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.

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.

Choosing to Choose

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…

Deuteronomy 30:19; from Deut 30:15-20, lectionary text for Sunday Feb. 16, 2020

Choose.  That is the imperative I respond to tonight.  Choose.

The full phrase is actually ‘choose life.’  It is embedded in a longer passage.   Moses has been talking for 30 chapters, all the way from Deuteronomy 1, reminding God’s people of all God has been and done for them, of all they are called to do and to be in relation to God.  Here, in his culminating peroration, Moses sets out the dual possibilities (prosperity and adversity; blessings and curses; life and death;  Deut 30:15, 19), and crowns it all with this exhortation to choose life.

Choose, Moses says.  The imperative resonates.  Choosing is required of me.  But I am tired.  Bone-tired.  Too tired to look again at the text, too tired to ponder it more, too tired to write what I wonder.  The exhaustion is real, drags at my body, dulls my understanding.  I need some undemanding activity.   Reading words is too hard.  Wording thoughts feels impossible.

Choose, Moses says.  As if choosing is possible for me.  As if I have agency.  For all that I feel bound in my tiredness, burdened by To-Do’s yet undone, constrained by choices already made and carried out that have led to me here and, yes, tired.

Choose, Moses says. There is no better time than now — there’s no other time than now.  You were tired yesterday and, honestly, you’ll be tired tomorrow too.  Yes, you are living the sum of so many other choices already made — but so is everybody.  Every single one of us has it so.  We live now with the choices made yesterday and a year ago and a decade before that; we live the result of the choices that we made in those years past and the choices others made as well.  It is a complicated web that connects and ties us all.  And it is a web still being woven, threads untied and re-tied and new-spun into wider weaving.

Choose, Moses says.  Choosing is required.  Choosing is possible.  The past has happened, yes, and I am here, and I am tired.  Yet I am not ended, the web is not closed, the future is not determined.  There is the next choice to be made and walked on into and through, and then the next after that.  My agency is limited.  The ultimate sum is beyond my control.  But I can choose some of the addends.  I can choose to resist exhaustion that comes so close to hopelessness.  I can choose to persist in intentional effort.  I can choose to read and to ponder and to write my wondering.

Choose, Moses says, granting me choice as both duty and as gift.

And, choosing the text, I find that my exhaustion recedes that bit.  There’s energy gained as well as spent (none wasted) in the work of wording my wondering, energy come from imagining — hoping — that my words truly are resonating at the same frequency as the words of the text.

The energy ebbs.  The tiredness is true, after all.  But the effect of the resonance lingers even as I save the document, close my computer, ready for bed.  I am allowed and able to choose.

Choose the work.  Realize the life.  

Open the Door

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.  Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Isaiah 58:1-9a; lectionary text for Sunday, February 9, 2020

A voice like a trumpet wails shrill and harsh.  I read God’s anger at the powerful for their abuses.

Yet in the LORD’s “as if” I imagine not some rapacious ruler but a greedy child who cannot understand why his demands are not met:  I said please; I asked nicely.  A child trying to play the game without having read the rules through; mistaking both the object and the process.  A child stubborn in his mistake, insistent on his own way, loudly protesting and beating his pudgy fists against the door.  A child hauled from an expectation that all would be well into a world where it is not.  Where the cry is unheard; the door is left shut.

Why?  Why?  Why?

I show up on Sunday.  I give of my gifts.  I’m courteous to the grocery clerk, let the car merge in front of me, throw my litter into the proper bin, volunteer at my children’s school.

The trumpet-voice is tempered. Flailing fists are caught and firmly held, hard questions asked.

For whom are your good manners truly given?  Are your gracious courtesy, your public tidiness, your carefully-calendared exertions owed only to yourself?  Do you give because of who you are – or because of who I Am?  Do you worship your own humility – or My glory?

The trumpet rings clear again.  This is the end of it all; this is the way to that end:  love God and love your neighbor – love God by loving your neighbor – love your neighbor because you love God.  With your bread and your clothing and your home.  With your heart.  With yourself.

Now the trumpet sings infinitely gentle. It is all one: end and beginning and way.  Love. 

I love you.  My light shall dawn upon you; my glory will be given you; I will always be with you.  

Stop pounding on the door as if it is locked.  Turn the handle. See?  It opens. Won’t you come in?

Here I am. Here I am.

*originally written Feb 2011

Telling Stories

Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the LORD has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD.”

“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:1-8; lectionary text for Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020

Our larger family gathered mid-January this year, a delayed Christmas reunion.  The house grew full of bodies and of voices and the good smell of food.  We talked and calculated and realized with some surprise that it had been a few years since all five grown siblings had been in the same place at the same time.  We shared news of job changes, house moves, graduations, school and sport accomplishments.  And then — almost as if that catch-up was but ground-clearing — as ever we do, we found ourselves telling the stories that we always tell, stories of hilarious catastrophe, not forgetting the one that culminates with one sibling saying ‘Superba by Hobart!’ while another laughs herself to tears. It’s as if those old stories are some necessary touchstone.   We need to retell them to renew ourselves in relationship.  So that we can tell new stories to each other, together.

Stories.  Accounts.  Narratives.  Words strung together into meaning.  I’ve been thinking again how much they matter.  I try to tell one person about another and I can offer lists of adjectives — ‘She is this … or this other’ — but it’s the story I can tell about an experience shared that tells so much more.  The mother of one of my friends was someone profoundly interested in other people and their stories.  When introducing one person to the other, she offered each acquaintance to the other as if offering a treasure, something precious and profound — trusting that each would be enriched by knowing the other, by learning something of their story.  

And so I come back to this Micah text.  It starts with a dispute form — a call to rise and plead your case, a call to creation to hear the LORD’s controversy.  It ends with the beautifully simple summons to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly.  And it pivots on the evocation of story retold and people reminded.  Reread those middle verses:  ‘I brought you up from the land of Egypt … I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.’  Remember Balak and Balaam, from Shittim to Gilgal… This is not a list of the LORD’s actions, a drumbeat of debts accrued by Israel.  This is a litany of remembrance.  Remember the story of Exodus?  Remember how Moses and Aaron confronted Pharaoh?  Remember how Miriam led the people in song?  Remember how Balak tried to have God’s people cursed and Balaam refused?  Remember how God invited the people to be ‘for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation’?  Remember, remember, remember.  

This is a treasure,  precious and profound.  Remember the stories.  They are where the text turns.  We cannot get from dispute and controversy to renewed commitment without going through the stories because the stories are how we learn and relearn ourselves in relationship.  So that we can tell new stories, to each other, with the LORD.

This is a treasure.  Picture it so:  the LORD’s arms outstretched and cupped in God’s hands, held with infinite care and offered with generous grace, all the stories of God in relationship with God’s people. We are enriched by these stories. We are brought into ourselves. Doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God.

Red Sky in Morning

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Isaiah 9:2-4; from Isaiah 9:1-4, lectionary text for Sunday January 26, 2020

The days I teach, I set off for work in the dark, and by the time I arrive it is day.  Driving through earth’s quotidian turning is one of the consolations of having to wake so early.  How does the light come?  I close my eyes and try to see it on the insides of my eyelids.

How the light comes.  First the sky begins to glow.  Night’s midnight blue takes on a suffused purply hue then softens to lighter shade.  When the sky is clear, light’s coming shows as a nuanced series of variations as the sky shades from mystic violet to indigo to chambray, each shift so fine that I realize the series only when I recognize the sum of them:  Oh, the sky is blue.  It is different when there are clouds.  The sun begins to light them even before it has risen above the horizon.  Still itself unseen, the sun tints the clouds raspberry and coral and peach and lemon.  The clouds catch fire, flare with amazing colors, become the sun’s heralds, proclaim coming.

‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’  

It is the clouds that make light’s coming so wonderful, that blare it with such fanfare.  Yet they proclaim not just light but storm. ‘Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.’   

‘For the yoke of their burden and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.’  This is a battle image.  Gideon and his 300 and the LORD’s triumph of blaring trumpets and flaring torches and shouts and clamor.  [Judges 7]  It is not a peaceful dawning but victory sounding.  God breaking apart the enemy — loudly, violently, irrefutably.

I’m not sure I like that part.  In my mind’s eye I was watching for the light.  Now suddenly I’m waiting for a storm, listening for the wind to rise, to hear trees creak loudly as they sway, and to wonder what will happen if one comes crashing down.  

I have walked in darkness.  I pray for light.  For the bars that weight shoulders to be lifted away, rods wielded by oppressors to be broken.  But I am aware that privileges of my life burden others, and structures that sustain me oppress others.  The rod broken by the LORD may be to me both freeing and jarring.  (What did Israel do once fear of Midian no longer united them?  Was the rejoiced-over spoil enough to divide or did the plunder cause new division?).  

I have walked in darkness.  I pray for light.  Light to break the dark and light to show the brokenness in the day.  Light enough to see by and light enough to have my sight transformed so that I can rejoice and not resent, can greet it with without fear but with exultant joy.

I pray, LORD, that I may pray for light.  I pray, LORD, that I may welcome it as it comes.

Spending Strength

Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.”

And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the LORD, and my God has become my strength – he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Isaiah 49:1-6, excerpt from Isa 49:1-7, lectionary for January 19, 2020

Another week in one of Isaiah’s ‘servant’ texts.  Last week the LORD was the speaker.  We read and saw God as if gesturing to an audience, saying, ‘See — my servant!’ (Isa 42:1), then turning and addressing the chosen one directly:  ‘I have called you … I have given you’ (Isa 42:6).  This week the servant — first spoken of, then spoken to — becomes the speaker:  ‘The LORD called me … said to me …’ (Isa 49:1, 3).  Not every word is the servant’s own — the LORD is quoted — but the LORD’s words are recited in the voice of the servant, who recalls and repeats words first addressed to him:  ‘I will give you as a light to the nations …’. 

But whose voice is the servant’s?  

I wonder this every week as I read.  What license do I have to take the words of scripture as addressed to me, an individual?  How can I appropriate them to my own need when they were spoken to and for and gathered by a community of faith?  Should I not always search the words of the Bible for the Word of the LORD given to the collective, God’s guidance to the public ‘We’ of the community, persons gathered across space and time, not just the personal ‘I’?  

In whose voice — for whose need — should I read?  In whose voice does the servant speak?  Is the servant a community (‘You are my servant, Israel’)?  Is the servant an individual (one formed in the womb to gather Israel in)?  How can Israel gather Israel?  Perhaps this puzzle is itself a cue to a solution?  After all, if the text can so persistently blend and blur the identity of community and individual so that the servant’s identity is more ‘both/and’ than ‘either/or,’ is that not license for me to do the same?  To say this text is to me and not only to me.  To say I can only understand it to the extent I can read my own life through its lens — and it through my own life.  And to say it can only be understood to the extent that it is read and lived in community.

The curve encompassed by this passage is experienced by individuals and by communities:  the conviction of failure, of having spent one’s strength to no avail.  Is that not an implicit disappointment in the LORD who had called so beguilingly in the first place?  

(My mouth made like a sharp sword; my face flint-firm; my stance solid on a sure foundation — Wait! It is wobbling underfoot! I throw out my arms to regain my balance.  And I wonder anew.)  

Read the arc of it how you will:  individual or community. Both pursue calling. Both make decisions about missions and buildings and relationships. Both look up to wonder if they/we/you/I are adrift after all, somehow off-target to the understood goal.  Both ask for what has that strength been poured out?  

This wobble — the speaker’s worry that labor has been wasted — is where the text turns, the arc sharpens.  In v.4 the servant mourns his strength all spent; in v.5 the servant claims God his strength — and in this renewed sense of relationship and possibility (not just God calling the servant ‘mine’ but the servant using the possessive pronoun of God) — comes a new insight.  The servant’s fear of failure is borne of mistaking a waypoint for the end goal.  The servant Israel has thought in terms of Israel alone.    The servant (he/I/you/we) was focused on this particular and mistook it for God’s whole.   But the LORD says Oh, Israel is too light a thing — I am sending you to the world.  To the world.

Is that the lesson?  It is too slight a thing for me to gather just myself (for a community to consolidate just its own existence) — yet even that too-small burden is beyond my capacity.   Stop spending my own strength.  Spend, instead, the strength of the one who called me and formed me and gave me to go.  To the world.

And in being given, and going out, may I find myself (may you find yourself; may we find ourselves) gathered in with all the nations, as God’s salvation reaches the ends of the earth.

Holding Hands

Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Isaiah 42:5-9 (excerpt from Isa 42:1-9, lectionary text for Sunday, January 15, 2020)

My route home from work passes within a few blocks of an elementary school.  A florescent-vested crossing guard monitors the six lanes the students need to cross.   A woman comes with a small child.  They walk hand in hand, step in step.  A daughter holds her father’s hand.  His grip seems inadequate for her desiring:  she takes her other hand and carefully folds her father’s fingers around her own, tightening his clasp.  A woman calls to a child who is lagging behind.  He is studying the ground — that stick there is very interesting — and shows no conception of the passage of time, the need to get across the road, or of any next thing to be done.  She calls again, and holds her arm behind her, hand outstretched, and the child trots up and extends his own and she latches hold of him.  He seems still preoccupied with the various excessively interesting details of the world all around, but as her hand takes hold, his own seems also to respond and grasp.  She holds him, and he holds her, and the two of them cross.

‘I have taken you by the hand,’ the LORD says.  My own hand opens.  I study it as if seeing it anew.  ‘I have taken you by the hand.’  Called, yes — that’s a church word for vocation.  Called and righteousness and keeping and covenant.  All church words.  But not only — not even first — words for use in a sanctuary on Sunday.  Words for everyday.  Words for crossing the street.  Calling.  Taking hold.  

The LORD calls and not only stretches out his arm, extends his hand for my own to hold (the parent not looking behind but waiting for — expecting — the feel of the smaller hand inserted into her own), but the LORD takes hold of my hand.  The LORD grasps.  The LORD holds on to me.  Do I need to carefully curl God’s fingers more closely around my own fist or is God’s clasp already close enough for comfort and strength?  How do I feel God’s hand holding mine?  How do I reach to hold on to God’s?

Looking at my own hand, my own palm.  Fingers curl sightly inward when my hand is at rest; forming a slight hollow, a curve, within it.  I stretch out my arm and reach and grasp my Bible with my hand.  I feel the texture of the cover, the slight heft of its whole within the curve of my palm.  Jesus was handed the scroll and unrolled it (Luke 4:17).  Jesus held God’s word in his hand.  I hold God’s word in my hand.  I open and touch the smoothness of the page with my finger.  Let my eyes rest, again, on the tiny black type.  I am reaching for God’s own outstretched hand.  I am taking hold.  I am held and kept and pulled along (that little boy!) into God’s next new thing.

‘I am the LORD,’ God declares.  ‘My glory I give to no other,’ God proclaims.  But my hand I give to yours, God promises. And you, God says, I give to the work that we shall do together:  open eyes, invite light.  Hold my hand.  It’s time to cross.