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.

Sifting Shifting Witness

photo by Katherine Brown (color enhanced)
The mighty one, God the LORD,
 speaks and summons the earth
 from the rising of the sun to its setting. 
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
 God shines forth.  
Our God comes and does not keep silence,
 before him is a devouring fire,
 and a mighty tempest all around him. 
He calls to the heavens above
 and to the earth, that he may judge his people: 
“Gather to me my faithful ones,
 who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!” 
The heavens declare his righteousness,
 for God himself is judge. Selah  
Psalm 50:1-6, from Psalm 50, psalter for Transfiguration Sunday
Have mercy on me, O God,
 according to your steadfast love;
 according to your abundant mercy
 blot out my transgressions. 
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
 and cleanse me from my sin. … 
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
 and put a new and right spirit within me. 
Do not cast me away from your presence,
 and do not take your holy spirit from me. 
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
 and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Psalm 51:1-2, 10-12; from Psalm 51 for Ash Wednesday

‘The LORD speaks and summons the earth.’  The LORD calls the earth, cries out the earth, from the sun’s rise till its going in.  I read the line, and the LORD calls the earth to be, summons it to unfold itself, as if creation does not exist but for God’s daily re-call.  In my mind God’s speech unfurls rainbow banners across the heavens.  I look out the window and see pink glowing from sky to snow-ground.

This summons, though, is not to being but to judgment.  The LORD who flames from perfect-beauty Zion in fire and storm consuming, whose righteousness the heavens declare, calls a gathering ‘that he may judge his people.’  ‘For God himself is judge.’

This is where the lectionary selection for Transfiguration ends.  As if it is safe to summon the shining-bright LORD as judge and not recount the judgment.  As if it is honest or true to not read on to God’s arraignment of God’s own people.  As if the mountaintop was itself the end and not the transition (literarily, liturgically) into a next phase of relationship.  Lent.

Where am I in this psalm?  Who is God speaking to?  Who is the LORD speaking of?

Having called the earth as if to be, the LORD calls to heavens above and earth below to witness the charges.  I am not called as witness, however.  As I count myself among God’s own, numbered among God’s ‘faithful,’ I must count myself among those arraigned, against whom God testifies.  We are not invited to overhear God’s speech to others but to be addressed by God.  We are summoned to ‘Hear!’

What we hear is both censure and assurance.  God’s people — we, I — are arraigned not for our failures of worship but for something else.  Sacrifice as we practice it is not an inherent offense.  Nor is it needed by God.  All is already the LORD’s.  Who are we to set aside some portion only?  As if it all — as if we — are not already God’s own.  As if God has a hunger that can be slaked only by our burnt offerings.  The LORD rejects our offerings as necessary for God’s sake, yet the psalm continues on into exhortation:  sacrifice thanks; pay your promises; ‘call on me in the day of trouble.’  The LORD does not reject us or our offerings.  If there is rejection, it is of our ordering.  We are the ones who need this discipline taken on, that distraction given up.  The LORD, of grace, accepts our need as offering, and God promises to deliver.

But the psalm does not end there any more than it ended after that initial summons to judgment.  The LORD castigates the wicked.  How comforting it would be to think this address, at least, is against ‘others,’ and this is the part I can overhear.  These harsh words against those who ‘hate discipline’ and ‘cast my words behind you,’ who befriend thieves and adulterers, who speak evil and deceit and slander against their own kin — I would rather witness these words than take them to myself.

Except that these words, too, are addressed to those who carry God’s covenant on their lips.  These words, too, are addressed to those counted as kin, which is why their falsity is such an offense.  If I draw that line between, am I not risking the same slander?  It is the LORD who is not like us, not we who are not like each other.  I must see that if I am to see at all.

I need re-creation as much as anyone else.  To be ‘washed of my iniquity, cleansed from my sin,’ ‘restored to joy and sustained in willing spirit.’

I need not just to listen but to hear to bear God’s promise truly on my lips and know God’s word present in my heart, so that I may bear God’s name in the world.

Let me not forget you, LORD.  

Let me learn to see myself with your eyes that I may see you with my own.

Night Waiting

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:  This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. …

Exodus 12:1-2, excerpt from Exodus 12:1–4, 11-14, lectionary text during Holy Week, 2020

I am writing this on Good Friday.  It is night.  All day today the wind blew, great gusts of wind, soughing through the trees and around the house.  I sat at my desk and looked out the window at tall trees swaying back and forth and smaller trees bending on a swifter, tighter arc.  I watched and imagined the new green leaves of the pear tree and the cream blossoms of the dogwood holding tight as the wind played crack the whip with their branches.  I took a walk outside.  The wind buffeted my body and roared around my ears.  The afternoon was bright blue; white clouds scudded across the sky.  

Now it is night.  I listen and hear quiet and realize the wind has fallen.  The rising, rushing vigor of the day has ebbed.  Now is the dark; now is the waiting.

Exodus 12 is the text for Maundy Thursday, the celebration of Jesus’ last supper with his closest disciples.  Exodus 12 gives the Passover command, ‘take a lamb,’ and tells the reason.  The LORD is about to execute judgment on all the gods of Egypt, the false powers that enslave and oppress and destroy, but will ‘pass over’ the households which have marked their identity with the blood of the lamb.  Death shall not destroy these households that have marked themselves as God’s own.  Exodus 12 works well for this night too, for the Lamb has been lifted up.  There has been blood — enough for sign.  The work is completed.  But the work is not over.

I am writing this on Good Friday.  It is night and dark and quiet.  And I am waiting for the rest of the work. I am waiting for beginning.

‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.’  Of the whole passage, that is the phrase that has held me this week.  This month the beginning of months.  It came upon me unexpected.  I had remembered the lamb, the command to share, the girded loins and hurried eating.  I had remembered the preparation.  I had forgotten the beginning.  The word came as an unlooked-for present — a treasure to hold cupped in one’s hands, a tender seed to brood over and watch until it cracks and sprouts, sends forth roots and shoots and leaves, grows into something too great to be contained in one’s own grasp, something that withstands the strongest of winds.

‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.’  Beginning.  Not starting over.  Not returning again to some earlier point.  Beginning.  Going on through to the next.

This is the strangest Lent of my memory.  We gave up church — congregating our bodies as body, I mean.  We gave up going to work and school (aware of our fortune in being able to work and teach and learn from home).  We gave up going to the grocery on a whim, leaving the house even just to walk without a thought (aware of our fortune in having a house, a space in which to walk).  We gave up gatherings and plans, a careless ease, and — as a nation — any illusion (ill-founded as it was) of some inherent immunity to instability, to pain, to loss.

‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.’  Not going back to before, but beginning, going on to a new that cannot yet be seen, that can barely be imagined beyond the promise in the word itself — Beginning.

Tonight is Good Friday.  We held worship via Zoom, a liturgy of scripture readings and dramatic monologues.  A candle was extinguished after each; seven candles, one by one.  A soloist sang from his home, a capella, into his computer screen, ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord …’.   One candle was left.  The last speaker held it cupped in her hand, its flame lit her face as she prayed, then she placed it again on its stand.  Its light was small but steady against the dark.  A woodwind played ‘What wondrous love is this.’  On a whim, I changed to gallery view and saw on my screen the faces of forty-some households, each shown in its own neat square.   So many faces.  Each face was absolutely individual, yet all seemed to bear a common mark — an expression equally mixed of ache and of hope — borne of the words and of the music —  an awareness of separation and a longing for reunion.  Or so I read their faces, before tears came to my own eyes.

‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.’  Tonight is Good Friday.  It is night and dark and quiet.  I am waiting for beginning, and all the world as well, marked with the ache that is God’s own.