fill the hole.  Cashmere covers it over, hiding it from sight and perhaps, for a little while, from mind.  There is comfort in that.  Passing comfort, to be sure, but no less real while it lasts.  My curser hovers over the ‘Buy now’ button.  No.  I will not buy.  Though the price has dropped.  Does that make it all right? How to read the signs?  My friend is a pastoral counselor and an indefatigable knitter.  If anyone can give me advice about the spiritual dilemma that is cashmere it is she.

How to read the signs?  She takes the question seriously, at least.  And (ever the good counselor!) does not give me an answer.  She nods recognition as I voice what I already realize.  It’s not really about the hole in my wardrobe (a mulberry-red cardigan would be useful).  I know.  By hearing me trace over the lines I’d already noticed, she’s made them plainer, easier for me to read, harder for me to avoid seeing.

Why all this about reading?  What does this have to do with Jeremiah, anyway, that fifth century prophet speaking protest and pain at the end of the nation, in the name of the LORD?  What does this have to do with this word of a new covenant coming?

Notice the particular newness that is promised.  The covenant is not new in content, nor even new in being written.  The newness is the direct locus of the writing:  the heart.

God has written the covenant before.  God’s own finger wrote two stone tablets at Sinai (Exod 31:18; Deut 9:10).  And after those first tablets were smashed in response to the people’s sin, after Moses had pleaded and God had resolved to restore relationship with the people, then God wrote the covenant a second time.  This time, God wrote on two stone tablets he commanded Moses to carve, in a process of divine-human cooperation (Exod 34:1-4; Deut 10:1-5). 

Is the new writing another instance of the same cooperation?  Moses provided the stone.  I provide the heart.  God provides the writing.

Then here as before, the writing does not end the process but begins it.  Keep these words in your heart, Moses had said.  Write them and recite them and wear them and talk about them (Deut 6:4-9).   Writing is written to be read.  Inscription is not itself the goal but the means towards knowing God, loving God with all our heart and soul and might (Deut 6:4).  God promises to short-cut the process, writing directly on the waiting heart, yet in support of that same goal:  ‘know the LORD.’  I learn God by reading God’s writing.

So, what is God writing on my heart, in my life?  How to read the lines that sometimes seem so faintly limned?  Look.  Listen.  Ponder.  Pray.  And ask not just my own soul but inquire of others’ visions and voices.  God does not write to end the process but to bring it further towards completion. 

Don’t try to cover over the hole.  Plumb it.  Realize, even, that it’s not a hollow, all the way through, but a channel.  It is the path of a diamond-point pen inscribing God’s will for my life, God’s love for my being.  God writes so that I may read and, reading, may know the LORD. 

So, read what God is writing.  Read even (especially) the words cut most sharply and deeply in my heart.  Read carefully.  Read closely.  Read in company.  Read life to have life.  Abundantly.  

This Unexpected City

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. […] Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; lectionary text for Sunday October 13, 2019

I am not the addressee of this letter.  Jeremiah is writing to the remaining elders and priests and prophets, all who had been taken captive by the king of Babylon and carried off into exile.  They had seen their city besieged, their temple plundered.  Jeremiah is writing to people who had been taken to a far-off land.  Who sat beside a foreign river and its strange trees and endured the taunts of captors who bid them sing (Psa 137).  Jeremiah is writing to people who defiantly had hung their harps on the willows and rejected the possibility of mirth, who resolutely set their hearts upon their loss as if to forget the city they loved would be to lose their hands, their tongues, their very selves.

To these people, Jeremiah writes the word of the LORD:  ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you….’  And in myriad pulpits in many cities, this text will be preached as a call to social justice in urban settings.  Seek the welfare of the city.  Support early literacy and food pantries and more.  In the city’s well-being, we will find our own.  

The LORD does require of us justice and mercy (Micah 6:8) and the rolling down of righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).  But I’m not sure urban renewal is the sum of this particular Jeremiah text.  It seems to me less about place and more about time.

Build houses, the LORD says.  Live and plant and eat and marry and multiply. 

Your old city is lost to you.  Your old life is over.  Leave it behind.  Leave behind, also, the future you had looked forward to.  Leave behind the expectation of living and working and growing old in the familiar place, in the shape that had held stable for so long you presumed it would hold longer still.  That particular future is as over as the past that had seemed to promise it.  Grieve as you need, but don’t get stuck there.  There is living yet to come, a future yet unfolding.  

Seek the welfare of the city where you are, for in its welfare you will find your own.

Wander the streets of this unexpected city.  Look closely at its waterways, its trees, the way its houses are built.  Taste its foods.  Try its words upon your tongue.  Realize that your old life is over, yes, but that you do not, after all, leave your past behind.  You bring it with you as you live forward, as you connect the old experiences and expectations with the new possibilities.  Grieve and bury that lost future, but refuse to lose yourself in the same grave.  Pivot into life.

The prophet did not address his letter to me.  But the LORD did.  I have not suffered the violent trauma of Jeremiah’s original audience, but I have grieved the loss of a foreseen future and I have found myself living in an unexpected present.  Hope — however reasonably and enthusiastically sown — has not flowered as I had anticipated.  So leave go not only of those sown seeds but of the expected color and scent of the flower.  Till the actual ground on which I stand.  Do this work.  Plumb these depths.  Savor this beauty, this purpose — however furtive or partial, it is here.  Give thanks for the grace that does come.  

Find my new future unfolding by living deeply in the particular here and now where I am found.

Seek the welfare of the city where I am.  In its welfare I will find — or be found by — my own. 

Demanding Hope

And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver.  I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. [And] In their presence I charged Baruch, saying,  Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. 

Jer 32:9-10, 13-15, excerpt from Jer 32:1-2, 6-15, lectionary text for Sept 29, 2019

I felt hopeful the other day.  Literally filled with hope.  An unexpected opportunity was offered; brief consideration revealed no apparent obstacles; I emailed my acceptance.  Hope then rose in me so swiftly and strongly that I had to push back from my desk, go for a walk outside.  The hope I felt was not primarily a mental attitude but a palpable force, a purposeful energy that had a physical effect.  Hope not as some vague possibility but as a power flowing through me, filling my body from spine to fingertips.  I could not contain its force.  I had to stand up and stride out, as if to dissipate some of the energy, so I could channel the rest to the challenge of the work.

And part of the effect of this experience was its revelation of how low my spirit and energy have been.  That I have been sitting slumped and did not even realize.  That I have lacked hope and did not know it missing.

Walk across the academic quad to the chapel.  Kneel in a pew and try to arrange my hope-jumbled thoughts into some sort of ordered line.  Look up at the blue of the rose window and try to pray and what comes to my lips is none of the set forms, psalmic or otherwise, but the line, ‘Hope is the thing with feathers — ’   Emily Dickinson’s poem is as good a prayer as any, I decide, so I look at the blue and move my lips and murmur the rest of Emily’s words as offering.  

I wonder, though, when I get to the poem’s end.  The poem ends as if with a breathed recognition that ‘never — in extremity — [hope] asked a crumb — of me.’  Jeremiah’s text — and my own experience — suggest another view.  Maybe hope does ask; maybe hope demands; maybe hope tugs you out to meet it coming. 

Jeremiah is imprisoned, after all, at a time when the city is under siege (Jer 32:1-2).  But the hope — the promise, the expectation — that there will be a time after this, a time when ‘houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land’ — demands of Jeremiah a literal investment:  he buys his cousin’s field notwithstanding the imminent destruction he has already proclaimed in the name of the LORD.  Because neither ‘now’ nor ‘next’ is the end.  There will come a time after this.  And that time to come cannot be just waited for, it must be prepared for.  Money must be paid.  A deed must be signed and sealed, it and its copy placed in a jar for safekeeping.  The writing does not anticipate the future; it secures the anticipation.  It will come.  It has been written — the energy of that promise has been fixed in recoverable form.  Jeremiah’s expectation will be realized; the promised, hoped-for, future will arrive.

Let my hope be that hope, I pray.  I ask of the LORD a hope that asks of me.  An expectation that expects of me, that engages me and energizes me and equips me to meet it coming.  That by setting out to meet hope, I may secure its realization, may recognize it when it comes even if it does not look as I expected.

I stand to go.  Stare boldly at the blue.  Make a last demand before I go back out into the day.

Let me write hope — putting all the vague, inchoate, desires and expectations into explicit words, physical form. Let me write hope that demands so that demanding hope may demand of me. Let me write hope that I may live hope.

A Song in Parts

My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick. 
Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:
“Is the LORD not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”
(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”) 
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.” 
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored? 
O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people! 

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

There’s not a lot of hope explicit in this text.  More accurately, there is none.  

There is grief and heartsickness and hurt and mourning and dismay.  The pitiful cry for expectations unfulfilled:  ‘harvest is past, summer is ended, and we are not saved.’  A longing to be turned to a fountain so that constant weeping would be possible, that tears would be the speaker’s entire being.  All of that is stated, clear on the surface, no close-read parsing needed.  But of hope, there is none plain.

That said, there’s less plain about this text than the translation allows.  The very first phrase — that stark statement, ‘my joy is gone’ — varies between translations (JPS makes it a dependent clause, ‘When in grief I would seek comfort…’ ; NIV offers, ‘You who are my Comforter in sorrow…’).  The Hebrew is obscure.  Is it a a single word referring to lost joy — the flash of a smile now dimmed in grief?  Is it better read as two words, referring to healing foregone?  Is it actually a loan-word from Akkadian, a form of ritual lament known as a ‘balag’ sung over cities abandoned by their god/s?  (Really, the article on balag-laments was more interesting that you might suppose.)  

And — speaking of God — where is the LORD, anyway?  That question is explicitly posed.  But by whom?  The NRSV provides punctuation, periods and quotation marks and parentheses, but that punctuation is interpretation of the original, unpunctuated, text.  Defensible but not determinative.

Is it the query the cry of ‘my poor people’ (literally, ‘daughter of my people’)?  If so, is it a plaintive seeking after God — we’ve waited all summer, we’ve brought in the harvest, and still we are not saved?  Is it, instead, a smug certainty that God is present notwithstanding the multitude of offenses cataloged elsewhere, as if God’s presence is license to sin with impunity.

Is it the query of the LORD God-self — a rhetorical question as if to stress that God is in Zion, the king is in his city — thus intensifying the anguish and anger of the line that follows:  ‘Why have they provoked me to anger’ — as if the LORD stands in the midst of the city, palpably present, yet ignored by the people who throng after other images, desires, promises, and the LORD cries aloud, ‘Am I not here, among you, my people?  Why do you not see me?  Why do you pass by and not even look?’

And who is the ‘I’ of the passage, the one whose speech is not set off with quotation punctuation?  The one whose joy is gone, whose heart is sick, who mourns the ill and slain of ‘my poor people’ and would turn himself entirely to tears?  Is it the prophet?  Is it the LORD?  (The possessive ‘my’ could apply to either.)

These questions cannot be answered.  Any answer is partial, shifting.  As soon as parts in the dialogue are definitely defined — this speaker is the people, that speaker is the LORD — a shift in focus results in a different point of view, a different understanding.  Maybe that speaker is the people; this speaker is the LORD.  And that other one the prophet?

Maybe that’s the point.  That the passage is less prose discourse and more choral performance.  That the imprecise definition of parts and speakers is because the speakers shift and share the parts.  That both the people and God ask after the LORD’s presence.  That both the prophet and God are offended at the sin, heartsick for the suffering.  That each speaker interleaves with all the others; that all bear the burden of the lament.

Have you sung in a choir before?  Extended passages when voices cycle out and back again, as singers pause to breathe and resume singing, but the song as a whole continues to sound.  

Have you sung in a boat?  Singing to lift your spirits, to straighten your back and strengthen your arm so to steady your stroke?  Singing with others not only to raise a smile but to synchronize the rhythm as you paddle on longer than you knew you’d have to, longer than you knew you could?  

What if the LORD is in the boat with you?  What if the LORD is in the choir?  What if the LORD is singing alongside the whole ‘daughter of my people’ — strengthening the sound, supporting the note, not only building up the capacity of all the other singers but sustaining and expanding the very song itself.

Hope is not expressed in the text.  But hope may yet be standing at its center, wanting to be seen and turned to and joined.  Invert the question and sing the song:  the LORD is here.

The Contingency of Clay

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.  Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 

Jer 18:1-6, excerpt from lectionary text for Sunday Sept 8, 2019, Jeremiah 18:1-11

‘Just like clay in the potter’s hand…’. 

Usually I read this passage through the oracle that follows, concerning Judah and its evil, as if the visit to the potter’s house is entirely or only contained in the litany of ‘pluck up and break down’ that came first when Jeremiah first encountered the word of the LORD (Jer 1:10; see ‘Uprooting Anew,’ Aug 25, 2019).  I read and picture smashed crockery strewn about the workshop.  An image of destruction.

But it’s not.

Read the potter’s house as a parable.  Don’t reduce it to a simple proposition nor a single image.  Read the potter’s house closely and hear what is actually going on.  

There is no smashing.  There is not even any crockery — nothing has been fired yet, nothing is firm.  The vessel is yet becoming, yet being formed, re-formed.  The potter is working at his wheel.  The potter is reworking the vessel.  Rather, the potter is reworking the clay.  The clay is not yet a vessel, if to be a vessel is to be a firm, fixed, final shape, greenware or bisque.  The potter’s work is not yet final.  The state of the clay remains contingent.  And in that lies the hope.  The clay is yet pliable; the potter yet working.

What is the clay of me, of us, of the community?  What is intrinsic to my being?  How to know?  How to continually discover?

What of me is vessel, contingent, a shape that holds only for a time — that is meant to hold only for a time?

And how to give myself over to the potter’s hands and not to the vicissitudes of life.  Of course, experiences will form and trials may deform.  But the form mustn’t be fixed prematurely.  Even a form that was right for a time may not be meant for all time.  Yes, its reformation may feel like destruction — I liked my life that shape, loved it even — its revision a loss to be mourned.  The grief is real.  But that grief, too, must pass, along with the former, remembered shape.  If the potter is reshaping the clay, as seems good, then there will be a new form for a new time, a new shape for a new stage.  

Learn the qualities of the clay.  Learn the potter’s hallmarks — shown through the word, handed on in lives through time and today, signed in love and upwelling joy.  Study.  Learn.

The LORD is a persistent potter, reworking the clay as seems good.  

I am clay; my form still becoming.  That contingency, and God’s patient persistence, is my hope and my prayer for us all.