Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Praying for Catastrophe

Etymology is a really cool thing. It simply means the history of the development of a word. An etymological study of language is one that investigates how the words we use came to mean what they mean today: where they originated, what they meant back then, and when and how they changed, expanded, diluted or sometimes even reversed their meanings to become what we understand by them when we use them today.

Lately I have been thinking about catastrophes. Did you know that originally a catastrophe was not necessarily a bad thing?

The Etymology of Catastrophe

The very convenient website etymonline.com gives us this mini-history:
catastrophe (n.)
1530s, ‘reversal of what is expected’ (especially a fatal turning point in a drama, the winding up of the plot), from Latin catastropha, from Greek katastrophe ‘an overturning; a sudden end,’ from katastrephein ‘to overturn, turn down, trample on; to come to an end.’ ”
Now, if everything is going well, a reversal is not exactly what we are looking for. An overturning is indeed a disaster. But it can easily be understood that if one’s ordinary conditions are uniformly awful, then any reversal is a good thing. If my daily life is drudgery and misery, an overturning is exactly what is in order. Bring on the catastrophe!

The entry goes on to add that “catastrophe” did not really start to be used to mean “sudden disaster” until approximately 1748, over 200 years after it first came into the vernacular. So then, as with many words in English, the way we use “catastrophe” today is not precisely the way it was used 500 years ago.

I like the original sense better. In any drama including this life, a resolution is not an innately bad thing. Soap operas get criticized precisely because they never really resolve anything. They may have beginnings, but no definable middles or ends. They simply trickle on year after year: a new husband, a new problem, an evil twin ... but nothing is ever really concluded. Unless it serves the plot at the time, even when a popular soap actor dies he or she is quickly replaced and the character lives on. And in soaps, even the long-dead are guaranteed to reappear at some point.

The Catastrophic Christian Faith

I have mentioned before that where evolutionary theory is characteristically uniformitarian, the Christian faith is by definition catastrophic. You may have noticed a repeated theme in our Bibles: Inevitably, whenever a crisis point has been reached (that is, as God assesses crises, not as we assess them), God steps into human history and acts unilaterally. A resolution is needed and God provides one. The voices of the impoverished and the oppressed cry out to God and he answers. So we got the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues of Egypt, the massacre and dispossession of the Canaanite tribes, the Diaspora, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and, one day perhaps not too long from now, Armageddon and the return of Christ in glory.

Catastrophes all, though not all disasters. You wouldn’t call the Incarnation a disaster, would you? It is to some people, but that’s a choice. And resurrection is never a disaster unless you miss it. All these events are resolutions of a sort, temporary or permanent, and all are unambiguous acts of God.

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

And yet God’s catastrophes sometimes take many years to appear. Man drizzles on in his sin and selfishness, injustices are perpetrated, good people die and bad things happen. I mean, the Canaanites got away with sacrificing their babies for 400 years plus. The Israelites languished in Egyptian slavery for some significant portion of the same period. And yet Israel benefited from God’s patience too: they received reprieve after reprieve over hundreds of years before being dispersed into the nations. Even the Incarnation and Resurrection are four thousand years or so into Bible history, and who knows when Armageddon may come? Generations pass with nothing of significant moment occurring. Life goes on and there is no ... resolution. No wonder we thought up soap operas!

So then, to the unbelieving, of course uniformitarianism seems to be the order of the universe. Sure, we have comets, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, sunspots and Ice Ages ... you name it. But in the uniformitarian view, all these are part of the natural order of things. They have no more moral significance than a nice bit of rain after a dry season or a new virus in the world. They are not intentional, surely?

Uniformitarian Prayers

As Christians, we must take care that we do not become uniformitarian in our prayers. What I mean is this: we pray for the salvation of a loved one, extended family member or even a partner or child. We know God is real. We know God is loving. We know God is able. We are in no doubt whatsoever, at least in the theological part of our brains, about any of these truths. We have faith, right? But our prayers are uniformitarian prayers. It’s not just that we use the same words in the same order at the same time of day. I think it might be worse than that. In some unarticulated way, our spirits have reluctantly conceded that the way this person is today will always be the way this person is. Maybe it’s genetics. Maybe it’s upbringing. But we’ve been praying for twenty years and he or she hasn’t budged.

And so we continue to pray, but in a dead, emotionless way, steeling ourselves for the inevitable: that “all things are continuing as they were from the beginning”. Where is the resolution? We know God is capable of providing it, but we have somehow lost a little faith that in this specific instance he can be counted on to do all that God does in ordering the events of a life so as to bring every one of us to the place of decision.

Can you relate? I sure can.

A God of Catastrophe

But, praise our Lord, he is a God of catastrophe. He is not a uniformitarian God. We don’t need Genesis, Jeremiah or Matthew to prove it: we can see it in our own lives if we are willing to look closely enough. We have changed, have we not? You and I have had our little catastrophes here and there.

The man who used to spend his paycheck at the track or the casino now sends everything he can to support the preaching of the gospel in the Third World. How did that happen? Catastrophe. Some little resolution inspired, instructed and empowered by God. He changed.

The woman who once spent her time on a bar stool looking for company now spends it visiting hospitals and old folks homes, reading the scripture or a hymn to those who want company. How did that happen? A little catastrophe. She changed. The multi-episodic drama that is her life has gone off in quite another direction, and it’s not coming back.

The teen who had a child out of wedlock with a father long gone is now a happily-married, loving Christian thirty-something with a growing family. She didn’t stay on the wrong path forever. Some ... well ... catastrophe happened in her life. Her problem was resolved, because God stepped into her life and provided her with an alternative ... and she actually took it! She doesn’t sleep around anymore, and she won’t be doing it again.

Cradle to Grave ... with a Reversal

We do not merely proceed from cradle to grave in a straight line along a uniformitarian path, assuming the same false things, doing the same useless acts, holding on to the same futile hopes and dreams. People do change. God does work. What was expected does not always come to pass. God brings about a reversal, an overturning, a sudden end to the old self and the putting on of the new man or woman.

At some level we know this, and we need to keep praying for our loved ones as if we really believe it. I speak first and foremost to myself here.

Pray for the catastrophe. God is able to send one.

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