Forming character through the insights of literature, contemporary culture and Scripture.
by Bev Patterson
WHEN OUR DOG Amergin died back in 2005, I kept imagining him floating, ears flapping, through endless pitch black, untethered and alone. I was convinced that he had been abandoned, lost in space. I felt helpless, unable to protect him or keep him safe. Years later this image returned to me. Except this time, it isn’t Amergin floating through the Milky Way. It was me. I didn’t regret my decision but without the external structure of work, I felt, at times unhinged, suspended in some unknown universe. Back then, I had just retired.
image by Bev Patterson
The image returned once again last year after my recent Enneagram discovery that I’m a “nine”. It dawned on me that floating through space, disconnected and unmoored, is a fitting metaphor for my whole life. It makes so much sense now. Like a short leash, I attach myself to tasks, run from thing to thing, and abide by a strict set of daily routines. All this to assure myself that I am not invisible or in danger of floating away. In these manic moments, I have come to believe that if I carve out my own orbit, I can keep chaos and conflict from swallowing me up.
Pitfalls on the Path
Years ago in another sermon on Colossians, our friend Eldon laid out the obstacles and pitfalls that posed a threat to this young community of Colossians. During our sermon discussion, we explored the oppressive nature of “Roman Rule” and how we too feel under siege. You don’t have to be a nine on the Enneagram to feel adrift or in the dark. We all resort to “our best-laid plans,” our “Rules of Empire,” to stay afloat, whether it’s intellectual distractions, escape through the body or emotional hardwiring. What seems so convincing at the moment will ultimately do us in.
Here in Chapter 3, Paul speaks of other dangers. This time the pitfall isn’t the disembodied mind with all its abstractions or the heavy hand of Rome. He describes a life filled with addictions that are bodily and sexual in nature, compounded by attitudes that are tangled up with relational backbiting, betrayal, hypocrisy and deceit. It reads like a new-convert testimony describing a former life of transgression. But Paul knew sin could crouch at any door. No matter if it’s going over the philosophical deep end, being consumed by the instincts or hounded by mean-spiritedness, no one is immune, whether we’re old or new in the faith.
This letter was written to a people of diversity. It included the indigenous Phrygian people, Greek settlers, and likely a significant Jewish population. Colossae, a cosmopolitan city, was located on a major east-west highway. The spiritual landscape included an intricate blend of cultic beliefs, festivals and ceremonies. In this pluralistic cultural, religious and robust philosophical environment, the gospel of Jesus Christ found receptive ears. Christ’s universal promise of reconciliation bore fruit in new and life-giving ways. They were a community on fire for God, but they were also young in their discipleship. So the tone of this passage isn’t so much corrective as it is protective of these new converts who were vulnerable to the elements, those inner and outer destructive forces.
At root, these vices point to desires and passions consumed with the self. We may not walk in these lusty circles, but being cut off from our shared Christ center can mess with our alignment. Restless and instinctual, rigid, driven and demanding — these adjectives describe our inner state. We want more: more distraction, more comfort, more stimulation. For Paul, this grasping is an indication that God has ceased to be the ground of our being. Our North Star is replaced by those passing “feel-good” moments. We may not literally be drunk and passed out, but we are in a stupor.
Our insatiable desires can come in many guises, fooling us into thinking they are necessary or even noble. Sadly, in this state, the Christ perspective is blurred. As a result, we destroy those we love through words and actions fueled by blind desperation. When we do not seek the things above, we are prone to seek the things below. We’ve all been there.
But let’s not forget, this is not a finger-wagging passage. “Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you,” says our translation. Paul isn’t telling us not to live in the now, the contemplative moment. That‘s the last thing he wants us to hear. In the spirit of care, he hopes to prevent us from getting wrapped up in a life of panic, urgency and self-absorption.
Remain focused is Paul’s advice. “When we know whose we are, we are not nearly as vulnerable to the side attractions and not so likely to go down the wrong road.” Proverbs and the Psalms are filled with similar exhortations to keep to the path.
A New Beginning
The letter’s intent is not to address a specific problem as much as to lay a firm foundation. “You have been raised to life with Christ.” This can only mean we have died, and because of this, we can say goodbye to a life that is so self-defeating. This death is our beginning. We are born with a “new nature.”
It never gets old – this New Life. We don’t read this passage and think, “been there, done that.” Life in Christ is far off the beaten path, guiding us away from what we once were. To our surprise, we discover new threads emerging from old and frayed patterns, lovingly rewoven, with other fellow threads, into a unique tapestry of intricate beauty. We are a new creation in a constant state of healing and tending. Just like the Colossians, we too need protection.
Ultimately, we need protection from ourselves, from our insistent need to take over, our drive to know for sure, our obsession with planning and prediction, our propensity to mistrust. We are hardwired to start with the imperative, the ‘shoulds,’ the Law. It’s how we learned to survive out there in the Jungle of our upbringing. We long for a straight road only to find a meandering path full of detours and what looks like dead ends. More than anything, we need wisdom.
Paul’s idea of protection is not to keep us from suffering or discovering new things. He wants nothing more than to foster new growth, a deep-rooted relationship with Christ that promises us life-long flourishing. In his wise love, Paul longs for us to become realigned with the orbit of God’s creational goodness, where our fledgling faith is kept safe with the one God loves most – his beloved Son.
“Your life is hidden with Christ in God. He is your life. Christ gives meaning to your life, and when he appears, you will also appear with him in glory.” Paul tells us that we are in the process of being re-patterned. Gestation takes time, and in this new universe, God’s merciful timing seeds the right moment for us to blossom, to shine in a glory that is not of our making.
Hidden with Christ
A New Origin Story
This origin story has a divine twist. Like the first couple, we seem cursed, banished into what seems like complete darkness hiding for fear of shame and exposure—destined to wander and float, shuffling along with our eyes to the ground. But along comes a simple first Century man, wearing the clothes of flesh and blood. He’s everything like us and yet so different, so mysterious, so compelling.
His body, limited and weak, with all its human thoughts and feelings, carries the promise of something new, right here, in our time and space, all time and space. Through God raising him to a new and glorious existence, the Curse of Eden, our patterns of floating, avoiding, investing, controlling, mistrusting and on and on are destroyed by this new cross-shaped pattern. This cruciform life is our new hiding place. In a plot that keeps twisting, our safety net is now our participation in Christ’s suffering love. Along with the rest of creation, we are both hiding and seeking our new genesis, no longer lonely or ashamed.
To have our life hidden with Christ in God means that our new humanity is not fully known, even to us. We, too, are invited into the mystery. Our hopes lie in wait, safely resting in the heart of God. Our ideas of glory are shattered, replaced by a shine reflected in a shared weakness, brokenness, self-sacrifice, letting go and a love that doesn’t look away.
My old Adam mind tells me this is crazy. But when I wake up, renewed in the Christ of all, I feel flooded by deep relief and consolation. The darkness lifts, there is ground beneath my feet, and I can live with open hands, trusting that my retirement, going on six years now, and the many life changes that have impacted all of us are part of the mending tapestry of God. We share the anxiety, worry, waiting, diminishment and despair — daily glitches that rattle us and dismal seasons that seem to go on forever. We don’t have a clue about the end-game, but we are asked to enter the crawlspace of Christ, keeping daily vigil, alone and together, for the trust and hope we need to stay faithful.
What a different starting point. Our renewal and reconstruction are in God’s hands. Our actions and deeds are no longer ‘shoulds’ but a joyful response of gratitude. In the words of Karl Barth, “our ‘musts’ become our ‘mays.’” What seems impossible on our own steam becomes a natural outpouring. We have the spirit to thank for that.
Seeing With New Eyes
“Look up!” he says. Does that mean we are to reject the physical world around us? Given the steamy vice list, it would be tempting to go there, but that would be missing the point. Christ, above, risen and ascended. This is not a matter of philosophical speculation or spiritual escape. This is a matter for the heart and mind to explore in creative concert with the spirit. In some strange and wondrous way, Christ of the lofty heights reaches down to our very bottom. Our instinct is to look away from these low places, but the pattern of self-giving love is our meaning-maker now. With new eyes, we see differently — the things that don’t make sense and the experiences that grieve us. Despite uncertainty and obscurity, we find rest here in a basement of grace where hope dares to grow.
Being “hidden in Christ” is still a mystery but not the esoteric kind that Paul warns us about. It’s a kind of mystery that is so captivating that we keep turning the pages. We’re surprised at every turn. We hardly know the whole story, but we trust the main character. We no longer need to hide in fear, alone in the dark. Here in this hiddenness, we find Abba Father, caring enough to lament when we lose our way. When we put our new identities in danger and tear apart the work of community and creation, we have a faithful friend in Christ who has given everything for us and a Comforter who guides and gathers us back into the light of life. All of us: friends, strangers, enemies, those we love and worry about and those we’ve lost, including Amergin and our menagerie of loved and passing pets.
Too often, our lives are broken into categories: gender distinctions, racial distinctions, economic distinctions, religious divides, the human vs nature standoff, the endless typologies that can help us and reduce us—so many moving parts. Without Christ, we will keep floating, unaligned from one binary to another, towards some black hole. Even in community, it sometimes feels like we float past each other, on the distant planet Zoom, each caged and muted in a Hollywood square. And yet …
As I read Lydia's reflection of Watershed in 2021, I had a “pause” moment. Who was this community, so small, so on in years, yet still vulnerable, yet so full of life? The spirit behind her words filled me with gratitude. Sometimes life tires me out, and my community effort is just that, effort. These are the times I forget there’s a hidden treasure, an underground stream. But musing on Lydia’s list, I was reminded of not how great we were but that Christ is all that matters despite our desert-like faith and practical atheism. He lives in all of us, every inch and atom of reality. Hidden in plain sight. Even when we forget.