Paul in Greece

"Hanging from Nowhere" with the Monks

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No one wanted to climb the rock but me. It was getting dark, and everyone was tired. But, really? Didn’t they see how glorious it was, how compelling? The pyramid shape, the rocky ledges, the ancient crumbling fort on its summit? Finally, I won. We tied on our sneakers and set off.

It was indeed magically majestic, and worthy of our efforts.

 

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Who can resist a mountain? For the ancients, mountain tops meant protection, domination, victory, safety.

For others, mountain summits evoke worship.  Never have I seen so many crosses atop mountains as I have in Greece.

 

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This week, we stayed in Meteora, surrounded by a bowl of mountains and monoliths laid bare. It’s a holy place, say all the books. And so say the generations of monks and nuns who have made these rocks their perch and their home since the 11th century. Their impossible home. But chosen, for many, to be closer to God.

 

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At one time there were thirty monasteries here in Meteora, (which means “hanged from nowhere”). Some were only accessible by rope ladder, by net (hauled up by a giant hook). The very presence of these buildings and the monks and nuns who inhabit them is miraculous.

 

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The day we hiked from the village to the summit of one monastery, I admit it. As I climbed the switchbacks for an hour, wending high and higher, until emerging into the stone steps chisled out of a massive monolith, as I ascended a steep half tunnel and suddenly emerged in a stone house among the clouds, heaven felt near.  The icons in the chapel were stunning. The quiet, overwhelming. The reverence, palpable. I lit a candle. I prayed. I envied the two monks who call this home. I wanted to stay.

 

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I wanted to step away from the buzzing human hive and hang from the sky this way, suspended in prayer. Imagine. No braying news hounds. no politicians, no freeways. No internet. no noise. Just me. And God.

 

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But I know the truth about myself, and maybe everyone else. All of us, even the inhabitants of high castles and underground caves are a confusing blend of God-hunger and self-satisfaction, purity and jealousy, holiness and selfishness.

 

 I live every summer on a far north island Alaskan island off an island.  I know the truth about it, that ultimately retreat from the world is retreat from others.

 

And I know too If my own soul state is my sole concern, and if I think I will be holier, purer for my remove from people, I am in error. I am as polluted as anyone else, and the cure is not isolation but God and neighbor-immersion.

 When we let the world shrink to one, we can believe that in caring for ourselves we are caring for the  world . ..

 

 

In Paul’s Mars Hill address to the Athenians he spoke the truth, that God’s desire is that men and women

“would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.”

 

He is not far from any of us. We don’t have to chisel stone steps up a thousand foot monolith. We don’t have to be hoisted to a cloister in the clouds to find him. He is here, in the world he created and still reigns over. He has come down to us.

Close your eyes right now, or open them, and you will find him.

 

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After the Tsunami, Guarding Our Treasure

OR---A god No One Could Make Up

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We are in Meteora, Greece. Today, we were ready to go out and explore these holy monoliths and monasteries when we got word of the 7.9 earthquake off Kodiak, Alaska (our home sweet home). The Tsunami sirens went off all around town, waking people from their beds. All of the town in low-lying areas evacuated to higher ground.

I wanted to be there. Our house sits on a cliff over the ocean. Last week a window blew out in 100 mph winds. This week, a major quake a full minute long shook and rattled our home. What about our treasures? The only thing I care about is the dozens of albums of babies smeared with spaghetti and the journals and scrapbooks filled with decades of memories. What would happen to my treasures?

 

 

I am learning a lot about riches and treasure here in Greece. I had forgotten that the most famous structure in the world was built to house one particular treasure. 

 

 

(The advantage of traveling Greece in the winter: there's hardly anyone else here!)

(The advantage of traveling Greece in the winter: there's hardly anyone else here!)

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 This marvel of human engineering that has withstood more than two millennia was constructed to house the goddess Athena, the goddess of wisdom, of military victory and the patron deity of Athens. At one end of the colossal interior stood a 36 foot statue of Athena set atop a 12 foot pedestal. The statue was fashioned from a core of wood then covered in ivory and gold. Anyone who stood before her size and splendor would have felt as small and insignificant as a gnat.

 

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She was their treasure! But no one was allowed inside this monumental structure to see her. Only the priest was allowed to enter the sanctuary of the Parthenon to offer sacrifices, and then only once a year.

The Parthenon was built not only to inspire devotion from Athenians, but as a warning to potential enemies: “Don’t mess with us. We’re guarded by the goddess of war and victory!”

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The gods that man imagined and fashioned were gilt, remote, violent, inapproachable, selfish, demanding sacrifices and constant obeisance, inspiring fear.

Four hundred years later, the Apostle Paul stood in the mighty shadow of the Parthenon, on Mars Hill, speaking of another kind of God, a god

who does not dwell in temples made with hands;  nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things."

 

Who is THIS God? He is a God no one could dream up, who came as the most vulnerable creature possible----an infant, birthed through the body of an obscure teenage girl in a barn among beasts of burden. A baby who mewled, puked, cried, and soiled himself.  The Greeks nor the Romans could not have conceived of such an entrance for any god, let alone the God of All Things.

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And this God came not to be served or feared. He did not ask people to bow down to him. He did not require a pedestal, the highest hill in the city, a throne. He did not ask that people come to him. He went to them. He went where the people lived and worked.

And showed he was God not by his power in war or his ability to intimidate, but by his ability to love, a love so powerful it brought freedom from sickness, hunger, disease, loneliness, guilt, ignorance, even death.  

But there is more. Something that almost couldn’t be believed.

This God not only dared to come as a baby, and dared to serve rather than to be served; he chose to come yet nearer: he chose in live not inside massive unapproachable monuments of marble, but inside     

us.

 

Perhaps Paul was thinking of the thousands of shrines and temples that housed the Greeks gilt gods when he wrote,

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay  . .. "

 

That's us, ordinary jars of clay, the most common of household articles: disposable, susceptible to cracking and shattering  

 

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 yet, we carry within us a treasure that can't be weighed or measured: "the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." 

 

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"We have this treasure in jars of clay . ... the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."  St. Paul, 2 Cor. 4

 

 

I have more ancient cities to tour this week: Thessaloniki and Phillippi. But I will remember as I survey the temples and ruins,

This is the kind of God we serve: one who has chosen US as His temple.

He is our treasure.

And---we are His. 

 

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