I sometimes wonder about my reading and viewing choices during the holidays, and how out of sync they are with the mood of the season.
What drew me to pick up the book The Last Monk of Tibhirine by Freddy Derwahl and ask for, receive as a gift, and subsequently view on Christmas evening Of Gods and Men, the film based on the martyrdom of the seven monks, eludes me. I am happily out of sync with popular culture as well, and when the movie made a big splash at Cannes in 2010, I was elbow deep in changing diapers and growing my family. No time to get to the movies.
However, I have always been fascinated by Christian monasticism, particularly as practiced by the Trappist monks, so when the story surfaced of monks who set up their monastery in the heart of a Muslim community in Algiers, to spread the gospel by service to the poor and suffering, and who were then abducted by an Islamic terrorist group and brutally killed, I wanted to know more of their story.
But is this sad story meant for the holiday season?
That question was on my mind even as I watched the film, its slow, meditative pace reminiscent of the documentary Into Great Silence (there’s something about putting monks on film that demands everything slow down).
Then came Brother Christian’s words on the Incarnation. The very celebration we are in the midst of this week.
The monks are faced with the conundrum of abandoning the community and their monastery for their own safety, or staying and suffering with, even to the point of death, the poor Muslim community they serve. Many heartfelt, agonizing meditations and conversations are dwelt on regarding this matter- it is the primary drive of the narrative. Brother Christian’s mind is already made up- he is staying. To offer some reason for this, he offers this reflection on the Incarnation to his fellow monk, Brother Luc:
I’ve often thought of that time. That time when Sayah Attia and his men left.
Once they were gone, all we had left to do was to live.
And the first thing we did was… two hours later.
We celebrated the Christmas Vigil and Mass.
It’s what we had to do. It’s what we did.
And we sang the Mass. We welcomed that Child
who was born for us absolutely helpless and…
and already so threatened.
Afterwards, we found salvation in undertaking our daily tasks.
The kitchen, the garden, the prayers, the bells.
Day after day.
We had to resist the violence.
And day after day, I…. I think each of us discovered
that to which Jesus Christ beckons us.
It’s … to be born.
Our identities as men go from one birth to another.
And from birth to birth, we’ll each end up
bringing to the world the child of God that we are.
The Incarnation, for us, is to allow the filial reality of Jesus
to embody itself in our humanity.
The mystery of Incarnation remains what we are going to live.
In this way what we’ve already lived here
takes root as well as…
what we’re going to live in the future.
(excerpted from the film Of Gods and Men and Christopher Page’s blog In a Spacious Place)
We must, as brothers and sisters in Christ, be willing to be born anew each day, and to see that birth in others as well. As Christians we are literally “little Christs” and the Incarnation thus rests in us as well. And as Jesus said in Matthew 25:
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Therefore, Christ is within the eyes of those we meet each day as well. He surrounds us, binds us with His love, and our duty is to show that to others. To have it “embody itself in our humanity.”
…even to the point of death, whether that means facing it ourselves, grieving with others through it, or standing up against it when injustice rears its head.
Bring to the world who you are as a child of God, as He brought Himself.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
I feel bad for the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke sometimes. Really.
Everyone prior to this…Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, and even Joseph (better late than never!) get SOME indication that a thing extraordinary will happen in the near future with the birth of Mary’s son, Jesus, the Son of the Most High, the “great joy for all people.”
It is kind of sprung on the shepherds, though, isn’t it?
No WONDER they were terrified.
The birth of the Messiah is announced. When did it happen, angels?
Today! and He is over THERE! And now we are going to light up the sky and sing like there is no tomorrow!
I wonder if the sheep even stuck around with all that going on.
And what was a shepherd, anyway? Certainly not anyone high up in society. I’ve heard of descriptions that call them “rag-tag and a bit grimy.”
Rag-tag and a bit grimy. Sounds a bit like my ever wandering soul sometimes.
And to this rag-tag and grimy crew the very chorus of heaven shows up and points them to the Savior of the world. “I bring you news that will cause great joy for all people.”
Not just the have-it-all-together crew.
The shepherds as well, who, just as the Wise Men did, followed a star to a manger and saw Jesus, the gift to us all.
It has been a while since I have posted, but that time has not been wasted. I’m in recovery, my friends. I’ve been led to a Christ-centered recovery group that takes on all manner of addictions and issues, those specifically shaped sins of ours that need the utter and complete mercy of God. My recovery is going well, with of course a few stumbles on the way. This recovery takes place amidst a growing family (the twins are due in a month!), a growing young boy, master classes in literary studies, and my own teaching responsibilities. And each week as I sit with my group of Christian brothers, either in sadness or joy, the reminder is given to me that I am His work, that I have a role in this great Story He is telling. I am learning to be myself, in Him. Massively challenging at times, and at others a simple warm embracing of realization. Like a shepherd, I am a bit rag-tag and grimy. But the good Lord send Him in the form of babe to change the world. And me. And you.
May God bless each and every one of you this Christmas, now and every day.
And a third, and a fourth, and a fifth…a request which should be ever on my lips as I recognize my intensely distracted nature, which oft needs a day to refocus and renew my heart to a state of gratitude. And yet, and yet…Grace says He knows my struggle, and is with me even in those times of pressure, instability, distraction, and need.
Which have been quite frequent over the past months, let me tell you.
But I am still here, eagerly awaiting my twins, reconnecting with my Lord and Savior, coming off the highs of a Hillsong United concert from a week ago, and the bearing the lows of my crosses. Teaching, learning, writing, working, preparing.
I give thanks today for all. For my friends, my family, for you, and most of all for Jesus.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful – Colossians 3:15
“But make up your mind not worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” Luke 21 v.14-15
“Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21 v.34-36
The problem with letting a blog go stale for a while is coming back stuffed with news, and wondering what to write about first, and in what context. Additionally, seeing how wont as I am to distraction, the Holy Spirit in one way or another will put in my ear, softly, subtly, “it’s time to reflect.”
So here I am. Good news and bad news follow.
First, good news. Wonderful students. Respect from most of my team and administrators. Healthy twin baby BOYS gracing our house in February, and they are developing just fine in mommy’s womb. A healthy young two year old as well. I am also dealing with my anxiety with continued counseling and now medication. New books. An upcoming C.S. Lewis conference. Counting blessings on all those things.
Bad news: My mother fell sick up North with a pretty serious bout of pneumonia. Very serious. Currently she is in stable but critical condition in an ICU in a Boston hospital. I live in Florida, and therefore cannot do much but hope and pray, and have daily communication with my family for updates. My mother is someone who constantly gives, often in detriment to herself. She simply does not think about herself: a virtue of course, but the Lord says love your neighbor as yourself, which means we have to show ourselves care as well. She originally went to get her hip checked, which will probably need to be replaced, but as soon as the doctor’s saw what shape she was in, she was admitted almost on the spot.
All news: in the hands of God.
Gotta remember that.
I am reading commentary/reflections on the gospel of Luke by N.T. Wright, and the two verses above he puts in marvelous context by framing how these words would have been received by the early Christians in Jerusalem, circa 68 A.D. when Luke wrote. The apostles were scattered, most of the spreading of the gospel was taking place far and away, and tensions in Jerusalem were still high with the Romans. So day by day their lives dragged on, and if neighbors asked with a sneer, “Where is your Jesus?” then “all you could do would be to retell the stories, including the sayings of Jesus. Hang on. Be alert. Pray for strength to meet whatever comes.”
And what of us in the 21st Century? Is it not the same, Wright asks? Wars still rage, sin flourishes, the world wants us to indulge, forget, numb, rage, be anxious, and turn away from the Light. Wright says this (a marvelous quote):
“The answer is the same for us as it was the Jerusalem Christians nearly a generation after Jesus. Keep alert. This is what you were told to expect. Patience is the key. Pray for strength to keep on your feet. There are times when your eyes will be shutting with tiredness, spiritual, mental, emotional and physical, and when you have to prop them open. This is what it’s about: not an exciting battle, with adrenalin flowing and banners flying, but the steady tread, of prayer and hope and scripture and sacrament and witness, day by day and week by week.”
In our times of deepest crisis, of deepest pain, we must have the courage to lean in to our Lord and feel the steady rhythmic beat of his pure, unconditional love-filled Heart. The iambic beat of prayer. The iambic beat of hope. The iambic beat of sacrament. The iambic beat of witness.
Day by day.
Week by week.
It sounds odd, but I have the gift right now of not being able to anything. This is what my father said as I spoke to him on the phone. “It is all in the hands of Jesus.” Because what are we going to do? I cannot even properly operate a toaster on most days, so it is time for me to trust the gifts and knowledge He has given the doctors and let them do their jobs.
This is waiting on the Lord. And it is tough sometimes. Mind-boggingly difficult for me, as prone I am to despair and giving up.
But our Lord is a Lord of healing.
Let me say that over and over again.
A Lord of Healing.
Day by day.
Week by week.
Would you join me in saying this?
Thanks and blessings.
One of my favorite quotes from any book on faith comes from GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
Our Father’s youth is that eternal Hope that raises us up after we fall. And for those like me, whose addictions and impulses make falling a fairly regular occurrence (read: daily),
when I don’t feel like getting up,
when it is so much easier to wallow in the muck and mire of past mistakes,
when I’ve gone to bed the night before feeling like a failure,
when there is just no way I can deal with this anymore,
when my job becomes tough and I’m not sure what kind of teacher I am to my students,
Jesus reaches out his hand to pull me up.
And says “Walk with me.
Come to me.
Do it again.
I’m always here.”
Despair feels old, doesn’t it? And after the heck of the week I’ve had, with nice highs and real lows, it’s good to see the sun rise outside my window. The daily new beginning.
A student told me I was already one of his favorite teachers. “Even though you work us real hard.” Smile there.
In the same class, a girl came up to me after the bell, tears in her eyes.
“Please move my seat next week, the boy next to me says bad things to me.”
She’s being bullied, and I didn’t catch it. No smile there. Please pray for her.
Highs and lows.
But, says the Lord, walk into the classroom again. No, you didn’t fail. Yes, you will have to address the issue. Yes it will be tough.
No, do not despair.
I’m always here.
Do it again.
I heard an interesting term today.
I’m an avid follower of beautifulsilliness’s blog– if haven’t heard of her, for crying out loud get off this blog and go over there and recently she posted on her thoughts on a theologian named Tozer. Never heard of him before, so ever the “I gotta know it” guy, I looked him up and found a series of audio files featuring his sermons from the 1950s and 1960s. I linked onto one in particular which I felt might speak to my situation and it certainly did. A.W. Tozer identified “morbid humility” as that characteristic which marks the penitent sinner who dwells in their unworthiness and does not make the effort with God to attend to the commandment given in Philippians 2:12-13:
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
Work it out.
We don’t earn salvation; it is a gift freely given. But it is a gift meant to be used, to be explored, to be a healing force, a healing action in our lives.
Sometimes it’s not that I’m dwelling in sin, but I’m not dwelling in salvation.
When Jesus meets me at the bottom of my personal barrels
-I’ve substituted, once again, perhaps, a vacuous, addictive pleasure or impulse for a truer connection to Christ or others-
Am I receiving His loving grace, His unconditional Love, His care and concern and desire to be with me despite my failings…
with relief at His immensity and furious Love for me?
am I anticipating the next time I will screw up?
Am I dwelling in shame? Remorse? Guilt?
or doing the Shame+ Power thing, which comes up with the statement that “I’ll never do it again,” trying to use the power of my guilt to build some false sense of security against future attacks?
Been doing that for a while.
I’m so tired.
And I’m starting to realize how many blessings I have that I literally do not have the energy to enjoy or recognize because of that exhaustion.
yet before I start guilt-tripping myself over that…
What’s it like to dwell in salvation?
I just took a deep breath. Maybe it feels something like that.
But it is more. It is the courage to work with God toward the reordering of my life. To believe it possible and strive toward it. Just to even see it.
For crying out loud, Zacchaeus climbed a tree, looking a fool in front of everyone, just to get a glimpse of Jesus.
He climbed a tree, Jesus saw, Jesus wanted to come into Zacchaeus’ house.
To dwell with him.
When Jesus said “I must stay at your house today,” I think Zacchaeus already knew salvation had come.
Zacchaeus acted on that. He turned his whole life around, right then and there. For him, it was making amends for financial misdeeds in the past.
What does dwelling in salvation look like for me? What does the freedom Christ offers look like for me?
Pray I dwell on that a bit longer, and keep trusting in His will.