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.

Advertisements

Joseph’s Tomb

Joseph's bones

I was distressed to hear that Joseph’s Tomb, where his bones are supposed to be buried, after the Israelites carried them as he requested, into the new land they were to inhabit, had been bombed and set on fire. How is it that art work and artifacts and sacred sites are now the target of animosity and warring? Is nothing sacred. Or were they ever? How is it religious wars still rage after thousands of years. Does anyone pause long enough to see that what they are tearing each other apart for is what holds them together, or should be uniting them, rather than setting them against one another.

Joseph’s tomb has been the site of conflict over the centuries. The issue being – to whom do Joseph’s bones belong? What faith claims him? Can any one faith lay claim to Joseph and his bones. Moses carried them beyond Egypt. Beyond Egypt what they had encountered in the wilderness was to go out to all the world.

Joseph’s tomb has been the a venerated site for centuries by Jews, Christians, Samaritans and Muslims. All claim rights to the tomb and at one time or another have paid homage to the last patriarch.

‘The walls of the interior covered with the names of pilgrims, representing almost every land and language; though the Hebrew character was the most prominent one.’ (Wikipedia) From my interest in Joseph’s story, I find it interesting that so many people, different people, different faith, identify in one way or another with Joseph. And rightfully so. For his journey is the journey we all make. His story is the story of the journey the soul makes to become authentic and whole. Joseph is now  a symbol for everyone. I am Joseph. You are Joseph. We are all Joseph. His story is our story.

And whatever happens to the site (or sites) where his bones are said to be buried, one thing will endure untrammeled:his story.

For the Love of Christ

 

couple on bench watiching sunset   Lent is on the horizon. I will be spending another forty days with St. Paul. (I have just finished the Advent series in this blog entitled The Birth of the Word in the Soul.)

Paul wanted to bring Christ to the world. He wanted to bring the world to Christ. His letter are love letters, written to the Christian communities he established and cared passionately about. There were no half measures with St. Paul.

Paul’s Letters to the budding Christian communities were centered on Transformation. Transformation in Christ. A transformation that was life-changing for Paul and is life-changing for all of us, for all those who put their faith in Christ. The following prayer from Ephesians is at the heart and soul of what that transformation was, and remains for  us today.* This prayer then is the summation of St. Paul’s Letters. The goal, as I see it, of his work and our lives.

This, then, is what I pray, kneeling before the Father, from whom every family, whether spiritual or natural, takes its name:

Out of his infinite glory, may he give you the power through his Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and that, planted on love and built on love, you will with all the saints have the strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depths, until, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God.      Ephesians 4:14-19

Isn’t this the goal of Christian life. To come to realize the  fullness of God within. And in our very ordinary and daily lives. This fullness comes to us in the love of Christ.  This is what Paul wants us to know-the love of Christ. This love is within, hidden in our inner most being, in our selves.

The hidden self is the Christ-self. The Christ  who is within each of us, waiting to be discovered, inviting us to follow him, to grow strong in his life and love, and lead us into the fullness of God, the One he called Father.

  • Ephesians was most likely written by one of Paul’s companions. However, it truly reflects Paul’s prayer for the Christian communities and may have been prayed, heard and then transcribed by one of his companions and incorporated into this letter.

The Christ-self

  brillant leaves    Autumn is a season of striking transformation. Unlike Spring which comes slowly, softly, tiny shoots rising up out of the earth, small green buds gradually come to bloom on the trees, autumn blazes across the landscape. Right now the Midwest is ablaze with change. The trees that rumble across the landscape in shades of green one day are a warm palette of reds, orange, yellows, rusts, purple, crimson the next. We drive across the countryside searching for the passion and blaze of this season, before all falls away into winter.

Whether landscape or mindscape, change is at the very heart of the natural world and of human life. The worlds turning tells us this with each new day, with each season, in each plant, species and amoeba. Down to the very last cell of DNA we possess within us the ability to grow, to change, and to become. In fact, it is human nature to be in an on-going state of becoming.

We have often heard the word transformation used in the word conversion. John the Baptist would use the word repent, by which he meant return. It was a return to the one true faith and God of Israel. Yahweh. The living God. His was the outspoken cry from the wilderness, beside the Jordan, where a sign of being transformed was emersion in the waters of the Jordan. For whatever reason it was John’s activities that caused Jesus to come from Nazareth to the river that day, where his life too would, by the gospel accounts, change as well.

Paul’s very first letter to the Thessalonians was a call to change, to be converted, transformed so that they might follow and serve the true and living God. It is in Ephesians that we find the heart, soul and core of his message to the infant church that he is guiding into being. Paul’s call to put on Christ, to live your lives in Christ, is summed up in the hidden self that he prays will grow strong within us. This hidden self is Christ. The Christ-self.

This Christ-self is the Christ that may live in our hearts through faith, and it is in our hearts that we will know the love of Christ, which Paul adds is beyond all knowledge, so that we become filled with the utter fullness of God. It is this Christ-self, the Christ-life within is Paul’s raison d’etre.

To grow, if you will, to become more and more aware of the Christ-self within. It is in Christ, in the Christ-self that we participate and become part of the life of God. In Christ’s love for us is the utter, absolute, complete life of the living God. We could also speak about the sacred self.

All theology is anthropology. Of necessity then, to speak a word about God, is to speak about the human person as well. It is to speak of the sacred in the human heart – by this Paul meant in the depths of our being. Paul’s call to live in Christ is shaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. For Paul death, death with Christ, becomes the corridor to the fullness of being. A death that because we live in Christ, also means that we come to new life, transformed in him as well.

Autumn will give way to the sometimes dark and dreary days of winter. But in that winter, after the fall of the leaves, the dying out of the colors that so brilliantly blaze across the landscape today, will come, as the year itself dies away, a celebration of something that may be just a myth, but within that recurring myth, is the truth of the Christ coming upon the landscape of our waiting hearts.

Enamored in autumn’s brilliance is a promise. The promise of He who is ever new. The Christ-self as our abiding and permanent openness to God.

Written on the Heart

  last rose of summer  It’s taken some time to look at the ways of transformation Paul saw in those who would live in Christ. Who would put on the garment of the Christ-life, as followers of his risen Lord? It was an all-encompassing change that he believed possible to experience. He begins at the beginning, with Adam. Christ is now the first fruit of creation, a renewal of one’s entire life, for all who belong to him. As that belonging becomes longing we come alive, from merely being flesh driven people to being alive to the freedom of the Spirit of Christ. The old code is a by-gone cryptogram written on stone but one that was to be held in the hearts of the people. The sacred Torah, the Law, become the law of love.

Paul speaks in different ways about the Law/law throughout his letters. He uses it as a reference point, always to his own advantage, to the particular point and to a particular people at any given moment. There is no single understanding of what Paul means when he says law. It is always nuanced. But one thing is evident. The law, whether that of the prescriptions of how to live a just life, or whether he means the Torah, whether he uses it as a symbol for the Israel that he now sees as past, or the new Israel that he is advancing, in Christ the law is transformed into a Person, into Love.

The transformation from law to love, from letter to spirit, is the centrality of Paul’s message. How to live one’s life is not something written in stone, but a person, the life of a Person who is now the standard, the guide, the norm and the entire content of how life is to be lived.

Libraries have been written about the Law and Love in Judaism, Paul’s letters and in the gospels. I’m sure I have nothing new to add to the discourse. (Other than the fact that I am an ordinary lay person, like Jesus, Paul and the evangelists, many of whom had day jobs.)

Love too is an over-used and misunderstood word. Here too Paul is fearless. In the end, for all the sorting we must do to regather his message, it all comes down to Paul on his knees. To a prayer. A prayer for us. It all comes to being filled with the utter fullness of God. (Ephesians 4:14-19) The fullness which for us is Jesus Christ.

Making our approach to the Christ-self, the ways in which we are changed into the Christ-self, like water into wine, become the life-blood of how we come to be in Christ. We step from shadow into light. Evil is transmuted into the higher good that embraces well-being and healing. All that was weak within us, like Paul, is put to another use, a higher purpose, a strength that is the power of God at work in us through the Spirit of Christ.

Going from Law to Love does not mean we give up the message of Deuteronomy. But now in Christ the law written on our hearts, becomes the Word that takes flesh in our lives. A new way not only of being but of seeing. Through that dark glass of the ancient code we see a clearer vision on the horizon of being that is a person who is the way, the way to himself.

Rooted in Christ

 IMG_0417 As I recently walked about the gardens here, I was struck by the fact that many of the flowers of spring and summer are gone, but lit by the sun, light and shadow playing across their ancient surfaces, magnificent trees, like this one, remain. They have been around a long, long time. Centuries maybe. Like the tree that sat in center of the garden of Eden, this trees looks like it has seen and knows a lot. The imprint of lifetimes on its face. If it could talk….

This tree feels old, wise, like Paul’s letters. And yet here they both remain for us to tap into their ancient wisdom, to read the lines and markings that form traceries upon their faces, as they reach to the heavens and extend to the four corners of the earth, and reach out to us.  I came upon this tree on a winding path that led into a quiet place I had never ventured before. It was truly like entering the garden of Eden, it was so lush, quiet, its inhabitants off making loin cloths.  There were many trees, each unique, and each quietly majestic. There was a sense, a presence there without doubt.

Paul doesn’t want just to keep everyone on the straight and narrow. He wants to set us out upon a path that leads to a sacred presence. In his Epilogue to Romans he quotes these words from Isaiah, letting us know that he wants to give us more than scolding and information.

Those who have never been told will see him, and those who have never heard about him will understand. (Romans 15:21)

Paul want to impart the experience of the risen Christ. To form his words in such a way that we will see him. If you haven’t heard about the wonderful things he did and said,  he sees his life-work to bring his audience to understand the radical change, the growth and transformation that comes about from the knowledge and experience of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s letters too, are like the ancient trees, written on parchment, markings reaching out to offer their radical imprint on our souls and psyches. Rooted. Solid. Growing in shade or sunshine, good weather and bad. Standing the tests of time. Beyond reborn. Eternal. Secret, sacred knowledge writ large for each person who stops to see, to read the ancient inscriptions still steadily holding forth for us today.

 The Christ-self stands sturdy in each of us, at the center of the garden of our lives. It is there for us to see for ourselves and understand. It is one so ancient yet so new. We first saw him in a wood-hewn manger, from a tree that held his beginnings. It was a tree that held his ending. And it was a misused and misshapened tree that held his beginning for us. Paul brings us along the path where we too suddenly come upon his life, remaining, waiting, solid, rooted, the ever-present reality of our lives that stands at the center of the garden of our souls. It is only for us to follow Paul’s lead. To become a follower of the Way. It is only for  us to venture out upon the path.

 

The Triumph of Powerlessness

  IMG_0318      Weakness versus the power. That is what Paul is talking about when he addresses the transformation of weakness into power.  For Paul it is the power of the Gospel that allows him to even boast about his own weaknesses. And there are many. First, there was some kind of illness, the thorn in his side that never seemed to wholly relent. Then, however Paul is seen, he saw himself as weak and vulnerable. Even his weakness is somewhat of a boast, a confidence, that in his weakness those in the budding faith community would see that their faith did not reside in his or any person’s wisdom or power, not in talk, but in the power of God. (1 Cor. 2:1-5)

The word power is often heard as subjugation of one person over another. Conquest. It implies domination, abuse of authority and especially violence. Power is strength. Might. But here we might look at power simply defined as the ability to act. For Paul it is his weakness that gives him the power, empowers him to act on behalf of faith in Jesus Christ.  This is what he meant when he said the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. (1 Cor. 4) Paul knew talk could often be much ado about nothing. For Jesus, too, his stories were showing not telling. If we do not live the gospel it is meaningless. What we do matters more than what we say.  That is why it seems Paul’s insistence on behavior that matched faith in Christ.

Paul’s ultimate example of weakness is Christ crucified.  He was crucified in weakness but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but we shall live with him by the power of God. (2 Cor. 13).

Paul saw his weakness, the weakness of Jesus on the cross and our own to be the way through which the power of God, the empowerment of grace, reveals itself. For Jesus it meant the transformation of death into life. Death as the ultimate weakness, the ultimate powerlessness. The power of Death over Life. The Romans and Jewish authorities had had their power over him. Strangely the man who told his disciples to go out and preach taking their swords with them so as to defend themselves if necessary, did not resist when swords were drawn against him. This kind of power could be a Mobius strip of unrelenting evil that promulgates suffering rather than God’s reign.  The kingdom would not come by the sword. God would not sit on a throne as a powerful deity, but reign in the empty manger of our hearts.

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.

The World is Too Much With Us

looking_to_the_future1.jpg On the horizon of being the human heart is endowed with hope.

      Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:39)

The cross of Christ is not the (only) reality that we live under. We live under the sign of the resurrection as well. It wasn’t even until the Middle Ages that the cross began to appear with the crucified savior upon it. Rather, it was the depictions of Christ in his glory, as having triumphed over death, that were imaged in religious artwork until then. But more and more lately, well beyond Lent, when Jesus’s cross becomes the place to center our faith and praxis, these hot August days seem to swelter under the heavy burden of the cross.

It’s not just in Jerusalem or Ferguson, but all over the world, man’s inhumanity to others seems to be on the rampage. I finally had to turn the television off. But the subject would not leave me, because the next topic of transformation that I was going to address was the transformation of evil to good. During these days I have kept my bible close at hand. And I was grateful again that I had continued with this blog,  because I began to search again through the scriptures and Paul, for a way to come to grips with the epidemic of evil sweeping our globe. The obvious response (because there is no ‘answer’ to evil): the Way through – the absolute, unswerving faith in God, the great Transformer.

I wrote all things are eventually redeemed in the heart of God. I absolutely believe this. I have experienced this in my life. We see even now the first inklings of that drive in the human spirit to make sure those who have died have not died in vain. That good comes from this. This too is the meaning of Christ’s cross. This is the god-place within us, the indomitable human spirit that needs to keep creating and recreating ourselves and the world in image and likeness as the ongoing reality of living.

But, the events of the past few weeks have made me pause and pray and search what I believe and hear it as others might hear it, as the most recent victims of injustice and evil might hear these words. To make sure this is not pious prattle. That it might come from the depths of holding to the cross while living in the resurrection. Holding to the paradox of good and evil in God’s good creation. I hear Joseph saying to the brothers who wrecked their evil upon him and tried to kill him: You meant it for evil but God meant it for good. (Genesis 50:18). Joseph made his own long, very human journey of transformation. (I write about Joseph’s journey in my just completed mss I Am Joseph: Symbols of Transformation in the Joseph Narrative.)

When St. Paul talks about evil, he isn’t engaging a theological debate (theodicy), evil as the dark specter that swarmed about Job, rather evil for Paul is a matter of human behavior. He begins many of his letters asking the people to curb their evil deeds (Co 1:21-23). Fornication, impurity, evil desire (covetousness), slander, foul talk, anger, wrath, malice, slander and idolatry. These are all sins of one person against another or against God. For Paul evil comes from people’s behavior. In 2 Thessalonians 3:2 Paul prays that we may be preserved from the interference of bigoted and evil people. Following the passage from Romans 8 quoted above Paul reminds us of the word from the Hebrew Scriptures: For thy sake we are being killed all day long. We are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. It is then he says Nothing – not tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril or sword – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus the Lord. Paul later in Romans will ask that we overcome evil with good. By good he means love each other, respect one another, work with untiring effort for what is right and just, keep praying even in the face of trials and make hospitality your special care. (12:9-21) Forgive one another because you have been forgiven (Co 3:12-15). Let the message of Christ find a home in you. That great, real Love saves. This is the resurrection.

Joseph eventually save the lives of the brothers who wished him dead and forgives them saying You meant it for evil but God meant it for good. Suffering and the resultant on-going search for meaning and judgment are to lie ever hidden in the mysterious design of God that Joseph can only answer by his continued care of his family, suffering and evil’s only recourse to choose how one is to live within it and beyond. And to know the beyond as God.

 

With a Word and a Sword

Original water color by Cathie Horrell

As I began to think about framing the next post on rejection and acceptance, I thought of lst century Palestine, the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day.  Then I thought of Jerusalem and the Middle East today. Then I thought of the bombardment of images from a town that is only a twenty minute drive from where I live, Ferguson, Missouri.

The next way of transformation that Paul addresses is rejection to acceptance. Primarily he has taken up this subject because there is the debate raging as to whether or not the Jews were included in the saving actions of Jesus Christ. Paul goes to great length to assure that indeed the Jews remain the chosen people. They are loved by God. God never takes back his gift or revokes his choice. (Romans 11:28-29) The irony is that Jesus was a Jewish man; he was rejected to the point of being executed by the Roman establishment in collusion with the high ranking Jewish priestly aristocracy.
In one of Paul’s many convoluted rationales he says that it was their rejection that made it possible for Jesus to reconcile the whole world to himself, and bring about the deliverance, the transformation from rejected to acceptance for the rest of the Gentile world, to whom Paul felt called to be an apostle. (11:13-16). Because they stumbled, the rest of us are able to be lifted up. He goes on with two marvelous metaphors, comparing the Jews to the first batch of good dough that makes all the dough holy. They are the sacred root of the tree that makes all the branches sacred. It’s good for Christians today to know that our religious roots are in Judaism. To know that no matter what nothing can prevail against Jesus Christ’s acceptance and love for us.
There isn’t any of us who doesn’t know what it is like to be rejected. Turned down from the job. Turned away from the lunch counter. Turned away from a club, a group, an organization because something in our humanness doesn’t conform to the standard held by the powers that be. Rejection is the denial of your very heart and soul. Your very existence. The work of your hands. And it is often the rejection of your life as well. But Paul is telling us that in Christ this rejection has been transformed into acceptance. Acceptance as one sacred, chosen, meant, of value and worth.
Rejection is nothing new to the Jewish people. During Jesus’ lifetime the Jewish people in Judea and Jerusalem were living under the occupation of the Roman military establishment. They were looking for a liberator. Paul quotes Isaiah (27:9) saying  a liberator will come from Zion. (11:26). They believed this meant a military leader who would free them from Roman oppression. They wanted another King David who would slay the Goliath of their oppression.
Jesus had another way in mind. Rather than military confrontation he preached peace. This man who included everyone at his table, the wicked, tax collectors (very wicked), non-Jews, women, rejected no one. Jesus saw that being a voice in the wilderness meant you could lose your head. So his chose the way of peace. The way of love. He preached. He had a voice. He spoke out. His way was to stun the oppressors with kindness. Do an end around. Get to the goal, make the kingdom real now in the world, by side stepping violence. Bless your enemies. Feed them. Give them drink. Conquer their evil with good. (12:14-21) Jesus was not naïve. He also told his disciples to take their swords with them as they went out to spread the good news, to do good, just in case they needed to defend themselves. If they were rejected he told them to leave that place, brush the dirt off their feet and move on. Brush the dirt off their feet? Don’t carry  their rejection, their dirt,  whatever their negativity is, with you.

Faith is difficult. Believing that things can change is difficult. Above is an image of man who held his hands up in surrender; surrender to his oppressors, and because he did he makes it possible for all of us to do what he did: come back to  life, live forever, forgive.  This is not a touchy-feely platitude. The gospels challenge us. It is ours to bring about the kingdom now. Justice  is what is right; what is right is the golden rule of all faiths.  To love one another as you love yourself. Love wants what is best for the other as we want what is best for ourselves.  And what is best for us is God. Justice is when the way of heaven and the way of the earth converge. When the kingdom, Yahweh’s, G-d’s, Jesus’s, Allah’s, Buddha’s, Mohammed’s way, is lived now.

Sometimes, in the name of religion, we are even told to endure oppression, our reward will be in heaven. I say, I have my reward now. I have Christ. And more importantly he has me.

We can be comforted by the Sermon on the Mount, but after he gave it he came down from the mountain, went to be among the people, to touch and to heal, He even healed the daughter of a Roman centurion.

P.S. I believe it was Karl Barth who said to do theology with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

 All the writing, quotes, artwork and photography 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 Sign of the Cross

Original water color by Cathie Horrell

Original watercolor by Cathie Horrell

If a picture speaks louder than word, the  image above says it all on the subject of rejection.

This is the sign of some people’s ‘no’ – their rejection of Jesus. It is also a sign of God’s ‘yes’ – his acceptance of Jesus, and not only of Jesus, but of us. God’s yes as we see at Easter, is greater than any ‘no’.