Sunday, January 17, 2010

Father Jeremiah and the Illuminati

Father Jeremiah feared the subversive Illuminati most. He said they were the shadow government behind all governments, and most of the churches. Father Jeremiah was a Russian Orthodox priest, curt with disenchantment. He had a wizard’s beard and a monk’s hooded cloak made of black wool that smelled of stale sweat and mildew. Around his neck hung relics of a dying sect, silver-plated and peeling badly. He lived alone on Mars Hill Road in an electric blue and neon orange sanctuary whose front porch frowned at passing cars under the weight of a roof unequally distributed between its two outer posts. On one of those straining supports was tied a giant gong from Ethiopia whose other end was fastened to the house by thick nautical rope. Hanging by the front door that centered the porch was a mallet that Father Jeremiah used to wake the morning and announce the Holy days. Tied to the other post was a moon-eyed dog that wore the spotted coat of its wild desert brothers. Inside was candle-lit mostly, with a few dim bare-bulbs in the darkest halls and the bath. The walls were dark earth brown, eighteenth century icons hung like windows every six feet or so. The copper and brass images of long dead saints stared into the dark rooms through these windows and flickered with artificial life from the candles that clung to the walls between each flaking frame. In every room there were ornate canters slowly smoking incense into the air, black pepper and cloves.

The air was thick with damp, mildewing, slow-rotting wood. On the dark table in the largest room, the one with the fireplace, the sole source of heat, sat piles of undelivered newspapers. In the corner was a cot where Father Jeremiah had been sleeping off January in this one warm room with its stone hearth and picture less mantle. I was there to fix a shower drain but first was taking the makeshift tour of the musty little museum, listening to its eccentric curator reminisce about Russia and his fellow priests whose exploits of faith he would never be able to duplicate. The silence of the dead saints on the walls must have seemed to communicate their approval to Father Jeremiah for his pious humility because arbitrarily he would stop before one of them and say a silent prayer of thanks for their indulgence.

We had tea as I helped him roll and bag newspapers for the paper route he ran for some spending money. He gave me stern warnings of all the clandestine goings on of the dastardly Illuminati. I sipped my tea slowly and tried to read this man old enough to be my grandfather. What if any joy had his religion brought him? Here he was cloistered away in his tiny temple afraid and alone, the Jesus frozen in a frame on the wall unable to comfort him, unable to ease his fears. We finished our tea and the busy work that kept the lulls in conversation from being too awkward. Finally we said our polite goodbyes and I drove home a little sad for my new friend. I never saw Father Jeremiah again. My mom said he came into the drug store where she cashiered now and again to buy a case of beer, but that he never spoke and rarely ever made eye contact.

Maybe this is why our Heavenly Father warns us against graven images. Maybe it’s that Jesus becomes so familiar, so innocuous, so much a fixture in a room, that He ceases to be the risen savior that kicked the teeth out of the Beast and razed Satan’s kingdom to the ground. Or maybe it’s because Jesus becomes a fixed point in space, static and powerless to overcome our fears, our failures, our loneliness, or even the dreaded Illuminati.

I always meant to go visit Father Jeremiah again, I’m very sad and somewhat ashamed that I never did. I wish that even in my youth I could have somehow found a way that day to communicate the vibrant joy that knowing Jesus gave me. Wish I could have shared the comfort of the precious Spirit. Wish Father Jeremiah could have felt the tenderness of his heavenly Father the way I have so many wonderful times. When I close my eyes I can still see that old dog with its milky white cataracts. I can still hear the deep roar of that giant gong. And I can still smell Father Jeremiah’s mildewed robe from when we shook hands goodbye.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pancakes and Earthquakes

As I write this there are 40 thousand fresh dug graves in Haiti, at least a hundred thousand more people unaccounted for, thought to be buried in the rubble of what was once Haiti’s capitol Port-au-Prince. The pictures of devastation and destruction streaming into my safe little world are apocalyptic for sure. And I know the worst is to come; that the children and women and the feeble will be exploited for months, even years to come. Port-au-Prince looks like a war zone. And as with any war the collateral damage is always the innocent. The human traffickers will have thousands of orphans to choose from. The gangs will take their spoils of the desperate girls.

Last night, my friend Sam and I went to IHOP. They are running their annual all you can eat pancake special. For a meager sum hot, fresh, butter oozing pancakes can be had until the most ravenous of appetites is sated. All the while your cup does not empty as an attentive wait staff keeps your glass full of free ice water, clean as it is cold. People are dying for lack of water in Haiti. Gangs are killing for food.

Then Sam and I went to see the new Denzel Washington post nuclear apocalypse film The Book of Eli. It was unnerving at how the images could have been of Haiti. How gangs had taken over and resources we now take for granted were the very things that men killed for. While in Haiti, officials are watching as thugs terrorize the already devastated population. And while Sam and I sat safe and warm in a theatre, bellies bulging with buttermilk goodness.

Then we went to a rock and roll show at The Thirsty Hippo, our friend Ben Shea was debuting his new album Red Sunshine. Instead of a backing band he had a “robot”. The flashing red-eyed robot gave a running editorial on the end of the world in between songs and handled the rhythm tracks while Ben sang his angst ridden neo-grunge anthems and conjured the rock demons on his SG. When I closed my eyes, images of the gray post nuclear world and Port-au-Prince mixed with the robot’s deep mechanized diatribe and Ben’s dark, droning soundtrack. It was all a bit surreal. But I was still safe, still full.

My prayers are with the quake survivors in Haiti; with those who will be exploited for years to come. They are also with the brave aid workers from all over the world trying to mend the broken bodies, the broken hearts, and the broken spirits of those dear Haitians. Nothing like a catastrophe of biblical proportions to bring the lens of perspective sharply into focus. Nothing like a little apocalypse with a side of pancakes to make one ever grateful for even the smallest of things. And nothing like a makeshift robot to remind you what it means to be human.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Very Special Theory of Relativity

Einstein, trying to put into laymen’s terms the concept of relativity, explained it like this. “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it's longer than any hour. That's relativity.”

Time, being relative, insists the closer an object is to the speed of light the slower time acts upon that object. Theoretically then if an object could travel at the speed of light then that object, or person, would cease to age. But, according to Mr. Einstein, that is a scientific impossibility. He explained that as an object approaches the speed of light its mass increases and therefore needs more energy to push it faster. Hmmmmm….

So this was the little rat running around in the maze of my mind last night. It was well past midnight, the espresso buzz was just an aftertaste in my mouth, and I was ready for bed. These are the moments, the dawn and the dusk of memory, the hazy in betweens, when the mind is tired and susceptible to all sorts of strange perceptions. In this purgatory, the fragments of dreams and lost memories mingle with wayward thoughts and many other things I suppose. So it was that I found my self thinking of Einstein and of first grade and Misty, my first childhood crush.

First grade. I remember that there were four white-washed cinder block walls in our over-crowded class room. They all met at their respective corners each with its own unique smell. I remember that cutting in the lunch line was a cardinal crime but much less about hunger or impatience, than it was a way to find one’s place, the daily litmus test of loyalty. I remember that, in our text books, scientists always looked disheveled, their shoes perpetually untied. And though each morning our mothers made sure we’d never be scientists, by day’s end the halls were full of wild haired Einsteins tripping over our laces. Then as the schooldays would slip out of spring’s pink cardigan and into the clinging green cotton dress of summer, as kickball games on cul-de-sacs and warm water ponds pulled at us with the promise of new friends and caught fish, the clock on the wall slowed proving Mr. Einstein right once and for all.

But what I remember most about the first grade is my own special theory of relativity; that there is nothing heavier, no greater weight than a folded piece of paper with the words “Will you be my girlfriend?” written on it. And that there are no wider wings, none more light or made for flight than those one gets when upon opening that same blue-lined loose leaf one sees that emerald-eyed Misty, the strawberry blonde, has checked the little box marked yes.

Einstein theory also posited the interchangeability of mass and energy. E=mc2 was his brilliant equation for that. I believe that as we approach the end of all things. As we approach the light of God’s infinite love we are going to be changed. That matter and energy will be one. That our glorified bodies will be of that perfect, densest, most indestructible of stuffs called spirit. I believe we will cease to age having come to exist finally in the light of Abba’s presence. But even if I’m wrong, even if time doesn’t stop, just being in the presence of The Father’s most wonderful love, it will seem to.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I Am A Stranger Here Myself

Several years back I was in Edinburgh, Scotland and I had some time to myself so I took in the four art museums that were serviced by a free shuttle everyday. I was on the longest leg of the tour between the National Portrait Gallery and the Dean Modern Art Museum and there was no one on the bus but me and a few college girls. They were busy with makeup and cell phones and chattering about all sorts of things that were unintelligible from my seat but their American accents and one particular phrase jumped out at me. The girl closest was talking about “back home” and “back home” was about 20 minutes from my birthplace on the east coast. I politely and somewhat shyly mentioned to them that I was born on an Air Force base very close to their hometown. I wasn’t flirting or trying to be nosy, just merely trying to make a connection, feeling somewhat isolated and far from home. I had only wanted to say “I am a stranger here myself”. But I only ended up feeling strange. The look on their faces was a mix of condescension and annoyance. Like when you tell a music aficionado that you like a band who’s t-shirt they are wearing and they are offended because if you know that band then that band has lost all underground credibility and has become too mainstream and therefore is relegated to the dustbins of independent music history. Ah, nothing like a little elitism to put you in your place.

I don’t know what made me think of that girl this morning as I was driving to work. I can’t remember her face, or even the city she was from, but I can still feel the slight burn of embarrassment resting on my cheeks. It’s funny the souvenirs we keep, and then the ones that keep us.

At the Modern Art museum there was an Andy Warhol Exhibit that I skipped because it was ten pounds, around 17 bucks at the time. I walked around the rest of the exhibits slowly soaking them all in, hoping I think for a little inspiration and maybe some clarity. I remember having very few strong reactions to the Art but one piece stands out, though it would anyway if for no other reason than its sheer girth. It was of the Roman god of fire, Vulcan by sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. Vulcan was the blacksmith who forged weapons for the gods and heroes and in the sculpture he is shown swinging his hammer and marching across the Great Hall. Half-man and half-machine, Vulcan is a monument to the modern age.

But what I remember most about this two story massive sculpture as I was standing on the 2nd floor balcony staring directly across about shoulder level with the mythological blacksmith, is how when I walked across the balcony with only the weight of normal footfall, the giant metal machine-man would sway. At first I thought it was an illusion, but after walking a little heavier back in forth across the suspended balcony I saw the sculpture was indeed moving, directly in response to my steps, and somewhat more than just slightly.

So years later, thanks to a wayward thought of a somewhat snobbish coed, I am thinking of how frail that massive man/machine seemed and how it made me feel somewhat insignificant and uneasy myself. And if there has ever been a better testament to the state of the modern age, a better visual representation of it, well I haven’t seen it.

We have built for ourselves such machines as to move earth by the ton. We have built sky scrapers that seem to do just that. We have technology, and exponentially so, that allows us at anytime access the whole world from anywhere. And yet all these works of our hands cannot stop our world from swaying; cannot save us from the great clock of the earth winding down and the great cloak of the sky wearing thin.

Over and over again in scripture, God warns His creation against trusting the works of their hands. “I alone”, He entreats them, and us, “am worthy of your confidence, your hope.” Continually He reminds them, and us, that what we see, what we feel, and what we treasure here on earth is all food for moths, made for blight and rust and ruin, but the things of the Spirit, are made of such sterner stuffs from the perfect world to come. And yet still we trust in our humanity, our human “spirit”, the works of our hands, and our ability to define our destinies. And all around us, suffering, and bloodshed, and exploitation continue unabated, unaffected by our idols, mute and dumb, the most impressive works of our hands.

One last thing about Vulcan, he was lame, having been cast off Olympus by his mother as a baby for his ugliness thus falling to earth and breaking his leg, which is the reason he is aided by a support in the sculpture. We too are lame. Having been thrust out of God’s presence by the hideousness of our sin, but we are also made whole whoever would call on Jesus to reconcile them to the Father.

One of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes is “If you are really a product of a materialistic universe, how is it that you don't feel at home there?” He asks in similar passage, do you find in yourselves desires that this world cannot fulfill? In essence he asking, do you feel like a stranger here? Are you like Vulcan, a man-machine, forging out your existence through self-reliance on such shaky ground or are you man-spirit, trusting in the One who made you, to deliver you, un-lame, without spot or blemish, into the firm bright bosom of Heaven, and the tender arms of Abba.

I am a stranger here myself, and I am still longing for home.


Monday, January 11, 2010

That's My Soul Up There

Last night I was working late and my bookkeeping was interrupted by a spasm of fluttering wings and frantic little footsteps. It seems a bird, escaping the freezing weather and biting wind had found its way into the dropped ceiling between the floors at the retail space where I have my little shop.

I tried to ignore it, albeit with a genuine sense of concern. But birds are smart right? He found his way in, he, or she, would find their way out. But my concentration was wrecked. My thoughts were wandering across the ceiling as the little bird erratically or perhaps systematically sought a safe place to spend the night. So there I was, staring at the oatmeal colored acoustic tiles of the dropped ceiling imagining that little bird. And then I was thinking, it is a bird right? I mean it’s not possible that it is some giant cockroach, all bible black wings and oil slick eyes, staring into my soul from the shadows? But as if to calm my fears, the little bird peeped. One solitary peep that sounded to me very much like a sigh.

So I sighed in response to the bird, and back to the numbers I went, forcing myself to continue shuffling figures to and fro until some semblance of a budget was achieved. But then later, as I sat with a friend in the ER (she’s fine) I was humming a Police song, “King of Pain”, and I was changing the lyrics in my mind. I was singing, “There’s a little lost bird at the shop today. That’s my soul up there”. It was late, I was tired.

But this morning, back at the store, there is no bird sighing from its makeshift nest in the pink cotton candy of the fiberglass insulation. And I am thinking that my soul, that I, am very much like that. Always running from something, the cold of disenchantment or the bitter biting wind of disappointment. That I am want to seek refuge in the strangest of places. And yet, what the gentle Spirit keeps telling me is “Be still, know that I am God, and that my mercies are new every morning”.

We fail. As humans I think it is what we do best. As a human, speaking for all humans, and a prime example of a human myself, I fail, and often. And yet the scripture in Lamentations 3:22-26 hit me square in the chest today. His mercies are new every morning. My failures are forgotten, the precious blood of my Savior applied each day anew.

So I am trying to learn to be silent. To rest in Abba’s favor and his tender mercies. I am trying to learn to trust Him for the money to keep my little store from succumbing to this “economic downturn” or for the wisdom to know what to do next. But I am still that little bird mostly, frantic and fearful, wind weary and shivering, just trying to get in out of the weather. He is not done with me though, and tomorrow is another day.

Boat sinkin’, bailin’ water,