Apocalypse, now?

Last night, the sky was turning pink. This morning, it glowed dark and orange. The effects of wildfires are not a regularity in the Willamette Valley … but some of this is familiar to me. The way the smoke hangs heavy in the air, the ominous scarlet in the sky, the ashtray taste in my mouth and the dull, throbbing headache. This is summer in Eastern Oregon. But it’s true – I have never seen ash falling from the sky like this. I am too young to remember Mount St. Helens erupting, but folks are telling me that the sky didn’t look like this, then. That the ash wasn’t as thick as this, then.

And I resonate with the memes showing up on my Facebook feed and Instagram – as if 2020 hasn’t been bad enough … now, this?

But the thing about apocalypse is – it’s not about the end of the world. It’s about the beginning of something new. It’s the moment of revelation, the great turning. I keep wondering – how bad does it have to get before we’re ready for conversion? For metanoia – a turning from one way of life to another.

So far, nothing has quite got us there. Not politics, not COVID-19 or 1619 (the pandemic of racism) …

What does it take, I wonder…for a people to turn from death to life?

I wonder that question about myself quite a bit, too. What would it take for me to really divest from all of this and nurture a new way of being human?

***

I am sitting in my church office writing this at 11:15 pm on a Tuesday night. The folks who typically shelter in tents on our property are in the sanctuary – the air quality is simply too unhealthy for them to sleep outside tonight. I had to argue with most to get them in the building. “You can’t sleep out here,” I said. “It’s not safe.” I’m thinking about their already-compromised lungs inhaling all this ash with the threat of COVID-19 around every corner. They shrug their shoulders and stare at me a little blankly. Nothing is safe for them, ever. Death is always knocking at the door. A “very unhealthy air quality” alert is the least of their concerns.

I think about my spouse and my son, our two dogs and the boy cat, Penelope, sleeping safely at home with windows that shut and an air filtration system.

I am grumpy about my sore throat and throbbing head. I want to go home. I am tired and sad and sick of this year.

***

I answered the phone earlier today, a friend was on the other end of the line. “Welcome to the apocalypse!” he greeted me.

Not really, I thought. This seems more like business as usual.

***

The world is always on fire, somewhere. Someone’s children are always dying; someone is being evicted from their home, a bomb is dropping somewhere, climate change is ravaging an ecosystem.

Most of the time, we’re just not in proximity to it. Our own privilege and power buffers us. But on those rare occasions we bump up against it …

***

I’m preaching from the Gospel of Matthew on Sunday, and on the topic of church conflict. Boy howdy, that sounds like a fun meditation.

But … the lectionary for this week includes Genesis 50:15-21 and it’s been kicking around in my head all day. It’s the conclusion of the Joseph story and involves a crisis of its own – famine and a starving nation. It contains a phrase about providence…God taking evil and using it for good; “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good (v. 20).”

There are so many possibilities for the theology of that verse to go awry … primarily, the idea that God causes or allows harm. I don’t subscribe to the notion of an interventionist God – so for me, this verse can only be read in hindsight. What we translate as “intend” from the Hebrew is actually a more complicated and imaginative word – carrying with it the concept of weaving … like, weaving a narrative, or a story. I think what’s happening in this passage is a literal re-membering of history. Joseph isn’t taking a pleasant trip down memory lane – he is re-casting his own story, putting it together in a different way.

I’ve done that, too. When I tell my own narrative of abuse within the context of the church, I am literally putting myself together again, re-membering my own history. I’ve found a way to tell that story that privileges my agency … now. I’m able to say that because I have the story I do, I do this work. I am not grateful for my painful past with Christianity. I do not think God caused or allowed it. In retrospect, I see how my story makes me a particular person, with particular gifts and wounds that perfectly enable me to do the work to which I have been called. This does not mean I wish it were not so.

And I suspect the same is true for Joseph. He is not grateful that his brothers trafficked him into slavery, but as he re-members his story (literally puts the pieces back together) he sees both the brutality and the grace of what he has become.

Which brings me back to 2020 …

I don’t think this is the apocalypse. Sadly, I think we are still not close enough in proximity to the pain to make an about-face conversion. After all, it’s 1am now and I’m still grumpy and want to go sleep in my own bed.

But maybe 2020 is full of little apocalypses – moments that inch me toward conversion. And maybe as we re-member ourselves, we will remember each other, too. Because whether I am fully converted to it or not, my wellness really does depend on the wellness of those bodies sleeping on pews in the room next to me, tonight. And spending the night with them … well, sometimes it takes a pandemic and a wildfire or two to bring us to our senses.

  1. We are praying for all of you dealing with the fires. It is heartbreaking. I remember Mt. St. Helens. I have a jar of ash in my closet. It snowed ash in our yard. But it was isolated. Far away. And not threatening to us in any way (except don’t breath it in). Fires are scary. The world is scary. Prayers for protection and peace. 🙏🏻

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