The switch from the end of one church year to the beginning of another always gets kind of gloomy, as the apocalyptic texts circle back into our readings. In this year’s cycle, they begin this week with Daniel 12:1-3 and Mark 13:1-8.
In church, we’re going to be looking at some other biblical themes for the next few weeks, but you don’t want to miss an Apocalypse!!! In fact, reading these first end times readings took me back a few months.
During much of my vacation last August — there’s no way to describe my discomfort, except to suggest — I was having “apocalyptic” premonitions. Ok, my experience was personal, not so overtly political. And, no, I wasn’t joining Chris McCann and the eBible Fellowship group in predicting the destruction of the universe on Oct. 7, 2015 (whose dating was explained as 1600 days after discredited Harold Camping’s predicted date of May 21, 2011).
Instead, I was fine during the long, sunny summer days. But in the middle of the night — in a motel, a friend’s house, a vacation rental or a summer camp — there would arise this sense of impending, momentous catastrophe. Not specifically what might occur, but no less ominous for the cloudedness. And fearful, or at least heavy enough that I could not get back to sleep. There I was alone with a future that felt darker than the night.
Likewise, my dreams were awful. Threatening, Full of carnage. Very violent. These bizarre, “cosmic” battles. I have heard if one dies in a dream, one actually dies in real life. Those couple of weeks, it’s a wonder I didn’t die each night. I drown in a dream. I was in a plane crash. I was assasinated for performing abortions? (in the dream through the plate glass window that I was actually sleeping in front of that night in real life)! I was abandoned on a planet in outer space. I was jailed as a political prisoner. In another dream, I couldn’t breathe. I’d fall asleep each night hoping I’d wake up with a night terror, instead of having to have these horrible nightmares that seemed to last and last.
I can only describe what I was experiencing as “emotional night sweats!” I remember nightmares as a small child. I have known times when things I could identify really upset me and made for fitful sleep or sleepless nights. But never before had I endured such a unexplained period of unrest.
I started this E-pistle back then, but decided to leave it unfinished. I was playing it safe! What if the experience were prophetic? The onset of a breakdown. The foreshadowing of a catastrophe that was really to occur. If the other shoe did drop… Surely the meaning I might draw from this dark night of the soul should be different if it turned out to be “real”?
This was not, of course, the backdrop one wants for vacation. But neither did I seem to have initiated it; nor could I curtail it. And I didn’t have the slightest idea what might be causing it, though I wondered, almost obsessively. My imagination was in overdrive, trying to make sense of some disorder and distress (of which I wasn’t actually conscious???).
Without much choice, I figured I might as well live into and through this “off season.” Leaning like a crutch on a quote I had just come across, I tried to be “comfortable being uncomfortable… as a very effective way to be a human.” The same essay prescribed “constantly trying to teach myself to watch my feelings as they pass through me, rather than chasing them away with Manhattans or Ambien or Netflix.”
So, instead of ducking or dodging or shoving it all under a rock, I tried to be present — to myself and my experience and even aspects of myself I least understood and was finding hard to welcome.
But it did leave me with a new appreciation for the lowspots in life that everyone surely knows at one time or another. And how difficult it must be for some family and friends very dear to me who live with these “internal challenges” — more often, or even constantly. In a world that often shames people for their emotional troubles, I wonder if we have any sense of the weight — some of it clearly socially-constructed and unnecessary — many labor under as they trek through life?
By the time vacation was wearing down, my personal apocalypse seemed to be lifting, dissolving, disappearing (whatever apcalypses do!), thankfully unfulfilled. Knock on wood… to date as well! Would that some of the world’s apocalypses — like the current refugee crisis — would pass so easily.
But this run of disturbing nights got me thinking about the Bible’s apocalyptic literature. (Sometimes it makes me laugh when I can’t help but see what a minister I have become!). I’m talking primarily about Daniel and Revelation. But apocalyptic elements can also be found in Isaiah, Joel, Zechariah and the Gospels.
The Bible’s apocalyptic literature is generated when prophecies dear to people fail. The awful situations people find themselves aren’t like anything they had expected. Prophecy’s failure left folks without hope. Apocalypctic imagination supplants earlier prophetic foretelling of fulfillment and realization in this life with a naming of 1) the disappointment and distress, and 2) the promise that completion would occur beyond our world and our time.
I asked myself then:
~ was there some sense in which I was outliving my earlier expectations and hopes?
~ where and how was I disappointed?
~ was a new vision of fulfillment emerging?
…They seem like spiritually-loaded questions, and age-appropriate for a man moving into his mid-fifties.
Apocalyptic literature names and lifts up the difficulties and disappointments of a current situation. But it also identifies them as labor pains or the first signs of promise of something better to come. It contextualizes present difficulty with a call to endurance that promises some great, later fulfillment — though one beyond one’s present experience, ability or even imagining.
Could I be old enough to have it finally …truly… dawning on me — as I said in my sermon two weeks ago — that I can’t possibly accomplish all that I would wish in this life, and that’s ok? I do know that I’m old enough to find new meaning in Niehbuhr’s description of mortal humility and divine grace:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.
I still cannot account for what caused my discomfort. But I am recommitted to being present to even the toughest parts of my experience, irrational as they might be. And I find myself somewhat freed from an earlier sense of what it is I need to or can accomplish.
Maybe “my” (or ‘the”?) race really is about something beyond me? Maybe there’s a “best is yet to come” beyond what I could ever reach…
See you in church,
P.S. If you want to think further about the apocalyptic in your life using the readings that spring up in the changing of the church years: