The Same Kinds of Suffering

face-masks by Paul Brown; photo by 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 by 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 by 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 by 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.’

Night Waiting

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:  This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. …

Exodus 12:1-2, excerpt from Exodus 12:1–4, 11-14, lectionary text during Holy Week, 2020

I am writing this on Good Friday.  It is night.  All day today the wind blew, great gusts of wind, soughing through the trees and around the house.  I sat at my desk and looked out the window at tall trees swaying back and forth and smaller trees bending on a swifter, tighter arc.  I watched and imagined the new green leaves of the pear tree and the cream blossoms of the dogwood holding tight as the wind played crack the whip with their branches.  I took a walk outside.  The wind buffeted my body and roared around my ears.  The afternoon was bright blue; white clouds scudded across the sky.  

Now it is night.  I listen and hear quiet and realize the wind has fallen.  The rising, rushing vigor of the day has ebbed.  Now is the dark; now is the waiting.

Exodus 12 is the text for Maundy Thursday, the celebration of Jesus’ last supper with his closest disciples.  Exodus 12 gives the Passover command, ‘take a lamb,’ and tells the reason.  The LORD is about to execute judgment on all the gods of Egypt, the false powers that enslave and oppress and destroy, but will ‘pass over’ the households which have marked their identity with the blood of the lamb.  Death shall not destroy these households that have marked themselves as God’s own.  Exodus 12 works well for this night too, for the Lamb has been lifted up.  There has been blood — enough for sign.  The work is completed.  But the work is not over.

I am writing this on Good Friday.  It is night and dark and quiet.  And I am waiting for the rest of the work. I am waiting for beginning.

‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.’  Of the whole passage, that is the phrase that has held me this week.  This month the beginning of months.  It came upon me unexpected.  I had remembered the lamb, the command to share, the girded loins and hurried eating.  I had remembered the preparation.  I had forgotten the beginning.  The word came as an unlooked-for present — a treasure to hold cupped in one’s hands, a tender seed to brood over and watch until it cracks and sprouts, sends forth roots and shoots and leaves, grows into something too great to be contained in one’s own grasp, something that withstands the strongest of winds.

‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.’  Beginning.  Not starting over.  Not returning again to some earlier point.  Beginning.  Going on through to the next.

This is the strangest Lent of my memory.  We gave up church — congregating our bodies as body, I mean.  We gave up going to work and school (aware of our fortune in being able to work and teach and learn from home).  We gave up going to the grocery on a whim, leaving the house even just to walk without a thought (aware of our fortune in having a house, a space in which to walk).  We gave up gatherings and plans, a careless ease, and — as a nation — any illusion (ill-founded as it was) of some inherent immunity to instability, to pain, to loss.

‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.’  Not going back to before, but beginning, going on to a new that cannot yet be seen, that can barely be imagined beyond the promise in the word itself — Beginning.

Tonight is Good Friday.  We held worship via Zoom, a liturgy of scripture readings and dramatic monologues.  A candle was extinguished after each; seven candles, one by one.  A soloist sang from his home, a capella, into his computer screen, ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord …’.   One candle was left.  The last speaker held it cupped in her hand, its flame lit her face as she prayed, then she placed it again on its stand.  Its light was small but steady against the dark.  A woodwind played ‘What wondrous love is this.’  On a whim, I changed to gallery view and saw on my screen the faces of forty-some households, each shown in its own neat square.   So many faces.  Each face was absolutely individual, yet all seemed to bear a common mark — an expression equally mixed of ache and of hope — borne of the words and of the music —  an awareness of separation and a longing for reunion.  Or so I read their faces, before tears came to my own eyes.

‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.’  Tonight is Good Friday.  It is night and dark and quiet.  I am waiting for beginning, and all the world as well, marked with the ache that is God’s own.

In a Broad Place

Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me in a broad place. 

Psalm 118:5; from Psalm 118

Psalm 118.  This is the psalm that welcomes Jesus into Jerusalem, Christians into Holy Week.   I preached with this text just a month ago.  A lifetime ago.  Before the virus was named pandemic and lock-downs were ordered and people lost jobs and tallies of illness and death took over the news.  I cannot re-cut that week’s word for this week’s need.  Can there be a new word?

Psalm 118.  I read it, and I reread it.  As if just reading will make the text grab like an insistent kitten — the text taking hold with tiny claws, pricking through the miasma of news and worry wrapped so thick around me, calling me to new attention and new hope.  I read the psalm, and it feels disjointed.  Too many themes and remembrances.  Snatches and pieces arranged in a crazy-quilt jumble, no coherence apparent. Individual patches stand out, if only for familiarity’s sake:  ‘The LORD is my strength and my might, he has become my salvation’ (v. 14); ‘This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it’ (v. 24).  These verses are more familiar in stand-alone form.  They seem strange set together and surrounded by the rest of the psalm.  Maybe the solution is not to seek meaning in a pattern but instead to go back to the start.  Turn to the first first-person recitation that follows the communal litany.  The opening imperative is plural:  ‘Praise!’  But then comes this verse, a recollection of when ‘I called’ and when the LORD ‘answered me.’

‘From distress, I cried out — LORD!  The LORD answered me in breadth.’  

The Hebrew gets its hooks into me. My translation is so rough as to seem literally meaningless.  God’s answer seems a non sequitur:  I cry ‘from distress’ and LORD answers ‘in breadth’?  As if God is not really harkening to my cry but humming along some other route, which scenic openness has no connection to the place of my pain.  No.  Go more deeply in.  The answer parallels the cry, and the parallel resonates in a way that catches me up short, pricks my attention, draws itself to my need.  My surprise at its rightness itself is almost delight.

‘From distress, I cried out.’  The word ‘distress’ is more literally a narrow place, a straits where one is cramped, restricted, hampered, constricted,* where one is hemmed in or bound up by enemies, circumstance, a virus.  From social distancing, I cried out.  From home-quartering, I cried out. From limitation, I cried out.  The LORD’s answer, then, is perfectly responsive:  

‘From constriction, I cried out — LORD!  The LORD answered me with breadth.’

The Jewish Publication Society translation preserves the parallel — ‘distress’ and ‘relief’ — while obscuring the spatial aspects of the cry and response.  The NRSV maintains the spatial aspect of the response but translates it as action, ‘the LORD answered and set me in a broad place.’  But is it that?  Is it that the LORD removes the psalmist from one place to another?  Or is it that the LORD renames the place, so that the psalmist reviews his own sight?

From the straits of pandemic-precautions and restricted outings and limited in-person interaction, I cried out.  And the LORD answered with breadth, open space.  The LORD said Lift your eyes and look out the window.  The day is fine and bright.  The wind blows white clouds across the deep blue sky, and the treetops that yesterday were all tan, a twiggy fringe against the sky, today are beginning to be hazed with green.  The LORD said, Listen!  The wind!  It rises and rushes and roars through the trees, sways the branches back and forth against the blue.

Part of life is narrowed now.  That narrowness is necessity — sensible precautions take for self and for others.  The necessity does not obviate the grief and stress.  Perhaps, instead, it makes plainer the grief and stress of the whole world, caught in the throes of this virus, the havoc it is wreaking on bodies individual and social.  It does, indeed, cramp my heart.  The psalm does not say otherwise.  The constriction is distress, is pain.  The LORD’s answer lays another truth alongside; the LORD’s answer comes with a broad space.  As if this breadth is equally true.  The breadth of a blue sky, the beauty of green leaves so sharp-shaped and yellow-new that it seems the tree branches are lined with tiny candle-flames.  

‘From distress, I cried out — LORD!  The LORD answered me in breadth’ — bringing me not out but deeper in, and on through, until the narrow strait opens into a broad place.

LookListenBreathe.  There is light and life and wind rising high.  For now it is enough.

*The range of possibilities comes from The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.

Bodies together; Body alive

The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.  He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”  Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.” 

Ezekiel 37:1-6; excerpt from Ezekiel 37:1-14, lectionary text for Sunday March 29, 2020

Tuesdays and Thursdays, I am up before light and I drive to Baltimore to teach.   Tuesdays and Thursdays, I get to the campus in time to walk across to the chapel before my first class, in time to go in and sit in its dim, in time to be bathed in the blue light of the great rose window above the altar, quieted by the quiet of the space, murmuring my heart to the listening silence.

Except now I don’t.  I don’t drive to Baltimore.  I don’t walk to the chapel.  I don’t sit in its sacred space.  Which shouldn’t matter.  God is not more present in that mystic-blue-rose-windowed sanctuary than in my florescent-lit basement, where now I sit and log on to Zoom, and see my students on Tuesdays and Bible study on Wednesdays and church on Sundays.  The physical space shouldn’t matter.  Yet it does.  Because I am a physical creature, a living being of breath and dust.  My soul needs my body’s walk across the green, the opening of the door, the entry in through the narthex, the encounter with that amazing blue glow.  These days, none of that can I have.

So I take my body upstairs to my bedroom desk.  I sit my body down and I open my book.  The light through the window is milk-pale in this grey day.  I take my pen in hand and set it to the page; I watch and hear the line of writing take shape — the black ink forming letters, the slight whispery scritch of pen’s progress across the paper.  Creating a space in which to listen, a space in which to be heard.  A valley for encounter.  Bodies all together:  me and the page and Ezekiel and God and the bones.

Ezekiel among the exiles, all of them having been carried off by an invading army, removed far away from the place the LORD had planted them, and ‘scattered’ among the nations.  Their home had fallen, city and temple and all. The ways they had experienced the LORD’s presence before were no longer available.

‘The hand of the LORD came upon me and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD’ — God’s body and the prophet’s body intersecting.  The ‘hand’ (in Hebrew a feminine noun) comes upon the prophet.  The LORD (‘he’) brings out the prophet by the spirit — ruach, a noun that recurs throughout the passage, translated ‘spirit’ (37:1, 14), ‘breath’ (37:5, 9, 10), and ‘wind’ (37:9) — and ‘rests’ the prophet in the valley.  A ‘valley’ filled with bones.  Many bones; very dry.  These are not even bodies anymore, but bones, sere and scattered.  

Where is the valley?  It is not the place where the exiles live.  What is the valley?  It is neither ‘wilderness’ nor ‘garden.’  It is something else, somewhere away, liminal.  The valley is the place of divine encounter — a happening so potent that the prophet’s body is significantly moved, whether falling on his face, lifted to his feet, brought up, set down, led around and around (37:2).  The prophet circumambulates the bones; listens to the LORD; is called to prophesy until bones are reassembled and re-enfleshed (37:8), until breath (spirit, wind) comes into them, and they stand erect and live, ‘a vast multitude’ (37:10), the ‘whole house of Israel’ (37:11), the body of God’s people.  

Our faith is the stuff of bones and flesh.  Even our worship participates in this physicality.  We stand to pass the peace, to hear the gospel reading.  We bow our heads and close our eyes as the prayer is said —  to see this movement across the pews is like seeing a field ruffled by the wind.  Wind, spirit, breath.  Do our physical postures summon that breath or respond to it?  Or is the synchronicity so perfect that the movement of the spirit and of the bone comes as one?  We worship without these particular postures right now.  Yet even as we cannot now bring our bodies to the same place, we are sharing glimpses of each other’s places — dining rooms and living rooms and desks set up in bedrooms and the pets wandering in to the Zoom screen — intimate glimpses of each other’s material settings  that oddly, perversely, make us more aware of each other in as material bodies in them, of our need for material encounter.  (Zoom worship ends, and folk stay online, waving and calling greetings.)

That awareness itself has the potential to transform, to recenter and remind us that Incarnation — God’s, our own — is our core claim.  God’s ‘Word became flesh,’ a flesh we gather to eat and to be: ‘body of Christ’ names both our central meal and our gathered identity.  Ezekiel experiences it in that valley.  God’s body is as active a participant in the encounter as the prophet’s:  God’s hand; God’s speech; God’s breath.  Then God’s words and the prophet’s voice together (Ezekiel prophesying as commanded, 37:7, 10) raising the bones into bodies, reviving the bodies into Body, the whole house of Israel, the entire people of God. 

Pause in my writing.  Look out the window.  Think further. God’s body present with and through us.  God’s body present as us.  Not because God needs our bodies in order to be present in the world or even sufficient in God-self, but because God does not want to be body without us.  The whole of us. 

Ezekiel’s valley is bodies brought together, transformed — the prophet’s caught up and called to walk around and speak aloud (‘Prophesy to these bones’), the bones revived into the living multitude, the whole house.  Ezekiel’s valley is here, and now.  We are newly aware of ourselves as bodies, newly aware of ourselves as Body, that awareness of ourselves accompanying encounter with the LORD.  The next movement is already promised:  we shall live (37:6, 14).

The right use of fear

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me; 
your rod and your staff -- 
they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4; from Psalm 23, lectionary text for Sunday, March 22, 2020

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, 
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. 

Proverbs 9:10

Thinking much about fear this past week, particularly the relationship between fear and faith.  I’m not the only one.   The Washington Post reports that in a certain Bible app, ‘searches for “fear” went up by 167 percent last week, and “fear not” by 299 percent.’*   

Institutions throughout my area — including the university where I teach — closed and moved work online.  Churches closed too.  More accurately, church buildings closed.  ‘Church’ remained open, with the community’s worship and prayer and study moved online.  News stories and social media feeds started covering this aspect of the coronavirus as a distinct thread within the larger tapestry of the new social pattern COVID is creating.  Of the various slants relative to the closing of churches, one that continued to recur was the tension claimed between fear and faith.  Most negatively, the relationship between fear and faith was presented as an intrinsic opposition, so that failure to gather physically for worship was failure of faith in God, elevating the power of the virus over the power of God.  In a more benign form, fear was admitted as natural, a human condition that we could offer to the LORD in trust of God’s comfort and cure.

‘Fear not,’ God repeatedly instructs, from Genesis (15:1) through Revelation (1:17).   ‘I will fear no evil,’ the psalmist sings, in laud and thanks of the LORD’s presence and comfort.   

But:  ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.’  The proverb offers fear in parallel with knowledge, not as something to be avoided. 

Fear does not oppose fidelity.  Rightly ordered, it is part of it.

Fear may be irresponsible or destructive — panic that destabilizes and debilitates individuals and communities.  Yet I wonder whether our fear of fear, so rooted in our national ethos (‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself,’ FDR famously said) is depriving us of an important learning about ourselves as creatures and our place in creation.  Fear reminds us that we are not in control.  The Bible reminds us that we were never meant to be in control.  Made in the image and likeness of God, yes; given ‘dominion’ over creation, yes.   Just ‘a little lower than God,’ yes.  But ‘like’ and ‘lower than’ God.  Not God.  We were never meant to be God.  Fear reminds us that we are limited. Fear may allow us to recognize and admit, again as if for the first time, the power that is outside of us, the power that is other, the power that is beyond.

Perhaps this is the value in the practice of fear.   Perhaps this is the lesson of a time such as this.  The scope of the risk is unknown, at this point unknowable.  We are required to acknowledge our ignorance and to admit our finitude.  Even — effectively — forced to admit the fear that is the shadow side of so much of our bright life, the worry both quotidian and ultimate that we hide under the thrum of busy-ness, the hectic pace of work or play, the anxiety that comes out only sometimes, in the wee hours of the night when the surrounding dark seems vast and terrible.  Daybreak comes, we push the night terrors down and away, and we spend the hours of light — again — acting as if we are in control, which pretense has as its implicit corollary, that we are God, or at least that we know God already so perfectly as to be able anticipate and respond to every circumstance.

The current pandemic proves the power of this virus.  Fear of it is not faithlessness.  Fear may be, instead, the beginning of the beginning of wisdom.  As we acknowledge the fear of what is finite, as learn to revise our own actions in response to its power — a power as impersonal as a wave — we may begin to realize how to practice the fear of what is ultimate and infinite.  Of Who is ultimate and infinite.

Fear does not oppose fidelity.  Rightly ordered, it is part of it.  It has the potential to teach. As we learn, may we be drawn further on and in to deeper and dearer relationship with God.

‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight’

*The Washington Post, ‘Worship goes virtual in age of social distancing,’ print 3/21/20

Weekly Shop in a Testing Time

He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” 

Exodus 17:7; from Exodus 17:1-7, lectionary text for Sunday March 15, 2020

I have never seen the grocery so busy on a Friday morning.  I take the last of the small carts and wipe it with the last of the sanitizing wipes from the dispenser.  Workers are restocking, yet there are gaps in the displays.  ‘No carrots?’ I say aloud, surprised.  The man who manages produce thinks there may be a case in the back.  (There is.)  A woman nearby tells me ‘They’re out of toilet paper.  It was the first thing I checked.’  Her daughter in California told her that toilet paper is not to be found; she herself is stocked up from Costco; she may send some rolls to her daughter.  The store is not lacking in vivid green St. Patricks Day cheer:  cardboard shamrocks sign displays of Kelly-frosted cupcakes, green-sugared cookies, and Irish soda bread (which is normal soda-bread color).  

The sense of something looming seems palpable in the presence and intensity of so many shoppers.  None of us here is obviously sick.  We don’t know when or if we will be.   Yet whatever anxiety each of us feels is shown — at least on this morning, in this place — in gestures of fellowship.  Confidences about the procurement of toilet paper; wry grins and comments in the checkout line.  (A line in which none of us maintain the recommended six foot distance.)   There is a camaraderie in the shared circumstance of unknowing.  Maybe because as yet the crisis is coming, but not fully here.  Is there something of this waiting time not just to savor but to save?  Something that we need to remember, to carry us through whatever it is that may come?

Israel in the wilderness.  Out from Egypt and not yet to Sinai.  Just saved from slavery, and on the way to covenant, and already this is the third instance of ‘grumbling.’  The people grumble for sweet water, instead of bitter (Exodus 15:24), and for food to eat (16:2-3), and now again for water to drink in this place where there is none (17:1).  The conflict has intensified.  The people ‘quarrel’ as well as ‘grumble’ (in the NRSV:  ‘complain’).  Their hostility has increased with their desperation.  They are unified in their demand:  ‘Give us water’ — all of us, as one, require drink.  

In the Hebrew, the demand then takes an interesting turn:  ‘Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill me and my son …?’  See what happened there?  The collective has become fragmented.  Suddenly what matters is not our need but my own, not our children, but my child.  It’s awkward in the Hebrew — the sudden singular ‘me/my’ — and entirely elided in the English translations, which maintain the plural ‘us/our’ throughout, as if that middle shift in number was a grammatical hiccup to be corrected instead of a signal of the people’s fear.  The need is real.  Water is necessary but there is no water for the people to drink.  The panic has set in — what’s at stake, each realizes, is my life, my child’s life.  Where there had been an all the people now there is each one of them.  For the moment of that phrase, the desperate urgency of their need revealed in the insistence on individuality.

The text ends with the place name explained — Massah-Meribah, Trial-Quarrel.  The people quarreled with Moses and tried or tested the LORD.  The final line, the accusation the people are accused of making, is what their quarrel sums to:  ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’  There is either the LORD in their midst or there is nothing.  This demand for water is a demand to know that the LORD is among them. God’s response to Moses takes seriously the need.  Water will be provided; the people will drink.   God will be present.  More than that:  God is present.  

‘See — me!’ the LORD tells Moses (‘hinneni’), or in the old form of the King James ‘Behold! — me — standing there in front of you.’  God’s speech can be translated and read as if its point is proper attribution of the miracle that will occur:  God will stand there, before Moses, and therefore Moses’ gesture will result in the life-giving flow of water.  But what if God’s speech is not just about divine power?  What if God’s speech is about divine presence?  After all, this is what the people’s demand for water sums to:  Is the LORD among us or not?  ‘See me,’ the LORD tells Moses.  It’s not just about the water.  It’s about God.  See:  God is standing there.

I walk home with a bag of groceries hanging from each shoulder.  The first yellows of spring — forsythia and daffodils and crocus — are being joined by soft pinks and creams of blossoming trees — magnolia, pear, cherry.  The wind is blowing and the branches sway and the air is billowing warm.  It is a beautiful day.  It is a strange season, unnerving with virus as well as flowers blooming.  We are all out of our ordinary.  Wandering this period of patterns disrupted and no idea when new ones will be set, or can be set, or even what they might be.  

At least one particular morning, in one particular grocery store, the result of each of us shaken out of our pattern seems to be that more of us were seeing each other.  Recognizing each other’s presence with comments and smiles and an unusually patient waiting in line.  Maybe that’s what we need to save and carry on into this unknown future, near term and far.  When the crisis comes full, when the fear becomes acute, when desperation overtakes — resist the urge to regard and cry out only for me, for my own.  Even when we keep our ‘social distance,’ spend days apart from others, move work and teaching and worship online, we must keep seeing each other — not only looking out for ourselves.  See especially those who are not online but restocking grocery shelves, caring for children, nursing the sick.  See each other.  Regard the ‘us’ of community.  

Is the LORD in our midst or is nothing?  That’s the question that the LORD answered, in providing the water and in speaking to Moses:  ‘See — me, standing before you….’  

Maybe the start of seeing the LORD standing, the LORD present in our midst, is by looking to see each other, the ‘us’ among whom the LORD is present.

Wandering Home*

Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there.  The days of Terah were two hundred five years; and Terah died in Haran. 

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the LORD had told him.

Gen 11:31-12:4a; expansion of lectionary text for Sunday March 8, 2020.

My name is Abram.

You will know me as Abraham Father of many.   You will know me as the rock from which you were hewn, your father of old, whose trust was reckoned as righteousness, who did not withhold even his own son.  You will know me as one who was called to go and who went.

But I am not Abraham yet.  My name is Abram.  And here, at the start of it all, I am not stepping surefooted into any future.  I am standing stunned in the remainder of what was.  I am seeing it as if for the first time clear-sighted.  I am realizing that what I’d taken for shelter turns out to be open to the sky.  I wonder if the ruin I now realize is something new or if I have only just noticed what always has been.   The shelter seemed sufficient; I never felt the rain.  But maybe it had not really rained before.  The ground around me is strewn with stones, as if the remains of a fallen building.  Not a home.  Maybe the foundation for one.

We left our homeland years ago, my father Terah and my wife Sarai and my nephew Lot and myself.  My brother already had died.  Our father determined to go.  We left our homeland, and we set out for Canaan, but we settled elsewhere on our way.  It was a place.  Good enough for its while.  It could not be home — always we were come-theres, not from-theres — but it was a place.  We spoke our language and we ate our food and we worshipped our gods and we were together.  And I was Abram.

Still I am Abram, but I am no longer sure who Abram is.  Was I more Abram when I lived in Ur, with my circle of kindred surrounding?  What happened, then, when my brother died?  When we left the land of my birth?  When we journeyed to another land?  The words and food and gods were different.  How was I Abram then?  And now?  My brother is died; my father now too. I have only just realized that I am adrift.  Not anchored in any place.  This no-place is is not in the land of my birth nor the land we had traveled toward.  We had settled here, and I had thought we had built here a stable shelter.   But now I look up and see broken walls unroofed, open to the sky.  Now I look around and see the  ground strewn with stones.  Maybe events have tumbled the building; or maybe we never had built the edifice we had imagined, the shelter we had thought we lived in.

Gather myself.  Clear the rubble into some sort of order.  Set the larger stones here; the smaller pieces there.  Maybe a new foundation can be laid.

Gather myself.  Or feel myself gathered.  Comes a voice.  A call.  The beginning of a new wondering.  Maybe the stones are not for building a home with walls and a roof.  Maybe the stones are for laying a road.  

I am Abram.  Called by God to get up and go. I am Abram, responding to God’s promise that through the process of wondering, and of wandering, I will arrive at the place that is called home.

* Genesis recounts Terah’s death immediately before the LORD’s calling of Abram, as if the two events occur in this order.  Elsewhere, Genesis lists the ages of Terah and Abram from which information it can be calculated that Terah did not die until well after Abram had left Haran.  But the text on its face suggests a chronological narrative:  ‘Terah died in Haran. Now the LORD said to Abram ….’  So that is how I read it this week.  See ‘Abraham and Sarah:  Genesis 11-22,’ in Narrative in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford Bible Series) Oxford University Press; (1993) by David M. Gunn and Danna Nolan Fewell.