Amazing to me is the fact that there always seem to be some people who are ready to believe that the world is about to end, just about to go up in smoke and (bam!) disappear. More amazing still is the fact that many such people apparently think that that is a good thing.
Was Jesus such a person? If, as I believe, we can say with some assurance that Jesus expected the end of the world as we know it to occur within his lifetime or at least within a few years beyond, we either have to say that he knew something we don’t know, or he was just plain mistaken.
It isn’t very attractive for Christians to imagine that Jesus was wrong about anything. In fact, it sounds to most ears nothing short of sacrilege to suggest that Jesus was anything other than perfectly accurate about everything. So let’s not rattle ours or others’ cages by insinuating that he made a mistake. Let’s imagine instead something very different when we hear his prediction that
the sun will be darkened,and the moon will not give its light,and the stars will be falling from heaven,and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.[And] they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.
Now, it is true that we could imagine that he was talking about something ages and ages in the future—at least as far out as our own age. But maybe there is something else going on here besides the physical world—earth, universe—collapsing. Maybe instead what we have here is something like our creation story: eternally true but never intended to be technically factual.
That in fact seems to track with what Jesus said about the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Reign of God. It is elusive, surprising, hard to pin down, more a state of heart than a product of rational thought, hidden, silent, beneath words, and, above all, “at hand,” already present within and among us.
So what is this, then, that we try to grasp in the language of apocalypse? What would be like the sun going out and the moon fading into nothingness? What would be like the stars vacating their orbits and crashing into earth? What would be so stupendous that it could only be described as the very powers of heaven being shaken?
What would you do if I told you that what causes the world to change in drastic ways begins as something so imperceptible that it is on the order of drawing a breath? It is the tiniest decision to live differently.
Let me explain.
A friend of mine, John, once worked alongside a guy whom John found to be extremely difficult. He was irritable, even irascible, critical, unpleasant, and totally self-absorbed. He embodied every attitude that seemed negative. John, a kind of hale-fellow-well-met, did his best to humor his workmate. Nothing worked. Finally, John was at the point of totally giving up on him. Then it occurred to John that he would quit expecting anything. He would simply think good thoughts, good wishes, and send a little bit of love toward his adversary. He decided to love the guy without telling a soul. Time went by. One day a year or so later, it dawned on John that the fellow was behaving differently. In fact, he was beginning to exhibit some strange characteristics. He had become less critical. He had begun to say positive things more and more. He had in fact started becoming actually likeable.
I have heard this story countless times from dozens, maybe hundreds of people. I have demonstrated it in my own life, prompted to do so by examples and testimonies of people like John.
Who would imagine that John had, in a split second, decided to do something that actually changed the world? Yet he had done just this—simply by deciding to live differently. Some will argue that, well, that was only one person, and not all that impressive. What about all the evil people who are truly beyond being affected by niceness? What about all the structures that limit and destroy the creatures of God—racism, sexism, heterosexism, and all manner of injustice? Deciding to love some old grump in your workplace is not quite the same as reforming a world that is hell-bent on war and destruction. No, it is not quite the same. But there is something that we can count on. All change is relational. Change in people, and for that matter change that is transpersonal or non-personal, happens in the context of relationship. So if we want to do battle with the forces that oppress, corrupt, twist, and damage the world and its creatures, ultimately we have to do it by being in relationship with others. Not only do we have to join hands with our like-minded sisters and brothers committed to our ideals and values, we have to engage the hearts of those who resist the change. And we cannot do that by refusing to be in relationship with them. We will never conquer our adversaries by force and turn them into anything but victims and more hardened adversaries. If we are to change the world, we have to learn and practice the power of unleashing love.
Tom Shadyac grew up not far from here in Falls Church, Virginia. Tom had a fantastically successful career as a comedian and filmmaker, producing such zany films as “Liar, Liar” and “The Nutty Professor,” winning academy awards and making tons of money. He had already begun re-examining his life when he had a serious biking accident that severely injured him and incapacitated him for months. As he began to ask what, if he were going to die, he wanted to tell the world, he came up with a documentary called I Am. He interviewed scientists, religious leaders, environmentalists and philosophers, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, Lynne McTaggart, and Howard Zinn. The film asks two central questions: What’s Wrong With the World? and What Can We Do About it? In the film, Shadyac answers that question, or rather hears that answer from others. “I Am” is the answer that G. K. Chesterton once gave when asked, “What is Wrong With the World?” Shadyac discovered through his own amassing of money and things what was wrong with the world: our ever-growing addiction to materialism. “I am” what is wrong with the world. And the cure? Human connectedness, universal respect for all creation, the power of one to effect change.
This is the stuff that moves stars, that shakes the powers of heaven, that alters the course of the universe. This is the apocalypse that we are not only waiting for but are engaged in bringing about. And how does it begin? By someone’s deciding to love rather than to fulminate in irritation. With a Rosa Parks who decides to keep her seat rather than yield to the force that is simply following uncritically a cultural script. With a Mohandas Ghandi who refuses to resort to violence but whose persistence inspires millions and brings an empire to its knees. With a Nelson Mandela that holds on to hope for years refusing to concede all hope for an end to apartheid. With Peace Brigades International who dares to believe that ordinary people can take action to stop war and human rights violations, even when their governments cannot or will not. It begins, this unearthly change, when one of you who decides when going through a divorce that it is better to love your way through hostile territory than to try to kick your adversary into poverty. It starts when another one of you decides that you will defend yourself or your family from emotional or physical abuse without becoming counter-abusive yourself. Is any of this easy? Ask the ones who get thrown in jail for their witness. Ask those who have let goods and kindred go, and have risked mortal life and the integrity of their own bodies in the cause of human dignity.
When Jesus says, “You don’t know either the day or the hour, so keep awake,” he is stating the basic requirement for starting the Advent of deep change that shakes the universe to its very foundations. Keep awake means to be conscious. The Advent the world yearns for is the new creation that depends upon yours and my being conscious of the way we settle in for the long haul with the forces of repression, narrowness, and hate. True Advent begins when we take one small step to live from the heart. From that moment, creation begins to be made new by the One who, living in you and me, makes all things new.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014