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Celtic Christianity: Who were the Celts?

Thursday April 16 2015

Celtic Christianity: Who were the Celts?

A few years ago a friend from Ireland gave me a book full of pictures from the Book of Kells. I was astonished at the beauty and complexity of the illustrations. It was my first introduction to Celtic Christianity.

The Book of Kells is a lavishly illustrated version of the four Gospels, produced in Ireland between the seventh and ninth centuries. Capital letters are colorful figures of people or animals, intertwined with Celtic knots, those crossed lines with no beginning or end that we see so often today in Celtic jewelry.

There are animals everywhere in the Book of Kells. Fish swim between lines of text; rabbits and mice scamper between the lines. The artists clearly had a deep fondness for God’s creatures. A lightness and exuberance characterize every page of the Book of Kells, along with a joy in nature and artistry. These are typical characteristics of Celtic Christianity.

Who were the Celts? The Celts were tribal people who can be traced as early as 500 B.C. in France and Germany. The Roman Empire pushed some of the tribes north and west to Great Britain. Within Britain, the Romans pushed them yet further north and west.

Christianity began to come to the British Isles in the second and third centuries after Christ. In the fifth century, St. Patrick was one of many people who brought the Christian faith to Ireland. Because the Christian faith flourished within the already existing Celtic culture, and because the Celtic lands were so far from Rome, Celtic Christianity has a unique flavor and emphasis.

What we call “Celtic Christianity” flourished from about the fifth to ninth centuries throughout the British Isles, but particularly concentrated in the west and north: Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. There were also Celts in Brittany in France. Today these lands often host Celtic festivals, both Christian and pre-Christian. In this blog post and the posts over the next few weeks, we will look specifically at the unique flavor of Christianity as we believe it was practiced in Celtic lands from the middle to the end of the first millennium.

The Celts were described briefly in Greek literature in the centuries before and after Jesus, but very little is known about the pre-Christian Celts. We do know that in the Roman Empire the Celts were renowned for their ability to learn very long stories and poems from memory. Much of what we know about Celtic Christianity we have learned through the poems, prayers, blessings and ballads that have been passed down through the generations in Celtic lands. For centuries, probably ever since the time of Patrick, Celtic children learned about God from the words of their mothers and fathers as they sang softly while cooking, sewing, farming and caring for animals.

In the early twentieth century, travelling salesman Alexander Carmichael visited the highlands and islands of Scotland. He wrote down and published six volumes of Celtic “hymns and incantations” in the collection entitled Carmina Gadelica.

I can imagine myself as a woman living in Ireland or Scotland 1,200 or 1,500 years ago. As I set off on a short journey to visit my parents in a neighboring village, I sing to myself a blessing for my journey:

The guarding of the God of life be upon me,

The guarding of loving Christ be upon me,

The guarding of the Holy Spirit be upon me,

Every step of the way,

To aid me and enfold me,

Every day and night of my life. [1]

I can also picture myself as a mother or grandmother of young children in Celtic times. As I mend clothes by the firelight in the evening, I sing a soft song that the children can hear as they fall asleep close by. I sing it every night, and the children know it as well as I do. One of them sings along with me:

Christ with me sleeping,

Christ with me waking,

Christ with me watching,

Every day and night.[2]

Celtic Christian had a vivid sense of the supernatural, and they cultivated places and times of year when the supernatural world seemed most close to our world. They Celts loved pilgrimages to places where God felt close. They were comfortable with experiencing mystery and awe in the face of a transcendent God. They loved the Trinity: three in one, one in three. These are some of the themes we’ll look at in blog posts in the coming weeks.

(If you’d like to receive an email whenever I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.” This post excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Lynne M. Baab.)

[1] Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 27.

[2] Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gaedelica 1 (Scottish Academic Press, 1900), 3.

Receptivity and listening

Thursday April 9 2015

Receptivity and listening

A term that helps summarize many of the themes in my book on listening is “receptivity,” my latest favorite word. In the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to grow in being more receptive to what God is doing all around me. I’ve been trying to notice the gifts God is offering me through my work, my home, my body, and the people in my life. I’ve been trying to control my life less and instead receive the gifts of my life with open hands. A key component of a receptive life is listening to God and to others, thus the concept of receptivity summarizes many of the themes of this book.

When two people have an honest discussion about where God seems present in daily life, those individuals are trying to be receptive to each other’s perceptions as well as to God. When someone has a conversation with a work mate who holds totally different political convictions, with the goal of trying to understand how he arrived at those convictions, the listener is trying to be receptive to another person’s reality. When members of a congregation listen to the wider community in order to try to figure out where they can make a difference, they are trying to be receptive to the actual needs and concerns in the community.

Around the year 2000 I read Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine Pohl, which immediately joined my short list of books that have changed my life. Pohl nudged me to see not just the significance of acts of hospitality involving food and lodging, but also to see hospitality as a paradigm for all relationships and all ministry. I began to try to be hospitable in every interaction with people. I’m sure this shift toward being hospitable played a role in my growing interest in listening skills. And I know my commitment to trying to be hospitable in every conversation brought into focus this posture of receptivity that has been so significant in my life in recent years.

Sitting around a table eating a meal together breaks down barriers. When I’m eating with someone who has political views that are different from mine and that person starts talking about those views, I try to listen. In fact, I have to listen, at least to some extent, because I can’t get up and walk away like I can in so many other settings. One of my interviewees talked about shared hospitality promoting a “different kind of listening.” When I eat with people, I am somehow more open to hearing their viewpoint. Food breaks down barriers and often brings a kind of magic to conversations. Pohl’s book encouraged me to bring that attitude, that magic, into all of life. Of course I don’t always succeed, but I’m trying to be more receptive to whatever people bring into a conversation. I’m trying to be hospitable in all settings, and listening skills are essential to that stance.

In our time, practicing that attitude of hospitality and receptivity requires us to make some careful and intentional choices. Slowing down in the midst of a busy schedule is usually required, and that is not easy to do. Multitasking, which divides our attention, must be set aside for period of time. Also necessary is ignoring the ringtone of the cell phone, the music on the iPod, or the lure of the Internet at our fingertips on the smart phone. One of my interviewees pointed out that technology points us to the next thing, which takes us out of the present and turns our focus onto our selves and nurtures narcissism. An attitude of receptivity requires abandoning that future focus and narcissism in order to be present to this moment and this person.

Receptivity includes being open to God’s guidance, and in any conversation, God may guide me to speak up about something. Receptivity does not mean being silent all the time. Some of us need encouragement to speak up more often, and some of us need encouragement to listen more, and in every conversation all of us need God’s guidance regarding both listening and speaking.

Listening is not an end in itself. Listening skills are tools that put us in a receptive, hospitable posture so we can appreciate, learn from, encourage, and speak wisely to the people in our lives. Listening skills help us learn how and where to serve individuals and local communities. Listening skills facilitate the kinds of conversations where we can talk about the overlap of our faith and our daily lives, and the ability to talk about and recognize that intersection shapes us into people who can participate in ministry and mission with energy, enthusiasm, wisdom, and love. In a follow-up email, one of my interviewees wrote, “Many of us may not choose to share information about ourselves unless asked by someone we know to be a good and interested listener.” I long for our congregations to be places where good and interested listeners are nurtured.

 

Some additional resources on listening:

(During Lent and for this first week after Easter, I've been posting excerpts from my book on listening. This is the last week! Next week I'm starting a series on Celtic Christianity. If you’d like to receive an email when I put a post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Book  excerpt from The Power of Listening by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.)

Jesus: freeing us from bondage

Saturday April 4 2015

Jesus: freeing us from bondage

I have always loved Easter. As a child, it meant a new dress. Most years my mother and I pored over a clothing catalog, and I got to make the final decision. Easter meant a special meal including the pineapple/orange/coconut salad that tasted so good with ham. My beloved grandmother was born on Easter, and I often thought about how her caring personality fit with the mood of this amazing day of joy, celebration and love.

Later I learned about the deeper meaning of Easter. Jesus destroyed the power of death by dying and being raised from the dead, which gives us hope for heaven. For our life on earth, Jesus has freed “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:15). This is very good news for those who chase here and there pursuing all sorts of diversions to avoid facing a deep-rooted fear of death.

The bondage I experienced – from which I needed Jesus to free me – relates not to fear of death but to the expectations I had for my life. I always say I am a late bloomer. I worked on a seminary degree between ages 28 and 38, while my kids were young. I didn’t pursue ordination as a Presbyterian minister until I was 45. I started a PhD at 52, and got my first teaching job, here at Otago, when I was 55. I was raised to believe that a woman’s primary role is to be a good housewife and mother. It took a long time for Jesus’ resurrection power to free me from that belief, which may work fine for other women. For me, it was a form of bondage.

I love my husband and kids, and they are enormous gifts in my life. My gifts of analysis, thinking clearly and teaching were used in mothering, no doubt about it, but to be whole and to be my true self, I needed somewhere to use those gifts beyond the home. Now, late in life, I have arrived at the right place. Jesus, whose resurrection broke the power of every sort of bondage, has been bringing his resurrection power into my life over many years, and I can see such wonderful fruit of it now.

This Easter season, I have been thinking about the accounts of the resurrection in the four Gospels. They all vary somewhat, but they have a lot in common, including the fact that the women play a key role. A few of the women who followed Jesus came to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with oils and spices. They saw that the tomb was empty. They were first to receive the news of his resurrection, and they were entrusted with the message to take back to the other disciples. Women were asked to be witnesses to this life-changing event.

In Jesus’ time, only men could be witnesses in court. It takes some imagination to perceive the significance that these women were entrusted with a message to tell the disciples. In Jesus’ life on earth, he honoured everyone he came across: men, women, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, synagogue officials, Romans, and many others. At his resurrection, it is no accident that women – marginalized people in his culture – were entrusted with this powerful message. He longs to set us free from all the bondage that enslaves and marginalizes us, and his death and resurrection made that possible.

For me, a major form of bondage was my limited expectation of what I could do with my life. What forms of bondage limit your life? Jesus longs to bring his resurrection power into our lives to set us free from all bondage and enable us to use all our gifts to love the people around us and to meet the needs of our hurting world. Jesus wants to give us the joy of the abundant life we were created for, as the unique and beloved people God made us to be.

(These words appeared as a guest editorial in the Otago Daily Times. If you'd like to receive an email when I post something on this blog, please sign up in the right hand column under "subscribe.")

Humility and listening, part 2

Wednesday April 1 2015

Humility and listening, part 2

Historically, Christians have warned against two vices related to humility: false humility and pride. True humility involves avoiding those two opposite pitfalls. False humility or an excess of humility often results in an inability to serve God well because of an overly low view of the self and one’s gifts for service. An excess of humility can also lead to obsequiousness, excessive flattery, or co-dependent submission to others. This characteristic is sadly present in communities of faith when some individuals don’t think they have anything to contribute and are in awe of those who do contribute. False humility is often not just present in communities of faith, but also encouraged and validated.

I have a hunch that pride, the other vice related to humility, is also quite common in congregations, but it is usually masked. One of the masks is activity. A knee-jerk response in the midst of a problem or crisis is to do something, because it helps us feel better about ourselves. We love solving problems. A denominational official said to me in an interview, “I’m really good at strategy! My immediate response in most situations is to say, ‘Let’s put good ideas together and strategize!’” We like to do what we’re good at, and many of us are good at planning and action.

Another mask for pride is spiritual certitude. We think we know what the Bible says, what’s right and wrong, and what people inside and outside the church need. We know, therefore we don’t need to learn more. In order to speak God’s love and truth into this hurting world, we need greater understanding of what’s going on in people’s lives. We need the kind of humility that helps us know we always have something to learn.

One kind of listening that looks humble might be called pretend humility. Listeners sometimes say “I hear you,” “good idea,” or other affirmations when they are not taking in what the speaker is saying and have no interest in taking seriously anything they hear. Pretend humility can sometimes be identified by a paternalistic tone of voice, or by the fact that the platitude isn’t followed with any further comment or action. Sometimes pretend humility is quite confusing, because the speaker thinks the message has been received, while in reality the words are completely ignored.

Almost everyone has times when they feel they needto be right, need to be in control, and want to show competence. Almost everyone has moments when all they can summon up is a platitude in response to words they have no intention of taking seriously. Almost everyone has times when they feel anxious in conversations. We might feel anxious about the to-do list spinning around in our head or about the lunch we need to prepare in just a few minutes. We might feel stressed trying to find a moment in the flow of words to express our opinion or to ask an urgent question. We might long to fix another person’s painful problem, even though we know we can’t, and our deep concern for the other person and our inability to change their life for them creates tension in us.

What are the characteristics of listening when we have these emotions roiling around inside and we are unable to park them somewhere outside the conversation? In those times when we need to be right and want to be in control, in those times when we feel anxious, listening deeply does not come easily. We commonly stop listening in those situations.

 

Some additional resources on listening:

(During Lent I’m posting excerpts from my book on listening. If you’d like to receive an email when I put a post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Book  excerpt from The Power of Listening by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.)

Humility and listening

Friday March 27 2015

Humility and listening

Alison is a Presbyterian minister who has worked much of her career as a hospital chaplain. She described several obstacles to listening, beginning with the urge to be efficient and productive:

Listening is not time efficient. Meetings at churches have deadlines. Maybe we need to map out a Sunday school curriculum today, but if God isn’t speaking today, we still need to decide. If we put off the decision because we don’t hear God’s voice today, we would have to meet again,and the youth director is just about to leaveon vacation.

She also noted that good listening requires an inner self-discipline that keeps distracting thoughts and emotions from impeding the listening process. “If you’re really listening, you can’t be always thinking about what you’ll say next. That’s hard,and it requires deep restraint. Andif you’re listening for God, you need to focus on listening, not on preparing your response.” This kind of self-control is difficult to achieve and requires a level of commitment and concentration that is hard to find in our busy, active congregational cultures.

Alison noted another necessary attitude. “Listening requires a posture of humility that isn’t ‘sexy.’ If you’re really going to hear God and others, you have to be open to not being right and to seeing something new. But you can’t hear God and others if you don’t have that attitude in some measure.”

She said countless brochures for conferences and speakers come across her desk, and she’s never seen a single one that focuses on humility. Humility, she noted, is not a trend. “I don’t see church leaders being fired up about humility. There are no big conferences, no programs. What’s ‘sexy’ now is emergent church and programs that promise quick results. Being humble isn’t an obvious thing and you don’t get any kudos for it.” Several inner convictions and attitudes make humility in listening more difficult to achieve, including thinking we already know answers and loving action and activity.

A youth worker said, “Youthink you know what someone thinks. Even if they’re talking, you can find yourself not listening because you assume you know.” A retired United Reformed Church minister attributed this listening obstacle to a lack of imagination. He cited Jesus’ healing miracles where Jesus enabled blind people to see and deaf people to hear. After the miracles, they were able to see and hear things they hadn’t previously perceived. He believes we need to cultivate a willingness to see and hear things we haven’t previously seen and heard.

Anna, like Alison, noted that she gets so many books and flyers that advocate specific programs. “‘Follow these ten steps,’ they all seem to be saying. That’s our model for growth, not listening to Godor listening to each other.”

            A children’s ministries director noted,

We want to be busy. It goes against the grain to slow down and create space for God to work.We’ve been trained that we’ve got a lot to do, so let’s get to it. In children’sand youth ministries, there’s so much pressure to keep functioning. All the programs are so valued. You have to have something every Sunday.

She believes an obstacle to listening to God and to others is the fear that I might have to change my plans. “What if God wants me to do something I don’t want to do? What if God nixes something I want to do?”

Humility is necessary in order to listen when we suspect we already know what the other person will say. Humility is necessary to lay aside battle positions with someone we know we disagree with. Humility is necessary to set aside what we think we know based on media accounts of what people outside the church think in order to listen to a specific individual’s beliefs, priorities and feelings. Humility is necessary to slow down our activities long enough to pay attention to the words and feelings of the people around us.

 

Some additional resources on listening:

(During Lent I’m posting excerpts from my book on listening. If you’d like to receive an email when I put a post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Book  excerpt from The Power of Listening by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.)

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