Night Hearts

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.

Text in Context

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” 

Amos 7:10-13

The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.  They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.

Amos 8:11-12

[Amos 7:10-13 part of lectionary text for July 14; Amos 8:1-12 lectionary text for July 21, 2019]

I try to read the coming-Sunday’s texts on Monday, to live with them through the week, to see how text and context read each other.  Sometimes the connecting line is subtle, so personal that I am not entirely sure whether I am connecting dots or marking them in myself.  All I can do in such a case is to re-commit myself, every week, to read the word and read my world, each in light of the other.  All I can do in such a case is pray that through practice and repetition and return, the discipline of reading and re-reading, I am not just reading the text but finding myself read, writing and re-writing my life over and over on the way limned by the Word.

That’s why I do this.

Then there are the weeks when I open my Bible to the text prescribed by the lectionary, and find the connecting line from word to world writ stark and bold.  When the vision is not just personal nor even particularly subtle, but writ in letters so large and ‘plain … that a runner may read it’ (Hab 2:2).  And because the lectionary is a contrivance — useful but not the word itself — sometimes the connection crosses the lines between lectionary divisions — just as the news is not over when we put our paper in the recycling but continues across days and weeks.

There is a nation, the text says.  A nation enjoying the security of its ‘restored’ borders (2 Kings 14:25) and a season of prosperity.  A nation of ‘great houses’ and ‘houses of ivory,’ a ‘winter house’ and a ‘summer house’ (Amos 2:15).  A nation whose residents have ‘built houses of hewn stone’ and ‘planted pleasant vineyards’ (5:11), whose fortunate ‘lounge on their couches’ and eat and drink like gourmands (6:4-6).  Who amass the latest in luxury items and experiences, who enjoy a rising real estate and stock portfolio.  A nation whose leaders claim fidelity to the ideal’s claim on their identity, with ‘festivals’ and ‘solemn assemblies’ (5:21), with concerts (5:23), and parades and fireworks.  There is a nation urged to rejoice in its own strength (6:13)

Yet a nation which will not hear the one who ‘reproves in the gate’ (5:10).  A leader who calls judgment conspiracy (7:10) and seeks to eject the one who sees affluence and power — ‘something good’ — and insists on writing them ‘bad.’ 

‘The land cannot bear all his words,’ the leader says (7:10).  Conspiracy, the leader charges (7:10).  ‘Go, flee away’ (7:12), the leader commands, go back to where you came from.   The leader does not engage with the substance of the proclamation (perhaps Amos’s charges are irrefutable — the poor are trampled (5:11), brought to ruin (8:4), sold for silver (8:6); righteous are afflicted, bribery is rife, the needy are pushed aside (5:12); religious festivals are mere pauses in practices of deceit (8:5)).  Instead, the leader asserts that the land, the city, the sanctuary are the king’s (7:13), as if possession entails exclusive right to speech.  As if any countervailing voice is an act of infidelity, even treason, to the nation’s ideals, rather than the plaint of the LORD God-self who charges the nation with having betrayed its own founding covenant, the writing by which it was formed (2:4).

There is a nation which ‘commanded the prophets saying ‘You shall not prophesy’’ (2:12).  

I do not know whether I would have recognized Amos as the LORD’s messenger.  Living as I do in a house (singular), able to lounge in bed or on the couch, aware that my fridge and cupboards are filled with food, my closet with clothes, my shelves with books, Amos’s word would have made me uncomfortable.  (Because it does.)  I might have disagreed with Amos’s assessment — he finds only falsehood, from sanctuary to market to the court in the gate, in a tone so strident that I suspect he exaggerates, ignores the small mercies that must also have existed.  (Amos prophesies imminent and ultimate disaster, yet the nation is stable for decades after his own.)  Even if I entirely agreed with Amos’s social diagnosis, I likely would have critiqued his prescribed remedy.  The rolling down of justice with an accompanying flood of righteousness (5:24) sounds not just threateningly transformative but so vague as to inhibit legislative implementation.  (It’s as impracticably vast as ‘Love God and love your neighbor.’)  (Oh.)

Yet I hope I would have listened.  I pray I would have tried to hear.  

Not just for the sake of remedying those particular injustices, averting that prophesied catastrophe (the land trembling and sinking under the waters, the earth darkened in broad daylight, the grief and mourning as ‘for an only son’ (8:8-10)), but for the sake of hearing itself.

For comes a time when nation will know famine (8:11-12).  Not a famine of food or drink but a famine of the word, a dearth of truth.  Comes a time when we realize not just our lack but our desperate need.  Comes a time when we will know ourselves starving and parched.  We run to and fro; we search and we seek.   Yet if we have refused to hear, we will not even know if we find.  If we have grown unwilling to listen to truth, unaccustomed to listening for truth, we grow unable to hear truth.  God may even speak, and we will not know.

I pray for the humility to listen.  I pray for the courage to speak.

That seeking with and through each other, we together find and hear the word of the LORD.