The Explorer’s Way of Discipleship

 In the face of the failure in the West of an anthropocentric “Gospel” which is a passive and consumer-based offer of “betterment” I am excited to put forward “The Explorer’s Way of Discipleship” which is theocentric, active, creative and “generative in its theology, and which embraces a living discipleship of transformation that can change all our lives.

BY CHRISTOPHER MACDONALD, BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA

I was shocked to learn in one of my last seminary classes that, seriously, the history of theology records that about 95% of theological writings have been written in reaction to or against something seen as harmful.  That means theology, By necessity, has been dominated by a negative polemic – always been framed as “against” this or that – and this is the way we have come to learn how to teach.

I am not going to suggest that this has not been necessary on many occasions, but it explains why we possess so little truly positive theology that is creative, exploratory and whimsical. It is why we don’t have a line of folk waiting to suit up as Explorers.

Lest I fall into the same trap, I am choosing to follow Focus Point Four in this paper and work off a “generative theology” that is creative, open, exploratory, and deeply biblical. It is time we got a grip and started to move forward in faith, hope and love.

To jump ahead and explain “generative theology” a bit. It is simply’ a theology based in agape (gift) love which is tethered directly to the cross of Christ as serious disciples but also but also free within His living Lordship and the Holy Spirit to explore the full gamut of Biblical Truth. As it is based in Good News that reconciles, it is creative and hopeful and carries with it disciplines that outwardly-imposed morality can never match. It is not based in criticising or being against others though it may find lines of clear disagreement and departure. It seeks peace and to serve through Art and Word. It looks for connections that are real and grounded in scripture, in nature and in relationship.

The word “generative’” points to its creativity but should not be mistaken to say that it is generating a whole new fresh theology or theologies. Rather it is finally mining those rich corridors of theological ore which have been available all along but have been neglected in our seemingly unending need to tell other people where they are “wrong.” It is the unexplored country of “rightness” and beauty which scripture has always been the sole repository of. I will return to its beauty later in this presentation; but hopefully, all that proceeds will be “generative.”

FOCUS ONE:CHRIST THE CENTER (THEOCENTRIC OVER ANTHROPOCENTRIC WORLDVIEW)

It seems that somewhere along the way ( I am guessing the Enlightenment) we shifted or adopted a larger anthropocentric world-view. So much so we can hardly see that it has become our sole way of perception and our reference point. But scripture presents us with a theocentric (in many cases more specifically Christocentric) world-view. How might that deeply effect the ways we perceive and interpret the world? What if this is, in fact, much closer to reality than any of the myriad of anthropocentric views?

A simple example from the Gospels would be Jesus’ refrain “you have heard it said…but I say to you…” (and the contrasts put forward) and His teachings on the Kingdon of God” in direct contrast with earthly kingdoms.

I would ask the reader to re-read the Gospels and ask honestly if they present a theocentric or anthropocentric worldview; and if the latter, how much are we missing by not adopting the same?

Isn’t it possible that our profound unhappiness, emptiness and even confusion in the Church isn’t just a by-product of our stepping into the central place?. Could we not all relax and more easily “accept and celebrate” our diversity of we located ourselves around a great rim whose spokes all led back to one core Center which was Christ Himself?

I have watched while large denominations have had “Re-Imagining God” conferences. While it sounds mildly hip. isn’t one core point that the God who is “other” chose to reveal God’s own Self in a way we could understand?  Isn’t “re-imagining” God while God is attempting to clearly communicate God’s own Self really at cross purposes?

And God’s attempt has been by becoming not just sympathetic- but actually by becoming one of us in all ways even gestating in a womb for nine months.

Of course more than this is revealed as well. God in Christ is revealed as the Center of not only Creation at its inception, but also currently (Colossians 1:15-23). He is also revealed far more as “Lord” than “Savior” – and important view as that is.that possibly explains why St. Paul would “bring every thought captive” to Him (2 Corinthians 10). There is no quarter given to an anthropocentric Gospel or even that general worldview. God does not exist for us; we exist and find our being in God.

Jesus wants to be the Center and, indeed is so while we are not. He said:

“Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

FOCUS TWO: TRANSFORMATION OVER A “BETTERMENT GOSPEL

Our crisis of theology and leadership has to do with our confusion over who we are, where we are going, and the nature of the “Good News.”

Doesn’t the Gospel, at its core, comes with an offer of rescue? Is there really any real talk in Jesus or any of the Apostles about “betterment” of our current situation and to somehow “Christianize” our worldly way of doing life? It seems to me rather that we are the Titanic and there will be no betterment of this ship only a variety of costly rescue and salvage operations meant to get as many people to safety as possible. A program of human betterment as the essential Gospel is like rearranging deck chairs on that tragic ship. It demonstrates a profound confusion over the state of affairs, where we are headed (for they would simply improve life on the boat and leave it at sea) and the nature of our passage (temporary).

Jesus, Paul and John never talk about “improvement,” only being “transformed.” Metamorphoses – the taking of us as one thing and transforming us into something different…

Rescue must come first. It helps if you have some idea of what you have been rescued from but it is not a requirement.

Jesus, Paul and John never talk about “improvement,” only being “transformed.” Metamorphoses – the taking of us as one thing and transforming us into something different is what they speak of.  St. John says,

See what kind of love the Father has given us so that we might be called children of God—and we are. Therefore the cosmos does not know us, because it did not know him. 2Beloved ones, now we are children of God, and what we shall be has not yet become apparent. We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:1-3) [1]

Paul speaks of this transformation using the same word Matthew uses for transfiguration:

Therefore I implore you, brothers, by God’s mercies, to present your bodies as a living, holy, acceptable sacrifice to God, your rational worship; And do not be configured to this age, but be transformed by renewal of the intellect, so you may test the will of God, which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12;1-2) [2]

 

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Text-explorative related candles custom made weekly. First-Century oil lamp replica.

Here the contrast is specifically between a stylish “betterment” (the Greek word is a form of schema from which we get schematic, and a substantial inner transformation which requires one to place one’s whole self at God’s disposal (v. 1) as a means of personal existential sacrifice. This is said to be “transfiguring.”

On some level, we all know this is true and possibly just avoid Jesus’ words about “taking up your cross” to follow Him. We fail to see that this transformative way of life is really the only avenue open that breeds freedom and life. “Amen, amen, I tell you, unless the grain of wheat falling to the ground dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it bears plenteous fruit.” (John 12:24)[3]

Amid a subtle American prosperity Gospel that is repackaged in a stunning variety of ways and churches which choose to only offer principle-driven ways of personal “betterment”, we should note the decline of the Church in the West. It is as if by trying to compete as a Consumer product “Gospel” ceases to truly be vibrant “Good News” at all and just blends in with infomercials and the mass variety of other betterment products available to Americans with a disposable income, Suddenly Christianity is a personal “for me” investment not a calling and a relationship. You can see why it lapses into a kind of slow killing off of faith.

Isn’t the call to active discipleship (Students or Explorers for Christ in a school of transformation) much more apt to bring real change, enliven real faith and move people out of the roles of passive church consumers to active transformative life in Christ? A Student/Learner or Explorer is an active Disciple.

FOCUS THREE: DEPTH EXEGESIS/EXPLORATION OVER THE PASSIVE VIEWER CONSUMER MODEL

Jesus spent more time discipling His close group of followers than he did preaching, healing or doing anything else during His three years of public ministry. And through that discipling the world was changed. Aren’t we doing the opposite – selling Christian experiences like something you can buy in bulk down at “Christco in a 5 gallon drum via our pre-packaged theologies, betterment books and programs for “successful Christian living?”

Does Jesus present Gospel in this way or through enigmatic parables that challenge? Does Paul offer such a slick package or careful and heartfelt instruction meant to grow men and women up into maturity (Ephesians 4:11-17)

Megachurches are set up to accommodate mass audiences who will sit and passively watch a presentation. A few hours later can anyone recite the real content of the message or just the title?  It is a passive model – like television where the only relevant question is “did you like it?”

The Problem with passive viewership and consumer religion is that it leaves people unchanged and in many cases actually inoculated to transformation.

In contrast, an interactive, dialogical and immersive exploration of biblical texts and worship combined with active discipleship cannot help but begin to change lives. As Mike Breen points out “Most of us have become quite good at the church thing. And yet, disciples are the only thing that Jesus cares about, and it’s the only number that Jesus is counting.” (Building a Discipling Culture) .

In our latest active study: Adventures with Doctor Luke: Middle Eastern Parables and Narratives of Jesus, we employ a dynamic format built for exploring the text in an open yet also disciplined fashion. Sticking to Middle Eastern (Hebraic) peasant roots, more technical notes on the text are sent out a few days in advance so we are not bogged down in the minutiae of language studies or spend all our time on Hebrew poetic form when we really want to get to what is being said in the text.

I act as a facilitator attempting to draw out as many comments from each Explorer as possible in each session of our “micro-exegesis.” I make sure to include quieter members of the group by asking questions or having them be the readers.

Participants are not only learning the Gospel of Luke over 15 weeks, they are also learning how to use the direct tool of biblical interpretation and how to think biblically while they explore.

There is always an immersive/interactive element. Examples can be found in the chart below for weeks 2-6.

WEEK 2        LUKE 7:36-50           RECLINING AT TABLE (MIDDLE EASTERN MEAL DURING STUDY
WEEK 3        LUKE 10:25-37         BANDAGE IMAGINED WOUND AFTER OIL AND WINE APPLIED
WEEK 4        LUKE 10:38-11:13     BREAD, EGG AND FISH BEHIND THE CURTAIN AS GIFT
WEEK 5        LUKE 12:13-21          GAMESHOW: “O MAN!”
WEEK 6        LUKE 12;22-39        ART PROJECT: LILLIES OF THE FIELD

Naturally, in such an open (but guided) format, theological and philosophical life questions arise which tempt the group to stray from the textual study. In this case, anything major is put on reserve for “Round Two” discussions after the exegetical study of the narrative. Parable or both has been concluded.

The study itself is scheduled each week for one hour only so as to not be burdensome, but Expolorers have ritually chosen to expand the time to three to four hours of spirited group exploration. I attribute much of this directly to the participatory and non-passive nature of the format.

It should also be noted that such a study method places exegesis and biblical studies prior to theology (horse firmly before all carts).

In our study time we are simply free to follow the text wherever they go  “come what may” – not in subjectivity, but rather against the firm bedrock of scholarship and embedded in 1st Century studies that keep the study contextualized.

One student., commenting on the team effort, said “I really feel like an Explorer!” And as every “disciple” is a “student of Jesus” we want to foster this reality.

FOCUS FOUR: GENERATIVE THEOLOGY

Taking direct cues from artist and theologian Makoto Fujimura (The Brehm Institute/Fuller Seminary) and his book Culture Care, I saw that the same crises that happened in the Arts under Modernity had struck Theology at the same time as well.  It was just that this last blow, starting at the turn of the last Century all but extinguished any fresh theology from consideration. It was either being deconstructed  and reinterpreted in a culture of Skepticism that reduced it to a bland liberal moralism; or it was being held hostage by “Funda-gelical” reactionaries whose dominant paradigms involved fear and power. In every case it all goes hand in hand with a deeply anthropocentric world-view and then attempting to compensate for that loss via creating consumer religion.

Fujimura has envisioned a way out of the tragedy of Modernity in his work through “Generative Art.” Given the close parallels and root disease for both the Arts and Theology, I saw no reason that  “Generative Theology” would not also be possible.

What does that term mean? A creative/explorative and generative theology is 1) free to proclaim prophetically while being faithful to the biblical witness and 2) does not jettison what is valuable in any of the work which has been done via the previous approach as if a new vision for theology can be done in a vacuum or is the end-all and be-all.

That also means it is more than a peace-at-any-cost ecumenicism. It truly sees all three major branches of the Church as common heritage and currently as One Body. Expolorers are free to draw from the entire catalog of Church history and should. This is unprecedented.

Does it mean we should not be on guard or there is no place for polemics or apologetics? Of course not. But let’s no longer be limited to only doing those things or thinking that is our only way of operating.

In searching my mind for theologians in my lifetime who are, or were Generative theologians the only person who truly comes to mind is Thomas  Merton. One can argue that C.S. Lewis – when not doing apologetics- was also doing Generative work in both his fiction and in books like Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer and The Weight of Glory.)  But really it was Merton who chose new themes to write on and explore which were 1) not against anyone, and 2) were not polemics or apologetics (or even a practical guide to a way of life).

Generative Theology would produce those books – like the new ones on Christ’s glory or on the Great Christological Hymn and how it might be connected with quantum physics as well as the search for human meaning. And a new generation of commentaries not adjudicated by immediate American concerns or reduced to pragmatic “principles” (I call this homogenization) for use as consumer products. Theological pursuits not determined solely by what is politically en vogue, but which can draw from the seemingly inexhaustibly suggestive nature of the 66 books we hold sacred.

It is here that the word generative once again becomes important. Just as God is to be worshiped for God’s own sake, so great theology is to be done because it is true and it is at the core of being human to explore and document the full range of human experience. This theological expression should not be dominated by a theology primarily “against.” but be essentially a theology “for” especially as the “Good News” it is at the core of that theology. That it retains an edgy polemic against falsehood is, of course, necessary. The character and witness of the New Testament demonstrate this, but it is not all consuming leading to the myopia and hair-splitting we have currently come to.

The summary call is to healthy discipleship as life-long learner/explorers of our living Lord. Let uus no long be derailed or distracted from our ciore cource materials in the Word of God but remain open to how God speaks through nature and one another dynamically through His living Holy Spirit. With Christ ever as the Center of attention things are kept both loyal and in balance. Seep roots can grow and richer soil be cultivated for the Word to grow.

We will find that people never did want to be entertained – not really. What they wanted was something meaningful to do and a sense of calling. As such they will be willing to give up the tricks and treats of Consumer Religion easily in favor of active discipleship that is purpose-filled, And you will see the grip of life-long sins weaken not through some dead moralizg (which happens to strengthen them in most cases) but rather because people will have a sense of the reality of being transformed into something new, not just briefly morally improved or made “better.”

Lastly a word for the bored and there are millions of you out there simply bored to tears. Exploring a Universe where Christ is the Center and doing generative theology is truly new country to explore/ Think of going to an Explorer’s Group that is not only not like some social obligation but where every week you – as a group – uncover new things about God and the Universe – things that directtly inpact your life.

That is what happens in our Adventures with Doctor Luke or C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves  studies. I may facilitate bit I doubt I speak up more than 20-25 percent of the time. The rest is drawing out the best work and thoughts from the class itself as we explore together.

UPCOMING CLASSES

God in the Dock (C.S. Lewis Book study) Summer 2018

Gospel of John: Book of Signs: Fall 2018

New Seeds of Contemplation (Book Study) “Morning with Thomas Merton” TBD

 

 

 

 

1] THE NEW TESTAMENT: A TRANSLATION BY DAVID BENTLY HART (KINDLE LOCATIONS 10762-10765). YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. KINDLE EDITION.
[2] IBID., (KINDLE LOCATIONS 7065-7068). YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. KINDLE EDITION.
[3] IBID., (KINDLE LOCATIONS 4717-4718). YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. KINDLE EDITION.
 [4] F.F. BRUCE REMARKS “THIS IS ONE OF THE GREAT CHRISTOLOGICAL PASSAGES OF THE NT, DECLARING AS IT DOES OUR LORD’S DIVINE ESSENCE, PRE-EXISTENCE, AND CREATIVE AGENCY. YET, HIGH AS THE CHRISTOLOGY IS, IT DOES NOT APPEAR TO BE ORIGINAL TO PAUL HIMSELF; BUT RATHER PART OF WHAT HE “RECEIVED” AS PRIMITIVE CHRISTIAN TEACHING.”
[5] BECKER, ERNEST THE DENIAL OF DEATH,. FREE PRESS 1975
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St. Athanasius: A Man for All Seasons

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St. Athanasius

ATHANASIUS: THE TRUE MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

By Christopher C. MacDonald  

As impressive as Paul Scofield was in his portrayal of Thomas More in the 1966 film A Man For All Seasons, the man of conscience depicted there cannot really hold a candle to St. Athanasius who was once known as “Athanasius Contra Mundum (Latin forAthanasius Against the World).”[1]

My assertion is that in the middle of our relativistic Postmodern landscape in which we have either commercialized Jesus into a form of “Betterment Gospel” or dispersed him in some form of idealized semi-Gnostic way it is exactly with Athanasian clarity that we need to re-frame – or at least refresh – our Christology in significant ways.

The following are four short snapshots from Athanasius’ brilliantly compact booklet entitledOn the Incarnation. Each was selected expressly for its relevance to the current Postmodern situation.

Let us admit from the outset that while Athanasius had enemies it was a smaller pool. He did not have to answer an unending number of critics coming from all sides. Nor did he have to deal with the legacies of centuries old “theologies” and traditions (as he was writing in the Fourth Century.)

Context

Athansius sees the controversy or question over the “Word made flesh” in terms straight out of 1 Corinthians 1:18-23 concerning the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God:

Now, Macarius, true lover of Christ, we must take a step further in the faith of our holy religion, and consider also the Word’s becoming Man and His divine Appearing in our midst. That mystery the Jews traduce, the Greeks deride, but we adore; and your own love and devotion to the Word also will be the greater, because in His Manhood He seems so little worth.[2]

 

Firmly rooted within St. Paul’s rubric which understands an inherent blindness on the part of both Jews and Gentiles to the “mystery” of  Christ’s true dual nature, Athanasius sets out to boldly make the case to both audiences nonetheless. The motive seems to be adoration, devotion and truth-telling.

  1. The Word Incarnate is the Agent of Creation and of Salvation

Athanasius is utterly clear where we are so utterly vague and confused on the utter connection between Creation and Redemption:

“the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.”

 

One of the things which is striking in reading Athanasius is how he weaves scripture artfully through his presentation – not proof-texting as we so often do (like hanging a hat on a peg), but rather lacing his presentation with strains of well-chosen passages that are placed almost organically within his argument.

 

He sees the beauty and seamlessness of Christ as the Agent of Creation Who now is also the redemption of that Creation once fallen.

 

  1. Human History has Meaning and Corruption is Thwarted.

Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection…You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.[3]

 

When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14) human history had been more than simply “tampered with.” Any talk of a Creator winding up Creation and walking off to let it do its thing was off the table. This was a God willing to gestate in a womb for nine months and spill out of a womb. This was the Word willing to take on sin, the devil and death. What happened in time and space mattered because as T.S. Eliot so eloquently would later write:

Then came, at a predetermined moment, a moment in time and of time,
A moment not out of time, but in time, in what we call history:

transecting, bisecting the world of time, a moment in time but not like a moment of time,

A moment in time but time was made through that moment :

for without the meaning there is no time, and that moment of time gave the meaning.

Then it seemed as if men must proceed from light to light, in the light of the Word,
Through the Passion and Sacrifice saved in spite of their negative being;[4]

 

Biblical faith is one of incarnation not reincarnation. That God came into the world as flesh and blood in time and space means what happens here and now matters. IT also demonstrates the extraordinary love of God.

  1. We Die a Different Death Overshadowed by Resurrection

Having set out the dilemma for a fallen and corruptible humanity in chapters 2-3  Athanasius begins to turn to the results of the Word made Flesh’s redemptive rescue operation saying:

We who believe in Christ no longer die, as men died aforetime, in fulfillment of the threat of the law. That condemnation has come to an end; and now that, by the grace of the resurrection, corruption has been banished and done away, we are loosed from our mortal bodies in God’s good time for each, so that we may obtain thereby a better resurrection.[5]

 

This seems a more cavalier attitude than the one we Postmoderns carry with us in our near silence on bodily resurrection as a reality and our avoidance with the rest of culture on mortality. Athanasius, along with the New Testament writers (especially Paul) see the resurrection hope as particularly powerful. Some modern authors do to. I am reminded of sociologist Peter Berger’s comment that “given the resurrection of Jesus “nothing is ultimately tragic.”[6] That can certainly be a game-changer in planning and living out one’s life and faith. What he means is simply that the power of death was sin and that died with Christ as sacrifice and then He was raised up from the dead, “Death used to be strong and terrible, but now, since the sojourn of the Savior and the death and resurrection of His body, it is despised; and obviously it is by the very Christ Who mounted on the cross that it has been destroyed and vanquished finally.” (On the Incarnation, p. 45).

  1. The Word Made Flesh leads to Peace Not War-Like Militarism

Athanasius, in his refutation of the Gentiles and his evangelistic appeal, writes something we dearly need to hear today as we attempt to join military might to religious agendas (specifically Christian):

While they were yet idolaters, the Greeks and Barbarians were always at war with each other, and were even cruel to their own kith and kin. Nobody could travel by land or sea at all unless he was armed with swords, because of their irreconcilable quarrels with each other. … as I said before, they were serving idols and offering sacrifices to demons, and for all the superstitious awe that accompanied this idol worship, nothing could wean them from that warlike spirit. But, strange to relate, since they came over to the school of Christ, as men moved with real compunction they have laid aside their murderous cruelty and are war-minded no more. On the contrary, all is peace among them and nothing remains save desire for friendship. (52) Who, then, is He Who has done these things and has united in peace those who hated each other, save the beloved Son of the Father, the common Savior of all, Jesus Christ, Who by His own love underwent all things for our salvation? Even from the beginning, moreover, this peace that He was to administer was foretold, for Scripture says, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into sickles, and nation shall not take sword against nation, neither shall they learn any more to wage war.”[7]

 

One of the things that set the Gospel a world apart from the idolatrous Heathen states was How Jesus and His Gospel of love lead to peace and a new way. The Kingdom of God and Christ’s Lordship took precedence over former idolatries and one supposes even ethnic ties as the faith went world-wide. We seem to be arming-up and attaching a religious agenda (alibi) to it at exactly the point where Athanasius says Christians were laying down weapons and turning them into plowshares. To him this was evidence of God’s presence in their lives.

 

Athanasius goes on to strengthen the point saying,

 

“The barbarians of the present day are naturally savage in their habits, and as long as they sacrifice to their idols they rage furiously against each other and cannot bear to be a single hour without weapons. But when they hear the teaching of Christ, forthwith they turn from fighting to farming, and instead of arming themselves with swords extend their hands in prayer. In a word, instead of fighting each other, they take up arms against the devil and the demons, and overcome them by their selfcommand and integrity of soul. These facts are proof of the Godhead of the Savior, for He has taught men what they could never learn among the idols. It is also no small exposure of the weakness and nothingness of demons and idols, for it was because they knew their own weakness that the demons were always setting men to fight each other, fearing lest, if they ceased from mutual strife, they would turn to attack the demons themselves.”

 

It’s a point well taken (about keeping us fighting each other) . If we hope to stand out as truly different than an barbaric world which knows only violence, idolatry and fear then we have to act in active faith hope and love. Apparently the believers in Athanasius’ time did just that.

 

____________________

[1] Wikipedia article on Saint Athanasius,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athanasius_of_Alexandria.  Cited on 12/8/2015.

[2] Athanasius, On the Incarnation (De Incarnatione Verbi Dei) St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church, Jersey City, NJ. 1999. Available in PDF. p. 4

[3] Athanasius, Ibid., p. 16

[4] Eliot, T.S. T.S. Eliot Collected Poems 1909-1962 “Choruses From the Rock,” (Harcourt Brace & Co., New York, 1963) p. 163.

[5] Athanasius, Ibid., p. 34.

[6] Berger, Peter L. The Precarious Vision. Doubleday & Co., 1961

[7] Athanasius, ibid., p. 82-83.

On Finding Jesus

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It’s not easy being a human being, and that’s if you are born healthy, have resources, and don’t constantly shoot yourself in the foot by really dumb decisions.

During your adult life the spiritual question lays begging. No one is truly indifferent even those who claim passionately to be so. For example, everyone has an opinion on Jesus.

My real empathy is found with those who have been clubbed over the head by those who have “Found Jesus” and are damned insistent that everyone they meet find Jesus now on their terms. Their excuse for being belligerent is that “warning people” is actually “loving them.” When I have pointed out that Jesus was only stern and harsh with the Religious they usually turn and “warn” me.

I think they are just plain mean.

As for finding Jesus? It would seem it goes both ways. “He who seeks finds” says Jesus and he is certainly the Pearl of Great Price in the parable. But he more often than not finds us. His name means “Yahweh to the Rescue” and the incarnation proves it is always God moving towards us, not the other way around.

“Jesus found me” is a lot more accurate than “I found Jesus”. And it doesn’t stop there. I wander all the time and Jesus leaves the other 99 sheep, puts on his hiking boots and comes after me. I assure you, it has nothing to do with my likeability. Anyone who knows me will tell you this is true. It says everything about his character and nature.

To be more specific, and in 38 years I have never written about this before (and I am not sure why), I was leaving Colorado on a plane having witnessed my fill of Christian hypocrisy. As I waited, alone, an invisible heaviness filled the room that was undeniable.

Of course I know now what and Who it was, but at the time I had no way of having the slightest clue.

A dialog of sorts (non-verbal) ensued wherein I had a clear choice. There was never a threat; quite the opposite. It was an open door to a relationship of love and meaning.

I admit, the undeniable heaviness in the room helped sell the whole thing. I have long argued that some people have “less choice than others” (Like Paul…I mean, c’mon, how much choice did he really have after he gets knocked off his camel and Jesus speaks to him?). All I can say was it did not matter. Unlike C.S. Lewis, I went joyfully with only one caveat.*

*******

* Remember I was 18 and rough around the edges so I asked God “so if I give my life to you do I have to be like these other asshole hypocrites?” I got the mental impression “No,” and the Almighty did not mention my foul language.

Of course, six months later I would be just as hypocritical and have to really eat crow many times (and who knows how many more times in the future?) Just proving you can never get too much humility.

Waiting on the beach

breakfastHe had appeared to his Mary Magdalene and then the disciples twice. So, as recorded in John 21,  they do what they are good at…they go fishing.

I guess like all of us we are not sure exactly what to do after meeting God and coming into newness of life.

None of us really knows what to do with it, then or now.

Peter, either demonstrating leadership skills, or loaded with cabin fever declares he is going fishing. Others think this is a good idea and they pile in a boat and work all night at what they do best. They catch nothing at all.

Jesus calls to them from 100 yards away on the beach; close enough to hear Him but not close enough to really make out His face. He tells them to cast on the right side of the boat (just feet away from where they have been casting)  and the nets are immediately full of fish to the extent they should have ripped. This immediately takes John back to the earlier incident where Jesus said to do the same with the same result. He says to Peter “It is the Lord” and anyone who has read or heard the story remembers that Peter puts on his outer garment at that point and throws himself into the sea to get to Jesus faster.

Why the garment? Respect. He’s already failed Jesus three times and don’t think he’s not hounded by it.

What has Jesus done? He has prepared a fire and already has fish cooking on the beach. Peter is toiling in the water with a heavy garment on trying to get to Jesus as fast as he can while the other disciples labor in the boat to get to land with the load of fish.

Jesus, when he addressed them earlier used the term “padia” (“little infant friends” instead of “teknon” which are generally just children of the family 0f any age), asking them if they had caught anything?

It is a very sweet scene if you look at it from Jesus’ point of view.

When they do haul up on the beach cold, wet, and hungry there is not as much work to do as they thought. The nets from the huge haul of 153 fish are not ripped, and food and fire have been provided. They have only to secure the boats, nets and fish and come, sit and eat.

Is it odd for them? Sure. Peter is still laboring under the burden of guilt from his unconfessed betrayals; the others have cowered in the upper room and not believed in His resurrection. Only the women seemed to have believed and taken action. More than a few of the men have probably wished they had never met Him.

But as they sit there with Jesus eating the cooked fish and He speaks with them, they know He was dead and is now alive. Much of what He previously has said has started to drop…coin by coin… down into them from endless sacks of heavy change, each one changing them slightly inside, altering them forever and not a few of them suspect that the upcoming promise of the Holy Spirit will mean even more of this in ways unimaginable.

Jesus has told them that they are waiting for a significant event in the near future. But in the meantime He has been waiting for them on the beach to be with them. Yes, there is some business with Peter to be done within earshot of the others; it’s family business: feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.

There are the significant actions to be done. But this is also the time to sit and be with Him.

Heaven in a “Mirror Dimly”

Text: Colossians 3:1-4

Narcissus takes a gander.

I have heard many complain that they did not want to be “so heavenly-minded that they were no earthly good.” But we are usually in no personal danger of this. In fact, I have yet to meet a human being who was. I have met people who were in danger of being so “religious” that they were no earthly good; but never too “heavenly-minded.”

When people speak of heaven they often wax eloquent as if heaven were an ethereal dreamland. But heaven is more real than you or I. While we are but a vapor upon this earth, we speak of the throne of God as if it were a wishful wisp of smoke from our great-grandfather’s pipe.

In the same way that we are insane to create God in our image (when in fact it is the reverse), so to project a heaven out of your own infantile crayon-on-paper theologies is cute but should go no further than under a magnet on the fridge. Heaven informs our lives and those places in our lives that now seem the most solid in Christ. These are the beginnings of becoming a citizen of Heaven where such creativity, vision, knowledge and reflected glory will be more powerful than we can imagine. What does C.S. Lewis say? Beings so luminous that if we were to see them today we would be “strongly tempted to worship” them.

Not only is heaven our future, it is to be our present. We are to “seek the things above”- present tense -“where Christ is”- now – “at the right hand of God”.  The closest I can come to interpreting the meaning of this verse is that we are to seek the reality of the Kingdom of God in our life here in someway suggestive of the present reality we can not see, but is our future reality.

Jesus Christ is the most heavenly minded, yet the most earthly good. Can you name one man who has ever been more earthly good than Jesus of Nazareth? Now can you name one man who has ever been more heavenly minded than Jesus of Nazareth? The truth is, the heavens themselves reflect the eternal glory of Christ, yet no man has ever been more earthly good than Christ, the “Second Adam,” God in the flesh.

The Jesus follower who is heavenly minded, will always be  active, Why? Because Jesus is the most active agent in Creation in all ways at all times, even holding all of it together relationally at this very moment in a way beyond human comprehension. To be a follower of this Living One to actively become a part of that as you are “in Him” and He is in you.

To be “heavenly-minded” is to have the “mind of Christ”; and it is unfortunate that many of us simply want the old mind back. The eternal perspective is to be taught by God to see a bit from His vantage point. To be sure, in a “mirror dimly” is all we can take in. But someday “face to face” and then we shall be like Him.

We either stare at our own reflections as they fall away and get more dim and despair what we are, or if we have taken Paul seriously as the young Colossians did. Vision beyond self to Christ in the world, in the others you know, live with, work with or see on the street. With that understanding, the impermanence of this world is obvious yet its beauty points beyond itself. Though the mirror away from self is dim, clarity is coming and even now, you have it from time to time in flashes, in a dream, in a moment. In those brief moments you know and embody what Paul asks, not given false hope in some benign state of passive bliss; buy real hope, the ultimate subversion of all fantasies with reality.

Kierkegaard’s Christmas Director’s Cut

 

“O Lord Jesus Christ, I long to live in your presence, to see your human form and to watch you walking on earth. I do not want to see you through the darkened glass of tradition, nor through the eyes of today’s values and prejudices. I want to see you as you were, as you are, and as you always will be. I want to see you as an offense to human pride, as a man of humility, walking amongst the lowliest of humanity, and yet as the savior and redeemer of the human race.”


Kierkegaard’s Christmas 2000

Let me give you an example of what Kierkegaard is suggesting.

For the last 25 years I have heard Christians say, “Two thousand years ago..blah blah blah…” And, of course, they were rounding up or down time-wise.

But today is December 25, in the Year of our Lord 2000.

It is the ONE and only day we can say, “Two Thousand years ago TODAY, God…”

Yes, 2,000 years ago, today, the Creator of the Universe decided to crash the Human Party, which had turned damned ugly. If listen those who were there, they claim that God Himself, came bumping and birthing out of a young girl’s womb and spilled into the riot that is this world.

But it is right here that the folk Kierkegaard is talking about start to shout, “But Jesus wasn’t born in December! That was the way Christians appropriated the pagan holiday..blah blah blah…”

Or, gasbag scholars (with tenure) will go on and on about how Jesus was “more likely born 4 years prior to the date that was used in the formation of our current calendar” (thus Jesus was probably born in the spring of 4 B.C. …yea, yea…he was born four years before he was born.)

But when they go this route they are missing the whole point.

What about what happened when Jesus was born somewhere between the spring of 4 BC and our “traditional” (read “darkened glass”) date?

Kierkegaard says elsewhere that even if no historical records had survived about Jesus, he would still be the most important and central figure of human history.

Why?

Because he was God, and he willfully and deliberately dove into our mire for love’s sake. (Could it be that reality is more real than history?)

I mean, c’mon, what kind of God allows himself to become a human baby?

It’s either the most asinine
or the most beautiful thing
you’ve every heard your whole life.

The coming of Jesus, as God into our riot, is the radical opposite of religion–all of it, “Christian” or otherwise.

So, what do many churches do with this incredible miracle, this challenge to the whole way we view ourselves, our human history and our ultimate destiny and meaning?

They make a “religious service” out of it. And this is done in the most visual, audience, and entertainment-oriented culture in human history (“Damn Jim, I got 168 new channels on my new satellite dish…it’s unreal”) the Church with all it’s radical vision and devotion to Jesus does what?

The “Christmas services” many churches prepare serve to transform the naked amneotic reality of Jesus’ birth into an ethereal place of simple, rustic, “Country Home” beauty. In creating a visual and entertainment-oriented service, we are invited to sit and passively watch just like we do Will and Grace or last week’s episode of ER.

If, as Kierkegaard suggests, we should see Jesus for what he was, is, and will always be, then that would apply to his birth in Bethlehem.

So let’s strip away the “darkened glass of tradition and the current cultural prejudices” and ask, what should be up on the church stage for these Christmas productions?

The answer is obvious. Go visit a barn.

Go visit an American barn which is, by the way, a world away from a Bethlehem barn, and ask that simple question again: what should our Christmas productions look and feel like if we are to see Jesus for who he was, is and always will be?

_____________________________________________

To start with, how about manure, and lots of it?

There must be a great deal of it and stench.

Then we must add slop for the animals and dirty water troughs on the sides of the church stage to maintain any accuracy at all.

In other words, the whole church should reek of dank poverty, or, at the very least, to make a legitimate cultural bridge, reflect a modern American barn (which has shit and piss and is cold and is a good, but dirty, business).

And instead of whitewashing the event into something about us, and our sentiments at Christmastime, how about talking about the real deal and asking good questions like “Why did God choose to come this way?” “What does it mean that there was no room available for God when he came? What does it mean that he was placed in a feeding trough after birth? (that’s what a “manger” is). What does it means that instead of lying quietly in a sweet designer/manger bed, the baby Jesus was screeching his head off like every other baby..EXACTLY like every other baby…laying inside a hard and putrid feeding trough and surrounded by the dank smell of animal dung?

This is what would be needed.

But no.

We have this clean and completely nonfunctional “manger”, and then a big production which is all about us and our artistic gifts, then a short message relating the beautifully decorated Christmas tree to how Christ needs to be in our homes. And on it goes.

It’s a show. We are the audience, God is an idea, and the performers are worried about how they will perform in the show, not about the glory of God or his incomprehensible love.

Kierkegaard said elsewhere, that our worshippers/audience are really supposed to be the performers, and that the audience is not us at all, it is God.

Wow!

Imagine if more modern American churches took that seriously! (And if you know of any, please email me info).

And we’re not talking performing to “appease” God. We’re talking performing for the sheer enjoyment of God and his glory and out of gratitude that this God has such love and such a passion to be known that he would do this radical thing (and we are not even talking about the exit yet, just the intro).

So, if the audience are really meant to be the performers, who then are the people on stage.

They are the “conductors,” says Kierkegaard, as is the preacher.

God is the audience on such a day, not us. (and heck, let’s just keep doing it all year long. It’s a Theocentric universe, so why not keep acting accordingly?)

How are we supposed to feel when the greatest event in human history, and one which is deeply personal for each of us mortals, is so utterly lost and covered up with layers of denial that the very crash of God breaking into human history is made into something like the sound of a digital watch alarm going off under a pile of thick blankets?

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Well, it’s about 9:30 PST on Christmas, year 2000. Philosophically, an interesting historical night, right?

But I’ve been tending four kids all day long, alone, because my wife is racked with a severe flu and is bedridden.

And in the meantime, our toilets all clogged up (it started Christmas eve) and so the bathrooms are plunged hourly.

This, in very obvious ways, hourly bilges up all kinds of flu-invested shit, vomit and piss. This Christmas, our normal “Country Home” existence stinks just a little like a barn.

It’s a perfect Gospel night. Just like 2,000 years ago, give or take, when God…