You Meant it For Evil…

Day Lily open

At the end of Genesis is the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph goes on a long and arduous journey, sent out from home, betrayed by his brothers, taken as a slave in Egypt where he rises from the lowly shepherd-servant to the great vizier in Pharaoh’s court, second only to Pharaoh in power. Joseph grows from wounded to wisdom. If you read the story carefully you will see that Joseph’s journey mirrors our own. Each event in his life is a place that we too pass through on our own journey’s to wholeness and maturity. This is a very human paradigm, which coincides with the passages that we make in this adventure called life. In Joseph we see the sacred design we are enacted in the drama of this one person’s life as the story of creation closes.

Because Joseph is in Egypt and in charge of the management when a famine comes, he will be able to send for his family and save the ones who betrayed him from starving to death. Save the family of Jacob-Israel to become a nation with a far reaching destiny. Like our lives too, Joseph’s life is informed by dreams, dreams Joseph knows how to interpret. For he is not only shepherd, but also the wise dreamer. Near the end of the story when Joseph’s brothers finally recognize who he is, they are fearful that he will retaliate for the evil they did to him. But, now knowing that it is the hand of Yahweh that has led them all to where they are, he tells them: You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.

There is another well-know story of a journey, that ends with much the same words Joseph spoke to his brothers. It is the journey that Jesus makes and the words the risen Christ echoes to those he met along the road, by the lakeside in the Upper Room. For God sustained and journeyed with Joseph throughout his life. It is this same God, the God of Israel, who sustained and brought Jesus beyond (even) death. At the close of Genesis, out of the garden, from tree of life, to the tree of death, to another garden, at the close of Jesus’ earthly life, we are reminded once more, that the gift was not lost when we left the garden, but continues in unhampered freedom as the good will of God to all of his creation, to all of us.

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Poetry’s Morning

PainterLadyH_0
The bible is a work of art
with the power to transform
in-gathering self and soul.
A presence, both beautiful
 and terrible
where you long to go
               and
fear to tread at the same time.
Where you learn to hold the paradox
            or perish.
Its magnificence winds its way
into your being
threads image and likeness
into your becoming.
Then.
     Snap!
cuts you lose from the
inexorable sweet moorings of the multitude.
rights you
word by word.

 

The News and the Bible

St. Tim's stained glass window    It is said that Karl Barth advised young theologians ‘to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.’

On October 1 I posted about the magnificence of the sunset that evening as I drove home from work. I often have after thoughts about what I have  posted…and this one I immediately thought I should post a proviso. Reading the news with the lens of the Bible, isn’t easy these days. In the face of great tragedy at face value neither one makes sense. But then, the Bible was never meant to make its appeal to reason. Events like this defy reason and assault our sensibilities.

I was not insensitive or oblivious to the shooting in Roseburg, Oregon that day. We saw it most of the day on the lobby TVs and when I arrived home the President was speaking about this tragedy. But I couldn’t watch. I turned off the television and slid open the doors to the deck. Just then a large flock of geese came in for a landing on the pond outside my door. My thoughts, heavy, numb, sad, sick with another shooting, went to nature and to the sunset for solace.

What I wrote came in a flash, as they sometimes do. Looking back I  think too that that vibrant red-orange sunset was the blood orange of those who were making their way home. There was nothing to be said. Nothing could be said in the wake of such tragedy. But perhaps, just perhaps, the skies over the Heartland were reminding us that nothing, no one is lost to us. They remain, like the ever recurring sunrises and sunsets, to send us signs that they are safe at last in the beating heart of the Creator. Perhaps, just perhaps, the recurring seasons, remind us of the eternal round of life, that is never far away or lost to us, although at times it feels that way.

After our father died my sisters and I each got a ‘sign’ – each in a way that spoke to her assuredly that it came from the other side. It was a kind of assurance, a tap on the shoulder to indicate that life goes on, just in another way, that we cannot fully grasp nor see here. But I cannot loose my sense of the sacred; and perhaps that is why my meditation turned to the heavens, to the sky, to the sunset, to an indecipherable message written in colors across God’s palette.

This Too Is Grace

180px-Red_sunset  Tonight as I drove home from work the sun was setting, just at the horizon, an orange-gold globe shooting golden rays out from its center. Like a monstrance set out upon the altar of the horizon containing something sacred. And it was. The gray clouds were topped a deep violet hue in the paunchy parts, and along the bottom rim, a thread of orange held the rain-gatherers up, reflecting the light from the sinking sun, as if to hold on to the color for as long as it could.

I wanted to just stop driving and look and look and enter into the painting before me. Traffic wasn’t moving that fast anyway. I finally did pull off under the guise of getting a few groceries and took the magnificent view in as long as it lasted. Even when the sun had finally sank below the horizon, the world was still glowing, shot through with the lingering memory of the colors, still wet on the palette.

This is grace. This is grace, I thought. I knew. Sacred beauty. Another moment of grace coming at days dwindling, as a reminder. ‘I am still here’. God, by whatever name you call him or her had the paint brush out once more to remind us that the hands that designed us were still drawing us in, designing each new day, each moment, calling our attention away for that moment from the traffic jam, the bone wearying day, the empty cupboard, to remind me to look and see. To know that the world too is sacred. I can be in slow moving traffic on a jammed super highway and yet grace can reach me, reach out to me, touch me. The Creator is still creating, still designing each of us, the world, in each moment of every day, as it begins and as it ends.

This too is grace. Thank you.

 

The Spirit Bears Christ to Us

Our dreams are written on the heart of God.

Our dreams are written on the heart of God.

When I write I don’t use what you might call ‘churchese’. All those words like atonement, salvation, redemption, repentance.  There is nothing wrong with those words, its just that they have lost their meaning. They have been so overused, we have turned a deaf ear to what they are pointing to. And if they are not pointing to living our lives in Christ, pointing to Jesus and his life, then they don’t mean anything to me any longer.

Even that word ‘sinner’ seems to be much to much in the vocabulary of preachers that, I don’t know about you, but it blocks out anything else anyone has to say. That’s not who I am. That is not to say that I haven’t made missteps in my life, I have and I am sure I will again. But I don’t focus on not being a sinner or even telling my ‘sins’ to anyone. That is between me and my Creator, the Creator who made me good. Like the psalm says ‘I am wonderful’. I trust you say that about yourself today.

But when we are seen as sinners, we aren’t seen at all. Perhaps that is why the churches are hemorrhaging people today. As a culture we have become more healthy. Psychologically, spiritually, socially and environmentally. My sense of it is the churches have not kept up in this regard. That’s why I always return to the scriptures to find my way through these things. To see what it was/is that being a believer, how to live a healthy faith-life is really about.

I find that Jesus did not see people as sinners. He never called anyone a  ‘sinner’. (His saying your sins are forgiven is not the same thing.) He saw them as human persons. People needing his teaching, his help, his healing, his hand to stand, a heart to love them. He gave everyone a sense of their own worth; a worth that the world often denied them. And those were the people who followed him. It wasn’t the priests or the Jewish leaders or the Roman authorities who followed him. They were secure in their worth (i.e. their power, status and standing). Those who were devalued, he valued. Those who were down trodden, he lifted up with hope and with real substance, the real substance of his very self. That’s what feeding the multitude means. We have a multitude within us. Conflicting needs, pulled in different directions, many voices calling out to us, asking for our time, our resources, our attention to others needs and problems. Balancing work, home, family, schools, churches. The list goes on and on.

Jesus walked right out into the midst of all this. Through the crowded market places, into the synagogues brimming with those who wanted to hear what he had to saw, hoping he would touch them both with his words and hands, so his words and his hands would heal them, transform them, renew their lives, their well being, their health, their worth.  And I believe that if we touch the Word that it still has that power to change our lives, bring us to health and spiritual maturity. For his Spirit, through the living Word, bears Christ to us yet. We can still follow him through the corn field, down to the turbulent sea shore, across still waters or up the steep hill side and even across the rocky landscapes of our lives and he will see us and touch us and let us know in one way or another that he is there.

And then we too can go off to that lonely place to pray.

 

 

Powerlessness as Transformation

           

TOPSHOTS A shepherd boy is silhouetted on June 26, 2013, in Qunu a rural village where former South African President Nelson Mandela grew up. Mandela's close family members gathered to hear a sombre prayer wishing the anti-apartheid icon a "peaceful, perfect, end" as he lay in hospital in critical condition with his life seemingly slipping away. AFP PHOTO / CARL DE SOUZA CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

St. Paul often talks about his powerlessness. His weakness. But he will also say that his strength is the strength of the grace of God with him and within him.

Paul likened his weakness to that of Jesus on the cross, and he saw our human powerlessness as a way through which the power of God, the empowerment of grace, reveals itself. For Jesus it meant the transformation from death into life.

For Joseph it meant transformation as well. The transformation of a lowly shepherd boy into the great vizier of all Egypt. But his rise to a position of power, wasn’t the nucleus of his power. Joseph’s power was to come to be who he was; to discover his identity and his purpose in life. Who God meant him to be. And how God transformed the cruelty of his brothers into the saving their whole family because of Joseph too finds himself thrown into a pit by his brothers who leave him there to die. He could not get out of the pit unless someone else lifted him out. He was utterly powerless. But it would be within this powerlessness that he would begin his journey to become one of the most, indeed the second most, powerful person in Pharaoh’s kingdom. A kingdom where he had once been a slave. Joseph’s power, his ability to act, was seen by all about him, as the power of the Hebrew slave’s god, Yahweh.

The true use of power is empowerment born from a sense of justice.  Justice the meeting of heaven’s purpose on earth.  The place of Jesus’ greatest weakness is the place of greatest strength. His humanity the opening channel to the sacred. The journey through vulnerability is where valor is born, a steadfast spirit forged in the fire.  From his marginal place, from his powerlessness, from the cross, by way of his humanity he became diminished and raised, both servant and savior, a shepherd-messiah to the small, the weak, the powerless, where he pastures us into God’s open vista, that vulnerability an opening channel to the strength of God in Christ in our lives.

 

A Man Called Paul

Paul tillich garden

Another Paul, Paul Tillich, whose burial site I recently visited New Harmony, Indiana, said ‘you cannot understand theology without understanding symbols’. (Existential Aspects of Modern Art) He went on to say that he learned more in the works of great modern artists who ‘broke through to the realm out of which symbols are born’ than from theology books.

St. Paul also speaks about each person as God’s work of art. (Ephesians 2:10). He too goes on to say ‘created so that we might have life in abundance.’ Unfortunately, this has been mistranslated in some bible translations as God having created us ‘for good works’. There is a big difference between those two interpretations! And I don’t want to fall into the debate about faith vs. works. But the later interpretation takes the Creator’s creative spirit out of the human person and puts the human person to work, as if that is what we have been created for. I have nothing against ‘good works’ but perhaps it is high time we put the cart before the horse. Paul understood about symbols as a way of speaking about God. Later in Ephesians he centers us as that work of art – the hidden self – the person hidden in Christ – which we are to bring to the fullness of humanity, which is the fullness of the realization of the sacred in us. For Paul that is abundant life.

As an artist and biblical scholar that is why I embarked first of all writing about the story of Joseph in Genesis. Firstly, it is a creation story. In Joseph, the creation of the human person is complete. And in Joseph we begin to see what it means to be human. To be created both human and sacred. The story of Joseph is rich in symbolism. These symbols come from that realm that artists have access to. The hidden self. The psyche. In the story there is a coat and a pit, camels and caravans, kings and kingdoms, sheaves of wheat, stars, sun and moon, temptresses, strangers and a woman named Tamar. I find in each of these a wealth of revelation. And before I can say anything about the Christ life, I felt I needed to explore the rich legacy of Israel in its storytelling traditions, in order to unlock the meaning of the gospels.

The German Jesuit Karl Rahner said that the theologian of the future will be a mystic, or they will be no theologian at all. Mystics are those, like artists, who see into the heart of things. Who looks at life symbolically and find the deepest spirit in the depths of the world, persons and God. Like the prophets of old they seek to bring their visions, like St. Paul, to others in symbolic language, so that we too might enter in, and see ourselves as sacred works of art.

Perhaps it is time for the child once more, the child in all of us, the Christ-child within, to lead the way. To return to that second naiveté Paul Ricoeur (Coeur is heart in French) talks about, so that we too might see and know ourselves as God’s work of art, mystic, artist and storyteller.

Writing Joseph

It occurred to me yesterday that the Sunday sermon comes up short at the altar rail unless the preacher has the ability to incarnate the person of Jesus there in our lives. If his or her words cause Jesus to come alive to us, so that Jesus walks out into the sanctuary, down the aisle and touches the lives of those sitting there hoping for a word, something to take home with them so that the Christ life might enliven their own lives. That’s what Jesus did. He walked right out into the mess and muddle of everyday life, to ordinary people, to touch, heal, teach and love. We ministers of the Word need to school ourselves beyond scholarly and academic considerations. Unless the gospel lives for us, we cannot hope to make it, Jesus, live for others.

This is what Joseph does. In his story he walks out into our lives, so we can journey with him. So we can learn what it means to be fully and authentically human. He shows us how to navigate the pitfalls in life and become wise and heroic.

The narrative of Joseph’s life comes alive because it resonates with each of our own lives. Before I can say a word about Jesus, I had to begin by saying many words about Joseph. Jesus will carry the story of Israel within him. As the last patriarch Joseph stands for that story. Where the Hebrew people will go, Joseph has been. Joseph goes before each of us, shepherd, dreamer and savior.

For me Joseph was the place to begin, because all the rest of scriptures hang on understanding the final chapters of Genesis. I did not want to rush and make him a Christ-figure. Or prefiguration. He isn’t. What he is is a person much like you and I. ‘A man with his moments. Moments of being loved. Moments of being betrayed. Moments of dreams and moments of stark reality. Moments of blessings and moments of loss. Moments on the way to becoming himself. And in between all these moments is a life. A life of wandering and work. A life spent trying to piece together all the scattered moments of his life in order to give them meaning, in order to come to know himself and the sacred Reality at the heart of all the moments of his life.’ (From Page 1 of the Preface to I Am Joseph, Shepherd, Dreamer, Savor.)

All the writing, quotes, artwork and photography in this blog, fortydayswith stpaul, are the work of the author unless otherwise stated. Scripture readings are from the Jerusalem Bible.
This work, including its contents, may not be used, reproduced, duplicated, displayed or distributed without the express written permission of the author.

The Journey of the Human Heart

 Pentecost red ribbons I’ve been facilitating a bible study in the past few months on Acts of the Apostles. In Acts Luke chronicles the early church grappling with what it means to follow Jesus as the Christ. We get a different look at St. Paul in Acts. We see him traveling around the Mediterranean, going from place to place in order to establish belief in Jesus and set up churches in his name. Even though Luke paints Paul in a favorable light (he was his traveling companion for a while) it becomes clear from the outset that their were many challenges Paul faced and difficulties the first apostles faced after Jesus’ resurrection.

But they were not alone as they began to proclaim the triumph of the human Jesus as the messiah, the Christ, as evidenced by his resurrection. His resurrection had a powerful effect on them. Suddenly the things Jesus said and did made sense. They finally got it. They understood. And at Pentecost it became the Spirit of Christ coming upon them, coming into them, that empowered them to go out and proclaim that this holy man from Galilee, who was their friend and teacher, was also the Christ of God.

Each of us over the course of our lives enacts the journey that we see in the first followers of Jesus trying to become ‘church’. The ecclesia –a gathering of believers who would now try to recreate/to tell Jesus’ life, his words, what he taught and what he believed. Their goal to form their identity based on the life of Jesus.

For us too today it is a matter of forming an identity. An identity we need to form and formulate anew as we grow in knowledge and awareness of our spirits as they join with the deepest God-centered self, which is Christ. We are Spirit led. Our creative spirituality is an incarnate spirituality. It is enfleshed in our bodies as we embody the Spirit of Christ.(1 Cor. 15:45) As we make our final march to Holy Week and to Easter, we embody his Spirit, left as legacy and identity.

He made his journey from the green hills of Galilee to the teeming metropolis of Jerusalem, to the shores of the Jordan, from the Kidron Valley, along with his those who loved him, committed to a journey they had no idea where it would lead them. It was enough to be with him. For us too, it is enough to be with him.

His life was a journey. He continues to journey with us as we make our unique identities in the world.  It is a promise kept. It is the promise of the coming to be of God in the human heart because he was the human heart of Jesus. A human and sacred heart that is enough.

The Poetry of Soul

IMG_2127   Spring is here. I can hear the birds singing. Fresh air comes through the open windows. The thaw is underway. Easter is right around the corner. It’s not just the windows that are open, but there is something inside of me that opens up, thaws out, reaches out to the world. Wants to be out in it. With the onset of Spring it seems whatever Lenten ritual I’ve fallen under, in spite of what I have or have not done, the Spirit seems to enliven not just the outside world, but my inner world as well. Perhaps it’s just that wonderful sense of wellbeing that comes with the change in weather. I feel more connect to the world beyond my door. More alive. My souls seems to have expanded.

This seems like a good time to think about the soul. For one thing I know. The soul is not a static thing. It’s large. It embraces the world beyond my door and it enlarges me. Soul can grow. Like Spring. Perhaps being snowed in is an opportunity to read and reflect about life, or just enjoy not having to do anything, but by this time of year, even before I’m sure, something in me has become restless. That’s my soul. The sacred ground of my existence. The sacred ground of all existence.

I want to give flesh to my soul. Find a nugget of inspiration. Make marks on paper. Write. Paint. Watch the flowing crab tree outside my window budding. I pay really close attention each day, each hour if I can, because it buds, bursts, blooms, blossoms and then the flowers are gone. Then I wait for the irises and peonies to grow.

I think the soul is like my flowering crab tree. It has its own dormancy, it sits outside my window, a brown branch, with so much potential. Perhaps I’ve overlook it. Forgotten what it is capable of. So now it’s time to do soul work, soul searching in so many ways. Take walks. Watch Spring come to life. Listen to the voices of children playing outside again. In the mornings I often read the poetry of Mary Oliver. There is something about poetry that bring us to the threshold of the sacred. Connections are made. Images bringing revelation. It’s like whatever reading you do in the morning, it stays with you during the day. Shapes your day. Taking a walk, digging in the garden, the soul of poetry connects us to the soul of the world and our own life. It is the Word becoming flesh in our lives. We shape our souls and they shape us. It is the inexhaustible resource which makes life possible; which makes living worthwhile. Paying attention to these small bloomings is how we enlarge life. Then perhaps like the poet we can write the day. Take up a blank page and draw, paint, write this moment, this day, our lives in the poetry that shows the soul taking flesh in our lives.