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.

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.’

Touch

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.