The Beginning of Sorrows

Beyond signals of Christ’s imminent return, recent disasters are reminders of our task as leaders.

Writing six months after the fury of Hurricane Katrina may seem late, but with the end-times focus of this issue of the magazine, I am moved to relay a word spoken to my spirit three days after that storm hit New Orleans. I believe Katrina contained a word—a trumpet call to clarity of thought about where we are and what we're doing as pastors and leaders, now.

I have no doubt that you, just as I did, watched with stunned shock as New Orleans became a soup bowl of swill, flooding millions out of home, business and church properties. Like watching the World Trade Center towers dissolve into flaming dust, you felt you were watching something that—at least until that moment—you could only expect to see via a special-effects trick computerized into a Hollywood flick.

But it was real. And I will never forget watching the levees crumble before my eyes and feeling the Holy Spirit's heartbreak within me prompting compassionate intercession for the sparing of lives, the intervention of God's grace and the applied wisdom of emergency workers on the scene there.

The mess didn't go away. Over the next two days, even though the storm winds were past, the situation got worse, and my heart felt weighed down with pain for the human agony we witnessed: people standing on rooftops, families weeping as small crafts carried them from their homes, refugees stretched out in makeshift rescue centers from tent cities to Houston's Astrodome. But it was the third day that I heard a voice in my soul. Let me preface that prophetic "word" by providing two points of background I feel are important to contextualizing it.

I know my own emotions when it comes to observing natural disaster and its impact on people. I pastored a city, along with so many other shepherds in Los Angeles, through the aftermath of 1994's Northridge earthquake. I know the heaviness on the soul, on the culture, when disaster hits. But the "heaviness" I felt on the third day after Katrina was very, very different.

I heard the Spirit of God speak directly from the eternal Scriptures, words spoken by Jesus Himself—prophesied regarding the end times. There is no doubt in my mind that I am on safe terrain with this word—it comes out of God's Word, not only as a concept but as a direct statement.

It was three days into the aftermath of the hurricane's passing, while standing our den at home watching the live TV report of the status of things as of that moment, that I sensed a different heaviness.

It wasn't the emotional burden of shock, or the pained feelings for suffering people: I had felt these things already, and I had prayed and taken action along with other leaders at Foursquare's central offices as well as at The Church On The Way—action hastening relief teams and resources to the scene.

Feeling the deep heaviness still on me, I prayed: "Lord, I don't understand this burden; this is different than what I have felt before." And it was at that precise moment, a voice spoke deep within my being: "These are the beginning of sorrows." Though few, the words were crystal clear. They were weighty ... sobering, prompting me to prayerfully inquire further.

Of course I knew they were from Matthew 24:8, and was also aware that the Greek word translated "sorrows" means "birth pains." I began to see their special significance in the context of the moment, and turned to read their context—the New Testament passage recording Jesus' longest single prophetic teaching on the "end times."

As the Savior employs the idea of a woman in travail to make His point, He poignantly lists a series of "sorrows"—including societally-, naturally- and demonically-instigated disasters and heartbreak, revealing that they will come with gradually increasing intensity and frequency of pain, as with a woman's contractions en route to delivery of a child at birth. As I reflected on that, something else attended the moment.

I wouldn't necessarily suggest I saw a vision, but the next moment my thoughts were flooded by an unsought selection of mental "video-clips." They weren't assembled by analysis or reflection, but seemed to simply be streamed through my consciousness.

Without meditation, a rash of scenes spun before my mind's eye: the wreckage of the train blown up by terrorists in Madrid, the complete devastation of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, following the tsunami, the bloody bodies and scattered limbs from human carcasses at a Tel Aviv or Jerusalem suicide bombing scene—and other horrors as well: mudslides, earthquake-demolished multi-story apartment houses, along with the increase of mindless or demon-ministered murders and acts of depravity.

The connection was obvious: Katrina was being focused in my understanding as more than a single, painful event. Rather, I felt the Spirit of God seeking to impress me with the fact that this horror is among a cluster of things that we must understand will not only increase in number but in the devastating awfulness and agony our planet—our own nation—will experience as we spiral ever more closely toward "The End."

Let me hasten to say: I felt no need to issue any chronological timetables. But I did (and do) feel a heightened urgency regarding my accountability as a leader during days like ours.

Ordinarily such a word might seem to prompt a dour fatalism for some people, but I believe the "heaviness" it might hold is that which biblical prophets refer to as "the burden of the Lord." It's God's weighty call, alerting us by His Word—issuing a warning that calls the sensitive hearer to action. Such words are not doomsday prophecies, they are "your-day" prophecies—words God gives to prompt those who lead to greater expectancy, greater faithfulness and greater accountability to their task.

Katrina was just one storm,one explosion, one disaster, one upheaval—a single event among many more that have happened and will increase in a compact number of years—years encompassing your and my leadership. And to be sensitized to that is neither to project a specific timeline or prophecy any more than it is to prompt despair.

To the contrary, it is a call to hope—a call to take our place in our hour, bouyed in faith, knowing God's future through His own as well as for His own is always hope-filled! To focus practical steps of response, let me offer three thoughts that distilled in my own soul following that post-Katrina encounter.

We need to be shaken!

Jesus' message in Matthew 24 is directly tied to His "midnight call" parable in chapter 25. The ten virgins awaiting the bridegroom's return and the wedding celebration divide evenly into "the ready" and "the unready." There are two points:

First, even those interested in the coming wedding are divided in their "readiness." In short, being "interested" in prophecy doesn't qualify as being alive to the prophetic moment!

Second, the distinction He makes is between those who have oil and those who don't. In other words, to have had an experience in the Spirit's anointing is no substitute for my living in the fullness of His presence daily—my light shining in today's darkness. Here was a "Katrina shake-up, wake-up call." Our bridegroom is coming soon! Let's go forth—ablaze daily—to meet Him!

We need to be sobered!

In the same vein, Luke 17:22-37 warns of the dangers of living in days likened to "the days of Noah." They point to the ease with which people will be "drunk"—not only by alcohol, but by means that dupe or disorient us. For some among us who believe, the headiness of the wine of success holds the potential of a kind of inebriated fall.

I also wonder if the growing habit of superficial worship—so happily celebrative, but so seldom leading to sobering encounters with God—might qualify as a point of danger? In any case, let us pray, "Lord Jesus, I invite Your review of my habits, my reading, my worship, my entertainment, my diversions and any inadvertent presumptuousness or rationalized compromises. Guard me, dear Lord, from the dullness of this age's drunkenness."

We need to be secured!

Luke's gospel (12:39-40) also discerns the secretive, undermining and end-times "digging through"—of the break-in of a home, which Jesus likens unto the personal loss of values which reduce an individual's readiness for His return. He notes the other thief (see John 10:10), our Adversary—so very different from our heavenly Bridegroom who will "come as a thief in the night (see 1 Thess. 5:2).

But a constant sensitivity to the Holy Spirit's warning will avoid such loss, and for me, the "word" following Katrina pins the call on the wall: We aren't called to talk "end times," but called to live and lead in them—shaken awake to the hour, sobered by its seriousness, and secured in Christ as those who will lead in His wisdom as we remain guarded against all that would erode the values and clarity of purpose to which we're appointed in Him.

Jack W. Hayford, Litt.D., is the founder of The church on the Way in Van Nuys, California; chancellor of The King's College and Seminary and the president of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

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