Psalm Upside Down

photo by Katherine Brown
You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! 
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.  
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him. 
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the LORD.
May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him. 
For dominion belongs to the LORD,
and he rules over the nations.  
To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him. 
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord, 
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.

Psalm 22:23-31, lectionary psalter for Feb. 28, 2021

The light has had a peculiar intensity these past days.  It’s not brightness, exactly, at least not the sort that gilds the tree trunks or glows on the house bricks.  It is clarity.  In the afternoon the sun shines strong through the back windows and fills the kitchen.  It’s not just that light shows more clearly the kitchen contents — cupboards and countertops, cups and crumbs — but that the kitchen has become a container for this other thing, for light itself.  

We’ve had so many grey days, so many days of snow and rain.  I have grown accustomed to the dull light, welcomed it as restful.  It does not occur to me that I need not just rest but reviving until the ‘rains are over and gone,’ and a gusty wind has blown the sky clear.  This happens every spring.  I do not look for the turn of the year.  I settle into a holding pattern of wool sweaters and shawls and mugs of hot tea and do not feel how deeply the long dark has settled into me with its own holding weight.  Then comes this light so clear and strong, and I realize I have missed it.  I put on rubber boots and walk the neighborhood.  Yards that were snow dusted are now purple-carpeted with blooming crocus. Birdsong is piercing sweet.  In the muck and gravel beside the road, there is a shape of shining light, a puddle showing sky and treetops upside down.

I had read this psalm one of the grey mornings.  Snow fell and smoothed the untidy ground into a certain unity of shape and shade.  I sat at my desk, and milk-pale light lay across the page, and cold radiated from the window glass, and I wondered that we should read just the ending praise from this psalm that starts with a cry of God-forsakeness. How can the exultant proclamation that ‘future generations will be told’ of God’s salvation make sense without the recitation of the abyss from which the tellers were delivered?

But maybe — sometimes — that pit itself is not known until one is plucked out of it.  The fall is not always so precipitous as to call attention to itself.  It may be a creeping dullness, a subtle descent, its nadir not recognized until a outstretched hand has brought you out to a broad place.

Notice the parallel in the lines of verse 26:  ‘They shall eat, the afflicted, and they will be sated; they shall praise the LORD, those who seek him.’  Satiation is the answer to affliction. Praise is the result of seeking.  Hunger — for food, for the LORD — is implied but not stated, nor is finding listed as the necessary precondition of praise.  Seeking is.  

And, as seeking leads to praise, so praise may be the start of seeking.  Glimpse the sky in the puddle and let yourself be tipped with delight to lift your eyes and look at the sky.  There’s not a leaf nor a cloud hiding its brilliance.  Realize together both the light and your hunger.   

Dine on praise.  Pray your seeking be sated by God.

A New Year

photo by Katherine Brown
For thus says the LORD: 
 Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, 
 and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; 
 proclaim, give praise, and say, 
 “Save, O LORD, your people, 
 the remnant of Israel.” 
 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, 
 and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, 
 among them the blind and the lame, 
 those with child and those in labor, together; 
 a great company, they shall return here.  
 With weeping they shall come, 
 and with consolations I will lead them back, 
 I will let them walk by brooks of water, 
 in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; 
 for I have become a father to Israel, 
 and Ephraim is my firstborn.

Jeremiah 31:7-9, excerpt from 31:7-14; lectionary for Sunday January 3, 2021

When does the new year start?  When the clock counts down to midnight — voices joining the last ten seconds before the ‘ball drops’?  When the explosions of neighborhood fireworks (illegal), have ended, another 15 or 20 minutes past that?  Or does the new year not really begin until after sleep has set its bound around the old year, newness coming not with the clock but with the dawn — however late and low the light appears.  Although even then…. Is morning itself sufficient, or is the first cup of coffee a necessary measure for eyes to open and see the day?  

We’re in January, now.  The ‘new year.’  Yay.

When does the newness begin?  And how?  And when and how do we know it?

‘Sing aloud with gladness,’ says the LORD.  Really?  The exhortation to song seems tone-deaf to the mood of the year, a command difficult to fulfill.  It seems an odd fit for Jeremiah, as well, prophesying as he did so horrifically of judgment and of end.   

‘For thus says the LORD:  Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say ‘Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel.’ 

Glad songs and shouts of praise and demands for salvation.  

Commentaries and translations note the difficulty in verse 7.  It would make more sense if the songs of gladness were of salvation already realized rather than salvation for which the singers still cry.  Why sing when it’s incomplete?  When the hurt has not been healed, the wounded continue lame, the blind still need leading.  How is it possible to sing gladness and — in the same phrase — demand saving?  How is it possible to sing aloud while weeping, to walk and to plead and to not stumble on the way?  How resolve the contradiction of the proclamation that the LORD will gather Jacob home, that the people will be radiant over God’s goodness, and that the LORD already has ransomed and redeemed, and that we — hearing the words of Jeremiah to whom the word of the LORD came — are called here and now to ‘Sing aloud with gladness … and say ‘Save, O LORD, your people.’

‘Save, O LORD, your people.’

When does the newness begin?

I’m not immune to the idea of New Year’s Eve.  I watch the crowds on TV:  the lights and the energy and the thrum of anticipation that rises as the hour grows near.  I know the falseness of the thought that a critical tick of a clock will suddenly transform the world (Cinderella and her pumpkin coach at midnight notwithstanding) — but even if the the basis is a fictional construct (this particular measurement of time rather than that one), there is something real behind it.  Time does turn.  Night’s dark does give way to day.  Now that we’re past the winter solstice, each day’s light lasts a tiny bit longer than the one that came before.  There is truth in the claim that time turns on into new.  The mistake is not claiming that newness is, nor longing for that newness in our lives.  The mistake is misunderstanding what it is, or imagining it as something we can grasp rather than something we are given, even something that grasps us.

Maybe this is why this passage is set as a text for Christmas.

Birth comes through the world broken open.  

‘Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry.  I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will give the priests their fill … And my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,’ says the LORD.’ As if newness begins with recognition of what’s been shattered.  As if newness begins with the awareness of mourning and sorrow, of insufficiency and lack.  With the acknowledgement of what we’ve suffered and of what suffering we’ve caused.  With the admission that we cannot save ourselves.

This text does not deny the reality of a broken world, a suffering people, creation groaning.   It’s not all shining delight.  The way is walked by blind and the lame and the laboring.  Supplications shall be raised along with the song.  ‘With weeping they shall come,’ the LORD promises.  Last week I read news stories of those who received the first doses of COVID vaccine and found themselves weeping.  Their tears came as surprise, a belated reaction to all the tears that had been swallowed of necessity, pressed down until it was hard as rock within, there being no space nor energy to spare in the midst of so much suffering.

Weeping signs the pain that could not be allowed until the promise had broken in.  Hope cracks the stone, new-seen as seed.  The seed shows its seam; a hint of green unfurls.

‘Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel.’

Newness begins as we cry out for it.  Even while our eyes are still confused by exhaustion and by gloom.  Even before the coffee.  Even before the dawn.  

Newness begins now.  In gladness sung to the one who can save, demanding the salvation that only that one can give.