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By Bobby Neal Winters
My mind is heavy with the events following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. At such times, our minds grasp for symbols and images that describe our feelings. I was raised in a church at time when the preaching on any given Sunday would have led one to believe the world was coming to an end before prayer meeting the following Wednesday. This sort of thing kept me in a state of terror when I was a child, but it left its mark on me in that when my mind reaches out, it finds the language of Apocalypse.
Consider this extraction from the 13th chapter of the Book of Mark. “Let no one on the roof of his house go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!” Can you now read this without thinking of the people on the roofs of their houses and all of the mothers searching for milk in order to nurse their babies?
How about this one? “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.” Can you read that without images of the looting, the snipers, and the general breakdown of the rule of law and the prayers that the National Guard, the Army, or someone else would come in to provide relief?
I don’t doubt there have already been those who’ve stated that what happened in New Orleans is a sign of the end of the world. I am not saying that by any means.
There are a number of ways to look at the apocalyptic prophecy in the Bible such as that found in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and the Book of Revelation. On one extreme, there are those who say it is written in a special code which only they understand. The implication is that if you are not one of their particular followers, you will be ‘left behind’ as fodder for the Great Tribulation. These are the ones who get the most press.
Others hold the opinion, for example, the Book of Revelation was written by a mad man and should be ripped right out of the Bible. As much as I was terrified by some of the preachers of my childhood, I cannot agree with this.
What I am about to say might surprise people, but I will explain. In some sense, the first view is true. This is not a statement I make without trepidation. There has been a lot of mythology build up around the various apocalyptic writings in the Bible, and sometimes people remember the mythology, but forget about the truths that spawned it. The recent catastrophe in New Orleans provides a lens to examine the nature and value of apocalyptic writing. The trick in understanding apocalypse is to compare it to reality.
In New Orleans, first came the warning of danger. It is a city where a large river meets the sea, so it is low and naturally prone to flooding. There were things than might have been done that weren’t because it was easier for the money to be spent someplace else.
When I say that, I don’t mean to imply the people of New Orleans are any more culpable for what happened to them than anyone else. Disasters like this are like death in that we know with absolute certainty they are coming, but woe to those who predict exactly when. As Jesus said, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
I do mean to say it is our nature as human beings to leave to future generations the solution of problems we could begin to face ourselves.
After the disaster, the people were without direction or leadership. They were praying for a deliverer. Those of us who follow Christ know a deliverer. It is his instructions to us that we offer his face to those who are in pain and in need. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” This is the message of apocalypse. Christ is with us, and it is we who offer him.
(Bobby Winters is a lay speaker, writer, and professor of mathematics at Pittsburg State University. You may reach him at bobby@okieinexile.com or visit his website www.okieinexile.com. His latest book Confessions of an Ice Cream Socialist is available at Hastings in Pittsburg, Joplin, and Ada.)