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Finding God in a Crowd

My wife and I have just returned from traveling in the western US.  The scenery from the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains to the stony shores of Big Sur along the pacific was spectacular.  To many Americans, these vistas of unspoiled wilderness are an opportunity to commune with the spiritual.  C. S. Lewis reflects this modern perception when, in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan’s country is described as green hills that climb higher and higher until they disappear from sight.

It might be surprising to note that only from the eighteenth century onward do artists paint great scenes of nature as images do be hung in the houses of the wealthy.  Prior to that, scenes of nature, when depicted at all, only served as a backdrop to whatever was the main subject of the painting. 
The rise of what is called the Sublime, viewing great scenes of the nature world as a kind of bridge toward God, is a product of the modern world.

In the ancient world, nature was what people endured between cities and settlements.  The desert referred to any place without people (deserted), not to an arid place of sparse vegetation.  These deserted places were feared, and rightly so.  Nature was a merciless agent of violence where beasts lurked that in no way saw humans as the top of the food chain.  These deserted places where also the haunts of bandits, gangs, and, in the case of ships, pirates.  Few would be so foolish as to journey alone between two towns that might only be a few miles apart.  You only had to walk over a couple of hills or around a curve or two to be completely cutoff from civilization.  Many farmers, even though their fields were in the countryside, nevertheless lived with in the safety of towns.

The so-called Desert Fathers, such as St. Antony, went out into the wilderness because it was a dangerous, not a desirable, place in which to dwell.  Like extended fasting or enduring physical pain, living alone in nature was attractive because it was so unattractive.

City walls only secondarily served the purpose of strengthening the city against large invading armies.  The much more immediate and important role was to protect the residents from marauding beasts and bandits.

It seems an oddly backwards set of perceptions to us.  The city is an image of safety, while untamed nature held dangers to be feared.  A temple within the walls of a city, or a tabernacle places in the center of a great nomadic settlement, would seem to be the perfect location for someone wanting to draw closer to God.

In a distorted myth rooted in both modern perceptions of nature, American individualism, and a grossly misunderstood Elizabethan English word, many Christians grow up visioning heaven as a vast number of stately mansions, each built on a lovely hilltop.  Thus, we are able to think of heaven in terms of palatial splendor surrounded by great expanses of nature in which we, and perhaps a few members of our immediate family, can dwell is pristine isolation from pesky neighbors.

What Jesus actually says in John 14 is that His father’s house has many rooms, enough for all of the disciples.  A great house with many rooms comes closer to the image of an immense hotel than endless plantations with columned mansions.  In Revelation, the great depiction of man’s eternal home is unmistakably painted as a great and presumably crowded city.  To the ancients, if you wanted to draw up an image of eternity that would be comforting and appealing, you would picture it as a place teaming with people.

It is no small matter, then, that the center point of Christian worship on earth rests in times and places crowded with other people.  Personal prayer, of course, is best done far removed from the madding crowd.  A quiet closet or the lonely top of some nearby mountain would do nicely.  But the fullness of Christian worship, like both heaven and new earth, is experienced in community.

In nature we can see the splendor of God’s creative power.  This is a tremendous blessing.  But, the crown of God’s creation is not the stunning grandeur of El Capitan in Yosemite or the countless stars glittering against the black sky of a cloudless night above the tree line.  The crown is God ‘s creation is nothing less than the people that surround us every day. 

In Acts 2:42 it is easy to skip past the fellowship (koinonia) mentioned as one of the four foundational components of Christian worship.  Many churches seems to assume a friendly greeting on the way into church or some coffee and donuts afterwards captures the essence of the word.  But the koinonia of the ancient church was not limited to what happened before or after worship.  To them, the gathering itself, in forming a settlement or community where we find in the presence of others both compassion and safety, was at the heart of worship. 

For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!”  1 Thess. 2:19-20 (NRSV)

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