Plaint and Praise

Egg by Elizabeth Brown; photograph (c) Katherine Brown

And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of the word of God and because of the witness which they had. And they cried out in a great voice saying, “Until when, O Master, holy and true, do you not judge and vindicate our blood on the ones dwelling upon the earth?” And it was given to them each a white robe, and it was said to them that they would rest yet a little time until they would be fulfilled also their fellow-servants and their brothers the ones who were about to be killed as even they.

Rev. 6:9-11 (my translation; NRSV linked)

The lectionary text is Rev. 7:9-17, but I’m sitting with 6:9-11. I’m cheating on the lectionary because there is something in me that wants to protest with the souls under the altar and is not yet ready to skip ahead to praise. Besides, notes from Rev. 6 resonate in Rev. 7: white robes (6:11; 7:9, 14), slaughter and tribulation (6:9; 7:14), a great-voiced cry (6:10; 7:9-10). In Rev. 7, the multitude cry praise; in Rev. 6, the souls cry plaint. The protest comes first. The text itself requires it. The fifth seal must be opened (6:9) before the sixth (6:12).

The first four seals have called out four horses, white and red and black and pale green, and death rides the pale green horse (6:1-8). No additional rider nor convulsion of earth or sky occurs when the fifth seal is opened. Instead, the opening discloses something that seems to be ongoing, ‘tas psuchas’ are already underneath the altar. Psuchē, here translated ‘soul,’ is a term that suggests life and animate existence. Yet these psuchēs have been ‘slaughtered’ for the ‘word of God’ and ‘witness they had’ (6:9)

What ‘witness’ did they have? What does it have to do with the arc of the action: the insistent demand, the reported response? And why is ‘witness’ — of all of the details in this tight-packed pericope — the note that calls me, when I had been so sure ‘protest’ was the summoning tone?

Witness is a significant motif throughout Revelation, as noun and as verb, ‘testimony’ and ‘testify.’ John declares he ‘witnessed to the word of God and the witness of Jesus (1:2). This word and witness is the reason John is on Patmos (1:9), though it’s unclear whether John is there because of John’s witness to Jesus or the faithful witness (1:5) Jesus’ own witness. It’s unclear whether the souls were slaughtered because they witnessed to Jesus or because they held Jesus’ faithful witness. Maybe these two possibilities are the same, a holding fast to the one who is ‘holy and true’ (6:10) with such sublime assurance of that one’s faithfulness that great protest can be cried. ‘Until when…!’ The souls have suffered the gulf between earth’s justice and the Lord’s, yet they have glimpsed God’s reign and cannot un-see it nor refrain from saying what they have seen. They cry out for vindication as if vindication of them is vindication of God. God’s faithfulness can be demanded because God is faithful.

‘Until when!’ It’s not a request for information but an insistence on response. Response is given: a white robe and the instruction to ‘rest yet a little time,’ an implicit promise not only of nearness but of purpose in the reference to unnumbered others still to be ‘fulfilled.’ That word resonates with implications of an expectation satisfied, an end accomplished. The one called ‘holy and true’ is also ‘faithful witness,’ seeing and hearing the souls whose witness led to their slaughter, and insisting on response, insisting in response that fulfillment is near. And it comes — at least in part — through the tenacity of this mutual witness work.

I came to this text identifying with protest because I am tired. Each hopeful turn in time seems uncurled by the next day’s news. I came to this text identifying with protest because protest seems the dominant note in every day’s news — yet protest defined in bullhorn-blared absolutes that brook no dissent on either side. I know the exact same urge to cry out. I need another model of demand. I came to this text identifying with protest, and I leave the text carrying its insistence on identity in relationship, reiterated cry and reply. Faithful witness as protest that speaks to the other in expectation of answer; faithful witness as heeding protest and giving reply (the white robe, the promise words); faithful witness as protest that receives that response and moves forward through it towards an end, holy and true.

I witness to God’s righteousness not by blaring it trumpet-loud at another but by living it with another. In discussion and dialogue and, yes, argument, so long as it’s argument with, not at. I witness to God’s righteousness by living it in relationship with God’s word and with my neighbors’ words, a conversation that calls all of us to account for how we occupy the spaces in-between and how we acknowledge all the in-between-ness of our inherently partial discernment of God’s absolute being.

I witness to God’s righteousness as I navigate the present gap between word and world in the way of the faithful witness, who was dead and is alive: seeing and hearing and knowing this world, suffering its brokenness, loving it dearly, speaking and working to lift it toward life.
‘Until when, O Master, holy and true…?

First, we worship

Egg and photography (c) Katherine Brown

After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! […]

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,


“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,


“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
forever and ever!”

And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.

Rev. 4:1-2; 5:11-14 from Rev. 4-5.

The Thursday before Easter, I drove to church for evening worship. The sky was still light; the fading day was not yet done. Other cars were on the road, pedestrians on the sidewalk. I read their bags and backpacks as showing them headed home from work or school; maybe some — how many? — were headed to church themselves. I drove past a road down which lives one of my seminary-sisters, and I thought of her already, like me just then, headed to her own Maundy Thursday service. The thought made me smile: each of us in her own way an agent setting the stage for this act of underground theater, distributively produced, dispersed in myriad settings, with different music, liturgy, vestments, but a sameness of end: the lauding of Christ.

I’d text later, I thought, not just her but the group.

I received a text even before I’d sent one out; I saw it after worship, once I was home. Another of my seminary sisters sending prayers for strength for us all as we worked our way toward the cross and on beyond it. A flurry of texts then followed, as we each checked in, confirmed our companionship along the way and, so doing, confirmed our commitment to the way. The awareness of being accompanied helped firm our will and ability to keep on keeping on. The contact knit us more closely together and together knit us more closely to Christ as we renewed awareness of so many acts of worship in varied times and places, and the way our own particular parts fit within that heavenly whole.

Reading Rev. 4-5, I think again of the texts sent that Thursday night, texts sent Easter morning; a Triduum of text connection. John is on Patmos on account of the word of God and the witness of Jesus; John is a brother enduring in tribulation (Rev. 1:9). John is given a revelation to proclaim to the churches — not just a word of per-church instruction for each of the seven (Rev. 2-3) but a glimpse for all of ‘what must take place’ (1:1, 19; 4:1). Yet in order to see what will be, John must ‘come up here’ and see what currently is (4:1). What John sees is worship. Worship of the one on the throne (4:2-11). Worship of the lamb ‘standing as slaughtered’ (5:6-12). Worship of them both — the enthroned one and the slaughtered one — both worthy of acclaim for having created all (4:11) and for having ransomed from all, saints, for having made a kingdom and priests to God (5:9-10). John looks and John hears worship (5:11): ‘Every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing … blessing and honor and glory and might’ (5:13).

Every creature. I in my car on my way. The one who texted me on hers. All of us as we plan and prepare and vest and process … and log onto Zoom, and copy-paste the prayers in the chat … All of us in our own times and places and ways joining our worship into one, joining ourselves on earth with the ‘up here’ of heaven.

John is granted a glimpse of ultimate worship he may not have known he needed. But the one who called John knows what John needed — what we need to witness so that we can tell it on. In heaven a door stood open and summons was trumpet-sounded, ‘Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this’ (4:1). John must see and hear and recognize worship before John is able to see or hear or recognize anything of what is about to be. Worship tunes his perception. Worship tunes our own, reminds us of company, firms our will and ability to keep on keeping on, enduring through tribulation in hope, in trust of God’s promise, knowing that our earthly praise echoes and is echoed by that which was first and is last.

We worship because the LORD is God to whom our worth is due.

As we worship, we re-member ourselves as a kingdom of priests, each charged to live a particular part within God’s heavenly whole. We re-aim ourselves towards the practice of resurrection, until our acts of underground theater expand the sites of production from set-apart spaces and times to perform all the dailiness of being and needing and longing and joy with the conviction of sustaining love.

The Tribulation and the Kingdom

Easter Egg and Photo (c) Katherine Brown

‘John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.’

verses 4-7 from Revelation 1

Easter has come. For the first time in two years, we celebrated it in church, physically together. The chancel was decked with flowers and a butterfly banner made by the Sunday School. The organ peeled. Voices rose in song. Hallelujahs returned to the sanctuary as the pastor proclaimed ‘Christ is risen!’ and the people replied ‘He is risen indeed!’

Easter has come. In the US there were multiple mass shootings that very weekend, more since. War between Russia and Ukraine continues, with horrific news of destruction and death and atrocities beyond those considered ‘appropriate’ in a theater of war. COVID rates are rising again, even as assessments of risk and response continue to divide the nation, along with judgments regarding race, sexuality, January 6, and too much else.

Easter has come. Christ is risen. What has changed?

Everything, says the book of Revelation. Do we trust its testimony?

The book is written by John, a record of what he saw when he was on the island called Patmos ‘in the spirit on the Lord’s day’ [1:9-11]. The revelation, though, is not his own. The revelation, the apocalypse, the uncovering, is ‘of Jesus Christ’ [1:1]. John’s written vision is challenging to read. Its imagery is bizarre, difficult to picture — starting with a flame-eyed, bronze-footed, sword-mouthed, torrent-voiced Son of Man [1:14-16]. In places it is unpalatably violent. (The lectionary skips these, as if the imagery is beyond that considered ‘appropriate’ in a theater of worship.) Yet this vision is written to send, to be read aloud [1:3, 11, 19].

‘John to the seven churches ….’ [1:1] Seven for completeness; seven including even us, as stuck in the middle now as they were then. A community come into being because Easter has come and been proclaimed, yet living still in a world of division and suffering and violence.

I’ve studied Revelation before. Its awareness of its own writtenness connects with other texts similarly struck. I came to Revelation this week assuming that note would again sing loudest in my hearing yet trying to will my mind to allow another note to sound. (My pre-reading prayer as hedged about with qualifications as John’s own visionary descriptions: one ‘like’ this, a thing ‘like’ that.). I floundered. Nor am I over with that work — floundering still! Yet on the umpteenth time of reading aloud, I was caught by an unexpected interplay. As I pronounced John’s self-introduction, I heard in my head a different rhythm. John proclaims himself one who shares ‘the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance’ [1:9]. I heard ‘the kingdom and the power and the glory,’ then recalled my mind to my own voice and read aloud and listened again.

‘The persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance.’ Three nouns in the Greek. ‘The tribulation and reign and steadfastness.’

The kingdom as God’s reign come near [Mark 1:14-15], as God’s will come here, on earth as in heaven [Matt 6:9-10] — that is familiar. Yet the other two seem slant to John’s earlier doxology [1:5-6], a Looking-Glass version of the Lord’s Prayer as we commonly recite it. Kingdom not as preface to power but conjoined with persecution and endurance, suffering and steadfastness.

How does ‘kingdom’ look in this unexpected frame? What are we missing if we twine ‘kingdom’ only ever with glory and overlook this tribulation named in the word, the brokenness known in the world? What if, instead, we follow John’s cue and claim identity in a different share, identity in sharing? Your hurt becomes my ache. Injury done to them is done to us. The work of resurrection becomes ever more urgent; our endurance in it ever more pressing, and, through Easter, ever more possible.

Easter does not contradict the cross. Christ died. Easter overcomes it. Christ is risen.

Easter does not contradict the world’s brokenness nor shy away from the reality of suffering. Easter overcomes it. So the world’s brokenness does not itself contradict Easter but may become the stage on which our suffering and endurance testify to resurrection in our witness of shared tribulation and steadfast hope.

We are a kingdom, priests to God; God’s is the glory and the power [1:6], the sustaining through which Christ’s faithful witness [1:5] becomes our own, a testimony which is trustworthy because it does not pretend the world is whole, transforming as it persists through us towards the world’s healing.

Easter changes everything. May our witness be true.

Made in the likeness

photo (c) Katherine Brown

‘The tongue is a fire…’

James 3:6; excerpt from James 3:1-12, lectionary for 9.12.21

When we woke up, fog obscured the lake. Somehow that’s part of this telling: that when we woke that morning, all we saw was thick grey-white.

Now the fog is gone. We’ve paddled onto the wide water, pointed out a kingfisher darting, a great blue heron laboring into flight. Paul casts for fish, and I sit and look at the world as we drift. The sky is bright, light blue. The clouds are dense white mounds, gently flattened on the bottom. The blue and the white show not only in the sky but in the lake. The water is so glassy as to hold the image of the heavens. Made in the likeness, I think, is this what James meant…?

Connections with James continue uncanny. ‘Not many of you should become teachers,’ James writes, and I, starting a new semester, wince and laugh. ‘The tongue is a fire,’ James writes, and I hear voices rising strident, angry and afraid, speech consuming communion. I marvel again that in telling his world, James is reading me my own.

Have I found a key to reading in likeness? James has been using family references throughout: calling God ‘Father’ (1:17, 27; 3:9), addressing ‘my brothers’ and sisters (1:2; 2:1; 3:1; 3:10), stressing relationship in community. Reference to ‘those who are made in the likeness of God’ shifts the stress. ‘Likeness’ is also relational, but the primary relation is to the original, to God who created us in God’s own ‘image,’ according to God’s ‘likeness’ (Gen. 1:26-27). The relation of image to original comes first and is universal. The relation between images, all made in the same likeness, follows. And if the first relation of ‘likeness’ is universal, then the secondary between images is not limited by the corporate bounds of the community but defined in God.
I am sitting in the canoe, floating on water that bears the likeness of the sky. The sky speaks blue, with clouds. The water echoes. There are no words but a sort of speech is heard (Psalm 19:1-4). The water has to hear the light to tell it back.

‘Hear!’ God proclaims; the command to hear is the necessary preface to the command to love (Deut 6:4-5). God who commands hearing is also God who hears (Exod 2:24; 3:7; Psalm 18:6), God who holds us all in mind.

Should we not also strive to hear and hold each other?

James-the-letter is all-tongue, shaping words for others to hear. James-the-letter-writer also has ears. James hears a community facing trials (1:2), angry (1:19-21), divided in itself (2:1-13), mirroring the world instead of the Lord (1:24). James hears, also, the word that is full, perfect, complete, and James wants this breaking body to hear the likeness it was made to bear. James writes so that the body will be reminded to listen, tuning ears to the perfect law, told by his imperfect tongue, through his imperfect pen.

‘The tongue is a fire.’ I cannot control the ‘whole body’ (3:1-2) whether it is my own or the body corporate. I can bend my part of it towards the goal of perfect love. Neither shout nor be silenced. Listen without deferring to the fog of fear or hate. Tune ears to hear amid the cacophony the finest thread of love, the shared yearning for wholeness. Turn tongue and pen to persistently make plain the vision.

Bless Lord and Father and those made in God’s likeness.

The Law of Liberty

A boat in need of being made whole. Photo (c) Katherine Brown

‘So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.’

James 2:12; excerpt from James 2:1-17, lectionary epistle for Sunday Sept. 5, 2021.

James 2:12 catches me in particular this week and only partly because some lectionaries omit vv. 11-13 from the formal reading. Whenever verses are cut like this, I wonder whether they’re trimmed to avoid too long a reading or too difficult a point. I’ve enough of a contrarian streak to resist the lectionary’s limit. More than that, though, verse 12 catches me because of its phrasing: ‘So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.’

‘The law of liberty’ sounds an oxymoron when compared to the way in which ‘liberty’ is usually construed these days. News reports and social media quote or proclaim ‘liberty’ as the nation’s primary value, seeming to define it as freedom to do or to refrain from doing as each individual chooses. Yet if ‘liberty’ is the freedom to do what you will without constraint, then how can it be a ‘law’? Even if ‘law’ is interpreted as making ‘liberty’ the absolute value, that by which all of us are bound, there remains a tension in the idea of being bound to unrestraint. Besides that, James explains that the ‘law of liberty’ is that by which we are ‘judged.’ If liberty is the freedom to do what you will, without constraint, then how can it be a ‘law’ whose keeping (or lack) is judged? Judged by whom? Who has the right?

The rhetoric around masks and vaccination grows only more vituperative. The fervor is surely a measure of the stress weighing on us all. Both sides cry ‘liberty’ but neither defines it the same way. For one group, liberty means not being required to act; any imposition of responsibility is resisted: each should ‘do the good in his own eyes’ (the context of Judges 21:25 shows the lack of approbation of this view). Others point out that doing nothing in the context of disease (viral or otherwise) is not a neutral action, and argue that liberty means not being required to bear the negative consequences of others’ choices.

James seems to understand ‘liberty’ differently. It’s not ‘individual,’ not ‘personal’ (the adjectives which modify, if implicitly, ‘liberty’ in current rhetoric). James knows ‘liberty’ in the context of ‘law.’ The ‘law of liberty’ is ‘the perfect law,’ the mirror that tells us who and whose we are — if only we look into it (James 1:25)! It is the royal summons (James 2:8) to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18), so that they and we together are caught up in the connected web which is kingdom living.

‘For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it,’ James writes (2:10), and having already called partiality a violation (2:9), goes on to talk of murder and of adultery (2:11) as if to make excruciatingly plain that the law is not a list from which we pick and choose. It is a whole, with its own integrity.

The royal law of liberty is perfect, complete, full, indivisible. Because we are partial, we come to know it partially, in bits and pieces and numbered lists, and we each keep the part of it that we touch. I’m not meant to hold the whole world in my hands but I am meant to keep the whole law for that part of the world which I do hold, and to learn thereby that my touch is not the limit of my reach. My speech and my silence, my actions and my inactions, all affect others. Theirs affect me. Whether we seek to live in a ‘more perfect union’ or the kingdom of God’s will done ‘on earth as in heaven’ (Matt 6:10), we are bound to one another. The perfect law is the liberty to work out life together, not to freedom to think [prefer?] death (James 2:17).

‘So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.’

Summer’s End

photo by Katherine Brown

‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.  In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.’

James 1:17-18; excerpt from James 1:17-27, lectionary text for Aug. 29, 2021

This is not where I thought I’d be at summer’s end.  I remember April and May.  The relief of being vaccinated.  The satisfaction of submitting spring semester grades, wrapping up the entire, grueling, academic year, with only two summer courses to teach.  The pleasing surprise of coming awake one morning before my alarm, sunrise summoning me up and out to walk, to recover that daily rhythm of summers past.  

Now it is the end of August.  Sunrise is an hour later.  We’ve gone from azaleas to crepe myrtle, from ‘Brood Z’ cicadas (95 dB) to ‘oak leaf itch mites’ (don’t ask!).  I planned a family funeral repast, taught my two classes, graded papers, preached, anticipated re-opening, walked in the mornings, read the news, was increasingly undone.  COVID is coming back around, more virulent than before.  Division persists, expands, embitters; the disharmony is its own distinct pain.  Smoke from western wildfires hazes the eastern sky.  Haiti endures assassination and earthquake.  Hurricanes Fred, Grace, Henri, and Ida sweep through in swift succession.  Afghanistan suffers violent collapse.  I am swamped, over-aware of my inability to make a difference, paralyzed by my own puniness.  Also I broke my toe, so morning walks are paused.  ‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved’ (Jer. 8:20).

I’ve journaled all summer but not written to post.  A half-dozen false starts, each easily deleted as it existed only electronically.  I revert to pen and page, write on a leaf bound into a book, something I cannot easily delete nor discard.  I push to write on through, pray the unfurling line of ink is a line to haul myself out into, again, a broader place. I open my book, take pen in hand, and hitch my line to the letter of James.   

The lectionary text begins mid-way through chapter 1.  The references to ‘giving’ and ‘gift’ seem a non-sequitur after verses discussing temptation and testing and desire and sin.  There’s an echo, though, of earlier verses, where James wrote of God’s own generous, ungrudging ‘giving’ (James 1:5), and of the ‘full work’ of endurance: that we (‘you’) are full, perfect, complete (James 1:4).

Full, perfect, complete.  None of these do I feel now.  I am more aware of incapacity and lack.  James writes of looking into a mirror and promptly forgetting the self you’ve seen.  What I read is an injunction to catalogue flaws as if self-recrimination had not already overwhelmed me in the face of the world’s needs.  I turn away.  Seek distraction.  I’d open a browser if I wasn’t tethered to a pen.  Turn back.  Reread what I’ve written.  Reread what James has written to me, and realize why:  not to shame but to sustain (James 1:3-4, 12).  Look where James is telling me to look: into the text, ‘the perfect law, the law of liberty’ (James 1:25).   

The law, the gift, the work of endurance:  each is described as ‘perfect,’ meaning ‘complete,’ ‘lacking nothing.’   ‘Look into the perfect law,’ James urges.  Be reminded of who we are.  Beloved (1:16; 1:19).  God-birthed.  First-fruits — we described as God’s own choice offering (Deut 18:4; Jer 2:3).  Given by God, given to God.

I am small.  My hand cannot hold the world.  I cannot put out the fires, hold back the storm surge, cure the pandemic, end the rancor, stop the war.  This is true.  But it is not completely, fully, perfectly true.  If I allow myself to be consumed by that incomplete, partial, imperfect realization, I become even smaller, more less-than than before, not self-emptied so to be filled with God (Eph 3:19), but too scant and scattered a soil to bear the implanted word (James 1:21).

I am small.  So.  My hand can hold the word.  And a page, and a pen.  I can write a line.  I can plan a syllabus and teach a course.  I can pray for my students, for family and church and world and self.  I can look into the perfect law, and I can look at the world, and I can remember that I am God-birthed and God-beloved and God-given to bear the word on.  May that be enough for now, to carry me through the next step, and the step that comes after that.

Leaf Candles

photo by Katherine Brown

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

John 20:30-31, from John 20:19-31, lectionary text for Sunday after Easter.

The dogwood is emerald-candled.  Its leaves are new and small, precisely shaped, slightly flared. Glowing green.  Each leaf-pair is poised at the tip of a slender branch.  The sun shines, and the leaf-cups appear each a lit glim held aloft.   The light seems to be radiating from the leaves themselves as if they, not the sun, are the source of their shining.  Then clouds pass across the sun, and the light dims, and the leaves are again leaves.  Just leaves.  New, small, precisely shaped, slightly flared.  Flat green.

Easter evening, Jesus came and stood among the disciples, and the disciples who saw him rejoiced (John 20:19-20).  Christ-light had shone, and I imagine them radiant in its glow.

Thomas, one of the twelve, had not been with them that night.  ‘We have seen the Lord!’ the others told him.  Thomas refused the news.  See the insistent shake of his head, the stubborn hunch of his shoulders?  Thomas recites the litany of the sparks necessary to kindle his belief:  he must see, he must touch.  Not his lord — the one they said they had seen (20:25), the one with whom he had been willing to die (John 11:16) — but the marks of the nails in Jesus’ hands and side.  As if the proof of resurrection is in the marks of suffering.  Only if Thomas can encounter the body that he knows was broken will he believe that his Lord has risen.

So obdurate is Thomas’s resistance to his fellows’ joy that I wonder at his presence when, a week later, the disciples are again in the house (20:26).  Thomas is with them.  He had seemed to feel their resurrection report of Easter evening was more injury than invitation.  In the face of their joy, he had insisted on his loss.  But the following week, he was among them.  Did he come because of the others’ witness or in spite of it?  Did they welcome him in hope their joy would spark his own or because all of them together, in joy or in pain, were Christ’s own?  Is it their welcome, even?  Or is it reunion, and Christ the welcoming host?

Is it about the leaves or the light?

A week after Easter, Jesus stood among them and told Thomas to see and to touch.  ‘Do not be unbelieving but believing,’ Jesus says (20:27).  Thomas is shaken out of the fixedness of his disbelief by this encounter with Jesus’ nail-marked body.  ‘My Lord and my God!’ he exclaims (20:28).  ‘You have seen me,’ Jesus tells Thomas, then Jesus tells all of us after, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen but believe’ (20:29).  John’s gospel continues Jesus’ address to us with a reference to its own body, the thing ‘written so that you may believe …’ (20:31).

A body pierced by nails, twisted on a cross; broken by the world to overcome the world.  A community still claiming more than it lives, striving to live what it claims, falling short and having to try again and again.  Things written in a distant idiom — vocabulary, grammar, imagery — that must be learned and studied and read again and again.  A world of bodies.  Each in some way marked, twisted.  None complete.

Don’t mistake the leaves for the light.  Don’t mis-order the priorities.  Do recognize the relationship.

The clouds pass away, and the sun shines full.  Again, the dogwood is emerald-candled, each leaf-pair lit from within, seeming to show its true self, its very life.  

The daylight lets me see the dogwood leaves.  The leaves make that light visible as it otherwise would not be.  The leaves let me see the light.

People; pages.  Inadequate bodies all around.  Yet somehow the proof of Easter shows through these bodies that together — written, reading, lit, radiant, alive — make resurrection visible.

Gracious encounter.  That you may believe and, believing, have life.

The Same Kinds of Suffering

face-masks by Paul Brown; photo (c) Katherine Brown

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.  If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. 

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen. 

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; lectionary epistle for Sunday May 24, 2020

It was years ago, now, that I was riding home on the Metro one winter evening, lost and alone in my own bad news, trapped behind a glass wall of grief.  The train driver told a joke, and the mouth of the man opposite twitched in appreciation, and the movement caught my eye, and my gaze his, but I did not smile, only looked through him for a minute till we both turned away.  If I had smiled, I think he would have smiled back.  He would have been a sort of brother.  I would have felt glad of the connection.  Instead I sat there in my own unhappiness, in the Metro car with strangers.  I had the wit to recognize the tension but not the will to break through the wall.

1 Peter’s word hits hard against that glass wall, reminds us that while our griefs may be profoundly unique, there is a unity in suffering.   We confuse the two, I realize, grief and suffering.  As, perhaps, we confuse gladness in all its wildly various forms with its common wellspring of joy.  Grief does constrain and imprison us … unless, until, we are drawn to see past our own particulars to the underlying unity.

‘Your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering,’ Peter reminds us.  ‘All the world’?  The phrase hits close in this time of pandemic.  The losses mount.   Too often they are set against each other.   Save lives but kill the economy.  Individual liberty opposes community welfare.  I learn of a death, ‘non-COVID caused,’ and I wonder at the need to distinguish it for those of us without epidemiological responsibilities.  Is this death somehow separate from the others?  Is there therefore less pain? or more?

Peter writes not only ‘all the world’ but also ‘the same kinds of suffering.’  As if all these pains should not be treated as distinct and opposing.  As if to distinguish my distress from yours is to miss the gospel promise.  ‘Do not be surprised,’ Peter admonishes, ‘as though something strange were happening.’  Yes, the particular suffering Peter describes comes of calling on the name of Christ within an empire that acclaims Caesar.  But the ground of Peter’s claim of Christ is that Christ participated fully in humanity, ‘suffered in the flesh’ (1 Peter 4:1).  This is the sameness that underlies our suffering.  Tap into this wellspring that connects our suffering with God’s own, and the suffering we experience in our flesh becomes what Peter describes:  suffering with and for Christ — so that we ‘may also be glad and shout for joy’ in Christ (1 Peter 4:13).

It feels premature even to imagine being glad and shouting for joy.  This pandemic continues to unfold, and the shape of its process remains murky.  So many losses already — lives, jobs, plans.  We cannot even know how many more losses we will suffer.  But the very universality of this virus invites a recognition that suffering is not a matter of various kinds but of ‘the same kind.’ It can connect us or, more accurately, reveals what has always been true:  we are all connected.  Maybe reading 1 Peter can rewrite our experience of pandemic; or perhaps the current context of global convulsion may allow us to read 1 Peter anew and suddenly, shockingly, plain.  

I imagine myself again on the Metro.  Looking across at the stranger whose mouth had just twitched.  He, too, must know grief and uncertainty and loss and pain.  Each one of us might have true cause to feel ourselves kept separate by the glass walls of our individual experience, rightly divided by the unique peculiarities of our distinct distresses.  Yet together we are — all of us — on the same side of the wall, the side to which Christ in flesh came, on which Christ in flesh suffered.  

I am not alone behind a wall but together with brothers and sisters in all the world.  Nor are we — together, in our same kinds of suffering — alone behind a wall.  God has reached across the wall to ‘himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish’ us.  Let us, then, work to restore, support, strengthen and establish each other.

Beloved, do not be surprised.  Be sustained in unity with Christ.

Stone Soup

Image by Katherine Brown
photo (c) Katherine Brown

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.  Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 

1 Peter 2:2-4; excerpt from 1 Peter 2:2-10, lectionary epistle for Sunday May 10, 2020

I was wrong:  we do not have baked beans in the pantry.  Black beans, kidney beans, Chick Peas, a couple cans of green beans (bought specifically as pandemic pantry stock).  No baked beans.  They would have been good with our sausages.  No matter.  We have fresh salad stuff and some flatbreads besides.  (Put them on the grill for a couple minutes when the sausages are done, till they are warm and soft and smoky).  We have plenty of food, overall.  It’s just that the limited visits to the store and the persistent gaps on the grocery shelves have required both greater discipline and a certain improvisation.  Rationing as jazz?  I buy what is available and compose from what I buy, and the meals that result are enough to keep us humming.  And sometimes, those unexpected compositions sing.

I read this passage from 1 Peter and realize it is composed from a similarly disciplined store — the pantry being the Hebrew Bible. After all, this imperishable and enduring word is the ‘pure milk’ on which we — new born ‘into a living hope’ — grow into salvation.  Trusting that already we have tasted that the Lord is ‘good’ (in the Greek ‘chrestus’ — a near-pun with ‘Christ,’ clearly Dad-worthy), Peter sets a table for our further eating, composing a meal rich with quotes and allusions in order to nourish us in faith.  You are a ‘priestly kingdom and holy nation,’ he quotes.  Once no-people but now ‘God’s own people,’ newborn through a stumbling-stone that became ‘a precious cornerstone,’ ‘the chief cornerstone,’ Christ, a living stone.  

Be living stones, Peter exhorts, ‘built into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood.’  Not like those who follow after idols of wood or stone, which do not ‘hear nor see nor eat nor smell,’ which cannot move or answer or save.  Not like those who have walked after these dead stones and become dead as stone themselves.   Come to the Lord, a living stone.  Be living stones.   

‘Living stone’ — Peter repeats the phrase without defining it.  It’s stone for some sort of building, although not necessarily architectural.  If it was just a tower at issue, then the order of assembly matters, stones of certain size or shape must be laid as a foundation before any others can be raised above.  But the metaphor shifts as the verse proceeds, from house-as-building to house-as-household, as people, as priesthood.  Living stones building lives.  So — taking a cue from that beginning, commanded longing for ‘pure, spiritual milk’ — imagine the built spiritual house as soup, with living stones as ingredients added in whatever order they (we) come to hand, stirred and simmered together, changing the flavor of the whole — and being themselves infused with new flavors imparted by all the other ingredients, transformed by being part of the whole. 

Build more playfully yet!  Think of the old folk tale:  the proffering of one single stone is what led the rest of the townsfolk to bring out of their own stores foodstuffs that were not stones at all.  So is the living stone in this metaphorical stone soup Christ alone calling all of us into the pot?  Or are we, too, called to be — transformed into — those living stones so that the offering of ourselves invites others to offer their own, themselves?  Maybe don’t choose.  Maybe claim both.   Be like Christ, the living stone, who sees and hears and answers and saves, the living stone who eats and who feeds!

Be living-stone-soup. 

Held in Mind

photo (c) Katherine Brown

For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 

1Peter 2:19; excerpt from 1 Peter 2:19-25, lectionary epistle for May 3, 2020

I have come again to the text seeking a word that will feed.  My first thought on seeing this week’s reading is, ‘Well, crap.’  I feel let down by the lectionary commendation of ‘unjust’ suffering, the suffering the righteous endure but do not deserve, distinct from any proper punishment for wrongdoing.  ‘If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval,’ the text reads.  This text has been used abusively in the past — it comes just after an instruction for slaves to obey their masters — and when I read it I recoil, as if the words have struck an unhealed bruise.  I could spend this week in another reading.  This discipline I’ve chosen is as artificial as the lectionary itself.  It feels like a cheat, though, to just throw this text aside.  Set myself to it.  Maybe there is in it a word for this time, a word for me.  Certainly, there’s suffering enough in this time.  Read it again, weighing every phrase.

‘Being aware of God.’  The hook catches my heart, tightens the cord between me and the words until the line is taut and tugs the text just slightly slant.  Read at this angle, the word does not recommend but assumes suffering.  The point of the passage is not to seek and embrace suffering but — through it all — to seek and embrace God, to reframe the experience of suffering not as a barrier to God but as a possible means of connection.  The passage is an exhortation of how to bear suffering: ‘being aware of God,’ who suffered in Christ, whose example and experience of suffering as redemptive and freeing means that we needn’t suffer in isolation (no matter how physically distant) but ‘being aware of God.’  

I read the text again before bed, go to sleep pondering this possibility.  I dream in cycles, rise towards wakefulness, to the phrase ‘being aware of God’ then sink again into dreaming sleep, surfacing again to the words ‘being aware of God,’ as if that phrase was the tether that kept drawing me up.  Was I aware of God?  I was aware of the idea of being aware.  Is that itself the point?  Even so, a lingering unease.  The text speaks of ‘credit’ — as if right suffering accrues points on a heavenly ledger, earns God’s ‘approval.’  But what when one cannot be aware even of being aware?  What when one cannot even recite the phrase?  What credit then?  How can the account be balanced, but by grace?

Grace is present in the passage — literally:  ‘grace’ — charis — is the third word in the Greek.  I’ve pulled out my Greek testament, and that word, at least, I know at sight.  My wondering quickens.  Grace, charis, is the bracketing concept:  ‘for this is grace,’ 2:19 begins — not ‘credit,’ not divine regard earned but ‘grace’ experienced; and 2:20 ends:  ‘if doing good and suffering, you endure, this is grace with God.’  At this point, I’m reading the testament with the lexicon, checking every word; my mind alert, my heart urgent.  ‘For this is grace’ the text reads, ‘if through the consciousness of God endures …’  The Greek behind the NRSV’s ‘being aware of God’ is this: the consciousness or mindfulness of God.

So:  what is the ‘consciousness of God’?  Is it my consciousness of God or God’s consciousness of me?  I don’t see any grammatical cue that dictates a reading.  I check several translations and they all suggest that it’s my (or ‘your’) awareness of God at issue in the phrase, not the other way round, that my mindfulness (‘being aware’) colors my experience.  That fits with the overall flow, the fact that Peter is addressing a plural ‘you’ that is suffering, a ‘you’ that needs to be reminded to endure in the hope — the expectation — of Christ.  I know my Greek is poor; I should defer to the translations which represent the considered judgment of committees of experts.  But this other possibility will not let me go. I am caught by the reading’s promise that grace is not primarily our consciousness of God but God’s consciousness of us; that God holds us in God’s loving thought even when we are caught and carapaced, trapped in the amber of our own suffering; that when we cannot be conscious of God, still God remains conscious of us.  Grace raises us again and again towards waking.  We come up from the deep of sleep towards the surface of awareness, re-minded and re-minding ourselves towards consciousness of God.  

‘Being aware of God.’ It is through the consciousness of God that I have consciousness of God.  Mind calls to mind. Love summons love.  Reaching to hold, I realize I am already held.