Kairos or Catastrophe, Both Belong to God

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Spring comes in fits and spurts here in Appalachia — one day it will be eighty-four and the next forty-eight. The trend, however, is clearly warmer. As the mercury rises, I walk my dogs later into the evening; this both avoids the heat of the day and, in the later spring and through summer, affords ample opportunity to see the fireflies. If you have never seen them, you should make an effort to do so (but pack for heat and humidity); do not capture them, as there is no reason to pester them or interrupt their courtship rituals[1] — just enjoy their beauty as they fly around performing for each other, for the man who is in the right place at the right time, and, most of all, for God.

At any rate, three weeks ago, I was taking my evening walk with my dogs and I noticed one, single, solitary firefly. He lit up, but no other responded. Over the past week or so, more fireflies have begun to appear, but that first one was much too early. As I passed by that firefly, I thought of the concept of propitiousness — or, in Greek, καιρος (kairos). The concept of kairos applies in many areas — rhetoric, sports, politics, life. You may meet someone in a kairotic moment and then spend the balance of your life with that person; you may stand before a crowd and speak the perfect words for and in that moment; you may stumble upon someone who desperately needs your aid precisely when he needs it and you are able to render it. But there is also the opposite: antikairos. You may find yourself, metaphorically, the firefly who was weeks too early.

As limited, fallible, and fallen men, we struggle to tell kairos from καταστροφη — or, as we Anglicized it, catastrophe. Far more, of course, falls somewhere in the middle. Most jokes are not so perfect that they set the entire auditorium ablaze with laughter, but even fewer escalate into assault and murder (some do, though). So, too, we do not fall in love with or develop an intense loathing for most people we meet. Most of life is lived somewhere in that middle. This is good, for constant extremes would surely break most.

Most fireflies emerge, court, mate, and die right around the peak of firefly season — tautological and definitional, but no less true. Does this make the peak a kairotic moment? In some ways, yes, but, in others, no. Kairos is not a matter of averages and odds, but of fate. You may find a lifelong friend in a busy bar or you may meet him at a gas station with no one else around for a hundred miles. Life is, ultimately, beyond both your control and your comprehension. There are things that can be brought to heel or made to submit, and there are things that are entirely beyond your control. You may train a dog, but you will never control the weather[2]. Man can advance decent guesses about whether or not it will rain tomorrow, but God knows how many drops will fall and how many atoms, electrons, quarks are in each drop. We can act with wisdom, planning, and prudence, but our information is always incomplete and our actions will always be imperfect. This is not, and we must not treat it as, an excuse for inaction. God has given us abilities, duties, tasks, and we must perform them.

You will generally meet with neither, but you may very well meet kairos (as did certain fisherman on Lake Tiberias) or catastrophe (as did pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea), but which will meet you along the way belongs to God. You could be struck by lightning while hiking, certainly, but you could also be struck by lightning on your couch at home. For my part, ‘the mountain top or the couch’ is not a hard choice. But let us look to something more concrete.

When lies, evil, wickedness, and immorality predominate, someone must be first to stand up and oppose them. That man may be destroyed — he may be too early, he may be destroyed as part of God’s design, or he may even be too late —, but, for a certain kind of man, that hardly matters. Beauty, goodness, and truth are absolutely worth defending, and the question is not one of risk or cost. Kairos or catastrophe may await the man who stands to stem the tide, and such men are always hated (even those who are also loved by many), but it is ultimately God alone Who may judge such men and God alone Who can rightly and infallibly discern kairos from catastrophe. A man who is destroyed may yet prove to have seized a true kairotic moment, for those who follow him in spirit may complete what he could not in body.

Fear of consequences must not forestall us and fear of failure must not stay our hand. An evil future may be forestalled or a better future founded by a single man who stands up and declares: No. The wicked must be told that they may advance no further, and then they must be rolled back, but someone, some man, must be first to stand up and stand firm. He may prove to be the firefly that was too early or he may prove to be the spark that starts the conflagration. Ours is the duty; the outcome is God’s. He has never lied or done us harm, so let us trust absolutely in His promises and His good. The evil has gone far enough.

No further.

  1. If you are patient and calm, they will readily land on your hand if you stretch it out to them — there is no need to capture them to get a close look. ↩︎

  2. A bit of ‘cloud seeding’ here and there hardly counts as control. ↩︎