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

Recognizing Joy*

Boats anchored near St. Michael’s, 2017; photo by Katherine Brown

The bliss of boating is how quickly you are very far away and how connected you are to everything around.  We have shipped not only our lines but, for a time, our workaday world.  We are sailing across the Chesapeake in a 30-foot Cape Dory, chartered out of Annapolis, now sailing to St. Michaels.

It is a chilly day, drizzly and dim.  Paul has on his oilskins; the girls and I are in slickers.  Elizabeth is three, a gallant, gay sailor-girl in a bright orange life-vest, a too-big green slicker, a purple hat and bright blue rubber boots. Her braids curl with the damp.  She leans over to watch the waves and hums happily to herself.  ‘The water is like Play-Doh,’ she says. ‘It has fingerprints in it.’  Margaret is four-and-a-half months, a snug bundle tucked on the floor of the cockpit.  Her little face is framed with the hoods of two jackets; her hands are inside her sleeves. She waves her arms for a while and smiles at us, then slips off into sleep, in a small boat on a wide water.

We arrive in St. Michaels before dusk and anchor in Fogg Cove.  The maritime museum and its Hooper Strait Lighthouse are behind us.  The velvet green lawn of the Inn at Perry Cabin is before us.  We’ve been in St. Michaels before; we’ve looked at this water from those shores.  But now we are seeing the land from the Bay.  It’s an unfamiliar view of a familiar place, and we relish the unexpected charm of the known made strange before turning to chores — changing damp socks for dry ones, heating chili for supper.  We hear the chime of church bells and a clock striking and the honking of geese overhead.  The two girls are in the V-berth; Paul has cribbed it in so neither can fall out.  Elizabeth coos, ‘Go to sleep, Margaret.’ Soon we hear them snoring, and we look at each other and smile.  Paul checks the anchor light. ‘Katherine, come.’  In the dark, a swan is swimming by.

Annapolis to St. Michaels, St. Michaels to Rock Hall, Rock Hall back across the Bay.  A wonderful run:  the wind steady and strong, we on a beam reach.  The main is up, and the jib, and the only sounds are the creaking of the lines, the squeaking of the wheel, and the slap of the waves against the hull.  The sky is blue but cluttered with clouds.  We sail past the Baltimore Light.  We sail into the Magothy and past Gibson Island and past Dobbins Island.  The light is growing quiet by the time we put the engine on; pale, green beams shine through the clouds onto the shore.  We motor on in search of an anchorage, sliding around a curve and into a quiet secluded little cove.  A wooded shoreline, the trees touched with russet, just starting to turn.  A few houses, with docks and boats.  No one out but us.

Our last night aboard.  We have beef stew and the last of a cheap bottle of wine.  The light grows clearer and more golden.  Clouds lit in peaceful glory.  We take mugs of milky coffee back on deck and watch the fading of the light.  The water very still, reflecting the pink and blue of the sky.  The highest clouds are lit coral-pink by the sun, the lower clouds purple-grey.  We see a great blue heron, here a screech owl, listen to the fish splash and see the ripples they make, circles that catch the light.  Margaret dozes in Paul’s arms.  Elizabeth leans into my knee and sighs and says, ‘This is very nice.’

The morning is pearly:  cloudy at dawn, then clearing slightly for the sun, mist rising off glassy water.  Elizabeth climbs into the still damp cockpit.  ‘Elizabeth!’ we call. ‘Come back down — it’s still wet out there!’  ‘I’m looking at the world,’ she tells us matter-of-factly.  ‘It is very beautiful.  Did you know God made the world?’  Paul and I look at each other, then turn to see the world with Elizabeth.

We bundle the girls again into sweaters and life vests and hats.  Margaret is in a jolly mood.  Elizabeth is happy winding a short bit of line around a winch.  We leave a curve of tiny bubbles as we motor slowly out of the cove and into the broader river.  The world here is all pearl.  The light is a suffused, pale, creamy grey.  The water is gently rippled glass, carrying in it the shapes and colors of the clouds above.  Water and sky match, endless and shining.  And in this spell-world, our small boat is caught between gleaming oyster sea and cloudy oyster sky.  We are connected to familiar things in unfamiliar ways, and recognizing joy.

* Another old essay revisited; this an edited version of ‘Recognizing Joy’; originally in Chesapeake Bay Magazine, April 2000.

God’s Planting

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:

My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 

He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;

he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;

he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

Isa 5:1-2; full passage, Isa 5:1-7, for Aug. 18, 2019 linked at

It feels a bit awkward trying to appropriate for my own life texts so obviously addressed to a community.  The prophet speaks of and to ‘the house of Israel’ and ‘the people of Judah’ (5:7) — the nation planted for justice and righteousness (Isa 5:7), yet yielding only ‘wild grapes’ (Isa 5:2), ‘bloodshed’ and ‘a cry’ (Isa 5:7).  I can read the text and recall the sound-play that in Hebrew joins and opposes ‘justice’ and ‘bloodshed,’ ‘righteousness’ and ‘a cry.’   I can review the context of eighth century Judah, the inequity of its affluence, the iniquity of its structures, and I can posit convicting connections to my own context. But that reading alone does not carry me through.  I do not need to read the text to see my own world.  I know it already as broken and ill.  Reading the text as a lens on my context — find the parallels, connect the dots — is important and necessary work. Yet doing just this week after week feels reductionist, redundant.  It becomes a short cut that takes me quickly to a blank wall, a dead end.  I stand there staring at graffitied bricks.  There’s no way forward.

But what if I turn the lens the other way?  Instead of treating the text as God’s revelation meant to show me my world and myself, receive the text as a revelation of God’s self.  Read the text and look for God.  What then do I see?  Who is the LORD revealed in this given word?

God as lover.  The singer, the LORD, and the vineyard are conjoined in this title, not just ‘beloved’ but ‘my beloved’ — relationship claimed.

God as gardener.  There’s love in that image as well, and a suggestion of physical exertion and intimate contact.  God breaks up and turns over the soil — heavy, sweaty, dirty work.  God hauls out the stones, sets them aside for the watchtower to be built.  God plants choice vines:  soaks the roots, digs holes and sets the tender plants in, bends to press the dirt around, stakes the tiny vines.  Does God’s back ache?  Are God’s fingers filthy?  Does God pause to wipe sweat from the divine forehead with a forearm?  Does God gaze with pardonable pride at the work, seeing already and gloating with joy over the sure growth coming?  God builds a watchtower and hews out a wine vat and looks forward to the harvest, the processing, the wine given to ‘gladden the heart’ (Psa 104:15), mixed and poured and set on a table for all to partake (Prov 9:1-6).

God as generous, as ultimately invested.  Having given all that could possibly be given:  ‘What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?’ (Isa 5:4).  God as hurt and puzzled:  ‘Why did it yield wild grapes?’ (Isa 5:4).  God allowing that emotion, acknowledging the cost of the investment in naming the disappointment of its failure.

God as inviting the vineyard to be invested as well.  The inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah are called to judge between the LORD and the vineyard (Isa 5:3).  Such judgment is only possible when both sides are fully seen.  To ‘judge between’ means to see the vineyard truly, which the text defines as seeing the vineyard in relation to God. So, and again: read the text to see God.   The glance turning back and forth between, from one to the other; looking deliberately, carefully; widening the gaze; acknowledging the identity-with as well as the vast distance between.  

The LORD planted a vineyard.  I — we — are the LORD’s ‘pleasant planting’ (Isa 5:7).  

Harvest will come.  The LORD makes that plain.  God’s plan may be resisted but will not be gainsaid.  God commands creation itself to further God’s aim (Isa 5:6).  Harvest will come.  Yet God wants all of this — planting and nurture and growth and harvest — not done to us but with us.  God calls the vineyard itself to ‘judge between,’ and so that we can see enough to judge, God lights the way with words that shine to reveal God’s self. 

The writing is no graffitied dead-end but an open door.  Through it I glimpse the gardener — if only from behind — bent over and working to till and plant and nurture the growth.   Persistently willing a tableful of joy.

Please, LORD:  Let me see the world with your sight, by your light.  Give me enough heart and courage to walk out into it bearing your image.  Lover, gardener, risking the gift, persistently working to bring the harvest to full and joyful fruit.  As I myself am brought.

Re-minded to Joy

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? … in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 

Acts 2:1-18, 11-13; text for Pentecost, June 9, 2019

Our house backs up to an elementary school playground.  The children file out for recess and stand in line until dismissed to play.  Immediately, then, they run and shriek.  When I am home on a school day, I am amazed at the volume of the sound and the violence of its coming.   There was a set of schoolchildren in tidy rows.  Now — suddenly — there is a chaotic dispersion, pounding across the pavement, scrambling up the climbing equipment, skirmishing for balls.  As I watch, some order emerges — whether the emergence is in their play or my observation, I do not know.  There is one game over here, and another over there, and these few children squatted on their haunches at the edge of the pavement are probably poking at the hole in the blacktop that has been expanded over several school years’ worth of recesses.  The expenditure of energy and the intensity of focus touch my heart.

I watch the children and wonder.  When was the last time I effervesced in such a manner?  

A few times in college, my friend and I went onto the green after dark.  We ran and laughed and collapsed on the grass and all without benefit of alcohol.  Who needs beer, we scoffed, when there is play.  There was something intoxicating about abandoning the appearance of sense, making ourselves ridiculous for joy.  A delight I feel still when singing aloud as I walk through the city.  Tipping back my head and throwing my arms wide as if to embrace the wind on a gusty day.  Grinning with excitement, and rising to tip-toes on the Metro platform when a train rumbles past and blows its horn.  (I do not entirely forget myself, I admit; I do not wave at the train driver, tempted though I am.)

Why am I thinking about play, about being so intensely present as to risk ridiculousness?  As if this text is about intoxication.  Drunkenness is the claim is raised by those who don’t understand, who sneer at what they hear as noise.  Peter rebuts the charge.  Yet Peter’s rebuttal does not entirely dismiss the issue.  Peter does not argue that the scoffers have mischaracterized the behavior but asserts that they have misunderstood its source.

This is not new wine imbibed, Peter asserts.  This is God’s Spirit ‘poured out’ (Acts 2:14-17).  Listen to what is being said and shouted and sung.  Hear the order that emerges.  This seemingly frantic babble, heard and understood in so many tongues, is all about God.  It is praise for the Lord whose ‘word is very near … in your mouth and in your heart’ (Deut 30:14).  It is wonder that they have lived into God’s promised days of visions and dreams (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17).  This is not passing gladness.  This is rock-founded.  This is not new wine.  This is joy in the Lord.

Reading Pentecost I wonder.  When was the last time I was that aware of joy?  

Joy as effervescence, burbling forth forth like a spring, foaming over rocks as it tumbles out and down.  Joy welling up as if I am a cup, brimful — I hold a moment quivering still, amazed at its presence, living water in me, joy’s meniscus curved slightly above the edge of my lip — and then I cannot but grin, cannot but wonder, cannot but tell.  Did you see?  Did you hear?  Did you feel?

The Spirit’s spark that Pentecost was not stubborn resolve or impassioned argument or faithful duty.  The Spirit’s spark was joy.  The people flared bright with it, spoke flames with it.  The Spirit lit a fire whose dancing tongues amazed and perplexed and confounded and transformed.

I watch the children.  I read the text.  I need to be reminded of joy.  I need to be re-minded to joy.  Wait and watch, sticks and kindling dutifully arranged in expectation of the spark.  Realize, then, that the tinder is already aglow.  I don’t need to wait for some coming but to see what has already come.  Blow gently and increase the flame.   Sustain it; be sustained by it.  Dip my bucket into the well, trusting to draw it forth brimful and shining. Drink deeply and find myself intoxicated with its urgency.  Catch someone else’s eye.  Grin and gesture to the very well I drew from, look to see joy spark across.

Make myself ridiculous in the expectation.  Make myself ridiculous in the experience.

That’s how it began.  That is how it begins again.

Risk joy.  Pray for it.  Prophesy it.  Live it.  Tell it.