In his exceptional essay, “Poetry from Patmos: St. John as Pastor, Poet, and Theologian” in Subversive Spirituality, Eugene Peterson describes the Apostle John as the sort of theologian we most need and are most ready to hear. Theologians sometime receive a bad name because they seem removed from existence. But the best theologians step into the muddle of everyday life with a word about God that is life-giving and clarifying. May God give us more theologians like this.
St John is a theologian of a particularly attractive type: all his thinking about God took place under fire: ‘I was on the isle, called Patmos,’ a prison isle. He was a man thanking on his feet, running, or on his knees, praying, the postures characteristic of our best theologians. There have been times in history when theologians were supposed to inhabit ivory towers and devote themselves to writing impenetrable and ponderous books. But the important theologians have done their thinking and writing about God in the middle of the world, in the thick of the action: Paul urgently dictating letters from his prison cell; Athanasius contra mundum, five times hounded into exile by three different emperors; Augustine, pastor to people experiencing the chaotic breakup of Roman order and civitas; Thomas, using his mind to battle errors and heresies that, unchallenged, would have turned Europe into a spiritual and mental jungle; Calvin, tireless in developing a community of God’s people out of Geneva’s revolutionary rabble; Barth arbitrating labor disputes and preaching to prisoners; Bonhoeffer leading a fugitive existence in Nazi Germany; and St. John, exiled on the hard rock of Patmos prison while his friends in Christ were besieged by the terrible engines of a pagan assault: theologos.
The task of these theologians is to demonstrate a gospel order in the chaos of evil and arrange the elements of experience and reason so that they are perceived proportionately and coherently: sin, defeat, discouragement, prayer, suffering, persecution, praise, and politics are placed in relation to the realities of God and Christ, holiness and healing, heaven and hell, victory and judgment, beginning and ending. Their achievement is that the community of persons who live by faith in Christ continue to life with a reasonable hope and in intelligent love.
The Christian community needs theologians to keep us thinking about God and not just making random guesses. At the deepest levels of our lives we require a God whom we can worship with our whole mind and heart and strength. The taste for eternity can never be bred out of us by a secularizing genetics. Our existence is derived from God and destined for God. St. John stands in the front ranks of the great company of theologians who convince by their disciplined and rigorous thinking that Theos and logos belong together, that we live in a creation and not a madhouse.
visions of horror shudder
the human heart
heaving oceans and lurching beasts
clamor over creation
raging conquerors crush and kill
life scurrying under the sun
and history’s wheels roll over
all vulnerable souls
then lightning flashes the skies
and tear-filled eyes see
heaven’s in-breaking rule snaps in
like a curtain torn in two
all the boiling cauldron of earth
stops short in hearing a baby’s cry
and all human hearts find unshakable rest
in vulnerable visions of glory
In her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris writes a chapter entitled “Apocalypse,” that sheds light on the journey we have been on at Eastbrook in our series, “Daniel: Apocalyptic Imagination and Exile Faith.” She begins with a quotation by poet Czeslaw Milosz: “I have lived in apocalyptic times, in an apocalyptic century . . . My work to a large extent belongs to that stream of catastrophist literature that attempts to overcome despair” (from an interview by Robert Faggen, “An Approval of Being,” in Books and Culture).
Not long ago, I found myself preaching to well over a thousand people on the apocalyptic texts in Daniel 12 and Mark 13. I would not have chosen to do this, but in a sense the words chose me. I use the lectionary when I preach; I find that it’s good discipline, as it forces me into situations such as this, having to confront hard Bible texts that I would just as soon skip over.
The literature of apocalypse is scary stuff, the kind of thing that can give religion a bad name, because people so often use it as a means of controlling others, instilling dread by invoking a boogeyman God. Thinking about the people who would be in church that morning, I knew that many of them would very likely be survivors of such painful childhood images of God and would find the readings hard to take. So I decided to talk about what apocalyptic literature is and is not. It is not a detailed prediction of the future, or an invitation to withdraw from the concerns of the world. It is a wake-up call, one that uses intensely poetic language and imagery to sharpen our awareness of God’s presence in and promise for the world.
The word ‘apocalypse’ comes from the Greek for ‘uncovering’ or ‘revealing,’ which makes it a word about possibilities. And while uncovering something we’d just as soon keep hidden is a frightening prospect, the point of apocalypse is not to frighten us into submission. Although it is often criticized as ‘pie-in-the-sky’ fantasizing, I believe its purpose is to teach us to think about ‘next-year-country’ in a way that sanctifies our lives here and now. ‘Next-year-country’ is a treasured idiom of the western Dakotas, an accurate description of the landscape that farmers and ranchers dwell in—next year rains will come at the right time; next year I won’t get hailed out; next year winter won’t set in before I have my hay hauled in for winter feeding. I don’t know a single person on the land who uses the idea of ‘next year’ as an excuse not to keep on reading the earth, not to look for the signs that mean you’ve got to get out and do the field work when the time is right. Maybe we’re meant to use apocalyptic literature in the same way: not as an allowance to indulge in an otherworldly fixation but as an injunction to pay closer attention to the world around us. When I am disturbed by the images of apocalypse, I find it helpful to remember the words of a fourth-century monk about the task of reading scripture as ‘working the earth of the heart,’ for it is only in a disturbed, ploughed-up ground that the seeds we plant for grain can grow.
[Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 318-319.]
This past weekend at Eastbrook Church I concluded our series on prayer, “Great Prayers of the Bible“, by looking at two significant themes on prayer from the book of Revelation. The entire message was built around the idea of praying with the end state of prayer in mind. Basically, if we want to “begin with the end in mind,” what might that mean in the domain of prayer as we live daily toward the end state of prayer as depicted in the book of Revelation.
This has been a wonderful series throughout our Summer of Prayer at Eastbrook, and I’d encourage you to return to some of the earlier messages if you did not have the chance to view them. You can view this message video and the sermon outline below. You can follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.
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