by Jake Owensby
A friend of mine and I were chatting over lunch. Professional topics had occupied us for about half an hour, but once the business was done our conversation took a theological turn. My friend asked, “Do you think the end is near?”
Civil unrest, escalating violence, sexual exploitation, political corruption, natural disasters, and human misery compete with each other for time on cable news and space on social media feeds.
Surveying this evidence, my friend admitted a sense of apprehension bordering on dread. Things are falling apart so rapidly and so completely, he said, that there may be no putting them back together again.
The news frequently overwhelms me, too. For me it’s something like this: I can’t live with the crazy anymore. Sometimes I go to bed thinking this is the looniest thing I’ve ever heard only to wake up to a whole new, supersized version of insanity.
My friend and I are not alone in our unease. Despite having a military far more powerful than any other on the planet today or at any point in history, the fear of external threats is raising the national blood pressure to stroke levels.
Even though our police forces are armed with military-grade weapons, drive vehicles designed for urban combat, and wear body armor impervious to ammunition available to most civilians, people don’t feel safe on their own streets.
In the state of Louisiana enough people own guns to arm a personal militia.
Nevertheless, people feel insecure in their homes and at church.
We’ve operated on the assumption that we can achieve peace through strength. External threats can be suppressed or, if necessary, obliterated with superior force. Our might will keep us secure. And yet, even though we are stronger than ever, we are more anxious than ever.
Maybe it’s time to take an honest look at how we respond to reality.
I’m not suggesting that our problem is a lousy attitude and that the solution lies in looking on the sunny side of life. We live in a world marred by grave injustice, heartrending misery, and shocking violence. The world needs mending, and that mending won’t happen without us. As Marcus Borg famously put it, “without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.”
We really do have to do something. But what we’ve been doing isn’t working. We are responding to the world’s pain with fear, fear that we or the ones we love most will experience that pain personally.
We perceive the world’s suffering as a threat to our comfortable way of life. If that threat comes close enough, we sense that the end is near. The end of life as we know it. And so we respond with violence or the threat of violence. We jail it, shoot it, bomb it.
Jesus teaches compassion as the response to suffering. In a way, Jesus does say the end is near. Only, he means that the end of a world deformed by oppression, exploitation, want, and violence is within our grasp. And he urges compassion, not violence, as the means to heal the world’s ache.
Toward the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus talked at once openly and cryptically about last things. He had started his ministry with the words, “The Kingdom has come near.”
The Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven is still a work in progress. In an image drawn from the prophet Daniel, Jesus describes the completion of his mission as the Son of Man descending upon clouds to the earth.
You might be hearing Jesus say that, with the Second Coming, he’s going to mop up the floor with those who don’t conform. But I invite you to listen more carefully.
He starts something like this: Ethnic groups will be at each other’s throats. Nations will wage what seems like perpetual war. Earthquakes will turn cities into rubble. Thousands upon thousands will go hungry. (Mark 13:8a)
Sound familiar? He’s describing the world he lives in. The world we live in right now. He’s not predicting a future event so much as teaching us how to respond to the injustice and agony right in front of us. And here’s the shocker. He says that these are birth pangs. (Mark 13:8b)
Turning to a fig tree metaphor, Jesus tells us to look at our circumstances as if they were a fruit tree coming into season. His refrain is not the one made famous by “Game of Thrones.” He doesn’t say, “Winter is coming. It’s about to get unimaginably bad.”
Instead, Jesus says, “You know that summer is near.” (Mark 13:28) Healing is coming.
Compassion, not violence, can bring in a new era of human existence. The world’s suffering is crying out to us. We’ve been responding with violence. Jesus patterns for us the way of love.
Some Christians teach that God responds to the world’s sin. And God responds with violence. But that’s actually not the Bible’s definitive portrait of God. Just take a look at Exodus. In front of the burning bush, God told Moses that he had heard the cry of the people. God’s liberating act came in response to human suffering.
Christians believe that God’s decisive act of healing came in Jesus and continues in those who pattern their lives on him. Jesus revealed God’s way by becoming a powerless, vulnerable baby. Holy Compassion in the flesh.
When we walk the way of vulnerable love, we follow Jesus. Along that way we glimpse the end of suffering. We sense that the end is near(ish).
The Rt. Rev. Jake Owensby: Life is messy. And you’ll find God right in the middle of it. That’s the Jesus message. I write a blog, Looking for God in Messy Places, to reflect on how Jesus brings healing and recovery and peace; reconciliation and forgiveness and justice. My hope is that what I write will support you in your own reflections.
I’m the fourth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana. My wife Joy and I live in Alexandria, Louisiana. We have three adult children and a Lab mix named Gracie.
Editor: Books by Bishop Owensby here
Shared with permission. First published online at Looking for God in Messy Places.