July 31, 2020

​The Constant Catalyst

Creatures make mistakes. All the more reason to trust our Creator.

Dixil Rodríguez

The puzzle pieces may remain a bit scattered. In this case they do not have to come together in complete fashion to create the visual artifact of this familiar and ongoing story. The visual rhetoric is present in the language alone: “Then war broke out in heaven” (Rev. 12:7). Perhaps, for this specific story, a picture might not be worth just a thousand words. For as my finite human mind cannot imagine a war of such magnitude, I can appreciate the concise words and feel their weight as I am reminded of our present human condition because of war in heaven.

So many questions, turns, and intersections in sacred space. How could war begin in a place of harmony? Why would jealousy grow in an environment of peace? What poison fertilized this emotion?

I wonder when it began to take shape. What subtleties created the shredded corners of this idea? A word from the Father shared only with the Son, alone? The humble character of the Son, so loved by His Father, in a space where many outnumbered the One? Did the emotions remain so gradual that no one noticed for a time? How did Lucifer’s envy begin? At what moment did the emotion of envy grow deep roots inside him, intertwining with jealousy? Was there an opportunity when those roots could have been ripped out, self-determinedly removed? Perhaps to ensure a “point of safe return” into the peace and harmony of heaven?

The “point of safe return” (PSR) is a common acronym used with in-flight transport of patients. It is a marker to indicate that the aircraft has used more fuel than needed to return to the point of origin. You are faced with a decision to turn back or press forward. Once the PSR is crossed, there is no option but to move forward and engage any skill learned to navigate through unexpected circumstances that might eliminate the chance to reach safe harbor.

The PSR is not to be confused with a “point of no return.” The PSR has at its core the premise of benevolent travel ahead: the aircraft is carrying precious cargo. Pilots do not cross the PSR to be heroes or martyrs. Instead, they are required to use every tool in their toolbox, every lesson learned to make the journey ahead to safe harbor. Benevolent travel must be devoid of hubris, pride, envy.

“You can’t change the wind,” he says. “So adjust your sails. Story of life.”

Lucifer crossed the point of safe return and opted for a point of no return. Envy and hubris were too deeply rooted for any chance to move forward in a benevolent, repented manner. In the development of discord, at the apex of oratory, was there any doubt that justice would be wielded?

In order for justice to occur, a conflict must be set in motion, and there was. The highest crime was committed: rebellion against the government of God. The uniqueness of the relationship between the Father and the Son was used to justify the depths of evil in the self-corrupted cherub and launch the cosmos into a cosmic struggle where battle lines were drawn, sides chosen, and there was war in heaven.

The Casualties of that War

War. The powerful emotions that fueled the outburst of hubris in Lucifer were not present in heaven. Scripture does not tell of negative emotions as prevalent in heaven; they surfaced to signal a problem. These emotions were foreign. How do you navigate through an emotion for which you do not have experience, know reason, or recognize method? Was, in God’s infinite wisdom, the implementation of an army to wage war already present as a contingency plan? The chaos of an internal battle in Lucifer became the catalyst for war and a definition of justice.

When war ensued, justice prevailed. Ultimately, Lucifer and his sympathizers were expelled from heaven: “You have been cast down to the earth” (Isa. 14:12).

Once again, my finite mind takes comfort in the idea that evil was defeated. But it was something of a Pyrrhic victory. Lucifer was not expelled alone. Angels were expelled. Collateral damage: familiar faces gone; spaces now left empty. “Their loss was felt in heaven.”* And from that space outside the divine, the seeming abyss outside of heaven, the fallen were witness to creation, humanity, sin, human heartache, tribulations, broken dreams, losses, hope rebuilt, belief, the cross.

Today we keep living in pages of this story that began so long ago. A tragic Bildungsroman, an origin story for humanity, except for the insurmountable grace of God, which still fuels the journey home: the grace, miracles, blessings, hope, forgiveness, promises kept and coming—everything we need to see the story through to its denouement.

But the directional stability of our journey, that point of safe return, is complex. Why? The struggle against the unknown, unexpected, is often unrecognizable, yet very real and very present in our lives: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12). We are surrounded by the constant catalyst of doubt.

While the eschaton, in the divine plan for rescuing humanity, unfolds, we continue to be part of a story we know the ending to. As active parti-
cipants in this conflict, our daily struggles, victories, and losses are all sketched on pages, carefully written on, pages filled with text, pages turned, pages wiped clean. Still, even with the knowledge of how the story ends, humanity grapples with a variable that challenges the time and effort given to our individual character formation: freewill. Freewill coupled with doubt—and fear—is dangerous.

The Bible is filled with promises and encouragement for us to actively lose our fear, never doubt, pray for wisdom. The choices we make determine our place in this cosmic narrative. Our choices and actions affect others.

My experiential learning has taught me there is wisdom and empathy in assessing wreckage. You often end up asking: What would I have done differently in the same situation? Can we assess the wreckage of the war in heaven and choose to move forward, past the point of safe return to a point of safe harbor in benevolence, not hubris?

The Story of Life

In the middle of the storm, the lighthouse failed to do the one job it was created for.

This was not a storm “unlike any other.” It was a squall, off the coast far enough for the captain to assess and maneuver the boat; far enough for nonseafaring individuals (such as myself) to panic.

After an academic conference, I join several of my peers (now tourists) on a journey to Roman Rock Lighthouse, off the coast in South Africa, Simon’s Town. The lighthouse was built on a single rock in the middle of the ocean. Indeed, an impressive lighthouse, but also a poetic image.

The trip past the coast was not meant to be eventful, just beautiful. Unique. The ocean pristine. As we move farther away from the coastline, conversations end, silence falls among us, as we are swallowed into the scenic beauty of the
sunlight glistening on the ocean, open space and a coastline getting smaller.

In a moment of brazen bravery, I venture to the upstairs viewing deck of the boat, feel the wind, see the waves crashing against the lighthouse, giving a glimpse of the great rock, the foundation of the lighthouse. It is magnificent! I feel the mist of waves on my face (or are those tears?) as I look ahead to where the ocean and the sky meet. Speechless.

Then I see it. Dark clouds. Where have they come from? I look at the coast we have left as the wind stirs and feels different, moving faster between everything and everyone. The captain, steady on his feet, leads us below and checks our life vests as the wind picks up speed. The design of the boat allows us to view the captain steering calmly but steady through tall waves. A two-man crew listens to his commands and execute orders immediately.

In tight quarters, six tourists from
entirely different parts of the world sit quietly watching frothy waves roll past the boat. We move forward, making calculated turns. All crew members help the captain keep the directional stability of the vessel constant. I peek through the windows. The captain is steering the boat into the squall. Counter­intuitively, the captain engages the wind, preserving the fuel by working within the peripheral effects of the squall. He knows the territory. He knows where the real danger is below the waves. He is aware of the point of safe return.

In the small space below, facing our own tolerance for uncertainty, common human emotions spill out: doubt, condemnation, hubris, fear. There is a question of capable governance of the boat. As we observe the scenery gone wrong, three of my colleagues speak up and say what usually is shared in small whispers to the wind itself:

“The captain should’ve warned us there could be a squall! He wanted the fee and is not invested in us.”

“We are scholars, not average tourists! I have some nautical training. History is littered with stories of ocean wrecks by a captain like this one!”

“Lighthouses mark dangerous coastlines, hazardous reefs, rocks and safe entries to harbors, or they used to. This one is useless! He will probably run us into the rock we came to see!”

I observe those who remain quiet, rolling their eyes at the commentary. Me? I am praying, watching. As the captain steers us into the squall, the boat cuts through the waves like a knife, using wind to propel us; adequate modifications to keep us safe.

We move forward trusting the experience of our captain, potentially traveling outside the margins of a safe perimeter, avoiding jagged rocks and reefs he is aware of. There is a stream of calm in the middle of the squall: the captain’s grace. It isn’t academia we need; it is intuition. It isn’t extraordinary research in nautical travel we need; it is the memory of the terrain by a seasoned traveler.

As quickly as the squall arrived, it disappears. The cloudy skies no longer a threat, the captain invites us to step back outside and view the lighthouse, the rock it is built on is visible and impressive. I look at the fragmented group. Only three of us have returned to deck, while three remain below. The captain walks among us, nods, and when I thank him, he shakes his head.

“Story of life: calm passage, sudden chaos. Ocean of life no different,” he says, pointing at colleagues below deck. “Never be a squall in another’s life. Can’t travel alone, so don’t judge travelers ahead.” He shakes his head. “You can’t change the wind, so adjust your sails. Story of life.”

The Denouement

As we travel farther away from the memory of Eden, our need for justice increases, because in this story experiential learning becomes increasingly difficult. For humanity, the point of safe return was determined at the cross by the most benevolent act of all: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

The unknown, unexpected, the unrecognizable, are all experiences that remain in the shadow of the cross. They have been conquered before we even try to engage in them. What is left for us are choices. The point of safe return is outside the margins of human accomplishments; in God’s hand.

Even with a constant catalyst, there remains a necessity to shape our character to recognize the risks, wind, lack of spiritual fuel, wisdom to travel in chaos, empathy to recognize past wreckages of others and of our own! Pray to journey in wisdom but assert unquestionable faith to move forward in unknown distance. For now, the story continues.

* Ellen G. White, The Story of Redemption (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1947), p. 19.

Dixil Rodríguez writes from Ohio.