Throughout his ministry, Jesus challenged every boundary people used to define and separate themselves—ethnic boundaries, geographical boundaries, purity boundaries, moral-legal boundaries, relational boundaries, boundaries between humans and animals, adults and children, men and women. Jesus didn’t stop at material boundaries, but went on to demonstrate with his life that everything is spiritual—there is no boundary between the spirit and the material. Spirit imbues all things because the presence of God is incarnated throughout creation and experienced through the medium of very ordinary lives (the meaning of “Christ”). It was and is a message of hope for those on the wrong side of different boundaries. But for the ego, which craves boundaries (you could say that the ego is, essentially, a boundary), Jesus was not great news. The ego wants us to be more than, better than, safer than, more special than every other creature whenever humanly possible. Perhaps this is why the followers of Jesus have so often distorted his message into something Jesus would not recognize, making it into just another transaction, another way of winning or being right.
But a passage in the letter to the Philippians demonstrates how well Paul understood and appreciated what Jesus was about. It shows the progression of understanding among Jesus’ followers as it moved out from the Jesus events to reflections of Paul and others who synthesized and translated Jesus in myriad ways. Reflecting on Jesus from the perspective of a life-altering, post-resurrection encounter, Paul singularly echoed the boundary- and ego-challenging revolution of Jesus, adopting his own unique language and categories. The translation of Philippians 3:1-14 from The Message amplifies his words for modern readers:
Philippians 3:4-14: Steer clear of the barking dogs, those religious busybodies… All they’re interested in is appearances …. The real believers are the ones the Spirit of God leads to work away at this ministry, filling the air with Christ’s praise as we do it. We couldn’t carry this off by our own efforts, and we know it—even though we can list what many might think are impressive credentials. You know my pedigree: a legitimate birth, circumcised on the eighth day; an Israelite from the elite tribe of Benjamin; a strict and devout adherent to God’s law; a fiery defender of the purity of my religion, even to the point of persecuting the church; a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law Book. The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. … I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by [Christ]. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ. …I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me.
“Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. … I’ve dumped it all in the trash.” If only we all could so easily dispose of our ego props, including and especially the religious ones! Maybe it helped that Paul sat in a jail cell as he wrote these words, stripped of most every dignity. He had surely wrestled with his demons and fears over challenging months and years. What he encountered through it all was belovedness, an effervescent joy (Phil 4:4-9).
Paul took Jesus’ message and ministry and came up with a broad analysis of the human condition, of what this life is about. For this work, Paul—not Jesus—is credited with founding the religion of Christianity (religion = sacred stories + practice). Earlier in his letter to the Philippians, he includes a popular “hymn” about Jesus showing us the way to healing and divine-union as he lay down all his props, laying down the ego, to use modern language (Phil 2:5-11). As Richard Rohr summarizes it, Jesus is “the living icon of the whole journey.” He showed us that the way to transcend the crazy-making race of human striving is to stop—which generally we do only when life broadsides us with loss or betrayal or failure. At these painful, grace-filled times, we sometimes find that the more we “fall behind” the freer we become, because while the ego-race is the only show for the false self, it is devastating for the true self, or the soul. The race is devastating for our sense of unity with God and others. Only as we become freer of our tendency to climb over others on our way to “the top” do we realize we are actually “participants in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
Rohr shares an anecdote about Carl Jung that speaks to the pattern: “When C. G. Jung was an old man, one of his students read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and he asked Jung, ‘What has your pilgrimage really been?’ Jung answered: ‘In my case Pilgrim’s Progress consisted in my having to climb down a thousand ladders until I could reach out my hand to the little clod of earth that I am.’” (C. G. Jung Letters, Volume 1, selected and edited by Gerhard Adler in collaboration with Aniela Jaffe [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972], footnote 8, p. 19; Summary quoted from Richard Rohr’s ‘Daily Meditations’, August 2, 2017.)
The amazing discovery, though, is the surprising peace of knowing we are “a little clod of dirt”!
Often I need nature to remind me of this, to reveal to me this mystery.
Most days I follow hours of editing, writing, or other computer work with stepping outside for a walk alongside the wilds that surround my rural, woodsy neighborhood. Each time, I feel like a seal set loose into water. Even if my body is tired, my spirit rouses. The smell and feel of the air centers me. My mind is pulled away from worries and distractions by a feathery scar of cloud, a crescendo of doves taking flight, sunlight through layers of vine maple leaves, elegant stands of alders, the artistry of green on green on green on blue, a piece-work of needles and leaves. I become lost in a sense of belovedness shared with every aspect of creation around me, no matter how small. It is the most healing thing I know because it reaffirms for me, on a visceral level, what I believe in my core about this life: Our essence is Spirit, is Love, and we share that essence with all creation.
Think of a time when you were away, when you got into nature and sat, say, alongside a stream, or on the edge of a canyon, or beside the ocean. During those experiences, you may have been graced with moments of quiet and wonder; you may have started to calm. Now. When in those moments of clarity and calm did you think: If I could only get another degree, I would be acceptable … If I could only have a fancy car, I would be okay … If I could just have an impressive title before my name … If I could only have a partner who completed me … If I could have a better job than my cousin? For that matter, when have you looked into the eyes of an animal—say a beloved dog or cat, and thought: If I was only better looking, I would be lovable … If I was only more popular than my best friend … If I was only smarter than my brother … If I was only more successful at business?
For most of us, I expect the answer is never. For in deep, authentic connection with nature, we usually experience a momentary reprieve from the demands of the ego. Brief, but soul-changing. The power of the experience is in being “one with” not “apart from.” Yet “apart from” is the only game the ego knows.
The point is, at those moments of connecting with nature, feeling a sense of communion with the “dirt clod” natural world around us, the ego sometimes falls away, and we get a taste of the freedom Paul experienced and Jesus exemplified. It can also happen during times of mediation or “contemplation.” At those moments, we catch a glimpse of what this whole boundary-dissolving narrative of Christianity (and other major spiritual paths) is all about. We get a sense of what it means to say “God is love” and to be changed by that love. It is like we know in those moments that some kind of heaven waits for all of us because, for a fraction of a second, we are already there.
That is good news.
Tricia Gates Brown works as a writer, garden designer, and emotional wellness coach in Nehalem, Oregon. She holds a PhD from the University of St. Andrews. In 2015 she completed her first novel and the essay collection Season of Wonder, and is currently at work on her second novel. For more, see: triciagatesbrown.net