The middle school does not have its own auditorium, so concerts are held at the high school. Tonight’s concert is chorus and orchestra. The auditorium is a cacophony of noise; talking, laughing. Students cavort; parents visit. Odd squeaks sound as one instrument is bowed, then another – individuals rehearsing the awkward bits, each of them alone, not yet in concert. Punctuating the chaos comes the tinkle of piano keys as the accompanist runs through the songs, adding a spritely rhythm to the random-patterned, rising-falling noise.
The chorus director gathers her brood onto the risers. There is some awkward stomping and giggling but no crashes. She sketches a movement with her hands, and the chorus begins to sing a scale – soft voices, vulnerable. On the other half of the stage, the orchestra director sets the beginning strings to tune; they scratch and squeak. The advanced orchestra waits, clustered in little groups, some kneeling backwards in their seats, chatting and laughing.
The concert begins with the chorus, continues with beginning strings. Then the advanced orchestra moves onto the stage.
The performers take their seats. They settle sheet music on the stands; they ready instruments. After a pause, a dark-haired girl — the first violinist – stands, tucks her violin under her chin, and draws her bow across its strings. A single note sings solitary. Is then joined by others, as bows are drawn across violins and cellos and a bass. The notes come in slightly different times and keys until the wavering dissonances are resolved and merge. The director enters, bows, lifts his baton, motions the music to begin.
I love that initiating note … the others that join…. The potential of all the music to come is held in that long-drawn not-quite-chorded note. There will be carols and dances and a concerto by Liszt. But first there is this note, offered up, fragile and tenuous and pregnant with possibility. As small and frail and potent as a baby born God-With-Us. A note begun sweet and solitary. A note rehearsed year after year, across seasons and generations, in different keys and rhythms, until all the instruments are added, and the dissonances drawn together, and the music swells in full power and one song.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge for the poor and decide with equity for the oppressed of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
It is the seeming rejection of sense perception that catches me when I read Isa 11. Not the ‘wolf living with the lamb’ or any of the peaceable kingdom images. Not the ‘shoot’ coming from the ‘stump of Jesse,’ the ‘little child’ leading; the promised ’root’ Paul claims as Christ [Rom. 15:12]. It’s the fact that this coming one shall not judge by his eyes nor decide by his ears [Isa 11:3].
That forswearing of senses strikes at odds with the prophet’s earlier proclamation to ‘Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes’ [Isa 6:10]. If sensory deprivation is prophesied as the LORD’s judgment, and restoration of vision and audition is prophesied as the LORD’s coming grace [Isa 35:5-6], then how am I to understand the mission of this promised shoot? The one who ‘shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear’ but will judge with righteousness and decide with equity [Isa 11:3-4]? Isaiah 11 sets sight and sound in opposition to righteousness and equity, complicating the idea of a simple progression from blindness to sight. This text describes vision and audition as senses whose usefulness is suspect.
I compare translations; consult lexicons; search scholarly articles. The shoot from the stump of Jesse shall ‘delight in the fear of the LORD,’ or perhaps shall ‘sense’ in the fear of the LORD (as the JPS translation suggests). ‘Fear of the LORD’ is the sixth of the spirit-gifts which shall rest upon him: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and fear of the LORD [Isa 11:2]. A variety of values (near-synonyms?) for that which should undergird right judgment. Not the seeing of eyes nor the hearing of ears but fear of the LORD, the ‘beginning of wisdom’ [Prov. 9:10].
Does it seem backwards to describe knowledge as a spirit-gift, rooted in reverence? Do we trust what is taught or do we conceive of learned interpretation as less reliable than direct perception? Sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. Our senses are how we apprehend the world around. Our senses are the basis of our witness of and in the world. We know what we saw, we declare, we know what we heard.
Except we don’t. Not really. Sight is interpretation. When we look at light and dark, lines set on a page or shapes shifting in the world around, we don’t just see but interpret the form and the movement. More than that, until we learn it, we may not even see it.
This is what I learned from learning Syriac. Syriac script is consonantal. Vowels are written as tiny marks added around the consonants like some sort of decorative surround. Syriac vowel shapes are varied, and when first I encountered them they seemed to me random squiggles. They were to me literally indecipherable. I consistently floundered in my guesses as to which vowel was which until finally the professor said, Can you not see the letters? She enlarged the pages double-sized so that the squiggles stood out clear to my sight. Only then could I see: each was distinct, had a different shape, stood for a different sound. I had to learn the details writ large before I was able to see them writ small.
I couldn’t see them until I knew them.
We don’t know what we see; we see what we know.
We cannot judge by our own sight until we are taught how to see.
The prophet does not reject sense perception so much as require its right re-ordering, calling us to learn righteousness and equity. Instruction is promised; the Word will flow from Zion [Isa 2:1-5]; calling people to walk God’s holy highway and to sing joy [Isa 35:8-10].
The sprig sprung from Jesse’s line is like the ‘child who has been born for us’ [Isa 9:6] or the ‘servant’ whose tongue is taught [Isa 50:4]. The church reads these as Jesus, who told those who asked to ‘Go and tell what you hear and see’: blind eyes seeing, deaf ears hearing [Matt 11:4-6]. (Jesus’ juxtaposition of sense terms suddenly makes me wonder if he thought by his answer to open the ears and eyes of those who had asked!)
The sprig sprung from Jesse’s line may be read as Jesus. Yet reading Jesus in this text does not exhaust its possibilities. It promises not only ultimate judgment and ultimate restoration, but also proposes a way to wait in the meanwhile. I cannot see and hear and study to save myself. But I can be reminded that my sight and hearing are limited by what I know and re-called to look and listen and study to be in relationship with the world. Copy righteousness and equity over and over until their shapes are fixed in my hand and my eye. Recite fear of the LORD with my lips and mouth. Walk God’s instruction with my feet. Practice sight and hearing and pray sense enlarged with ‘the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea’ [Isa 11:9].
[Jesus said:] ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’
Are we there yet?’ It’s a familiar phrase. Perhaps heard by some of us as we braved the highways for Thanksgiving reunions. Along with its close relation, ‘How much longer?’ Or our own family’s peculiar version: ‘How many more ‘Almosts’? As in, ‘Are we Almost There, or almost Almost There, or …?’ When our girls were small, the Almost was a variable measurement, not directly correlated to miles or time, although obviously linked to both and affected by traffic. Besides this, the Almost adjusted to accommodate conditions inside the car: shorter tempers could mean shorter intervals between Almosts, as the quicker countdown suggested swifter progress towards the goal. On the other hand, the official Almost tracker (me) was known to deliberately hold a particular Almost an inordinately long time when the question was asked just-too-often.
The disciples in Matthew’s gospel ask their own version. ‘Tell us,’ they say privately to Jesus, ‘when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ (Matt 24:3). That is the question that Jesus answers in the beginning of this passage when he says, ‘But about that day and hour no one knows.’
Actually, Jesus’ speech is longer than that. The disciples’ question is back at verse 3, and Jesus talks for 33 verses, telling of false messiahs and heavenly portents, of betrayal and suffering and steadfast commitment, of the birthpangs of the world, before looping back to their query with a response that is not really an answer. ‘When?’ they had asked. ‘No-one knows,’ Jesus replies. I suspect it’s not the answer desired; I trust it is the answer needed.
The disciples are on a journey with Jesus. They have repeatedly re-calibrated time-till-arrival. They ask ‘When’ and want to hear ‘Almost’ because they don’t want the ‘Now’ they’re living to continue as it is.
We know that. ‘How long?’ we ask when our present is being endured, rather than enjoyed. We can face the journey if we’re actually almost there. Or almost Almost There. When we are fully present, connected, immersed in the experience — sharing meals or telling stories or singing songs along the way — then we look up, surprised at how the time has flown, and we say ‘Already?’ rather than ‘When?’
‘When?’ the disciples ask. Because life in an occupied land is hard. Because they are tired of oppressive division and injustice. Because they are eager to see God’s promises of salvation realized. Because it is so close. Isn’t it? Matthew’s gospel is 28 chapters long, and the disciples are already in chapter 24 — they must be Almost There!
Some 2,000 years on, Jesus’ disciples still live in a time of uncertainty and uneasiness, of oppressive division and injustice, still read tribulation and know pain and cry out in protest. When are you coming to make it all plain, Lord? When are you coming to save?
‘About that day and hour no one knows,’ Jesus replies, re-timing our attention from ‘that hour’ to this one.
This is the hour we are to heed; this is the hour we are to live.
We are not invited to endure this time — waiting with breath held, jaw clenched, fists gripping so tight our knuckles pale — nor to escape it — reverting to some fictional past, dreaming of a pie-in-the-sky future.
Jesus invites us to know this time. Eating and drinking and marrying. Working in the field and in the house. Or the office or the school. Living in the here and in the now. Busy with and alongside of others. Jesus does not just re-direct attention to this must-be-lived present, he describes a busy-ness that joins people together. Dividing lines are not drawn until the ‘when’ of which Jesus does not tell us. That end comes in God’s time, at God’s judgment, in fulfillment of God’s goal of intimate presence and ultimate salvation (Matt 1:21-23). Meanwhile, there is work to do. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, welcome the stranger (Matt 25:31-46)
Are we there yet? No. Christ’s return will be unexpected but as unmistakable as lightning streaking across the sky, as irresistible as a flood that comes or a thief that breaks in to take.
Maybe that’s why God doesn’t tell. Because we are too small to bear it rightly. Because we can’t live just counting down to the future, holding on until it comes. We have to live in the present. Deeply. Devotedly.
Devoted to God. Devoted to our neighbor. The neighbor I know and love, and the one I don’t yet know or don’t yet love. Not drawing lines that divide but sharing burdens among — seed time and harvest, grinding and baking. Feeding the hungry. Tending the sick. Welcoming the stranger. Working diligently and watching vigilantly until that day.
How many more Almosts? Fewer than when Matthew first wrote. ‘Therefore you also must be ready.’ And awake.
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
Isaiah 35:4-7; excerpt from text for Sunday December 15, 2019, Isaiah 35:1-10
The sound blares, breaking the night. The dark that had come as a comforting unity as soon as I turned off the lamp is split into bits. I find myself standing beside my bed, phone in my hand, bare feet somehow colder than the bare floor, with no conscious recollection of how I went to vertical from prone. It is not good news. It never has been, these calls that come in the dark. This time, at least, I am being told, not summoned. I can return to my bed, which is still warm. I can pull the covers over. I can fall back asleep. Except, of course, I cannot do the last. Not immediately. I am still too aware of my heart’s pounding.
‘Say to those of fearful heart,’ the prophet addresses the people. The opening imperative is plural, ‘You, all of you, say …. ’ The once-removed addressees are plural as well: all of those whose heart is hastening. Those who need the word are multiple, yet they are one in the characterization of their shared heart. It is not in the Hebrew, ‘fearful’: the word used to describe the heart is different than the verb in the command not to fear. Their heart is ’hasty,’ ‘swift,’ ‘rash,’ or ‘impetuous.’ (The alternate glosses come from other verses where the same verb is used.). Their heart is racing. Whether the news come is unexpected or long-dreaded or still only anticipated, not yet here, they find themselves standing in the cold dark, heart pounding, with no clear recollection of how they got there nor a clear vision of what comes next.
The prophet gives them the latter, at least. The prophet promises their God coming with ‘terrible recompense’ to save. Rather, the prophet commands the people (‘You, all of you, say’) to say the word of saving. Not just to save generically, generally, but to ‘save you.’ You plural. You whose heart is racing in apprehension, in reaction, in fear. Be strong. Do not fear. The prophet foretells sight and hearing, leaping with the height and grace of a deer, songs exultant rising to the sky. The promise is wonderfully, deeply embodied — this salvation is not something away from this world but something that transforms our experience of this world, something that transforms the world itself. The desert springs with water. Burning sand becomes a pool. Human and earthly reviving are woven in together, as if each — both — are necessary parts of the exact same whole.
The transformation has not come. Not yet. Nor does the prophet say that it has. Eyes shall be opened; ears shall be unstopped. Shall be so — surely so — just not yet. But even to say it coming marks a change. The prophet previously heard from the LORD regarding the people’s heart and eyes and ears: the heart made fat, or dull, the eyes shut, the ears stopped (Isa 6:10). Some 30 chapters on, that period of incapacity is coming to a close. This heart is not dull, insensitive, unable to respond. This heart pounds, races, in reaction to what has come. The people are becoming again awake. Awake again to know their need. Awake again to given a word of renewal of sight and hearing and dancing and song, the desert itself rejoicing and the dry land made glad. All creation redeemed by its creator. Be strong. Do not fear.
I don’t live in a desert. And, in truth, the awareness of my own heart’s racing is (again) too new for a word of comfort to be heard, for the promise of saving to feel near. But it matters, yet, to know that the word is said, that God’s purpose has turned from one phase to the next. As if I and others might — in time — be turned with it.
I walk on the paved path by the creek. Sometimes, the water seems glass-still. But the water cannot be still. This is a creek, not a pool. Sligo flows to join the Northwest Branch, and together they run into the Anacostia which flows into the Potomac which joins the Chesapeake which itself flows into the ocean. I look, and I see glass rather than motion. But the water cannot be still. There must be motion because this is a creek. I have to stop walking to see it. I have to stop walking and look a long while at the water’s glassy brown color and the leaves floating atop it. Only when I myself have stopped walking and have looked and have fixed my sight on the leaves, then I begin to be able to see: the leaves are moving; I can measure their subtle progress against the bank. But I had to look long to realize it was happening all along. The word of the LORD is told in the motion of the water.
Yes, my heart is pounding. Yours is racing too, for whatever night noise brought you awake, for whatever dread outcome has occurred in actuality or expectation. It is awful. And it is not the end. It begins the summons of the LORD — God speaking to all of us, for none among the people (not even the prophet) have not known that fear, that grief, that ache. So all of us are called by God to strengthen the weak hands, firm the feeble knees, and share the news with all of us — each other — we whose hearts race and flutter and pound in our chests: Be strong, do not fear. The LORD our God is coming to save. The movement is subtle but it is sure. You do not need to sing, not yet. But know that — soon — creation itself shall sing for and with you.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
Isaiah 11:1-3; excerpt from Isaiah 11:1-10, lectionary text for Sunday Dec. 8, 2019
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” […] But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Matthew 3:1-2, 7-10; excerpt from Matthew 3:1-10, lectionary text for Sunday Dec. 8, 2019
When are we in God’s work as a dresser of trees. How far along? That’s what I wonder as I read these two texts together. I am struck by the confluence of images and the dynamic possibilities between. Isaiah writes of a shoot springing from Jesse’s stump, of a new branch growing from old roots. Matthew recounts John the Baptist’s threat that ‘even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.’ Is God is the middle of hat-racking the bush that out of it a new branch might grow? Or is God rigorously chopping at the very root, cutting down the fruitless tree to burn the wood? Or are these perhaps the very same when: is the ax John describes as lying there at the root, set on the ground for work yet to come, as if this ‘even now’ is not yet the last moment. In which case, what is the next now to anticipate? And what do we do with this one?
To ‘hat-rack.’ A verb I did not know until a few years ago when Paul so extensively chopped back our overgrown holly bush that only bare branches remained, branches looking unusually naked without their usual dress of leaves and berries. Not a single leaf was left; nor any twigs. Not even a single leaf. Surely the bush was as good as dead. But it was not so. The sturdily bare branches broke out in bouquet-like clusters of twigs; leaves reappeared, as dark and glossy a green as any of those that had been hacked off; the bush’s life seemed revived.
Jesse’s stump is no shrub, of course. An oak is a tree which is felled, rather than hat-racked. Yet now when I read Isaiah’s text the memory of that hat-racked holly shows through the primary image of the rough-cut stump. Jesse’s stump is not desiccated and dead, with the new shoot an unexpected miracle, so much as the tree cut back to allow or encourage that new shoot to appear. The branch is a promise not as a surprise. It is springier than the old wood, and a slightly brighter color, and once it appears, the deep green leaves are soon to follow: wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the LORD.
I have always read John the Baptist’s words as a description of God’s wrathful judgment: the ax already set to its work; the tree already being cut down; the end already begun. But this year, I read Matthew’s text in conversation with Isaiah’s, and I realized the ax is ‘lying’ at the root. It is not striking wood. It is not being swung. It is lying there. Waiting. It will be used, John says, to fell the fruit-less trees for burning. It will be used to fell the fruitless trees. So bear fruit, John urges. Yes, John calls the religious leaders viper’s brood. Yes, John speaks of wrath and of flame. The gospel is not a gentle text. It is violent in its urgency. ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Bear fruit. Bear fruit. For the kingdom.
Because the shoot from Jesse’s stump has sprung, with the spirit of the LORD upon him. But we are not yet in that peaceable kingdom that the prophet describes. The wolf and the lion do not live peacefully with the lamb and the calf and the little child. We do not even live peacefully with each other. We hurt and destroy ourselves and our world, and the earth is not yet full of the knowledge of the LORD even as the sea levels are rising. Isaiah’s vision is full of grace if it’s read just in itself. But Isaiah’s vision is judgment when it is read against the world, when it is read against we who call ourselves the body of the branch which sprang from Jesse’s stump.
Then I go back to the violence of John the Baptist’s proclamation and hear that the divine dresser of trees is not done. Even now the ax is resting at the root. Maybe it will cut back the fruitless branches for new growth. So that we may do as we can, as we are charged to do. Bear fruit.
The shoot from the stump of Jesse has sprung, the branch has grown out from his roots. The kingdom of heaven has come near. Even now.
I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the LORD!" Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem built as a city that is bound firmly together. To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD. For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: "May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers." For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, "Peace be within you." For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good.
Psalm 122; lectionary text for Sunday December 1, 2019, Advent 1
The first Sunday of Advent. Thanksgiving cooked and eaten and cleared away (and several packets of turkey in the freezer, hurrah). The Advent wreath set round with fresh candles, bright cranberry red. Not the liturgically correct purple or blue, but my husband found the box of tall, unburned candles in the thrift store, the price was right, and their color is festive and pleasing. We lit the first candle last night. Again, not liturgically correct, being the Saturday before rather than the first Sunday of Advent, but the girls (this the collective noun applied to the two young women who are our daughters) were home then, and not now, so we lit that first candle together.
‘I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’
The girls were home by Tuesday dinner. Tuesday night I lay in bed and rehearsed that verse in my mind — silently reciting each word in turn — and heard as I did the voices of the girls earlier in the evening. It was a mental polyphony: the voice of the text with the voices of my grown daughters together looking at a toy catalog which for some reason still arrives in our mail. Why did those voices weave together? Something about homecoming? About being glad in it? To whose gladness is the counterpoint keyed? Is it the gladness of coming home (being welcomed and even, a little, cosseted)? Is it the gladness of welcoming (me in the kitchen so enjoying the sound of their voices rising and falling in conversation that I delay calling them to do dinner chores)? Or is it all these gladnesses themselves coming together as welcomed and welcomer sit down to eat together at the table?
‘I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’
Psalm 122 is a ‘psalm of ascents’ according to the superscription. It is a pilgrimage psalm, evoking the gathering of God’s people, all of them together going up to Jerusalem, ascending the city’s heights, entering the house of the LORD. The first verb of the psalm is singular — I was glad, I rejoiced — but the trigger for this personal joy is plural — ‘when they said’ — and its experience is communal — ‘let us go.’ Was the psalmist’s gladness unique or did the whole ascending body share it? Did the gladness rise with the group’s ascent or was it something that they claimed in rote until they reached their goal and stood there, within the gates of Jerusalem, and recognized that the complex of physical sensations — bodies tired, legs aching, feet firmly planted within the gates — included the wild, rising, unreasoning conviction of joy. Pilgrims and city bound firmly together in this intention, in this arrival, in this jubilee.
‘I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’
Whose gladness is evoked? Whose welcome is anticipated?
What has this psalm to do with Advent?
The psalmic summons is closely paralleled in the prophetic text: ‘Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD’’ (Isa 2:3). The suggestion of David’s ‘thrones’ (why plural?) and of judgment connects with the other texts assigned for this day (Isa 2:1-4; Matt 24:36-44), echoing the theme of God’s purpose for all God’s creation approaching its intended end of peace and security. ‘I will seek your good,’ the psalmist promises — this promise the culmination of the earlier declaration, ‘Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.’ The city as a person, an other with whom speech may be had, an addressee not just an object. The city as a conversation partner. The city and the LORD? God does not speak in this psalm; the psalmist prays but does not explicitly address the prayer to God. Yet God is present throughout: it is the prospect of going up to God’s own home, the singular, unique space in which the LORD condescended to dwell — where God’s name and eyes and heart are forever (1 Kings 9:3) — the occasions that opening profession of joy. Can the psalmist’s delight be any less than the LORD’s?
Tuesday night I wondered at the possible connection of my gladness and God’s. I imagined the LORD working in the kitchen to prepare a table for all the sons and daughters coming home, God’s own heart warmed by the presence and voices of God’s adult children in God’s own house. Then I shied away from my own audacity — it cannot be that. The psalmist sings joy at the anticipation of ascending to the LORD’s house, the joy of entering in, not the joy of inviting in. Now, though, I wonder if the joys are not intertwined after all. The gladness of being welcomed finds an equal measure in the gladness of the welcome given. Hearts reunite in mutual affection, the desire for peace, the intention for each other’s well-being. The Advent promise of arrival is expressed in this anticipation of mutual joy, this the ultimate aim of the judgment referenced in the texts: God’s joy in God’s people; our joy in our LORD.
We extinguish the first Advent candle at the end of dinner. ‘Now the light which was in one place at one time can be in all places and all times,’ one of the girls intones with joking seriousness. The joke is that this is a line from the Godly Play** lessons, and neither girl has been in a Godly Play classroom for years and years, and this is our dinner table and not Sunday School. The seriousness is that ritual embeds itself as deeply as that. And that the words recited are true.
‘I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’
I was glad when I realized again that the LORD is coming to be born anew on this God’s own earth. I was glad when I realized again the joy of inviting God to make a home in me and of me, and not just me alone. And — when I feel it entire or when I recite it by rote — I am glad when I realize that through the climb in the company of others, there will come the wild, rising, unreasoning joy of God’s own welcome table, set for all places, and all times, until time ends, and begins again, in the house of the LORD.I was glad when I realized again that the LORD is coming to be born anew on this God’s own earth. I was glad when I realized again the joy of inviting God to make a home of me and not me alone.
** Godly Play: An Imaginative Approach to Religious Education, by Jerome Berryman