The fourth horseman visits Kenema

In my book I conclude that the author of the book of Revelation created fantastical metaphors from recent catastrophes, particularly the destruction of the temple thirty years previous by Roman armies, to urge Christians to persevere in their missions of love and justice despite the oppression they currently endured.

One memorable metaphor is the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” as they are popularly known, who bring empire, war, economic ruin, and disease to a burning earth. The fourth horseman currently visits the west African nation of Sierra Leone, a place I lived almost fifty years ago as a college student shortly after people that country first achieved independence from Great Britain’s empire.

This morning’s New York Times brings a story about the head nurse in the modest hospital at Kenema, which is ground zero for the Ebola outbreak there. I’ve been to Kenema; it was and still is a center for diamond-mining and hence attracted several other horsemen during the evil wars started by Charles Taylor, dictator of neighboring country Liberia who is now rightfully on trial at The Hague for war crimes. (The 2006 movie, “Blood Diamond,” starring Leonardo DeCaprio is set there. More in my era, so is the James Bond movie, “Diamonds are Forever.”)

The people of Kenema were hospitable to this young American in 1967; the people of west Africa are unfailingly kind, although like everywhere the unschooled, weak, and desperate among them are susceptible to the manipulations of evil men.

Josephine Finda Sella, the nurse matron at Kenema hospital, soldiers on despite the loss of dozens of her nurses and, catastrophically, the respected head doctor to the disease when they mistook symptoms of the sick for Lassa fever, which is dangerous but less infectious. Ebola is especially dangerous to people who encounter a victim’s body; one of the “burial boys,” Kandeh Kamara from nearby Kailahun, volunteers to visit villages in the area and bury them using protective techniques he learned from Doctors Without Borders.

Both nurse matron Sella and burial man Kamara say they have been spurned by relatives and shunned by neighbors because they willingly expose themselves to the disease. The seal that looses the four horsemen having been broken in Sierra Leone, is our Lord’s kingdom revealed by the catastrophic plague, or by the perseverance of those who provide intimate care in its terrifying midst?

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The exodus from Mosul

This morning’s New York Times brings news of the expulsion, by the emerging jihadist caliphate called ISIS, of Christians from lands in Iraq they now control, particularly from the city of Mosul. This will end seventeen century-old remnants of ancient Christian communities, some of them gnostic.

Christianity has been extirpated in places before. Christian communities in India, China, and the remainder of Asia once flourished as substantial minorities for centuries, but nothing but scant historical records remain after their presumably brutal suppression by tyrants of various stripes over the years.

Christian families are currently fleeing Mosul for their lives, but the notion that an evil force has cut them off from the comforts of their churches and shared ancestral communities is a catastrophe of a longer term dimension that will not go away once they resettle (and, joining millions of displaced people from the warfare in Iraq and Syria, God only knows where and when that will be).

It’s a reminder that catastrophes seemingly prophesied by the book of Revelation continue to rage across the centuries. Catastrophic violence occurred long before the book was written, and flourished when it was read to first century churches fearing Roman persecution. It will no doubt continue through the centuries to come.

God isn’t interested in the violence, and certainly isn’t behind it. The Lord’s interests are in the humanity that will be revealed by lovers of peace and justice who feed, house, and resettle the Christian refugees from Mosul so they can renew their communities. Their perseverance, and their rescuers’ humanity, is the badge of their salvation and a revelation of the gospel in our times.

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Biblical sources for the end-times scenario

When I first started my study of the biblical roots of modern end-times writing, I struggled to find references to the Bible in the published work of the authors I consulted. Often, the author would write, “according to Daniel …” or “as the Lord said to his disciples.” Although the author would have typically recruited me as his trusting friend (more hortatory paragraphs would begin with that word in the plural with an implied southern accent), I wanted to dig deeper.

I eventually happened on a book, the Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Last Days. (There are places I might go with this, but I won’t.) This book was just the ticket, and helped me compile a table (with Hal Lindsey filling in the more lurid details) that not only gives a Bible reference but quotes the (seemingly) relevant text for each item in the most common scenarios.

Back when I compiled the table, I wanted to use a transliteration of the Bible by Eugene H. Peterson, The Message/Remix for my quotes from the Bible. I thought it would present ancient writings in a more accessible way for my readers. Unfortunately, I was dealing with some of the most obscure writings in the Bible and, in the case of the Book of Revelation, the ones most difficult to translate (I’m told it’s because the original Greek is strange.) I settled on the New Revised Standard Version for my book because the devils of interpretation lie in their details and a more accurate rendition of the original language was desirable. The study version of the NRSV was invaluable for its detailed notes and cross-references, and I recommend it highly to any Bible reader who wants to get into the weeds to understand the Bible better.

I’ll be leading a seminar on my book’s subject in a few weeks and thought members of my audience might find it useful. So it’s posted here: Rapture and Tribulation.

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News of a swarm of locusts of, well, Biblical proportions sweeping across Egypt and Israel from Sudan reminded reporters of Moses’ ten curses against Pharaoh, but interestingly not the prophecies of Joel.

I write in my book about Joel, a prophet from an undeterminable time in Israel’s history who metaphorically weaves descriptions of an invading army, a swarm of locusts, and the corruption of Israel’s worship by pagan elements to condemn worship that pretends to glorify God yet abandons God’s will for justice.

End-times writers identify most of their motifs in Joel (except, notably, an antichrist, perhaps a sign that Joel predates the period of Persian hegemony in the Middle East). But they miss Joel’s point about repentance, which in the prophetic tradition means justice for the poor. Perhaps that’s because they miss Joel’s use of locusts, who insidiously invade homes and places of business and worship, as a metaphor for the hate and fear that permeate our relationships and our culture. Too often, it is their perverse hope in apocalypse soon that eclipses, for them, the consequences for the poor and the oppressed of the meanness in the discourse they promote.

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Physics and love

Tara parker-pope writes in this morning’s New York Times about a physics teacher in Louisville, KY, who astonishes his classes with outrageous stunts but more importantly with the story of how his special needs child expresses his love.

I spent most of my adult life in Louisville, had once planned to be a physics teacher, and worked in child welfare and mental health with the parents of special needs children, so the story struck especially close to home. Evidently, it’s hitting others hard, too, for the article is the most-emailed as I write.

My interest in physics was not positively inspired. Our teacher, in a small upstate New York town, astonished us with embarrassing juvenile pranks that I thought, in all my grand adolescent dudgeon, demeaned the field. Once, to demonstrate that vibration is the source of sound, he left us with a ringing tuning fork to touch it to the ear of the secretary in the office across the hall. She shrieked, and he impishly scuttled back to the classroom. That was the secretary to the school system’s superintendent, who sat on the left hand of God, and I was appalled.

The study of physics leads one down one or another of many paths fraught with ambiguity. Astronomy, which might be about great big things, turns out to be a study of things so tiny they exist only in theory yet move under a seemingly arbitrary limitation, the speed of light. Then there’s the issue of time, its beginning, and its end. Physics begs the question of how a Creator could make and then array this universe (and our parallel ones, which physics now posits), and how human history can be anything but trivial in its scheme.

One way to deal with those questions is to reject literal interpretations of the creation stories in our testaments and accept them as myth, which is arguably how they were intended by their ancient compilers to express truths otherwise inexpressible. Or we can accept the testimony of Jeffrey Wright, physics teacher in Louisville, that the creation is also revealed through love, which transcends time.

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Horror and forgiveness

David Daley of Salon, an online magazine, interviews Andrew Solomon, the author of a recent book on autism and the Columbine shooting about the massacre of elementary school children and teachers in Connecticut. They talk about Solomon’s fruitless search for meaning in the Columbine incident, and Solomon warns that acting on the usual take-aways — better mental health screenings in school, for example — won’t necessarily end the potential for horrible things done by suicidal young adults.

But buried in the interview is this exchange, which is significant for this blog. We focus on the importance of Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness during apocalyptic times, when horrible things are happening whose meaning is hidden:

Where do we find real comfort, in the midst of all this anger and sadness and rage?

I think in general it takes time. I thought that statement by Robbie Parker, the father of one of the people who was killed, which he made within 24 hours, and said his heart goes out to the family of the shooter, was quite remarkable.

My take on being forgiving in a situation like this is not that people should be forgiving because it’s morally right — though I think there are moral arguments to be made for forgiveness. But I saw at Columbine that the people who said — not that they could forgive the actual murders — but the people who weren’t busy trying to blame everyone else and bring lawsuits were the ones who managed a degree of healing. It’s not as though the wounds go away. But they were able to function even in the wake of their terrible and devastating losses better than the people who are in it for the fight. It’s not a question of whether it’s right or wrong to fight, or whether there should be a fight or shouldn’t be a fight. It’s that the people who are in it for the fight tend to get eaten alive by the fight.

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Worship and love, not destruction and fear

One of the pleasures of the daily lectionary, a three-year cycle of Bible readings devised over the centuries, is the unlikely but evocative pairings of old scripture and new.

It happens today in the lectionary I follow, an iPad app called, well, “Lectionary for iPad.” (I also subscribe to an email service from the nice Presbyterian people in Louisville, which better guarantees that I read it.)

Today’s OT reading is a thundering warning of the Day of the Lord from Isaiah:

6 Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty! 7 Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every human heart will melt, 8 and they will be dismayed. Pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labor. They will look aghast at one another; their faces will be aflame. 9 See, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it. 10 For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light. 11 I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the insolence of tyrants. 12 I will make mortals more rare than fine gold, and humans than the gold of Ophir. 13 Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the Lord of hosts in the day of his fierce anger. (Ch 13 NRSV)

It’s paired with a reading from theological treatise of Hebrews in the NT;

18 You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, 19 and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. 20 (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”) 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. 25 See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! 26 At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; 29 for indeed our God is a consuming fire (Ch 12).

Isaiah lists aspects of the Day of the Lord like darkness and earthquakes that interest end-time writers. What does he condemn as the behavior that will prompt the reckoning? assuredly, wickedness and evil, but notably the arrogance of tyrants. To reject evil, the early church embraced a high form of interpersonal morality, but the organizing principle of its morality — its rejection of the worship of pagan gods — invited the oppression of Rome’s local tyrants.

The passage in Hebrews urges the author’s listeners to turn away from the manifestations of the Day of the Lord, which are feared, and to turn toward the kingdom that “cannot be shaken,” the kingdom of heaven that manifests itself through love of others and the worship of Jesus’ father. With this orientation, the church endures.

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