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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Fellowship with the Spirit (aka Prayer)

couple on bench watiching sunset

Throughout his letters we hear Paul praying. In Romans 8 he comes to his key thoughts about prayer. A few simple sentences that say so much. To me, that say it all.

Paul has prayers of thanksgiving in his letters. They all begin and end with thanksgiving and a blessing. He prays his converts will be able to meet the challenges to their new faith. He prays that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with them. You might even say that his letters are at their heart and soul, letters about prayer. Prayer as our relationship with God. Prayer as accessing the God-life within us and without. Prayer as giving ourselves over to the Christ we have received. About living the Christ-life prayerfully. With attention to the Christ we have received.

In this modern world, prayer is a difficult subject to broach. Not because praying itself is difficult. But because, as we see in Paul’s letters, it is easy. And like everything else Paul writes, prayer is about having faith. Having faith that we are heard, that we don’t have to ‘do it right’ because there is no ‘right way’ to pray; and that the Spirit of the Christ life we share in faith, is also the Spirit that prays in us. The Spirit that invites us to pray. The Spirit that is always praying within us. Drawing us out and out and out.

Over the ages prayer has been preached, like the faith-life of Jesus Christ, with indomitable hurtles to achieve and cross so that one might feel ‘successful’ in prayer. Here in Paul we cut to the chase. We come to the heart of the matter.

Paul counsels his converts to pray always. For in this praying always they/we put on the mind of Christ. In prayer we tap into, if you will, the Christ whose Spirit continually prays in us.

The Spirit prays in us when we cannot choose words in order to pray properly.

Prayer, like Jesus Christ, saves us. Pray opens us to the ever-available Spirit. It is a great comfort to know that when I cannot pray, and there are times when life so overwhelms that I have no words, I know that I can sit in the silence of my soul and let the Spirit speak for me. Just like in the psalms which I reach for often, this spirit knows every human emotion, feeling, desire and even mean and horrid thought I think. It is a great assurance to know that it is this Spirit of Christ which has the power to resonate with my own. On Good Friday we will hear Jesus cry out from the cross, a lost and forsaken question to the Father he knew was his “Abba Father”.  By Jesus’ unselfconscious crying out to his Father, he became broken open to his Father’s saving grace and action in his life. We follow Jesus Christ in this as well. He shows us we too can say anything to God. We can even doubt God. If we feel abandoned by God, so did he.

When we pray “Abba Father” we are reassured that not only can and does the Spirit pray within us, but that God will not refuse anything he can give. In prayer God turns everything to our good because he cooperates with those who love him. Once again, it is love that is the essential thing. In our faith, in our comings and goings, in our activities, our stance toward one another and to God, and in praying. Have you told God that you love him today?  While I ask and while I knock, I try to make sure that I don’t treat God like a cash cow.

Paul’s words in Romans 8 speak for themselves. They don’t need a lot of words heaped upon them to take meaning. They are sentences that we can take to heart, to memory and carry with us like a prayer as we go through our day.

Our day, knowing that it is Christ who pleads for us at the right hand of the Father. The Father who hears us as he heard his son, who refuses us nothing and turns everything to good.

 

Called by Name by the Risen Lord

daffodils

Jesus of Nazareth has risen. Mary sees him in the garden, just beyond the empty tomb. She hears her name and recognizes the Lord she thought she had lost. His disciples who were in despair at the loss of his life and his life work see him cooking a meal over the open fire by the lakeside. Walking on a road, eating at a meal where they too now recognize him. And because he lives again, we know with unreserved certainty that God’s choosing him, means God chooses us. Each morning he says our names out into the universe and we rise with a bit more compassion for the day, for ourselves and for the world. They hear his voice and once again they are changed forever. When John baptized Jesus hears a voice calling him beloved. Then Jesus immediately goes off to a quiet place to pray and think about what just happened to him. And what it would mean for his life. For now he is changed forever as well.

This is where we follow him. Up from the Jordan, into the wilderness, across the rocky paths and through the bustling city. Into the synagogue, out on the hillside, listening to his stories, at wedding feasts and ordinary meals. Across life times and across all the moments of our lives.

What does it mean for my life, for your life to know he lives again? That we are each called by name. The name that is ours alone. That is unlike any other when it comes from him. It is perhaps knowing we are loved in the breadth of our names uttered and from this like the new spring we come to more tolerance and forgiveness for one another. Because we know we are loved, we are capable of love. This is the richness of the gospel that is the good news.

In Jesus’ new life is our own new life. We are now that new self St. Paul speaks of. The self hidden in Christ. The Christ hidden in our lives that comes to life in the garden, on the road, by the lakeside.  When we hear our names and we run to tell others that he lives again.

Jesus the Christ

footprints

The drama and tension that runs through all the gospels is at their core the question of Jesus’ identity. Between John the Baptists, who proclaims the coming one, and Paul, who proclaims the meaning of the one who now has come, Jesus stands. Awash in the waters of the Jordan River, beyond its shores Jesus himself became the message swirling about the Mediterranean in the questions Paul’s converts raised about this Christ Paul asked them to follow. By a dramatic turn of events, Paul would call him Christ and range far wider than any of the evangelists in his proclamation of Jesus’ identity, the nearness of God and saving sovereign for all who believed in him. The gospels and Paul’s letters, read in tandem today can orchestrate for us the mosaic of Jesus’ life and person.

Rising out of the waters of the Jordan he became a magnet to those searching for a better way, a better day. But we do not have the physical presence of Jesus to draw us to him. What sensibility quiets the clamor that seems to reign today? How do we enkindle the flame so our hearts burn within us when we hear his voice, hear the stories he told retold to us today? This is no small challenge. Our desire must be great. Our imaginations open wide. Our searching hearts undaunted by the secular world’s hold, sway and pull on us. And yet we live in the midst of our world, the way in which Jesus lived in and moved about in his world, awash with its own profane and materialistic determinations.

Woven about the person of Jesus, like a shroud that had begun to unravel over the years, over the centuries, are stories and legends, the fact and fictions of his life. He became draped in the mantel of Israel’s hopes. Soon enough, those hopes dashed, he would wear the royal purple of Rome and then become the Roman Empire’s standard bearer, cooped by a king, to be a King.

His life is a mosaic of those who loved him, those who followed him, those who believed he was their savior. His life story was even shaped by those who feared him. But the voices of those whom he had touched won out. Those are the voices that remain to carry his story forward for future generations, for us.

Journey with Jesus

footprints

From the moment of his conception, Jesus’ life is marked by many journeys. The first he makes inside his mother, when she goes to visit Elizabeth to share her good tidings.  At the end of Mary’s half-day’s walk to Zechariah’s house, it is John in his mother’s womb who first  acknowledges by his leap of joy the cousin for whom he will pave the path made of the expectant hopes of the Jewish people. The next journey Jesus makes is to Bethlehem, still safely ensconced within his mother, his father Joseph leading their donkey across the rocky wilderness to a census taking and his birth.  Throughout his life Jesus journeys toward each new horizon of being before him.  But the journey that was his long before he came into the world, is the journey the Hebrew nation made as they crossed the wilderness, on their way to becoming the people of God. It will be this journey that he carried within him as Jewish man marked on the margins of society where a second covenant, a new testament would begin.

As an adult he will come, confident, striding across the rocky landscape of Judea, intent on his destination, carrying with him the hopes of his people, bound at birth to free them, and thereby us all, in his one great act of dedication, living his life.

 Now Israel’s story of transformation would become the story of the transformation of God.  The God who would see Jesus driven into the wilderness by the same Spirit that blessed him, in order to  gather his scattered flock back to him once more.  In the events surrounding Jesus’ coming, the gypsy-god breaks through the laws of nature in order to take his future forward once more.

Jesus takes us on a journey to the very heart of being. Divine or human, god or man, priest or prophet, rabbi or carpenter, how we know him may be how we know ourselves. How we see – experience our own lives may be how we see him. Perhaps at some point our own lives begin to resonate with his story – where meaning and myth meet – where the scriptures live: in the resonance of that life with our own – a ringing true which helps us as we make our way – find its truth – and live our lives with meaning and significance. To forge an identity we can own and from which we can live an authentic life. He shows us a way to being authentic. For above all else…he was authentic…real in the realest sense of the word. Flesh, blood, tears sorrow, questions and crisis and the mounting question as he turns his face toward Jerusalem aside the donkey now himself. How we answer this question will be the measure of our becoming.

The Rose that is Forever in its Advent

                 last rose of summer  We are on the threshold of Advent, and yet in the heartland flowers are still blooming. We are having a very long Indian summer. The impatiens are leggy, but still have color, and the petunia, who will last even when the snow falls upon them, have turned their faces, yellow, orange, purple, violet, to the rising sun each morning. The roses rival the autumn leaves who have gone from their vibrant reds and oranges to a dull russet while the rose bush continues to bloom. That flower associated as the penultimate symbol of love flowers on beyond its appointed season. If you wanted to name a perfect flower it would well the rose.

I am thinking of Advent differently this year, with St. Paul’s letters in mind. It seems to me that Paul brought another kind of Advent, the coming of Jesus as the Christ into the world and into our awareness.  Paul brought to awareness the living presence of Christ Jesus to a whole new sector of the Mediterranean population. Paul’s main theme is that we are brought to new life, a new birth, in faith in Christ. Christ becomes the highest and most perfect symbol of all that is human and sacred. His living, dying and rising makes that god-life available to us, not in some distant future, but now. For Paul it was always now. In Christ God’s life is born in us now, not as a baby in a manger, but in the manger of our hearts. One adult to another. One fully human and sacred Person to another human person who has within him/her the possibility of bringing the sacred reality that we are to the fullness of life, into full bloom. For Paul it was the coming of whatever vision or sensibility that came to him that inaugurated the advent of the Christ. The incarnate God ever available to us now in Him.

In Advent as we put on Christ, we put on the undying, timeless, perfect rose. Who continues to bloom even in the midst of winter’s darkest days, amidst the snow, in spite of the cold, the rose reminding us too of the life-blood that flowed from him onto the earth to mark it forever with his beauty, grace, life and love.

 

Love comes first

I just have to say, I love the new Pope. Even though I am an Episcopalian, I am so delighted to see a man who follows in the footsteps of the fisherman and truly understands, knows and lives what Jesus was all about. Truly he has opened the arms of the church wide to all. Like Jesus before him, everyone is welcome at his table no matter what you have done.

St. Paul says we are God’s work of art. In Genesis all that God created he said was good. We are all on the potter’s wheel. And God is not an extra-terrestrial task master. He is the I Am Who Am who identified himself as the personal sacred Reality of our lives. The God who pitched his tent among us, and continues to journey with us, to ensure that we get home safely. The churches’ emphasis on sin has kept many people from approaching its doors, let alone its altars. St. Paul says love comes first. Then people can change. Its not the other way around. Change your life and I will love you. That wasn’t Jesus’s program and the church has done a great disservice to gospel message by often making this the focus of its preaching.  Jesus invited all kinds of people to his table. Jesus ate and went around with people from all walks of life, those his society deemed ‘unclean’ or outcast. In a time when ritual purity was so important Jesus looked past this to the person, to their hearts and saw that it is the heart that counts.

Perhaps the churches can turn their focus and follow in another fisherman. Let us know we are God’s work of art. We are created in image and likeness. We are good because what God has made is good. That first and foremost we are loved. No matter what we do. For who we are is more important to Jesus and his Father.

This is how the kingdom comes. In love. One person loving the other. Then another. Until all humankind finds itself in this embrace and the kingdom has truly come to be in our midst.

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.

The Blooming Season of the Spirit

  Day Lily open

I know that my Savior liveth and he shall stand as the light of day upon the earth, and even though this body be destroyed, I know that I shall see him for myself and not as a stranger.

July is upon us. And my day lilies are in bloom. But they only last a day. That is why they are called day lilies! But while they bloom I want to capture their beauty. I have a lot of watercolor paintings of day lilies, trying to do just that. I have to be quick. As soon as they go into an arrangement I start the drawing. I do take photographs for reference to paint from after they shrivel up and fall off the stem. But when I look at the photographs, it just doesn’t quite capture what I see with my naked eye. And I have a really good camera. But when I look at the flowers directly or anything for that matter, I see things the camera doesn’t. Nuances of color, subtlety of shape, the lines within the petal that seems to be a pathway into the flower and off to its edge. Even the edges are more pronounced. With the actual flowers in front of me I can get a panorama, and a much better sense of the relationship of one flower to the others. And I love the pods. There are so many. Which rather off sets their short flowering, because the next day there will be others popping into view. The trick is devoting a couple of weeks to the adventure and challenge of trying to capture their beauty on paper. I think that’s why artist like to paint flowers. There is a beauty in them that we just have to replicate. Take with us. Make them ours for more than just the blooming season.

I think our soul life, our spiritual life, imitates nature in this way as well. We have ‘blooming’ seasons, when the self seems to open to the Spirit. The light of the Son falls upon us and we reach for its radiance. We bloom. We are in the state of becoming and growth. Open to the greater possibilities life offers, when we take the time to just look. Life in full bloom is a life lived in Christ. Open to his Spirit shining in our lives.

Others may hold pictures or image of the story of Jesus, of the Christ life, up to us, for us to look at. There are so many views; from which angle do we make our approach, to capture or convey something that is so real yet often so elusive? St. Paul tried to do it in his letters. In Philippians he says to put on the mind of Christ. I think it’s in the mind’s eye, in the heart’s eye, our own, that we see for ourselves the truth and the beauty of his flowering in our lives. To look directly and squarely at the gospel stories and let our eyes find what only we might see there. To get a better sense of the relationship from one parable to the next. In this direct gaze, which seems to ever be beholding a blooming season that never ends, we might be able to capture a truer likeness. And in that radiance better see our own flowering there.