The Myth of the Apocalypse
Dear Lord Jesus, preacher said you are coming real soon.
Now would be a good time.
—The pre-math test prayer of all Evangelical children
Like all children raised under the apocalyptic cloud of Dispensationalism, I spent a great deal of my childhood alternately fearing and hoping for the end of the world. I was a bad child raised by good parents, so the Rapture was particularly troubling, as I knew they would go and I would not.
Later in life, I turned the fear into a standard Chicago-based joke. “People say that no one can predict when the Lord will return. This is not quite true: I know exactly the place and quite a bit about the timing. It will be at Wrigley Field. The Cubbies will be about to win it all – top of the ninth, two outs, two strikes against the batter. Then the trump will sound, and Jesus Christ will land on second base. Because the Universe cannot allow the Cubs to win the World Series.” The repeated telling of that joke, added a special layer to the terror-joy I experience on November 2, 2016 when the Cubs won it ALL. When Anthony Rizzo caught the final throw and tucked that ball safely in his pocket – I was liberated from several curses
In my previous career as a semi-pro religionist, I sometimes encountered Apocalypse rooters. These folks bill themselves as proponents of glory. In my experience, they are often a bitter and shrinking remnant of a narrow theology of judgment. When they see that the world is not only failing to embrace their world-view but rapidly leaving it in the dust, they hunker down into an attitude: “Just you wait and see. Jesus is going to return, and then you will find out how wrong you are!” Sometimes they pine so much for Armageddon that they actually do things to try to make it come. They say “Come Lord Jesus!” but what they mean is, “Come and prove me right!”
Then I discovered that Christians do not have a lock on Apocalypse-rooting. I have met environmentalists so frustrated that they rooting for Global Warming or some other enormous disaster to prove them right, to bring dismay and destruction to the deniers. Their Fundamental judgment and ire can match any fire-and-brimstone preacher. They predict and pray for a new heaven and a new Earth, where the remnant will survive and return to an imagined peaceful, joyful, agrarian way of a past - that never existed.
What all world-enders miss is the fact that apocalypses are as common as dirt. When Jesus wept over Jerusalem and predicted its doom, He wasn’t being especially prophetic. Anyone with eyes could see that Roman train wreck coming. Foreseeing the apocalypse of Jerusalem wasn’t exactly hard.
Homo sapiens seems to be good at wiping things out. Met a Neanderthal recently? A Javan tiger? A West African black rhino? A member the Yuki Tribe in California? We have seen the Rwandan apocalypse; our parents saw the Nazi apocalypse. Maybe we learned this from Mother Nature – she did a pretty good job on the dinosaurs. And now we are given a special lesson in viral Pandemic. Tiny things you can’t see can wipe out communities. Name an epoch, century, or continent that is apocalypse-free. Can’t.
The other thing that the doom-sayers miss is that life so often finds a way through. Have you ever witnessed a personal apocalypse – that of a serious addict who completely flames out, then finds recovery, sobriety, and life? I have; it is a glorious thing. Flattened cities build on the rubble. Ozzy Osbourne is walking around today with Neanderthal DNA. We are told that the birds we feed in the park are descendants of dinosaurs. Destroyed matter turns to energy and back again. Stars and planets die and are born again. On some cosmic level, nothing is lost. God built this into the universe so we would understand, and have hope. Hope even beyond death.
Existence is hard. It is so tempting when facing the apocalyptic to pray for escape, to pray for the judgment of the stupid and mean. We all do it. But this isn’t Life’s way. Life works through the stupid and the mean (including you and I) to find a way forward. There is no escape from the tribulations of the hard work of progress.
Quakers have made a theological suggestion about this: the idea of Christ, come and coming. I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was The Christ. But you do not have to believe that to see the Christ spirit in Him. The Christ spirit is simply Love, given place and breath. This Spirit pops up everywhere, often in the most unlikely places. It is most crystalline and transcendent in the ugliest of surroundings. This Spirit is so strong that it cannot be put down. It is so pervasive that it permeates all that is. The Anti-Christ is the futile attempt to kill Love. We all have the choice to express Christ or anti-Christ with every breath and every deed. When we cooperate with Christ and express that Spirit, we incarnate it. Again. Perpetual Christmas Day. There is and will be no second coming of Christ. What there is and will be are the infinite comings of Christ.
I hear the dread hoof beats of horsemen as often as I am tempted to sin. I find Jesus at my side, sliding off his white charger as often as I need Him. Together we root out the anti-Christ in my soul and then move the lines forward. I find Christ everywhere. I take the process of Christ-finding as far afield as I can, to the places and people that the fear-peddlers judge. I hear the trumpet sound a dozen times a day. Daring me to explore the depths of the Divine. Challenging me to make God real to the very edges of my world.
Calling me to glory.
The Good Shepherds
We should not have to, but sometimes we must state the plain.
There is one Good Shepherd, and many lesser shepherds. And there are wolves who wear a murdered sheep's skin as their clothing as an attempt to fool other sheep.
Sheep can be very stupid.
But to tell the shepherd from the wolf is not hard.
And the examples of each are plentiful.
This Easter morning the sheep should all be safely in their folds with their lambs.
Good shepherds have encouraged this, and stand at the gate protecting.
Wolves have called them out into a dangerous field.
Wolves have no patience, wolves don't like to be challenged.
They howl. A lot.
"You are not the boss of me!"
"God is my special buddy and will contradict all the rules of God's very own natural world for me!"
"Anyone who doesn't agree with me - doesn't listen to me - is obviously not a buddy of God."
What they really want, of course is to skin some more sheep. Because too much is never enough. And Easter Sunday is their biggest day of the year. Biggest crowds, fullest offering plates. The most people looking at them, and listening to them, while they howl their heads off.
The good shepherds are standing by bedsides and in doorways, and are quietly talking on phones. Their patience is long. They do not yell. They do not lie, but they do comfort.
In Italy, many dozens of priests have died, and more will die.
Hundreds have come out of retirement to do the hardest work in the wards of contagion.
When they know it will very likely kill them.
This is a shepherd's testimony.
“I blessed him and absolved him from sins, he squeezed my hand tightly and I stayed there with him until his eyes closed,” the Priest said. “And then I said the prayer for the dead, and then I changed my gloves and continued my rounds.” (NYT)
Multiply by thousands.
The Priest knows, what I know, and what you know; that God, if God works like this, will receive their souls to God's breast with love and care - with or without the Priest. But the Shepherd knows his flock, and when they were born the church was there. And when they married the church was there. And they have always believed that when they died, the church would be there. And to deny them that would be a betrayal of the worst order.
So the shepherd makes the round of his dying sheep. And lays down his own life.
It is so easy to tell them apart.