Plaint and Praise

Egg by Elizabeth Brown; photograph (c) Katherine Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, we worship

Egg and photography (c) Katherine Brown

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tribulation and the Kingdom

Easter Egg and Photo (c) Katherine Brown

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

verses 4-7 from Revelation 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter changes everything. May our witness be true.

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: https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/tv/the-triumphant-return-of-hbos-game-of-thrones-were-not-worthy/2013/03/29/d9f24ee8-917c-11e2-9abd-e4c5c9dc5e90_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.4c0e7193b9d2