by the Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
Over these last two weeks, I’ve read many people say that this current situation is “apocalyptic.” This is one of those theological terms that has captured the popular imagination. I think people are right to use it, though not in quite the way they think.
Usually something is referred to as apocalyptic when there is extraordinary disaster or catastrophe. The first definition offered on Google is, “1. the complete final destruction of the world, as described in the biblical book of Revelation and 2. an event involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale." The older name for the last book of the Bible we usually call the Book of Revelation is “The Apocalypse.” Images of pestilence, ecological catastrophe, drought, earthquakes, floods, loosed demons, war in heaven and on earth, and finally, the complete end of the present age and the world it inhabits fill much of the book. For the apostle John who saw these visions, and for the community to whom he was writing, this was not an exercise in disaster porn. It wasn’t even the schadenfreude of seeing their oppressors judged and destroyed by God. Cinematic horror films terribly miss the point. It was a deep encouragement that despite their persecution unto martyrdom, God has not forgotten them, remembers their suffering and faithfulness, and will rescue and reward them in the End. That is the point of the book of Revelation; that is what is being revealed in this book.
Which is the core meaning of “apocalyptic”: revealing, unveiling, showing forth, exposing the reality of things. In the vision John saw, God lifted the veil off the everyday news of the tribulations his community was enduring and showed them the deep truth of God’s work in the universe on their behalf. It is this meaning that is more helpful as we consider our own situation to be “apocalyptic.”
What has this virus revealed? What has been exposed? Some may be things we already knew, but stand in sharper view, others may be things that have been hidden but are now clear. So we now see that our country’s medical system has enormous gaps in its organization, financing, and delivery. We see people’s resistance to change until a situation affects them directly. We see that focusing solely on profit to the exclusion of other stakeholders warps the actions of corporations. This crisis lays bare longstanding fissures of race and class we usually prefer to ignore but now cannot. We see the bankruptcy of ideologies that divide us from the rest of the world and from one another. We see how government can mobilize vast resources which no individual church, community or company can mobilize alone. We see the practical results of wise management versus corrupt management of those resources, seeing which lives are valued and which are lost. This apocalypse reveals things about our society we must deal with. You cannot unsee these things.
This also reveals things at a more personal level. Being yanked out of my normal routines and connections, I have had to face my own fears. Every scratchy throat or cough, and I wonder, “Is this IT?” Will the economy collapse so severely and for so long that my paycheck and my husband’s pension dry up? What about my 87-year-old father, what if he gets it and I can’t help? What if this lasts so long that we really, truly, completely run out of … toilet paper!? Will I have to install one of those nifty hand spray bidets that were everywhere in the Middle East? And learn to use it without spraying it all over everything in every direction? What if I get sick when the hospital is overwhelmed, and because of my age and medical history don’t make the triage cut? And what about…. I’ve been having weirder dreams than usual, and even some nightmares, subconscious alarm bells sounding. I remind myself that we have not landed in a “Mad Max” movie.
And then there is the anger. I don’t do anger well, so like to keep it well quashed (which my therapist keeps saying isn’t the right approach). I watch the news and see certain politician’s policies, and my blood boils. Yelling at the TV is only so satisfying. So I get snarky with my husband and grouchy with the animals. Or I go on Facebook, and see the same stories magnified time upon time. In a fit of pique, I write a massive screed, to REALLY tell off the Stupid Person who reposted the Dumb Thing. My anger combines with others who also have time hanging heavy on their hands, and normally placid chat rooms and email lists become hotbeds of misunderstanding, intrigue and drama. Better to channel my anger at this whole situation into constructive work, efforts that are pro-active instead of reactive, telling the world what I do believe rather than why someone else is wrong. Because the anger unmanaged makes my obviously correct and righteous views toxic to me -- and doesn’t convince whoever I’m writing at anyway. I would do far better to close the laptop and go work in the garden. Or cook. Or read a book. Or play with the dog. Or nap. Or what about praying!
Thank God that fear and anger are not all that is being revealed. I see creativity, care and compassion as well.
Our situation has revealed an amazing outpouring of creativity. I’ve seen colleagues who never imagined live-streaming church come up with a huge variety of ways to keep people connected with God and one another. Some, like Plymouth, livestream their services, with either a skeleton crew at the building or with different people contributing parts of the service from their homes. Some have assembled prepared clips of musicians, preachers, readings and edit them together. I’ve seen an explosion of online devotionals, musical offerings, children’s stories, and even fellowship time. I’ve seen poems online from people I had no idea wrote poetry, and strings of uncaptioned beautiful landscape photos “so we can still travel in our hearts.” The best thing I’ve seen? A hilarious “blooper reel” of worship outtakes by some clergy friends, which let me know that their polished presentation (of which I was vaguely jealous) was definitely not the first cut!
This virus has revealed deep wells of caring and sharing. I’ve had friends who I’ve not seen in many years set up online Virtual Coffee with me. Nearly every phone call, email or text includes people asking, “Do you need anything? I can shop for you, since you can’t go out.” People have contacted the church with the same offer, to be “Gofers” for those who are isolated. Others have offered funds to cover for those in a bind. Medical masks have been pulled from back cupboards and donated to hospitals. Folk let others into the checkout line ahead of them, smile at the clerks, and give them compliments for holding up amid the rush of extra work. Owners of small businesses are finding ways to keep employees on their health insurance even while furloughed. Many 12-Step groups are connecting online, providing live-saving support for people who might otherwise relapse – and helping those who do relapse to start living One Day At A Time once again. The stories of care are unlimited. Look for them.
This is an apocalypse worth paying attention to. Where it reveals things in society or our own psyche that need healing and change, we have Sabbath time and space to do so. Where it unveils the wells of love and compassion that already there, we can nurture those virtues. John’s Apocalypse does not end with fire and brimstone, but with the ever-loving presence of God:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” …Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.” (Revelation 21:3-7)
I pray that promise is among the things this apocalypse is revealing to you. Or as a beloved mentor would tell me, “Fear not! This too shall pass.”
PS: If you, like me, have a compromised immune system, or the calendar says you are “older” despite what you tell yourself, we have volunteers who are willing to do shopping or other simple errands for you. Also, if you need financial help, we have members who are willing to help out by donating through our church assistance funds. Contact one of the ministers (Hal, Carla, Jane Anne) and they will work to connect you.
Mark recently celebrated his tenth anniversary as Plymouth’s Director of Christian Formation for Adults. He also serves as chair of the Platte Valley Association's Committee on Ministry.