I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the “Anti-Christ,” so I’m always caught up short when these passages from the later Christian writings–like 2 Thessalonians or Revelation– come up in the lectionary and warn us about the “lawless one” or the Antichrist. I will confess to you that in the past, I have entertained the possibility that one of our Presidents was maybe the antichrist, or at least one member of his cabinet, and I’m sure there are those today, who are always on high alert for such things, who are pointing to either –or both–of the presidential candidates as fulfilling the position of “the lawless one.”
There are even supposedly Christian leaders who’ve come out to condemn to eternal damnation those members of their flock who dare to vote, in this case, for the Democratic candidate. I could never figure out how to get that direct line to the Almighty, but maybe it’s a kind of Wikileak from the Book of Life which contains all our Permanent Records! At any rate, all I’m going to do is to urge you to vote this Tuesday, if you haven’t already, and if you need a ride to the polls, let me know.
But stepping back from the immediate situation, I have always wondered why in the world God’s alleged Plan for the End Times, according to these sources, includes a period of time when the Antichrist would be in charge. Will God allow him one last fling before God ultimately destroys him? What about all the people who get sucked in and deceived by the Antichrist? It hardly seems fair that God would want that many more people to be ultimately destroyed.
“That day [the Day of the Lord] will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.”
The “day of the Lord,” for Paul, is when we will all be gathered together into Jesus Christ. “We beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.” If this is the day of the Lord already–in the midst of all the Thessalonians were going through, in the midst of persecutions and afflictions and all the delusions leading people to believe what’s false–well, it doesn’t feel much like being gathered together into Jesus. It really feels like the “lawless one” is in charge.
So too for the remnant of people left after the exile in Babylon, listlessly trying to rebuild the Temple that had been destroyed, those whom Haggai addressed. If this is the promise of restoration, who needs it? “Disappointing” would be too generous a word to use. “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?” Haggai asks. “How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?”
The people of God have been in dark, desolate places many times before–in slavery and oppression in Egypt, their backs up against the waters of the Red Sea, their country overrun by foreign armies, the One whom they thought was God’s Messiah hanging on a cross. So much for the day of the Lord. But remember, in Hebrew thought the day does not begin at dawn but at sundown on the night before. In the darkness. In the frightening, hard-to-see-your-way-through hours of the night. Even now, the day has begun.
What I think the Temple in ruins, the coming of the lawless one, of the antichrist, and all those apocalyptic scenarios do for us is peal away the layers of our illusions. It’s Toto drawing open the curtain to reveal the little old man frantically pulling levers to create the smoke and mirrors in the Wizard of Oz. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” And yet we have seen him. Our eyes have been opened. And now we can really find a way home.
Quaker author Parker Palmer tells of a trip to the Grand Canyon, where he and his wife were appalled to see people allowing their children to get so close to the edge of the lookout. They spoke to a Park Ranger who told them,
“…A surprising number of folks think of the Canyon as a theme park, a fantasy land that may look dangerous but isn’t, where hidden nets will save you from injury or death. Everyday I have to remind some people that the Canyon is real, and so are the consequences of a fall of hundreds of feet. I guess some people prefer illusions to reality–even though illusions can kill you.”
Ours is a culture that loves fantasy, Palmer points out. We love to “pretend,” going back, he says, to our origins in 1776, when we proclaimed the “self-evident truth that all people are created equal”–and “then [as he said] proceeded to disenfranchise women, commit genocide against Native Americans, and build an economy on the backs of enslaved human beings.”
Even today, we believe in “American exceptionalism”–that the United States is the greatest nation on earth–but objective statistics tell a different story. In global rankings of many serious social ills, the United States scores poorly compared to other countries, [including] mass shootings and other gun deaths, the numbers and percentages of incarcerated citizens, infant mortality rates, child poverty, disproportionate use of natural resources per person, and entrenched racism.
On the other hand, as the Dalai Lama wrote in a NYT op ed piece this week with Arthur Brooks, despite the ongoing levels of violence (too often in the name of the world’s religions) and suffering around the world, “In many ways, there has never been a better time to be alive.” Statistically there are fewer people today who are poor or hungry, fewer children are dying, literacy rates are the highest they’ve ever been, medicine performs what would surely be viewed as miracles, the rights of women and minorities are recognized in ways they have never been before. “How strange, then,” His Holiness says, “to see such anger and great discontent in some of the world’s richest nations.” (NYT, 11/4/16)
“Such anger and great discontent” would certainly describe what we’ve seen in this election year. I don’t find the language of “the antichrist” useful or helpful, and I don’t want to discount or minimize the level of stress, anxiety, and fear that have been generated in this election–I have seen it in the faces of just about everyone I meet. However, I do think we have had revealed to us just how broken and divided we are, just how uneven the benefits of this great nation have been experienced and distributed; just how wounded in spirit so many of our fellow citizens–and perhaps we ourselves–are, just how much hard work and how wide a range of solutions is needed if we are to become the great nation we aspire to. The curtain has been drawn back.
Again, the Dalai Lama observes–”The problem is not a lack of riches. It is the growing number of people who feel they are no longer useful, no longer needed, no longer one with their societies.” Research about human thriving reveals that “we all need to be needed.” Seniors who didn’t feel useful to others were almost 3 times as likely to die prematurely as those who felt useful somehow. “It is a natural human hunger to serve others,” the Dalai Lama wrote. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus said, who hunger for being in right relation with their neighbors and God. We ignore that hunger to our peril, not only in social unrest, but in the human toil of despair, shame, anger, and acting out violence. As a 13th c. Buddhist sage said, “If one lights a fire for others, it will also brighten one’s own way.” Our own happiness and well-being is inextricably woven together with serving others.
“In America today, compared with 50 years ago, [this NY Times piece says] three times as many working-age men are completely outside the work force.” This same trend can be seen across the developing world. And the consequences are not just economic–”Feeling superfluous is a blow to the human spirit. It leads to social isolation and emotional pain, and creates the conditions for negative emotions to take root.” Anyone noticed any “negative emotions” around?
“We beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.” But it is coming–God will not abandon us and even now is at work, gathering us in, nudging us on, even though it seems like night in America and around the world. It is too easy to lose hope, to lose faith in the seed of greatness and goodness that is planted in the human spirit.
But there are things we can do. Parker Palmer wisely asserts that we must dismantle the culture of illusion if we are to take on the real problems we face. It will take a long time to make our way through the smoke and mirrors, but he writes, “All long journeys begin with one small step, so here’s a modest proposal: let’s reclaim ‘disillusionment’ as a word that names a blessing rather than a curse.” [onbeing, op cit.] It is a blessing because it helps us see more clearly, so that we can develop better solutions to our problems. May you be blessed with disillusionment.
The Dalai Lama suggests that “We should start each day by consciously asking ourselves, ‘What can I do today to appreciate the gifts that others offer me?” because “Everyone has something valuable to share.” We each have the responsibility to make this a habit. Those in positions of leadership and responsibility, he says, have the “Opportunity to expand inclusiveness and build societies that truly need everyone.. To create a wealth of opportunities for meaningful work, to provide education and training for our children that enriches their lives and gives them practical, useful skills….A compassionate society protects the vulnerable, while ensuring we don’t trap them in misery and dependence.” All ideas and perspectives are needed, united by a common commitment to compassion.
And finally, Kelly McGonigal, in a post entitled, “How You Can Find Good in a Nasty Election Cycle” offers these 3 strategies–1. Do something. Vote. “Find something on that ballot that you feel good about saying yes to.” 2. Look for the good. Witness the good in others. Notice when you see acts of kindness or generosity, and point them out, to that person or your children or others. Listen to StoryCorps. Pay attention to those last stories at the ends of the news, like “Making a Difference.” There are so many good people out there, doing good things. And 3. Be the good. “Be the source point of what you want to see in the world.” Commit to doing at least one deed of compassion or kindness or service a day. Note it before you fall asleep. Re-commit to another deed tomorrow.
“Yet now take courage, for I am with you,” God says to the people through Haggai. “My spirit abides among you; do not fear.” “Stand firm, then, brothers and sisters, [Paul writes] and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. And now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father and Mother, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” Take and eat, this is my body. Take and drink, I am flowing in your veins. It may feel like nighttime, but already the day has begun. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark