Unnoticed and Unknown to Men of Power

When Mary went to visit Elizabeth, her ancient cousin‚ÄĒlong past the years of child bearing‚ÄĒshe came out to meet her. Elizabeth deepest shame had been that she was barren, but when Mary approached she saw her cousin’s glow, the swell of her abdomen, and delight in her eyes. As Mary approached Elizabeth was momentarily breathless. She put her hand on her belly.¬†The¬†baby¬†had given her a spirited kicked.¬†

She called to Mary, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why am I so favored that you would come to visit me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in me leapt with joy. Blessed is the one who believed God would fulfill his promise to her! (Luke 1:41-44)”

This is the setting of Mary’s own song, the Magnificat, where she glories in the Lord for her goodness to her and the coming justice her baby boy would usher in.

Priest and poet, Malcolm Guite imagines the scene, two women on the edge of things, unnoticed and unknown to men of power:

The Visitation

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys

Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place

From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise

And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.

Two women on the very edge of things

Unnoticed and unknown to men of power

But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings

And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‚Äėtoo young‚Äô,

Elizabeth with all called ‚Äėpast their prime‚Äô

They sing today for all the great unsung

Women who turned eternity to time

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth

Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

This poem is taken from Malcom Guite’s blog: https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/a-sonnet-for-the-feast-of-the-visitation/

Two women overlooked. The one who couldn’t conceive (Elizabeth), the one who shouldn’t (unwed teenager mum, Mary).The “too young” and the “past her prime.” It is it any wonder that Mary’s song lifts up the poor, the humble, and the hungry, over against the powerful, the wealthy, rulers of the age? Even before Mary unleashed her melody‚ÄĒa song which recalled Hannah (1 Sam 1), another overlooked woman‚ÄĒGod was already at work lifting up the forgotten, the overlooked, the outcast.

When the Triune God set his redemptive plan in motion, he didn’t come to the powerful, the strong, or the patriarchy. He came to an unwed teen girl blessing her older cousin also. Both would have boys who would call God’s people to repentance and point to the coming reign of God. One of their boys would be God himself.

Yes, an Angel had visited Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah. The proud man couldn’t accept the angel’s news. Not like Mary. Not like Elizabeth. Favored¬†of¬†heaven,¬†outcast¬†on¬†the¬†earth,¬†Prophets¬†who¬†bring¬†the¬†best¬†in¬†us¬†to¬†birth.¬†

Our Spirits Rejoice With God Our Savior

Nothing captures Advent Joy the way that Mary’s song does:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
¬†for the Mighty One has done great things¬†for me‚ÄĒ
¬†¬†¬†¬†holy is his name.” (Luke 1:46-49)

Mary’s song bursts. It exudes praise. She recognizes the significance of what God was going to do through her baby boy. Every generation will be blessed because of Mary’s participation in God’s redemption and the things her Son will do.

The song goes on:

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
¬†¬†¬†¬†just as he promised our ancestors.‚ÄĚ (Luke 50-55)

She describes the mercy of God to those who fear (revere)him and how God scatters the proud, brings down rulers and lifts up the humble, feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty.

This is radically inclusive and subversive!

A had a seminary professor who used to pastor an ex-pat church in the Philippines where it was illegal to read the Magnificat in public, for fear that it would incite riot and revolution. These words are politically charged. The proud are scattered and the rich go away empty. The humble are lifted up while the rulers are deposed. Mary challenges the whole system centuries before the classic Liberals defied Monarchy, the Communists decried Capitalism and the Anarchists denied institutional authority. If you do not hear a poignant critique of the way things are in Mary’s words, you are over-spiritualizing her words and dismissing them. There is raw power here. This is a rallying call!

Unfortunately, even the poets sometimes miss the point, focusing instead on Mary’s high praise while glossing over the phrases that challenge the status quo. Author and activist Lisa Sharon Harper published this poem in Sojourners in 2008. I think it gets at the joyful and subversive hope of Mary:

Mary’s Song: A Poem

Dark times
Regime change.
“How are we gonna make it?”
“How are we gonna live?”
Tomorrow?

Fear for breakfast
Trembling for brunch
Despair for dinner.

Dark thick air
Full of fumes
Can’t breathe.

Thick over the man on the street
With feet sticking out of his shoes.
Shoes wrapped in muslin.
It does not cover him
He lay cocked to one side.
In a fetal position.
He was a baby once.
Once ‚ÄĒ he cried and cuddled and coo-ed
Now he knows evil of this world.
His eyes have been baptized in the warped world of war.
They stare ‚Äď- numb.
Dead eyes.
Murdered by drugs and guns and blood
Murdered by full metal jackets
Innocent eyes stolen
Stolen, too, the man’s soul.
Now
He lays in a fetal position
Waiting…

And the woman on the train
Across the aisle from me.
Her hand stretches forth
Rests on the carriage
Rocking a sleeping baby.
Innocent in all things.
Deserving of nothing
Deserving of all things
Baby lay waiting
In a fetal position
Baby waits to breathe above 125th street.
Fumes hover in her neighborhood
Where bus depots pepper the map.
Cancer fumes
Asthma fumes
Fumes that shape life
Limit life
Steal life
But for now she sleeps
And her momma rocks her carriage.

And the GM
And the Hedgefund
And the free-market giants
Three of them
Jolly and Green
They lay now
Tears trickle from baptized eyes
Dead eyes
They stare ‚Äď- numb
Ransacked by green greed and time catching up
Now … nothing ‚Äď- or at least it feels like nothing.
They have what feels like nothing.
And for fear of feeling fear
The giants lay feeling nothing.

Darkness hovers over the deep
And we wait.

We watch with dead eyes
Eyes that have seen too much.
Eyes that have known too much evil.
Redeem! Lord, Redeem!

Watch for the light.
Wait for the light.
It pierces darkness
And unfurls curled bodies
It covers twisted limbs.
It replaces fumes with blankets of breath
Mixed with love and sacrifice.

Mary watched and waited
The powerless, harassed young girl ‚Äď- 13.
Barely a foot in the world
On the run
Chased down by power
Death surrounded her
Wrapped in the stench of King Herod’s dying babies

But

Into the darkness Mary sang!

“My soul doth magnify the Lord!
My soul doth magnify the Lord!
The one more mighty than darkness has done great things!”

For resting in her belly
Turning in her belly
Pressing on her belly
Light was being born

“God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,”
Mary says!
“God brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts the lowly,”
Mary proclaims!

And the man with feet peeking from his shoes will be lifted up.
He will stand up!
And the baby covered in fumes will be lifted up.
She will stand up! Up!
And the green giants laying with dead eyes ‚ÄĒ yes, even they will be lifted up!
They will stand!
Blessed are they now, for they are ready to be lifted up.
They will lock hands
With their sisters and brothers and …

Our souls will magnify the Lord.
Our souls will magnify the Lord.
Our souls¬†will¬†magnify the Lord …
…¬†together!
And our spirits will rejoice in God our savior!

Amen.

Poem originally published by Sojourners, 12-17-2008 https://sojo.net/articles/marys-song-poem

The homeless, the mother and asthmatic child riding the train, the greedy green giants which lost everything in an economic downturn. All humble or humbled, awaiting the day when they will be raised up. Jesus is coming. My soul magnifies the Lord!

Stand Still, O Beautiful End

The second week of Advent is the time for declaring our hope for God’s peace. We cry peace, peace when there is no peace. Our journey with the poets has noted a dissonance between our anxious thoughts and war-torn world, and Advent promise. Too often what we call peace in this life, is just a diversion and distraction‚ÄĒa turning a blind eye to the suffering of the world. We stuff down our wounds. We comfort our souls with wine and song.

But we know that there are people struggling, hurting dying. We know about those desperate migrants who have fled the violence, economic and politic instability in Central America; the tenuous relationship between Israel and Palestine, starving children in Yemen, and we’ve heard something about escalating violence in the Philippines. All this seems so far away and abstract. We know we probably should care more than we do and that this is just the tip of the iceberg of the suffering of the world. There are so many stories we don’t know and hurts we’ve not heard about. We are aware, when we listen the anxious cry of our own hearts and though we may have some small measure of inner peace it is fleeting and we are ever aware of the ways we don’t experience it. Yet. 

Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengalese poet was the first non-western Nobel Prize for Literature laureate (1913).  Called the Bard of Bengal, he  was given a knighthood by King George V but later denounced it in protest of the British Indian Army’s Jallianwala Bagh massacre. His novels touch on the violence of Colonial powers and the violence between Hindus and Muslims in India. His poem, Peace, My Heart (part of his Gardener cycle) describes our common longing for peace:

Peace, my heart, let the time for
the parting be sweet.
Let it not be a death but completeness.
Let love melt into memory and pain
into songs.
Let the flight through the sky end
in the folding of the wings over the
nest.
Let the last touch of your hands be
gentle like the flower of the night.
Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a
moment, and say your last words in
silence.
I bow to you and hold up my lamp
to light you on your way.

For Tagore, peace was what awaited us in death‚ÄĒ a release from the heartache and pain of existence when we are reunited with the Cosmos. This idea is more Eastern than Western and reflects Tagore’s religious and spiritual worldview. Yet he captures what it means to be at peace, much of which is echoed in our own scriptures:

  • Not be a  death but completeness‚ÄĒfrom fragmentation to being made whole (Luke 17:19 “Your faith has made you whole”).
  • Love melting into memory and pain melting into song (Psalm 126:5, They that sow in tears will reap with songs of joy).
  • Our flight through the sky ending with us safe the nest, under the wings of a Mother bird (cf. Psalm 91:4, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge”).
  • Our last touch of our hands gentle like a flower in the night (Philippians 4:5, “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near”).

Qoheleth wrote that God set eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Strangely anxious souls though we are, we long for and can describe a peace we know little, experientially about.  Torah written on the hearts of humanity (Romans 2:15), we all hunger for the peace of God to come.  Our heart testifies to us‚ÄĒwe long for what none of us has, yet. 

Stand still, O beautiful end. . . .I bow to you and hold up my lamp
to light you on your way.

The Peace Thereafter

It is no mistake that the symbol of peace, the dove, is the self-same symbol which Christians use for the Spirit. In the Upper Room, before his crucifixion, Jesus intertwined his promise of the Spirit’s coming with an assurance of peace “But the Advocate,¬†the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name,¬†will teach you all things¬†and will remind you of everything I have said to you.¬†Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.¬†I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled¬†and do not be afraid” (John 14:26-27). Similarly, in the opening verses of Genesis 1, there is the Spirit, hovering, beating its wings like a bird, far above the void and watery chaos (cf. Gen 1:2). In the visage of a dove we see an image of both the wind of God and Shalom‚ÄĒthe peace each of us craves.

Jesus taught us to ask for daily bread, but prayers for peace find their way, also, into our daily prayers. We ask for peace‚ÄĒthe cessation of war, for reconciliation for our broken relations, for justice for the oppressed, for an end to systemic racism, classism, and strife. We long for an end to the fighting, for peace to reign in our relationships, and closer to home, we wish also for peace in our hearts‚ÄĒfreedom from the anxious thoughts that plague us.¬†

Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, Peace,is one of my favorite poems (I’ve shared it here before). In it, Hopkins described our longing for peace:

  When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs? 
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite 
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but 
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it? 

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu 
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite, 
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.

Hopkins describes Peace here, not as a gentle dove descending but as shy wild wooddove that darts about, under the boughs but at a safe distance from human hands. He longs for peace to come close. When, when, Peace, will you Peace?  Though he has experienced peace to some measure, it is but a piecemeal, poor peace. Wars still rage and we still live under the threat of them. Peace, as we know it, is but a raid on the warmongers, not a full sail abolition of war. That comes later. The Peace thereafter. Until then we wait.

Hopkins was an adult convert to Catholicism. A Jesuit priest and professor of Greek and Latin in Dublin, he wrote this poem at the end (or near the end?) of World War I.  Personally, he was an anxious soul. He worried about the egotism involved in publishing his poetry(thus kept most of his poems from publication until after his death). Though a committed celibate priest, he struggled with his sexuality (attracted to a man in college and instructed by his confessor to sever all contact with him). He knew what it was like to be overwhelmed with anxious thoughts. The world that Hopkins was in was ravished by war. 

This week of Advent, the traditional theme people reflect on is peace. We say¬†Peace, peace but there is no peace. Violence is everywhere. Mass shootings, police violence, war (America’s sponsorship of the Saudi War effort in Yemen is but the latest example). We are stressed and anxious. Injustice abounds.

We love the idea of peace but we bristle against its promise. Really? We have so little experience with anything we can really call peace. Peace is a whole different reality. We cry How Long O Lord? and When, when, Peace, will you Peace?  Peace is our longing but it seems intangible and inaccessible to us. 

“Peace” is the gospel in short form. The biblical concept of Shalom is a world made whole, everything as it should be, where nothing that shouldn’t be is. There is no war, but also no anxiety. No violence, and no sickness. No death, and consequently, no mourning.¬† The good news is that God’s shalom is the peace thereafter that the world is moving toward.

In the meantime,  when peace comes to our house, 
he comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.

My Lean, Unripened Heart

Sylvia Plath struggled to stave off the darkness. She was clinically depressed, treated multiple times with electrical convulsion therapy. When her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes dissolved, because of Hughes infidelity and him leaving her for his mistress, Plath succumbed to suicide by gas oven in her London flat. Her children were asleep upstairs. Six years later, Hughes mistress, Assia Wevill committed suicide the same way Plath did.

I’ve been reflecting on hope and the promise of Advent, how the Christian story tells us that the telos¬†which we are moving toward, is one where all suffering ceases, wars end and all our mourning turns to joy. In the meantime, hope can be a hard thing to hold out for. The pain of broken relationships and biochemistry may make it nearly impossible. Sylvia Plath described the heartache she felt in losing Hughes in her poem¬†Jilted:¬†


My thoughts are crabbed and sallow,
My tears like vinegar,
Or the bitter blinking yellow
Of an acetic star.

Tonight the caustic wind, love,
Gossips late and soon,
And I wear the wry-faced pucker of
The sour lemon moon.

While like an early summer plum,
Puny, green, and tart,
Droops upon its wizened stem
My lean, unripened heart.

The bitter, the sour, the acetic, the puny green and tart, the drooping, wizened, lean and unripe. 

I believe wholeheartedly in Christian hope, that the story of God’s redemption ends well. But let’s not abstract it. Hope can be a hard thing to hold on to. I don’t know the heartache of being jilted by my lover the way Plath did, nor do I have her struggles with depression. But I know heartache. I know what it is like to a lose a job, and how insignificant and incompetent it makes you feel. I know what it is like to be rejected by those I care about and felt called to love and serve. I know what it feels like to lose hope, and have my life turn sour.¬†

Christian hope isn’t just for the nameless poor, the migrant, the refugee, or the war-torn in some far off distant land. We, ourselves, need it. When we lose hope, all the sweetness goes out of life. We despair. We give up. If we are to sustain life and joy, we need hope for tomorrow.¬†

¬† Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel, fell to Babylon in 587 BCE. The city of Jerusalem was captured and destroyed. The temple was torn down. Many of the inhabitants died in the siege. Families were torn apart and many were carried into exile. If there was a time that God’s people lost all hope, that was it. God had abandoned them. Their nation was no more.¬† They were under judgment for their rejection of their God.¬†

For 70 years they were in exile. A lifetime. People were born and died in captivity. And yet, God was still at work and he hadn’t really abandoned his people. Jeremiah prophesied:

‚ÄúThe days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: ‚ÄúThe parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children‚Äôs teeth are set on edge.‚ÄĚ ¬†(Jeremiah 31:27‚Äď29, NRSV)

At the end of 70 years, the sourness was gone, the exiles returned. The walls of Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt. They experienced what¬† Martin Luther King used to say, “The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.” It wasn’t as it was, but their hope returned. Tough the fruit of experience was still sometimes bitter there was hope for tomorrow.¬†

I feel sad for Sylvia Plath‚ÄĒdepressed, rejected, despairing. Suicide is a disease that has claimed far too many lives, and I doubt if I was there I could have said any words that would restore Plath’s hopes for another day. I do know one day, maybe soon, maybe many lifetimes away that:

God will dwell with his peoples, and be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will cease. The sourness will go out of life. He will make all things new.  (cf. Rev 21:4-5). 

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

In yesterday’s reflection, I asked if hope asks anything of us. Emily Dickinson said no, not a crumb but I wondered if hope did not at least invite certain actions from us.¬†

Wendell Berry wears many hats. He is an environmentalist, an activist, a farmer, an essayist, a cultural critic, a novelist, and a poet. No one else has been more compelling and steady as he, in warning us against the environmental and economic dangers inherent in the industrial agricultural complex, and the things we’ve lost in our rush to¬†progress.

I love Wendell Berry. He is incisive in his analysis of the state of things. I’ve read his non-fiction and have devoured his novels‚ÄĒall set in the Port William Township, with the Catletts and the Coulters and Jayber Crow. Yet, it was Berry’s poetry that first drew me to his writings.¬† His best-known poem is¬†Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.¬†I hesitated to include it in these Advent reflections because it is final exhortation, Practice Resurrection feels more Easter than Advent. But Resurrection runs all the way through Christian hope, even at Advent. No Easter, no Advent hope. Here’s the poem:


Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion ‚Äď put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

The opening of¬†Manifesto¬†describes the state of things in contemporary life, the tedious monotony of a world with no beyond.¬†We scheme for our own personal success‚ÄĒquick profits from get-rich-quick-schemes, jobs with good benefits,¬† a lucrative 401K. Everything is done for our own satisfaction and security. We are comfortable, but each of us is the center of our personal universe. We have not thoughts of the world beyond our existence. We fear our neighbors (or migrants, refugees and asylum seekers). We fear our own death, and perhaps the death of those who make us happy. Consumerism drives our desire and our behavior. We exist and subsist¬†with a loss of hope for the future, our connection to the past and a sense of transcendence. There is no God, and if there is, it is only the God that makes me happy.¬†¬†

Enter the Mad Farmer, calling us to each day: do something
that won’t compute
, to Love the Lord, and¬†Love the world; to Work for nothing; to take all that we have and be poor and to love someone who does not deserve it; to denounce government and hope our nation will one day live its ideals of freedom; to approve the incomprehensible and praise ignorance, to be thankful for the things humanity has not encountered and destroyed; to ask the questions with no answers, to invest in a millennium. to plant¬†sequoias and trust in the two-inches of hummus that will build under the trees every thousand years; to listen to the carrion, and hope for the world to come, to¬†expect the end of the world¬†and laugh; to be joyful, even in the face of facts; please women more than men (as long as women don’t go cheap for power), Swear allegiance to our nighest thoughts, lose our minds instead of letting ourselves be co-opted and controlled, to¬†be like the fox, making more tracks than necessary, practice resurrection.

The Mad farmer invites us to enjoy life, to not be driven by our economic interests, to not see Creation and all that’s around us as something to be manipulated for personal gain, but instead, to invest in the far-off future, to expect the end to the world and laugh.

It is possible to go through life and just let it happen to you, to give little thought about how your choices impact nature, others and the future; to drink Keurig coffee because you don’t like the inconvenience of washing out the coffee pot.¬†

Like the Mad Farmer’s Manifesto,¬†Advent hope is the invitation to see the world beyond¬†us. Jesus is coming! Get ready. All the things that isolate people from one another, all the broken relationships and the things that steal our joy, all the ways that institutions chew people up and steal their soul, will meet their end. The wolf will live with the lamb,¬†¬†Expect the end of the world.¬†Laugh.¬†If hope asks anything of us, it is this: don’t just let life happen to you. Live mindful of the world to come‚ÄĒthe world beyond.¬†

‚ÄúThe wolf will romp with the lamb, the leopard sleep with the kid. Calf and lion will eat from the same trough, and a little child will tend them. Cow and bear will graze the same pasture, their calves and cubs grow up together, and the lion eat straw like the ox. The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens, the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent. Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill on my holy mountain. The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive, a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.‚ÄĚ (Isaiah 11:6‚Äď9, The Message)



This Fenced Off Narrow Space

I grew up in a conservative evangelical home. Evangelical is kind of a dirty word these days, but for good or ill, growing up evangelical shaped my spirituality. It imparted to me a love for the Bible, for God’s mission of redemption and a stubborn Christocentrism. These are real gifts to me. But with gifts came also limitations and blind spots and unhealthy emphases.

Our beliefs about end-times were our scare-tactic-evangelism strategy. We took the book of Revelations(sic) and described that the world was evil, that Jesus was coming back, and on the¬†great and terrible Day of the Lord, Jesus would destroy everything, and burn it up! Bound up with our proclamation was a belief that an evil leader would seduce the nations into a false unity, uniting the world under his leadership, forcing citizens who participate in the economy to receive his mark: 6‚ÄĒ6‚ÄĒ6.
The moon would turn to blood. And there would be pestilence and war, disease, and darkness. 

Of course, Christians would get a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card, raptured before the days of cataclysmic devastation. 

There is a lot wrong with this eschatology, but one problem was we struggled to make the return of Christ sound like good news, even to ourselves.¬†Jesus is Coming and he’s going to destroy everything you care about!¬† Yes! There was the promise of heaven, but our imagination was stoked more by the suffering of the¬†world. All of this will burn! The good news was, for us, just a way to circumvent our personal experience of destruction. The world would burn but we don’t have to. Come, Lord Jesus. We ripped¬†Revelation¬†away from John of Patmos and the second-century persecution of the Church. Our blind spot was our social location as modern white middle-class evangelicals.

It took me a long time to understand that the best way to read the Bible was from the underside‚ÄĒwith the oppressed, the marginalized, the persecuted, the discriminated against, and the outcasts.¬† When you do, even the scary bits of Revelation start to feel like good news.

Langston Hughes (1901-1967) was one of the best-known authors of the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry describes the African-American experience‚ÄĒtheir exclusion from the American dream, and the suffering they endured because of racism and white oppression.¬† In his poem,¬†I Look at the World, he illustrates the ways society has placed him and his people in a ‘fenced-off narrow space’:

I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face‚ÄĒ
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space   
Assigned to me.

I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face‚ÄĒ
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!

I look at my own body   
With eyes no longer blind‚ÄĒ
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.

The poem is ultimately hopeful, showing how Hughes and like-minded comrades can remake the world, but he also names the way oppression has been a fence and a wall, something which constricts movement and imprisons.

When we consider this season of Advent we would do well to listen and look with Hughes. Jesus is coming! When you take in the news from the center, the only good news is that Jesus will give us a bailout before everything gets really bad. When you read Revelation from the underside, you hear the good news that the Oppressor‚ÄĒ the one who enslaves, imprisons, deports, turns a blind eye to the suffering of the marginalized‚ÄĒwill be deposed. Peace will reign. The dehumanizing institutions will be overhauled. Systemic justice will be our new reality:

I look at my own body   
With eyes no longer blind‚ÄĒ
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.