Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Revelation 12) transports me to the world of dragons and epic battles between the forces of good and evil. It’s a world that existed long before the imaginations of JRR and JK dreamed up the dragons of the Lonely Mountain in Middle Earth and the Triwizard Tournament at Hogwarts. This is a dragon story penned by JTR (John The Revelator) at the turn of the first century. It has all the components of a great Peter Jackson movie with a John Williams score. As JTR sought to provide some encouraging words of defiant faith for the resilient Christians suffering persecution under Caesar Domitian, he encoded the message in the genre of Greek theatre to keep it under the Roman radar. One of the characteristics of this genre was to show that the daily struggles we have here on earth are but a reflection of the larger than life epic battles being waged in the heavens. In this scene, a woman great with child appears in the heavens, clothed in the sun with the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head. Then a flaming red dragon with seven heads and ten horns appears, sweeping a third of the stars out of the sky with his tail, and then we find that he is poised to devour the woman’s child as soon as she gives birth. His plan is foiled, though, as the newborn son, destined to rule the nations, is snatched away at birth and taken to safe keeping at the throne of God. The woman flees to an earthly hiding place prepared for her, in the wilderness. Meanwhile the dragon and his forces engage in a battle royal with the archangel Michael and his angels; Michael prevails, expelling the dragon from the heavens. A song of great rejoicing follows in heaven, but the news is not all good. The infuriated dragon, cast out of the sky, comes to earth. Woe to those earthlings, JTR writes; woe to those who still have to deal with the defeated dragon. His word of woe is embedded in a message of realistic hope – while we earthlings may still get singed by some of the dragon’s flames in our day to day struggles in life, we can rest assured that the war has ultimately been won.
Recent trips to Cuba have given me a sense of this two-fold struggle, the larger than life spiritual war, and the day to day battles we endure. A couple of trips back, I was on a long van ride with a group of pastors, they all happened to be women, who were cohorts in a seminary extension group. They were heading back from the seminary to the countryside, and took advantage of our van to avoid the uncomfortable ride in a Cuban bus. It was a great trip, hearing some of their life stories, the topics of their theses, their passion for ministry. They were such inspirations, with an incredible resilient faith in the face of some epic battles being waged – the dragons of poverty, of oppression, of prejudice in the larger church culture against women in ministry all threatened to devour the good news they were birthing. But these dragons were defeated; the women had figured out how to survive and thrive as people of faith in an officially atheistic country that for decades persecuted the faithful. They maintained an amazing sense of joy and hope as they ministered in their various communities. Their laughter was long and deep. It became obvious also how much they leaned on each other for encouragement, for sustaining faith in difficult times. But then, on this trip, I was disheartened to hear of some broken relationships within the circle. It turns out that these women, who had been living with the victorious hope that the dragon of the heavens had been defeated, were having to deal with the dragon of earth in a much more mundane, pedestrian fashion. There was great angst over a matter some on the outside would find trivial; a small misunderstanding led to someone speaking a critical word about someone else, and the person hearing the criticism speaking out of turn to someone else, and from such a small spark a wildfire spread, leading to a sense of betrayal and broken trust. I spent a large chunk of time listening to the various players in this drama tell the tale through tears and deep sorrow. I did the best I could, with the limited Spanish I had available, to listen and do some coaching, some mediating, some encouraging. I shared my sense of how ironic it was that these women, who refused to let the larger than life dragons of persistent poverty and totalitarian rule and discrimination defeat them, wound up feeling somewhat defeated by the dragon of simple misunderstanding, unwise communication, and gossip.
All this reminds me that we are called in the church to engage in ministry, mini-stry, that is, a focus on the miniscule matters of life. We can trust Michael and the archangels to be engaged in maxistry, maxi-stry, the larger than life spiritual warfare taking place among the principalities and powers. Meanwhile, we are to pay attention to the small things, the pedestrian foibles and follies the dragon uses here on earth to get under the earthlings’ skin. I am praying for my Cuban friends in the countryside, that they can do the hard work of ministry within their circle, because they need each other. Pastoring anywhere can be a lonely enterprise, but in that setting, they really are isolated, and I pray they can do the hard work of reconciliation to fully restore their friendships and support system. I think I know them well enough to trust that they will indeed turn out to be dragon-slayers.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.