An Apocalyptic Summer?
‘Apocalyptic’ conjures up visions of a zombie epidemic or aliens invading. That didn’t happen this summer. But it was still an ‘apocalypse’. The word ‘apocalypse’ actually comes from the Greek word Apocalupto, meaning ‘to reveal’. (The Bible book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament is called ‘the Apocalypse of John’, ie ‘the revealing’ John is given in a vision from God).
So, no zombies, but in a number of ways, this summer has been apocalyptic in revealing some difficult things about modern day Australia.
Here's two of them;
One, it reveals that we're angry and anxious.
In the media and especially in social media today, people are ‘outraged’. In fact, ‘outrage’ is equated with virtue. If you're not outraged, you're not really being virtuous, and if you're outraged, you must be virtuous.
Social media makes this even worse; it’s where people are able to shout at each other but not look each other in the face. It reminds me of when I walk my dog: a dog is always a hero when barking behind a fence. Social media provides the fence that people can bark behind but not really have to face up to anyone.
And so, people are outraged as they talk about the fires and look for someone to blame. And just as there's plenty of smoke around, so there's plenty of blame.
The Greenies blame the Climate Change Deniers (because the obvious issue is global climate change). The Deniers blame the Greenies (because the obvious issue is their obstruction of proper hazard reduction burning over the last few years). And of course, everyone blames the government; not enough resources allocated to this or that project, or not enough legislation and rules, or too many rules about forestry etc, etc.
This blame has focused down to our PM: ScoMo can't win. When he took a holiday before Christmas, he copped a battering for being disengaged and uncaring. When he came to visit bush fire victims on the south coast of New South Wales and to speak to them, he was hammered as being a hypocrite and doing it just for the cameras. (I suppose it comes with the job, the PM gets credit for things he didn't really achieve and he also takes the blame for things he's really not responsible for).
Ironically, the one person who has been subject to very little anger is God. It’s as if God is so far off the agenda now, that who could think of blaming God for these fires?
Why the anger? Why are we looking for someone to blame for this brutal disruption to normal life? I think the answer is, it’s very hard for first-world, rich, secular people to accept that we aren't masters of the universe. That life is fragile and that we don't control nature or even our own lives doesn’t fit the 21st century narrative.
The terrible drought that we've had in New South Wales and Queensland over the last three years is a slow, shrivelling, choking disaster and yet it's in the background for city people (and that’s the majority of Australians). The fires are different, in that they are very hot and in our faces as the media screams out the tragedies day by day.
If we live assuming that the government or science or humanity has answers for or control of every problem we’ll face, and then events happen that show that’s obviously not the case, then the emotional response is either anger or anxiety or both.
Second, the crisis reveals what we really value.
It's a terrible thing to lose your house to a fire. It's hard to imagine what it would be like to lose all your possessions. Those who follow Jesus should be the first to care and give comfort to those who’ve lost so much. (Romans 12:15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.) It's been great to see how so many people have joined in support, giving financially to help rebuild, and also to see the government promising to cut through red tape and supply finances to help people rebuild.
Not to in any way minimise the heartache of those who've lost houses and possessions (and worst of all - loved ones); it's interesting to look a little deeper and see how the fires show what people, and we as a nation, really value. To state the obvious, those who have escaped with their lives and lost all their possessions are still very pleased to be alive.
A crisis like this shows that what we obviously value the most are our lives and the lives of our loved ones. It is strange though, that as a nation we're so often unthinkingly operating as materialists. We are, as a society, sacrificing relationships and people we should love and care for, in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Although “lifestyle” is a less confronting label for it.
The recent Royal Commission into Aged Care shows as a society how poorly we care for many of our aged and infirm; not because the resources are lacking but because the problem is driven by economics. Or regarding the other end of life, it would be a very brave person (I certainly would never do this), who would point out the cost of so many young mums feeling pressured into returning to work much sooner than they’d like to, and children going into childcare earlier than they’d choose, because of economic pressures.
We live in a society where TVs are getting bigger and our households are getting smaller. More and more in the suburbs, we have replaced the ride-on lawn mower for the ride-on vacuum cleaner; and we have bigger houses that are empty because people are working longer and longer hours to maintain them.
In his thought-provoking book "Tribe", Sebastian Junger speaks of the surprising phenomena that war and natural disasters tend not to break community morale, but actually improve it. Because these disasters break down barriers within the community and lift people's interaction with each other as they fight together against a common problem. Often people look back on times of community crisis with a kind of nostalgia. We long for community and connection.
“What people miss presumably isn’t danger or loss but the unity that these things often engender. There are obvious stresses on a person in a group, but there may be even great stresses on a person in isolation, so during disasters there is a net gain in well-being”. Sebastian Junger – Tribe (Page 93)
For those of us who are followers of Jesus there are some implications to think through and some opportunities to engage with friends and colleagues. Here are some thoughts;
In Australia today, loneliness is becoming more and more of a problem. Jesus’ promise to "build his church”, to gather communities of people together who will love and care for one another because they know the love of Jesus, should resonate even louder.
Rodney Stark in his book ‘The Rise of Christianity’ explains that one of the key reasons the Christian faith grew in the first few centuries was its willingness to love people and welcome them into vibrant communities that loved and honoured Jesus.
“To cities filled with homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis of social solidarity. To cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.” Rodney Stark - The Rise of Christianity (Page 161)
One of the great problems and opportunities for Christian churches, is that the “church” is seen by so many people as a calcified institution, a bureaucratic shell that lost its life and love. This is the case for some “churches” and not the case for so many others. Still, for those on the outside, perception equals reality. A problem of perception maybe but a great opportunity for those living in communities of faith to reach out to a nation, lonely, anxious and hungry for relational connection. Never underestimate the power of inviting people into a community of believers.
Let’s draw a few of these threads together;
1. What of the chaos in our world and the feelings of anger and anxiety?
God is responsible for these fires, but not in the simple ‘cause and effect’ way that some people would like to imagine. It’s not traceable to one particular decision by this nation or it’s government. In his letter to the Romans the Apostle Paul says that God has placed frustration on our world to make us look to the new creation. Yes, it is a result of humanity’s rebellion against God, or our ‘sin’ to put it simply. The bushfire crisis is, like other “natural disasters”, part of a God-imposed groaning of creation to show us there’s something fundamentally wrong in our world. We are out of relationship with our creator - the source of life. It should make us long for the new creation that Jesus promises those who will follow him in trust.
"For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope :21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.:22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time." Romans 8:20
2. We should learn humility and realise how much of life we don’t control.
Our lives are brief and fragile, and it is wisdom to acknowledge that. As the Bible says, we really are like the flowers of the field, beautiful (well a few of us), but that beauty is ephemeral and fragile.
James the brother of Jesus gives wisdom on how we should respond.
"Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.':14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.:15 Instead, you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.'" James 4:13
It takes humility to acknowledge God is in control of our world and our lives and we are not ultimately in control of so many things. But with that humility and a trust in God comes a way to deal with anxiety.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.:7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:6
3. There is one place to go for certainty and confidence in life.
For those who choose to follow Jesus, God promises that nothing will separate them from his love and his promises of eternal life.
"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,:39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Romans 8:38
The more we can learn to trust these promises, the more will be able to live with confidence and joy.
 Isaiah 40:6
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Al Stewart is one of City Bible Forum's National Communicators. He has been teaching the Bible for over 30 years. Al was also involved in commencing the Geneva Push and was the chairman of the Katoomba Christian Convention from 2005-2014. He served as a bishop and as a director with the Sydney Diocese of the Anglican Church before taking up the role of Chief Operating Officer for City Bible Forum. He is married to Kathy and they have 4 grown children.