Telling Time In Tree Leaves

photo (c) Katherine Brown

If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.  Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.  Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.  You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. 

1 Peter 1:17-23; lectionary epistle for April 26, 2020

Telling time in a pandemic.  Our sense of its passage — along with so much else — is skewed by circumstances beyond our control.  Days lead one into the next with not much to distinguish them. ‘Dear Professor,’ a student emailed me Friday morning, having missed Thursday’s Zoom lecture, ‘I am sorry but I really, really thought today was Thursday …’.  The present pattern of our lives is not bounded by the bright lines of leaving the house, driving to campus, entering other spaces.  The morning alarm is set later, and its buzz has lost some of its imperative force.  I have waked to full daylight these past weeks.  How do we mark the rhythm when the old marks no longer apply?  Is waking-to-waking even the right boundary to count?  Because I wake before daylight as well.  I wake in the night having dreamed vividly, oddly.  I get up in the dark, my steps small and slow.  I come back to bed, squinch my eyes shut against the neighbor’s bright-as-day security light, settle myself again prone, if not to sleep, lay and listen for the chime of the dining room clock, not even sure whether I hope that it is nearly morning or that I still have hours to sleep.

Telling time when the world’s turned upside down.  Maybe clock-tolled hours are not the right measure.  I sit at my bedroom desk, look out the front window at the trees.  Six weeks ago the topmost branches were knobby with leaf-buds and yellow-tan against the deep blue of the sky.  Three weeks ago, the trees were hazed with green, as if some verdant mist hung about the branches.  Now I look and see that the vague haze of earlier weeks has shifted from peridot to emerald and distilled itself into definite leaf shapes.  The leaves are still small enough to be each one distinct, not yet merged into the glossy dark green tree-shape of summer.  Yet.  There are leaves where there had not been.  That’s how long we have been in this state of waiting for we know not what. No:  that’s not so.  We know what we are waiting for.  We just don’t know the when.  We are waiting for the ‘curve to flatten,’ for testing to be more widespread, for clearer insight into this virus — its rates of contagion, of morbidity, of mortality, for a vaccine.  We know what we are waiting for.  We just don’t know the when. 

Telling time.  Count it by the calendar:  secular, academic, liturgical.  No tally has the answer.  We’ve been home since spring break.  We’ve been home since early in Lent.  We were home through Holy Week.  We’ll be home through semester’s end.  Shall we be home this whole Easter season?  Will that mark the completion of the term of this time?

Time is the preoccupation of First Peter as well.  The recipients are living a ‘time of your exile’.  The patterns of their lives have shifted; their former ways no longer apply.  When did they learn their former ways were ‘futile’?  What overset their ignorance?  What caused the realization that those everyday inequities entirely unrecognized or otherwise accommodated were in fact the proof of this world’s futility?  What called them from that barrenness to ‘new birth into a living hope’?  

Telling time.  The paradox of a single point calibrated along multiple whens.  First Peter’s hope, Christ, was ‘destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages.’  Beginning and end.  First and last.  Still this last time is not yet ended, else Peter’s audience would not be in their ‘time of exile,’ neither in the world nor out of it.  Needing to be reminded — by the writing and sending and reading of a letter — of trust, of faith, of hope.  Of how to wait for the what (or the who) when you don’t know the when.  Needing to be reminded that living in the meanwhile is a process with its own peculiar grace.  And every so often an unexpected sign that time is being told not only by we who are waiting but by God who is drawing time on and drawing us in.

Again I come awake from a dream in the night.  Again I shuffle down the hall and back.  Again, I reach for the bed, close my eyes against the piercing light, and settle myself prone to wait for the clock.  Then I realize that one of those ‘agains’ wasn’t.  I open my eyes.  The bedroom is dark.  I lift up on an elbow, look to the window, and realize that the neighbor’s light is not shining through the bedroom window because the leaves on the maple now are full enough to block the brightness.  All those weeks of days of growing leaves, from bare branch through bud to new green, and suddenly When has become Now.  This is not the end.  More growth will come.  But this ‘now’ for tonight is enough to tell me that time is being told not only by I who am waiting for God but by God who waits for me. This ‘now’ for tonight is enough to recall me to hope and to love through the ‘living and enduring word of God.’


Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” 

Matthew 17:1-9; lectionary gospel for Sunday, Feb. 26, 2020.

This morning at church, a baby gripped my proffered finger, and I did not resist.  It’s been a while since I’ve had baby fist wrapped around my forefinger, I told his mother, and I tugged ever so gently, more to enjoy the feel of tiny fingers tighten their soft grip than to actually pull away.  Baby fingers have a different weight than a handshake.  I appreciated not only the treat of the baby’s hold but also how well the contact fit today’s text, as I’ve spent the week thinking about touch, and its significance.

Transfiguration Sunday.  It’s a familiar story.  Jesus and his three closest disciples ascend the mountain; Jesus is transformed — shining like the sun.  The disciples and he together are enveloped in an overshadowing bright cloud, and together they hear the heavenly voice, ‘This is my Son … Listen to him!’  

What are they to hear?

Matthew captions the mountaintop event as occurring ‘six days later,’ as if it should be read in light of whatever had happened six days before.  Jesus had asked the disciples ‘Who do you say that I am?’ (Matt 16:15) and Peter had promptly replied, ‘You are the messiah, the Son of the Living God’ (Matt 16:16).  Yet Peter — having correctly named Jesus’ identity — refuses Jesus’ explanation that messiah means rejection, that death comes before resurrection (16:21).  Peter cannot hear this word, protests its utterance, and Jesus rebukes him, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ (16:23).

Maybe this is the word they need to heed:  that having acclaimed Jesus’ lordship, Peter and the rest need to listen to their lord’s explanation of what lordship means.  Suffering.  Rejection.  Death.  And beyond ….  The heavenly voice may be heard as if its primary injunction is retrospective.  But the story continues on.

‘Listen to him!’ the voice sounds from that cloud so dense in its brightness that it casts a shadow, and the disciples fall on their faces in fear.  And the next word that comes is not aural but haptic.  Jesus comes and touches these men collapsed in terror on the ground.  Jesus touches them.  Then Jesus speaks, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’

Jesus’ touch strikes me (pun only belatedly realized) because it is unique to Matthew’s telling.  Mark and Luke tell Transfiguration.  But only Matthew tells that the disciples’ terror caused their fall.  And only Matthew tells that Jesus touched them before telling them to get up.  Matthew, the gospel of Emmanuel, God-With-Us (Matt 1:28; 28:20), is the gospel that tells Jesus come so near to the disciples that he can stretch out his arm, reach with his hand, and touch these confused but beloved followers of the Beloved Son.  ‘Get up,’ Jesus says, and because he has touched them, they can.  ‘Do not be afraid,’ Jesus says, and because they have gotten up, they can be not afraid.

I am standing in the aisle in church as Christ’s Peace is passed — handshake by handshake — all around me.  I am clinging to the baby’s hold by letting the baby cling to me.  His mother and I both watch his face and smile.  His gaze is concentrated on my finger in his fist, on the slight motion of our hands connected.  His face lights in pleasure at the play, then falls as mother and I both realize the interval is ending, and I must truly pull my finger from his grasp.

Jesus touches his disciples.  Jesus’ hand on shoulder or back or cupped around the crown of the head.  Comfort in the contact giving strength to heed the speech.  Peter and James and John get up, and they go back down the mountain with Jesus.  Their understanding is still muddled.  They will again be afraid.  But they will have ever after the recollection of that mountain and its brightness and the voice saying Beloved Son (2 Peter 1:16-18).  And maybe, persisting as well, held in skin and flesh, the weight and warmth of Jesus’ hand.  

Through confusion and willful misunderstanding, through news and rumors, through affliction and joy, through fear and boldness and doubt and conviction — from generation to generation — Christ’s touch handed on from beloved to beloved, given and received even this Sunday morning, as a baby gripped my finger.

Uncorrected Astigmatism*

Now after [the wise men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Matt 2:13-18; excerpt from Matt 2:13-23, lectionary text for Dec. 29, 2019

Our Christmas tree was a drug-store purchase 28 years ago.  It is small, with wire branches and stiff paper needles.  We trim it with tiny lights and decorations.  Once the last is placed atop the whole (an angel made of a starched doily, formerly white), we turn off the overhead and take off our eyeglasses and ooh and aah as the tree is haloed with the chrysanthemum-rayed glow that comes of uncorrected astigmatism.

I think of our silly self-delusion as I read this text.  The Slaughter of the Innocents. Every three years, this is the text for the Sunday after Christmas – some years the very next day.  I have been at that worship:  children are invited to wear pajamas; we all sing carols, again, as if to hold the sentiment of the season that bit longer.  The worship service is nice.  We feel it so. 

I can’t imagine reading this text at such a service. It is too horrible a contrast to Christmas — to the holy wonder of late-night candlelight, the giddy excitement of morning gifts.  Yet the calendar holds both together: the remembrance of the slaughter comes just after the celebration of the birth.

The juxtaposition shocks.  It should shock.  Our guts should twist with the horror; our hearts be pierced with the pain – with the way violence follows so naturally from the fear that grasps at power, that refuses consolation, that lashes out in self-defeating self-protection.

There’s no depth of field to sentiment’s glow.  To neglect Rachel’s wailing is to ignore the brokenness of the world, the sick of our own souls, the need that the Creator came into creation to suffer and to cure.  Still there is dark; still we are being born; still we hurt and – God forgive us! – still we hurt each other.  We don’t need tender sentiment; we need astringent love.

The Jeremiah text that the gospel quotes continues on past Rachel’s lamentation into promise:  “keep your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears … there is hope for your future, says the LORD.  Is Ephraim my dear son?  Is he the child I delight in?  … Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the LORD” (Jer 31:15-20).

Jesus escaped that particular slaughter.  But God did not.  God suffered the frightened cries of the children, the frantic cries of their parents.  God suffered it then and later and still.  

God was deeply moved.  God is deeply moved. God will surely have mercy on us all.

Glasses on. See as clearly as I can.

I must look full at the bitterness of Rachel’s refusal to see the strength of God’s saving love.

*Devotion revised from original written in 2010

Root and Branch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bear fruit.  

Re-minded to Joy

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? … in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 

Acts 2:1-18, 11-13; text for Pentecost, June 9, 2019

Our house backs up to an elementary school playground.  The children file out for recess and stand in line until dismissed to play.  Immediately, then, they run and shriek.  When I am home on a school day, I am amazed at the volume of the sound and the violence of its coming.   There was a set of schoolchildren in tidy rows.  Now — suddenly — there is a chaotic dispersion, pounding across the pavement, scrambling up the climbing equipment, skirmishing for balls.  As I watch, some order emerges — whether the emergence is in their play or my observation, I do not know.  There is one game over here, and another over there, and these few children squatted on their haunches at the edge of the pavement are probably poking at the hole in the blacktop that has been expanded over several school years’ worth of recesses.  The expenditure of energy and the intensity of focus touch my heart.

I watch the children and wonder.  When was the last time I effervesced in such a manner?  

A few times in college, my friend and I went onto the green after dark.  We ran and laughed and collapsed on the grass and all without benefit of alcohol.  Who needs beer, we scoffed, when there is play.  There was something intoxicating about abandoning the appearance of sense, making ourselves ridiculous for joy.  A delight I feel still when singing aloud as I walk through the city.  Tipping back my head and throwing my arms wide as if to embrace the wind on a gusty day.  Grinning with excitement, and rising to tip-toes on the Metro platform when a train rumbles past and blows its horn.  (I do not entirely forget myself, I admit; I do not wave at the train driver, tempted though I am.)

Why am I thinking about play, about being so intensely present as to risk ridiculousness?  As if this text is about intoxication.  Drunkenness is the claim is raised by those who don’t understand, who sneer at what they hear as noise.  Peter rebuts the charge.  Yet Peter’s rebuttal does not entirely dismiss the issue.  Peter does not argue that the scoffers have mischaracterized the behavior but asserts that they have misunderstood its source.

This is not new wine imbibed, Peter asserts.  This is God’s Spirit ‘poured out’ (Acts 2:14-17).  Listen to what is being said and shouted and sung.  Hear the order that emerges.  This seemingly frantic babble, heard and understood in so many tongues, is all about God.  It is praise for the Lord whose ‘word is very near … in your mouth and in your heart’ (Deut 30:14).  It is wonder that they have lived into God’s promised days of visions and dreams (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17).  This is not passing gladness.  This is rock-founded.  This is not new wine.  This is joy in the Lord.

Reading Pentecost I wonder.  When was the last time I was that aware of joy?  

Joy as effervescence, burbling forth forth like a spring, foaming over rocks as it tumbles out and down.  Joy welling up as if I am a cup, brimful — I hold a moment quivering still, amazed at its presence, living water in me, joy’s meniscus curved slightly above the edge of my lip — and then I cannot but grin, cannot but wonder, cannot but tell.  Did you see?  Did you hear?  Did you feel?

The Spirit’s spark that Pentecost was not stubborn resolve or impassioned argument or faithful duty.  The Spirit’s spark was joy.  The people flared bright with it, spoke flames with it.  The Spirit lit a fire whose dancing tongues amazed and perplexed and confounded and transformed.

I watch the children.  I read the text.  I need to be reminded of joy.  I need to be re-minded to joy.  Wait and watch, sticks and kindling dutifully arranged in expectation of the spark.  Realize, then, that the tinder is already aglow.  I don’t need to wait for some coming but to see what has already come.  Blow gently and increase the flame.   Sustain it; be sustained by it.  Dip my bucket into the well, trusting to draw it forth brimful and shining. Drink deeply and find myself intoxicated with its urgency.  Catch someone else’s eye.  Grin and gesture to the very well I drew from, look to see joy spark across.

Make myself ridiculous in the expectation.  Make myself ridiculous in the experience.

That’s how it began.  That is how it begins again.

Risk joy.  Pray for it.  Prophesy it.  Live it.  Tell it.

Time’s Spiral

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” 

Rev. 7:13-17; from the text for Sunday May 12, 2019

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Rev. 21:1-5; from the text for Sunday, May 19, 2019

In 2002, Paul and I took our girls to the Chestertown Tea Party, a festival predicated on a historical (or not) event when Chestertown colonists followed their Boston brethren’s lead.  Seven-year-old Elizabeth was enthralled.  There was a parade down High Street, a military drill with General Washington, a tour of the Schooner Sultana, and — most exciting of all! — a reenactment.  Patriots debated rights and liberty, then chased the British redcoats down High Street, rowed out to the Sultana, boarded the boat and tossed burlap-covered bales of clearly-labeled ‘TEA’ into the Chester River.  Elizabeth waved her hat and cheered from the dock.  At the end of the long day, our sleepy girl sighed, ‘That was the best day of my life.’

Seventeen years later, we were again at the foot of High Street on the Chestertown dock.  A crowd had formed, all of us waiting.  Children sat and squirmed and leaned over to see the water, and adults called them back from the edge.  Cannon from the Sultana belched a flash of flame, a billow of smoke, a massive BANG! that caused all on the dock to cry out and cover their ears.  Behind us we could hear the sound of muskets over the noise of so many excited voices.  ‘Are they coming? They’re coming!’  Suddenly a clot of colonists were on the dock.  They rowed out — in the face of further cannon fire — boarded the Sultana and dumped what were probably the same burlap-wrapped TEA-labeled bales.  Children on shore cheered and waved, and adults did too, and Paul took a gazillion pictures because one of the costumed colonists clambering aboard the Sultana was Elizabeth.  

It was again a best day.  It was a best day in and of itself, and it was a best day for the way it connected back to that other, recapitulated it from a different perspective.  The layering of memory was a palpable presence infusing the entire experience.  Our sight held present and past together — one in front of each eye, slightly askew, like an old Viewfinder, so that all was seen with a fuller depth than otherwise possible, stereoscopically.

I’ve been thinking a lot about time this past week.  How time moves, how time loops, the line curving back on itself, towards its beginning, as if its end is to meet that start-point.

As I was living this loop in my own experience of time, I was pondering Revelation, re-reading texts assigned for prior weeks.  I’d wondered at the lectionary jump from chapter 7 to 21 — so many visions omitted, what could account for the progression?  Reading the passages together gave a clue: the springs of water and wiping of tears promised in chapter 7 are realized in chapter 21.  John sees the new heaven and new earth (21:1-2) — this is not just a vision promised but a vision present.  What was anticipated now is.  ‘The first things have passed away.’  I linger in the thought:  that John saw it so, the city like a bride, God’s dwelling with humanity, every tear wiped away.  John had heard it foretold — that the experience of the great ordeal would be swallowed up in blessing — and 14 chapters later, he sees it so.  Fulfillment.  Realized.

Except not.  John sees it but he doesn’t live it.  John sees all the way to the end of the book, past the command to write, the commitment that the words are ‘trustworthy and true,’ the renewed promise that the Lord Jesus, Alpha and Omega, first and Last, is ‘coming soon’ (22:12-13), the invitation for all to utter the summoning ‘Come!’ (22:17), the invitation for all themselves to ‘Come.’  John sees it all. But John doesn’t live at the end of the book. John lives at its beginning, when the promise of coming is new-uttered (1:7), when the letters to seven churches (Rev 2-3) make plain the brokenness not just of the world but of the communities that claim the faith of Christ.  John lives the time when the promise is urgently needed, the time of the ‘great ordeal,’ the time when suffering speaks louder than life.  John lives in that time, and into the vision, and all the way to vision’s end, to its fulfillment in newness.  

Newness is not fulfilled in John’s lifetime.  John sees it; a sure anticipation, but a vision, not an arrival.  Yet because John sees it, he lives it. John lives newness even before newness has fully come.  Because the end of the vision loops back to its beginning — the summons to come, the promise that the coming will be soon — that beginning is thereby transformed.  Time does not, in fact, circle.  The end of the line just misses its start point, curves on past, in a spiral towards newness.  But as end and beginning are brought close, we see each more fully.  And our new-enabled stereoscopic vision, enables us to see our present in clearer depth as well.

I have been pondering this all these past few weeks.  Reading Revelation.  Living my own time’s spiral.  Anticipating my church’s area-wide conference.  I write this in Baltimore on the first night of conference.  I do not yet know how the whole will shape — events are yet unfolding, time is yet curving on.  But already there have been glimpses of a grace-filled end.  And those visions themselves alter the shape of the living now, the ever-present process of time spiraling onward and upward.  An ascending helix, perhaps.  Life itself.  Building towards God’s end:  newness, trustworthy and true.

Reading Thrones

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Revelation 22:1-5; text for Sunday, May 26, 2019

This is not a devotion about Revelation.  It is a rant about reading.  

Game of Thrones has ended.  

I never watched the show in full.  We don’t have cable.  And when I first heard of it, it sounded much too graphic for my cosy-Cotswold-cottage taste in tales.  But a few seasons in, I read a Washington Post review by Hank Stuever, an apology for his initial dismissal of GoT:  it turns out, he wrote, that GoT ‘accommodates both the casual viewer and the rabid fanatic’; that it ‘demands your attention but rewards any effort you give it, no matter how small.’*

I read this review in the midst of my doctoral coursework.   I was delving deep into the ways the biblical texts interweave, how they re-read and re-tell each other.  How the river of Revelation 22:1 ‘rose from the earth’ in Genesis 2:6, flowed out of the garden (2:10), through psalms and prophets, and all the way to John’s vision.  How Revelation’s ‘tree of life’ was planted in Genesis 2:9.  How light apart from sun and moon was the very first word spoken by God (Gen 1:3; sun and moon and stars do not appear till v.16).  I mention this confluence of my studies and Stuever’s review because it explains my reaction:  I was not so much interested in watching GoT as jealous on behalf of my own story, which — I stoutly maintain! — equally ’demands your attention but rewards any effort you give it.’  

‘Why do we assume people can’t read it?’  I railed, then, to a scholar visiting to present on the intertextual references in the gospels.  Why do we resist letting it be itself?  We simplify its complexity, turn it into a bumper sticker cliché, as if readers cannot digest anything longer than 280 characters.  Is it that we do not trust the readers?  Or that we do not trust the story’s power to hold?  So instead of telling the story, we tell it as about something else — a guide for right behavior, individual happiness, community construction, or eternal life. 

That particular rant past, I wondered about GoT.  I read reviews and summaries, watched clips online.  As build-up for this last season began, news coverage exploded.  I even read discussion on the theme of apocalypse — defined not as reversion to the way-things-were but as transformation to entire newness — and whether the show would turn towards this end.  I was particularly struck by the myriad of theories between the penultimate and final episodes.  Viewers were going back through the words and images and interactions of prior seasons of the TV show.  They were referencing passages from the books which had never been filmed.  They were even looking beyond the world of the narrative and into the world of the actors (So-and-so ‘hasn’t tweeted farewell to the character he played so is the character really dead?’).

They were reading.  Reading with all their heart and mind and strength.  Reading in service of understanding the dynamic of the story, trying to anticipate its final turn, its ultimate unfolding.  

Game of Thrones has ended.  The ending seems to have dissatisfied many, who want it redone, to which others retort It was never yours to do.

Revelation has not ended.  The book was written, yes, that part’s done, but the story’s final turn and ultimate unfolding is written not for the sake of the anticipated end but for now.  So that we can read it.  Our presence is requested; our participation is invited.  Don’t shy away for fear it won’t hold.  Lean in.  Trust it.  Be confounded by it.  Question it.  Study the text.  See how particular images and snippets of plot connect to images and snippets from elsewhere in the larger sweep (‘the season 1 promotional poster …’; ‘Dany’s dream …’; Genesis creation … ; Ezekiel’s vision … ).  Read beyond the covers of the book (tweets and talk show quotes; church tradition; individual experience).  This is our story to read, our story to live.  Story that rewards attention, that challenges, that sustains.  Story as God’s gift, given.  Read it devotedly and dynamically.  Reading it so, we can live it so.  And living it so — well that’s how we tell, and write, the ending God has written for us.

*Yes, I searched online to find and accurately quote Stuever’s March 29, 2013 review:

Step by Step

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.  So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying […] ‘I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’  If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”  Acts 11:1-4, 16-18

full Acts text for Sunday, May 19, 2019, Acts 11:1-18

At the beginning of the week, I came to this text knowing that it is about a key transition in the life of the early Jesus-followers:  the gospel going out to a community (a ‘house’) of non-Jews.  Now at week’s end, I take from the text the realization that it is as much about the process of life unfolding as it is about this particular pleat in God’s plan.

‘Step by step.’  

The text begins with a critical query on a practical aspect of being community — you ate with them? — and ends with all present recalled to the ideal that all peoples shall see the glory of the LORD (Isa 40:4), that ‘God shows no partiality’ (Acts 10:34), that ‘even’ the nations shall receive God’s gift of life (Acts 11:18).  The ending praise sounds as a crescendo after a silence of realization and reflection — Oh, this is what was promised then … seen in our-very now ….   The voices rise, rejoicing for God’s radically inclusive gift.  

Notice the mis-match?  They still haven’t figured out how that gift is to be lived.  Do we eat together?  Whose table do we sit at?  Whose recipes do we use?  That’s going to take longer to figure out.  (See Acts 15, Acts 21, 1 Cor. 8, Gal 2, and so on.).  Yet somehow that’s okay.  For now.  They’ve been recalled not just to praise of God’s plan but to renewed sight of it.

‘Step by step.’ 

This phrase applies not to each of Peter’s movements through the story but to Peter’s explanation of his movements.  ‘Step by step’ is how Peter reviews and reflects upon what had happened.  The prayer.  The vision.  The summons.  The Spirit.  Jesus’ words not just recalled but re-heard.  Peter hadn’t understood them because he hadn’t yet lived them.  Now he did, because he had.  And still there was more to live, and still more to learn.  Peter never saw the path in full — could his imagination have stretched so far?  (Could my own?) 

You ate with them?  Isn’t that the way of it?  We may recite the ideal almost unthinking, but pragmatic aspects of living sharpen the focus — and in revealing the stress points, invite us to look farther on.  Where are we headed?  Where is God guiding us?  And if the answers to these questions do not match, what then?  How can we be re-minded not just of but to the ideal.

’Step by step.’  A call to continually recalibrate our way and reform our imagination.  Maybe it’s walking that makes the way, but it’s telling that lets us see the way we’ve made and the way God calls us to and if or how the ways connect.   Step by step.  Look back to see where we’ve been; look here to see where our feet are planted now; look ahead to see as far as the next turn.  And then, once that stretch is walked, review and reflect and re-tell.  In order to rejoice and walk on ahead, so far as the next turn.

New Life, Again New

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.   At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.  Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.”  So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.  Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.  He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.  This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.  Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

Acts 9:36-43; text for Sunday, May 12, 2019

Tabitha is a disciple, the only woman in the New Testament so called.  Other women are described in ways that connect them with discipleship, but only Tabitha is explicitly titled.  She is introduced as ‘disciple’ before she is even introduced by name.  ‘Disciple’ identifies her as one who belongs to the Way (Acts 9:2), who ‘calls upon’ the name of Christ (Acts 9:14).  Before we know anything else about Tabitha, we know the most important thing:  Tabitha is one who lives the claim of resurrection, of new life in Christ.  And Tabitha dies.

Tabitha is dead.  She ‘became ill and died.’  She was washed and laid out.  Her fellow-disciples know she is dead, and they send for Peter.  Maybe they send as if in urgent query — how could death have taken one who claimed life?  Maybe they send in hope of comfort.  Maybe they send for witness — see, this disciple, this life given to good works, is ended.  ‘Attention must be paid.’  And, yes, maybe they send for Peter as if to collect on his proclamation that in Christ death is not the end of life.

By the close of the passage, Tabitha’s life is returned to her.  Peter prays and speaks her to rise, he helps her from her deathbed to her feet.  Peter shows Tabitha alive, and the report of her living spreads beyond the saints and widows to whom first she is shown until many in Joppa believe in the Lord.  

I read the story for Tabitha, as Tabitha.  How do I show myself alive?  How do we, who already claim identity as disciples, show new life?  After all, the story ends in the report that transforms.  If the report of Tabitha’s raising does not transform, perhaps it is because we who tell it need, first, to be waked by it ourselves.  To hear its voice saying, ‘Get up,’ and to open our eyes to its truth in our lives, to take its hand and be lifted to our feet, to realize that our own new life must be repeatedly renewed, so that our own renewed-newness can be the report that is told.

All Tabitha has to do to prove new life is show up alive.  Maybe that’s all that would have been visible:  Tabitha still a disciple and devoted to good works and charity.  But surely even the most ardent disciple would have been transformed by this bodily experience of God’s reviving power.  I imagine wonder leaping morning by morning at the sight of day, and even in the night joy deepening in the realization that nothing, nothing, is beyond God’s reach nor God’s desire to hold.  Tabitha’s new life must have embodied that shock in ways beyond the daily renewal of faithful discipleship, but in expectation of further and otherwise unimaginable transformation.  It may not have looked much different, but it cannot have felt the same, and surely, even subtly, that showed.

How do I live resurrection?  How do I embody not just the daily renewal of faithful discipleship but the conviction of further transformation in ways beyond my imagining?

Partly, perhaps, continuing to practice discipleship as ever:  feed the hungry, comfort the grieving, visit the prisoner, care for the sick.  Bear the name of Christ as if cupping in my hand a precious gift.  But somehow at the same time, expect to be borne by that name into relationship that may discomfit as well as delight, into newness I cannot yet know but only discover.  Or be discovered by.

Bearing the Word

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Acts 9:10-17; Text for Sunday, May 5, 2019

Saul will ‘bring my name’ to many, the Lord tells Ananias, who is reluctant to go to this man who has persecuted many who ‘invoke’ the name of the Lord.  Called upon in vision by that Lord, Ananias is taken aback, wonders if perhaps the Lord needs reminding of who Saul is, based on who Saul has been. 

‘Go,’ the Lord repeats.  ‘For he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people Israel.’  And in faithful duty, Ananias goes.  

Bringing the name.  Usually I read this and think of the work as verbal.  Something Saul is to say.  It is not only that I have in mind Saul’s later career — as he declares and proclaims and instructs and writes letter after letter — it is that speech seems implicated even in this particular passage.  The saints are those who (literally) ‘call upon’ the name of the Lord.  Ananias goes and speaks to Saul of the Lord Jesus, the one who had appeared to each of them.  To bring the name then is to say it, to utter words, or write them on flimsy slips of paper, or even cast them into the ether online.

But Saul is not literally to ‘bring’ Christ’s name. Saul has been chosen to ‘carry’ — bastazw — the name.  As one may ‘carry’ a pair of sandals (Matt 3:11), a jar of water (Mark 14:13), a purse or bag (Luke 10:4), or a cross (Luke 14:27).  

As a womb may carry a child (Luke 11:27).

Saul is not just to tell but to bear the name of the Lord. 

Now I hear the work differently.  It is more than the gusting of windy words — spirit-filled as they may be.  It is a tangible substance, with a palpable weight.  

Sometimes bearing it is a burden.  Shoulders sag; knees bend; back and mind and heart grow weary with the load.  Acknowledge this.  That a call to bear the name is a call to suffering:  the suffering of one who must encounter as brother an erstwhile enemy; the suffering of one who must go among strangers and love them as kin while counting his kin as strangers, leaving them to the care of the Lord.

And then comes the feeling that the weight may not be a chore but a foundation, a sturdy structure on which to stand, even a rod that stiffens the spine and lifts the chin and steadies the gaze.  That to bear the name is not to heft a heavy load but — to borrow the old rabbinic image — to be lifted by a pair of wings.

To bear the name of the Lord is to bear the life of the word within your own body, to give your own and only life to its nurture in the womb and in the world.  To know that life and body together are marked by the encounter with the name.  There was a before when I bore only myself, or so I imagined.  Now I bear the name … and reshaping my life around its substance, I find myself borne.