Habakkuk and the Purple Crayon*

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.  O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?  Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.  So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous– therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.  Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.  For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.  Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Lectionary Text for Sunday, November 2, 2019

Why write?  

I don’t mean why think, or why wonder, or why put those thoughts and wonderings into words.  I mean, having managed to word the thoughts, why write the words?

Why ‘write the vision’?  Why ‘make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it’?

Sometimes, of course, it’s the writing that forms the thinking.  It’s the discipline of putting words on the page (or screen or tablet) that disciplines inchoate imaginings into clear question or answer or insight.

But what of those other times?  What when you’ve already wandered around the neighborhood murmuring aloud, rehearsing the wondering variously and thoroughly?  When you don’t need the writing as aid to thinking, why write?  What is gained, or changed, when the vision is written?  The spoken word is powerful, of course, but it dissipates.  The vibrations hang on the air long enough to hit the ear, and then they are gone.  The word lingers in memory, maybe, but memory is a chancy thing.  It shifts.  It loses.  And it doesn’t always remember what it has lost.

‘Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.’  

What is this vision that Habakkuk is to write?  Is it anything more than the phrase ‘the end’?  Is it the rest of chapter 2?  Might ‘the vision’ be the prophetic book itself which, after all, refers to itself as ‘the oracle’ (or ‘burden’) that the prophet ‘saw.’ So many words of sight and observation then follow:  ‘Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble?’ the prophet cries out to the LORD.  ‘I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,’ the prophet speaks, as if to himself.  Having seen the slackness of the law, the perversion of justice, the prophet sets himself to watch for the LORD.   

Maybe Habakkuk writes the vision because he cannot not know what he views without putting it to words.  Maybe Habakkuk writes the vision to fix what he sees, to resist the possibility of time dulling the gaze, shifting the vision in a sort of incremental creep.  No, this is not the law, Habakkuk protests, this is slackness.  No, this is not justice, Habakkuk writes, but its perversion. 

‘Write the vision…’  Inscribe it on a tablet.  Put it outside yourself.  Make it a material thing.  Turn it over and around in your hands, look at it from all sides, then hand it along to the appointed time to come.

Maybe Habakkuk writes the vision because I cannot see what he has seen without reading his words.  

I read his vision writ plain, and the ‘I’ inscribed on the tablet becomes the reading me.  Habakkuk’s sight becomes my own.  No, this is not the law, I protest, this is slackness.  No, this is not justice, I proclaim, but its perversion.  I ascend to the rampart that Habakkuk’s pen has inscribed.  Habakkuk’s pen has written this watchpost into being.  The lines of his script pile up like stones hewn and stacked into a tower.  My legs ache with the climb.  I put my hands on the stone ledge and lean forward to look out the window and down.  I have a different perspective from up here.  What lies at the base shows smaller but also more clearly.  Then I lift my head and gaze at the horizon.  I watch for the LORD.  I expect an answer.  I will wait to see what word comes.

There is still a vision.  I will see it.  Take in my hand the tablet on which it is written so plain that a runner can read it, so lasting that another can climb it.  Write it anew, build it into being, and hand it again along.

* Apologies to Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955)

Time’s Spiral

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” 

Rev. 7:13-17; from the text for Sunday May 12, 2019

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Rev. 21:1-5; from the text for Sunday, May 19, 2019

In 2002, Paul and I took our girls to the Chestertown Tea Party, a festival predicated on a historical (or not) event when Chestertown colonists followed their Boston brethren’s lead.  Seven-year-old Elizabeth was enthralled.  There was a parade down High Street, a military drill with General Washington, a tour of the Schooner Sultana, and — most exciting of all! — a reenactment.  Patriots debated rights and liberty, then chased the British redcoats down High Street, rowed out to the Sultana, boarded the boat and tossed burlap-covered bales of clearly-labeled ‘TEA’ into the Chester River.  Elizabeth waved her hat and cheered from the dock.  At the end of the long day, our sleepy girl sighed, ‘That was the best day of my life.’

Seventeen years later, we were again at the foot of High Street on the Chestertown dock.  A crowd had formed, all of us waiting.  Children sat and squirmed and leaned over to see the water, and adults called them back from the edge.  Cannon from the Sultana belched a flash of flame, a billow of smoke, a massive BANG! that caused all on the dock to cry out and cover their ears.  Behind us we could hear the sound of muskets over the noise of so many excited voices.  ‘Are they coming? They’re coming!’  Suddenly a clot of colonists were on the dock.  They rowed out — in the face of further cannon fire — boarded the Sultana and dumped what were probably the same burlap-wrapped TEA-labeled bales.  Children on shore cheered and waved, and adults did too, and Paul took a gazillion pictures because one of the costumed colonists clambering aboard the Sultana was Elizabeth.  

It was again a best day.  It was a best day in and of itself, and it was a best day for the way it connected back to that other, recapitulated it from a different perspective.  The layering of memory was a palpable presence infusing the entire experience.  Our sight held present and past together — one in front of each eye, slightly askew, like an old Viewfinder, so that all was seen with a fuller depth than otherwise possible, stereoscopically.

I’ve been thinking a lot about time this past week.  How time moves, how time loops, the line curving back on itself, towards its beginning, as if its end is to meet that start-point.

As I was living this loop in my own experience of time, I was pondering Revelation, re-reading texts assigned for prior weeks.  I’d wondered at the lectionary jump from chapter 7 to 21 — so many visions omitted, what could account for the progression?  Reading the passages together gave a clue: the springs of water and wiping of tears promised in chapter 7 are realized in chapter 21.  John sees the new heaven and new earth (21:1-2) — this is not just a vision promised but a vision present.  What was anticipated now is.  ‘The first things have passed away.’  I linger in the thought:  that John saw it so, the city like a bride, God’s dwelling with humanity, every tear wiped away.  John had heard it foretold — that the experience of the great ordeal would be swallowed up in blessing — and 14 chapters later, he sees it so.  Fulfillment.  Realized.

Except not.  John sees it but he doesn’t live it.  John sees all the way to the end of the book, past the command to write, the commitment that the words are ‘trustworthy and true,’ the renewed promise that the Lord Jesus, Alpha and Omega, first and Last, is ‘coming soon’ (22:12-13), the invitation for all to utter the summoning ‘Come!’ (22:17), the invitation for all themselves to ‘Come.’  John sees it all. But John doesn’t live at the end of the book. John lives at its beginning, when the promise of coming is new-uttered (1:7), when the letters to seven churches (Rev 2-3) make plain the brokenness not just of the world but of the communities that claim the faith of Christ.  John lives the time when the promise is urgently needed, the time of the ‘great ordeal,’ the time when suffering speaks louder than life.  John lives in that time, and into the vision, and all the way to vision’s end, to its fulfillment in newness.  

Newness is not fulfilled in John’s lifetime.  John sees it; a sure anticipation, but a vision, not an arrival.  Yet because John sees it, he lives it. John lives newness even before newness has fully come.  Because the end of the vision loops back to its beginning — the summons to come, the promise that the coming will be soon — that beginning is thereby transformed.  Time does not, in fact, circle.  The end of the line just misses its start point, curves on past, in a spiral towards newness.  But as end and beginning are brought close, we see each more fully.  And our new-enabled stereoscopic vision, enables us to see our present in clearer depth as well.

I have been pondering this all these past few weeks.  Reading Revelation.  Living my own time’s spiral.  Anticipating my church’s area-wide conference.  I write this in Baltimore on the first night of conference.  I do not yet know how the whole will shape — events are yet unfolding, time is yet curving on.  But already there have been glimpses of a grace-filled end.  And those visions themselves alter the shape of the living now, the ever-present process of time spiraling onward and upward.  An ascending helix, perhaps.  Life itself.  Building towards God’s end:  newness, trustworthy and true.