Psalm Upside Down

photo (c) 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.

Red Sky in Morning

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Isaiah 9:2-4; from Isaiah 9:1-4, lectionary text for Sunday January 26, 2020

The days I teach, I set off for work in the dark, and by the time I arrive it is day.  Driving through earth’s quotidian turning is one of the consolations of having to wake so early.  How does the light come?  I close my eyes and try to see it on the insides of my eyelids.

How the light comes.  First the sky begins to glow.  Night’s midnight blue takes on a suffused purply hue then softens to lighter shade.  When the sky is clear, light’s coming shows as a nuanced series of variations as the sky shades from mystic violet to indigo to chambray, each shift so fine that I realize the series only when I recognize the sum of them:  Oh, the sky is blue.  It is different when there are clouds.  The sun begins to light them even before it has risen above the horizon.  Still itself unseen, the sun tints the clouds raspberry and coral and peach and lemon.  The clouds catch fire, flare with amazing colors, become the sun’s heralds, proclaim coming.

‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’  

It is the clouds that make light’s coming so wonderful, that blare it with such fanfare.  Yet they proclaim not just light but storm. ‘Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.’   

‘For the yoke of their burden and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.’  This is a battle image.  Gideon and his 300 and the LORD’s triumph of blaring trumpets and flaring torches and shouts and clamor.  [Judges 7]  It is not a peaceful dawning but victory sounding.  God breaking apart the enemy — loudly, violently, irrefutably.

I’m not sure I like that part.  In my mind’s eye I was watching for the light.  Now suddenly I’m waiting for a storm, listening for the wind to rise, to hear trees creak loudly as they sway, and to wonder what will happen if one comes crashing down.  

I have walked in darkness.  I pray for light.  For the bars that weight shoulders to be lifted away, rods wielded by oppressors to be broken.  But I am aware that privileges of my life burden others, and structures that sustain me oppress others.  The rod broken by the LORD may be to me both freeing and jarring.  (What did Israel do once fear of Midian no longer united them?  Was the rejoiced-over spoil enough to divide or did the plunder cause new division?).  

I have walked in darkness.  I pray for light.  Light to break the dark and light to show the brokenness in the day.  Light enough to see by and light enough to have my sight transformed so that I can rejoice and not resent, can greet it with without fear but with exultant joy.

I pray, LORD, that I may pray for light.  I pray, LORD, that I may welcome it as it comes.

Arise, shine…

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;

but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around;

they all gather together, they come to you;

your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. 

Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice,

because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 

Isa 60:1-5; from Isa 60:1-7, lectionary for Sunday, Jan 5, 2020

This has been a burdened season — not without its moments of connection, even joy — but overall heavy.  Nor did the turn of old year into new do much to lift the weight of it.  Our daughter re-capped the past few days:  Jan. 1 ‘Happy New Year!’; Jan. 2 ‘Australia’s burning’; Jan. 3 ‘World War III’s begun.’  The specter of international conflict seems to be solidifying as we watch.  National news reports more racial and anti-Semitic violence.  Nor let us forget presidential impeachment voted but not yet (if ever?) tried.

I spend New Year’s Day in the Isaiah text.  I just read it, first.  Read it with my eyes.  Form the words with my lips.  Try to hear them in my mind.  The first line sings to me in choral crescendo — I can see the singers increasing their volume, lifting voices and shoulders and faces in joy.  The first line sings to me celebration.  And maybe, I think, that is right.  All those singers rejoicing in the season, in the Christ Child born, in the Magi coming, in the gifts presented.  ‘Arise, shine!’ the singers sing with heady energy — already risen, already aglow — as if what they sing is the lyric of their own shining delight.  As if they sing to share their gladness, to invite others — me — into it:  you, too, may know; you, too, may rise as we do!   But that is not the prophet’s lyric.  The song is not of joy-attained, the chorus of the already-glad inviting me to listen, even perhaps to sing along.  The song is of joy-promised.

‘Arise, shine,’ the prophet urges a woman.  The imperatives are singular, feminine.  The ‘you’ throughout the text (‘the LORD has risen upon you’; ‘your light’; ‘your eyes’; ‘your sons’) is grammatically the same:  singular, feminine.  The woman addressed is not yet risen, nor yet shining — else she would not have to be summoned to it.  The woman addressed is aware of the darkness.  She needs news of the light.

‘Lift up your eyes and look around’ the prophet urges.  Now my mental picture changes.  No longer the choir triumphant (perhaps a bit smug in its own gladness?) but a woman weighted with grief.  Her shoulders are slumped.  Her head is bowed.  What she sees is the ground.  Within the book of Isaiah, it is ground that’s been trampled by war.  Within the book of Isaiah, it is ground to which some survivors have returned but found that the dear-claimed earth did not bring forth for them new and abundant life but remained a patch of briars from which hard-scrabble living had to be wrested.  Within the book of Isaiah, it is ground over which the community itself squabbles, hacks itself into divisions, re-opens injuries already suffered, revives the cut of the expected future lost.  This is the one to whom the lyric is addressed.  This woman with her burden so heavy that her  body is bowed under it.  Within the book of Isaiah, she is Zion, the holy city, the daughter-people.  Outside of it, she is any of us weighted and aching, all of us waiting in the dark.  

‘Arise, shine.  … Lift up your eyes and look around.’  The lost future grieved is returning to you — not in the same form as before (the sons and daughters, so grown they are!) — but a future sprung new.  

‘Arise, shine’ — it is possible, not of your own light, but of the LORD’s.  God’s glory risen (60:1).  God’s glory soon to appear (60:2).  There’s a tension between the tenses — has the LORD’s glory already come or is it yet to be?  Yes, the text says.  The tension recurs in v.4:  ‘they all gather together’ is already to be seen; even as the coming and being carried is yet to be.  Maybe that paradox of disparate tenses is what draws the woman in and on towards the possibility of joy:  ‘you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice’ (v.5) — the action couched as yet incomplete, but promised sure.  And because of that promise, of the interplay of already and not-yet, the woman to whom the whole is sung can see and hear and know the pattern well enough to anticipate and live its next turn.  Rounding back to the beginning of the text, she can get up and she can shine because shining already is, because now she can see the dawn even before the sun has risen above the horizon.

‘Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice’ (v.5) promises the NRSV.  The literal Hebrew says your heart — her heart, my heart — will tremble and be opened wide.  Grief curls us inward.  There is risk to opening an already-aching heart.  Hence the trembling perhaps.  It comes of hope, of amazement: that this wonder should be!  But the text proclaims it is. And I want to see it come.  Not to wait until it taps me on my shoulder and bids me rise, but to straighten as I can at the sound of the news, to lift my head and look to the horizon for the light that is coming and the light that has come and the glory appearing, even now.

‘Arise, shine.’