Who Are the Foes?

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If we consider the scene depicted in my last post (https://pamecrement.com/2021/03/15/evil-unmasked/)as the first four of seven seals are opened, we are aware that Eugene Peterson believes it is the conquering Christ on the white horse who takes the field to declare battle first. Who are the foes he will battle against on the red, black, and pale horses who represent judgment on the earth when John introduces them in Revelation 6 and 7? What do they represent?

Each represents a different form of evil that Christ is calling into account and using. They have been a part of the life of mankind for so long we tend to accept them as “just how it is.” Never has it been more important to be clear on evil and its role but even more importantly, we must recognize what our role is as we face it in its various forms.

“Each of these evils is common, but each is disguised so that we culturally accept its presence as something normal, even good. War is disguised as a higher standard of living. Sickness is disguised as technology. Evil introduces, by turns, conflict, greed, and deceit into social and personal existence and undoes creation, subverting its purposes and contradicting its design of redemption. These evils present such a benign appearance in their disguises that the world unthinkingly accepts them as the forces of history, to which Christ is a lovely but essentially ineffective minority protest.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder

But as John begins to see who Christ has called out to face Him and his judgment the truth of who they are and have always been is exposed, masks are torn away and disguises of no use.

The red horse represents war and the bloody cruel reality that courses throughout every war ever fought at any point on the earth. Mankind goes to war for many different reasons and sometimes to seek to defeat evidence of evil that is beyond our tolerance. Other times it happens to gain land or power, riches or resources. Though we may sometimes lift up war, it always comes at a cost leaving lives, landscapes, and lineages destroyed. Winners and losers carry the scars of battle. It is still evil and when Christ calls forward the red horse and its rider, his purpose will be to once and for all to defeat this scourge on the earth.

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It reminds me of the scenes in Star Wars where Luke, Hans Solo, Obi Wan, Chewbacca, and their friends go off to save the galaxy from the Death Star and the scourge of Darth Vadar and the other enemies arrayed against them seeing domination and subjection. This scene in Revelation will be far grander than any movie scene ever filmed.

Scripture tells us the black horse and its rider carries a balance in his hand. It represents famine where the barest starvation diet will cost a full day’s wages.

“What is necessary for minimal living is unavailable while the luxuries of life, oil and wine, are abundant. Greed does it. People exploit the earth, leaving it depleted and poor, in order to get rich.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder

It reminds me of what happened during the great famine we read about in Genesis. Joseph was used by God to save the people of Israel after being sold into slavery in Egypt. There was no food in the fields but there was money to try to buy food. When his family back in Canaan ran out of food Jacob sent his brothers laden with “riches” to buy grain. It is a paradox that we can mix while reading the story – money to buy food, but no food growing in the soil of the land.

It gives fresh meaning to the words of The Lord’s Prayer that reads, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

The last horse John tells us about is described as a pale horse that represents pestilence and Eugene Peterson expands what all this can include:

“The rider on the pale horse represents pestilence – epidemic disease, the sickness unto death. The incidence of disease and sickness rises exponentially while, mockingly, the size of our hospitals increases, and medical technology becomes more and more refined.

Sickness is the condition in which our bodies are weakened or impaired, so they are no longer effective as temples of holiness shaping rituals of love and witness.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder

As I consider Peterson’s words it is clear that these evils that will manifest themselves as John describes them are already here in a form we view as “normal” for life on the earth despite our challenges and sometimes hatred of them. Little wonder when they are increased in judgment that life will become nearly impossible for those who have yet to worship Christ.

It can be easy to wonder how anyone can stand as the days become eviler. Revelation 6 actually poses the question, “Who can stand?” It’s clear John is telling us the world has come to an end at that point. Of course, Christ stands and scripture points to the angels that did not participate in the rebellion with Lucifer before the beginning of mankind also stand. But Paul reminds us of another group that is called to stand.

” Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us,  set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”

2 Corinthians 1:21-22 (NIV)

You and I (if we are believers) are called to stand as ones sealed with a seal of Christ as God’s ownership. The message Paul wrote so long ago during a time when the young churches then were struggling still stands for us today. Christ in us by the power of his Holy Spirit calls us to stand. And if He calls us to do so, surely, He provides us with what we need to do so and would train us to use the weapons He has provided for evil’s efforts to triumph.

“Evil is a fact. The Bible spends a good deal of space insisting that certain facts are evil, and not minor blemishes on the surface of existence. But the Bible does not provide an explanation of evil – rather, it defines a context: all evil takes place in an historical arena bounded by Christ and prayer. Evil is not explained but surrounded.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder
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Evil Unmasked

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We don’t like to talk about evil even though it was a word once more commonly used. We tend to prefer to call things that are evil something else, often by the result of evil instead of labeling it evil. Do we hesitate to use the word because we have been deceived into believing it is something else or are we in denial because we don’t know what to do with it?

How would you define evil?

The dictionary defines it this way: “profoundly immoral or wicked.” That definition might help unravel what has caused the word to seldom be used in recent years because what many in the culture label immoral or wicked has changed a great deal in recent decades. What was unthinkable on TV 20 years ago is now commonplace at all hours of the day. What we believed children should be protected from diminishes a bit more each year. When something in history points to evil, we now choose to rewrite or delete it instead of learning from it.

“History tumbles out a mass of data – wars, famines, murders, and accidents – along with sunrises and still waters, lilies of the field and green pastures. God’s people have been convinced that it is possible in prayer and praise, in listening and believing, to discern meaning in this apparent chaos and therefore to read good news in the daily life of history.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder

Yes, there is meaning and good news in the midst of all these things, but it does not negate the existence of evil and how it operates in the midst of every aspect of the world and humankind. How easily we can be seduced by that one who perpetrates evil on mankind to minimize or ignore it while we only focus on one aspect of life. He would surely have us be lulled into a fantasy world because in his delusion he also hopes it will cause us to minimize God’s power and goodness, his truth and righteousness, his mercy and judgment, his grace and truth.

The source of all evil would rename it and have us believe that it is not what it seems and if perchance we believe it is that it is so powerful that not even God can conquer it. But he forgets an important truth:

“The devil is but God’s master fencer, to teach us to handle our weapons.”

Samuel Rutherford

Maybe that also points to part of the problem. We want to be peacemakers and peaceable, forgetting we are at war and if we do not pick up the weapons we have been given, we will have surrendered what has been entrusted to us.

Our movies often expose us to stories (both true and fictional) that have a theme of war. Perhaps we are drawn to them less because they depict violence and more because we want to see evil defeated. They may well be part of the popularity of The Lord of the Rings series.

If we want to see evil for what it is and see what its defeat will look like, Revelation 6 and 7 gives us a vivid clarification and reminds us what the end of the story truly will be. In these chapters we see four horses, each with a different role. Have you considered why horses are used to describe what will happen?

“The horse is the animal for battle: oxen for farming, donkeys for transportation, horses for battle. The basic nature of history is warfare. Persons who live by faith live in conflict. History is a long sequence of battles – the forces of good and evil in pitched conflict. Sensitive persons know this. Artists know this. Students of history bare the documenting sources. People of prayer are in the middle of it even when the guns are silent. The battle rages within the soul; it is fought out in family circles; it is contested between nations. War is the human condition. To be human is to be at war.

God may be in heaven but the devil runs history.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder

About now you may think this doesn’t sound very encouraging, but if you look closely at the passages in Revelation that are the theme of this post, do you see which horse appears first? It is a white horse and most of us know a white horse portends a hero sits upon it. He is here to do battle with the forces of evil represented by the other 3 horses. (Remember the great scenes of Shadowfax that Gandalf rides in The Lord of the Rings?) This white horse has on it a rider with a bow and crown who goes out to conquer and is all about conquering. It can belong to only Christ who is in history ruling and conquering the forces of death, darkness, and evil as Eugene Peterson describes in Reversed Thunder. We so often think of Him in other roles that seem meeker or gentler than one who is riding into battle. We can fall prey to sentimentalizing Christ.

The enemy loves that when we do, but if we do, we will miss a crucial understanding about how the story ends, who wins and why. You will miss there is a hero who cannot be defeated. He was not defeated on the cross and his return will bring us to the final battle against evil. We who believe will be with Him, and this depiction in the passage is the hero we will want to lead us on that day.

“The world is in conflict; our Christ is the first on the field of battle. High issues are decided every day. Christ is not only worshipped each Sunday, he is triumphant each week day. That, of course, is not the way the newspapers report it; that is not the way our own emotions respond to it; but that is what the preached revelation proclaims.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder
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Do You Want to Know?

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Are you one of those persons who skip to the end of a book or chapter because you need to know how the story ends or are you someone who doesn’t want to know the ending until you get there?

I wish I could know how you answer that question. I confess that I do not read the end first, but I tend to be curious about what the end looks like so I will often take a peek, especially in a gripping novel. I can only stand so much suspense and I want it to end well.

I wonder what causes so many to stop before they get to the end of a book. Is it simply bad writing by the author or is there something else going on for those persons? I will usually read a book to the very end (always have) but now if the author has not held my attention by good writing, I don’t necessarily feel obliged to finish the book. (I already had to do enough required reading in my lifetime and there are too many superb writers out there to spend time on some who are not.)

Only the very best books and my favorite authors inspire me to reread them again even though few books I buy ever leave my shelves unless I can share them with someone else. Throwing away any book is almost impossible for me to do.

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Unquestionably the one book I have read and reread the most often is the Bible. I read it not because I must but because I have the freedom to do so and want to know what this “book of all books” has to say that has survived throughout humanity despite every conceivable effort to destroy it or distort it. It is published in more languages and versions than any other book and yes, I have more than a few of them on my shelves long before my electronic devices gave me every single one in less than a second. I have a few that are my “favorites”, but I will often check more than one when I am looking to hone in on a word or verse to see how it is translated.

What puzzles me is that so many avoid reading the end of the book (the Bible). Sometimes they get lost in Leviticus and stop or only choose the Gospels and never get to Revelation. What they may have sampled or heard about Revelation may seem scary or confusing, so they miss that it contains the last words on Christ and the whole story. The images John paints have lots of people guessing or interpreting but sometimes maybe there are some obvious meanings we don’t take time to discover.

It likely doesn’t help us that so often our pastors do not get to a sermon series on this final book of scripture even though it might be included with other messages here and there. Not long ago our pastor taught through the book of Revelation on a Sunday series that took most of a year and it was a great blessing.

It doesn’t take many verses into Revelation to recognize the book must be important because it contains a verse that says reading it aloud and keeping what is written in it will produce a blessing.

Maybe one thing that can help us is to look at the end of the book and to see it as less about what will happen at the end (though we get clues on that) and more about it culminating the centrality of Christ that begins at the very beginning of the book in Genesis and to see how He is portrayed in Revelation at the outset.

Who does John see Christ to be as the final book opens? If we see that and the meaning of the symbols that can give us a great starting place and reassurance to move farther into the book. In reading Eugene Peterson’s book, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & The Praying Imagination, I was blessed to see things I missed in reading this opening description of Christ at other times.

“The vision of Christ begins with a description of his clothing: “a long robe with a golden girdle round his breast.” Before we know what the Son of Man looks like, we know what he does. Clothing defines role: he vests with the garment (podere) prescribed for Aaron in his priestly work (Exod. 20:5). The Son of Man (Christ) is a priest.

A priest presents God to us; he also presents us to God. He brings together the divine and the human. Priests do not protect God’s holiness from human sinfulness by setting up barriers to access.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder

This description reminds us that Christ made a way for us to come to know Him and eternally be with Him despite all our failures and weaknesses or how many times we made them. Before we see anything about judgment in the end, we see Him reassuring us that He has covered us if He is ours and this last word on Him is about his central place in the story and our lives.

Peterson goes on with each detail of Christ’s appearance and the significance of what it speaks to us. Then he points to what He says to us.

Here was John, a prisoner on a rocky barren island, with no connection with the churches he pastored. It must have been a disheartening place and then God gives him a vision of the end of the story.

“The Spirit filled his eyes with sights and his mouth with speech that have given sight and direction to Christians ever since. The banishing decree of Rome was itself banished.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder

How very like God to so bless his disciple and us as well if we read Revelation as the final chapter, the final book, the last word on Christ and who He is as well as who we are to Him. He does not want us to be in the dark about how the story ends even if He hasn’t given us every tiny detail, we think we need.

Of Course, We Must Sing

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Have you ever wondered when we humankind first discovered that we could sing? There is no way of telling, but it would have surely been from the beginning of our time on earth because archeology has unearthed all sorts of musical type instruments made from bones and wood that go back to the beginning.

Some parents might say they think that adorable little girl or boy began to sing almost before he or she began to talk. No one seemed to need to teach them how to do it. They made it up as they went along as they were playing and going about whatever else they were doing.

There may be some who say they don’t sing or “can’t sing” but that would really usually mean they don’t do it very well so you would never hear them doing it even if you slipped outside the door of their shower. But not doing it well doesn’t mean that one cannot do it even if they prefer (or even others prefer) they don’t do it.

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It isn’t uncommon to see a child create a makeshift microphone when they are singing and playing, and most do so without shyness as long it isn’t in front of a lot of people or on a stage with lights blinding them. A bit later some will discover the lights, the audience, and the stage are exactly the place they want to sing for the sheer enjoyment of it.

The experience of worship involves more than singing, but when we hear the word worship most all of us will immediately relate it to an experience that includes music and singing. So, when the issue of places of worship meeting during the pandemic came up it was no surprise that when singing was going to be banned because of the fear of spreading the virus, most of us were more than a little upset.

“There are songs everywhere in scripture. The people of God sing. They express exuberance in realizing the majesty of God and the mercy of Christ, the wholeness of the reality and their new-found ability to participate in it. Songs proliferate. Hymns gather the voices of men, women, and children into century-tiered choirs.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder
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We sing alone. We sing as families. We sing in ensembles and choirs and great gatherings. Something about the sound of the blending of music, voices, and instruments evokes deep connection within us and emotion stirs within our hearts, minds, and spirits before echoing in our memory long after the singing stops.

But if worship sings (and it does) what do we say singing is?

“Singing is speech intensified and expanded. Song takes the natural rhythms and timbre of speech and develops its accents and intonations into music.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder

When I read Peterson’s description, I was aware that was the best description ever! He added a few lines later as an explanation of why we must sing when we worship.

“When persons of faith become aware of who God is and what he does, they sing. The songs are irrepressible.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder

One of the sweet memories in my life is the sound of my dad singing when we were standing beside each other in church. He would have told you that my mother was the one who was the singer. She was involved in singing in a trio and quartet and directed our children’s choir and certainly did a lot of singing, but it was my gentle humble dad’s melodious voice that blessed me and I can hardly wait to hear what it sounds like in heaven when we are all gathered around the throne of God.

I was blessed to grow up with those memories and in a family who loved music. I married a man who did as well, and the tradition went on to our son and daughter. Now new memories are made as our grandchildren sing and take their gifts to new levels.

It seems clear that God intends we sing and in scripture in multiple places it says that if we do not praise Him and sing, the rocks themselves will cry out. If we look at the closing scenes of scripture in Revelation 4 and 5, we see that all creation is singing. And what results from that worship?

“The end result of the act of worship is that our lives are turned around. We come to God with a history of nay-saying, of rejecting, and being rejected. At the throne of God we are immersed in God’s yes, a yes that silences our noes and calls forth an answering yes in us. God, not the ego, is the center. God is not someone around whom we make calculating qualifications, a little yes here, a little no there. In worship we “listen to the voice of Being” and become answers to it. The self is no longer the hub of reality, as sin seduces us into supposing.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder

Yes! Of course, we must sing in worship and when we do, it honors the One who is song and music, and we are changed by it.

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When It All Comes Together

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Whether we worship in a grand cathedral or a small country church there is something about coming together in community (though different, yet one) that is unlike other experiences we may routinely experience.

Whether we are singing in worship with no instruments accompanying us or are joined by an orchestra, worship band, keyboard, or majestic pipe organ, no virtual time of worship compares with the sense we gain when we are gathered in one place together. It is what many of us have most missed during the pandemic about not being able to come to our place of worship.

Yes, we miss seeing one another, greeting each other, sharing a hug with friends, and more, but when the service begins, and we are all called to enter into worship everything comes together and centers our focus as nothing else does.

Some of my sweetest memories across my lifetime have been times of worship. It began in the little country church where my parents had grown up and brought me from birth onward. Standing between my parents in worship, surrounded by the voices of others with the piano and pipe organ playing settled within me that there was One greater than I could totally grasp but yet somehow hovered over us as we worshipped.

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By middle school I was adding the experience of singing around an open fire at church camp each evening as we closed out the day and climbed the hill to the wooden benches with trees standing round us all as sentinels and began to lift our voices together.

High school brought the opportunity to sing in an advanced a cappella choir that taught us to listen to how our voices fit together rather than trying to be the one heard. What a grand lesson that was and how applicable it is beyond that choir or experience.

“Worship is a meeting at the center so that our lives are centered in God and no lived eccentrically. We worship so that we live in response to and from this center, the living God.

Without worship we live manipulated and manipulating lives.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder

These experiences growing up from toddler through adolescence taught me that worship was about we and not about me.

And in the midst of that I also learned the sense of what it felt like to be surrounded by the One I was worshipping and even though it was a community that my voice mattered to Him.

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As time passed something else became clearer to me. There was a universality in worship. Whether I was in my own place of worship or that of a friend there were similar parts to the experience, music that was often familiar even if the instruments were different or the rhythm structure unalike. I discovered that even if I had preferences, I enjoyed the time of worship whether we were singing sacred hymns, lifting hands or clapping in worship, or simply bowing our heads in reverence. Each expression connected us all in community with one another. Worship reminded us we were more one than anything else.

“Life as we encounter it is chaotic. The raw material served up by the day is disordered and turbulent. Nature is clamorous and many-headed. We ourselves are many-hearted and conflicted. How can we master such a mob? Is there any hope for harmony in the midst of chaos? The act of worship gathers into its centering rituals and harmonizing rhythms every aspect of creation. Worship does not divide the spiritual from the natural, it coordinates them.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder

Have you ever wondered what worship might be like in heaven when the whole body of Christ is gathered together? I have.

There have been a number of times I have been blessed to be in a large conference ballroom with others in worship from all around the globe and every part of the Christian family tree. In the mix would be every race, tribe, and tongue. If I looked about the room I saw all ages and economic stripes. I also saw nuns in habits as well as men and women in Salvation Army attire, and Mennonites with head coverings. Dress included everything from jeans to suits, saris to authentic African attire, but when the lights in the room dimmed and the noisy chatter subsided, and worship began the sound in the room was the most beautiful I have ever heard, and I thought surely this must be a small sample of what heaven would be like.

Worship is described (often in vivid detail) throughout scripture, but few places are as triumphant and gloriously described as those we see in The Revelation of John as the grand story comes to a climax. In Eugene Peterson’s book he makes observations about the scenes described in Revelation 4 and 5 that stir my imagination about that day yet to come:

“In worship every sign of life and every impulse to holiness, every bit of beauty and every spark of vitality – Hebrew patriarchs, Christian apostles, wild animals, domesticated livestock, human beings, soaring birds – are arranged around this throne center that pulses light, showing each at its best, picking up all the colors of the spectrum in order to show off the glories. For the one seated on the throne “appeared like jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald.” Light with colors of precious stones (jasper, carnelian, emerald) bathes everyone gathered in worship. Lives that have been defaced by sin into blurred charcoal outlines are now seen in their true colors. Every faded tint and wavering line are restored to original sharpness and hue. Precious stones are precious because they collect and intensify light. Light is full of color, all colors, but our dull eyes are unperceptive. A stone, selecting certain colors out of the air and intensifying them, shows us the deep glory of the color that was in the light all the time. The ancient world valued stones not for decoration, but for their capacity to reveal and deepen the colors of light.

Worship is precious stones that reveal all the colors of light in and around us and dazzle us. Light is reflected off ugly billboards, debased in neon signs, and filtered through polluted air, smudging the world into oatmeal gray. Then a precious stone shows us a real red or green or blue, we are shaken and awake to wonder again.”

Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder

Can you imagine?

Few of us likely have imaginations that come close to what that day will be like and how the scene Peterson describes will be, but as I read his words and read the scripture passage he describes there is little doubt that worship can and will be the only response to what it will be like.

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