I love to lull the song birds to my deck with plates of seed and nuts for them to eat.

I enjoy all the different sparrows who find their way there along with the purple finches, the cute titmouse with the little black hooded heads and cute little chirp.  I smile when a yellow finch shows up; it’s not very often so, their solid gold presence it such a joy to see.  Occasionally this spring I’ve seen a humming bird.  I don’t know if they’re not back yet or this year will be low on humming bird sightings.

I have an open air deck so the bird seed platters are not protected against rain.  I have lost and replaced too much birdseed from rain-filled plates where the seeds sour and the birds won’t eat them.

Occasionally someone flips over one of the tin platters with too boisterous a lift off, seeds and nuts plummeting to the floor.  It’s usually one of the morning doves or pigeons that is the culprit.  Their big luggy bodies can’t seem to make the graceful getaway that the cardinals or even larger blue jays perform.

The thing that annoys me most about the pigeons and doves is their penchant to stand in the middle of the food and just gorge.  Most birds come for one piece, they eat it and fly away or take it with them, or they move to another spot where they can crack it against something hard.  But the pigeons loiter and hoard even when others come looking for their daily needs.  Take your turn, buddy, and get out so we can have some! Come back for more later on.  Or, as we say at church potluck dinners “family hold back” which means let everyone get served once (conservatively) before you come back for seconds.

I don’t like people or corporations who hoard either.  Business leaders who are paid millions each year.  How many millions does a family “need” to live on?  How many homes can a CEO, President or Vice President live in at one time?  Corporations who buy back stocks rather than increase wages to those who actually create the products and services hinder the economic exchanges that our system is reliant on. Who do you think you are plugging up the flow of resources? Our economy, our livelihoods, depend on a flow of exchange.  The millions of employees who create that wealth provide more exchange points in more diverse markets. When one bird stands in the way, stopping that flow, the larger community is hurt. We’d all like the opportunity to enjoy the wealth being made by many hands.  So, take your turn, buddy, and let others have some too.Image result for pigeons in bird feeders

Meditations of the Heart (Thurman) Day 13

It seems that Thurman has segregated humans into three categories:

1) those who have a vision and the abilities and opportunities to achieve that vision even through trials.
2) those who have a vision but the way is paved with difficulties that weigh them down.
3) those to whom a vision never comes. Their road is neither rough nor smooth, no sudden turns nor surprises.

Thurman blesses them all asking God to provide for each person, according to their need. “Pour out the riches of Thy grace that none need be alone and none may seek another’s light.”

We’re all given our own path to travel. Some will be easier than others. Some will take the light and run toward their vision. Others will try to run without light and stumble along.  Still others will be content not to run for a vision.  All are good.  None are better than the other. There is no reason for harm. God loves each one just as they are.

Meditations of the Heart (Thurman) Day 10

With the busyness of our lives we can let the details of them create stressors that seem insurmountable.
Looking something like this:


We have, what Thurman calls, a great and overwhelming need for a little haven of rest for our churning and deeply involved spirit.(30)  He recommends taking a moment to pause, in a suitable environment that enables you to be renewed, physically and spiritually.  We are to let go of what consumes our mind, what strangles our ease of breath, what holds us from freely moving into our God-given purpose.  Thurman suggests there is an “inner insistence toward wholeness” that, when the moment is quiet, announces “Bring in your scattered parts, be present at all the levels of your consciousness. This is the time of togetherness. Only [you] who have come to a point of holy focus, may be blessed with the vision of God”.

I imagine this stillness with a vibrant energy life as seen in the chakra imagery below.  There is a sacred vibrancy working through us and from within us even as we seek calm and centering to manage the busyness that is external to our life. I suggest it’s in this moment, as Thurman writes, that we are able to access the vision of God.


Mediations of the Heart (Thurman) Day 9

“How good it is to center down!” he writes. “As we listen, floating up through all the jangling echoes of our turbulence, there is a sound of another kind”, Thurman describes further. “A deeper note which only the stillness of the heart makes clear. It moves directly to the core of our being.”

I can get lost in the spiraling down (or in) while in a breath prayer or a resting yoga pose.  When I envision the energy of my chakras spinning around my body I imagine the core of my being, that sacred internal presence from which life springs forth,  spiraling out and all over my body.  In the spirit of releasing and seeking a different understanding I use the image of a spiral to at once disorient me (spiraling in) and reorient me (spiraling out).


Spiral Chapel of Thanksgiving http://picc.it/c/wallpapers/pictures/album/wallpapers_27/id/38403/@chapel_of_thanksgiving_spira

Meditations of the Heart (Thurman) Day 8

Continuing on the point of needing pray and meditation on a daily basis, Thurman make a case for being “quiet without and still within”.  He explains that what a person (he used the collective term “man”) does is an expression of his intent; a person’s intent is the focusing of their desiring; and a person’s desires are the prayers of their heart.  It seems he may carry some assumption that a person’s desires are well intentioned and become earnest prayers for improvement of one’s character or situation.

Aside from that stretch of assumption, he poses that no one would argue for the necessity of taking time out for being alone, “for withdrawal, for being quiet”, both as seen on the exterior and experienced on the interior.  But, in our fast-paced and ever competitive world, being still often feels foreign and contradictory to a preference for overworking, overthinking, and over-reacting.  Indeed what would the world be like if we would each find a short period to settle down for quiet time each day?

To create a balance in our lives it would be helpful to start by finding a balance to our day.  Most of us have the “effort” part in effect: we go to school or work, we worry or strategize, we get involved with activities, etc. But,  to balance that we need to insert times of repose, rest and reflection.  Parker Palmer expresses this as two poles within our personality.  “I want to learn how to hold the paradoxical poles of my identity together, to embrace the profoundly opposite truths that my sense of self is deeply dependent on others dancing with me and that I still have a sense of self when no one wants to dance.”
Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life

Here is a fascinating video of amazing stillness within effort. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6rX1AEi57c#t=18

Meditations of the Heart (Thurman) Day 7

Today Thurman gives us a structure for prayer (he seems to like structures).  First, you address God, you name God and provide a greeting or a recognition of affiliation. Second, as you recognize God it brings a feeling or thought of your attitude towards God. He says this is “most naturally expressed in some form of thanksgiving and praise”. (I’m not so sure that’s my ‘natural’ feeling when I bring a feeling or thought about God.  Sometimes it’s contrition, sometimes its frustration, sometimes it fear. But, at least there is some attachment I can identify.)

Thurman goes on to say that thanksgiving inspires an awareness of our short comings and failures which we confess and then, we ask for forgiveness. With a sense of forgiveness, cleansing and purification, we then relay our hopes, desires and needs, our longings. Finally in our prayer time, the turning point is when we don’t just leave those longings and petitions for God to handle, but; we have to figure out how we share with God in the task of redeeming humans. Asking ourselves how we are willing to get involved to meet the world’s needs. Thurman alleges that “prayer would be meaningless if one prayed for a change in the world and then was unwilling to change one’s “private attitude of antagonism or prejudice”.

I appreciate Thurman’s desire for a linear flow in prayer.  I feel convicted about the last part- what am I going to do to meet the world’s needs.  But, my prayers often look more like this: Thurman Day 7 graphic

Meditations of the Heart (Thurman) Day 6

Reading today’s entry in Meditations of the Heart, I can’t help but think of my yoga practice this summer with the kids at camp at the Hartman Center. As the summer chaplain I offered yoga as a pre-breakfast stretch and devotion time.  I was pleasantly surprised, tickled really, to see these young summer campers straggle in, first out of curiosity, then because they liked yoga. The young ones came, who were first time campers. The teenagers came from Soccer camp, Pay it Forward camp, Archery, Noah’s Ark, their leaders came too as well as moms and grandmoms who came to see what this yoga was all about and how it could be Christian.

I lead them in opening movements, and then we recited a paraphrased version of Psalm 121. We began with mountain pose for the first line of the psalm “I lift up my eyes to the hills” and then traveled through warrior poses and seated chair poses (which seemed to last FOREVER!). At the end of verses 2, 4, 6, and 8 we paused in silence, in prayer pose, waiting for stillness – in our bodies and in our hearts, minds and our souls which wait for a word from God.  Because, we’re all listening, 10 year olds, their 20-something Summer Service Team member, their grandmother who joined us for Intergenerational Camp.   It’s true what Rev. Thurman wrote “Here is the ‘mercy seat’ of God before which all things are stripped to their true essence and their real character revealed.” (24)

Psalm 121   (Modified NSRV and Contemporary Eng.)

Song of Ascents.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—  where will I find my help?
My help comes from the Lord, who created the heavens and the earth.

God will steady your foot on the path to set the direction and the pace;
The Great Protector of All will be diligent and not fall asleep nor get drowsy.

The Divine Care-giver watches over you,
You won’t be harmed by the sun by day, nor the moon by night.

The Holy One will guard you from all evil;
God will keep you safe from all dangers.
The Lord will watch your going out and your
coming in from this time on and forevermore.

2014-07-29 01.51.53

Meditations of the Heart (Thurman) Day 5

I was struck by Thurman’s line that “All events in life take place, somehow, within the divine context.”

Some people attribute everything to God and abandon any responsibility for the occurrence or for the correction of it or the healing from it. Yet, as Thurman goes one to say, we want to “fix responsibility”.  If we can pin down whom to blame, he says, then we can attack and uproot ills.  It assumes there is a “structure of moral integrity that undergirds all of life”.  The things that happen in life are a part of some kind of rationale. (23)

And yet, when we can’t make sense of things that happen (it’s usually bad things we try to figure out the genesis of) we finally relinquish the search for logical explanation.  We can live with this unresolved puzzle, perhaps maintaining an anger or a depression as a result of the event.  Or, as Thurman suggests, we can try to “understand God’s understanding.” That’s a pretty tall order.  Short of that, and perhaps comforting to some, we can “rest in the assurance of God’s Presence with us and in life” going on about us.

I know some folks, rather agnostic, who can not attribute our living to God. I certainly have, on occasional days, trouble with the whole God-package as relayed by the churches and the religion I’ve known.  However, I am also able to remember, and even live anew somedays, in a space I ascribe to God’s Presence. I find it mostly on my yoga mat when my body and my mind align with breath to seek an internal awareness of the Divine.  With that exercise, I yoke myself to the Holy One and try to see the world from that point of view.  And I recall Psalm 139 that says we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

I Feel Your Presence With Me (A reimaging of Psalm 139)

Mystical Creator, you formed me in the ancient days of love and harmony.
I faintly remember, in the lining of my soul, the tranquility that hovered there.

In the days of now, the days of rising and of not remedying yesterday’s sin,
The days of ignoring and denying my loose tongue and hurtful thoughts,
You know exactly where I am, when I sit and when I stand.

You know when I move forward for justice and when I stall with indifference.
You surround me with my better self, just beyond my own vision; but I feel it- that better self.
t is your presence with me that I feel and hear making its way through today’s noise to arouse my soul.

Where can I go from your presence since you formed me and have been with me since ancient days?
If I could run as a leopard, I couldn’t flee from your Spirit.
If I could shift and swing as a monkey I couldn’t out maneuver your grace.
If I slid into a pit of deep despair as dark as any otter’s den, even there you would reach in.

I hear your voice, the echo just beyond my hearing.
I see my better self, just beyond my own embodied image.
ven when I try to run and hide from you, I know you as “home”.

Thank you for calling me your own.
Draw me forward out of the ancient mystery into today’s obedience. 

soul a dancin'

(Retrieved from http://cuteefaceemonique.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/praise_dance_sat_post.jpg)


Meditations of the Heart (Thurman) Day 4

Howard Thurman explains that our prayers can accompany times of “dryness, of denials of emptiness” (21). He tells us that even the mystics are careful to point out that spiritual disciplines and exercises do not guarantee the “coming of the spirit” or awareness of the Presence.

I am struck by the truth of this.  I turned to the Psalms to find a plea for guidance in prayer, or rather, guidance in waiting for prayer to be answered.  I know that even as we wait, we go about our business attempting to do what God asks of us, and seeking ways to be faithful in our covenant with God.  I found Psalm 25 gave me new language in my impatient plea for help.  I have constructed a blessing for those of us who walk the way of pilgrimage, seeking direction in our daily lives.

Blessing for the Path God Gives (Psalm 25 reconsidered)

May the God who has always known you hold up your heart.
May the One who created your path kindly lead you to it.
May Love that draws us into a life of fullness save you from despair.
May you find your deepest truth, your own deep calling
as well as teachers and helpers and soul mates to guide you.

Patience and curiosity are your friends as you wait.
May the Creator of your body, soul and mind show you Love that has always been available to you.
Your indiscretions and moments of hate can be forgiven and redeemed.
The Holy One knows our human condition and is ready to forgive when sought.

God is mindful of you. God re-members you, dream by dream, as you follow your heart’s desire.
As a mother kindles her child, so God is tender to you.
As a father supports his child, so God instructs you.
May you be open to the wooing and the work before you.

May a spirit of divinity seep within your heart and soul
as God keeps the sacred covenant:
to be your God as you step forward in faithfulness.
Keep your feet directed by divine truth and clear of brambles.

May God watch over your body, soul and mind to redeem you from troubles.
May you arrive at the throne of humility and grace knowing the Holy One honors your struggles.
Shame is not part of God’s character, and you were made in God’s image.
May honor and wisdom visit you daily as you wait for God’s blessing.

Wooing a new earth

(Image retrieved from: https://newoma.wordpress.com/2010/03/26/come-rest-in-my-arms-2/ )

Meditations of the Heart (Thurman) Day 3

Rev. Thurman’s concept that quiet prayer makes room for the discernment of one’s purpose is a familiar one.  I’ve heard all my life that I should pray for the Lord’s will to be made known.  I’ve read books on how you know when it’s God’s will and not your own.  I’ve also been in committee meetings where my expression of call has been questioned: “Is it God’s will or your will?”

I supposed the Will of God is heard or experienced and observed in a variety of ways, so I don’t presume to question someone’s calling, although we can have many conversations on how they live into their calling.  It drives me crazy when someone in a role of authority, who doesn’t know me, acts suspicious over the validity of what I interpreted as God’s request for what my work will be in the world.

When people say they heard God say.. what was it they experienced?  Was in a voice but not their own saying something audible only to them?  Was it a sense of an indwelling Presence from which words came to mind?  Was it a yearning of the heart which they translated into directives?  Maybe all of the above?

Rev. Thurman talks about seeking answers, or at least clues, to the deeply felt need to discover the Will of God for your life.  He says everyone wants to know that their life has meaning and purpose.  I’m reminded of Mandisa’s song “Voice of a Savior”.  She sings “some people try to listen to the end of a bottle.” Identifying all the places we look for answers, she sings  “Some people try to listen in blind ambition”.  She says we all have a void we try to fill up and try to hear the voice of a savior.

And then, there are people who don’t try to find their natural and God given purpose for being on this earth.  Or they ignore or avoid it. And, many walk around really unhappy, to the point where they impact those who live and work with them. You can’t make someone do the work of discernment on their life’s purpose.  Some people don’t even know you should and can consider a higher power’s  image for us.

One of the things I’m interested in for ministry with young adults is to help them navigate this process even beginning in their Jr. and Sr. years in high school.  Certainly as they leave their parent’s homes and support, they rebel and push ahead with their own ideas and desires. And, I believe it would be really helpful to them to have a trusted adult who will listen as they bring their questions and discoveries about themselves into conversation.  Buoy them with pastoral care, career workshops, service projects and trips to inform them as they find their feet on the path they were created to travel.

Two paths diverged

Meditations of the Heart (Thurman) Day 2

Rev. Howard Thurman begins his second day of devotions this way: “There is very great virtue in the cultivation of silence, and strength to be found in using it as a door to God.” (18)

I remember my cancer days when I was living alone, trying to fight in and through the imposed silence of illness and recent divorce.  I remember the endless days of prolonged silence, prayers and tears.  I remember focusing on pink healthy tissue and talking my body into warrior mode. I remember thinking God was disciplining me for some infraction in my past – some direction I had or hadn’t taken, some choice I had made that went against God’s divine will for me. I remember, and still experience at times, a depression so pervasive that not only my spirit but also my body ached.

And, during those cancer days, I’ve come see that I cultivated a silence that sanctioned an opening to the Presence of the Holy One.  I was sent messengers who cradled my broken spirit, e.g., Rev. Alois Ososo, a pastor from Kenya who was in the country for a few months and in my care for a few weeks. My most-honored-best-friend, Pat, who was my ever present island of refuge. And, I developed new and strong friendships that would not have come to pass, had I not traveled that debilitating road and truly needed others.

A man, a musician and mystic, whom I met right after finishing my protocol treatments, has engendered my mystic soul through his pilgrimage retreats.  Each August I found myself in a wooded retreat center practicing a monastic rhythm with Stefan, aka Macushla, and a wide variety of other retreat participants. These retreats included long periods of silence and featured original chant music with a profound alchemy of Celtic joviality and spiritual transcendence.  I learned to sit through the painful renderings, mine and others’, that comes from being still in the presence of God, and particularly while sitting quietly in community.

I miss those days.  I miss how we usher one another to God’s door and then step aside to allow each other our own entrance.

Draw Me Nearer                             


          O My Heart’s Desire

                    Dip me deep beneath the surface


          Let me glide effortlessly to you in the center of life                        

                    in the depth of senses                                    

                                in the nook of what can be possible


           Draw me into the cubby that fits my shape

                    that serves my work

                                that protects my heart

                                              that prospers my contentment  


Meditation of the Heart (Thurman) Day 1

We’re to create an island of peace within one’s own soul where we can approach the Presence of God “with no pretense, no dishonesty, no adulteration… to bring for view the purposes and dreams to which one’s life is tied.” (Howard Thurman, 17).

So, I found an image of an island and a sound file of the oldest chant we know from the Celtic tradition, The Song Of Amhairghin, as recorded on the CD “Arise My Love” by Macushla, Stefan Andre Waligur   (http://youtu.be/cbUjokfb2tc)  I’m including a poem I wrote.

I Feel Your Presence With Me

O Mystical Creator, you formed me in the ancient days of love and harmony

I faintly remember, in the lining of my soul, the tranquility that hovered there.

In the days of now, the days of rising and not remembering yesterday’s sin,

The days of ignoring and denying my loose tongue and hurtful thoughts,   

You know exactly where I am when I sit and when I stand.

You know when I move forward for justice and when I stall with indifference.

Your surround me with my better self just beyond my own vision; but I feel it- that better self.

It is your presence with me that I see and hear making its way through today’s noise.

Where can I go from your presence since you formed me and have been with me since ancient days?

If I could run as a leopard, I couldn’t flee from your spirit.

If I could shift and swing as a monkey I couldn’t out maneuver your grace.

If I slid into a pit of deep despair as dark as any otter’s den, even there you would reach in.

I hear your voice, just beyond my hearing. I see my better self, just beyond my own vision.

Even when I try to run and hide I know you as “home”.

Thank you for calling me your own.

(Meandering on Psalm 139- Fa)

Tending to Little Annoying Pieces of Life’s Business

Today I didn’t have much motivation to get anything done.  That doesn’t happen very often, usually I have too many things going on.  In fact, I believe I have ADD because I jump from on task to another, all with the intention of getting them all done.  And, eventually, usually, I do get them all done.

I also don’t like to be idle because my head goes down a slippery slope to depression.  I’m sure some therapist would be able to explain that to me or explore that with me. But, usually it passes quickly so I just sit with it until I get bored with it, lol.

When I think about what’s going on when I’m feeling unmotivated it’s frequently because I feel overwhelmed by something. Take for example the filing I have to do.  Since before I went to the yoga ashram for a month to renew and heal, I have had paid bills, papers and written articles of interest, mail from my new insurance company and my financial investment statements sitting on the corner of my table.  They’re not big individually but there’s a pretty good pile of them and they are annoying when I want to eat off my table.

My filing cabinet is in the corner of my tiny apartment partially blocked by my sofa, a plastic bin with a lamp on it and a bin of CDs I never listen to.  So, putting things away is something I have to be intentional about – it’s not just opening a drawer and finding the right folder.  I rarely want to make the effort.

Speaking of folders, usually I have to create new folders for one piece of new paper, like the veterinary records for my cat. Oh gah! I have to find the bin with folders in my bedroom under the desk behind the crib my father-in-law made by hand (so I’m not getting rid of THAT!) and then the tabs and inserts in the utility bins.  Moving all the stuff and carefully maneuvering around the crib so I don’t break it takes my head onto the slippery slope.

I’m in this small place because its what I can afford.  I have moved with furnishings for a two bedroom (with an office den) house into an attic apartment with sloping ceilings on both sides.  I don’t want to get rid of more things because I hope to be better employed within the year and able to move into a larger, more grown up place. Then my thoughts start getting darker…why has it taken me so long to figure out what I’m good at and get the training so I can do this work?  I can go back in time for answers to analyze what I learned or didn’t learn in childhood but that doesn’t help me now.  I have good gifts and am working on setting myself up with employment but  I just have to wait a bit for the fruit to come.

So, while I’m waiting, I come back to this moment in my “office” corner of my bedroom. I take the file folders, tabs and inserts back to the living room and start to put things away.  I just go back to the thing I CAN do.  There’s something basic about that, something we learned way back in the Garden of Eden.  This part of the Creation story isn’t quoted much but it’s found in Genesis 2:15.
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”
hoeing-the-tomato-plantation-in-the-vegetable-garden-Stock-Photo So, here I see that the basics of filing papers and keeping them, or tending to our business – for the first man it was literally tending the garden- we learned early in our human story.

If you’ve ever gardened a big plot, you know that there are weeds as well as errant plants that you need to discard, but there are others that you keep, tie up or cage and eventually harvest the fruit from them.  So, I’m going to get back to my filing now and trust that caring for the little annoying task will pay off down the road.




Where is Home?

A few years ago, I sat with a father of a 17 year old young woman who had been an in-patient for over a year fighting cancer.  When I walked into her room the first time, I was amazed at the transformation of the room and how it signaled a will to kick cancer’s butt and get on with life.  She had her eye on going home even as she knew it would be a while before that happened.

Though her immune system would not allow her to be in class with other kids, this tenacious woman was tending to her high school home work in between chemo treatments so she would not get behind.   Later I would learn of her plans to attend college after graduation.

Her institutional hospital room now had bold colored curtains from home (I think they were purple).  The family never used the harsh overhead florescent lights but, had brought table lamps to cast a homey, welcoming, soft glow in the room. She had put up typical teenage themed posters alongside the big ‘get well’ card posters signed by her friends back home in New Jersey.  Her friends could not visit her, but their spirit and enthusiastic love were felt in the room.

I learned that this young woman was a Christian and an active leader in her church, including serving as communion steward with the pastor in her small congregation.  I could imagine the hope rising in the hearts of older people in her congregation when they saw a young person joyfully leading in church.  Everyone would want this teenager to be back home.

She went home. I remember the excitement in her eyes when she told me the news! Indeed, it seemed as though she could have walked out that very day, but at that time, she only had the promise of leaving soon.

Within two weeks she was back in the hospital, her young body was not able to keep up with the immunological demands of the outside world.  She slipped further and further away from the picture of health.

I sat with her father; her mother wouldn’t speak to me because it indicated to her that she’d given up hope.  Her father and I had spoken several times in the preceding hospitalization as he grasped for something positive, something to feel good about, some good news.  This time he cried that he just wanted her to be home, that she said she just wanted to go home.  I asked him where he thought home was, and he looked aback with no answer.

I reminded him that his daughter professed faith in Christ and the promise of heaven after death.  I wondered if she might have a different idea of where home was.  His expression softened, “I hadn’t thought of it that way. I just thought she meant New Jersey”, he said. And, then after a moment, “huh”.

After her death, we talked once more and he told me how she kept looking up into the corner ceiling of her hospital bed.  Tied up with tubes and lines and an oxygen mask, she kept trying to move her head over to get a look at something past her dad’s shoulder, so much so that at one time, he too looked up to see what she was looking at.  We wondered if she’d seen an angel waiting for her to take her home. 

Studying the Letters of the Apostle Paul – Overview

The Man, his Ministry of Letters and the Message for Us
Paul's Missionary Journey's Map

The newest class of members of Skyline United Methodist Church, located in Pike Creek, DE (near Wilmington DE) have challenged themselves to read Paul’s Letters this summer.

Our intention is to grow in our own faith by looking at published letters of the 1st century apostle Paul from whom the Christian Church has inherited fundamentals of theology and polity that has fed multiple denominations of Christ followers.

Here is a quick link to Paul’s journeys in the 1st century. Paul converted from a zealous Greek Jew to a zealous follower of Jesus in 35AD.

Originally known as Saul of Tarsus (Hebrew: שאול התרסי‎;Greek: Σαῦλος Ταρσεύς Saulos Tarseus), was an apostle of Jesus (though not one of the first Twelve Apostles) who taught the gospel of Christ to the first-century world. Paul darker skinHe is generally considered one of the most important figures of the Apostolic Age. In the mid-30s to the mid-50s, he founded several churches in Asia Minor and Europe. Paul used his status as both a Jew and a Roman citizen to advantage in his ministry to both Jewish and Roman audiences. (Thanks Wikipedia)

The books of the Bible attributed to the apostle Paul are not books, as we know them today, but were letters written in early Christian history, between 50-60CE (some scholars consider later dates but note that some are attributed to Paul but likely written by others in his name).

Reading these letters, in any time frame since the one they were written in, involves reading someone’s interpretation/translation from the original ancient Greek style of writing. Different scholars, editors and publishers may use different words of phrases. Some phrases and concepts simply cannot be adequately expressed in a foreign language (such as 21st century American).

In General here are some basic questions to ask while reading any historical document:  ‘who wrote it’, ‘when was it written’ for whom was it written, what was the aim of the author in writing this, is the author male or female, what kind of text is it, is this a report of a dream or fantasy, is it autobiographical, how was the message received by its audience, are the author and the speaker in the passage the same person, etc.

Patrick Gray, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rhoades College, and author of Opening Paul’s Letters, suggests we organize our study of Paul’s letter and ask questions through the lenses of three categories:
1) the world behind the text (history, culture, society, politics, literary traits and religion)
2) the world of the text (the literary, aesthetic and structural characteristics of the author’s work)
3) the world in front of the text (what takes place when one reads, between the words on the page and the ‘real” readers throughout history who engage it.

“Paul’s letters are filled with obscure, ambiguous and confusing statements.  It is possible to treat Paul’s letters like picnic or potluck dinners; the author brings the words and the reader brings the meanings.  Readers often attempt to reconcile or account for discrepancies.” (Opening Paul’s Letters, Gray, 7-8).

Make note of historical and chronological items in your reading.  Identify theological or thematic approaches that clarify or enhance ideas or themes (either within one letter or as an overarching theme for all the letters).

Yung Suk Kim, author of A Theological Introduction to Paul’s Letters, suggests another lens to view Paul’s writings.  “Paul’s theology”, Kim writes, “can be informed by who God is, who Christ (Messiah) is and who the believer is” (Kim, x). He quotes Paul’s Romans 1:19
“Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made”
to show that, for Paul, the way of salvation for humanity was to live up to God’s law through the example of Christ’s life and death.” (Kim, 2).


who question with magnifying glassPaul (formerly known as Saul) of Tarsus

Jews and Romans and Christians, Oh My! Dorothy Wizard of Oz  Oh My

 Sometimes the encounter between the Jews who were Jesus’ first followers and the Greco-Roman world is quite explicit, as when Paul reminds the centurion about to flog him that he has certain legal rights as a Roman citizen. Articulating a new faith, Paul and his readers are engaged in the process of creating a distinctively Christian identity. Christian identity is formed from preexisting elements in the cultural contexts of those who had converted, Jew and gentile alike (Gray, 22-23).

To appreciate Paul’s Jewish background, you have to realize that Jewish life and thought continued to thrive during the so-called inter-testamental period between the time of Nehemiah and the last of the bible prophets (ca 400 BCE) and the birth of Jesus. Intertestamental timeline

Many Christian have a biblical canon that does not include books such as Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, 1-2 Enoch, Apocalypse of Abraham and Ascension of Isaiah. But, Jewish diversity flourished in literature, politics as well as theology. There were four main sects of Judaism each with their own sensibility and position regarding institutions and ideas: Land, covenant, law and temple, interpretation and in their unique adaptations of Mosaic law.

The four sects within Judaism in Paul’s time were: Pharasees were interested in Mosaic law as it related to all areas of life. The Sadducees were associated with Temple activities in Jerusalem, and often seen as overly friendly with the Roman overlords.  The Essenes were an austere community in the desert at Qumran near the Dead Sea.  The Zealots wanted to throw off the Roman yoke by military means (Gray 24-25).  Paul likely identified with the Pharisees given his preoccupation with the role of the law in his letters.

pharisee costumePharisee  SaduceeSaducee

 Qumran community of the Essenes

Ancient Jewish Zealot relief Jewish Zealots

Diaspora Jews who were spread out across the Mediterranean during the first Temple’s Destruction in Jerusalem, and who outnumbered the Jews left in Palestine, strove to keep their strict moral code and old customs, garnering prejudice from their neighbors. Their non-Jew countrymen saw them as insular and having bizarre food restrictions as well as being loyal to a foreign entity (Jerusalem) and their barbaric practice of circumcising infant males.

Paul’s ministry was conducted mostly in the Diaspora with regular contact with Jerusalem and Jewish Christian groups there. The Christian faith found in Paul’s letters is born out of a Judaism that had been immersed in Greek and Roman cultures for centuries. The impact of Roman rule on Jewish life was a mixed bag of heavy taxation, loss of political self-determination, slavery and military occupation and good roads, aqueducts, sanitation, wine, medicine, education, irrigation, public order and peace.  So, life under Roman occupation was complicated. (Gray, 26-27). The Romans didn’t get bogged down in the internal Jewish disputes about ht elaw and other matters and; they saw Christianity as a subset of Judaism so they ignored it.

Paul’s World – Social Relationships

Before your interpret the texts of Paul’s letters, you should know a thing or two about 1st century Palestine…under Roman occupation.

Paul the ApostleSocial Relations in the Greco-Roman was prioritized by 1) members of the same household/family, 2) friends, and 3) patrons and clients. Adoption of males was common in ancient Greece and Rome to carry on the family name and proper disposition of the father’s estate in this patriarchal society.  Read Romans 8:12-25; 9:4 or Galatians 4:1-7 for some legalese Ancient Roman-style.  Friends have all things in common; a friend is a ‘second self’. See Philemon 1:27; 2:2-5 for Paul’s exhortation to his Philippian friends to stand firm “in one mind…with one spirit”.

Patrons and clients are relationships in a hierarchical system of social life. A patron was an individual in a position of superiority vis-à-vis another individual.  A client was in a subordinate position.  Everyone was a patron or client, except slaves who had no paying clients and the Emperor who had no patron since he was, well, the Emperor.  Clients owed their patron honor and respect; Patrons used their power and influence to protect the client’s interests, helping them network as we’d say today or loaning them money. Check out Romans 16:1-2 to hear about Paul’s female patron, Phoebe; also see 1 Corinthians 16:15-18 (Gray 32-33).

Because Paul’s background was so common it is often unstated, yet it’s important to bear in mind so as not to incorrectly characterize his prejudices and exhortations.   He is sometimes seen as anti-Semitic, but; as a Jew himself his doesn’t need to write about the places where he and his Jewish opponents agree. Rather he points out where they disagree, particularly their divergence in Jesus’ significance (Gray 33).

Clearly Paul and his contemporary Pharisees have different views of Jesus’ significance (Gray 33). But, much of Paul’s language in his letters is within normal bounds of intra-Jewish theological debates in the first century. We have to remember to read Paul through the cultural lenses of 1st century Palestine (Gray 34).