When I first started going to church with my mother, I stepped through the door easily. I knew the people there, I had gone to church there as a child, and I wanted to believe the message of Jesus would be a nice change from the confusion in my mind. When I was introduced to the words of Paul however I was puzzled and annoyed. What had I gotten myself into? Not willing to give up on the guidance from my doctor and my own inclination that a church connection would help anchor me, I felt I had to go deeper. I also, for the first time, wondered if I needed to look at my prior actions and fuzzy beliefs. I wondered if I needed to accept the fact that instead of a crazy, fun loving child of the 60s I had been an irresponsible woman and now was a spiritual and social mess.
So with the help of my church's minister, instead of bumping along in the dark I began to read Paul as someone who might have a message for me as he apparently had for all of Christianity. Paul seemed to offer a code that I needed to crack.
So I started with First and Second Timothy, the two letters Paul wrote while in prison in Rome to his friend and protege. Paul was there, wrongly charged along with other Christians, for setting fire to the Roman capital and sentenced to death by Emperor Nero, a head of state eager to punish and kill friends, family and foes in retaliation for disquieting his life.
Prior to his conversion from Judaism, Paul had been a persecutor of Christians as Nero was. But during a trip to Syrian Damascus, he had a stunning experience. A bright light and a mysterious voice came to him and called him on his hatred of Jesus, who he considered a blasphemous rabble-rouser. For three days Paul was blinded, then, with the help of a Christian named Ananias, his sight returned. His life changed radically. Instead of returning to a life as a hater of Christians, he became a fervent apostle of Jesus and a fatherly figure to young men like Timothy.
I loved all the literary drama and visualizations but when I first read Paul's letters, I found his tone and ideas abrasive. I found his message restrictive and antithetical to my belief in the importance of independence and choice in life.
In Paul's world as a conservative Jew women had no role as leaders or independent adults. Homosexuals, adulterers, non-married men and women were explicitly condemned for their sexual practices. In his letters, Paul decries these acts as sinful but, rather than condemning these acts in accordance with the law, Paul believed acceptance of oneself and others was essential. Loving one's self and one's neighbor were not contradictory.
As I read and reread the word "sinner," I imagined the drama of celebrities like Tammy Faye Baker with her running mascara as she cried about her sinful ways to her TV audience. I, like many, found her hypocritical. The word sinning seemed out of date as well as unbecoming. Yet recognizing one's sins seemed an essential part of the New Testament. While trying to relate to what I was reading, I began to feel a need to contemplate my life. Was it possible that my self-centered, partying life style qualified as sinning? Were my bad life choices as a young adult responsible for accentuating the lack of self-worth and balance in my life? Was my feeling of dis-ease that had deepened into a schizophrenic episode planted inside my head by the alienation of a father? And had my father, like me, been unable to find the peace and acceptance of himself that God wanted for both of us? While trying to understand Paul, I felt uncomfortable and lonely. Although I wasn't a Tammy Faye Baker, I wondered how I might get out of the bind my past had set for me.
So I took my time with Paul, working through his language, attending Bible studies, reading books, watching old movies, all trying to understand where Paul was coming from, why he was such an important figure in the early Christian Church, and why it mattered.
Slowly I began to realize Paul too had a lifestyle that caused him both pain and a sense of inferiority, just as I had. Like my father, he had been cruel to others with no sense of his alienation from God or from a recognition of being lost. I began to see that Paul had to work at learning how to love. He had to learn how to transform a life rooted in the Old Testament where an eye for an eye was the norm, acceptable, even expected and to begin to love himself and others as exemplified by Jesus Christ.
And so I learned that it was Paul's role to help us understand that, despite one's past, one could find a life of meaning and transformation through acts of acceptance, compassion, outreach, and a refusal to allow hatred or fear to control one's life. As I began to work and stumble through these ideas, one day the following passage hit me like a ton of bricks:
"God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind." 2 Timothy: ch 1 v 7
To be continued ...