top of page

Surviving Apocalypse

1 Advent B

3 Dec 2023


Growing up in the 1950’s I remember three kinds of emergency drills in school: fire drills (always fun because you got out of class for a bit and got to go outside), tornado drills (also fun for the same reason save you were inside) and nuclear holocaust drills, where all you had to do to escape oblivion was hide under your desk. That one was not much fun because you didn’t get to leave the room. It was, of course, an exercise in utter futility, but one that made grown-ups think they were doing something to save us.

Two drills were practical preparation for something that, while not in our control, we could be safe and protected if we did the right things. The nuclear drill was, well, completely and utterly futile. It was an apocalypse that we would not survive.

We hear the news coming from Gaza and Ukraine; in the not-too-distant past it was Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The names and the places change; the story is the same. The apocalypse comes. Perhaps it is hard for most of us to sense that, living as we do in relative security. There are people in our midst who have lived through the end of the world they knew; many of the residents of Storm Lake, Marshalltown, and Denison and so many other places in Iowa, came to the United States fleeing violence and destruction in their native lands. During the time they were in our church in Denison, I heard firsthand stories of the apocalypse the Karen faced in Myanmar. People have seen the end of the world and found salvation in the voices of their prophets.

Our own nation undertook the intentional destruction of Native peoples to obtain the land and all it contained. [1] Manifest Destinay, the patently false belief that God ordained all of what is now the United States to be the realm of white Europeans, what something I remember learning in school. I hope my memory is correct that books and teachers did not claim it was true.

Against the evils being perpetrated against Native Peoples, prophets arose, just as they did in Jesus’ time. What are the readings for today if not the voice of the prophet? Even Jesus was speaking in a prophetic voice. He, like Isaiah and all the prophets, lived in a time of cataclysm due to human evil intent. For Jesus’ followers it was Rome; for the followers of Native American prophets, it was the Doctrine of Discovery. People come to believe their lives do not matter; prophets emphatically tell us they do matter! They warn, reveal (not predict), instruct, and as mystics help people find the future within themselves.

In what is now upstate New York lived the peoples of the Iroquois confederacy, one of the most powerful of all Native collaborations. It is said that their basis of governance became a model for the US Constitution. After the Revolutionary War, the tribes came upon very hard times, with lands lost and disease, alcoholism, hunger, and a collapse of societal framework all contributing to their apocalypse. Out of that doomed society arose a prophet whose name in English was Handsome Lake. He was in the middle of his life and in ill health because of alcoholism. Then he had a vision where he was three men sent by the creator who gave him a message to deliver to his people: stop the practices that were destroying themselves: alcohol, witchcraft, charms, and bad medicines. Handsome Lake told the people they had lost their way and needed a personal spiritual awakening and personal accountability in their own hearts. He talked about an afterlife where hell existed for those who had taken the bad road, and he instituted the sacrament of personal confession of sin. This was radical for the Iroquois but was a way to prevent annihilation. Handsome Lake, in another vision, met Jesus, who told him he had done a better job getting people to believe him than Jesus himself had done. Jesus also told Handsome Lake not to follow the ways of Whites, but to honor their own traditions and ways of living. The prophet instituted dances and songs and a sacred calendar, as well as reviving ancient traditions. He even went to Thomas Jefferson and espoused his vision of equality between Natives and Whites.

The religion he founded is still practiced today. It saved the Iroquois, who to this day have a distinctive society with clans and a strong community ethic, combined with the aspects of religion that he introduced. The concept of heaven and hell were introduced, but most importantly he turned his people from a mindset of “we” to one of “me”. This may sound like self-serving behavior, but what he did was introduce personal responsibility. The individual was responsible for his or her actions and how they affected the community. It wasn’t either/or; it was both/and.

Why am I telling all of this to you? It is not to open your eyes to a facet of history you may not have been taught in school, although that is a good thing if you were. It is rather to help us see how our own prophets are still there to teach us to embrace is good from our past, those traditions and ways that make us unique. Steven Charleston[2] proposes we, as a dominant non Native culture (albeit a diverse one) can learn to do the opposite of the Iroquois: we can turn from the “me” to the “we.”

What if we, by which I mean the collective “we” of society as well as the “we” meant by you and I, decided life was more important than lifestyle? Our efforts to confront the issues that face us, from housing and food insecurity to climate change, from immigration and racism to medical care, would become solvable and manageable. Think about how something affects YOU, then think about how something affects US.

Isaiah laments God has forgotten his people and the people have forgotten God. Paul tells us that we have found a way in the teachings of Jesus; we are called into fellowship, into a communal way of being, by his teachings. And Jesus himself says that we are to follow those teachings, to keep awake as it were, until the commonwealth of God comes in its fullness.

So here we sit, awaiting the birth of our savior and his second coming. How will we conduct our lives as we wait?

[1] If you would like to learn more about the Doctrine of Discovery (the over 500 year old pronouncement by a pope that any lands not occupied by Christians were to be claimed by Christians as their own) Sarah Augustine’s The Land is Not Empty is a good starting point. Much of our current law concerning land and Indigenous peoples is grounded in that proclamation. [2] In his latest work, We Survived the End of the World, Charleston looks at four Native prophets and their legacies for their people and how non Natives might benefit from their teachings.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page