Sunday, November 14, 2021

Learning a Lesson

"Learn a lesson from the fig tree.
When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves,
you know that summer is near.
In the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that he is near, at the gates
Matthew 13

Certainly in this past year, we have all lived through too much distress and tribulation - pandemic, rioting and racial unrest, the climate itself seemingly in revolt. In so many ways, everything seems to be falling apart, still, we pray, we persevere, we beg to be loving and wise and available to spread random acts of kindness freely, we hope. Here we are. And this morning even as the Lord Jesus predicts the heavens in turmoil, he moves quickly to a little story begging us to notice with hope the sprouting of a fig tree in spring. “Notice this hope-filled sign, even amidst seeming destruction - I am near. Always. Do not be afraid.” 

So it is that after living the life of a wandering preacher, Jesus will be wrongly accused, and fall under the weight of the cross. And in the excruciating hour of his death, his body will be pierced and torn; all his beauty and divinity smeared over and concealed by the spittle and blood of his passion. But it is there best of all, in the poverty and turmoil and tribulation of his passion, that dying and distress will finally be turned completely inside-out by God’s weakness. This mess is opportunity; for God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Jesus will rise; God makes all things new.

Not long ago we heard about a disabled man named Walter who lives in a group home for the severely physically handicapped. Walter loves to dance. But this is next to impossible given his condition. And at parties when he has made attempts, wiggling and shaking, he has been restrained by staff who fear for his safety. Now one day the sounds of rock music and loud crashes are heard upstairs in the residence. The ruckus is traced to Walter’s room. Nurses rush upstairs, knock frantically, call Walter’s name, and burst into his room. They see him twirling around and falling to the floor as music booms. He is flushed and sweaty and laughing. And as they rush to help him up, he reassures them, “It’s OK, the falls are part of the dance.” The falls are part of the dance. It’s probably something we all learn sooner or later- how to welcome the falling, the mess, even the distress and see it as opportunity, knowing that grace cannot be far behind. I like neat, but more and more I come to see that God doesn’t work that way. God doesn’t do neat.

So it is that here in the monastery, we learn that the monastic life is not about our achievement, but about our readiness to make our weakness available to the mercy of God. Perhaps this is our most important work - to realize that we are in desperate need of this mercy and so to learn how to allow things to fall apart, allow the inevitable. Everything’s not OK. It’s much better than that: everything’s falling apart all around us, within us. And when we are clearheaded enough, we experience the blessed relief of not having to pretend that we’re self-sufficient or totally capable and good and in control. We don’t have to pretend anymore, for in Christ our tribulation and our distress have been grasped by the tender compassion of God, the God who is love. 

So intuition increases, a confidence that mess and disintegration may be the very place for re-formation, literally places ‘to be made beautiful again,’ for there the God of reversals and upside-downness can transform and re-form. We can somehow trust chaos, see through it. The good news is that everything is falling apart, but this falling apart is essential to the dance in which Christ Jesus longs to accompany us. It is after all why he has come - he wants to be with us, near us, in us. Eternity is always interrupting. The amazing yet ordinary things- the beauty, the sorrow in human experience and in all of creation- beckon to us and draw us to him, who is constantly seeking opportunities to engage us here and now, perhaps most often in our failures, when he can sneak in and rescue us quietly without any fanfare.

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation, and it turns to radiance - for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light ... Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? .... Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave - that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. 

Photograph by Father Emmanuel. Reflection by one of the monks with a final quotation from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.