The Parable of the Twins: A Holy Week Reflection

“Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard,
neither has there entered into the heart of man,
the things God has prepared for them that love Him.”  (1 Corinthians 2:9)

In Our Greatest Gift (Harper One, 2009, pp. 18-19), Henri Nouwen imagines twins talking to each other in their mother’s womb—discussing the notion of life after birth.  A version of the story which I received and modified goes like this:

Once upon a time there were twin boys who were conceived in the same womb.

Weeks passed and the twins developed. As their awareness grew, they laughed for joy: “Isn’t it great! Isn’t it great to be alive in here?! Isn’t it great that -we were conceived?!” Together those twins explored their world. When they found their mother’s cord which gave them life, they sang for joy: “How great is our mother’s love that she shares her own life with us!” And again the celebration continued.

As weeks stretched into months, though, the twins noticed how much each other was changing.

“What does it mean?,” asked one of them.

“It means our stay it this world is drawing to an end,” said the other.

“But I don’t want to go!,” said the one. “I want to stay here always!”

“Aw, we have no choice,” said the other. “But, maybe there’s life after birth.”

“Oh, but how can there be?” whined the first. “We will shed our life cord. And how is life possible without it? Besides, we’ve never seen evidence of life after birth. I mean, there’s evidence all around us of others who were here before us, but none of them returned to tell us that there’s life after birth. Oh, this is the end… If conception ends at birth, what is the purpose of life in the womb? It’s meaningless… Maybe there’s no mother after all!”

“But there has to be,” said the other. “How else did we get here? How do we remain alive?”

“Have you ever seen your mother?” asked the first. “Maybe she only lives in our minds. Maybe we just made her up because the idea made us feel good.”

And so, their last days in the womb were filled with deep questioning and fear.

parable twinsBut, finally,
the moment of birth arrived. And when
the twins had passed from their old world, their eyes were opened.
They cried.
For what they saw exceeded their fondest dreams and wildest imaginings.

And tenderly,
oh so tenderly,
their mother cradled them in her arms.

Among other things,
I am stuck by the relative terms
by which we frame life and living, birth and dying.
The radical adjustments which a newborn makes:
these we can choose to define as “birth.”
The radical adjustments which we make
on the way from this world to the next:
these we choose to define as “dying.”

For my part, I hate to separate the two:
my birth demands my dying,
my dying invites new birth.
It’s the tale of the newborn.
It is the profound mystery of Lent and Easter.

Lent’s Invitation to “Trust in the Slow Work of God”

trust slow work

Sue Monk Kidd calls it “quickaholic spirituality”—the notion, amplified in and by a culture of instant gratification, that there ought to be some drive-thru or microwave (some kind of abbreviated path or recipe) by which we can arrive at spiritual maturity without all the starts and stops and sputters and frustrations and delays.

It’s among the things we addressed at a recent exploration on spiritual formation “gleanings” from the Life of Jesus at First United Methodist Church in Somerville, Texas.  The disciples, we affirmed (and Paul and the Church portrayed in the Book of Acts): they all evolved and matured over the course of a lifetime in this world.  We ought to expect and accept the same for ourselves.  There are no shortcuts when it comes to growing up in (and into) Christ.

It brings to mind one of my favorite stories or metaphors for seasons of spiritual waiting and preparation—like Lent:

A man (convalescing and confined to bed for some time) passed a few of his days, in part, by watching the progress of a caterpillar unto cocoon on the window frame next to his nightstand.  Finally, the day of emerging came with its drawn out struggle.  Thinking he could help things out (as the creature seemed stuck at a certain point), the man took a pair of scissors and gingerly snipped–  hoping to widen the opening, easing the struggle, facilitating freedom.  So, he thought and hoped.

Sadly, though, the butterfly fell to the sill, swollen and limp — eventually to wither and die there.

The struggle of the emergence, it seems, was and is crucial for precious life juices to make their way into the wings so that they can take full shape—so that the butterfly can take flight!

The messages are clear for me, dear Friends.  We evolve.  There are no short-cuts.  And further: those times of adversity and hardship that we’d love to bypass?  They, too, have their place and meaning and value.

Maybe Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. (1881-1955) put it best when he wrote…

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

Lent’s Invitation to Chocolat

chocolat.jpgChocolat (released in 2000) is the story of a chocolatier who upsets the rigid morality of a rural village in France during Lent.  By movie’s end, we affirm that giving up chocolate for Lent is easy.  It’s the deeper attitudes and prejudices and dispositions of our hearts, however, which we ought to be focusing our attention.  (And, then, there’s the whole notion of Lent waking up our dormant, God-given passions!)

Like Les Miserables, the storyline is populated by Judeo-Christian archtypes: the wind of the Spirit, a Christ figure, broken “sinners” whose biggest “sin” is their brokenness, a Pharisee,…  Christian as the worldview of the film may be, its truths are friendly for all and universal.  (There are ways that my non-religious and nominally religious friends might enjoy it more, in fact—for all the ways it jabs at the foolishness of organized religion.  Many of these folks, you see, love Jesus.  They just can’t stand his “bride,” the Church [or, at least local expressions of it]!  Have to admit, I can often understand where they are coming from!)

A few years ago, I produced a video using clips from the movie—highlighting the meaning of Holy Communion.  By tweaking it (with legalistic scenes/characters in black in white and graceful scenes in color), I added my own touch: hopefully adding to the message that God’s hope and plan in the Gospel and in Holy Communion and in Easter is to call us from our black and white existence into a full color experience!

I hope you’ll enjoy this venture in “visio divina” or “cinema divina.”  I encourage you to secure a copy of the larger film and have a movie night with your family or small group.  It’s bound to stimulate some meaningful conversation!  (Discussions guides abound out there, by the way — including this one from Union Presbyterian Seminary, entitled “Chocolat:  Questions for Theological Conversation.”)

[Chocolat, by the way, is an example of the kind of films we engage in the Exploration which is “Reel Theology: Focused Discussions at Intersection of Hollywood and Divine.”]

Lent’s Invitation to Being “Lifted Up”

Lent is a good time to take inventory of the rhythms of our lives and living – including and particularly the fundamental movements and rituals of our spiritual lives.

It’s among the things we discuss in the exploration entitled “Developing a Rule for Faithful Living.”  In addition to surveying the history of such “rules” across time, we discuss the ways we moderns might develop and benefit from a formal and intentional definition of the fundamental habits/practices we’d seek to observe and cultivate—on a daily, weekly, monthly, annual basis.

I recall a Bible Study in which I mentioned St. Benedict’s Rule and other similar covenants/guides as examples of how individuals and congregations might structure their devotional expectations and hopes. One attendee vehemently railed against such a notion. In effect, she said, “I’ve just now [after quite a good time] found freedom in Christ! The last thing I want or need is another set of oughts and shoulds!” For her, any talk of “rule” was a regression into legal codes and foreboding lists of dos and don’ts.  In it’s extreme, her concerns are those of the Reformers—that we are saved by “Christ alone through Faith alone in Grace alone as revealed through Scripture alone.” Sola Christo, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura.  For such, there is no need for “rules.”

But, such a rendering of “rule” is overblown—denying a key paradox of our faith. For truly, our salvation, our healing is a matter of faith and works! To be sure: our works do not make us right with God (that’s the Grace which demands our faith!). However, there can be no doubting that our being right with God makes for works (outward signs of the operation of that inner Grace)!

At this point, it’s helpful to recall the origins of that word, “rule.”  According to Peter Scazzero (and others), the root of the ancient Greek word is the word for ”trellis”—the frame which assists the best development of a plant under the watchful eye, sensitive heart, and keen mind of a skilled gardener. Far from being a rigid code of legalistic laws, the rule as trellis aligns and synchronizes a host of sacred dispositions, principles, and “means of grace” through which the Master Gardener fortifies our abiding in Christ and, thereby, our fruitfulness.

At the expense of getting too wordy: here, I believe, a word (or the refreshing of a word) from John 15 is helpful. Too often we’re used to seeing John 15:1-2 translated: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me that bears no fruit He cuts off, while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” vine rockNo big problem, in some ways, about such a translation. (In fact, I have preached it before: “I heard it through the grapevine… that you’re bound to get cut!”) More accurately, though (to the Greek and to other New Testament uses of the word,… and to the nature of a gardener consumed with maximum fruit yield), it’s more accurate to translate the word behind “cuts off” (in the Greek, “airo”) as “lifts up”—rendering the verses more accurately as: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the Vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He lifts up…” Apparently, God is more interested in a trellis than he is with loping shears!

Here, I can not help but inject a helpful word from Sr. Joan Chittister (from her Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today) in which she unpacks the meaning of the Latin root of the word, “regula:”

The Rule of Benedict, in fact, is not a rule at all, in the modern sense of that word. Where “rule” is interpreted to mean controls or laws or demands, the Rule of Benedict does not qualify for that category. On the contrary. The Rule of Benedict is simply a plan of life, a set of principles that is clearly meant to be nearer to the original meaning of the Latin word regula, or guide, than to the concept lex, or law. Law is what we have come to expect from religion; direction is what we need. Regula, the word now translated to mean “rule,” in the ancient sense meant “guidepost” or “railing,” something to hang on to in the dark, something that leads in a given direction, something that points out the road, something that gives us support as we climb….(p. 7)

Truth is, every Believer has a rule or trellis for life and living.  (Even the lady I mentioned above [who railed against the notion of a rule], for example, had her rhythm of weekly worship and Bible study and piano playing which she would never consider adjusting.)   I’d go so far as to say every human being has some rule which frames his/her life and living. Yes, each and all of us has some kind of formal or informal, conscious or unconscious rule or rhythm to which we adhere in the hopes that it will prop and lift us up.

The real question (or questions) for us all, then, are:
* To what attitudes and rhythms of life are you habitually giving yourself?
* Of these, which are lifting you up?
* Are any holding you back—or grounding you in anything less than the Divine?

A Longing for Home

A host of streams have converged – setting me on a pilgrimage to my true, authentic self in God.  (I reflect upon these streams — and encourage others to do the same for themselves—in that Zoe-Life Exploration which is “Homecoming: A Journey to the Heart of the Gospel… and Our ‘True Selves.’”)

Among these streams has been a deep longing for home–a place of belonging, a place of authenticity.

I’ve always been a nostalgic personality – deriving great pleasure in reminiscing about former, idyllic times and places and people.  Scenes from Cumberland, Maryland especially come to mind here.  Both sets of grandparents lived there.  No matter how many times we’d move (because of Dad’s work with Shell Oil Company), Cumberland was a permanent home base.  It’s where my parents and siblings and I would always return for summer vacation — for three to four weeks, each year, up until I was age 13.  There was a romantic aura surrounding those days and that place: Dad was ours completely (for whole days and weeks!), cousin time, meals galore, evenings (visiting… and just sitting) on front porches,…

cumberlandWhen I returned there after a break of several decades, I found myself running all over the area.  I was in a frenzy to visit all the old haunts – clicking pictures at a furious rate.  Amidst it all, there was an inner feeling – really a compulsion of sorts – that seemed to be telling me that, if I looked hard enough, I was going to find or recapture something I had lost there.

It wasn’t until recently that I learned that nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos ‘return home’ + algos ‘pain.’  Nostalgia is quite literally the “pain we feel to return home.”  It helps me to make sense of the feelings I have had for Cumberland… and recent times of returning there  Clear to me now is the understanding that I had not lost anything in Cumberland as much as I had lost something in the years that Cumberland was so important to me.  Cumberland was but a surface expression of —  a symbol for – the deeper pain I was feeling to “come home.”

I don’t think I am alone in this longing, this “homesickness.”  We may look for it in different places – and people and pursuits – but we’re all looking.

Rod Dreher discusses it in his book, How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem:

There is a word for this thing I feel, this desire that has defined the coming and going of my life, both on the map and in the landscape of my heart…  I knew now, from reading Dante, that I suffered from what the Welsh call hiraeth (pronounced “hear-wreth”), a boundless longing for a home from which you have been exiled, an unsatisfiable yearning for a home that may never have existed…  (pp. 258-259).

There is a remedy for this homesickness, I am convinced.  Dreher points to it – as did Augustine and Dante and so many poets and Saints across the ages.  Ultimately, you see, it’s a hunger and yearning for God… and the things of God.  It is, as Fr. Anthony Coniaris writes, a “homesickness for God.”  And finding God (and life and living in God) and letting God find us is, I am convinced, the cure.

In my “gropings” for home, Cumberland was, for many years, as close as I came to experiencing the real thing.  It will forever hold a special place in my mind and heart.  Greater, though, is my deep gratitude for a real home that is out there (and within) – a home for which Cumberland is but a shadow.