Monks and Incarnation

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.

Amen.

Giving Thanks

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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.

And yet…

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

Patience and Hope, Day After Day

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“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.

And hope.

And pray.

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.

Greg

Beautiful Home, Pesky Ants

 

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Quite a  busy week last week.  In addition to finding out that I am going to be a future father to twins (see my last post and the freak out contained within), I headed up to Eustis, FL to see a good friend I haven’t seen in 20 years, Amy.  For the past five years, Amy has been a missionary in Ghana, Africa, as headmistress of a Rafiki Foundation school.  As we walked the streets of nearby Mt. Dora, we caught up on the past twenty years and I learned a great deal of her new life in Africa.  Of how different it is, but how “kids will still be kids.”  Of electricity going out on a regular basis.  On how being a missionary isn’t being a “super Christian” but just following the particular call that God has for all of us.

Amy and I performed together in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I was happy to hear that it was one of the first plays she introduced her new students to.

How wonderful to see her again.  And hey!  She could always use support in her work!  She is an amazing person.  Learn more about her here.

Then a week a teaching at my first VBS (Vacation Bible School).  It has been my desire over the summer to express my faith more, not to merely consent mentally to a creed, but allow the Holy Spirit to touch my heart, hands, and feet.

I wanted to use my gifts for teaching and presenting to specifically teach and show the love of Christ.

To mentally acknowledge my brokenness, yes, but to let the joy of God settle in my heart.

By doing cool little science experiments dealing with air and water pressure, and using them as metaphors for God’s Love.

By acting really goofy during our Praise and Worship times, jumping around, laughing, high-fiving, being altogether out of my element and enjoying every minute.

Seeing the light in those little kids’ faces was pretty amazing.

We wrapped up the week at a celebration held by two members of our church.  They live in downtown Orlando in a beautiful neighborhood, in a beautiful house.

A really beautiful house.

A might-as-well-be-a-bed-and-breakfast house.

Antiques everywhere, ornate furniture.  Perfectly paneled wood.

A veranda, a bricked courtyard with a tall, twisting avocado tree.

Wow.

Nice place.

(I said as I valiantly tried to stop my two year old son from crashing into anything).

A little envy?  Oh yeah, sure,a touch.  Especially as I though about the new challenges of fitting two more family members into an already cramped house.

Then this:

My wife is pregnant and now has to avoid alcohol and caffeine (oh the humanity!).  Seeing only Coke and wine out, I asked if there was any Sprite.

Sure, follow me, our hostess said.

The courtyard had a small storage area, enclosed by a wooden door with a latch. At the top of the door, on frame, tiny little dots moved about industriously.

Our hostess sighed.  “White footed ants,” she explained.  “They are everywhere, unfortunately.  Nearly impossible to get rid of.”

She found some Sprite and we rejoined the party and had a wonderful time in fellowship.

In my prayers later that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about those ants.

The Lord wanted to teach me something.

“Even in a house you thought was pretty much perfect, my son, there was a flaw.  A slight flaw, but a flaw nonetheless.

Theirs is a beautiful home , full of hospitality and goodwill.  They are not moving out any time soon because of some pesky ants.”

And then this realization.  This assurance.  This love.  This promise:

“I want my make my dwelling in you.  I want you to rest in my Spirit, and my Spirit to rest in you.”

Ephesians 2:22.

“And trust me, your pesky sins, acknowledged and repented of, are no match for the beautiful Grace and Love which I want to furnish you with.”

Awesome.

Yes, our sins are those pesky ants, and sometimes they can swarm, but we are being built up for something so much greater.

So why despair, my fellow palace?

John, who needed love the most

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So I was talking to a friend today, a seminarian who I have no doubt will be a force for good in the world based on his love for Christ, his compassion toward people, and his understanding of the Scriptures.  It is this latter that we touched on today in conversation.  He has learned to read the Gospels in the original Hebrew and Greek, which absolutely staggers me.  He said some of the translations of Scripture  into other languages have not adequately conveyed what the author was trying to get at in the text.

For example, John, “the other disciple, the one Jesus loved” (John 20 v2).

“I originally took that as a very arrogant phrase,” my friend said, “Like, ‘Look at me, the favorite disciple.’  And then I read the Greek.  The actually Greek translation was less a statement of favoritism than one of need.  It’s more accurate to read it “the one who Jesus had to keep on loving because he needed to be close.”

Which means what?  I asked.

“John was probably the most broken.  He needed to lean on Jesus the most.  And Jesus knew that, and so did John.”

Whoa.

Oh, John, let me tell you: you have a brother in this warped yellow lego.  I’m right there with you.

Another friend once told me, “I envy your religious life, man [whatever that means].  I just don’t have that much faith.  Don’t know how you do it.”

How I do it?

I don’t know how it’s done.  I just know the reach.  I know the outstretched arm.  I know the lump-in-the-throat, I’m-ready-to-lose-it, help-me-please straining.

And I’ve felt another hand close around mine and pull me forward, out of impossible despair, anxiety, and stress.

Every morning.  Every hour.  Every moment.

He sends reminders to me.  Around every corner, in the light of every person’s eyes.

In His Word.  In the teachings of his followers.

In the cross I wear around my neck.

In my very need to reach.

Because I have a tendency to forget.

Every morning.  Every hour.  Every moment.

My face is cupped in His wonderful, assuring hands.  He looks on me with the deepest love.  He pulls me close.

He knows He needs to.

And so do I.

True love offered, even in brokenness

[Note:  apologies to those who have already seen this post, or at least a version of it.  My Kindle WordPress app was publishing this every time I edited it, which was many times over the past 12 hours.  So I am posting a cleaned up version for your enjoyment.  As with all my posts, I hope it touches your heart, mind, and Spirit.]

This is going to be a difficult post to write.  I’m just “in the middle of it” right now.

In the midst of my own brokenness and frustration, temptation, and struggle.

So I need reminding of who Jesus who really is.  What He does.  How He accepts.

Let it be known that English teachers sometimes teach what they need most to learn.  I’ve taught this movie over the past 5 out of 7 years.  There is so much going on in it that speaks to me.

The themes we bring to our students to analyze through the literature we teach, say “love” or “trust” or “loyalty” or “the hero’s journey” – before we dilute the work down to literary period, genre, and use of syntax- often have hit us at our core in some way, have revealed to us a truth about the world or ourselves that moved the deepest part of our being. And through repeated viewing or study, by ourselves or with a class, under the academic hubbub and rhetoric, we get chance to be reminded.

Because I recognize myself as both Parry and Lydia in the movie The Fisher King.

Quick disclaimer: the movie is at times graphic, for both language and violence, so I only show this with my oldest students (seniors). It’s not Fight Club hyper violence by any means, but it can be gritty. Robin Williams plays Parry, a homeless man who thinks he is a knight out to find the Holy Grail in early ’90s New York City. His “princess” from a distance is Lydia, a bit of a nobody and a lost soul. They are set up on a first date, and somehow, they click. Here is the scene as Parry walks her home. Watch and then read on. And don’t mind the part about Florida…

Did you see what Lydia did at first?  She set up this whole narrative where she would be ultimately reduced to “a piece of dirt.”  Imagining that this connection with Parry couldn’t possibly be real, that this was too-good-to-be-true, she concocts a contrarian story in which Parry uses her for sex, and leaves the next morning with nary a word.  A classic one night stand scenario.

Why does she do this?

She doesn’t trust.

She doesn’t believe.

She is worrying about the unknown.  She has never been here before, where a man has truly cared for her.

Or maybe she has been here before, and the one night stand scenario is how it worked out.  A few hours at work, and eventually she felt like dirt.

Used.

Tossed aside.

Left broken.

And hurt.

If you’ve never seen the movie (and I won’t ruin it for you), it’s okay to know that Parry is actually quite a broken human being as well.  His homelessness comes from tragedy.  Nevertheless, he doesn’t shy away from others or set up walls.  He has observed Lydia- this pale little nobody in the great labyrinth of New York City, has declared her his princess, and is intent on acting that way.  As her knight.

Lydia runs.  Parry chases.  He needs to set the story straight.

His confession is that he loves, and though he is quite attracted to her physically, it’s not really about that.  For Parry it’s about the first kiss goodnight.  And telling her that he loves her.

And out of his mouth comes, I think, one of the best and truest declarations of love I’ve heard.

I ask my students:  what did he say about her hair and eyes?  What about her stunning figure?  Her skin, her legs?

And the answer, of course:  nothing.

This is no trite Top 40 love song.  It’s not Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18.”  It doesn’t stay on the surface.

In fact, he doesn’t really “compliment” her at all.  Instead,

He mentions her awkwardness.

That she hates her job.

That she doesn’t have many friends.

That she doesn’t feel as wonderful or coordinated as everyone else.

That she feels separate and lonely.

He recognizes all of her brokenness.

But…

I love you.

I love you, he says.

You’re the greatest thing since spice racks, he says.

I’d be knocked out several times if I could just get that one kiss.

I’ll call.  I’ll come back, if you let me.

Lydia’s eyes are tearing up through this whole speech as she listens.  Her walls about breaking down, she is seeing new possibilities.  And in the miracle of miracles she actually has to admit that

He is Real.

Love has come to her in spite of (because of?) her brokenness.

And she dares to believe.

What a lesson in love.

Brennan Manning once said, in true ragamuffin style, that “God loves you as you are, not as you should be, because you’re never going to be as you should be.”

In his own unique human way, Parry made known to Lydia, without specifically saying it, about the love of Christ.

And how many times a day do I need that reminder?  How many times have I felt broken, used, lonely, awkward, unlovable?  How many times have I set up walls, concocted a different story which would allow me to hide in solitude?

Roman 5:8 begins to make much more sense to me- “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Still sinners- in other words, broken.

As Psalms 103: 15-17 declare, “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.  But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children.”

“Fear” in its proper context was closer to “being in awe” than being “scared.”  Do you remember the look of marveling that came over Lydia as she whispered “You’re real, aren’t you?”  Her inflection still had the remnants of a question, as if she still couldn’t quite grasp what this was, though she was taking the courageous steps toward it.

Like I said, I’m in the “middle of it.”

So I need to take a prayerful step right now toward my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who accepts me and knows me in my brokenness.

Awkwardness.

Loneliness.

Separation.

Frustration.

Temptation.

Struggle.

“I love you,” he says.

Amen.