Sunday, March 25, 2012

Lenten Song: Remembering Ranan

Dancing Clapping Trees, Gwen Meharg, 1990s, US
  You will go out in joy 
   and be led forth in peace; 
the mountains and hills 
   will burst into song
   before you, 
and all the trees of the field 
   will clap their hands.
         (Isaiah 55)

My yard is full of birdsong: song sparrows, tufted titmice, wrens setting aside their normal complaints to celebrate spring from a perch along the picket fence. Even the blue jays’ metallic squawks sound more melodic than usual. Spring is here, the daffodils are blooming, and the tree tops are exploding with exuberant calls.

At this point in Lent, I often feel an inner disconnect. The world is brightening, days are lengthening, yet I’m still in a place of prayerful grief.  My experiments with fasting remind me of how many hungry children hold life by a thread. My next meal is just steps away, while millions of mothers have no next meal to offer their starving children.

This world is a broken place, and feels more broken by the day. Our food supply is held captive by a narrowing handful of global agri-monopolies. Our water supply is threatened by ever-more-reckless strategies for maintaining dependence on fossil fuel. Our health is jeopardized by genetic modification in everything from popcorn to sugar to canola oil. Our fragmented society hides its wounds behind closed doors, but the pain spills out in addictions, homelessness, spiraling anger, epidemic depression. Think and pray too long in any one direction and I find myself deep in lingering lament.

One of our Lenten readings this past week was the servant song of Isaiah 52:13 through 53, a Messianic prophecy written seven hundred years before Christ's birth and painful death:

Christ is Nailed to the Cross, Anna Kocher,
 2006,  US
Surely he took up our pain 
   and bore our suffering, 
yet we considered him 
   punished by God, 
   stricken by him, and afflicted. 
But he was pierced 
    for our transgressions, 
   he was crushed for our iniquities; 
the punishment that brought us peace 
   was on him, 
   and by his wounds we are healed. 
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, 
   each of us has turned to our own way; 
and the Lord has laid on him 
   the iniquity of us all.

Reading a few verses before, to catch the context, I was struck at this command:

Your watchmen lift up their voices; 
   together they shout for joy. 
When the Lord returns to Zion, 
   they will see it with their own eyes. 
Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, 
for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.

It would make sense to burst into songs of joy when the restoration is accomplished, when the promised redemption is accomplished. But this instruction is given to “you ruins of Jerusalem.” The restoration promised is nowhere in sight. The book of Isaiah was written during a time of deepening disobedience, on the unavoidable eve of invasion, captivity, destruction. Burst into songs of joy in the middle of that? How?

Digging back through the early Hebrew words, I find eight words for “singing,” thirteen more for “sing.” Some of the words have interesting double meanings: one, “massa'”, can mean singing, lifting a load, carrying a burden. Another, “`anah,” can mean affliction, humility, songs of lament.

The word used in Isaiah is anr, transliterated “ranah”, which can mean to overcome, to cry out, shout for joy, give a ringing cry, rejoice.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite Old Testament stories, from 2 Chronicles 20. The people of Judah were confronted with a “vast army” and came to King Jehoshaphat in fear. Jehoshaphat, in front of his people, cried out to God: “Are you not the God who is heaven?” He recounted the times God intervened for his people, described the danger confronting them, and confessed: “We have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.”
from Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, Frans Boels,
16th century, Flanders

God spoke through a man in the crowd, Jehaziel, an apparent nobody, who promised that if they went out to a nearby pass to watch, God would defeat their enemy for them.
“After consulting the people, Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the Lord and to praise him for the splendor of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for his love endures forever.’”
As thy began to sing and praise, the Lord set ambushes agains the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir who were invading Judah, and they were defeated.”

The story ends:

“The fear of God came upon all the kingdoms of the countries when they heard how the Lord had fought against the enemies of Israel. And the kingdom of Jehoshaphat was in peace, for his God had given him rest on every side.”

There’s much in that story that captures my interest, but the idea of singing in the face of fear and danger has always challenged me. How do we sing, or shout for joy, when the evidence around us points to disaster?

Back to Isaiah:

 Burst into songs of joy together, 
   you ruins of Jerusalem, 
for the Lord has comforted his people, 
   he has redeemed Jerusalem.

I don’t know much about Hebrew tenses, but there’s something odd happening here: right now, in ruins, burst into song. Because you’ve been comforted. Because you’ve been redeemed.

Really? What if I don’t see it?

Reading on through the servant song, I come out the other side to a similar instruction:

“Sing, barren woman, 
   you who never bore a child; 
burst into song, shout for joy, 
   you who were never in labor; 
because more are the children of the desolate woman 
   than of her who has a husband,” 
            says the Lord.

In a patriarchal culture where status depended on producing sons, where the future was guaranteed by multiple descendents, the barren woman was an object of scorn or pity, marginalized, deprived of future joy.

Yet she’s instructed to shout for joy anyway, to burst into song. Because she has more children (already?) than those less desolate. It doesn't seem to make sense.

Yet Isaiah insists that we live in the knowledge of God’s faithfulness in the past, and in celebration of his goodness in the future. Even in the pain of the present.

Rejoice, Monica Stewart, ca 2005, US
I find that hard. Praying this past week with a friend whose present is painful in the extreme, we wondered together: How do we live joyfully, right now, when every day hurts? How do we stay completely present to those around us, to the needs of the day, not shut it out, not medicate it away, not close ourselves off while we wait for that far-ff “someday” when things will be better?

Isaiah’s answer is strange, yet powerful. Ranan. Sing for joy. Sing in the promise of redemption, in the brokenness of today.

If you need logic, don’t even bother. It defies logic. Yet, the reality holds true. As Jehoshaphat and his people learned, as David and the other psalmists demonstrated, as Paul and Silas found, singing in prison while an earthquake opened the doors, joyful praise leads to freedom, sometimes opening doors in the physical world around us, more often allowing us to stand in a reality invisible to others, but no less real: the kingdom of God unfolding, here yet not here, now, not yet.

This joyful song is personal, but also political, as the stories in New and Old Testament suggest, as Freedom Riders of the sixties found, as the Singing Revolutions of 1987 to 1991 made clear: the internal freedom that comes with joyful song can bring the courage to trust God’s work in the broken halls of power, the disrupted dialogue of politics. Germans in Liepzig, fueled by the words of the Sermon on the Mount, filled the streets with singing in defiance of the Soviet police.  Lithuanians in Vilnius sang hymns and folk songs in public squares, then joined with Estonians and Latvians in a human chain of more than a million people stretching four hundred miles, a chain of freedom that helped lead to the dissolution of the USSR.

Where does that courage come from? It starts in honest lament, grows in times of prayer and study, finds power in the knowledge that God has been faithful to his people, across time, across all human borders. Alive in the present, we stand in the knowledge of the past, and celebrate the invisible, promised future. Waiting for Easter, for change, for healing, we sing. Awake, my heart. Burst into song. Rejoice. Ranan, ruined cities, for you have been redeemed.

Mu süda, ärka üles
Ja kiida Loojat lauldes,
Kes kõik head meile annab
Ja muret ikka kannab.  

Awake, my heart
And praise the Creator in song
Who provides us with all that is good
And bears our burdens too. 
  (Estonian folk song 
  sung during the singing revolution)

This is the sixth in a Lenten series:
     Looking toward Lent
     Lenten Sorrow : Lament and Nacham
     Lenten Silence: Charash, Be Still
     Lenten Sweetness: Tasting Towb    
     Lenten Submission: Rethinking Hupotassō

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Click on the  _comments link below to open the comment box.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Lenten Submission: Rethinking Hupotassō

 The Washing of the Feet, Jesus Mafa, 1973, Cameroon
Who is in charge?
Who gets to call the shots?
Whose rules will we play by?
What happens when we don’t agree?

Questions of power, hierarchy, authority, coercion seem to be surfacing in every direction. This blog is part of the March synchroblog: “All About Eve.” As the synchroblog invitation suggests, “It’s Women’s History month and International Women’s Day is March 8. Women’s rights have been all over the news recently, from bills in Congress and state representative bodies to crass “jokes” by national broadcasters. The idea that women are or should be equal to men has become a polarizing topic of discussion on the national stage.”

For me, Lent is bracketed by considerations of power. During Lent we look back to Jesus’ time of solitude in the desert, and the temptations he faced as he prepared for his years of teaching and healing. Offered all the authority and splendor of the kingdoms of the world, Jesus answered “It is written, Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” (Luke 4)

At the end of Lent, we remember Jesus’ applauded entry into Jerusalem, and the eagerness of the crowd to make him king. His refusal to embrace earthly power fed the disillusionment that led to Judas’ betrayal, and the crowds’ determination to see him crucified.

Christ Washing the Feet of St. Peter,
Sadao Watanabe, 1963, Japan
When Jesus’ followers asked about power and reward, he reminded them that the first would be last, and offered them a cross. Before his own last meal with them, he picked up the bowl and towel and washed their feet, the act of a servant or slave. So much for power.

I’ve been thinking about the word “submission.” It’s the word used to translate ὑποτάσσω, “hupotassō,” a Greek word that shows up in some of the most controversial passages in the New Testament. Slaves are encouraged to “hupotassō” their masters. Women are urged to “hupotassō” men (or – wives/husbands. Interestingly, the Greeks used the same word for women as wives, the same word for men as husbands). We are all asked to “hupotassō” all authority: kings, governors, elders. And we’re asked, repeatedly, to “hupotassō” each other.

Michelle Bachman caught headlines with conversation about wives submitting to their husbands. I found myself wondering what she meant by the word. Was she willing to submit to President Obama’s leadership in the same way she said she submits to her husband?

Mark Driscoll, pastor of a church often in the news, and author of a recent much-discussed book, Real Marriage, talks about submission: his wife’s submission to him. Does he submit to her in the same way? Who are the church leaders, the political leaders, that he offers the same submission?

When I read the passages using the word hupotassō, I find myself wondering if submission is really the best translation. More and more I find our understanding skewed by flattened, or slightly off-target, translations. Are we sure we understand what’s meant?

The original word was often used in a military context, and meant "to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader". In non-military use, it was "a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden,” or “identifying with and supporting.”

As I was puzzling over this, my mother-in-law called me to ask my help in something. As we talked, she described a group she’s gathered to pray for my husband in his current travels: “like the Roman soldiers, who linked shields when they went into battle.”

I had heard that before, but forgotten: Roman soldiers at the time of the early church were legendary for their formations. Sometimes their shields were linked together and they moved as a tightly choreographed phalanx, a single entity.

Is it possible that hupotassō is another way of asking us to live out what Jesus, Paul, Peter, John said over and over? We’re one body, part of each other, connected to each other. We’re made to serve each other, protect each other, carry each other’s burdens. Is hupotassō a practical expression of that, living in cooperation and coordination with each other, rather than as independent agents only concerned for ourselves?

Jesus is our example in this. His mission was us. His burden was us. He was so aligned with his father that his actions reflected their shared intent. He was so concerned for us that he took on our guilt, our own sense of separation. He asked us to be united with him, and with each other, in the same way that he was united with his father, serving the same goals, sharing the same vision.

If you read 1 Peter straight through – not breaking it into chapters, or little headlined sections, you’ll see one central theme emerge: we’re called from our isolated, individual lives into something new. We’re living stones in a spiritual house, “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation . . .Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.”

Part of that is living in hupotassō with each other – old, young, male, female, slave, free, aligning ourselves to serve each others’ needs. In the middle of the examples, Peter offers Jesus as the prime example:
“Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. . . When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. ‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’”
Christ is Condemned to Die,
Anna Kocher, 2006, PA
In this way, Peter goes on, wives are encouraged to hupotassō husbands. In this way, husbands are encouaraged to live with their wives in an loving, understanding way.

The bottom line, for all of us:
“love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”
This kind of life goes far past husband and wife, parent and child. The church, along with the marriages and families within it, are meant to demonstrate, in practical ways, Jesus’ own love and care for the needs of the world.  We’re supposed to band together, link together, serve each other, not so we can gain power, win elections, force our rules on everyone else, but so we can be more effective in serving the needs of the world.

I’ve been helping a family with a difficult move, in a way that has taken more time than I had planned. One afternoon one of the family’s teens helped me packing the kitchen. He had hoped to spend the time with friends, but was submitting to his mother’s request to help. As we worked, he talked about what he’d rather be doing, then asked, “And why are YOU doing this?”

I explained that although we’re not family, we’re family. I explained that there were times in my teens when my own family fell apart, and there were people from our church who aligned themselves with us, invited us to live with them, sacrificed themselves for us, treated us as part of the family. I didn’t confuse him by saying “this is what hupotassō looks like,” but that’s what I was thinking. It has nothing to do with who gets to call the shots, who gets to make the rules. It has everything to do with whose need, today, is greatest, and who has gifts to use to meet that need.

There are some scholars and pastors who do a great job of working through the thorny passages about men and women, who gets to lead, who gets to talk when:
Christ Takes Up His Cross,
Anna Kocher, 2006, PA
For me, this is all useful, helpful information, but maybe it’s enough to consider the simple summary Peter offers: Love each other deeply. Offer welcome and hospitality, even when you’d rather not. Use your gifts to help others. And when it comes to power? Remember Jesus, and his gentle reminder that the leader is the one who loves most and serves longest, at the greatest personal cost.

This is the fifth in a Lenten series:
     Looking toward Lent
     Lenten Sorrow : Lament and Nacham
     Lenten Silence: Charash, Be Still
     Lenten Sweetness: Tasting Towb

Other Synchroblog posts on the All About Eve topic:
Michelle Morr Krabill – Why I Love Being a Woman
Marta Layton – The War on Terror and the War on Women
Ellen Haroutounian – March Synchroblog – All About Eve
Jeremy Myers – Women Must Lead the Church
Carol Kuniholm – Rethinking Hupotasso
Wendy McCaig – Fear Letting Junia Fly
Tammy Carter – Pat Summit: Changing the Game & Changing the World
Jeanette Altes – On Being Female
kathy escobar – replacing the f-word with the d-word (no not those ones)
Melody Hanson – Call Me Crazy, But I Talk To Jesus Too
Glenn Hager – Walked Into A Bar
Steve Hayes – St. Christina of Persi
Leah Sophia – March Syncroblog-All About Eve
Liz Dyer – The Problem Is Not That I See Sexism Everywhere…
Sonja Andrews – International Women’s Day
Sonnie Swenston-Forbes – The Women
Christine Sine – 
It All Begins With Love
K.W. Leslie – Undoing the Subordination of Women
Carie Good – The Math of Mr. Cardinal
Dan Brennan – Ten Women I Want To Honor

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Click on the  _commentslink below to open the comment box.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Lenten Sweetness: Tasting Towb

Grape Harvest, Joaquin Sorolla,
1986, Valencia, Spain
I drank at every vine.
The last was like the first.
I came upon no wine
So wonderful as thirst.
(from Thirst, Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Our culture is addicted to sugar. Global sugar consumption has tripled in the last fifty years, with Americans leading the way. Current US sugar intake is up to 20 teaspoons of sweetener per day – hidden in everything from fruit drinks to ketchup.

Recent studies show what I’ve found in my own experience: sugar is addictive. The more we have, the more we want, and the more difficult it becomes to say no. And sugar is closely interlinked with our emotional histories in ways that fuel our cravings. In my own family history, sugar is closely linked with nurture, belonging, fun. It’s the approved mode of dealing with stress, the accepted ingredient of any party, the secret reward for any sacrifice.

Which is why, every Lent, I give up sugar and artifical sweeteners, completely. Which has come to mean I give up most processed foods as well, anything with sugar/fructose/dextrose/sucrose or that ubiquitious corn syrup in the top three ingredients. So no ketchup. (Sugar is ingredient # 2). No Honey Nut Os. (#2 again). No barbeque sauce.

Since I can’t drink coffee without sugar, I also give up coffee. The caffeine withdrawal headache lasts a day or two. The sugar withdrawal takes longer.

So is the point to punish myself? It feels that way for a week or two. Then something wonderful happens. I start to taste food in a new way. I find myself appreciating the subtler sweetness of real flavors: carrots, walnuts, bananas, red peppers. Raisins are almost too sweet. A single date is a delicious dessert. A cold glass of water has flavors I’d forgotten.

Sugar, in the quantities we normally eat, clouds our palates, shifts our blood chemistry, puts our energy levels on a roller coaster, and contributes to illness and emotional instability. Yet we consume more and more, searching for that happy high the soda and energy drink ads lure us toward.

Vineyards with a View of Auvers, Vincent Van Gogh, 1890, France
I find myself thinking of Isaiah 5, a beautiful, troubling song of accusation. It starts this way:
I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. 
The prophet recounts God’s provision on Israel’s behalf, and Israel’s insistence on twisting the good gifts given, craving more and more, wanting things that are neither healthy nor wise, manipulating people and abusing the earth to fulfill desires that yield nothing but sorrow.   
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.
Looking at old Hebrew words for “sweet,” I came across this word: towb. Occasionally translated “sweet,” it’s more often translated as good, pleasing, right. As with some of the other ancient Hebrew words I’ve come across lately, we have no word that stretches as wide as this one. Towb is good in the broadest sense: beautiful, agreeable to the senses, morally right, pleasing, pure, splendid, sweet, happy, delightful, precious, gracious, full of grace.

The “good” of Genesis 1 is towb: not just good as we understand it, but beautiful, sweet, delightful, harmonious, full of grace. Woe, says Isaiah, to those who lose their taste for towb, who substitute other things for the real sweetness we’ve been given.

This goes far beyond sugar. I recently spent the day with several preteen children who had decided that “good” and “fun” were defined in entirety by video screens. As we headed out of their house for the day, I suggested they leave laptop and handheld video game behind. They objected, strongly, and I cheerfully insisted: they were going to experience a screen-free day. And they would survive.

Summer Afternoon, Edward Dufner, 1916, New York
After a short stare-down, they grudgingly complied, and off we went, to a day that included some very different games, time at a local farm greeting goats and sheep, and a happy hour on a sunny spot of land between a pond and stream. I could see in them something like the process in me as sugar leaves my system and I learn again how to taste real food. They raced around the pond, looking for fish and frogs, foraged along the stream for smooth, round stones, then practiced skipping them across the open water. In the unseasonably warm weather, we all soaked up the sun, ending our time by the pond sitting and talking together on a bench, enjoying each others' company and the sweetness of the day. For a few minutes, we tasted towb together.

I tasted towb again just a few days ago when my husband and I sat together at the end of a long hard day, talking quietly before dinner over a small glass of chardonnay. He had been catching up from a week of travel, preparing for another season of travel and speaking in the weeks ahead, with some difficult complications thrown into the mix. I had spent the day registering voters at a nearby high school, then helping a friend in the middle of a challenging move.

Tired as we were, we were thankful for the grace to engage in the world in real and significant ways, for the chance to sit and reflect at the end of a busy day, for the sweetness of wine before a simple dinner. For towb: shared glimpses into God’s gifts of harmony, beauty and goodness.

We are masters at deception, lying to each other, but most often to ourselves. We tell ourselves we can have it all: sweet with no calories, non-stop video with no loss of life skills or real relationships, all the goods and services we want, with no impact on the globe, no harm to our own inner selves. We spend our time reaching for more: more food, more fun, more stuff, more money, telling ourselves just a little more will give us that sense of satisfaction we’ve been hungry for.

“Seek towb,” God tells us through his prophets: be still, slow down, deny yourself. That craving can’t be filled by sugar, or by anything else bought or sold on the market. We’re hungry for the gifts already given: goodness, harmony, graciousness, beauty, a sweetness that lingers, with no bitter aftertaste.

But we can’t taste it until our palates are clear, our hearts alert and quiet. Fasting is a good way to get there: fasting from sugar or tv, from wanting our own way, from the full closets, cupboards, schedules that dull our senses and scatter our attention. Slow down, be still, then taste and see. 

Taste and see that the Lord is towb: 
sweet, good, pleasing, gracious.
Blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.
Fear the Lord, you his saints, 
for those who fear him lack nothing.
The lions may grow weak and hungry,
but those who seek the Lord 
will not be lacking in towb:                                                                                                sweetness, harmony, grace, goodness, beauty. (Psalm 34)

This is the fourth in a Lenten series: 

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Click on the  _commentslink below to open the comment box.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Lenten Silence: Charash, Be Still

Silence, Peter Mathios, Oregon, 2011
Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet
but first you must have
the quiet.
  (Wendell Berry)

Our culture runs from silence almost as much as we run from sorrow.  We speed from work to meeting to major event while our kids ricochet from school to the organized activities that define contemporary childhood. In those few minutes when we could enjoy real stillness, we turn on iPods, radio, TV. We don’t hear birdsong. We don’t hear quiet. We don’t even hear each other.

Looking at verses about quiet in the Old Testament, I’m struck by how many old Hebrew words there are for the absence of speech. In English we have silence, stillness, quiet – with not much difference between the three. In Hebrew, I was stunned to discover more than thirty words that are translated into our three words. In Hebrew there are words that say “sitting still,” “lying still,” “standing still,” words for tranquil stillness, uneasy stillness, incapacitated stillness, enforced stillness.

Apparently, the Hebrews were deeply familiar with the various aspects of silence, so much so that the psalmists, using different words to say almost the same thing, expressed insights that are lost in our flattened translations.

In Psalm 28:1, the writer says “28:1 To You, O Lord, I call; My rock, do not be deaf to me, For if You are silent to me, I will become like those who go down to the pit.”  We can only get a hint of it in English: You Lord, strong silent stone, don’t be silent, speechless to me, for if you are silent, inactively still, I’ll become silent, incapable of speech, like those who are still in death.

In Psalm 81:1, the English translation says “O God, do not remain quiet; Do not be silent and, O God, do not be still.” It sounds like a triple repetition: “Please, speak to me.” But each of the original words has a different nuance, suggesting a different kind of quiet: Withholding action? Withholding speech? Peacefully at rest?

Silence, Johann Heinrich Füssli, Switzerland, 1800
Puzzling over those words, I find myself thinking about the different forms of silence. There’s the quiet of someone physically incapable of speech. There’s the silence of someone shut down, intimidated into speechlessness. There’s the silence of longing, when the one you most want to hear from is distant. There’s the silence of sleep, of reflection, of waiting. Peaceful silence. Ominous silence. The silence following disaster.

Imagine having words for each of those.   

One word I came across intrigued me: charash. Here are the various ways its translated, according to Studylight, a great website that feeds my interest in ancient, hard-to-translate words: cease, cease speaking, completely silent, deaf, devises, engraved, indeed says nothing, keep silence, kept silence,  plotting,  plow, plowed, plowman, quiet, remain silent, said nothing, says nothing, silent, still. 

Apparently none of those words quite get there: there’s a word we don’t know, hiding between those translations. Something to do with plowing, with preparing, with “devising.”

There’s a moment, in planning for something, when you’ve done all you can, and then all you can do is wait, with the next steps running through your mind, but the time for action still out ahead. Charash seems to point toward that moment.

There’s a time in a pregnancy, when preparations are done, the baby is due, and all you can do is wait. It’s out of your hands. Or was – before modern medicine found ways to intervene. Charash carries something of that motionless expectation.

The Delivery of Israel, Francis Danby, 1825, London
There’s a point in the story of Moses leading his people out of Egypt when they find themselves trapped between Egyptians and Red Sea. They’ve done all they can – Moses has been obedient in standing up to the Pharaoh, the people have been obedient in gathering their families and following Moses as fast as they can, but now they’re stuck. And God says: Charash. Exodus 14:14 is translated “The Lord will fight for you while you keep silent.” That silent is “charash.” Wait expectantly. Wait in stillness. Keep your eyes and ears open.

In Psalm 46, the psalmist describes God’s activity in the world, his power over nature, over kingdoms and nations. And God, speaking through the psalmist, says “Be still and know that I am God.” That “be still” is “charash.” Wait expectantly. Watch and listen.

Stillness can go in lots of directions. It can be lonely, discouraging, lazy, defeated. It can be peaceful, sleepy, companionable, joyful.

This Lenten stillness I find myself called to is something different. It’s an expectant stillness, the stillness of early spring, waiting for the daffodils to burst open, waiting for the buds to spring out into green.

It’s a generative stillness, productive in mysterious ways, as I set my own agendas aside and see where God’s power is moving.

It’s an attentive stillness: eyes open, ears alert.

As I wrote last week, there are many things I grieve over, many things I’d like to see changed. I feel some days like the Israelites, confronting the Red Sea: Why did I even start on this journey? Where will it lead? Is hope even possible?

Yet God calls me to stillness: charash. Wait and see. The Lord will fight for you while you keep silence. Be still and know that I am God. He’s the one with the plow, the plan, the power. Charash.

The Watcher, Paul Henry, 1915, Achill Island, Ireland
Has my heart gone to sleep?
Have the beehives
of my dreams
stopped working,
the waterwheel
of the mind run dry,
scoops turning empty,
only shadow inside?

No, my heart is not asleep.
It is awake, wide awake.
Not asleep, not dreaming—
its eyes are opened wide
watching distant signals, listening
on the rim of vast silence.
(Antonio Machado,
 translated by Alan S. Trueblood)

For more from this Lenten series: Looking toward LentLenten Sorrow:  Lament and Nacham. 

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Click on the  _comments link below to open the comment box.