Step Away From the Door

by Christopher MacDonald

I have this sad, yet oddly funny dream about a door to a big party in heaven. It saddens me because my fellow believers so obsess on whether  or not they are “In or not.”

They are invited to the Big Wedding Party and they come. Once in the door they stand there wondering for years if they are actually inside the door. Some argue with each other about if others are actually also invited or not – the ones inside. Others just wish to know “do we get to stay?” 

More arguing. I come by occasionally and suggest they come on in and grab a plate of food and a drink (wine or a Diet coke – whatever they enjoy – free bar). They hesitate. One of them calls me a “libertarian free loader.” Okay, whatever.  I like Diet Pepsi myself…and I’ve noticed I can load up on nachos and jumbo prawns without getting fat or flatulent.  

It’s a good party. When I have actually dreamed parts of this dream in my sleep, I have met folk like Kurt Russell there. Why Kurt Russell? I have no idea. Was he what you would expect? Pretty much. Nice guy.

Other people? Ah…Steve Buscemi, Elizabeth McGovern, Lady Gaga—oh, and I played beer pong for half an hour with Tom Waits with neither of us saying a word.

Eleven years later I come back by the door and four of the same people are there worried that they might lose their place at the door. Two of them are Calvinists. I make a joke about this but neither laughs. I forgot about the humor thing and Calvinists. Three others have left to go find a better way in through another “better door” (this door wasn’t to their liking).  

There are 17 new people all crowded and worried about whether they can stay at the door. The Son of Man often walks in and out of the door. He always knocks. Once He winked at me after He did this. I laughed after He came in and walked by me. 

Every time He shows up a few go with Him regardless. Like sheep after…well, you know.  But others stay, bickering at the door. 

It’s not really that funny when you think about it. Imagine if every Believer stopped thinking about the obvious and moved on into the Reality of life in Christ daily? What if they moved away from the entry hall of belief into the party waiting for them inside?

******

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Simplicity & Spaciousness.

In this Lenten season, at Oak Life Church, we have been looking at spaciousness, complexities, simplicity and how we see and hear—at least that is some of what I have been exposed to in this excellent series presented by Chris, Rachel, the worship team, and yesterday by our panel on “Isolation” so well organized by Gina and Kyle. *

It is a complex world and so we must be very wise. Jesus said as “wise as serpents, innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16) – coming to faith is not the time to “check your brain at the door,” it is the time to really pick it up and use the doggone thing in right manner.

A large part of that is understanding that not everything is of equal value. A.W. Tozer, writing in 1948, could easily be describing the Bay Area right now, nearly 70 years later:

“Every age has its own characteristics. Right now we are in an age of religious complexity. The simplicity which is in Christ is rarely found among us. In its stead are programs, methods, organizations and a world of nervous activities which occupy time and attention but can never satisfy the longing of the heart. The shallowness of our inner experience, the hollowness of our worship, and that servile imitation of the world which marks our promotional methods all testify that we, in this day, know God only imperfectly, and the peace of God scarcely at all. (italics mine)

Tozer goes on to say,

“If we would find God amid all the religious externals we must first determine to find Him, and then proceed in the way of simplicity. Now as always God discovers Himself to “babes” and hides Himself in thick darkness from the wise and the prudent. We must simplify our approach to Him. We must strip down to essentials (and they will be found to be blessedly few). We must put away all effort to impress, and come with the guileless candor of childhood. If we do this, without doubt God will quickly respond. When religion has said its last word, there is little that we need other than God Himself. The evil habit of seeking God-and effectively prevents us from finding God in full revelation. In the “and” lies our great woe. If we omit the “and” we shall soon find God, and in Him we shall find that for which we have all our lives been secretly longing. We need not fear that in seeking God only we may narrow our lives or restrict the motions of our expanding hearts. The opposite is true. We can well afford to make God our All, to concentrate, to sacrifice the many for the One.

(A. W. Tozer. The Pursuit of God: The Human Thirst for the Divine (Kindle Locations 137-145). Hovel Audio. Kindle Edition.)

Blissfully, I have nothing at all to add to this.

~Mac

* I feel so blessed (“Happy is the man”) by the gifts which are weekly exercised and employed so creatively and freely at Oak Life by my brothers and sisters. Too often over four decades have have witnessed such gifted ones sit unrecognized, disenfranchised, and halted. But not here. Oh how it makes my heart sing!

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.

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.