Thursday, October 8, 2015


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.


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.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Paul and the Community in Corinth

The 30 Days with Paul challenge continues from Galatians to the First Letter to the Corinthians.  Blogs on these letters can be found at the Westar Institute site, and at the site presented by my friend and brother, Jack Gillespie, Celtic Odyssey.  There are many useful insights into the Pauline writings at these and other web resources.

I find myself returning to the question of duality in Paul.  It's all over the first several chapters of First Corinthians.  Insiders and outsiders, married or single, believers or not believers.  And if the believers aren't living up to Paul's moral code, "send them off to Satan!"  Wow! I am working very hard to find Good News in here.  Let me point out a few places where I see some light.

6:19 - Do you not know that your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit within you?  My mom used to use that phrase, "your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit," when I was young.  As a child, it made no sense to me. Now, however, I think of it as the indwelling presence of holiness that connects me in a visceral way to God, and draws me toward body practices like conscious breathing and yoga that help me experience the Divine in a wide range of ways.  Paul limits his scope of concern here to sexual behavior, but I think it has a much wider application.

5:9 - If you try to avoid all sinners in the world, you would need to leave the world completely.  Paul is struggling here to maintain a firm line between sin in the world, which is inescapable, and sin within the community of believers.  Two thousand years later, we must admit that the sin of the world, while redeemed by Christ in his sacrifice of love, has not in fact been removed from among the community of followers.  I would update Paul's statement to say that if you want to avoid all the sinners in the church, you'd need to leave the church as well!

4:5 - Do not judge (others) until God has a chance to offer judgement.  One's inward moral stance may feel authentic and genuine, but we do not know all that God knows -- even about ourselves!  Patience and forbearance are necessary parts of life in community as well as life in the world.

I may, perhaps, see some of these "inside/outside" dynamics differently from Paul because of my efforts to live a secular monastic life, to weave together a contemplative way of living with ministry and activity in the world.  Paul is trying so hard to make life within the nascent Christian community look different and BE different from all else around it, and of course, in some ways it is and should be.  But he reminds me of a child coloring with their crayon so vigorously that the crayon breaks.  The lines need not be as dark as Paul draws them.

I will be traveling for the next week or so, and will most likely not be writing about my readings with Paul.  I will continue on the 30 Day challenge, though, and will look forward to catching up with other followers when I return.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

5 Days with (St) Paul, so far...

The Westar Institute has initiated a 30-day reading plan designed to cover all of the undisputed letters of Paul in the New Testament.  I found out about on the first day, and have been trying to catch up ever since.  Sunday afternoon seemed like a good opportunity to read not only the first few days' worth of Pauline entries, but to see what the Westar blog, along with my dear friend Jack, have been saying in response to the readings.

First, I should say that I have typically focused on the Gospels, particularly as a preacher, and haven't paid close attention to Paul since the one course I had on the Epistles in seminary.  (Anyone out there remember 'Romans to Revelation' at Garrett Evangelical?)  So I took this on as a personal challenge to actually read through these letters in a somewhat systematic fashion.  (As an aside, I'll be travelling mid-month, and will most likely be doing well if I keep up with the readings.  I don't expect to be able to comment on them often.)

Thus far we have read 1 Thessalonians and Galatians, and tomorrow we move on to 1 Corinthians.  That's helpful right there, since we're reading the letters in the order in which current scholarship suggests they were actually written. That allows me to imagine that Paul's thought is developing in response to his own experience of life in faith, as well as in response to the questions he is being asked, or the news he is receiving from the various communities to which the letters are addressed.

What surprises me so far is the degree to which Paul is #1, anxious, and #2, concerned to explain himself more than actually reiterate what he considers to be the Gospel message. While he frequently counsels others to live quiet, restrained lives, his own urgency and anxiety fairly jumps off the page.  A friend who is also following the 30-day plan observed, "He has no idea of what a non-anxious presence might be."    Honestly, I'd rather hear him calmly pointing to Jesus as the model for our lives than to hear him frantically pointing to himself as the model, which is what he mostly does.

Then there's the whole section in Galatians that addresses the dichotomy of "flesh" and "Spirit."  I wish he weren't so polarized in his description here.  Richard Rohr presents Paul as a non-dual thinker, although I suspect Paul comes to a non-dual awareness later in his development.  The best I can do with the "flesh" and "Spirit" section is to posit that Paul saw "flesh" as the working metaphor for limited, self-driven, egoistic awareness, a way of being that could not be open to others, or to God's presence in love, and "Spirit" as the softer, kinder, wider, way of being that allows grace and compassion to lead.  

I'm sure there are other voices that will help me come to a fresh understanding of Paul as this month goes along.  Comments on the 30-day challenge are welcome!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Life in a Hermitage

One week ago, I began an new adventure – while on retreat with my brothers and sisters in the Lindisfarne Community I took vows to deepen my commitment to a life of prayer, study, and contemplation, declaring my home to be the Wild Goose Hermitage of the Lindisfarne Community.  It was not what I’d ever expected to be or to do, after all, I’m married with step-children and grandchildren, I teach at a small college, and have friends and relations from California to Northumberland.  What does it mean for a 21st century Christian to commit to a life of contemplation?

Thursday, June 4, 2015

God and Human Bodies

I recently wrote about the cultural and spiritual challenges surrounding women’s bodies.  That essay was prompted by the appearance of the movie version of 50 Shades of Grey, and the implication that sexual violence was somehow enticing or desirable.  In it, I quoted my abbot, Andy Fitz-Gibbon, who wrote, “Violence is always a failure to love.”  I agree, and I believe that statement applies to physical violence perpetrated against another, such as rape, or emotional violence visited upon oneself, as in criticizing every bite we take or day we do not exercise.  I also believe it applies to the standards of beauty to which women in our culture are held.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Practicing Theologian

I’ll be finishing my dissertation soon.  In just a few months I will complete the process of researching a particular area of theological discourse, with the goal of establishing myself as a professional theologian.  But what sort of theologian am I? 
By definition, a theologian speaks from within a particular religious tradition, and I can certainly say that I think and work within a Christian framework.  Most theologians speak from a particular ecclesiastical community as well – Catholic, or Reformed, or Orthodox.  Here, I fit less well.  I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, spent some very fruitful time as an Episcopal priest, and now belong to an independent neo-monastic community.  We have some wise and thoughtful theologians among us in the Lindisfarne Community, but I don’t know that the wider world would recognize us as a ‘school’ or ‘movement’ quite yet.

After the Surrender

It’s been a while since I wrote about the power of surrender, about choosing to “lay down this fight” in which my body was the battlefield, not only for others to wage their wars of domination, but where I attempted to conquer my own physical being, and not out of love but out of loathing.
It’s been a while since I made that choice, and for a few weeks I was able to rest in that place of surrender, trusting that God would bring healing to the deep self-inflicted hurts that had been brought to light.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

I Surrender

My last blog post addressed the issue of sexual violence that had been done to me in the past.  Long resolved, though not forgotten, it was important to bring my personal experience to the discussion of violence and misogyny in the popular culture.

There was a moment, though, a quick phrase that appeared in that blog that afterwards made me pause.  It was a passing mention of “body image” issues and concerns about weight, something I felt in the moment would be familiar to most women, as well as to those men who are sufficiently aware of the concerns of the women in their lives.  I caught myself up short, though, when I realized that those issues were an indication that the violence that had been done to my body wasn’t just coming from the outside.  I had been doing it to myself for as long as I can remember.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

God and Women's Bodies

The current conversation surrounding women’s bodies and how women are to be regarded is becoming more and more disturbing.  It’s a topic that comes very close to home for me, and I want to connect my experience with the emerging theology of unity that I’ve been developing in this blog. 

First, I need to share a bit of my past – not only do I have the usual body image and weight concerns, but I am a survivor of marital rape.  My first husband (now deceased) was an alcoholic who needed to exploit my body sexually just to reassure himself that he was alive.  At least, that’s what my therapist said.  For myself, I can say that I got told what I wanted, and in an effort to be a good and loving wife I went along with things I should never have allowed.  But all of that is in retrospect. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Is there a gap or isn't there?

Still wondering about the question of whether there is a gap between us and God, or not.

I got very excited a week or so ago by a post from Fr. Richard Rohr, whose alternative theology is quite engaging.  You'll find the post here.  In short, he suggest that in the book of Genesis, God's first two gestures are acts of separating: light from dark, and waters above from waters below.  And these acts are not called "good," "tov" in Hebrew, as God does for other acts of creation.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

What is Faith?

Hebrews 11:1 gives a straightforward answer: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  But is faith all about convincing ourselves of the reality of things we can't see?  Too often modern Christians hear the second half of this verse, and neglect the two critical words in the first half: assurance, and hope.

I'm continuing to contemplate the idea that there may be no real gap between the Divine Reality (God) and the human reality (us).  God does not have to bridge an infinite distance to reach us, and we are not forever alienated from the Source of our Being. (see previous post) If that's true, however, then it has implications for how we define "faith."