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Splinters to Petals

elk againOnce upon a time, I had a house in the Pacific Northwest (U.S.) with some acreage in front, and a half mile driveway. The house was just a little ways uphill from a river, a lovely… mountain… river. You know the kind, made of melted glacier water that never rises much above 2 degrees above freezing? (My daughter “taught our dog to swim” there. How? By standing on the bank and throwing her in… repeatedly. Daughter claims dog loved it. Dog never said a thing about it… Daughter only told me years later. But anyway…)

So… every winter, I had “Elk”. (Sounds like some sort of rash, put that way, dunnit?) This is to say that a herd of about 60 elk would meander up and down the river, across my patch, every three days or so all winter long. That sounds lovely, until you are trying to drive your car up your driveway at 10 p.m. after a 16-or-so-hour workday, and you have to stop, flash your lights, honk your horn, and try to motivate sleepy, settled in, supine elk off the gravel onto the verge… hoping the bulls surrounding the cows surrounding the calves don’t label you a “threat” and charge your car and tyres with their antlers… their nasty, pointy, antlers.

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So… OK, Little Monk, does this have anything AT ALL to do with anything we normally talk about?

Sorry, going on…

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Well, one spring, my family planted a series of rose bushes along the driveway verge up where the house and drive roundabout led onto the gravel stretch to the road. Little bushes (18 to 24 inches high)… we read the instructions… we dug holes 24 or so inches deep. We had the potting soil, the root-nutrient-stuff, the rose-nutrient-stuff, the water hose… We had EVERYTHING to plant whizz bang rose bushes, in order to yield a bumper crop of whizz bang roses.

And we had FRIENDS. My daughter had invited some of her school chums to come over that day to “dig holes” and roast weiners in the back yard, play music I didn’t get, and generally enjoy the day, the yard (garden), the river, and the expert-swimming dog. It was a fun day. And there was a funny moment in it…

One of her friends had been permitted, after much begging, to dig the hole for the last rose bush at the end of the line. (And she really DID beg, I’m not kidding.) We looked up to check on her progress, and gasped to find her waist deep in a pit she had obviously mistaken for the beginnings of either a gold mine or a Journey to the Center of the Earth. In the short time she had been left unattended, my daughter’s friend had dug this “rose bush hole” deeper than 3 feet and easily 24 inches around. We stopped her, lifted her out of her pit, and asked (laughingly) what she was doing?

She responded that she just loved to dig holes, that she’d begged because she wasn’t allowed to dig holes at her own home, and that she wasn’t allowed because her parents didn’t like the holes she dug since they were too big and too deep. (Ah! The tale emerges…)

So… we thanked her for all her efforts, told her we were just digging the hole to loosen the soil for the rose’s roots, we weren’t planning to bury it… and now we needed to fill most of it back up. Anyway, all the bushes got planted, but I worried that this one on the end… the one with the hole twice as deep as it should have been… would be at some disadvantage compared to the others… the “properly done” others. But, time would tell…

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Well, time DID tell, as that end bush went absolute hog wild. It grew 2 or 3 times faster than any other bush. It yielded easily 3 times as many roses. The rose border were “creeping” variety, that I intended to support into a living rose “fence”, and this bush was simply astonishing in its growth and beauty. Wonderful!

Now, come winter, rose bushes are supposed to be “pruned”. Purists will tell you to cut them back to the main stalk and stem… remove all the little dependent tributaries and leave just the central stalk.

Well, that always seemed “cruel” to me, so I wouldn’t do it. I would nip off the small, weak twiglets… but I left a rather “bushlike” semblance of the plant to stand through the winter. Each spring I got a very adequate growth of roses, though my “wildly ambitious” bush at the front managed to settle down across the years to a more reasonable yield.

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But then, came the elk…

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One year, we had a very hard winter. Lots of snow, lots of ice, lots of frozen… not much greenery. Fall had ended early, spring began late, and wildlife had to hustle to make it through. That winter we saw more cougar tracks across the yard than usual, and we kept the dog in more than we normally did. The elk were with us more frequently than usual that winter… like every other day, rather than every 3 days.

And then it happened! (*insert dramatic organ chord here*)…

I drove in one evening, and my headlights flashed through the place my special rosebush should have been… and it WASN’T THERE! I stopped the car, right there in the cold, and the snow, and the elk… and everything! I was angry! My BUSH was GONE!

I had grabbed my flashlight (you always carry a flashlight, in fact a spotlight, in your car when you have to navigate elk herds on a regular basis in the nighttime) (betcha didn’t know that, didja? See what tidbits you can pick up here?) Anyway, I could see masses of hoofprints all over the snow here, and they led up along to the rose bushes… closer to the house than the elk had ever come before… and they had EATEN my ROSES! All that remained were some pitiful little gnawed, splintered, stubs… poking up out of the snow!

I was FURIOUS! My ROSES! Those mangy, hairy, overgrown antlered beasts had assaulted my ROSES! (It had been a long day, folks.) Anyway, I went on inside, cursing elk from now til kingdom come, and grieving my ex-rosebushes. Winter eventually gave way to spring.

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That spring, planning and budgeting to replace these rose-corpses, rather than expand the line of border, the most astonishing thing happened…

They resurrected. That is to say, they grew. But they not only grew, they GREW! They Exploded! The gnawed, splintered little stubs burst forth with new growth the like of which I had never imagined! As if struck by some alien life-ray, they burst forth sooner, stronger, more fruitful, more beautiful, than they had ever been or I had ever dreamed possible…

Over time, I realized… “pruning”. The Elk had “pruned” the rose bushes. They had done what I, in my misplaced compassion and personal judgment, could not. They severely cut back all the dead and unnecessary wastage on these plants, leaving them only with their vibrant central heart… and when the time and conditions were right… life burst forth in beautiful expression.

I forgave the Elk. I thanked the Elk.

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Today, Paulfg posted “Your relationship with me,” and discusses “pruning” as he looked at John 15:1-8.

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. John 15:1-8

It made me think of my elk and my roses.

And “become my disciples” made me think of…

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” [John 13:34-35]

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My rose bushes flourished because they were “pruned”. They “gave themselves away” to “feed the elk”. I’m not saying the roses MEANT to do that… but it’s just what happened. The elk ATE, CONSUMED the rose creatures, and so the rose creatures flourished.

Jesus says we are to “love” without recompense. We are to love as HE loves, without regard for whether He, or we, get love back in return. We are to give ourselves away. Unless we eat His body and drink His blood… We are to offer our bodies a living and holy sacrifice…

Here’s a great, and yet tremendously joyful, mystery, Gentle Reader.

We bear the more fruit, the more richly we are given away. The Father becomes the more Radiant as we bear the more fruit, as we benefit from the explosion of Life within us, Him within us… as we give ourselves away and become the more disciple, We show ourselves to be disciples, we are recognized (by others) to be disciples, by the quantity and quality of our love, as we love others.

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Bah! Sometimes words so seem to get in my way… But it’s all “connections”, it’s all “relationship”, it’s all “Love”.

The more of Him we “give away” to others (the more light we “refract”)… the stronger our connection with Him becomes. The more secure and solid it becomes. Because the “mystery” part is that, like electricity, the “power” can only exist “in motion”, not in a static state.

Even elk and bushes, on some creation-fundamental level, realize this.

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God doesn’t “prune” because He’s “mean”, or because “it will hurt”, or even to cut away the useless and dead. God “prunes” only when He MUST, to stimulate growth. When we willingly “give ourselves away”… when we love freely… when we embrace one another… when we “do the works of the Father” and work His will… just loving and encouraging one another without malice, selfishness, judgment, arrogance… then we lose ourselves and our egos in Him and in one another, and there’s little left for Him to cut away.

It’s just all so wondrous! He is ever about revealing Himself in what I suspect is His Favorite Name… Even elk and bushes get it… Our Father, the Giver of Life through Love! His favorite thing…

 
 

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Journey – Spring Cleaning

Desert CaravanAs we approach the halfway point of our journey, my packs are getting a bit lighter. It’s as if the smaller “easy stuff” has gone by the wayside, but the deeper encumbrances are more of a challenge to dig out.

It seems an appropriate time to just sit a moment and ask, “what are we doing here? Really?”

I mean, yes, here we are in “Lent” and all… and so we’re “giving up” stuff… Right… but… but really… WHY?

Is there anything innately “meritorious” about “giving up stuff”? I mean, are we supposed to “impress God” with our “strength of character”, by giving stuff up in this season? Is that what it’s all about?

Of course, when I was quite small I was in a part of the country where most of my classmates were either Roman Catholic or Jewish. (I was actually quite jealous of them… Catholic students got a “half day” of school every Wednesday for “Release Time”, when they went to Church for religious instruction. Jewish Students got like twelve additional “holidays” off school for a variety of their religious observances. It just didn’t hardly seem fair!)

I remember “Lent” quite distinctly, for as Ash Wednesday approached, one of the hottest of conversation topics was… “What are YOU giving up?” There were the “good kids”, from the “proper” homes, who boringly gave up really cool stuf… Ice Cream, Chocolate, Comic Books, one most heroic ascetic actually admitted he was going to give up Television!

Among my own personal CIRCLE of friends, more “creative” choices were likely. Friends who chose to give up things like… homework, liver, vegetables… And, my personal favorite, the young man who tried to swear off “baths” for 40 days. He regretfully reported that he could not sell his parents on this sacrifice.

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Of course, my playmates and friends had rather missed the point of the exercise. Many of their examples are simply funny… and I tell these stories here (true stories, btw!)… to share the humor. HOWEVER…….. I’m not sure most adults, religiously sincere beloved people, who engage in Lenten Fasting aren’t themselves just about as confused regarding “what’s it all about?”

Now, I truly want to be careful here. I am NOT being critical of the theology or dogmas of others. I have mine. You have yours. God blesses piety as expression of love for Him. It is vastly above my pay grade, here or anywhere else, to engage in “comparative religions class”. That’s NOT what this is about.

But a meaningful point to look at here… is “Penance”.

Now, before anyone gears up for dispute… (we’re NOT going to go reaching for our spiders or scorpions here… lol)... I’m about to express some principles I have been taught and believe to be true in and of my own background. The fact that these may be principles of worship or piety, does not mean that they are “exclusively true”. That is, just because these may be valuable principles for me in my own prayer life, that does not mean that they are universal… or that if you live by OTHER principles, I imply that you and yours are wrong. Not at all.

Right…

So, I think one of the major “disconnects” among worship cultures such as the Liturgical and the Evangelical, is on this issue of “Penance”, and “formalized contrition”. This tension becomes apparent in consideration of “Confession” or the “Rite of Reconciliation” leading towards sacramental Absolution. It also emerges to a lesser extent in the issues of Fasting, or Lenten or Advent preparations for Easter or Christmas.

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” [1 John 1:9]

I’ve really struggled with how to say this next part without getting all bogged down in theology or comparative religion. I guess I’ll just say it, lay it out there on the table, let ya’ll poke and prod at it to your heart’s content, and have done.

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The underlying and mistaken belief of my childhood friends regarding Lent was that it was a season to “do penance”, to suffer, to endure deprivation or perform a sacrifice, to pay for sin and wrongdoing in their lives. It contained a grounding principle that implied Jesus’ need for them to add something more, some degree of “punishment”, to THEIR lives… in order to be clean and purified from sin before God.

This SPECIFIC outlook was itself grounded in a broader worldview that because of our frailties, fallenness, and sins… we are not only unworthy, but UNABLE, to stand transparently and directly before Holy God. That we can only approach Him in a “grovelling, penitent” posture. That, therefore, if we hope to approach God in a near and intimate way at Easter, we must “purify ourselves” all the more strongly through Lenten sacrifice. So, the more horrid one’s Lent, the more joyful and blessed one’s Easter. This is a transaction with God.

THIS is grounded on an even more fundamental belief, usually left unspoken and  unexamined, that the experience of the Immediate and Intimate Presence of God… is to be dreaded as something that will fill us with fear, shame, and guilt. That we worship a “joyless” God, who cannot wait to catch us out and point to all our shortcomings.

Here’s a great commentary on that: A Mardi Gras Season Thought

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But here, today, at this “halfway point” of our Journey through Lent, I would like even to go a bit past that author’s point, past our typical understandings of Lent, past the usual views whether Liturgical OR Evangelical…

What if Lent… indeed what if ALL “Penance”… were nothing more nor less than, “The grand celebration of our freedom from tyranny… even the ultimate tyranny of ourselves.”

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh,for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.” [2 Corinthians 10:3-6]

“Taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ…”

HERE, it seems, is a meaningful reflection of “penance”.

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Penance is NOT “punishment for sin”. That was already taken care of, in vastly more capable hands than ours. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” [2 Corinthians 5:12]. “By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” [1 John 4:17-18]

Often, Penance is a gestural representation of sorrow and repentance Like one may send a card or give a gift to represent love and esteem on a holiday, the gift given is a “token of representation”. The gift is not designed to “assign value”, or “pay for” the value of the relationship. It is a “gesture”, not the measure of one’s weight in gold or silver. We can affirm our entering into the joy of an occasion (say a birthday, wedding, or anniversary), through offering a gesture of gift.

Penance can be a “gift of godly sorrow”, in the sense that Paul says here…

I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter.” [2 Corinthians 7:9-11]

It’s important here, I think, to distinguish this from a very wrong type of repentance and penance… that which tries to “fix it all”, and “undo the wrong”. This is the repentance of Judas… which flat doesn’t work.

Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ But they said, ‘What is that to us? See to that yourself!’ And he threw the pieces of silver into the temple sanctuary and departed; and he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests took the pieces of silver and said, ‘It is not lawful to put them into the temple treasury, since it is the price of blood.’ And they conferred together and with the money bought the Potter’s Field as a burial place for strangers. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.” [Matthew 27:3-7]

See that huge difference? I mean, beyond Judas’ suicide, of course. Repentance for Paul is “FORWARD LOOKING”… it is to set a new and more loving godly direction for present and future action. One acknowledges failure of the past, but only for the purpose of present gratitude for grace and future increase in love and godliness. Judas’ remorse however, his “sorrow that leads to death” as Paul would phrase it, is “BACKWARD LOOKING”. It is fixated and obsessed with the wrongful act, seeks to reverse the act, to make reparation and restore the status quo ante. Forgiveness is sought from man, not God. And… bottom line… it doesn’t work. (Far too many Christians get themselves caught in this trap, by the way.)

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So right here, at what has been our halfway point of this journey, I wanted to state “why I am here”, and invite your comments to do the same.

It’s so simple….

A while back, I came to realize that “I am a Temple”. Not just my “body” or my “soul”, but my ME. My Life. My Being. My Self. I have been fashioned in the very Image of God, with a destiny to house Him and His love and authority in their fullness.

I am the “Keeper”, the “Custodian” of this Temple. I can choose to take into it what I wish, store it as I wish, and keep this environment orderly or messy, as I choose. I can “construct and configure” it as I choose. My free will manages this environment with little constraint. But there’s only so much “room”. I have only so much “attention” and “consciousness” to offer.

If I become a “spiritual hoarder”, an “emotional cripple”, clinging to every shadow and illusion that moves me deeply… I will have no room, no freedom, no space, no attention… with which to receive and house Almighty God in all His Magnificence.

For me, Lent is simply “Spring Cleaning”. Here is this wonderful time available to move through my House, room by room, finding “false treasures” that I thought had value for me… and sweep them away to make room for True Treasure.

Is this “Penance”? Well, I suppose… to the extent that I yet experience foolish desire and attachment to issues, feelings, habits, attitudes that have no truth to them… just by my own habit or willfulness. But if casting away that delicious poison tests my integrity… well GOOD! It’s a good thing for me to “flex those muscles” from time to time.

As I said… Penance? Token gift of affirmation, gratitude, and agreement with the grace and forgiveness of God. But ALSO, a grand celebration of my own freedom from tyranny… even the tyranny of my own appetites and foolishness.

I love being “free in Christ”! How about you?

 

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The Journey

Sunrise CrossTherefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. [Hebrews 12:1-2 ]

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Remember, O man, that: “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

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These words, these Garden Farewell words, open Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.These were the last words we heard from the lips of God as we were clothed by His compassion, and sent forth from our access to the Tree of Life so that we did not destroy ourselves further.

Gentle Reader, if you come here often, you know that this blog is, in part, an “Experimental Laboratory” of prayer, and that together we explore new and different avenues for the experience of the Holy Spirit teaching and guiding.

The Lord is challenging me this year, as in some (not all) past years, to journey through the next 40 days towards Resurrection Sunday (Easter), in a special way. That I will discover something new and wondrous when I reach the Empty Tomb that day.

Every other time I have made this journey (sometimes terrifying or grief-filled, btw), I have traveled this road alone, or with one other for protection. This year, I invite companions, that we make each our OWN journeys, but we can do that in company if you would care to travel together.

We are headed from our homes to Jerusalem for the Passover Celebration at the Temple, before the Ark, at the Holy of Holies. I go to present my gift. I shall come away with Greater gift. I know this, for so it has ever been. But I do not present mine IN ORDER TO receive.

That is important. I do not invite you on a “Trade Caravan”. I invite you on a “Pilgrimage”.

If you would like to come along, to join this caravan, then welcome to you. Feel free to pitch your tent over there for tonight, and tie your camel or donkey up yonder. Enjoy the time, the company, and the food.

This should be a very interesting trip.

Blessings and grace to thee — The Little Monk

 

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