Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Mary Magdalene

 Mary questioned her Master, "At the end of the eon, will all matter be destroyed?"

 Jesus answered, "All of nature, its forms and creatures are interrelated; all will be returned to their original source.  The essence of matter also returns to the source of its own nature.  He who has ears, let him comprehend."  The opening lines of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene was healed of 7 demons (Luke 8:2) and makes multiple cameo appearances in the four Gospels, often being found alongside or among Jesus' disciples.  In the 6th century, she got branded by a man who had never met her.  In a blistering sermon, Pope Gregory accused her of being a prostitute, and until recently, she has lived posthumously with that reputation. Thankfully for women-kind, modern research and feminist scholars are resurrecting her as "the beloved disciple" and a more central figure in Jesus' life and teaching. She is the only woman who has a gospel bearing her name - albeit one of the non-canonized Gnostic Gospels.

Mary Magdalene bears the weight of having brought an entirely different, more inclusive, more earth-centered spin on what Jesus was teaching, but found as a woman teacher in a patriarchal culture that she wasn't taken seriously.  Perhaps we see in Pope Gregory's public act of trashing Mary's reputation the threat Mary's inclusivity posed to patriarchal power structures. Or, was it Mary's esteemed position in the cadre of disciples of which he was jealous?

We have learned this much and are still trying to get the message heard; women do bring a different voice, another vantage point, and a far more relational view to theology and church than the majority of their male counterparts.  They always have. They probably always will. The cognitive, head-strong leadership served over the centuries as the only Christian theological option (including Crusades, Inquisitions, and heretic burning) is radically the opposite of the more Jesus-like stance many women bring with grace and intuition, care, listening, and community. 

If you haven't yet been exposed to this more multi-dimensional, honest, intelligent woman, I encourage you to seek out some of these sources:

Meggan Watterson, Mary Magdalene Revealed: The First Apostle, Her Feminist Gospel, and The Christianity We Haven't Tried Yet

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman At The Heart of Christianity

Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

St. Francis

I have a deep love for birds.  My new house in Tacoma now has 5 bird feeders, and every day they are visited by various feathered friends. It is somehow reassuring that so many different species are living their lives in such an urbanized setting. Each visitation reminds me of the larger environment and the adaptations necessary to keep up with so many destructive forces at play, from overpopulation, overuse of resources to climate change.

St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals.  Each year my Episcopal church holds a Blessing Of The Animals near his recognized Feast Day (October 4.) He was born in 1181 or 1182 to a wealthy silk merchant.  Francis knew how to spend money and have a good time throughout the early part of his life.  But, like so many of the saints from this period, he had some life-changing exchanges with beggars and a spiritual encounter that totally changed the life course he was on.  Francis became a deacon (never a priest) and traveled over a wide area of southern Europe into Egypt and North Africa, preaching to Christian and Muslims about the love of Christ.  His early-life wealth and the familial connections with bishops and influence holders in the Church probably played a role when Francis, in sackcloth attire, requested permission to start a new monastic order.  He was granted an audience with the Pope, and the Franciscan order was created.  The order still exists today.

In 1979, the Pope made Francis, the patron saint of ecology.  That's an area that needs all the money and prayer it can get.  Francis would be terribly bothered by how the environment across the face of the earth is under siege.  The theology he preached incorporated the idea that through nature, God is known.  This is a radically opposite belief from the dominant 19th-21st century thought that nature is to be dominated, mined, drilled, and paved for the sake of the almighty dollar. We need Francis and an earth-centered spirituality that gives impetus to saving the planet and the millions of lives that depend upon it, my birds included.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

St. Clare of Assisi

Born July 16, 1194, Clare started life as the eldest daughter of an Italian count.  Her mother was a devout woman from a wealthy noble family.  She was known to have taken pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Rome.  She joined Clare's order of nuns later in her life.

Clare's monastic life started when she met Francis of Assisi.  She wished to follow in the steps of Jesus, so Francis had her cut her hair (not something women did in the day) and put on a simple robe (some texts describe it as coarse burlap). A spicy detail involving her father was where he attempted to drag her away from her vows to marry, which Clare forcefully refused, declaring she would only marry Jesus.  After the ruckus, Francis moved her to a Benedictine convent. And so began her life of asceticism.  The other women who joined her became known as the Order of St. Clare or The Poor Clares.  The order exists still today.  St. Francis maintained a vital role in her life throughout.  The order's rule expected the nuns to do manual labor and pray, go barefoot, sleep on the floor and eat no meat. 

Clare's story follows a common theme of many women in the Middle Ages who later became saints. They began life in refined style from "upright families" of some nobility only to turn a back on their families and join convents.  True, this was one of the few respectable options a young woman had in the day.  The two choices were assent to an arranged marriage with an older nobleman or run away to a convent. Still, it is difficult from a 21st-century vantage point to imagine walking away from a feather bed to sleep on the floor the rest of your life. It causes one to realize how profoundly privileged the majority of us are; that we have a much wider variety of options of all kinds such that rarely does anyone pick the monastic life. 

Yet, there is a mystique about monastic orders, especially for introverted people who have cultivated a deeper spiritual life.  I've heard many a church person question the value of monastic life.  There are two ways it has importance and value to us today. 

The first way is that it is a model for living in a sustainable community that may be required in the near future. By sustainable, I mean a relatively self-sufficient community.  The carrying capacity of Planet Earth is far past its limit.  A planet that could comfortably sustain 50-100 million people is burgeoning at the seams with 7 billion-plus.  Lifestyles will have to be radically scaled back as fossil fuel stores run out and climate change eats up arable land. The monastic communities have always known how to live inside their means while supporting nearby people.

The second way is that monastic life focuses on spiritual powers to sustain life's physical dimensions, even outside the convent/monastery.  Prayer brings unseen energy into undergirding the hardships others face, creates safe space, and guarantees a sense of belonging.

St. Clare died August 11, 1253, but she lives on in the life of the Church and many hearts. 


Saturday, December 11, 2021

Thomas Merton

The influence a person possesses varies widely and in so many ways.  A person can be a great orator, a writer, or gain recognition through their example or work. Thomas Merton was a 20th century Roman Catholic monk of the Cistercians Order of Trappists whose influence comes primarily through his writings. While many of his written works are worth reading, my favorite is The New Seeds of Contemplation.  

Merton was born in France in 1915.  Not long afterward, he and his family moved to New York.  He was widely recognized for his leadership in the practice of contemplative prayer.  He died in Thailand on Dec. 10, 1968, of accidental electrocution.  He spent his later years interweaving Christian thought with Buddhist thought, which is why he was in Thailand. 

One of Merton's many quotes is: "We are becoming what we already are."  This did not mean that we're stuck being what we've evolved/created ourselves into thinking we are (or in being what I think you think I am - ala Jay Shetty.)  Instead, it meant that we are born with the essence of God at our central core, and this life is spent finding our way back to being this central core. I think it would be fair to Merton to say he came to understand all humanity; actually, perhaps, all of the created order we know is grounded in God.  God's "body," so to speak, is everything we see, smell, taste, hear and feel.  My best possible representation is God's action and revelation. 

The impact this perspective could carry forth in this time of steadily increasing greed, self-centeredness, climate change denial, and excessive over-harvesting of natural resources is colossal. God put all that is into existence, expecting it to be self-sustaining.  Human beings' God-likeness was not planned to be at the core of undoing it all.  It is being undone rapidly because many have forgotten what we already are, who we belong to, who we answer to.  Together all things comprise the corpus of a loving God who desires goodness, safety, abundance, compassion, peace, and understanding.  May we become what we already are.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Perpetua & Felicity

Martyrdom has been an important model and recognition of the devotion some exemplary Christians have shown.  It is difficult to number them all because while we have the "formal" (my word) ones who have been consecrated and hold a date (of their death, i.e. birth in Heaven) for their feast day, there are untold numbers of others who have been tortured and put to death without another soul being present to witness their devotion. The largest number of martyrs were killed in the first three centuries after Christ's death before Emperor Constantine blessed Christianity as the Empire's official religion. 

Women were not immune from being martyred and there are many.  Two of the earliest women martyred lived in North Africa at Carthage.  In the year 202 CE (AD), two African women named Perpetua and Felicity were put to death in a Roman arena by the sword after wild animals could not be coaxed to attack and eat them. Both women were mothers and part of the torture they were put to endure involved threats to their children.  Felicity at the time was Perpetua's pregnant servant who gave birth to her baby 2 days before her execution.  (The baby was adopted by a Christian family in Carthage.)  

In the United States, we are not used to thinking of Christian persecution, yet religious persecution has occurred in every corner of the world.  Religions foster strong commitment, which often threatens obedience to secular rulers. With Christianity, it may have been the host of martyrs dying that eventually wore away at the moral sense in the conscience of a more ethical Roman Emperor. Constantine. 

One of the Wesleyan hymns, "What Gift Can I Bring," (  has deeper meaning at Christmas time when giving gifts is our common cultural practice.  When the extreme gift of martyrdom is included the awe is profound. Martyrs in the first, second, and third centuries provided a bridge between the Risen Christ and when Christianity gained enough critical mass to be accepted in a good part of what was considered to be "the civilized world" at the time. 

As we prepare through Advent let us ponder the commitment and devotion of the martyrs and the gift they give to all of us still today centuries later.   

Tuesday, December 7, 2021


Paul is difficult to leave out of a series about people standing as bulwarks of good Christianity.  Many people would argue with his inclusion, especially women. Yet we're stuck with his canonized writings in the Bible.  Was Paul perfect?  Not by a long way!. But there is a quiet melodic tune that wafts in and out of his writings, which captures a deep essence of what the Christian life is meant to be. That essence is love as the fundamental basis for any beloved community. He says it best himself in 1 Corinthians 13: Love never ends.

What we know of Paul is that he started out life as a stalwart Jewish leader with the name of Saul.  He was also a Roman citizen, which was not the most common combination back then. We first find him persecuting Christians; rounding them up and sending many of them to almost certain executions. It is only his transforming run-in with a blinding light on the road to Damascus that he becomes Paul and almost everything about the prior Saul falls away and a new human being puts a heavy hand on the wheel of the Christian bus.  Were it not for this changed person, fully in service to God in Christ, I wonder if Christianity would have spread like it did.  Would it have remained under the purview of the Jewish establishment without him?  We can only speculate on what that fallout would have been.

Paul has his thorns, his warts, his misogyny, and his remnant of loyalty to Empire but he unlocks a language about the demands and powers of love in the Community that the Church still struggles to get its head around today. 

We talk in Advent about preparing the way.  Paul prepared a way, a divine calling, for the church to love extravagantly -- there is neither Jew, nor slave, nor male or female... no principality or power... that separates us from the love of God. The Empire church, the Patriarchal church comes along behind him and, seduced by power and money, allows itself to get pulled onto a road that sweeps it toward perdition. Yet that Pauline melodic calling to love has kept inserting a guardrail step by step through the centuries pushing the Church to its higher potential. 

The hymn says, "Love came down at Christmas."  Love continued after Christmas with people like Paul. 

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Mechtild of Magdeburg

In the first half of Christian development, there was a sizeable number of people who we could label as Mystics.  Mystics were those, often hermits, who experienced vivid encounters with God.  These encounters took the form of dreams, visions, trances, or other outside-the-body connections. We've already met one of these - Julian of Norwich. If you recall she was an Anchoress. 

Mechtild of Magdeburg was a member of another early loose-knit group of mostly single women known as Beguines.  Beguines were committed to working with helping the poor.  She is said to have had her first spiritual experiences at the age of 12.  Born shortly after 1200 she had some connections in her 20's to the Dominican monastic order that she flirted with on and off through most of her life. Her mystical experiences shaped her understanding of God, which got expressed in her theological writings.

Without the mystics, Christianity would have been a dour penitential hellfire and damnation religion.  Mystics have been key to bringing a vivid understanding that God is love to the faith and they understand this love is beautifully demonstrated through all of Creation.

I invite you to take 10 or 15 minutes to breathe deeply and then grab a word, a phrase, or a concept from one of these Mechtild quotes.  Let it flow over you and be absorbed by your spirit. 

Love flows from God to humans without effort:
As a bird glides through the air without moving its wings--
Thus they go wherever they wish united body and soul 
Yet separate in form.

Spiritual persons who dwell on the earth
are offered two kinds of spirit:
In this way, two pure natures come together,
the first is the flowing Fire of the Godhead
And the second is the gradual growth and expansion of the loving soul.

When my burdens and suffering are held in front of me,
my soul begins to burn with a fire of true divine love
and even my body soars in abiding bliss. 

Love is drawn into all things.

The rippling tide of love
flows secretly out from God into the soul
and draws it mightily back to its Source.

Quotes from Sue Woodruff, Meditations with Mechtild of Magdeburg, Bear & Co., 1982

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Dismantling Conflict

In the late first century, several whacky ideas arose in Christianity, which threatened to oddly change who Jesus was conceived to be. Philosophical ideas about holiness took a serious Platonic spin which separated the physical realm from the spiritual realm.  It did this to such a degree that in many of these theologies the physical was considered evil and the spiritual purely holy.  Hence, some Christian circles were repulsed by the idea that Jesus had any type of physical body or physical need.  So, around 700 CE (AD) the Church wrestled with what came to be recognized heresies like Monophysites and Manichaeism.  The Monophysites taught that Jesus had only one nature - spiritual, and in Manichaeism everything physical on this earth was evil (so Jesus could not have had a physical body.

In approximately 674 or 675 John of Damascus arrived on earth.  He was not born in a lowly estate like the majority of the Advent people I'm recognizing.  He was born to a wealthy Arab family and was highly educated but John got hooked on Jesus, abandoned his wealthy inheritance, and became a Christian monk. 

Because of the above philosophies, a substantial controversy in the Church arose over the veneration of images.  Icons had become a part of the adornment in churches across the Middle East.  The Manichaean/Monophysite influence detested these pieces of artwork and argued that venerating images was a corruption of the holy.  Other factions argued that "there should be no other gods before me."  John of Damascus wound up being that guy in the right place to arbitrate the conflict.  He wrote and spoke forcefully to the different sides and made clear the distinction between veneration vs. worship, between idol and respect for the sacred.  He spoke of venerating the representations/of the sacred in images but that we worship only God.

I believe God has given each of us a role to play in life.  Some are extra capable of mediating conflicts.  Even in the Realm of God, I believe there are going to be conflicts.  What sets conflicts apart in the Realm of God is how conflict gets settled.  In God's World, love reigns supreme. Profound degrees of respect for one another ground every conflict with the understanding that we all have the best expectation for each other and the future. Resolutions encircle the whole of the community in this Light and nobody gets left on the outside.

On this day - December 4, 749 John of Damascus died.  On this December 4th, we recognize and honor his conflict resolution and adoration of the Church.  His spirit is still pushing us to find a way to reconciliation and peace. 

Friday, December 3, 2021

Preparers of the Way

What's it like to be born to parents who are "very old."  In Biblical parlance that could mean anything from 50 or 60 to 300.  Add to it that your parents tell everyone the story that an angel named Gabriel came to both your Mom and Pop to foretell your birth, give you your name, and provide them with a full plan for your whole life?  What is it like to live into that kind of expectation laid on you from birth?  (rf Luke 1) That you are charged with preparing everyone you can for the coming of the long-expected Messiah? 

John the Baptizer's life mission was all about preparation.  Beginning with the annunciation of his birth to his father Zechariah the angel Gabriel told him his son would "make ready for the Lord a prepared people."  His self-proclamation of who he was when quizzed was I am the one who prepares the way of the Lord. (Luke 3:4)  

Preparing the way for someone.  Who in your life prepared the way for you?  For whom do you prepare a way?  What is involved in helping someone prepare? Of course, that depends on what the person is preparing.  So, let's take faith.  John was in the wilderness, attracting huge numbers, and opening them up to deeper faith.  The Angel Gabriel told John's father, "He will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God.  And he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the father to their children, and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous." (Luke 1:15-17)  So, how do we go about preparing others to encounter their faith in a holistic loving way?  

We have to start with doing that for ourselves first.  It is kind of like not being able to love someone else well unless we love ourselves first.  If we feel inadequate in our depth of faith, we have to work on that. Don't be ashamed.  Giants in the faith have confessed their failing on this score.  Take John's father Zechariah again.  He flat out accused Gabriel, an angel of all things, of telling him an untruth there in the Temple.  For that, he lost his ability to speak until after Elizabeth delivered John. That's interesting since keeping silent, practicing contemplative prayer, spending daily time focused on a positive word (like gratitude) or a short verse can increase your faith muscles.

God wants a relationship with us.  The Lover of our souls wants us to love us and be in love with ourselves, with all of humanity, and with creation. God, the sender of many our way, sent them to prepare ourselves so we could prepare others.  Keep an eye open for those who may need a little conciliatory boost to their day.    

Thursday, December 2, 2021

God is Nearer to Us Than Our Own Soul

Julian of Norwich is a fairly well known Christian mystic while also being a shadow figure. Her birth date is not certain but placed between 1342 and 1343 and her death occurred after 1416. Not much is known of her childhood, but speculation has it that her parents may have died in one of England's many plagues explaining her attachment to images of God as mother.  Julian brings that feminist voice to the Christian Church that greatly softens the harshness present in so much of the theology of the Roman Catholic catechisms and the "accepted" doctrines of male dominated Church councils

Julian was able to exercise this alternative theological voice largely because she was an anchoress. An anchorite or anchoress was a special order of mystic whose "strings tied to the Catholic Church" were mostly removed since by becoming an anchoress, a bishop would perform a funeral rite basically declaring the person dead.  The person was then given a small cell in which to live that was usually attached to a wall of the church/cathedral building.  From that point forward they were more closely akin to hermits than members of a monastic order.

The idea that set Julian's theology apart in her time was the imagery that God/Jesus were mothers with great love for her children. Much of Julian's relationship with God arose from her recurring visions.  In them God is so near to us and knows us to be so perfect that we simply have to wait for our maturity to be realized under Mother's watchful eye.  Once our spirits reach maturity there is no room remaining for sin to dwell. One of her more well known phrases is: "All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well."  

The concept of positive motherly love encircling us all is one that our times need as a counter to the increasing divisiveness, hostility, and the widespread death and misery connected to the Covid-19 pandemic.  It is one that today's church should be bringing as an Advent incarnational message of the living Christ.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

From Rags to Riches to Rags

Charles de Foucauld is someone many have probably not heard of before. He started out in life in France as an orphan who was raised by his grandfather, a military officer. What else could a military officer, now child guardian, do but send his grandson to military academy? Through the military and service in the Middle East, he was well known as a carouser/entertainer and became well acquainted with Muslims and Jews. When his grandfather died, he was left a hefty inheritance that he spent lavishly on extravagance. Resigning his commission as an officer, he chose to become a geographer in Algiers but because a Frenchman would have been killed on the spot he adopted an identity as a Jew.  He is credited with mapping Algeria. While rubbing elbows with those living the Muslim faith, Charles' spirit drew him back to France where he recaptured his Catholic faith. He renounced all his wealth and lived for a while near a convent of Poor Clare who influenced him into pursuing ordination as a priest. He was ordained and for a while belonged to the Trappist order but desiring greater nearness to God he left them and began his hermitage in Morocco.  As a hermit his sole goal was to be the most exemplary model of Jesus he could be.  He practiced love and kindness to everyone.  But on December 1, 1916, Nomadic Bedouins took him captive and in an altercation to free him he was assassinated. His meditations and fine example still sprinkle Christendom with wise spirituality. Pope Francis canonized him in 2020 and he will become a saint in 2022.  

"Have that tender care that expresses itself in the little things that are like a balm for the heart... With our neighbors go into the smallest details, whether it is a question of health, of consolation, of prayerfulness, or of need. Console and ease the pain of others through the tiniest of attentions. Be as tender and attentive towards those whom God puts on our path, as a brother towards brother or as a mother for her child. As much as possible be an element of consolation for those around us, as soothing balm, as our Lord was towards all those who drew near to him."    --Charles de Foucauld, Sept 15, 1858 - Dec 1, 1916