The thing with feathers …*

photograph (c) Katherine Brown

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

Luke 13:10-13, excerpt from Luke 13:10-17, NRSVUE, lectionary gospel for Aug. 21, 2022

‘Bound for eighteen long years,’ he said (Luke 13:16). She heard, and she paused in her praise. Had really been so long. From when would she count it? From when her body’s bearing had become fixed contortion? Or had the binding begun farther back, when the first spider-thread of unease ensnared her? She had dismissed the twinge, whenever it was. Told herself the day’s load had been too heavy, she’d twisted something trying to keep up. But she kept twisting herself trying to accommodate each next sure-to-pass-soon circumstance. Not denying the ache, exactly, but ignoring it. And each day she kept going, that day’s thread twisted together with its fellow until she’d found herself bound by a sticky, wrist-thick rope that kept her hunched in the world, bent over by the spirit’s weight.

When had she last stood straight before this day? The crowd rejoiced at the wonder they had seen. And she in the midst of their sounding joy, was suddenly cast back in her memory.

A goldfinch had caught her eye, and she’d turned her head to follow its flight into the thicket. She’d lost sight of it then. Stood herself still and peered closely until she glimpsed its lemon yellow deep within the tangled branches. A smile had spread wide across her face. She’d had to share the wonder. ‘See!’ she pointed out to passersby. ‘See! A finch, right there!’ Two had paused their own progress and followed her pointing finger with their own eyes. They did not see. She watched their expressions turn from expectancy to puzzlement, then a slight withdrawal towards doubt. ‘See! There!’ she repeated, as if words alone could make it visible. Her insistence kept them there a beat longer, but neither her words nor her pointing finger made them see. The bird was too well hidden to be noticed if you hadn’t already known where it was. Then the goldfinch moved, and its motion made it visible. ‘Oh!’ they all exclaimed together as it flew up from the bush. Another finch flew too, two small brightnesses flitting around each other, darting through the air. ‘Look!’ they exclaimed, “See!’ The sound of their delight drew another from the doorway to see its reason, and so it spread.

How long since she had seen a flying brightness that made her smile? She had walked hunched in the world, bent over by the spirit’s weight, her gaze on her own feet moving along the dusty road. She hadn’t thought of birds. But maybe a tiny thing with feathers had been set within her own soul, too hidden to be noticed unless you knew it there, yet in its own subtle way resisting the rope that had bound her so firmly, working to unwind even one cobweb thread. For she had come here this Sabbath, as she had before, treading the path worn by others’ feet before ever her own had started their journey of persistence.

She had not come asking or expecting birds. She had come in fidelity to the unsuspected feathered thing hidden in the thicket of her own self. The insistence of habit had drawn her there without her knowing why. Then hope had flown and shown itself. Had seen and called her over, pronounced her free and laid hands on her. It had felt as if one hand pulled on her shoulder and one hand pressed the small of her back and together the hands reshaped and stood her straight who had not stood straight for eighteen long years.

She stood now in the midst of the crowd’s sounding joy. Wonder was among them — a bird darting up from the constriction of cares quotidian and extraordinary, delighting with its brightness and its airy flight, delighting even she herself who was its sign, re-awakening her to its presence and its power. A smile spread wide across her face. She had been waked again to demand. ‘See!’ she said, ‘See!’ She had been waked again to the promise that there is something to demand.

Demand the vision. Demand the movement that makes visible hope and joy and life — on the Lord’s day and every day.

* First line from Emily Dickinson

Demanding Hope

And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver.  I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. [And] In their presence I charged Baruch, saying,  Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. 

Jer 32:9-10, 13-15, excerpt from Jer 32:1-2, 6-15, lectionary text for Sept 29, 2019

I felt hopeful the other day.  Literally filled with hope.  An unexpected opportunity was offered; brief consideration revealed no apparent obstacles; I emailed my acceptance.  Hope then rose in me so swiftly and strongly that I had to push back from my desk, go for a walk outside.  The hope I felt was not primarily a mental attitude but a palpable force, a purposeful energy that had a physical effect.  Hope not as some vague possibility but as a power flowing through me, filling my body from spine to fingertips.  I could not contain its force.  I had to stand up and stride out, as if to dissipate some of the energy, so I could channel the rest to the challenge of the work.

And part of the effect of this experience was its revelation of how low my spirit and energy have been.  That I have been sitting slumped and did not even realize.  That I have lacked hope and did not know it missing.

Walk across the academic quad to the chapel.  Kneel in a pew and try to arrange my hope-jumbled thoughts into some sort of ordered line.  Look up at the blue of the rose window and try to pray and what comes to my lips is none of the set forms, psalmic or otherwise, but the line, ‘Hope is the thing with feathers — ’   Emily Dickinson’s poem is as good a prayer as any, I decide, so I look at the blue and move my lips and murmur the rest of Emily’s words as offering.  

I wonder, though, when I get to the poem’s end.  The poem ends as if with a breathed recognition that ‘never — in extremity — [hope] asked a crumb — of me.’  Jeremiah’s text — and my own experience — suggest another view.  Maybe hope does ask; maybe hope demands; maybe hope tugs you out to meet it coming. 

Jeremiah is imprisoned, after all, at a time when the city is under siege (Jer 32:1-2).  But the hope — the promise, the expectation — that there will be a time after this, a time when ‘houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land’ — demands of Jeremiah a literal investment:  he buys his cousin’s field notwithstanding the imminent destruction he has already proclaimed in the name of the LORD.  Because neither ‘now’ nor ‘next’ is the end.  There will come a time after this.  And that time to come cannot be just waited for, it must be prepared for.  Money must be paid.  A deed must be signed and sealed, it and its copy placed in a jar for safekeeping.  The writing does not anticipate the future; it secures the anticipation.  It will come.  It has been written — the energy of that promise has been fixed in recoverable form.  Jeremiah’s expectation will be realized; the promised, hoped-for, future will arrive.

Let my hope be that hope, I pray.  I ask of the LORD a hope that asks of me.  An expectation that expects of me, that engages me and energizes me and equips me to meet it coming.  That by setting out to meet hope, I may secure its realization, may recognize it when it comes even if it does not look as I expected.

I stand to go.  Stare boldly at the blue.  Make a last demand before I go back out into the day.

Let me write hope — putting all the vague, inchoate, desires and expectations into explicit words, physical form. Let me write hope that demands so that demanding hope may demand of me. Let me write hope that I may live hope.

A Song in Parts

My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick. 
Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:
“Is the LORD not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”
(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”) 
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.” 
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored? 
O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people! 

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

There’s not a lot of hope explicit in this text.  More accurately, there is none.  

There is grief and heartsickness and hurt and mourning and dismay.  The pitiful cry for expectations unfulfilled:  ‘harvest is past, summer is ended, and we are not saved.’  A longing to be turned to a fountain so that constant weeping would be possible, that tears would be the speaker’s entire being.  All of that is stated, clear on the surface, no close-read parsing needed.  But of hope, there is none plain.

That said, there’s less plain about this text than the translation allows.  The very first phrase — that stark statement, ‘my joy is gone’ — varies between translations (JPS makes it a dependent clause, ‘When in grief I would seek comfort…’ ; NIV offers, ‘You who are my Comforter in sorrow…’).  The Hebrew is obscure.  Is it a a single word referring to lost joy — the flash of a smile now dimmed in grief?  Is it better read as two words, referring to healing foregone?  Is it actually a loan-word from Akkadian, a form of ritual lament known as a ‘balag’ sung over cities abandoned by their god/s?  (Really, the article on balag-laments was more interesting that you might suppose.)  

And — speaking of God — where is the LORD, anyway?  That question is explicitly posed.  But by whom?  The NRSV provides punctuation, periods and quotation marks and parentheses, but that punctuation is interpretation of the original, unpunctuated, text.  Defensible but not determinative.

Is it the query the cry of ‘my poor people’ (literally, ‘daughter of my people’)?  If so, is it a plaintive seeking after God — we’ve waited all summer, we’ve brought in the harvest, and still we are not saved?  Is it, instead, a smug certainty that God is present notwithstanding the multitude of offenses cataloged elsewhere, as if God’s presence is license to sin with impunity.

Is it the query of the LORD God-self — a rhetorical question as if to stress that God is in Zion, the king is in his city — thus intensifying the anguish and anger of the line that follows:  ‘Why have they provoked me to anger’ — as if the LORD stands in the midst of the city, palpably present, yet ignored by the people who throng after other images, desires, promises, and the LORD cries aloud, ‘Am I not here, among you, my people?  Why do you not see me?  Why do you pass by and not even look?’

And who is the ‘I’ of the passage, the one whose speech is not set off with quotation punctuation?  The one whose joy is gone, whose heart is sick, who mourns the ill and slain of ‘my poor people’ and would turn himself entirely to tears?  Is it the prophet?  Is it the LORD?  (The possessive ‘my’ could apply to either.)

These questions cannot be answered.  Any answer is partial, shifting.  As soon as parts in the dialogue are definitely defined — this speaker is the people, that speaker is the LORD — a shift in focus results in a different point of view, a different understanding.  Maybe that speaker is the people; this speaker is the LORD.  And that other one the prophet?

Maybe that’s the point.  That the passage is less prose discourse and more choral performance.  That the imprecise definition of parts and speakers is because the speakers shift and share the parts.  That both the people and God ask after the LORD’s presence.  That both the prophet and God are offended at the sin, heartsick for the suffering.  That each speaker interleaves with all the others; that all bear the burden of the lament.

Have you sung in a choir before?  Extended passages when voices cycle out and back again, as singers pause to breathe and resume singing, but the song as a whole continues to sound.  

Have you sung in a boat?  Singing to lift your spirits, to straighten your back and strengthen your arm so to steady your stroke?  Singing with others not only to raise a smile but to synchronize the rhythm as you paddle on longer than you knew you’d have to, longer than you knew you could?  

What if the LORD is in the boat with you?  What if the LORD is in the choir?  What if the LORD is singing alongside the whole ‘daughter of my people’ — strengthening the sound, supporting the note, not only building up the capacity of all the other singers but sustaining and expanding the very song itself.

Hope is not expressed in the text.  But hope may yet be standing at its center, wanting to be seen and turned to and joined.  Invert the question and sing the song:  the LORD is here.

The Contingency of Clay

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.  Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 

Jer 18:1-6, excerpt from lectionary text for Sunday Sept 8, 2019, Jeremiah 18:1-11

‘Just like clay in the potter’s hand…’. 

Usually I read this passage through the oracle that follows, concerning Judah and its evil, as if the visit to the potter’s house is entirely or only contained in the litany of ‘pluck up and break down’ that came first when Jeremiah first encountered the word of the LORD (Jer 1:10; see ‘Uprooting Anew,’ Aug 25, 2019).  I read and picture smashed crockery strewn about the workshop.  An image of destruction.

But it’s not.

Read the potter’s house as a parable.  Don’t reduce it to a simple proposition nor a single image.  Read the potter’s house closely and hear what is actually going on.  

There is no smashing.  There is not even any crockery — nothing has been fired yet, nothing is firm.  The vessel is yet becoming, yet being formed, re-formed.  The potter is working at his wheel.  The potter is reworking the vessel.  Rather, the potter is reworking the clay.  The clay is not yet a vessel, if to be a vessel is to be a firm, fixed, final shape, greenware or bisque.  The potter’s work is not yet final.  The state of the clay remains contingent.  And in that lies the hope.  The clay is yet pliable; the potter yet working.

What is the clay of me, of us, of the community?  What is intrinsic to my being?  How to know?  How to continually discover?

What of me is vessel, contingent, a shape that holds only for a time — that is meant to hold only for a time?

And how to give myself over to the potter’s hands and not to the vicissitudes of life.  Of course, experiences will form and trials may deform.  But the form mustn’t be fixed prematurely.  Even a form that was right for a time may not be meant for all time.  Yes, its reformation may feel like destruction — I liked my life that shape, loved it even — its revision a loss to be mourned.  The grief is real.  But that grief, too, must pass, along with the former, remembered shape.  If the potter is reshaping the clay, as seems good, then there will be a new form for a new time, a new shape for a new stage.  

Learn the qualities of the clay.  Learn the potter’s hallmarks — shown through the word, handed on in lives through time and today, signed in love and upwelling joy.  Study.  Learn.

The LORD is a persistent potter, reworking the clay as seems good.  

I am clay; my form still becoming.  That contingency, and God’s patient persistence, is my hope and my prayer for us all.