On the Mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Jun 9, 2023


Without question, that was the one word I heard used most often to describe the phenomenon we saw this past Wednesday, when smoke from Canadian wildfires covered our beloved city in an orange haze. I snapped this photo facing north on 5thAveat around 2 p.m. It was eery to barely be able to see what was at once the largest building in the world, at midday, only a few blocks away from where I was standing. Revelation 6:12 offers a vision of the end of the world, where the sun is covered in sackcloth, and the moon turns blood red. Not exactly what we saw a few days ago. But I confess, I never thought I’d see anything in the living world that might call such fantastic images to mind.

As I heard the word pop up again and again, it made me stop and wonder: Why? Why did we all feel this way?

Wednesday wasn’t the end of the world. But the phenomenon we just experienced certainly evokes some of the common usages of the word “apocalyptic.” More than just the final destruction of the world, for example, the term apocalypse can refer to any event involving destruction and damage on a catastrophic scale. The sort of global climate change that has led to the proliferation of these kinds of wildfires would certainly fit that description. The literary genre of apocalypse also often invokes the idea of a contest or a battle–between the forces of good and evil, right and wrong, light and darkness. And as we work for environmental justice in the 21st century, it can often feel like we are caught up in just this sort of struggle.

But in fact, before “apocalypse” meant any of those things, its most literal meaning was something more like “revelation.” That is, an apocalypse, in the most basic sense, is a moment when a person or a people are exposed to a divine perspective, in such a way that they come to see the transcendent depths of the ordinary. These ideas of a final destruction–and final battles, and the end of the world–have become entangled with our meaning for the word “apocalypse” because of the particular apocalyptic vision that was given to St. John (which we call, the Book of “Revelation”). But an apocalypse can be any confrontation with the divine intense enough to transform the way we see the world.

If nothing else, Wednesday was a phenomenon so intense that it could not be ignored. More, it forced a larger (dare I say, transcendent?) point of view into our ordinary lives. Caught up as we are with the cares and concerns of our day to day existence, it’s easy to get sucked into something of a myopic perspective. As we focus in on our limited concerns, we can have a sometimes narrow view of who we are and what our connections are to the world around us. To speak personally, I find this to be especially the case in New York City–especially here in Midtown–where the skyscrapers that tower around us create the impression that we live in an island fortress, almost as if we were walled off and protected from all that lies beyond.

It’s harder to maintain that kind of limited view once fires started thousands of miles away immerse us in an orange cloud. Or, for that matter, when we consider the fact that those fires started in large part due to climate-driven temperature changes and drought that we contribute to every day.

As I walked around on Wednesday, I prayed that everyone would be safe–especially those who have chronic, respiratory related illnesses.

And also, I prayed that the vivid realities we were seeing on display would change the way we see the world–that we might see, in new ways, the depths of our ordinary lives–and especially, the interconnectedness we share in with all of God’s creation.