Saturday, July 16, 2016

Life Together Matters

The last few months have been deeply painful for anyone who believes that, as the name of this blog suggests, we are all just here to walk each other home.  Politicians preach racial, ethnic, and religious profiling, police are trained to see our streets as was zones, private citizens in the United States insist on their "right" to arm themselves with military-grade weaponry, the people of Great Britain separate themselves from the European Union in protest over too many layers of unresponsive government, and random acts of violence tear cities apart in the name of, what? ISIS?  Homophobia?  Generalized fear and anxiety?  We seem to live in dark and fearful times.

The challenge for people of faith and good will is to figure out how to respond.  There are many possible options, among them withdrawal, prayer, social action, political activism.  Each has its benefits, of course. Withdrawal at least protects the heart and soul from the daily assaults of violence and fear-mongering, and withholds from the provocateur the reward of a response, either of fear or of sympathy.  Withdrawal may limit the spread of evil in the short run, but it does not promote the good.  Prayer is a powerful tool in the hands and hearts of believers, especially prayer that promotes the conversion of perpetrators, and reconciliation with victims.  Even more powerful is the kind of prayer that effects deep transformation of the inward life of the pray-er, the one who prays.  Social and political action are necessary elements in the healing of the world, but without confronting our own potential for anger and conflict, our efforts will drain us, and ultimately come to not very much.

While I have chosen to ground my spiritual practice in contemplation, and live in a hermitage, I remain committed to the principle that companionship, compassion, and love are the only things that can heal the world.  To be a companion to black people, gay, lesbian, and differently-gendered people, Muslim people, to whoever has been cast aside, wounded, and rejected by others, this is the Great Commandment of Christ, and as far as I can see, the only practice that has the power to heal the world's wounds.

Black Lives Matter.  The lives of the poor, the sick, the suffering, the oppressed matter.  These are the ones we are called to walk with, to live with, to stand with. Only in companionship and compassion can we make a lasting difference.  Walk with me.  Let me walk with you.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What Bliss, That We are Dust

Ash Wednesday -- such a dark and solemn day in so many churches.  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  No matter the care you take to be healthy, to be successful, to be beautiful, all will turn to dust and worms and ashes.  You will die, and you will be judged, perhaps by an angry and vengeful God, so you'd best use this season of Lent to beat yourself into submission before it's God's turn to beat you into submission.

No wonder some clergy have taken to the streets with Ashes to Go for the folk who don't make it to church on Ash Wednesday.  The problem is not that people are "too busy" to go to church to "get their ashes." The deeper reality is that the message that comes with those ashes is terrifying, and instinctively people avoid it.  Busy-ness is a convenient hook to hang it on, but it's not the whole story.

There is a much larger story to Ash Wednesday, though, a deeper truth hidden in the dust and ashes we so fear.   Just as Jesus showed us in his own passion and death, in our death is our liberation.  In our willingness to abandon our egos and agendas and self-development programs lies the path to actual freedom.  In acknowledging our impermanence lies our very bliss.

Dame Julian of Norwich experienced her visions of God's limitless love and mercy towards his
cherished children in the context of a near-deathly illness.  St. Francis of Assisi carried the stigmata of Christ's crucifixion as bodily reminders of the inevitability of death itself, calling the end of life "Sister Death."  Ramana Maharshi felt himself dying at a young age, and laid himself down to fully experience his transition, at which point he recognized the presence of divine consciousness within himself.

Ash Wednesday may be received as God's invitation to burn away our obsessions and illusions until all that is left is Love Itself, the pure consciousness of God.  What bliss that we are but dust -- the dust of the earth, the dust of the stars -- and that God's Love is what animates this collection of passing matter.  I will use this season of Lent to discover what God can burn away, and leave me with the Divine Alone.


 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Love Letters from the Past



Dear Ones,

In a fit of New Year’s clean-up-and-organizing fervor, I decided to collect up all of the baskets and piles and drawers of letters and cards and Christmas pictures that had nestled into various corners of the house.  My goal was to eliminate the envelopes with addresses I no longer needed, and consolidate the cards and letters into a single container.

I achieved that much, but what I couldn’t have imagined was how much more I gained in the process.  Little did I know, but there were old friends, former parishioners, semi-distant relatives, so many lovely souls who had been trying to keep in touch over the years.  For many reasons, I’m pretty sure I’m the one who dropped my end of the tenuous thread that held those relationships together.  

Why?  What a mix of difficult thoughts and emotions here – shame, sadness, confusion, mostly shame, actually.  I thought I’d left parish life under a cloud, one that I wasn’t strong enough to lift on my own.  I didn’t see that others either wanted to lift it for me, or never really believed it was there.  I just hid there, wishing it would go away.

And now?  I’m not sure about the cloud – it may have dissipated, or rolled away like fog on the shore, or just tucked itself into some obscure corner of my soul.  What I am aware of now is a feeling of gratitude, a desire to acknowledge all these dear people whose kindness went unacknowledged but not unappreciated over the years.  I’m not sure how to do that, except by a card or note of thanks, and I’ll probably take that up as a practice in the coming weeks.

If you are reading this, and think you may be someone who has not heard from me in a while, please know that the precious relics of your caring friendship are still here, and still cherished.  Thanks be to God for you.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Walking Luke Skywalker Home


Much has been made of the newest installment in the Star Wars movie franchise in which we renew our acquaintance with Luke, Han Solo, and Leia, now General, Organa.  For what it's worth, I think Episode VII is rollicking good fun, and I've enjoyed it both times I've seen it in the theater.

Here's what makes it worth writing about, though. According to some internet reports I've read, George Lucas is unhappy with the decision to go back and essentially re-tell the original "A New Hope" story.  He has said that it was his intention to keep creating new dramas, to introduce new characters, new planets, new situations to the galactic stage.  One can certainly understand that impulse -- for the sake of keeping the story fresh, or to attract new viewers, it might seem necessary or desirable to be endlessly creative.  But that was never the point of Star Wars, at least back in 1977, when I first saw it.  The joy of the first Star Wars film was its ability to tell a timeless story, the essential story, the story of the lost-and-found hero who discovers that he has the power to change -- indeed, to save -- the world.

The next two episodes in the series expanded on that theme, showing how the main characters confronted their truths, known and unknown, and created adult lives in the galaxy they were given to live with.  But the series lost its way, in my opinion, with the series of "prequels."  The story became convoluted, the characters (and in some cases the actors) were less compelling and believable.  Lucas had relinquished the focus on the hero tale, and instead was filling in backstory.  The narrative of the Fall of Anakin was, perhaps, a necessary component of the larger epic of redemption.  Sadly, it was crowded with political machinations and large armies of unidentifiable metal-and-plastic foot soldiers.

To their credit, J. J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, and company have returned to the essential story, updating the special effects and including a black man and a female in leading roles.  They have brought their heroes "home" to their essential task of discovering their identities, connecting with a larger truth, and marshaling their energies for good.  Whatever anyone thinks the Force, or the Rebellion, or the First Order stand for in the present age, they are fundamentally about the conflict between good and evil, the craving for and abuse of power, and the spiritual awakening that begins the process of personal and societal growth.

George Lucas may have had some other story in mind that he wanted to tell, but Abrams, et al, have chosen the better path -- to return to The Story, and to bring the earlier hero, Luke, home to the ones who most love him and need him when the days turn dark.  I look forward to the next installments.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Redirection

This blog has been a wonderful opportunity to "think with my fingers," to think and write and explore some ideas in "real time," as thoughts and invitations have arisen over the past months.

Now it is time for something new.  If you have enjoyed this blog, I invite you to visit my new one, Notes from the Hermitage.  Shorter, simpler, more like the life I aspire to live at the Wild Goose Hermitage of the Lindisfarne Community.  http://wghermitage.blogspot.com/

Blessings,
Beth+

Monday, August 3, 2015

Reading Romans: Paul the Universalist?



While following along with the Westar Institute’s challenge to read all seven undisputed letters of Paul went along quite well for most of July, I admit to some serious procrastination when it came time to read Romans.  In the spirit of completing what I started, though, I will offer some comments here.

First, a word on Philippians. Brilliant. Bright.  A ray of sunshine, frankly, and the most poetic of Paul’s writings.  He seems finally to glimpse the possibility of unity centered on the joy and love of Christ.  His ego is still a bit in the way, but it’s starting to recede, and good on him for it.

Now on to Romans: his most intellectual, and therefore most convoluted, attempt to work out the significance of the revelation of Christ, both for the Jewish community, and for the Gentiles.  There are some harsh words on human sexuality in here, but it helps to read before and after the ‘hot’ verses.  Paul is concerned about sin, not for its own sake, but because in his mind it is a sign of idolatry.  Those whose lives are given over to sins of all sorts are expressing in their outward conditions (which Paul calls ‘the body’) the state of their inward spirit.  This letter, then, is Paul’s attempt to account for the presence of sin among people who have received either the revelation of the Law, or the revelation of Christ.

Paul rightly understands that the consequence of Adam’s sin is the universal condition of suffering and death.  I say rightly because what Paul is pointing to here is, in fact, the human condition – all sin, all suffer, all die.  And Paul rightly claims that Jesus Christ is the witness and example that sin, suffering and death are not God’s last word for humanity – that forgiveness and restoration (he calls it ‘salvation,’ [soteria: rescue, safety]) are.  His words at the end of chapter 8 ring out: neither life not death, nor angels nor principalities, nor anything already in existence nor anything still to come, nor any power, nor the heights nor the depths, nor any created thing whatever will be able to come between us and the love of God, known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-9, NJB)  God intends all humanity to live in a state of perfect freedom, and the path to that goal is life ‘in Christ.’

He then goes on to make the convert’s universal error – if coming to this understanding has made it all crystal clear to me, then this must be the understanding (i.e., belief in and acceptance of Jesus Christ as personal savior) that will work for everyone else as well.  And so he tries to create a new 'universal' community, one that transcends the former divisions of Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, but creates his own division in doing so: his ‘us’ and ‘them’ is ‘believers’ and ‘idolaters’.  This may, perhaps, be a response to two concerns: 1, as noted above, Paul is well aware that sin persists, both within and beyond both Jewish and Christian communities.  And 2, God’s perfect freedom to both forgive and condemn appears to need defending, as the references to Moses and Isaiah in chapter 10 would suggest.  If God’s love is completely universal, not dependent upon human actions or statements of belief or any other criterion, then God’s supreme freedom to judge among human persons is compromised.  It is a conundrum which plagues theologians in the form of theodicy:  if God is all-good, how can evil exist?  But it does.  And moral evil, as indication of the rejection of God’s grace, is where Paul draws the line.  

I'm going to go out an a limb, though, as the title of this post indicates.  I’d like to think of Paul here as a proto-universalist.  Perhaps I’m being optimistic, but here’s my evidence: Paul felt himself compelled to preach the crucified Christ as God’s message of forgiving love to the entire non-Jewish world – precisely the people least likely to understand what he was talking about.  The barrier between Jew and Gentile was the first to come down.  After that come the dividing walls, at least in theory if not yet in practice, between slaves and freemen, and between males and females.  If in Adam all die, even so in Christ all will be made alive.  It’s there, just below the surface of the text, and Paul himself may not even have realized it.  But we must see it, and embrace it, if Christianity is to live up to its own promises.

We live in a time no less divided than Paul's, and his failure to imagine a truly universal path to God has resulted in 21st century people who can call themselves Christians and yet divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ‘friends’ and ‘enemies,’ and along much the same lines: male and female, rich and poor, black and white.  It is time, in the name of the crucified Christ, to move beyond Paul's limited vision, to embrace the fulness of God's promise of peace and freedom and redemption, and put all such divisions to an end.  Will you, in the name of Christ, join me?

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Second Letter to Corinth

My summer travel schedule has put me a bit behind the Westar Institute's 30 Days with Paul reading plan.  I will continue on with Philemon, Philippians, and Romans at my own pace, but first I want to reflect a bit on Paul's Second Letter to his community in Corinth.

Reading 1 Corinthians I was struck by the dualism, and underlying sense of separateness and conflict that engaged Paul so relentlessly.  There were bits of light along the way, but at that point they did not cohere into anything solid.  With 2 Corinthians, that begins to change.

In this letter, Paul still feels separate from the community, and threatened by the appearance of other preachers who apparently want the Corinthian Christians to live by Jewish law in order to be "properly" Christian.  That, however, was not Paul's message, and he pleads with his readers to remember the truth of what he taught them.

The down side?  He nearly drowns those nuggets of truth in a long tirade of self-justification.  To his credit, he justifies his teaching on the basis of his attempt to embody the humility of the crucified Christ in his own experience of hardship and humiliation.  He's on the right track here, I would say, but he's still only beginning to see the truth of Christ's life and message.  He tells his readers that it was 14 years earlier that "someone" was lifted up and given a heavenly vision.  Scholars consider this "someone" to be Paul himself.  And while 14 years may sound like a long time to ponder and digest and make sense of the kind of life-changing revelation Paul received, in the history of the development of new religious movements, it is barely a blink of the Divine eye.  Paul is trying desperately to teach something he barely understands, at least at an intellectual level, to communities that do not have a shared religious vocabulary or worldview.  No wonder he sounds so frustrated!

There is, however, a glimmer of the message Paul tries so desperately to convey to his Corinthian converts.  I find it in these verses:

3:17 -- "...where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom."  In the face of those who would impose the Hebrew Law upon non-Jewish Christians, Paul intuits that there is a freedom to be found in embracing Christ as the embodiment of God.

5:15 -- "...he [Christ] died for all..."  The death of Christ works effectively to bring all persons into a new form of life, if they know this to be true.  No one is left out of the saving work of Christ.

5:19 -- "in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself..."  Again, no part of creation was left out of God's reconciling, I would say unifying, work.

What Paul has not seen yet, or has seen but not yet understood, is that the freedom and the reconciliation are two sides of God's love.  Paul still wants to fence "the community of the saved" with laws and expectations.  He sees other teachers as threats to his own ministry, and to God.  He doesn't yet see that there is no threat to God, and that, in the words of the Lindisfarne Community, all truth is God's truth.  God's love is more than large enough to reconcile all of creation to himself.

At the same time that I was reading this letter, I was coming across statements from other world religions about the essential unity of all persons in Divine Love.  Religions such as Daoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism had been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before Paul's breakthrough revelation.  I see him as groping toward something that requires long years of thought, prayer and struggle to understand and articulate, something that is at the heart of the religious vision: that God's love is neither exclusive nor earned, but given freely to all of God's creatures.  To live in that love, one needs simply to acknowledge and open the gift.  But those who do and those who have not yet are still united by the love God has for them, not separated by the judgments we make about each other.

Christians who root themselves deeply in Pauline writing need to be careful not to stay at a beginner's level of religious understanding.  Paul's fear and self-justification run the risk of creating fearful, self-justifying Christians, even now.  I will be digging into the next few letters, especially Romans, seeking signs of a more nuanced, mature understanding of the Christian revelation.