Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Happy Incarnation Day!

A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days (Revelation 12:1-6, NIV).

I wonder how many Christmas Eve services will be using this as their text tonight? Think about that the next time you hear O Holy Night. Seriously. I wanted a cosmic nativity scene complete with a dragon.

If we're to take the angels' encounter with the shepherds seriously, then this is no "silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright." On the contrary, it is a night of supreme rejoicing: "Glory to God in the highest!" We interrupt this existence of suffering, restlessness and death to bring you the news that the all-powerful God of the universe has infiltrated time and space on a solo reconaissance mission of humankind in the form of a helpless, powerless baby. This is the day the tide turns. The fool's hope is born. The promise to Eve, to Abraham, to Moses, to David will be fulfilled. The longing of all creation will be satisfied. Death will indeed be broken. The dragon is conquered.

Forget 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, when I have kids, they're getting Elliott's Three Magi on Christmas Eve. Then again, I could just be a little strange. Those last four lines make me all tingly.

Ezra Boggs has written a column called 'Tis the Season for Superstitions that appears in this week's newsletter from Relevant Magazine. I can't find a permanent link on their website, so I'll just highlight the pertinent bits.
Eighty-five percent of Americans endorse public display of nativity scenes, while only 9 percent disagree.

But to that 9 percent, the site of a baby savior in a manger is enough to make them lose their eggnog. Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation told RELEVANT, "Did it ever occur to you that many of us do not rejoice at the sight of the nativity? We are deeply and morally offended by the implication that we are all corrupt sinners deserving eternal torment, needing a savior. The baby in the manger suggests that we have wounded the unstable vanity of a megalomaniacal Creator and that our only hope is to submit to this vindictive Master. This is rudeness of the highest degree!"

Well, excuse me, Mr. Barker. I'm just excercising my freedom of speech. He he. On a serious note, I'm deeply relieved at the sight of the baby in the manger. I guess that's just me. Unlike Mr. Barker, I take a look around me and come to the conclusion that this world is a pretty crummy place to be, and unlike a fine wine, this world isn't getting any better with age. I'm a bit fond of the idea that there is hope for something more than this. But that's another tangent all together.

Boggs then surveys a cross-section of atheists on the internet to find out what they do for Christmas. Some responses are more offended than others at the very question by an innocently inquisitive Christian, but they all revolved around the central idea of celebrating the Winter Solstice.
There is a theological contradiction in many of the responses. Historically, the Winter Solstice, also known as Saturnalia, celebrated the longest night of winter, after which each of the days grow increasingly longer until the Summer Solstice. The contradiction is found in the key aspect of the traditional worship of multiple deities around the Winter Solstice time: Saturn, God of Agriculture; merged with the Greek Cronos, Ops, Goddess of Plenty; Mother Earth; partner to Saturn and Consus, Sol Invicta, Sun God; connected with the Persian Mithra, honored by Roman soldiers, Consus, God of Storebin of Harvested Grain, Juventas, Goddess of Young Manhood; related to Greek Hebe of Youthful Beauty, and Janus, God of Beginnings and Gates; Solar God of Daybreak; Creator God. Not just one god, but six! It is therefore, doctrinally impossible to confess yourself as an atheist (one who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods), and subscribe to participating in the Winter Solstice at Christmas.

But hold on to your judgment seats, Christians. If you trace the history of Christmas, you'll find that this cultural celebration isn't just about a Savior in a manger. It's a celebration just as filled with superstition and folklore as Halloween.

During the first three centuries after Jesus' birth, Christmas wasn't in December. It wasn't even on the calendar at all! The birth of Jesus was originally celebrated along with Epiphany, one of the earliest established feasts. However, many church leaders opposed the idea of a birthday celebration at all because the culture celebrated birthdays of pagan gods and rulers like Pharaoh and Herod.

It was only after Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the empire's favored religion that Christmas was celebrated on Dec. 25, in the year 336, according to That date also played host to two festivals surrounding the worship of the sun, including the winter solstice.

The winter solstice was seen as an especially evil time, so as centuries passed, people would gather in one another's homes for protection, according to Folklore and superstition would develop over the years, as people would participate in a number of charms and rituals thought to ward away evil spirits, including bringing in holly and mistletoe, which were protection against witches and lightning.

Now I have no problem with a critical demythologization of Christmas. Personally, I'm fascinated learning where things come from. Any things. It's pretty well agreed upon in scholarly circles that the Christmas story, the events of Luke chapter 2, did not happen as depicted in the film Ben-Hur. Jesus wasn't born on December 25. The shepherds weren't on some snowy hill. The three wise men didn't show up that night. We'd probably be quite shocked were we to see an honest depiction of what really happened at the birth of Jesus. I imagine it was a real mess. I imagine Joseph and Mary didn't have sentimental memories of that night. I imagine they were probably on their last fumes of energy and hope, with nothing to go on but the words of an angel months earlier: "Was that a dream? Did that happen? Was it all my imagination?" But I digress.

I do have a problem with trashing Christmas for the sake of its pagan roots. And I believe the misconception comes in our cultural semantic understanding of the word "pagan." We equate "pagan" with "evil"--witches and black cats and magic and Halloween, Stonehenge and heavy metal and Harry Potter. We equate the "pagan" with the rejection of all things sacred and Christian. On the contrary, when we talk about pagan, about the Greeks, the Romans, we're talking about pre-Christian cultures. We're talking about cultures that don't know any better, cultures that are seeking to answer the question of their existence in whatever means they can find.

I have no problem celebrating Christmas December 25. I'm not shocked by the pagan roots of Christmas tradition. I celebrate God becoming a man. I celebrate God entering human history. I celebrate the Incarnation. Because that's what Christmas is all about. Yes, it's about peace and love and goodwill toward men, too, but it's first about Jesus, about the grand God of the universe and his ridiculous love for all of us. Big deal if it's not Jesus's birthday. What better day of the year than the Winter Solstice, the darkest night of the year, when the day shines longer tomorrow.

So Happy Incarnation Day.

posted by Peter at 3:50 PM
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Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Survey says...

I really am a sucker for silly 'net surveys. Case in point...

Which Historical Lunatic Are You?
From the fecund loins of Rum and Monkey.

Born in England sometime in the second decade of the nineteenth century, you carved a notable business career, in South Africa and later San Francisco, until an entry into the rice market wiped out your fortune in 1854. After this, you became quite different. The first sign of this came on September 17, 1859, when you expressed your dissatisfaction with the political situation in America by declaring yourself Norton I, Emperor of the USA. You remained as such, unchallenged, for twenty-one years.

Within a month you had decreed the dissolution of Congress. When this was largely ignored, you summoned all interested parties to discuss the matter in a music hall, and then summoned the army to quell the rebellious leaders in Washington. This did not work. Magnanimously, you decreed (eventually) that Congress could remain for the time being. However, you disbanded both major political parties in 1869, as well as instituting a fine of $25 for using the abominable nickname "Frisco" for your home city.

Your days consisted of parading around your domain - the San Francisco streets - in a uniform of royal blue with gold epaulettes. This was set off by a beaver hat and umbrella. You dispensed philosophy and inspected the state of sidewalks and the police with equal aplomb. You were a great ally of the maligned Chinese of the city, and once dispersed a riot by standing between the Chinese and their would-be assailants and reciting the Lord's Prayer quietly, head bowed.

Once arrested, you were swiftly pardoned by the Police Chief with all apologies, after which all policemen were ordered to salute you on the street. Your renown grew. Proprietors of respectable establishments fixed brass plaques to their walls proclaiming your patronage; musical and theatrical performances invariably reserved seats for you and your two dogs. (As an aside, you were a good friend of Mark Twain, who wrote an epitaph for one of your faithful hounds, Bummer.) The Census of 1870 listed your occupation as "Emperor".

The Board of Supervisors of San Francisco, upon noticing the slightly delapidated state of your attire, replaced it at their own expense. You responded graciously by granting a patent of nobility to each member. Your death, collapsing on the street on January 8, 1880, made front page news under the headline "Le Roi est Mort". Aside from what you had on your person, your possessions amounted to a single sovereign, a collection of walking sticks, an old sabre, your correspondence with Queen Victoria and 1,098,235 shares of stock in a worthless gold mine. Your funeral cortege was of 30,000 people and over two miles long.

The burial was marked by a total eclipse of the sun.

posted by Peter at 11:00 AM
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Sunday, December 07, 2003

Blessed are the cynical

Through some conversations last week, a mirror was thrust in my face and the revelation came that the man staring back at me was a cynic of the harshest degree. Am I really so negative, critical and judgmental? Indeed, I am, it appears. Four years of charismatic indoctrination at the university level, and yes, I am cynical.

And that bothers me.

It bothers me because it does not bring peace. It doesn't bring joy. In fact, Paul fails to even mention cynicism in the fruits of the Spirit--those attributes evidenced in a life submitted to Jesus. You don't exactly point to the cranky cynic and say, "Hey, I want to be like that guy. Give me some of what he's got!" No sir. I'd much prefer a man at peace with himself, with God and with those around him to emulate.

But then I find this interview with Pete Rollins (found via The Dying Church):
Be cynical. The original cynics where a dusty group of people who questioned ethics not because they hated ethics but because they loved ethics so much. They questioned God and religion not because they where sceptical but because they where obsessed with God and religion. Questioning God is not questioning God, but only questioning 'God' - in other words our understanding of God.

I venture to say that I am "obsessed with God and religion." Thus, I should hope that it is my passion for Christ and his Church that drives me to hate all that diminishes their power and glory on the earth. I should hope it is not the Holy Spirit I am cynical of, but the abuse and self-promotion I see. I should hope it's not the Church I am cynical of, but the shallow consumerism and spiritual masturbation I see.

Cynicism is like a knife. In the hands of a skilled surgeon, it is a tool that excises disease and expedites healing. In the hands of an amateur, or worse yet, one motivated by anger, it is an agent of injury and even death.

Lord, I submit my cynicism into your hands. Please, don't let me whack off any digits of the Body of Christ.

I need to find out exactly who Mr. Rollins is.

posted by Peter at 10:52 PM
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Thursday, December 04, 2003

Repitition, repitition

I love to read the Bible in its original languages. For one thing, it's a constant reminder that the Bible is ancient. For another, and it's often a struggle, but it forces me to absorb one word at a time. I find when I'm reading my English translations I seem to gloss over the text much as I would any other book or magazine article. But wrestling with the original languages allows me to catch literary technique like repitition.

For instance, I've been reading the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and been impressed with the number of times the author hammers home the idea of father, your father, your father in heaven, your heavenly father, your heavenly father who sees what is secret. This radical new relation to God is a theme that the author of Matthew establishes from the very start of Jesus's ministry.

Then there's Genesis 5. I can't say I've ever heard any sermon or devotion on Genesis 5. It's the first of many geneologies throughout the OT, of which pretty much every American Christian will tell you is "boring." But here's what I find fascinating: The chapter follows a rigid structure. "When ____ had lived _____ years, he became the father of _____. _____ lived after the birth of _____ _____ years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of _____ were _____ years; and he died."

We get this for Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah and Lamech--nine generations. With the exception of a brief interjection explaining that Enoch doesn't die but rather vanishes one day during his "quiet time," there is no deviation of the pattern. No biography. No gory details. No characterization. No hint at all in the character of these men or their contributions to the establishment of mankind and civilization. Nothing but names, ages and sons.

Nothing, that is, until we come to Lamech and the birth of the 10th generation from Adam. At the birth of his son, Lamech names his child Noah, with the exclamation, "Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands" (NAS).

The footnotes of your Bible probably tell you that "Noah" sounds like the Hebrew word for "comfort" or "relief," depending on your translation. And that is true; the root verb translated as "bring us relief" is NHM. But also, a simple juxtaposition of the Hebrew characters NH gives you HN, or hen--"favor, grace."

The NIV translates Lamech's proclamation in Genesis 5:29 as, "He will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the LORD has cursed."

The New King James translates, "This one will comfort us concerning our work and the toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord has cursed."

The Hebrew is: Zeh yinahemenu mimaasenu umeitsibon yadeynu min-haadamah asher arrah YHWH, or literally, "This will bring comfort from our work and from the sorrow of our hands from the ground that Yahweh cursed."

Why would Lamech say this? Why does the Genesis author preclude the details of the eight preceding fathers of mankind and all of a sudden slip this in? Why this? And why here?

I'm reminded of the mythologic prophecy of the one promised to deliver humankind from suffering, and here it is, right in the opening scenes of time. From the very beginning, mankind longed for, pined for, desparately hoped for a savior.

In Genesis 1, we see the creation of the world, God's good paradise. In Genesis 2, we see yet another tradition of creation and detailed account of God's relationship to mankind. In Genesis 3, everything goes terrible wrong. In Genesis 4, the seeds of death bear fruit. And in Genesis 5 we see the passage of time in generation after generation after generation. And then one man finally cries out in hope.

But Lamech got it all wrong. Noah did not bring comfort. He did not relieve the suffering of mankind. He did not lift Yahweh's curse. In fact, Noah lived to see all of mankind annihilated by the wrath of God. Sorrow reached a climax and began again through Noah's lifetime.

More than ever before I'm aware of the Advent season. I'm constantly dwelling on the hope it brings. I don't know why exactly. Perhaps it's the current season in my own life and my own renewed desperate cry for hope to see the shackles of darkness shattered and a new dawn break.

For it is Jesus who came to "bring comfort from our work and from the sorrow of our hands from the ground that Yahweh cursed."

Advent is the long-awaited fruition of Lamech's cry.

posted by Peter at 9:41 PM
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Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Still haven't found

Geez, Dave, you make me sound like the bad apple. So I'm the bad apple?

And a co-worker shares with me the following joke:

Apparently, officials in Washington DC have decided not to display a public nativity scene. The decision has nothing to do with the conflict of church and state. It does have everything to do with the fact that neither three wise men nor a virgin can be found in the nation's capitol.

(rim shot)

But that's not all DC's missing.

Over the weekend, the Seattle Times Pacific Northwest section featured Mars Hill Church with a cover story. And might I add that a clean-shaven Pastor Mark is looking ever like Joey Pants. It's a pretty impressive, even-handed presentation of the church, though perhaps a bit too focused on Pastor Mark Driscoll himself. I'm left wanting to have heard more about the church at large, and its direct impact on the Ballard community. There's not even a mention that Mars Hill hosted the Ballard Jazz Festival just a few weeks ago.

I first discovered Mars Hill just about a year ago when I found this article in my daily dose of the Times. I visited pretty regular on Sunday mornings. I was smitten with the atmosphere, the authenticity, the community. For the first time in a very long time, I was at home at church. Then I had to move across the country. I've been church-homeless since.

I remember those first times at Mars Hill--300 souls crammed, standing room only, into a small, surburban building. And they did five services a Sunday in that place. From the outside, it looked like just another house in the Ballard neighborhood. The stage could barely contain the guitarist, drummer and pianist. I was about 10 minutes late the first time, completely missing the music portion of the service. That was a radical departure from the charismatic churches of my college days where "praise and worship" lasted at least an hour. And a P&W band with hammer dulcimer, banjo, and accordion? And a room full of twentysomethings singing hymns? You just had to be there to believe it.

Then Pastor Mark spoke--this stocky, goateed, book nerd, intellectual with a wry sense of humor. The church I had visited the previous, the Sunday morning teaching had been a lesson from the Purpose Driven Life, and I wondered why this pastor wasn't teaching his congregation the Bible. But this week, at Mars Hill, the sermon was Ephesians chapter 5, verse 1, and then verse by verse by verse, the Word of God. I was hooked. There are precious few people I have found that when I see them, I think, "Wow, I want to be a Christian just like they're a Christian." Mark Driscoll is one of those people for me.

Nearly a year later and I find myself on the other side of the country. Where do the twentysomethings go to church in Northern Virginia? Do they go to church in Northern Virginia? Where are the Emerging Churches in the nation's capitol? Just where is God at work in DC?

And just why is going to church just so important to me?

posted by Peter at 10:07 PM
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Something to talk about

I picked up the About a Boy soundtrack by Badly Drawn Boy from the library over the weekend. And I've found a new favorite song. At least for this week...

I've been dreaming of the things I've learnt about a boy
Whose bleeding, celebrate to elevate
The joy is not the same without the pain

Ipso facto
Using up your oxygen, you know I'm shallow
Calling out for extra help
You've got to let me in or let me out

Oh something to talk about
Yeah something to talk about

I've been dreaming of the things I've learnt about a boy
Whose leaving, nothing else to chance again
You've got to let me in or let me out

Oh something to talk about
Yeah something to talk about

Go on. I dare you not to sing along. And bonus points to those badly drawn guys for the use of "Ipso facto" in a pop song.

Great film, too. It's got one of my all time favorite movie lines: "I think I killed a duck."

posted by Peter at 8:48 PM
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