Those Who Expected Lightning and Thunder Are Disappointed


Lithuanian stamp on the 100th anniversary of Miłosz’s birth

Advent is a two-story house. Built on the foundation of Israel’s Messianic hope, it is when we prepare for Christmas—the coming of Christ, born as a babe in Bethlehem, our Incarnate Emmanuel.

But it also carries the nuances of Second Advent.  Jesus came and will come again. So, traditionally this has been a season to prepare our hearts for Christmas, but also a time to set our own house in order as we prepare for Christ’s return.

A lot of my Advent reflections have focused on this second meaning of Advent, the coming Kingdom of God and how everything wrong in the world will one day be set to rights. Jesus’ first Advent was foretold, and hoped for and prophesied about. However, when the day came, it was a  complete surprise. The Redeemer was here, and nobody expected his birth would be anything like this: Angelic visitations, a virgin birth, a chorus of angels, and a star to light the way for travelers from the East. It happened the way it needed to happen, but not like anyone thought it would. 

I wonder if this aspect of Jesus’ first Advent tells us something about the way we shall be likewise surprised by Jesus’ Advent.

Czesław Miłosz’s poem, “A Song on the End of the World,” plays with the way the end defies expectations:

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be

Warsaw, 1944

What strikes me about Milosz’s poem is the ordinariness of the “end.”  Fishermen mend their nets, a happy porpoise jumps, the birds flit about, women walk with their umbrellas, there is shouting in the marketplace, a drunk lies on the edge of the lawn, sleeping off last night’s good times. A yellow sailboat nears the island and there is violin music in the air. 

This doesn’t sound like the end, and it wasn’t what anyone expected.  The sun and the moon are still in the sky, bees on the rose bush, babies are born. Milosz says those who expected lightning and thunder are disappointed. The would-be-but-too-busy prophet binds his tomatoes and says, “No other end of the world will there be.”

The Bible’s Apocalyptic literature (Daniel and Revelation) speak of the world ending. There are Seals and Trumpets and Bowls, oh my! The Sun turns to blood, there are beasts and multi-horned dragons, earthquakes, pestilence, and war. But also a  garden city, the New Jerusalem, and a new heaven and earth. The old gone and all things made new.

Revelation does tell us about the future, but to make all about the future, is to miss the point. Apocalyptic literature wasn’t so much about some coming end, as it is about how the world as we know it just ended. There was some cataclysmic shift and everything was changed. The same way that today we might talk about how a new idea or a new lover rocked our world, the ancient writers painted a picture of their world’s destruction and the new world emerging.

For John of Patmos, the world became New when he trusted his life to Jesus. Still, old worlds died hard, and those who were faithful to Jesus were persecuted. The war between the Beast and the Lamb was/is a conflict between the old order and new order of God’s coming Kingdom. John recorded his revelation so that those who struggled to remain faithful to Christ in the midst of persecution from Imperial Rome would have the courage and resilience to stay the course. 

Milosz wrote his poem in Warsaw, 1944. The fact that he highlighted the ordinariness of daily life, doesn’t mean his world wasn’t ending. The Nazis had invaded Poland in 1939, but Germany’s grip on Poland was waning. This was the year of the Warsaw Uprising. Germany was retreating and the Soviets were advancing.  The Resistance timed their revolt to coincide with this Soviet advance, but the USSR halted their forward movement, leaving the Resistance to fight it out with their German occupiers. After 63 days of fighting, the Nazi’s defeated the Polish Resistance. 16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed,  6,000 badly wounded and 150,000-200,000 Polish civilians died, mostly by mass executions. 85% of the city was destroyed. Milosz said later that the Soviets watched with binoculars while the city was decimated. 

 

Fishermen mended their nets as the porpoise played, the birds flitted, the drunk slept. No thunder or trumpets, but the world ended. For those who remained, reality forever changed. 

I don’t know when or how Jesus will return. I don’t expect a trumpet blast, the sky to crack or the moon to turn to blood. These are all ancient metaphor for a catalysmic shift. The kingdom of God may roar or come in like a whisper. It may feel ordinary—the would-be-prophet bagging your tomatoes at Food For Less and no fanfare or pyrotechnics. Or perhaps there will be blood, war, and destruction. Systems of oppression do not die easily. But when the world ends, the lamb wins, sorrow and injustice are no more. 

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—6—6.
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—with 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—their 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—
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—
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—
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— the one who enslaves, imprisons, deports, turns a blind eye to the suffering of the marginalized—will 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—
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.

Things Fall Apart

William Butler Yeats

The year was 1919, the year following the close of the World War I–the war that was supposed to end all wars. William Butler Yeats penned the Second Coming in response to the political turmoil across in aftermath of the Great War, and the upheaval caused by the Irish War of Independence in his homeland.

 Yeats spoke of an Advent, though not an advent which culminates in “Good will to all people,” the warmth of home fires, or the serenity of the Christmas crèche on a calm starry night. His words terrify. He envisions political and social unrest giving birth to a beast. His poem anticipates the specter of Fascism which fall over Europe in the 20’s and 30’s:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The Second Coming has often been quoted and alluded to, to describe a world untethered. At the close of 2016, in the wake of fears of terror, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the poem was quoted more than in any other year than it has in the previous three decades. 

 Two years later, our anxiety about the state of things has yet to diminish. We binge watch the latest post-apocalyptic shows on Netflix and Hulu.  We read our dystopia fiction. We watch the news with an expectant what now? We wonder how long until things fall apart and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. We know intimately the state of affairs: the  best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. But there are good people on both sides, or whatever. 

The good news of Advent is that despite appearances, despite our fears and deep-seated anxiety, despite our cynicism about the state of the world, the end of all things is not dystopia, darkness and doom. The Apostle Paul* writes:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:15–20, NRSV)

The gospel tells us that God was at work in Christ, effecting the redemption of all things. Our New Testament ends with the cessation of suffering and pain, and a New Heaven and New Earth  revealed(Rev 21-22). Yes, there will be terrible revelations at hand, rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem, and things will fall apart. But the end of all things is renewal, redemption and reconciliation. 

Things fall apart. It’s true. But there is One who can put it all back together. 

Joy to the World!

When Advent began, the Christian blogosphere was a buzz, as always, with grumpy liturgists warning us away from jumping to quickly to yuletide cheer. We were cautioned against carols  and mirth, too much cookies and eggnog. Advent, after all, is about preparing. We hope, we long, we eagerly anticipate the coming of the Lord. In the liminal glow of Advent candle light, we are inviting to make our crooked roads straight and prepare the way of the Lord. A lot of the posts here too, inhabit this waiting space.

But now, two-and-a-half weeks in on a year with a short Advent season, the chorus of cranky Adventists have been drowned out by the holiday cheer. We lit the pink candle this past Sunday, signifying joy, if not the full satisfaction and fulfillment of Christmas joy, at least a foretaste of the joy that is to come.  Perhaps now, we can start singing Joy to the World. And when we do, we will discover it is not a Christmas carol at all, it is Advent all the way down.

According to the fount of all knowledge (Wikipedia) as of the late 20th Century, Joy to the World was the most published Christian hymn in North America. But the 18th’s Century hymn writer, Isaac Watts did not write this hymn with Christmas in mind. There is no angelic chorus or Christmas crèche. No little town of Bethlehem and no shepherds on the hillside.

Joy to World was Watt’s paraphrase of the second half of Psalm 98. Watt’s wrote his hymn in a Christological, Messianic key, but he didn’t envision Jesus’ nativity. This hymn instead images Christ’s final coming when he  will reign over all creation:

Joy to the world! the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heav’n and nature sing.

Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ,
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains,
Repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love. (The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts, “Psalm 98, part 2,” Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1998).

We sing this as a Christmas carol, mostly because of the way the first verse celebrates that the Lord has come. And yet, the rest of the hymn envisions eschaton. Then the Savior will reign and all sin and sorrow will cease. His blessing will flow into every crack and cranny where the curse is found. The Kingdom of God come in full! Righteousness, and wonder and love!

Despite it’s clearly celebratory tone, the hymn inhabits the liminal, in-between space of Advent. The world it describes, is not yet our world. It is the telos we are moving toward, that which all creation is groaning for.

The Lord has come, and will come. All hardship and affliction will cease and all creation will join in the song of praise: Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ, While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains, repeat the sounding joy. JAll the boys and girls: joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, Joy to you and me. 

(Image: Anonymous Russian icon painter (before 1917), Joy of All Who Sorrow, Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

Waiting: Peace (Advent Week 2)

Pass the Peace please!

We’re fed up with fighting,

with struggle, with strife.

We’ve seen lambs devoured by

Wall-street-wolves,

the Bull & Bear attack

mere calflings.

 

Victims & victimizers

 hold in common

the loss of shared humanity.

Come Lord Jesus,

 May your peace

make us whole,

Let us be all

we’re meant to be.

 

Prince of Peace pass to us

peace passing our percipience:

polemology, no more,

(the ISW shutters its doors).

 

See, Lord, here are two swords.

“That’s enough” . . .

 

for plowshares &

pruning hooks;

Shalom grows,

the fields ready

for the

harvesting.

 

Eager Anticipation

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part –Tom Petty

Every year some celebrity dies, and though we have no personal relationship with theses artists or actors, we feel a connection to them through their body of work. So, I was sad to hear of Tom Petty’s death this year. The Heartbreakers were integral to my life’s soundtrack. I went Freefallin’ from middle school into high school. I’ve tried to best my 10k time while Running Down a Dream. I have imagined vocational opportunities through Into the Great Wide Open, chided my kids with the chorus of Yer So Bad, sang along to Don’t Come Around Here No More in the face of a bad break-up, and celebrated my own identity and becoming with songs like Learning to Fly, and You Don’t Know How it Feels (to be me). And more. When I first picked up my guitar, in earnest, Tom Petty songs were among the first songs I learned to play.

It is Tom Petty’s The Waiting which captures, for me, the eager anticipation of Advent. The verses describe the happiness and elation of the moment, “Oh baby don’t it feel like heaven right now/ Don’t it feel like something from a dream/ Yeah I’ve never known nothing quite like this/ Don’t it feel like tonight might never be again,” and the chorus declares, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

As I read Petty’s lyrics, I think he is describing a longing to be reunited with the one you love, but certainly we have all experienced the existential angst of waiting. We feel this in pre-performance butterflies, on sleeplessness nights before our wedding days, hope for the birth of a child, or before job interviews. We are excited about what lies ahead, and find it hard to just be in the moment.

The Psalmist cry, “How long?” has something of The Waiting eagerness in it, even if it feels a little bit angstier. The Hebrew poets, lamented the state of things in their world, their personal experience and their nation.  They looked honestly at how hard things were, but dared to hope that God’s deliverance lay ahead. Psalm 13 captures this dissatisfaction with what is, but hopeful longing for God’s future action:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

The Waiting is the hardest part, and this is especially true as we wait through feelings of alienation, sorrow, defeat and failure.

Other psalms decry ongoing injustices, the triumph of the wicked, and oppression of the poor and marginalized. All in the strong hope that God will act, God will be salvation, God will deliver, restore, heal. It is hard to wait, but Jesus is coming and there is hope.

Don’t let it kill you baby, don’t let it get to you
Don’t let ’em kill you baby, don’t let ’em get to you
I’ll be your breathing heart, I’ll be your crying fool
Don’t let this go to far, don’t let it get to you

The Waiting is the hardest part.

What are you waiting for? What are you waiting through? What brings you hope? 

Revealing the Hidden Things: a book review

Christian films, books and TV preachers give their take on the last book of the Bible, Revelation. Speculation about end times is a Christian cottage industry with theories bandied about on things like the identity of the beast, the rapture, the role of Israel, or the nature of the judgments poured out on the earth. Revelation is written in highly metaphorical language, so there are tons of speculations. Other Christians read through Revelation once or twice but unsure of what to do with it, so they ignore it.  In The Heart of Revelation,  J.Scott Duvall offers a third way of of reading revelation. He attends to the vision of hope in the book without devolving into personal speculation about what we may or may not suffer.

TheHeartOfRevelation_hires+spine.inddAfter a brief introduction discussing the cultural context, Duvall explores the book’s message through the lens of ten themes: God, Worship, the People of God, the Holy Spirit, our enemies, our mission, Jesus Christ, judgment, new creation, and perseverance. By attending to Revelation thematically, Duvall provides a overview of the book rather than a detailed walk through the text (elsewhere he has published a commentary on revelation in the ‘Teach the Text Commentary Series).

In his introduction Duvall offers these guidelines for understanding the book: (1) attend to the meaning of the book to its original hearers in Asia Minor, (2)  Be aware of the symbolic nature of its language and (3) a focus on the main theological message of each vision (9-10).  The result is a historical-literary sensitive reading which doesn’t get caught up in theorizing about locust in smoke or Russia’s role in Armageddon (Sorry Hal). This isn’t to say that what Duvall says isn’t compatible with various eschatological options. He allows for the book’s future orientation without speculating about the minutia. His focus remains on the major themes through out the book and I think that mild Preterists, Millennialists and Dispensationalists can all read this book profitably.

The picture he paints is of a loving God who is the true center and source of life, a worshipping community drawn from every tongue, tribe and nation, a Holy Spirit who is living and active among us, an oppressor who is defeated by the cross and enemies we will overcome as we take up our cross and suffer. We also see our calling to be faithful witnesses to Jesus, the coming judgment against sin which takes seriously God’s holiness and  our human freedom, a new heaven and new earth where God will dwell with his people,  and the challenge and promise for those who persevere until the end.

If Revelation mystifies you and you want a book that helps you see the meaning and purpose of the book, this is a great place to start. Each chapter ends with a list of key texts, a reading plan and community group questions for exploring Revelation in a small group setting (or personal study).  I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review.