All God’s People Prophets

Photo by Katherine Brown*

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent.  Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. 

Numbers 11:24-25; excerpt from 11:24-30; alternate lectionary for Pentecost Sunday, 5.31.20

Sundays I get up and start coffee and check church email early, to learn any changes to the order of worship before we’re all logged on to Zoom.  Last Sunday morning I saw a message that my church and another, about four blocks up Georgia Avenue, planned to line the road on either side for a COVID-appropriately masked and distanced demonstration in support of racial justice.  I read the email and my first reaction was an almost wild frustration:  I already have plans, I don’t have time for this, I have things that I need to do.  My second reaction — nearly coincident with the first save that nanosecond’s difference that requires me to admit the order in which they came — was a deep shame that as a white woman I could choose to avoid dealing with this issue when so many others have no choice in the matter.  That shame came with an accompanying conviction — welling up swiftly, as if in flood, and overwhelming me with its power — that the fact that I can choose to abstain is the very reason why I cannot choose to abstain.   I found a piece of cardboard, and I crayoned on my phrase*, and Sunday evening I joined several hundred standing along both sides of the road, holding up to oncoming traffic the words that had hauled us from our homes and plans and required of us presence, and statement.  The light was clear; the air was mild; the breeze was sweet.

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’  

Numbers 11 had held me already a week by then, as the news turned from a primary focus on the COVID-pandemic to the nation convulsed with a fresh recognition of racism’s horrifically persistent and destructive pervasiveness.  (Periodically we toy with renewing this recognition. When will we move on to true reckoning and transformation?)  I lived that turn through this text.  Reading its telling of 70 elders and the spirit.  Reading news stories of deaths — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd only the most recently famous — of demonstrations and riot police and photo ops.  Reading text, and reading context, and reading each reading each other the while. 

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’  

The LORD puts spirit on the elders, and they are caught in its power, carried out of themselves and into a frenzy. That’s what it is to prophesy in the Bible:  to be overcome with the power of the LORD (1 Sam 10:5-13).  The encounter knocks you flat then pulls you standing (Ezek 1:26-2:5).  Even when the work is described in terms of speech rather than ecstasy, it is a word that burns and cannot be contained, a flame that must be shouted aloud (Jer 20:8-9).  To prophesy is to be subject to the power of the spirit, to be the word’s servant rather than its master.  One does not grab the word and hold it aloft.  One is grabbed by the word, held by the hair, lifted up and away (Ezek 8:1-4).

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’  

The seventy elders have been gathered for this encounter because the community in the wilderness is convulsed with a fresh set of complaining, ‘strong craving’ and weeping (Num 11:1-9).  Moses himself is ‘displeased’ and angry with God.  I didn’t conceive or bear or birth this people, Moses argues, ‘I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me’ (Num 11:10-15).  God responds and directs Moses to gather seventy elders who will share the work of leading the people through the wilderness.  This is the backdrop to the elders’ experience of the spirit and their however-brief/however-timeless frenzy of possession. 

This context of a people riven by strife and the need for leaders to ‘bear the burden of the people’ (Num 11:16-18) revises my idea of what is what is at stake in the elders’ experience.  What I had thought mattered so that the community would see that these seventy were God’s appointed leaders, I now realize mattered so that the seventy themselves would have had this direct and destabilizing encounter with the LORD.

The LORD who sees and hears and knows the sufferings of the oppressed, who does not stand far off but comes down to deliver (Exod 3:6-10).  ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Exod 34:6-7).  The LORD who is ‘God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing’ (Deut 10:17-18).  

The elders need to be overwhelmed by that awareness and alignment and commitment so that — initiating prophetic frenzy past — they can lead the people as God wills.  Attuned to the oppressed.  Executing justice for the vulnerable.  Extending love beyond kin, beyond neighbor, until even the ‘stranger’ is fed and clothed and fully folded into the whole.  The elders’ experience of the spirit was necessary not as an end in itself but as a means of giving that glimpse of God’s end for them all.

Last Sunday was a hundred years ago.  Every day since, there has been news of another protest, summons to another rally.  Yesterday (Friday) at 5 p.m. communities of faith lined 16th Street from Dupont Circle in Washington D.C. up until and beyond the district line.  We stood in vigil holding signs near the end of 16th Street, just before 16th curves and joins Georgia Avenue.  Cars and vans and buses passed; many honked or flashed lights in support.  About 5:45, the rain started.  It came down in buckets, soaking through signs and clothes and shoes.  Still we stood, signs held high, heads bowed against the sky’s crashing sobs.  We stood until the lightning and thunder came together, then we fled back to our cars through rainwater rivers running swift down the sides of the streets.

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’   The nation continues to convulse.  I pray it is a birth, not another false labor.  I pray that our encounter with the spirit’s compulsion persists even after the frenzy of protests and rallies and vigils is past.  It should pass.  The summons to protest is not an end in itself but a necessary stage along the way.  May this spell of God-sight guide us into and through the spiritual and social and legislative work of reckoning, repentance, and reconciliation.  

‘Would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!’ (Num 11:29).

*My daughter pointed out that the Bible verses written in ink on my sign would not be legible to passing traffic. I replied that the verses were written there for me; these were the words that required me to get up and go. The sign made for Sunday was soaked through by Friday’s rain. The crayon letters remain on the now-dried and oddly twisted cardboard but the ink was washed away. No matter. The words remain written in this image and remain written in my heart.

The Same Kinds of Suffering

face-masks by Paul Brown; photo by Katherine Brown

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.  If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. 

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen. 

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; lectionary epistle for Sunday May 24, 2020

It was years ago, now, that I was riding home on the Metro one winter evening, lost and alone in my own bad news, trapped behind a glass wall of grief.  The train driver told a joke, and the mouth of the man opposite twitched in appreciation, and the movement caught my eye, and my gaze his, but I did not smile, only looked through him for a minute till we both turned away.  If I had smiled, I think he would have smiled back.  He would have been a sort of brother.  I would have felt glad of the connection.  Instead I sat there in my own unhappiness, in the Metro car with strangers.  I had the wit to recognize the tension but not the will to break through the wall.

1 Peter’s word hits hard against that glass wall, reminds us that while our griefs may be profoundly unique, there is a unity in suffering.   We confuse the two, I realize, grief and suffering.  As, perhaps, we confuse gladness in all its wildly various forms with its common wellspring of joy.  Grief does constrain and imprison us … unless, until, we are drawn to see past our own particulars to the underlying unity.

‘Your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering,’ Peter reminds us.  ‘All the world’?  The phrase hits close in this time of pandemic.  The losses mount.   Too often they are set against each other.   Save lives but kill the economy.  Individual liberty opposes community welfare.  I learn of a death, ‘non-COVID caused,’ and I wonder at the need to distinguish it for those of us without epidemiological responsibilities.  Is this death somehow separate from the others?  Is there therefore less pain? or more?

Peter writes not only ‘all the world’ but also ‘the same kinds of suffering.’  As if all these pains should not be treated as distinct and opposing.  As if to distinguish my distress from yours is to miss the gospel promise.  ‘Do not be surprised,’ Peter admonishes, ‘as though something strange were happening.’  Yes, the particular suffering Peter describes comes of calling on the name of Christ within an empire that acclaims Caesar.  But the ground of Peter’s claim of Christ is that Christ participated fully in humanity, ‘suffered in the flesh’ (1 Peter 4:1).  This is the sameness that underlies our suffering.  Tap into this wellspring that connects our suffering with God’s own, and the suffering we experience in our flesh becomes what Peter describes:  suffering with and for Christ — so that we ‘may also be glad and shout for joy’ in Christ (1 Peter 4:13).

It feels premature even to imagine being glad and shouting for joy.  This pandemic continues to unfold, and the shape of its process remains murky.  So many losses already — lives, jobs, plans.  We cannot even know how many more losses we will suffer.  But the very universality of this virus invites a recognition that suffering is not a matter of various kinds but of ‘the same kind.’ It can connect us or, more accurately, reveals what has always been true:  we are all connected.  Maybe reading 1 Peter can rewrite our experience of pandemic; or perhaps the current context of global convulsion may allow us to read 1 Peter anew and suddenly, shockingly, plain.  

I imagine myself again on the Metro.  Looking across at the stranger whose mouth had just twitched.  He, too, must know grief and uncertainty and loss and pain.  Each one of us might have true cause to feel ourselves kept separate by the glass walls of our individual experience, rightly divided by the unique peculiarities of our distinct distresses.  Yet together we are — all of us — on the same side of the wall, the side to which Christ in flesh came, on which Christ in flesh suffered.  

I am not alone behind a wall but together with brothers and sisters in all the world.  Nor are we — together, in our same kinds of suffering — alone behind a wall.  God has reached across the wall to ‘himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish’ us.  Let us, then, work to restore, support, strengthen and establish each other.

Beloved, do not be surprised.  Be sustained in unity with Christ.

Telling Time In Tree Leaves

photo by Katherine Brown

If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.  Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.  Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.  You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. 

1 Peter 1:17-23; lectionary epistle for April 26, 2020

Telling time in a pandemic.  Our sense of its passage — along with so much else — is skewed by circumstances beyond our control.  Days lead one into the next with not much to distinguish them. ‘Dear Professor,’ a student emailed me Friday morning, having missed Thursday’s Zoom lecture, ‘I am sorry but I really, really thought today was Thursday …’.  The present pattern of our lives is not bounded by the bright lines of leaving the house, driving to campus, entering other spaces.  The morning alarm is set later, and its buzz has lost some of its imperative force.  I have waked to full daylight these past weeks.  How do we mark the rhythm when the old marks no longer apply?  Is waking-to-waking even the right boundary to count?  Because I wake before daylight as well.  I wake in the night having dreamed vividly, oddly.  I get up in the dark, my steps small and slow.  I come back to bed, squinch my eyes shut against the neighbor’s bright-as-day security light, settle myself again prone, if not to sleep, lay and listen for the chime of the dining room clock, not even sure whether I hope that it is nearly morning or that I still have hours to sleep.

Telling time when the world’s turned upside down.  Maybe clock-tolled hours are not the right measure.  I sit at my bedroom desk, look out the front window at the trees.  Six weeks ago the topmost branches were knobby with leaf-buds and yellow-tan against the deep blue of the sky.  Three weeks ago, the trees were hazed with green, as if some verdant mist hung about the branches.  Now I look and see that the vague haze of earlier weeks has shifted from peridot to emerald and distilled itself into definite leaf shapes.  The leaves are still small enough to be each one distinct, not yet merged into the glossy dark green tree-shape of summer.  Yet.  There are leaves where there had not been.  That’s how long we have been in this state of waiting for we know not what. No:  that’s not so.  We know what we are waiting for.  We just don’t know the when.  We are waiting for the ‘curve to flatten,’ for testing to be more widespread, for clearer insight into this virus — its rates of contagion, of morbidity, of mortality, for a vaccine.  We know what we are waiting for.  We just don’t know the when. 

Telling time.  Count it by the calendar:  secular, academic, liturgical.  No tally has the answer.  We’ve been home since spring break.  We’ve been home since early in Lent.  We were home through Holy Week.  We’ll be home through semester’s end.  Shall we be home this whole Easter season?  Will that mark the completion of the term of this time?

Time is the preoccupation of First Peter as well.  The recipients are living a ‘time of your exile’.  The patterns of their lives have shifted; their former ways no longer apply.  When did they learn their former ways were ‘futile’?  What overset their ignorance?  What caused the realization that those everyday inequities entirely unrecognized or otherwise accommodated were in fact the proof of this world’s futility?  What called them from that barrenness to ‘new birth into a living hope’?  

Telling time.  The paradox of a single point calibrated along multiple whens.  First Peter’s hope, Christ, was ‘destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages.’  Beginning and end.  First and last.  Still this last time is not yet ended, else Peter’s audience would not be in their ‘time of exile,’ neither in the world nor out of it.  Needing to be reminded — by the writing and sending and reading of a letter — of trust, of faith, of hope.  Of how to wait for the what (or the who) when you don’t know the when.  Needing to be reminded that living in the meanwhile is a process with its own peculiar grace.  And every so often an unexpected sign that time is being told not only by we who are waiting but by God who is drawing time on and drawing us in.

Again I come awake from a dream in the night.  Again I shuffle down the hall and back.  Again, I reach for the bed, close my eyes against the piercing light, and settle myself prone to wait for the clock.  Then I realize that one of those ‘agains’ wasn’t.  I open my eyes.  The bedroom is dark.  I lift up on an elbow, look to the window, and realize that the neighbor’s light is not shining through the bedroom window because the leaves on the maple now are full enough to block the brightness.  All those weeks of days of growing leaves, from bare branch through bud to new green, and suddenly When has become Now.  This is not the end.  More growth will come.  But this ‘now’ for tonight is enough to tell me that time is being told not only by I who am waiting for God but by God who waits for me. This ‘now’ for tonight is enough to recall me to hope and to love through the ‘living and enduring word of God.’

The right use of fear

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me; 
your rod and your staff -- 
they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4; from Psalm 23, lectionary text for Sunday, March 22, 2020

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, 
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. 

Proverbs 9:10

Thinking much about fear this past week, particularly the relationship between fear and faith.  I’m not the only one.   The Washington Post reports that in a certain Bible app, ‘searches for “fear” went up by 167 percent last week, and “fear not” by 299 percent.’*   

Institutions throughout my area — including the university where I teach — closed and moved work online.  Churches closed too.  More accurately, church buildings closed.  ‘Church’ remained open, with the community’s worship and prayer and study moved online.  News stories and social media feeds started covering this aspect of the coronavirus as a distinct thread within the larger tapestry of the new social pattern COVID is creating.  Of the various slants relative to the closing of churches, one that continued to recur was the tension claimed between fear and faith.  Most negatively, the relationship between fear and faith was presented as an intrinsic opposition, so that failure to gather physically for worship was failure of faith in God, elevating the power of the virus over the power of God.  In a more benign form, fear was admitted as natural, a human condition that we could offer to the LORD in trust of God’s comfort and cure.

‘Fear not,’ God repeatedly instructs, from Genesis (15:1) through Revelation (1:17).   ‘I will fear no evil,’ the psalmist sings, in laud and thanks of the LORD’s presence and comfort.   

But:  ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.’  The proverb offers fear in parallel with knowledge, not as something to be avoided. 

Fear does not oppose fidelity.  Rightly ordered, it is part of it.

Fear may be irresponsible or destructive — panic that destabilizes and debilitates individuals and communities.  Yet I wonder whether our fear of fear, so rooted in our national ethos (‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself,’ FDR famously said) is depriving us of an important learning about ourselves as creatures and our place in creation.  Fear reminds us that we are not in control.  The Bible reminds us that we were never meant to be in control.  Made in the image and likeness of God, yes; given ‘dominion’ over creation, yes.   Just ‘a little lower than God,’ yes.  But ‘like’ and ‘lower than’ God.  Not God.  We were never meant to be God.  Fear reminds us that we are limited. Fear may allow us to recognize and admit, again as if for the first time, the power that is outside of us, the power that is other, the power that is beyond.

Perhaps this is the value in the practice of fear.   Perhaps this is the lesson of a time such as this.  The scope of the risk is unknown, at this point unknowable.  We are required to acknowledge our ignorance and to admit our finitude.  Even — effectively — forced to admit the fear that is the shadow side of so much of our bright life, the worry both quotidian and ultimate that we hide under the thrum of busy-ness, the hectic pace of work or play, the anxiety that comes out only sometimes, in the wee hours of the night when the surrounding dark seems vast and terrible.  Daybreak comes, we push the night terrors down and away, and we spend the hours of light — again — acting as if we are in control, which pretense has as its implicit corollary, that we are God, or at least that we know God already so perfectly as to be able anticipate and respond to every circumstance.

The current pandemic proves the power of this virus.  Fear of it is not faithlessness.  Fear may be, instead, the beginning of the beginning of wisdom.  As we acknowledge the fear of what is finite, as learn to revise our own actions in response to its power — a power as impersonal as a wave — we may begin to realize how to practice the fear of what is ultimate and infinite.  Of Who is ultimate and infinite.

Fear does not oppose fidelity.  Rightly ordered, it is part of it.  It has the potential to teach. As we learn, may we be drawn further on and in to deeper and dearer relationship with God.

‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight’

*The Washington Post, ‘Worship goes virtual in age of social distancing,’ print 3/21/20