Grinning Skulls and Emergency Drills

May 28, 2004 | 15 comments

Elder Oaks warns us to keep a weather eye peeled for the Second Coming, or at least for the signs that precede it. He cites an increase in storms and disasters as one such sign. (Incidentally, he thinks they’re on the rise:
the list of major earthquakes in The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2004 shows twice as many earthquakes in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s as in the two preceding decades (pp. 189–90). It also shows further sharp increases in the first several years of this century. The list of notable floods and tidal waves and the list of hurricanes, typhoons, and blizzards worldwide show similar increases in recent years (pp. 188–89). Increases by comparison with 50 years ago can be dismissed as changes in reporting criteria, but the accelerating pattern of natural disasters in the last few decades is ominous.
I’d be interested–he, too, I’m sure–to have some knowledgeable person investigate whether there were anything to this, preferably someone who doesn’t reject these sorts of thing a priori, or else accept them without questioning as the visible proofs, the five wounds incarnadine, of some scientific dispute transmuted into article of faith as in the global warming debate.)
Personally, I need the occasional storm or disaster or talk on the Second Coming. I need them as a spiritual corrective in the same way medieval men needed memento morii like the skull that grins in the title to this post.

At my graduation last weekend the Dean spoke. She warned us that we were entering into a life of power and privilege, and she was right. Oh, we’ll probably feel differently, since power and privilege are such that they always seem larger in other hands, but she was right. We will soon come to know and then to expect and then to assume a certain income and respect, friends in high places, and the occasional grab at the lever that moves our local worlds. Likewise with our brother lawyers from other schools, Harvard, Columbia, the University of Chicago, or even with any fellow professional, and even, really, with most any American. Anyone who reads or writes this blog likely has an idea what life might have in store for them.

But our nation was born on a battlefield where the tune was ‘The World Turned Upside Down.’ Echoes of that tune have been heard ever since. We have at last mastered the natural state of affairs, we think—and then the date is September 11th, or the date is today, and someone somewhere is looking out their eyes at a strange new world, wondering if even the ground will keep from shaking. In God’s work of remaking He promises us tumults will come. The World, on the other hand, will tempt us to indulge our natural taste for the eternities in the present and assume that things as they are now will continue on and on forever. But the tumult will come and we’ll be shocked, angry, and despaired. God will give us a crucible and we, the Sons and Daughters of God, will fumble gaping on the edge instead of cleanly diving in. How different if we were expecting it.

Fortune’s wheel seems solid like the earth and like it whirls continually. That’s why I’m grateful for wars and rumors of wars, storms, earthquakes, and talks on the Second Coming. I need them to remember that my own world can turn upside down.

That’s partly why I like emergency drills so much. We have them here frequently at Notre Dame, thanks to the lawyers who instructed our university to put in smoke detectors as sensitive as the Princess with her pea. We all pile out of the building, stand chatting on the sidewalk, and joke about all the things left inside that may be going up in flames. I’ve had them at work, too. Everyone comes out of their routine for a little convivial time with their fellows, learns something of use, and remembers that this world doesn’t last. I prefer my memento morii this way.

I realize my satisfaction in my own incremental growth is small comfort to draw from great disasters, I know, but perhaps in God’s mercy the victims will some day (or some Day) find extra meaning in their suffering because I have been a little lifted up.


15 Responses to Grinning Skulls and Emergency Drills

  1. kaimi on May 25, 2004 at 3:13 pm


  2. Geoff B on May 28, 2004 at 3:25 pm

    Elder Oaks’ talk was one of my favorites at General Conference. I believe we need to be reminded of the storms happening in the world — both literally and figuratively — because how we respond to world events will determine our eternal fate. Will we be fooled by the forces that are trying to trick us and lull us into complacency and the espousing the philosophies of men? I believe that how we respond to the big issues of today — Iraq, the war on terrorism, gay marriage, the destruction of the family, etc. — says a lot about our eternal fates. Elder Oaks’ talk was to me a reminder that time is drawing short for determining what side you want to be on.

  3. Kaimi on May 28, 2004 at 3:26 pm

    I suspect we all need reminders of the spiritual. Some find them in the storm; some find them in the wind; some in a still small voice. A pillar of fire is a pretty good reminder, and so is a well-timed prayer or a scriptural passage. Even secular things can remind me of the spiritual.

  4. cooper on May 28, 2004 at 3:33 pm


    The statistics Elder Oakes quoted were correct. If you go to it gives you up to date info on earthquakes. There are also other databases the track other disasters such as drought, tornadoes, fires, et al at various locations on the web. A very interesting web site is . A pretty comprehensive list can be found here:

  5. cooper on May 28, 2004 at 3:37 pm

    Flubbed the html, here are the links:

    The statistics Elder Oakes quoted were correct. If you go to USGS it gives you up to date info on earthquakes. There are also other databases the track other disasters such as drought, tornadoes, fires, et al at various locations on the web. A very interesting web site is Earthweek. A pretty comprehensive list can be found here: TMGLinks

  6. Adam Greenwood on May 28, 2004 at 4:37 pm

    Kudos to Kaimi, who found this lost post.

  7. Kingsley on May 28, 2004 at 6:00 pm

    Adam writes: “But the tumult will come and we’ll be shocked, angry, and despaired.”

    Kingsley writes: It’s interesting that Sunday School discussions of “the Last Days” (da da da dum) are usually cool & collected while Sunday School discussions of “current events” are usually a little more shrill, political, shocked, angry, despairing, etc. Reading about crises in Jerusalem in Scripture gets one response, seeing crises in Jerusalem on CNN gets another. Perhaps if we’d get more resigned (in a good way–i.e. we believe Scripture when it tells us that wars & rumors of wars are inevitable) to the fact that our nations (even the U.S.!), our institutions, our cultures, our clubs, etc. etc. etc., are all as doomed as our bodies to eventual decay & death, we’d focus more on the Good News–Christ has overcome decay & death–& be more at peace overall as a result. The lessons of Matt. 24 really need to be digested–horrors are here, horrors are coming; but those who stand in holy places need not give in to fear.

  8. jeremobi on May 28, 2004 at 6:24 pm

    Elder Oaks nicely tied our spiritual preparedness to our temporal awareness. But why are we shocked to find that natural disasters often wreak unnatural levels of havoc?

    Earthquakes aside, many of these events are not really natural disasters. They are natural events, but they are mostly man-made disasters.

    Wars, pollution, deforestation, and global warming accelerate and intensify the damage caused by nature and destroy the world’s mountain ranges, leading to water shortages and increased “natural” disasters” such as landslides, avalanches, and catastrophic flooding.

    Science and spirituality both offer evidence that more and more of this devastation is the consequence of both ecologically destructive practices (poor stewardship) and an increasing number of people living in harm’s way. Duh.

    Sand dunes, barrier islands, mangrove forests and coastal wetlands are natural shock absorbers that protect against coastal storms. Forests, floodplains and wetlands are sponges that absorb floodwaters. If we deforest beyond repair, re-route rivers, and fill in sensitive wetlands, we run the risk of unraveling the complex ecological safety net God prepared for us.

    Witness the price Mississippi River communities pay for a “conquering nature” mentality. First they settled and farmed in flood-prone areas. Then they drained wetlands and farmlands that used to sponge up water during floods. Then they built levees and floodwalls that imprisoned rivers into tight channels, walling them off from their natural flood plains.

    All those artificial barriers, along with an over-generous federal flood insurance program, inspire a false sense of security that encourages even more Americans to build in those flood plains. Then, shock and awe, eight hundred-year-floods in a decade and a half!

    And consider this: something like one-third of the world’s population now lives within 75 miles of a coastline, and 13 or 14 of the world’s 19 or twenty mega-cities (those with more than 10 million people) are in coastal zones. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates during the last century global average sea level rose about 10-20 centimeters.

    The IPCC projects that sea levels will rise another 9-88 centimeters by 2100.Those numbers will challenge not only Viet Nam and Bangladesh, but also the entire Mediterranean region and the American Atlantic coast.

    And if we can project far enough into the future to raise long-term concerns about Seattle’s sprawling creep towards Mt. Rainier, imagine what the Pacific Northwest will look like should the Juan de Fuca plate suddenly slip.

    All this suggests we ought to start clearly defining “holy places”, a la Kingsley’s comment, since the temple in Samoa is due for a baptism by water to go with the fire of a few years ago!

    The signs (especially those we collectively create) are all here and increasing in number. But what do we do about it? Hold drills that manage symptoms, but provide no, not even partial, cures? Become fatalistic and turn from fear rather than dealing with it (do we dare do this when there may well be much we can do?)? Circle the wagons? Reject the world? Convince ourselves the world is doomed, but we’ve nothing to do with it and, therefore, are unburdened with responsibility? Not sure that will fly at the judgement bar. Twiddle our thumbs? Spend another hour blogging? :>)

  9. Kingsley on May 28, 2004 at 6:40 pm

    Jeremobi: I’ve always thought of “holy places” as having to do with the soul, a la Wittgenstein, who thought that one of religion’s greatest advantages was that it removed all fear from the true believer, who knew that no matter what happened to the world, nothing could happen to him. Not that he was earthquake-proof, etc., but that what he essentially was, i.e. what was holiest in him, was something the claws & jaws of the world could never touch.

  10. jeremobi on May 28, 2004 at 7:00 pm


    Sorry. Perhaps I was not clear enough. I assumed, I think correctly, that your understanding of holy places was “other worldly” or transcendent. Mine, too. My point was that this message, your definition, while perhaps doctrinally accurate is neither well taught and understood, nor common. A jaunt around this blog reveals a whole lot of worldly fear, mine included. So few are true believers.

  11. Jack on May 29, 2004 at 1:17 pm

    I think the phrase “stand in the Holy Place” as found in Matt.24 refers to the Holy Place found in anciet temples – that place which precedes the Holy of Holies. There we find symbols that have to do with spiritual life. While these symbols may noy be discussed often in the church, they are IMO understood intuitively by most members. (renewal of covenants, companionship of the Holy Ghost, constant prayer, etc.)

  12. Sheri Lynn on May 29, 2004 at 6:18 pm

    I took a course in volcanoes and earthquakes this past spring. I thought it would be a fluff class–no! Quite the contrary. After a short time studying all the things that have happened to this earth one begins to realize that this is not a time of waiting but rather a blessed time in which Heavenly Father is holding nature off. When a substantial asteroid passes between Earth and the moon, and we never saw it coming–that’s a warning even atheists should consider. I read an article yesterday that there is evidence that a firestorm engulfed the entire earth after an asteroid hit near Mexico 44 million years ago. Very little survived. Now we can look at that as God preparing the earth for us! However, our planet’s path is not yet completely swept clean of all such hazards, and I don’t see much sign that the human race is ready to put aside its other business to work on preventing the next such mishap. We could do it–we have the capacity–but we won’t until it’s too late.

    We haven’t had a volcano to compare with Krakatoa, yet we have many volcanoes adjacent to heavily populated areas that are quite capable of producing one. Yellowstone could awaken. The Kobe quake killed far more people than the Northridge quake–only because of population distribution, for both quakes were of comparable size and only a year apart.

    Why aren’t we all already dead? How do we live? It truly is a result of mercy beyond our ability to appreciate.

    Even the size of the electron is part of the divine plan–and it’s all under control and meant to be. I find that very calming.

  13. Times and Seasons » on September 25, 2004 at 1:13 am



    by Kaimi Wenger

    I know we believe in a God of hurricanes, but this is starting to get ridiculous. (Link via Froomkin). < [...]

  14. a random John on September 25, 2004 at 12:24 pm

    For once I fail to find the Snoopes debunking to be convincing. Of course a hurricane is larger than the thin line depicts, but it does have a eye that travels a particular path. I would guess that there has been destruction in pretty much all of Florida. In any case, I find the cartoon to be a funny look at a tragic situation. Two tragic situations if you were a Gore supporter.

  15. Chris Grant on September 25, 2004 at 1:37 pm

    a random John writes: “Of course a hurricane is larger than the thin line depicts, but it does have a eye that travels a particular path.”

    And the eye did not travel the path that Bob Morris’s hoax indicates. Charley’s eye passed through both Orange and Volusia counties. Frances’s eye did not dodge the bloc of 3 Gore counties on Florida’s west central shore but plowed right through the middle of them. And Ivan’s eye barely nicked Florida’s northwest corner.

    “I find the cartoon to be a funny look at a tragic situation.”

    How is this a cartoon?


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