Why I Do This

brillant leaves

Someone recently asked me why I do this (i.e. write this blog). Well, it began as an exercise in reading the letters of St. Paul and putting down in writing for forty days of Lents a journey in Christ with St. Paul.

Why I’ve continued, however, is a rainbow of reasons. One is my need to share with others; especially when I find something I am passionate about. And I am passionate about the scriptures. And the person of Jesus Christ. If I could just convey to others what a difference he makes in our lives. And the absolute unswerving power of faith. And for me the center of this is in the scriptures, in the Word become flesh, in the person of Jesus as the Christ. Too, I search. And this is how I search. For what it means to be a Christian. How to live life in Christ.

Also, because at heart I’m a teacher (i.e. sharer). The bible is a great piece of literature. Every human experience is written there. As I watch the characters’ lives unfold, I am gain insights into the drama of my own life. I believe these stories help me understand life, help me grow and above all find God at the best and worst times of my life. I believe we are inherently oriented to grow, like living plants reaching for the sun. I know people are changed by hearing the stories of other people’s journeys. Yahweh and Yeshua of Nazareth live today in these pages. So you may see here too that I am fiercely committed to the importance of the story of Israel in understanding the story of Christianity; for the story of Israel is the story that Jesus carried with him as he entered the synagogue each Sabbath morning to read from the sacred scrolls.

This past summer a much loved professor, mentor and friend passed away. He was an ‘Old Testament’ scholar. I went to grad school enthusiastic about the Word. And Ben Asen fired my love for the Hebrew Scriptures permanently and forever. He was a great teacher, passionate about the bible, its poetry and its prophets. He gave me a great gift. I would like to pass that gift on if I am able.

The biblical characters in many real ways are still alive in us today. Alive in how we mature, or don’t, alive in the journeys we make in faith, the challenges we face from within and without, our heroism, our pluck and pint-size attempts to live more fully realized lives; alive as we wrestle with angels, cross barren deserts, succumb to our fears and doubts, try simply to survive in a foreign land, or set out from Egypt with Pharaoh on our heels; where we are often not led by the better angels of our nature but those that hobble us and leave us limping through life, when we feel or are marginalized, until upon the rough seas there appears one who will overcome the forces that toss us about and rage against a fuller life, where our sight is restored, our dis-ease becomes a better facility to navigate the shoals, where we stand taller and walk straighter, and fine we are led by the hand and heart onto that safe place, where the good news he brings prevails and no earthly force has been able to kill it.

 

 

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Pentecost and Peonies

Forty Days With St. Paul

  IMG_0828        Pentecost is just past and I am reminded that Pentecost was already a feast that Paul and the other followers of Christ celebrated. It is the feast of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit that transformed the world in Christ. Like the gift of springtime, Pentecost brings us the gift of the Spirit.
Also, during the Pentecost season both my peonies and irises bloom. Like Pentecost, peonies are my favorite flower. Each year I take copious photographs and make arrangements of them to paint and capture their fleeting beauty on canvas. It seems appropriate that peonies bloom at Pentecost because the word for peony in German is Pfingstrose. It means Spirit Rose. It is a gift in my garden just as the Holy Spirit is Christ’s gift to us.
Moving throughout Paul’s letters, as he goes about guiding people in this new faith in Christ, is the Holy Spirit…

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The Christ-self Discourses

IMG_2206   Before continuing on to the remaining letters of St. Paul I wish to pause. I want to take a summer interlude to explore one of Paul’s primary themes: the Christ-Self. To live in Christ is the resounding phrase that permeates all of St. Paul’s letters. It is this hidden self of Ephesians that I understand to be the Christ-self. Paul is paradoxical, complicated, contentious and contradictory. Because of this he is often misunderstood. It is this misunderstanding of his writing both by the earliest purveyors and shapers of the budding Christian faith and contemporary audiences that has distracted us from hearing true meaning, wealth and richness of Paul’s message. There is a depth and breadth to his single-minded devotedness to faith in Christ I’d like to see salvaged from the ruins of two thousand years of institutionalization of his writings.
However, I trust that reading all of Paul’s letters, chronologically and within the context that they were written to the people he cared fiercely and passionately about, has provided a better understanding and appreciation of what Paul was about.
To that end, I want to write a series of blogs now that focus on the centrality of the Christ-self in his letters. And how to understand this – not as a concept – but as a lived and living personal reality, that has the possibility, to the extent we are aware and make ourselves available to it, of informing and shaping not only our faith-life, but the totality of our lives, physically, psychically, spiritually and emotionally. In other words, the totality of our being. Because this is the Christ-self.
This series will follow something like this:
Transformation
In Christ
The Christ Life
Spirituality as Creativity
The Sacred Self

We are Chosen and Loved

 IMG_2184    Paul is now getting to the heart of the matter. He tells us we are God’s chosen and beloved people. God has chosen us; we are meant. I find this so much more valuable than a program or laws telling us how we are to act and interact. This is the heart of the gospel message we can take to heart and to live. If we truly believed and experienced what it means to be God’s chosen, God’s beloved, how differently would we live our lives? When John Baptized Jesus in the Jordan River he heard a voice telling him that he was the beloved Son. Here Paul is telling us that we too are the beloved of God. We know how this revelation changed Jesus’ life. Afterwards he immediately went off to a quiet place to pray and think about what just happened to him. And what it would mean for his life. What does it mean for my life, your life?
It is knowing we are loved and in loving others that holds together tolerance and forgiveness of one another. Because we know we are loved, we are capable of love. This is the richness of the gospel that makes us wise. That Paul encourages us to share with one another.
Paul tells us we are also forgiven by God. Now we must in turn forgive others. This is where we find peace. When we put down the greed, the anger, the bad temper, spitefulness. These are all the ways we hurt others. And when we do we hurt ourselves. This behavior is the behavior of the ‘old self’ Paul talks about. But now we have a new self.
The new self is the Christ-self. The Christ-self that is compassionate, kind, humble, gentle and has patience with others as well as with ourselves. I sometimes feel that when I am none of these things, it is because I have put such high expectations upon myself that it makes me irritable that I have not achieved what I wish to achieve. But if I can remain mindful, instead of mindless, of the Christ that lives within me, I can relax and trust that all will work out as it should.
It is love that is the crown of all these behavior. It is love that is at the heart of all these behaviors. And it is this love for one another that dissolves all barriers. Barriers between Greek or Jew, free or slave, those who keep the law or those who do not. Paul is setting out only a few of the barriers we set up between ourselves and people who are different from us. In each person there is no distinction. In each person is Christ.
And the next (famous or infamous part, depending on how you react to Paul) part, then cannot be from someone who is a misogynist. In fact a closer reading shows that it is respect and love that Paul is encouraging between husband and wife, children and parent, masters and slaves. Here Paul is neither condemning nor condoning these roles. For they are roles in the society he lives in. Givens. His entreaty is as it was a few sentences earlier. All our relationships should be governed by love.
In whatever role or work we are given to do (because people in Paul’s day were born into their roles or status and could not easily change them) Paul says to put our hearts into it. Do our jobs or live out our roles with integrity and not halfheartedly. Whatever it is we do we do it for Christ. The only law is to Love. The only rule to invite Jesus Christ to rule our hearts and our lives. To be other Jesus Christ’s.

Christ: Gardener of Our Souls

At this moment the garden is all expectation.  The green shoots have pushed through the earth softened by the spring rains and the peonies are ready to pop. The irises leaves reach for the sun, tall green sentries guarding the lavender phlox creeping about the base of the flowering crab tree that stands just outside the garden walls. The crab tree has relinquished its bloom and fragrance, that first delight to the senses that greets the spring. Its red berries unfold into white flowers, a spring snow fall that arrives and fads more quickly than the rest. At the moment the garden is perfectly poised at the threshold of its becoming.

Having just traversed the stepping stones of Lent, we too might have a sense that we are on the threshold of a new becoming. Another Easter renewal taking root in us.

I have come to Paul’s letter to the Colossians at the seemingly appointed moment as well. Colossians is the perfect post-Easter missive to us. Like the garden that is all readiness, a bourgeoning promise, Paul’s letter from a Roman prison is bounding with the treasures of his thoughts, jewels of wisdom and knowledge, hidden as it were in God’s secret garden, ours for the picking.

Jesus found Mary in the garden when he came out of the tomb back to life.  She thought him the gardener. Yet, he is, as Paul speaks of him here, the gardener of our souls, the gardener of our very lives. The apostle to the world is describing in the poem of verses 15-20 the Cosmic Christ. The Christ who always was, from the beginning. He is the beginning, our beginning. In him we have our beginning, just as the world, the heavens and the earth, every garden in it, came to be, because he is. Just as the earth we tend reflects the mystery and majesty of the Creator, so too, Christ reflects the image of the unseen God, Paul writes. Jesus also said, when you see me you see the Father.

He is  the Christ of all the earth. He is its unity. He is our unity. He holds us together. We have been planted in him, rooted in his life, as Paul says repeatedly. It is not just a metaphor for Paul or for us. It is the living reality of the Christ life that has walked out of the tomb, beyond the garden gate, into the real world to make his claim upon it and continues to make his claim upon our lives. You are mine. The source of our lives from the boundless beauty of Christ incarnate.  Our undying rhizome.

Just like the garden in this moment of its becoming, he too is the becoming thing in us. His becoming in us knows no season. It is in every season, every day, in each moment that we take breath. Our last breath will be the first of the eternal flower that we become in the light of his countenance. In his sure and loving gaze, that even now sustains and is working toward our ‘perfection’, our wholeness, the hidden garden of the self that is rooted in his love and life, and grows to the perfect perfection that is the Gardener of our souls, of our very being. He is the becoming things in us from which our lives take rise and toward which we journey to the wholeness that is him. His breath in us. His face the reflection of our face in the river carrying us to the garden gate.

He comes to us as one unknown…

Paul had more than one revelation of the risen Christ. Whatever those experiences were I get the sense that he gropes and grapples for words to convey what those experiences were. They seem to be experiences that are beyond words. But they are mostly likely the locus of his passion for preaching the risen Christ. He continually prays that we too might enter into the mystery and the revelation, the reality of Christ. Yet, too, as with all mystical experiences, they are first and foremost for the receiver. For reason that only he or she knows. They are impetus. And they are not bound by words.

Paul’s prayer for us in Ephesians, where he prays that our hidden self grown strong and the love of Christ which is beyond all knowing, seem enigmatic, a reality shrouded in mystery. Hidden for us to uncover. Treasure buried in a Self that we are meant to discover.

In the next two letters, Philippians and Colossians, Paul also used similar language:

…now the life you have is hidden with Christ in God. Co 3:3

He speaks of the infinite treasure that is Christ. Why the mystery? Why hidden?

In the past few decades, which began with Albert Schweitzer, there has arisen what is called the search or quest for the historical Jesus. It’s not a search so much for what Paul calls the reality of Christ, but to go back to the historical documents and try to uncover the real (historical) Jesus. This is not a search into the mystery or the reality of the Christ of faith.

Perhaps its our all-to-human tendency to set things in stone. To nail down that which refuses to be nailed down. Our tendency to codify, dogmatize and decree what is living, organic, supple and transmutable. The human person and the human spirit in the never-ending process of becoming. Becoming oneself. Becoming God’s. The journey to an identity that is the journey of transformation. From one way of being to another. From a half life to the fullness of life.

Seek and you shall find. It seems to be human nature to be on a discovery mission. To search the mystery. It is the seeking that seems to be part and parcel of the human experience, the way in which we are to go about finding not only ourselves, but the sacred reality that impinges upon our awareness as it both beckons and eludes us. In Philippians Paul likens this process of discovery as a race. Paul too wants to know Christ. To know the power of his resurrection. He says he has not gotten there yet. He is still running, trying to capture the prize for which Christ Jesus captured him. In this same context he says we are called to be ‘perfect’  (to be whole and achieve well being in Christ). Then in this passage he advises to keep going on the road…

Like Israel and Jesus before us, the realization of our identities and the simultaneous revelation of God come to us on the road, on the journey of life. We are meant to search out so that we can make these realizations our own. I suspect that  in that way, what is hard won, or ferretted out in life, are those things that stay with us.

 A living process of searching out our own depths and dimensions, how we are meant to achieve and realize the hidden self, yet always sense the mystery just ahead, over the next horizon, the beckoning beyond of something illusive, the Someone who wants to be known, not in formulas or definitions, but in the lived experience of relationship. Known more in the biblical sense (i.e. intimacy) as an encounter with  the sacred Other who is invitation. Our search is our practice and march toward eternity. Toward becoming fully human. A knowing not of the head but of the heart.

At the end of his search for the ‘real Jesus’ Schweitzer had this to say:

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of hold, by the lakeside. He came to those (persons) who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: ‘Follow me’ and sets us to the task which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the suffering which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is.

 

Love is all you need

I keep going back to the end of Chapter 5 in 2nd Corinthians and the beginning of Chapter 6.3-10. The love of Christ overwhelms us, Paul says. If we had a sensibility of this love today we would be overwhelmed as well. It is this overwhelming love that Paul encountered on the Damascus road. It is a love that Paul will later say in Ephesians is the love of Christ which is beyond all knowing, that comes to us as the freely extended invitation of God. Grace. Aka God’s love. A redeeming love, which means it is a changing love, a love that changes us and has already changed the world.

Here is what is remarkable that this all encapsulating love is given to us so that we might become the goodness of God. Paul has been writing to his converts admonishing and cajoling them into acting according to the Christ they have received. Unlike the Pharisees, both ancient and contemporary, its finally refreshing to read Paul himself, rather than through an interpreter, with fresh eyes, and come to the realization, if not the experience, that it is God who initiates this relationship. What would it mean if we saw ourselves not as sinners but as the goodness of God. I don’t find Paul using that negative connotation to embroil and entangle us in, but rather imparts a sense of self that God made as good and continues to sustain in his own goodness.

What does it mean to be the goodness of God? How differently would we carry ourselves? What burden would lift? How more open to the message of Paul and the gospel love of Jesus would we be? How much more attentive to the way we act and interact with the world, with ourselves? As Pau says, this is the freedom of the holy spirit. We have no ideas what can be accomplished in it. Paul is trying mightily with word upon word to give us some sense what this means.

For us it means a transformation is taking place. God has accomplished this new way of being in and through Christ. We die with Christ in order that we may rise with him. We ‘die’ to the old way of living, which is subsumed in the death of Jesus, and we in fact through faith in Jesus Christ are renewed, we achieve the sacred reality that is activated if you will, becomes known, lived, realized, as we live in and into the promise which has been fulfilled not only in a place but now in a person. It is the promise of our becoming; becoming the unique sacred identity that was first given as a promise to Abraham and now becomes in Christ is reiterated to us

Not only are we renewed, but the way we view the world and even the events of our lives are seen in a new light. Through the prism of this saving love. Salvation, our saving understood as not being saved from something but saved for God, saved in order to serve and to worship and live our lives according to the Christ we have received in the goodness that is God’s. The things that seem to deprive us or are objectionable to others, are in fact, with God’s grace, the very things that we now, like Paul, are not just changed but become the tenor of grace.

It is a gathering grace. The God-life that now reconciles us to God. We are God’s as from the genesis of our humanity. Created sacred and meant. This reconciling power is God in Christ as Paul says that gathers all things to himself. It is the giant embrace of the Creator for his world, for his people, for us. Bolstered by the spirit of holiness, a love that is free of affectation, sentimentality, by the word of truth and the power of God Paul marches confidently in his work as the Ambassador for Christ and is able to make known that his work serves God’s cause in the world. He says more specifically that we are all Ambassadors for Christ. Meant as the loving response to God’s love to incarnate this love in the world.

Earthen Vessels

Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians is building in an intensity as he continues to encourage and instruct the first Christians there. The force of his message is getting more and more concentrated as he focuses the strength of his message of Christ as Lord as he works to articulate the light shining in the darkness. We hold this treasure within us as earthen vessels, he goes one to say. The light is the treasure which is the knowledge of God, the glory on the face of Christ. The face of Christ that we see as the true knowing of God. Jesus said when you see me you see the Father.

So it is not just knowledge that Paul brings to bear here but a real face to face encounter, to know and be known. Knowledge here is not information but experience, the real presence of the living God who we come to know in Christ Jesus. The Word of God that becomes flesh in our lives. The Word who became flesh and pitched his tent among us.

Paul’s writing is getting very dense and intense. On one level you can read him, his oft repeated message to the various communities is apparent. But drawing out the depth of his message as it comes through his rhetoric is a bit of a challenge. One reason here I believe is that he is not only teaching how to live in Christ but also woven with it is Paul’s experience and defense of his own mission and work. His message is becoming more urgent and his sentences are getting more muscular, dense and over laid. Associations are woven tightly together so that I get the sense that Paul and his scribe knew what he was talking about and his audience but at our remove it requires nuance and understanding of Paul and his background in Judaism. And I find I am continually rereading, going over the same passages, and quite frankly reading them not as the chapters are set out in my Bible but seeing longer passages that flow, go together and refer back to each other. A long, colorful woven tapestry.

This is an example of the excavation or unraveling of Paul. He continues in Corinthians: We are only the earthen ware jars that hold this treasure. This treasure being the knowledge and subsequent experience of Jesus as Lord. How are we like earthen ware jars, variously translated as earthen vessels? The great thing about symbols is that they can and do have a variety of meanings. First, his audience would know that these vessels are formed and shaped on a potter’s wheel and then burned in the fire in order to bake them. Implying that we are created, formed and shaped by the Potter. Then we are burned in the fire. What follows in this section is Paul’s description of the fire in which his ministry is forged. He faces difficulties on all sides, and as in other places, he is explicit about what they are. But in spite of all these difficulties Paul prevails. It is worth it. More than worth it. The lesson is to the newly Christian and to us whose Christianity perhaps has become watered down or worse. But for Paul these are the blessings and responsibilities of being vessels of the Word, the life of Christ, temples of the living God, which Paul goes on to liken both himself and the people at Corinth, to.

As he goes on he intertwines the cause of his persecutions with what saves him. The life, death and resurrections of Jesus the Christ. We carry within us in our bodies, in ourselves as earthen vessels, the death and therefore the life of Christ. And Paul goes on in this letter to set out the trials and challenges to not only Paul but to the Christ he preaches, which in Paul are one and the same. Paul encourages throughout that what he endures we too we can endure for the gospel. The Christ life that lives in us, also sustains us through the fire.

In 1946 the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves near Qumran. They were found to be inside earthenware jars. This is where the papyrus manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures had been put perhaps for safe keeping, possibly in anticipation of or after the destruction of the Second Temple. Traditionally this may well have been a way the scrolls were kept and stored. We are only earthen jars that hold this treasure We carry the light of Christ, the Word of God within us. However fragile, breakable, we as vessels are, because the Spirit of the Lord is with us, in both his death and life, we will be preserved. Not just preserved. But we will grow. The old is sloughed off, while the new creation that we are comes to life. We will decay Paul says, but as we grow in the knowledge and love of Christ, the inner person is renewed day by day, earthen vessels from which the light of Christ shines. The outer body diminishing, while the hidden self grows strong in the knowledge and love of Christ.

Not as a Stranger

Paul’s first letter to the community at Thessalonica reads like a love letter. He says the things lovers say to one another. He misses them. He can’t wait to be with them. He really wants to see them face to face. Without apology or embarrassment this man who could often be irascible begins with love in his heart for his first ‘children’. I read Paul’s words as addressed to me. It is as I begin Lent, this love, as the great grace and peace, I want to rest in, settle myself in for the next forty day.
This love Paul has for us is reflective of God’s desire for us, and that which impels Paul forward on his mission to preach Jesus Christ to all within hearing.
At the outset of the letter Paul commends the people for their faith in action, work for love and persevere in hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. It will be these three markers that weave their way through Paul’s letters and form the framework for his life and writing. I see then as my talismans on the journey through the next forty days.
After so much, after all that our lives serve up to us on a daily basis, it is so welcome, to hear these words of love and encouragement from Paul, knowing that all we really need do each day is live and be at peace in the knowledge of God’s love. Paul even goes so far as to console and assure us that even death is nothing to grieve, but another part of ‘awakening’. I liken it to our living now in the shadows and one day we will simply step into the light. The light of God’s love. And it radiates from Paul as our greatest, not only hope, but confidence now.
The majority of Jesus’ followers, like Paul, genuinely believed that he would return during their lifetime. It is this expectation that motivates their lives. Of course we know that after two thousand years there has yet to be a Second Coming. And unfortunately we have lost this sense of urgency. That the Christ life is immanent in our lives. Because the truth is our Dies Irae might be waiting for us at the next bus stop. This shouldn’t, I think, be a downer but keep us with our sights on what is important, as Paul will keep continually reminding his audience.
This keeping to what is important is echoed in the prayer that goes something like this: I know that my Savior liveth and that he shall stand as the light of day upon the earth, and even though this body be destroyed I know that I shall see the face of God and that I shall see him for myself and not as a stranger.
This too is uppermost in my mind. That when the veil lifts I shall see him for myself and not as stranger. Paul introduces Jesus, bringing the message of his life, death and resurrection to the various communities he went to. His letters keep their budding faith centered on Christ, so they too will not be swayed by all the opposing forces around them, the challenges to their faith, so that they too can enter into what he calls glory not as stranger to their, our very personal deity, that he has experienced for himself in the risen Christ.
The conversion of this community began when they broke from idolatry, worshipping the false gods of wood and stone. Like the golden calf, none of these are ‘living’. It is only the God of Jesus Christ that is the real and the living God. The Lord of Life. And it is to this life that Paul keeps his audience sites upon as he remembers them.
Here too Paul acknowledges that the strength of the love he has for them makes him eager to hand over not just the Good News but his own life as well. Here as we begin Lent, we could strive for nothing more than to hand over, to dedicate our lives to the Good News, however living this out may look in each of our lives.
Paul cares and he cares fiercely. Paul, devoid of sentimentality, writes to the people like a parent, both mother and father. It sounds to me like a letter a parent would write to a child who has gone away to camp. Paul’s stance throughout will be with a devoted care and protection; his main mission to teach faith in Christ and how we can live this out in our daily lives, with its joys and with its challenges, all of which find Paul no stranger. Paul’s words can become personal to us as well as we are invited in this first week of Lent to live a life worthy of the Christ we have received, the Christ that Paul preaches and how to live in the kingdom to which we are all called.
This letter seems to be a fitting way to begin Lent. Paul isn’t asking anything out of the ordinary here either. He encourages us to go about our daily lives, attending to the daily round, earning a living; as someone said ‘practicing our beauty anonymously’. And how do we understand his against fornication. It struck me that of all the offenses the people in Thessalonica could commit, this wouldn’t be high on the list. It doesn’t even make it to the Big Ten. As Paul proceeds it becomes clearer that he is talking about our behavior, how we treat and carry our bodies, as the vessel of the Spirit, living symbols to others, of the Christ we have received.
As an orator and writer Paul has some wonderful symbols and images running throughout his letters. The first here are those of breastplate and helmet. And if we are to put on Christ then we want to be clothed in his love and his peace, with the sure hope that our salvation not only awaits us but is ours now.
There is much to reflect on in just these opening paragraphs. To hold to everything good. To care for one another. God has called us and he will not fail us. I know this to be true in all of my life, especially in contrast experiences. Although sometimes I think does he have to wait until the ?
Finally we see that Paul’s good news is to the whole person, body and soul. That our faith-life is not to be compartmentalized, as this letter to the community at Thessalonica reveals. And always and finally it is the prayerful Paul who encourages us to pray constantly, to mindful of who we are, whose we are.

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