During the early nineteen century, two strongly opposing systems were reaching a critical mass in the United States of America. Those two systems were slavery and abolition. There were those who believed it was their right to own people. They were the pro-slavery movement. There were those who believed in freedom for every human being. They were the abolitionist movement.
Before the outbreak of civil war, the opposition of those two forces resulted in the murder of abolitionist printer Elijah Lovejoy by pro-slavery forces. In response to that murder, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in Springfield Illinois to the Young Men’s Lyceum society.
At the time, Lincoln was just an Illinois state representative. But it’s clear from his speech that he was already invested in the two things that would define his presidency; a desire for freedom and peace. In that speech Lincoln said, “when men take it in their heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they should recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn someone who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of tomorrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake” (En.21).
The singer/songwriter Michael Franti once put it this way, “We can chase down all our enemies, bring them to their knees, we can bomb the world to pieces, but we can’t bomb the world to peace” (En.22). Jesus came to bring us peace, to reconcile us back to the Father through the Holy Spirit. The essence and nature of God is an eternal, Trinitarian, relational flow. The essence of God is unending life and connection. God created us for that same relational flow. God is a connecting energy. Satan is a disconnecting energy.
What Lincoln and Franti are saying is that you cannot produce peace and freedom through the energy of their opposite. You cannot use the power of the kingdom of Satan to advance the Kingdom of God. You cannot get connection through separation. The energy of God and Satan are diametrically opposed. The way they bring about their kingdoms are as opposite as those kingdoms themselves. You cannot build a City and get a Desert. You cannot build a Tower and get a Mountain. You cannot partner with a Beast to plant a Garden. You cannot be a Bride and a Prostitute.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the system of power behind what we do. Sometimes we just assume the way things are is the way they’re meant to be. Sometimes we don’t have the spiritual eyes to see clearly just how mixed up we are. Sometimes we can’t tell the different between the weeds and wheat in our gardens. But God always sends his Prophets to help us sort that out. The question is, will we listen to those Prophets?
The tension of two kingdoms is reaching critical mass within the Church once again. Once again, we have a chance to move with God in a big leap forward. But we’re going to have to take a hard look at ourselves, and our Church. We have a chance to do things different. We don’t have to ignore the Prophets God is sending now, while praising the Prophets of the past (Matthew 23:20, Luke 11:47).
We’re not a Church that has already arrived. We’re not, and have never been the pure, unadulterated Bride of Christ. We’ve always been a mixed bed of weeds and wheat. We’ve always straddled the fence of two kingdoms, with two oppositional agendas. We started out in a Garden, in perfect communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Then a serpent entered and enticed us into separation.
From the beginning, Satan has had a Plan. That Plan was a City/Tower/Beast. But from the moment of its impending success, God introduced His counter Plan. His Plan was Jesus. His Plan was the Church. His Plan was reconnection. His Plan was a people belonging to God. To counter that counter Plan, Satan came up with another Plan. That Plan was One Leader, One Church, One Truth.
Throughout the history of the Church, there has been the ebb and flow between these two Plans. Sometimes we’re more captivated by Satan’s Plan. Sometimes, that Plan backfires, pushing us forward in the move and movement of God’s Plan. Every five hundred years the tension between God’s Plan and Satan’s reaches a critical mass, and the Church experiences a big leap forward. But within the Church, there are always two responses to that leap. There are those who resist, and those who accept it and move forward with God.
When Christianity was being adopted by Constantine into the Roman Empire, the first big leap began with Saint Anthony and the Desert Fathers. God called a group of people out into the Desert to preserve a more organic, communal Christianity; a Christianity more focused on spiritually mature Elders and Deacons discipling others into life with the Spirit.
When the Church split in two, the second big leap was the resistance of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church maintained a more mystical approach to Christianity. A mystical approach emphasizes the importance of a direct relationship with God for every believer. The Eastern Orthodox Church was structured around Eucharistic Ecclesiology, which was the idea that each individual church should govern itself. This was in contrast to the Catholic Churches Universal Ecclesiology, which was the idea that there is One Church with One Truth and One Leader.
When the Church split again, the third big leap was Protestant reformers. They protested the corruption and abuse of the Roman Catholic Church. Through the Protestant Reformation, a lot more of God’s freedom came to light, even in the exercise of governments. That’s how modern democracies were born. But those reformers didn’t fully correct the corruption of the Church they came out of. They eventually partnered with the power of nations-states. Both the Protestant and Catholic Church used that power to do some good things. But that power also used them to do some bad things. That’s the way it is with Satan’s power system. It’s offered as a means to good ends. But it ends up corrupting those who use it to produce a mixed result. The Church has always been caught up in the mixed result of straddling two kingdoms, and two systems of power. The picture of that mixed Church is a Bride on a Beast. The picture of that mixed Church is a Prostitute.
We need once again to see the picture John painted of the Church at it’s very beginning. We need to see ourselves true. We need to look again through the eyes of the Prophets and see just how much we’ve bought into Satan’s City/Tower/Beast, in order to readjust our trajectory back towards God’s Desert/Mountain/Garden.
As the Church, we’re on a journey. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. We’ve been on a journey back to the Garden ever since we left. That Garden was on top of a Mountain. That Mountain Garden was wild. It wasn’t the kind of garden you’d find in a city. It wasn’t neat, contained, and controlled. It was that natural world undisturbed by Satan’s ideas and Plan. Before the Fall, God’s Mountain Garden was a wilderness. A wilderness in scripture is also called a Desert. It’s a Desert, not because it has a bunch of sand and no vegetation. It’s a Desert because it's deserted. It’s the wide-open space of a God who does not box us in to the City paradigm in order to control us for His own benefit.
The Desert is at the heart of the very nature of God, because the heart and nature of God is freedom. God created us to live with Him in the freedom of a Desert, on a Mountain, in a Garden. Ever since we lost that place, God has been calling us back. But it’s not a few steps kind of Plan. It’s a long-term Plan. It’s a long-term Plan, because it’s a long way back to God.
Through the Prophet Isaiah, God once put it this way, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9 NASB). If this is true, then what good are our thoughts and ways?
On the journey back to God, we start out acclimated to Satan’s system. In order to separate us from God, that system teaches us to rely on ourselves, to be our own gods. This is what Paul calls the Flesh. When we first get saved, we don’t automatically forsake self-reliance for God-reliance. It takes a long time to crucify the Flesh. In the meantime, we’re going to spend a long time learning about God through the wrong system with the wrong power.
The first stage of the Christian life is the Cataphatic. The Cataphatic stage is mostly powered by our ways and thoughts. It’s about what we can do to know, understand, and please God. That’s okay. That’s where we start. That’s the only place we can start. It takes a long time to get from the Cataphatic to the Apophatic. The problem becomes when we are no longer getting to the Apophatic, when we think that the Cataphatic is the whole.
For much of its two-thousand-year history, much of the Church has been strongly Cataphatic. The Church has spent a lot of time developing good tools, ideas, and structures to preserve and pass on the first half of the journey, while the second half, the Apophatic, has been mostly hidden from mainstream Christianity. But God has left a witness of the Apophatic through the Desert Fathers and the Monasticism that they developed. That witness is Contemplation.
Contemplation is a life lived in communion with God. It’s also a well-developed system with good tools, ideas, and structures that have preserved and passed on the second half of the journey. It’s not until the second half that we begin to walk with God Himself, through a real and growing connection to Life in the Spirit.
For most of its history, two kinds of Churches have existed side by side. One more Cataphatic. One more Apophatic. The more Cataphatic is Catholic and Protestant. The more Apophatic is Eastern Orthodox and Monastic. The Catholic/Protestant has been more dominant, because of its political power through nation-states. The Eastern Orthodox/Monastic has been the minority, because it better understood the deeper reality of two kingdoms with two different Plans.
Still, God has used the Cataphatic Church to shelter the Apophatic, waiting for the right time when Contemplation could come to the forefront again. That time is now. This is the next big move of God, and the next big leap for the Church.
Ever since the beginning God had a Plan. That Plan was communion. The expression of that communion was the Desert/Mountain/Garden. But Satan had a different Plan. That Plan was separation. The expression of that separation was the City/Tower/Beast. Ever since the beginning, the whole earth has been caught in the tension of these two Plans. One Plan is like an Idol, a statue made of many different metals. One Plan is like a Mountain that starts out as a stone, and grows. Only one Plan is going to succeed. Eventually the Mountain smashes the Idol. But in between the beginning and the end is the tension of the middle. That’s where we live.
God has called a people to Himself, to bear witness to that coming Mountain. He’s called them to live on that Mountain with Him, in a Garden, in the midst of a Desert. We can all be like the Desert Fathers. We can all move through the Cataphatic to the Apophatic. We can all be more contemplative. That’s the goal. But we must also understand that we’re always reaching towards that goal. We all start with the Holy Fathers, in the Church they helped create. But we’re all meant to move towards the Desert Fathers, and the Church they helped preserve. We can’t give up in the middle, as if God’s Plan has fully come and Satan’s Plan has fully ended.
The Church in the middle of these two Plans is partly like a Bride and partly like a Prostitute. The Church today is still a mixed bed of weeds and wheat. God is calling the Church to take another big leap forward in His Plan. He’s calling the Church more out of the Prostitute on the Beast, to become more the Bride of Christ.
Can you hear it? The Spirit and the Bride say come. Do you have the ears to hear what the Spirit says to the churches? The Husband is calling to his Bride, “Come out of her, my people” (Revelation 18:4). Do you have the eyes to see a different picture of Church? Can you see the picture John painted of the Church, when you look at the Church today? If you can’t; if you think the Church is exactly as God intended, then maybe you’ve fallen into the false sense that the Bride isn’t on the Beast at all.
God isn’t done with the Church. We’re not the yet the true Bride of Christ. Jesus is still calling to us to keep going, and growing, as individuals and the Church. Jesus is still calling a wayward Church back to Him. Will you heed the call?
Until we are free, we must live as if we are not. We must be continually striving for more of the freedom God created us for. As MLK once said about the nation, so God says about His Church; “it would be fatal for us to overlook the urgency of the moment” (En.2). And since we are not yet free, we must still be reaching for the day “when all of God’s children, Black men and White men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last” (En.2).
As Jesus once said, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36 NIV).