During this Advent, I am reading through the Book of Revelation every week. Sure, it’s a helter-skelter time for a pastor, but I can manage three chapters every morning, sipped with my coffee. Of course, my reading is hardly the stuff of a peaceful daily devotional. Dragons and beasts and plagues, oh my!
For insight into this cryptic book of the Bible, I lean on the scholarship of Brian Blount, president of Union Presbyterian Seminary. Though Advent entails waiting, a key to Brian’s exegesis is the role of an active witness. The word “martyr” originally meant “one who witnesses.”
This double-meaning of martyr calls to mind those whose lives were lost at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, those who died al-Kiddush Hashem — sanctifying God’s name. One of these martyrs is named Rich Gottfried. The story goes that, last winter, he slipped on the ice and broke both his knees; yet he was soon back at shulin his leg braces and continued to lead the chanting of the Haftara. My Hebrew is not great, but even now Rich Gottfried’s witness continues to speak to me.
Yes, says the Spirit, they shall rest from their labor, for their deeds shall follow them (Revelation 14:13).
At a vigil for Rich Gottfriend and the rest of those martyrs, I learned a Jewish refrain —Olam Chesed Yibaneh:
I will build this world from love …
And you must build this world from love …
And if we build this world from love …
Then God will build this world from love.
The movement of the lyrics from “I” to “you” to “we” strikes me as participating in the coming kingdom, the olamhaba. God is building from such acts, through such people, from such love. This is the witness that I cling to by my fingernails when violence seems to rule our days. With Leonard Cohen, we may find that “it’s a cold and broken hallelujah.” But, still, the opposite of faith is despair, along with its weaker cousin, cynicism.
I keep reading the Book of Revelation. At several points in this narrative, John the Revelator is commanded to write down what he sees! I have not been given a vision of dragons or beasts or plagues, but who’s to say that I am not called to be a witness to what is before my eyes? Who’s to say that the things that are may not be a shimmer of the things to come?Olam chesed yibaneh … God will build this world from love.
Sylvia Plath says she’s ignorant / of whatever angel may choose to flare / suddenly at my elbow. After closing the Book of Revelation each morning, I try to witness such angels: the way the light was dropping slow, or the wind sang in the tops of the timbered choir. And, after dropping my son at kindergarten, how I beheld that little girl smiling under her knit cap as her pinching fingers rescued a squirmy worm from the sidewalk. The students streamed to class like water around a rock as she gently placed that worm in the wet grass, grinning in that warm waggy puppy pile way of an open heart. I do know there is so much sorrow and pain, great suffering and even martyrdom. But Emily Dickinson claims faith slips – and laughs, and rallies, and I can’t stop thinking of that girl’s angelic face even now as I try to show her to you, how she beamed from ear to ear, how her wordless revelation was a bright shining hallelujah.
ANDREW TAYLOR-TROUTMAN is pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church, a congregation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and has a certificate in narrative healthcare. His recent essays have been published online at Mockingbird and his poetry at Bearings. He and his wife, Ginny, have three children.