Escape from Christendom

Chapter one

 

The journey

In my dream I see the lone figure of a man following a road.  As the sun sets beneath the hills, a city comes into view.  Nearing it, the traveler sees what appears to be large group of churches.  Spires and crosses pierce the skyline.  His pace quickens.  Is this  his destination?  He passes an imposing structure, a neon sign flashing  "Cathedral of the Future."  Farther on a flood-lit  stadium supports a billboard boasting that 50,000 people crowd into evangelistic meetings there three nights a week.  Beyond this, modest New Testament temples and Hebrew Christian synagogues cluster together on the street front.

“Is this the city of God?”  I hear the traveler ask a woman at the information booth in the Central Square.

 

“No, this is Christian City”, she replies.

 

“But I thought this road led to the city of God!”,  he exclaims with great disappointment.

 

“That's what we all thought when we arrived,” she answers, her tone sympathetic.

“This road continues up the mountain, doesn't it?”  he asks.

 

“I wouldn't really know,” she answers blankly.

 

I watch the man turn from her and trudge on up the mountain in the gathering darkness.  Reaching the top, he stares out into the blackness; it looks as though there is nothing ---absolutely nothing---beyond.  With a shutter he retraces his steps into Christian City and takes a room at a hotel.

 

Strangely unrefreshed, at dawn he rises and follows the road up the mountain again; in the brightening light of the sun he discovers that what seemed like a void the night before is actually a desert---dry, hot, rolling sand as far as the eye can see.  The road narrows to a path which rises over a dune and disappears.  “Can this trail lead to the city of God?”  he wonders aloud.  It appears to be quite deserted and rarely traveled.

 

Indecision slowing his steps, he again returns to Christian City and has lunch in a Christian restaurant.  Over the music of a gospel record, I hear him ask a man at the next table, “That path up the mountain, where the desert begins, does it lead to the city of God?”

“Don't be a fool!”  His neighbor replies quickly.  “Everyone who has ever taken that path has been lost.... swallowed by the desert!  If you want God, there are plenty of good churches in this town.  You should pick one and settle down.”

 

After leaving the restaurant, looking weary and confused, the traveler finds a spot under a tree and sits down.  An ancient man approaches and begins pleading with him in urgent tones, “If you stay here in Christian City, you'll whither away.  I belong to the desert you saw earlier.  You'll travel many miles.  You'll be hot and thirsty; but angels walk with you, and there will be springs of water along the way. And at your journey's end you will reach the city of God!  You have never seen such beauty!  And when you arrive the gates will open for you, for you are expected.”

 

“What you say sounds wonderful,” the traveler replies.  “But I'm afraid I'd never survive that desert.  I'm probably better off here in Christian City.”

 

The ancient one smiles.  “Christian City is the place for those who want religion but don't want to lose their lives.  The desert is a territory of those whose hearts are so thirsty for God that they're willing to be lost in him.  My friend, when Peter brought his boat to land, forsook all and followed Jesus, he was the swallowed by the desert.  When Matthew left his tax collecting and Paul his Phariseeism, they too were leaving a city much like this to pursue Jesus out over the dunes and be lost in God.  So don't be afraid.  Many have gone before you.”

 

Then I see the traveler look away from the old man's burning eyes to the bustle of Christian City.  He sees busy people hurrying hither and yon with their Bible's and shiny attaché cases, looking like men and women who know their destiny. But it is clear they lack something which the old man with eyes like a profit possesses.

 

In my dream I imagine the traveler turning things over in his mind.  “If I do go out there, how can I be sure I will really be lost in God?  In the Middle Ages Christians tried to lose themselves in God by putting the world behind them and entering a monastery.  And how disappointed many of them were to find that the world was still there!  And people here in Christian City who are preparing to

go to some jungle or a neglected slum, maybe they're coming closer to what it means to be lost in God.  But then, a person can travel to the ends of the earth and not lose himself.”

 

The traveler turns again to see old man starting up the road for the narrow path to the desert's edge. Suddenly, his decision mobilizes him and he leaps to his feet chasing after him. When he catches up, they exchange no words.  The ancient man makes an abrupt turn to the right and guides him up still another slope which steepens as it and will rises toward a peak shrouded in a luminous cloud.  The climb upward is very difficult.  The traveler appears dizzy and begins to stagger.  His guide pauses and offers him a drink from a flask hanging over his shoulder.  Panting, he drinks it in great gulps.  “No water ever tasted sweeter than this,” he says with great feeling.  “Thank you.”

 

“Now look there.”  The old man points beyond them to a vista not nearly as monotonous and desolate as it had seemed earlier.  The desert below has taken on many colors and gradation.  In the far distance a blazing light is throbbing and moving on the surface of the horizon like a living thing.  “There is the city of God! But before you reach it you'll have to pass through those four wildernesses you see.  Directly below us is the Wilderness of Forgiveness.”  The traveler notices small dim figures making their way slowly in the direction of the city, separated from each other by many miles.

 

“How can they survive the loneliness?”  asks the traveler.  “Wouldn't they benefit from traveling together?”

 

“Well, they aren't really alone.  Each one of them is accompanied by the forgiveness of God.  They are being swallowed up by the desert of the Lord God's vast mercy.  The Holy Spirit is saying to them as they travel 'Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’  They are made whole as they travel.”

 

Just beyond there is an expanse of blue.  “Is it a sea?”  Inquiries the traveler. 

 

“It looks like water, but it's a sea of sand.  That's the wilderness of Worship.  Here, look through these glasses and you will see that people are walking there too.  Notice how they begin to group themselves here.  They're having their first taste of the joy of the City -- worship.  They're discovering how they themselves were made for the worship of God.  It is becoming their life, the white-hot source of everything they do.”

 

“But don't people also worship back in Christian City?  What's so special about that wilderness?”

 

“Worship ---- that is, true worship ---- can begin only when a life has been utterly abandoned to the desert of God's presence. Out there the heart begins to worship the Father in spirit and in truth."

 

Looking beyond the blue wilderness to where the desert rises in red and fiery mountains, the old man explains to the traveler that among those reddish mountains is the Wilderness of Prayer.

 

“Passing through that wilderness travelers find it necessary to turn away from every distraction and concentrate on prayer.  They quickly learn that there is no possible way for them to survive but by crying out to God continuously.  By the time they reach the outer extremes of that wilderness, prayer is their consuming passion and their supreme joy.  It appears at first that the City of God is just beyond the Wilderness of Prayer.  But there is one more wilderness hidden by those mountains, which you will pass through before you reach your destination.  It is simply called the Harvest. You'll know it when you reach it.  And beyond the Harvest is the City itself.  Your name is known there.  Your arrival is awaited with eagerness.  Come, let's begin our journey.”

 

The two men begin their descent.  The sun is again setting as they arrive at the edge of the desert.  The traveler hesitates.

 

“Nightfall doesn't seem to be a particularly propitious time to begin a journey like this,” he says.

 

“Don't go back to Christian City,” the old man exhorts, gazing at him earnestly.

 

“Not even at this hour?  That way I can get a good nights sleep and start first thing in the morning", the traveler adds hopefully.

 

“But your rest is out there,” he urges. “Walk on now, into the desert.  The Holy Spirit will help you.  Don't be afraid to be lost in God.  You'll find your life nowhere else."