What happened when I prayed and read the end of Revelation with my wife
(GUYS THIS IS EVEN MORE EXCITING THAN IT SOUNDS)
I started some discussions with friends on Facebook with this post:
Had a fun conversation about Revelation last night.
You don’t have to be a Christian to be curious about this ancient text, and what it was trying to say to people when it was written. This question will fascinate any reasonable person, because it is a fascinating question.
Whenever we talk about the Kingdom of God in the Bible, or the New Jerusalem, or the Bride of Jesus (all metaphors for the same thing), it starts to get hard to figure out when this supposedly happened, or is happening, or will happen. To its original audience 2000 years ago, was this supposed to be past, present, or future stuff?
I think there is a correct answer. The correct answer is yes.
By suggesting that the correct answer is yes, I meant that the book identifies patterns of political domination and cruelty, which I call Empire, as well as the patterns of powerful, peaceful resistance and transformation through which they were overcome, are being overcome, and will ultimately be overcome … even through sometimes catastrophic pain and trial.
Part of the discussion in that thread turned to another part of the statement that I’d made, which had seemed self-evident at the time, but which some friends were questioning: the bit about “Bride” and “New Jerusalem” and “Kingdom” being metaphors for the same thing.
Some friends asked me the very helpful and interesting question: are these all really metaphors for the same thing? And if so, what is that same ‘thing’ that they are metaphors for? Part of the concern was the notion that maybe the Kingdom is perfect, but the bride (understood as the church or institutional church, maybe) has suffered so much abuse and corruption. But maybe the Kingdom also suffers violence and a kind of corruption as well? For example, Jesus also tells a story in which the Kingdom is like a field with good seed in it, but with weed seeds mixed in by an enemy. Maybe both the Bride and the Kingdom (Kingdom being closely associated with the metaphor of a New Jerusalem here) are both metaphorical frameworks for the way the church in history suffers corruption and abuse.
First, though, what are “Bride” and “Kingdom” both metaphors for? I initially suggested that both “Bride” and “Kingdom” seem to me to be metaphors for something like the presence of God, if we can name what it is. This had come from out of my growing practice of Centering Prayer, a meditative style of prayer that involves gently moving into the infinite love of God, neither surrendering to the flow of thoughts, nor violently pushing them down, but instead gently moving through the beautiful distractions by love, into love. But you also find it in the text of Revelation itself, which talks about the way God is present everywhere (and not just in a Temple, which isn’t needed.)
When I think about the presence of God in Revelation, I’m drawn toward this silent meditative practice of the presence of God … or at least, Centering Prayer is a practice of the endless possibility of the presence of God, a personal and relational presence that we can never hope to grasp or hold or contain. But which we may wander into, by the generous invitaiton of God, forever, and still be at the outermost edge of an inexhaustible depth. Something like that. But like, for real, as an experience rather than a description or thought or idea.
So after thinking about this and watching the amazing Bible Project videos on Revelation to get the full context fresh in my mind, I asked Katie (my one true wife) to pray with me and read the last two chapters of Revelation. She agreed to go out and pray on the patio, as long as the mosquitoes left her alone.
We went outside and started by praying, “Come Holy Spirit, fill our hearts to overflowing, and enkindle in us the fire of your love.” Then we did Centering Prayer for like 3 minutes, but then the mosquitoes were biting her. She said one was eating her alive. I looked for the mosquito to swat it, but apparently she was speaking even more figuratively than you’d normally talk about that … the mosquito was already gone. So we let it be another beautiful distraction, continued for another minute and a half, and then went inside to read. A bit farther from what is, by certain measures, humanity’s greatest foe.
Then we sat down and read Revelation 21–22, the ending when the New Jerusalem, the Citybride of God, flies down to the ground and BOOM there is no more suffering and every tear is wiped away. See, like this:
Then I saw ya new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Which sounds pretty cool. But then there’s also this:
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
To which I might usually react:
hey but wait i thought there was no more pain and every tear was wiped away and now this is really disturbing me and bumming me out and i know this is symbolic language but it sure seems to be symbolizing some terrible ending to this story man this sucks now i can read around this in 5 ways but i still kind of feel like i’m not fully respecting the text and i hate that feeling because honestly i probably respect texts even more than people maybe that’s bad but maybe texts are people okay this isn’t going anywhere
But as we read it this time, I felt the most fascinating conviction and insight form: I felt like I understood something about how this was originally received as practical encouragement that deeply reflected the lived experience and practice of its audience, rooted not only in their hopes, but in the power of their hopes to change their world.
(Then I cried a lot and talked to my wife about how sorry I am for all the time I’ve wasted playing video games, when we could have been reading the Bible together. Yeah, we are super weird. We have almost never read the Bible together like this in our whole marriage.)
But to explain how I got to that, I think I have to get to the roots of what is going on in my spiritual life a little bit more. I’ve been pressing pretty deeply into the basic teachings of Jesus in Luke 6, and I’d just been listening to a super-smart scholar who was talking about his new book “That All Shall Be Saved.” Let me expand on those a bit:
First, the more foundational and practical roots. I’ve been trying to consistently ground my theology and reading of the Bible in a growing understanding of the foundational practices taught by Jesus, as foundational: solidarity with anyone who mourns or suffers, enemy-loving behaviors as necessary replacements for violent behaviors, and a persistent effort at forgiving EVERYONE and correcting our own mistakes, while ‘living in the future’ by doing what is loving and good and right, even when it is deemed illegal. (You can see more about how I’m training with people to grow in living this way over here.)
This matters a lot for how we read the Bible, as it turns out, because it helps us share in something of the lived experience of the people in the early church, who we know actually consistently taught and acted this way, in a highly violent and cruel environment. Reading the Bible well is always about trying to get inside of the head of a historically distant and ancient people. But teaching your body to respond to violence and opposition in the way they taught their bodies to respond to violence probably helps us synch up with their thoughts and readings in important ways. (And teaching our bodies and minds to respond differently, meaning violently, probably causes us to de-synch from them in important ways, and so systematically mis-read them.)
So while I’ve been really trying to learn to follow the instructions Jesus gives in Luke 6, I’ve also been considering some evidence that universalism (the belief that every heart will eventually come to love, but like refugees) was also rather unsurprisingly widespread among this group of enemy-loving, consistently non-violent, people. In that context, the strength of a clearly-articulated universalism really hit home for me before I did this prayer and Bible study, because I had also listened to this interesting interview with David Bentley Hart about his new book, which argues powerfully that universalism is the only coherent Christian view. This is the sort of thing that I think justifiably informs our reading of Revelation, if we really want to understand what the original authors were trying to say and what the original audience was hearing. If universalism can be so forcefully argued from Christian scripture, it is a lot easier to imagine Christians (during the period when their effectiveness in growing churches was astonishingly impressive) hearing Revelation and then having leaders in the community go on to forcefully argue for a universalist understanding and application.
Just to be clear I’m not telling anyone they have to be universalists. I’m not really there myself: I think some people might also ultimately cease to exist, although I am convinced that endless torture is the most evil thing imaginable and not Biblical. But I am saying that thinking historically, the notion that universalism was widespread among the authors and audience for these scrolls and codices really informs our reading of the Christian Bible. If the original authors and the original audience that read and approved it included a lot of people who were universalists, this means they would have almost certainly only approved and written texts that they considered universalist, which means that these texts are consistently likely to be explicitly universalist or at least to be perfectly compatible with it. Getting inside their lived experience, as people who actually followed the instructions of Jesus to practice enemy love, is really helping me understand how this could have been.
So how could that be?
Well, when I read Revelation with my wife, the thing that I shared and discussed afterward was that the community who heard it were already living in the anticipated future they read about here. (At least in some ways. It was an already-not yet kind of thing. Follow the link if you want to understand more of what I mean by ‘living in the future.’)
But as Revelation does when it talks about the people outside, in fire, they routinely drew a clear line between evil practices like idolatry, which was (and is) closely connected to political domination and abuse. But knowing they would win in the end, they could also say in their hearts something like this:
He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.
Also, Revelation 22:11, KJV
This speaks to a practice that we find in Luke 6: you don’t try to remove splints from other peoples’ eyes without permission, and focus on what you’re missing. For faithful Jesus people, this is a beautiful invitation to self-reflection. In what way am I filthy still? In what way am I holy still? For people practicing planks, how else could this be read?
Paul shows how this would have worked really explicitly in Ephesians 4 as well, where is exhorting people (who are clearly not holier-than-thou, but practicing plank removal on themselves) to “put on their new selves.” IE: live in your future self, not your past self. The normal way to understand a text dividing people into two groups, for plank removers, is not to get holier than thou. It is to practice lovingly critical self-reflection.
I’m increasingly convinced that this text not only helps you read yourself, by inviting critical self-reflection, but it also helps you read other people. Are they committed to following Jesus when it comes to the basic teachings in Luke 6? If they are working to learn the basic teachings of Jesus, they will read it correctly in multiple senses: in a morally correct way (as David Bentley Hart might put it, in ways that aren’t morally cretinous), but also in the way that the author and audience in the early church intended it. When you hear about two groups of people in a text like Revelation, if you’re a Jesus follower who is practicing Luke 6 stuff, you’re immediately cued to think first of your own internal “old self” that is still there, and your own internal “new self” who is always growing in you.
While we were talking, I got a call from grandma and we talked about her upcoming visit. (I’m really looking forward to it!) And then I got a text from my niece, to come and pick her up from soccer. It was around 7:30. So I hopped into my car, and because I had been doing Centering Prayer a bit before, the phrase I use to help focus my attention on God in Centering prayer played sweetly in the back of my mind as a drove with my windows open, through the warm pinkish light of the photographer’s golden hour in the fall air that smells like memory. For me, that phrase is “Veni Sancte Spiritus”. It is longer than you’re ‘supposed’ to use, but what can I say, I’M A REBEL.
Anyway, as I did this, something else struck me so beautifully. I remembered what I’ve recently been learning about the way identity is used to exhort people to change in the teaching of Jesus. You find an example of it in Luke 6 here:
No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.
Luke 6:43–45 (NIV)
Now, the morally cretinous and textually uninformed way to read this is to think Jesus is saying, “You’ve got the good people over here, and they never do anything wrong. Then you’ve got the bad people over there, and they never do anything right.”
But you can’t read it that way in a remotely coherent way if you’ve read and understood the part IMMEDIATELY BEFORE IT at all, and actually tried it even a little bit:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Luke 6: 41–41 (NIV)
Or you can read any of the Gospels, and try to tell me if the disciples are flawless fig trees. Peter’s gets pretty thorny with his little sword, and is corrected when Jesus shows you what to do instead: bless those who curse you. Heal those who would harm you.
And of course, we see in the letters of the New Testament exactly how this sort of image was used to exhort and correct (not to argue that we’re the perfect in-group):
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
James 3:9–12 (NIV)
Basically, this business with springs and figs is this community’s way of saying, “You’re a fig tree! What are those thorns doing on you?”
The existence of this ‘logical contradiction’ or‘practical impossibility’ is not a sign of a person who don’t think too good. It is powerful ancient tech for inviting someone to change their behavior, based on a hopeful image of their true (future?) identity.
The technique uses the form of a logical contradiction or practical impossibility to resolve a moral contradiction, between a person’s commitments and their actions.
Okay, that’s pretty cool Dan. (If I do say so myself.) But how does this relate to Kingdom and Bride? Isn’t that the question you’re supposed to be answering.
And winding this up is pretty simple.
The Kingdom can’t be the way it looks, filled with violent, judgmental, comfortable people (who nonetheless have a Skeksi-like ability to feel like permanent victims), who don’t even try to follow the most basic teachings of Jesus in Luke 6. I can barely see anything that looks like wheat through all the weeds that have had a good long time to grow. (The time of judgment must be at hand, as it was and is and will be!)
The Bride can’t be the way she looks: ragged and beaten and abused by wolfish church leaders, made to feel complicit in her own abuse through hypocritical accusations. (That’s a basic feature of abusive behavior at any scale, whether family system or church or nation.)
These are logical contradictions! These are practical impossibilities!
Now do you think the geniuses who wrote this stuff didn’t know that?