Wednesday, May 16, 2007
When angels party
I ache for my friend Aaron tonight. And I ache for his boys John and Joe. After three years of leukemia, Melissa died today. I call Aaron a friend. He's got an unmatched gift for words, and he tells killer stories. Though the ones about how his boys react to their mom's illness always leave me a wrecked, weepy mess. I never got to meet Melissa. But if she's half the woman he describes, then there are some angels having a wild party right about now.

And we're left to hope in the words of Hosea the prophet:
I will ransom them from the power of the grave;
I will redeem them from death.
Where, O death, are your plagues?
Where, O grave, is your destruction?
We trust in the hope of Resurrection.

posted by Peter at 12:29 AM
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Saturday, May 12, 2007
Breathing the Air of Resurrection
Doing some reading on 1 John 4 for Scripture study at the church in the morning. Came across this tidbit from Isaac the Syrian (bishop of Nineveh, who died about 700 A.D.)

Because God is love, the one who lives in love reaps the fruit of life from God. While still in this world, he even now breathes the air of the resurrection.

That last phrase sticks with me. "Breathing the air of the resurrection."

May we all breathe deeply today.

posted by Peter at 11:58 PM
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Tuesday, May 08, 2007
Eden restored
A follow-up to yesterday's post, here's the speech I gave in class last night.

I’ve been told that Jewish history can be summarized in three sentences: They tried to kill us. God saved us. Let’s eat.

I recently found a good story about the history of the Jewish people. This takes place during the time between the Old and New Testaments. It is the days following Alexander the Great, and Palestine has become thoroughly Hellenized by Greek culture. Despite this, the Jews have maintained their separateness from the wider culture, and so the for the most part, the wider culture considers them weird, at best, and a threat to national security, at worst.

King Ptolemy Philopater finds them to be a stubborn and hateful people and has the entire nation arrested and deported to Alexandria in Egypt. This king was a party king, constantly throwing festivals to his pagan gods and blaspheming the one true God. Bent on the destruction of the Jews, he hatched a plot. The Jews were being kept in the hippodrome, a public stadium, where all who passed by could see them in chains and mock them. The king would gather the army of 400 elephants and have the Jews trampled in a public display.

The king summoned Hermon the keeper of the elephants to drug the elephants with frankincense and concentrated wine and bring them to the stadium. When the Jews heard of this, they cried out to God in tears of helpless desperation. They think their story is over. So early in the morning, Hermon got the elephants ready. He marched them through the streets of the city to the stadium where all the city is waiting for the big show. But one person is missing: the king. He’s slept in. God has given him such a deep sleep that he doesn’t wake up until 4 in the afternoon. He wakes up enraged at Hermon and the rest of the partygoers that the Jews are still alive. He demands that the revelry go on that night, and they’ll kill the Jews in the morning.

So next morning, same thing—Hermon the keeper of the elephants drugs up the 400 elephants, parades them through the crowds to the city. Hermon the keeper of the elephants goes to get the king. The Jews again cry out to God. Their story is over. But the king is thoroughly confused about what all the unusual commotion is about. God has caused him to forget his order to kill the Jews. He threatened Hermon the keeper of the elephants and all the partygoers that he'll throw them to the elephants if they don’t leave him alone. Later in the evening, the king demands to know why the Jews are still alive, and all the partygoers are thoroughly confused by the madness of the crazy king.

So a third day, Hermon the keeper of the elephants drugs the elephants, marches them through innumerable crowds to the stadium, and this time, the king himself marches along with them to witness firsthand the massacre. At the thundering of 400 inebriated, charging elephants, and the billowing dust, the Jews huddled together, kissed one another, cried out to God and prepared for the end of their story.

Hold this thought.

We live in Eden being restored. Once upon a time there was a kingdom. There was a garden, but there was a serpent in the garden. Now there is a curse, and this curse runs through our veins. It has perverted how we understand God, one another, ourselves and this world we live in. We’re left with the ruins of that kingdom. We’re haunted by vague, inarticulate memories of it. It’s not supposed to be like this, be we can’t seem to remember why exactly. Like Hamlet, all we know to say is, “There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.” But this age of human history marked by suffering and misery is coming to a close.

I think my favorite time of the year is Advent. Notice I did not say “Christmas.” And I’m not talking about “The Holidays.” I’m talking about “Advent” – the season of the year that the Church worldwide remembers and celebrates the Incarnation. This is bigger than turning back windows on a pop-up calendar, counting down the days until Christmas. This is four weeks out of the year that we remember that there once was a time before Jesus, that there was a time in the story before God saved the day. You might be asking yourself, What’s the big deal about Advent?

Think about the words to “Silent Night” the next time you sing that song. If we're to take the angels' encounter with the shepherds seriously that night, then this is no "silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright." On the contrary, this is a night of supreme rejoicing: "Glory to God in the highest!" We interrupt this existence of suffering, despair, restlessness and death to bring you the news that the all-powerful God of the universe has infiltrated time and space on a solo reconnaissance mission of humankind in the form of a helpless, powerless baby. Peace and serenity violently invade a world that treats them as foreigners. This is the day the tide turns. This is the day the fool's hope is born. This is the day the promise to Eve, to Abraham, to Moses, to David will be fulfilled. The longing of all creation will be satisfied. Death will now indeed be broken. The dragon will be conquered.

Forget “'Twas the Night Before Christmas,” when I have kids, they are getting T.S. Elliott's “The Journey of the Magi” on Christmas Eve. Have you read this poem? The last four lines of it make me all tingly. Imagine you yourself are one of three wise men on your way home after encountering the Christ child: “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, / But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods. / I should be glad of another death.” Do you remember encountering Jesus for the first time and then having to go back to your old way of life?

So I don’t know about you, but I am deeply relieved at the sight of the baby in the manger. The sight of this seemingly helpless infant changes everything. All of our hopes for a better tomorrow are now born in this manger. What’s all the fuss about Advent? The infinite God of all creation squeezed Himself into the tiny fingers and toes of a newborn. The Word of God has made His home right here with us. John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

I’ve met people who get all hot and bothered by the idea that Jesus was not born on December 25, 0 B.C. This is bigger than about celebrating Jesus’ birthday. This is about celebrating the light that ends forever the darkness. Even the proudest pagan would celebrate such a day, and celebrate they have on the winter solstice. The winter solstice represents the longest night of winter in the northern hemisphere. It is the darkest night of the year. Have you ever imagined what it might have been like for the first generations of human beings to experience a winter solstice? The days are getting shorter and shorter. Will the sun, our sole source of survival, disappear forever? But the following days grow increasingly longer and brighter until summer. And this is the very same place that Jesus comes into our own lives, at the moment of our darkest hopelessness. When it most seems that the night will never end, Jesus arrives to make everything new. On the darkest night of the year, here is Jesus to put everything back together that has been broken by sin and death. What is all the fuss about Advent? Jesus has come! The Kingdom is coming again!

Let’s return to our Jewish friends about to be trampled by the crazed elephants, shall we? The Jews are chained together in the stadium. The elephants are stampeding. The crowds are cheering. Eleazer, a wise old priest among the people silences their wailing and he lifts up a prayer to Almighty God. He remembers God’s victory over Pharoah at the Red Sea. He remembers God’s victory over the evil Sennacherib and the Assyrians. He remembers God’s deliverance of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the fiery furnace. He remembers God’s deliverance of Jonah from the belly of a whale. And he implores God to remember the wickedness of these oppressors and save his people once again.

Just as Eleazer finishes his prayer, the king entered the stadium with the charging elephants. All the Jews then cried out to God in unison, such that the sound echoed in all the surrounding valleys. And then, just then, God showed up. Two glorious terrible angels appeared in the stadium, visible to all but the Jews. Everyone was filled with confusion and terror as the angels shackled them. The drunken elephants turned back on the army that followed them trampling the enemy. The king’s anger immediately turned to pity and fear and he wept. And the people of God were saved that day. On that dark, dark day when hope was drying up, God intervened and saved his people.

And so at Advent, we celebrate God becoming a man. During Advent we celebrate God entering human history. At Advent we celebrate the Incarnation. Because that is what all the fuss is about, Charlie Brown. Yes, Christmas is about peace and love and goodwill toward men, too, but it is first about Jesus, about the grand God of the universe and his ridiculous love for all of us. What better day of the year to celebrate the coming of Jesus than the Winter Solstice, the darkest night of the year, when the day shines longer tomorrow. The kingdom is here. The kingdom is coming again.

I like to imagine all of us one day sitting around the table of the Great Banquet. Father Abraham stands up to say the blessing: “The serpent tried to kill us. God saved us. Let’s eat.”

We live in Eden being restored.

posted by Peter at 11:32 PM
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Monday, May 07, 2007
Eden ruined
Maybe things are winding down now. I'm back from Virginia. I'm now officially a GRE score (notes to self for future reference: 1) don't take that test within a month of getting married, 2) don't take that test within a month of the end of the semester, 3) don't take that test at 8 am). My last speech for class is now over and done with.

Then again maybe things aren't winding down. This is the last week of classes. Next week is finals week and getting guys checked out of the dorms. The next week is wedding week.

Anyway, here's a speech I wrote a couple weeks ago for class. The topic is "despair," so I figured it'd be interesting the think about what it might have been like on that day between the resurrection and the crucifixion. I shuffled my iTunes through Elliott Smith and Pedro the Lion the day I spent writing and prepping it to get me in the mood. Sources are linked...

We live in Eden ruined. It is distorted, perverted and lost. It used to be here. But it is gone.

One of my own brothers has said, “Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair. I remember the killers, I remember the victims, even as I struggle to invent a thousand and one reasons to hope.” My brother may find it in his heart to reject despair, but today, on this day, after everything I have seen and heard, I cannot.

Look around you. Clear away the brush. Heave those rocks out of the way. You can see them. They are the ancient remains of a once proud civilization. Once upon a time there was a kingdom. It was a paradise called Eden. There was a river there that splashed life everywhere it touched. But the killers were Adam and Eve. I remember them. They shook hands with the Devil. What they didn’t see was the curse that ever since drips venom through my veins—through all of us. It is battery acid that has corroded and dissolved us. We once knew God. We know him no longer. We once knew one another. We know one another no longer. We once knew ourselves. We know ourselves no more. We once knew creation. But even that is lost. The victims are all of humanity. I remember us. Once upon a time there was an ancient heavenly connection.

I have heard it said that when God made the first man, he made him out of stuff that sang all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. We’re all a bunch of tumbling mud-balls, you and me, trying to share our shine. It is not supposed to be like this.

Look around this room, this room of smothered dreams, of snuffed out expectations. There’s James and John. They’ve sat in stoic silence since morning. I remember that one time they offered to call down fire from heaven for Jesus. We called them “Thunder Brothers.” Today the thunder is quiet. They haven’t moved in hours. Over there is Peter. Peter the fisherman has never had an unspoken thought. He didn’t get back here in until late last night. He’s been sobbing in the corner, convulsing uncontrollably and moaning like something inhuman. Something happened. Something bad. But he won’t talk to any of us. We keep the door locked. I don’t know what’s on the other side. I used to think I did.

As one of your own poets has said, “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the Gentile streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” This is us here in this room. We represent a generation. We are destroyed by the madness of the curse, we ragtag camaraderie followers of Jesus. It sounds so ridiculous now. Followers of who? We followed him to what?

I am misery. I am alienated from my God. Once upon a time God loved us. But now we have been abandoned. He has forgotten us. If he was once friendly to us, he is no longer. This is all God’s fault. This is no sorrow like this sorrow. This is God’s gift to me. This is what he gives to me because he is angry. He fastens the curse like a yoke around my neck and its crushing me. Because of his fierce anger, we are rejected.

I am disillusionment. I am alienated from my brothers and sisters. How do I know this? Have you seen a crucifixion? Have you heard the bone-jarring clang of hammer on iron nail? Have you heard the blood-curdling screams, the inhuman moans? Have you heard the bloodlust of a crowd rise and swell with cheers and jeers? Have you seen the bodies caked in blood convulsing and quivering and then hanging limp? Have you smelled the stench of sweat and blood and rotting flesh of a body left to hang for a week? Have you heard the greedy squawking of crows and vultures circling overhead, eying a feast below? This is what we now do to one another, to our brothers and sisters. This we do in the name of Jehovah, in the name of Rome, in the name of power over the powerless. If humanity was ever a joyful harmony of voices, we are now a terrifying cacophony of fear and pain. Everyone fails me. Even you would if I gave you the chance. Any goodness we may show one another, is really nothing more than shallow manipulation. I only scratch your back so you’ll scratch mine. And I only stab your back to keep you from stabbing mine.

I am cynicism. I am alienated from myself. Shame and guilt gnaw on my soul with the same undying appetite of a flesh-eating zombie. I wear shame and guilt like clothes and carry them everywhere I go. They are my constant companions. Maybe I can deceive myself into believing that they go away. I can deceive myself a lot of ways. Pride is a lurid mistress. She makes me believe that everyone is wrong but me. She makes me believe I can do everything I put my mind to. She makes me think I will never fail. She is also a liar.

I am abandonment. I am alienated from creation. It groans. Do you hear it? Did you see the sky go black when Jesus died? Did you feel the ground shake? This world was not made to bear the curse. Tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, tsunamis—creation wretches to expel the curse. And we are the carriers of the curse as if it were a virus, and so creation hates us. Men and women were not made to be buried in its dirt. The dead contaminate the ground and so it quakes, as if a violent sneeze rids the body of germs. We are like spurned lovers, humanity and creation, spitefully hurting one another.

What if this Jesus was our last, best hope? What if everything is now lost? God, our god, why have you forsaken us? I heard him cry that on the cross, that you had forsaken him. But I think you have forsaken all of us. You have always given us victory over the enemy. You were there when the Red Sea swallowed the Egyptians. You were there at Jericho with the trumpet blasts. You were there with Gideon. You were there with David when he conquered Goliath and the Philistines. You were there in the days of Hezekiah when the Assyrians mocked you at Jerusalem, but they crawled, whimpering back to where they came from. You were there when Judas the Maccabee rose up against the Gentile Greeks who desecrated your temple. God, I thought you would save the day today. So, oh God, where are you now?

Because I was there. I heard the hammer and the nails. I heard him scream out. I saw him slump and die. And I thought he was the one who had come to save us. I saw miracles. I saw Bartimaeus open his eyes for the first time. I saw Lazarus step out of his tomb. I thought a kingdom was coming. I thought I had this figured out.

It seems if we were made to hope, then we were made to lose it. Perhaps the curse is greater. “Comfort” is a hollow word. We live in a world where hope is extinguished.

We live in Eden ruined.

posted by Peter at 9:16 PM
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