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.

Imaging Water

Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the LORD: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? […]

But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.  Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

Jer 2:4-5, 11b-13; excerpt from lectionary text for Sunday Sept 1, 2019: Jeremiah 2:4-13.

When first I looked at this text, I could not see myself in it.  It was about other people.  People who ‘defiled the land,’ who made it ‘an abomination.’  People who gave no thought for the morrow, for eternity, for true and lasting values, but sought to lose themselves in shallow pursuits, selfish pleasures.  (Obviously, I am apt excuse my own shallow pre-occupations and quick to notice others’.  And this text was about them.)

God’s people ‘went after worthless things and became worthless themselves’ (2:5).   They went after vanity and became vain, as the old King James puts it.  They went after delusion and were deluded, says the translation of the Jewish Publication Society.  The Hebrew ‘hebel’ means vanity, futility, something transient as a morning fog, emptiness.  God’s people went after emptiness and became empty.  They became what they pursued.

Surely this is not I, Lord.  I seek.  I strive.  I want to drink deep from you.

The I read the last verse.  And was transfixed at the image of God’s people digging cisterns.  Not garden spades turning over soft loamy earth.  Axes and chisels taken to stone.  Hard stone, non-porous, carved out to collect the precious water as it falls from heaven, and to store it for current and future need.  This is no light task but an arduous labor.  The hewing of pools.  Reservoirs cut into bedrock.  Back-breaking.  Necessary.  

I read, and I saw.  The people are not lazy or hedonistic or inattentive to their true need — they know they need water, they know there’s a lack, and they are working so very hard to fix it.  Desperately striving, pushing themselves to exhaustion, and past … We hew out our cisterns.  And still we are parched — because the cracked cisterns won’t hold water.  

The trouble is not that God’s people mistook their need but that they thought to fill it by themselves, from themselves, within themselves.  As if they could hew out their cisterns, pour themselves in, drink themselves up, and be quenched.  I read that last verse, then went back and re-read the whole.  Stone emptinesses the people pursued, and they became as stone — hollowed out and empty and unable to hold water, broken and cracked as the cisterns they made.  As some mornings, some days, some weeks am I … 

Yet God had promised them — before ever they had even entered the land — God had promised the gift of cisterns they did not have to hew (Deut 6:10-12). What caused them to forget the promise, or to fear its failure?  Why did they try so diligently, so desperately to lean upon themselves instead of the LORD?

There’s a question repeated twice in this passage.  A question that was not asked.  The people did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD?’ (2:6).  The priests did not say ‘Where is the LORD?’ (2:8).  What if they had asked — and, asking, found?  What if instead of going after emptinesses, they had gone after the living water?  What if they had drunk deep of the LORD God?  What would they have been then?  What image would they have borne?

I’m aware of walking into a new season.  Of explicit transition. Of ongoing discernment.  And in a context that seems to be shifting all around me.  So many needs; so many unknowns.

Now, as ever, I must remember to ask the question.  Where is the LORD who brought me up out of Egypt?  Where is the LORD who led me in the wilderness?  Where is the LORD who planted me here, at this place and in this time, with these gifts and these needs?  Where is the LORD, the fount of living water?  

Look for the spring welling up in my life … rivulets rippling, sun-pennies glinting on the surface as it flows … waves growing greater.

The cistern I hew myself will always be inadequate, too small or cracked or otherwise insufficient.  But the LORD is an overflowing stream, living water poured into my cup, into me, brimful and running over, so to flow out from my particular life.

Look for the LORD, present and gracious, playful and powerful as living water.

And worship.  Wade into the water.  Drink deep from the LORD God.  Be continually filled and ultimately re-created in the image of living water.  Playful.  Powerful.  Transforming all it touches.

Uprooting Anew

Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” 

Jeremiah 1:9-10; part of lectionary text Jeremiah 1:4-10 for Aug 25, 2019

It is both a discipline and a gift to take what the lectionary offers each week and see what the text says in my context as well as its own.  I’ve set for myself the work of attending to the prophetic texts while they are given:  not reading all the lectionary selections and deciding between but defaulting to the word of the prophet, whichever prophet.  This week, though, the lectionary gives me — again — Jeremiah 1:4-10.  But I had that one already this cycle!, I want to protest.  Let me choose another!  

Except I’ve set myself this task not to choose but to accept.  And I really do love this passage.  So accept the invitation to ponder it again as a gift.  Maybe there’s a narrowness to so (relatively) prompt a return to the same words.  Or maybe there’s a wideness in clinging to the discipline’s constraint.

So.  Jeremiah 1:4-10.

Why do I love this passage?  Start there.  I love the interplay of the words, the relationship exchange:  the LORD gives ‘the boy’ as a prophet (1:5); the LORD gives God’s words to the prophet’s mouth (1:9).  

I love it for the intimacy:  ‘the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth’ (1:9).  The contact is physical:  hand meets mouth.  The words, even, seem palpable:  transferred via touch, taken between the lips, onto the tongue.  God’s word eaten (Jer 15:16).  Was it sweet as honey (Ezek 3:3)?  Did it flame as coal (Isa 6:7; Jer 20:9)?  ‘How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!’ sings the psalmist (Psa 119:103).

Suddenly, my lip cringes.  Honey is too sweet.  My tongue craves chocolate so dark that the depth of its taste rounds my mouth for hours.  

Read on.  The words that follow the given-word are not sweet.  Jeremiah is appointed ‘to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’ (1:10).  Four infinitives of destruction; only two of hope.  The bitterness of the first four verbs are only barely tempered by the concluding two.  The words tell that Jeremiah’s work will be gut-wrenching, pain-filled (20:8-9).  Not sweet.

I know something of the context of Jeremiah’s time:  violent destruction, deportation, and death, a traumatic end to the nation.  I know something of the context of Jeremiah’s scroll: oracles scribed and re-inscribed, edited and redacted and put into varying orders.  I know that the balance of four to two may reflect the trauma of Jeremiah’s context or even a later spirit softening the first bitter draft with the final phrase of possibility.

As I spend the week (again) with the text, it’s these last words — not at all sweet — that stay longest in my mouth, on my mind.  There’s a truth to them wider than the particulars of Jeremiah’s time.  A truth narrower, too, than the breadth of a nation’s existence, or end.  A truth that fits my life.  

Think of gardens or forests.  Or bookshelves or closets.  Or calendars.  Think of anything overgrown with weeds that choke the wanted plants, anything crammed too full of old things to leave space for possible new.  The ground must be cleared.  Of trash.  Of debris.  Of structures that oppress; patterns of practice or attitude that repress.  Even of tangible items and rhythms of living that were good and dear but whose presence crowds out any alternative.  (The curly-leafed ivy from my wedding bouquet which has overtaken the entire planter.)

I don’t mean to de-emphasize the violence of the prophet’s words, nor minimize the pain their proclamation portends.  To pluck up and to pull down.  To destroy and to overthrow.

But more and more I realize their necessity, notwithstanding the pain.  At some point, the garment can no longer be patched.  At some point, the pattern of life can no longer be tweaked and trimmed around the edges (whether ‘trim’ is read as addition or subtraction).  At some point, the only possible way forward requires first an action of relinquishment, an experience of death.

It is exhausting work just to persist.  Continuing on as ever we have because forever we have is so wearying that we can miss the way we are meant to take.  Or even seeing it, feel ourselves too exhausted to make the turn.  After all, we know how to walk this road.  One foot in front of the other.  There may be no great joy in it, but at least it feels familiar underfoot, it can be trodden without extra effort.

To push and push and push against a wall does not necessarily re-create it as a door.  Leave off the fruitless effort.  Step back.  Study again the way and all the weights you are bearing.  Hear the call to pluck up and pull down as invitation and as obligation, as discipline and as gift.  

What in my life must I carry on?  What in my life must I lay down?  What in my life must I let die?  What in my life must I uproot?  What cost of loss and grief must I risk, allow, even try to welcome?

What in my life may then be planted and built?  What of me may bloom new?