Sir Gawain and the Green Knight teach us about shame and grace

Synopsis

For those of you unfamiliar with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, let me fill you in on the romantic journey of the most honest and courteous knight of King Arthur’s round table.  Imagine this: King Arthur and his court are about to start their New Year’s feast when an impressive knight, entirely green including his horse, rides into the hall.  He says something along the lines of “remain calm.”  He holds an axe in one hand.  “I don’t wanna fight.”  He  challenges the court to a “Christmas game”, to strike him once with the axe with the condition that in a year he must strike back.  So Arthur rises to the challenge, but Sir Gawain volunteers to take his place.  He swings the ax and slices the Green Knights head off clean.  The Green Knight picks up his head and rides off saying, “See ya in a year”.  Soon, Gawain must brave the adventure to the Green Chapel where he will take a blow to the neck, but not before he faces temptation, three times by a beautiful lady in the Green Castle.  In the end, Gawain acquires a green girdle from Lady Bertilak; she claims the girdle will protect him.  He, fearing his life, hides the girdle from the master of the house, Sir Bertilak, to whom he has promised all that he gains during his stay in the Green Castle.

You've been punked.

You’ve been punked.

The day has finally arrived and Sir Gawain ties a girdle around his waist and goes to meet the Green Knight.  After all is said and done, Sir Gawain comes out of it with only a small wound on his neck.  “You’ve been punked,” says GK who it turns out is also Sir Bertilak.  “This was all a test on your integrity.”  Sir Gawain is overwhelmingly ashamed.  “Haha, don’t worry about it,” says GK, “At least you’re not a womanizer.  You did all this to protect your life.  And besides you confessed, so I forgive you.  It’s all forgotten.”  But Sir Gawain says, “I suck at life.  I can’t believe I did that.  I’m a coward.”  He goes back to Arthur’s court where he is greeted with kisses and pats on the shoulder while he broods, “I’m such a loser.  I can never forgive myself.”  And then they all laugh, eat and drink and wear green girdles around their necks as symbols of Sir Gawain’s adventure.

What’s the point?

Sir Gawain is suppose to be the most humble and honest of the Round Table.  Everyone respects him and praises him and when they do he responds, “I’m not that great.”  He sets the bar up pretty high for all the Knights at the Round Table including himself.  This is not a bad thing.  The problem is that his identity rests solely on his ability not to fall into temptation.   This is why he cannot accept the grace offered to him by the Green Knight when he fails.  His disappointment comes from the fact that he lost his integrity.

Perhaps, this has happened to you.  You made a mistake and return to God with head hung low and a wound on your neck.  And he says to you, “I do not keep a record of wrongs.  My love never fails.  You are clean despite all odds because of what Christ has done.” And you respond, “I can’t believe I did that.  I can never forgive myself.”  Don’t think for a second, that this response is a humble one.  Instead, step down from your high horse and accept the grace of God.  Let him welcome you into his arms and teach you to walk in his ways.

Two Quotes

I leave you with the following quotes which I feel apply to my life. I hope that you find truth here as well.  To read them in context, just click the quote.

1: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”
2: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

Grown-up?

I’m not sure if the kids at my church understand that I am technically an adult and not just a larger version of a kid. It doesn’t matter I guess. I like pretending. I’ll humor them, like they humor grown-ups, like I humor grown-ups too.

“You’re under arrest,” transformers t-shirt, age 5, tells me. He wraps my hairband around my wrists like handcuffs.
“Why?” I ask.
“You gotta come with me,” he says. With all his authority, he takes me to the small scale replica of noah’s ark which doubles as a prison cell and library.
“You stay here and you don’t come out”
“I demand a lawyer.” I pound at the imaginary bars. Pretending is a serious act. You gotta play by the rules.
This is the playground. The place where life is lived, where scenes are built, where stories are created. Here is the kitchen where tony the tiger t-shirt, age 4, brews invisible coffee and pours out an empty cup (“Be careful. It’s hot.”) for me to sip with a satisfactory, “AHh!” at the end.
“What are you doing outside your cell,” asks transformers, pulling me off of a teeny yellow chair. He looks at tony the tiger in the eye, “she’s gotta go to jail.”
They are little actors in a self-directed drama.

“What does it take to be a grown-up?” I ask you in the international lounge on a Friday. I’m humoring you. Perhaps, I think I’m wiser, older. I’m wrong on both accounts of course.
You say, “You gotta know how to handle kids.”
“You gotta know how to change a tire,” I offer. “Do you?”
“Yeah of course,” you say, “You gotta exercise and eat and sleep right.”
I nod.
“You gotta…manage your finances.”
This doesn’t sound as much fun as my nights in the nursery. I think about our conversation much deeper into the night and dream about it a bit. I suppose, I’ll have to live it all out at some point. After a brief three months, I’ll have to act in my own little drama called, “Life after Hope.” Pretending works for the kids at the nursery. Through story-telling, they learn how to play by the rules, how the “real” world works. Can’t I do the same?

My roommate wakes me up the next morning too early to go sledding, but, after a couple of runs, my adrenaline is pumping. I spin a couple times down the hill. I think, this ought to be on the checklist. I fall over and climb back up the hill. That’s when we bump into each other, and I say, “In order to be a grown-up, you gotta know when to be a kid.”

So humor the grown-ups, humor the kids, go ahead and humor yourself thinking you’re a grown-up. But know this: God is not done with us yet. Let him teach you about his world through everything: snow, stories and coffee mugs. In the time frame of eternity, we are all still crazy kids pretending to have it all together.

My Bro and Me

Hunger for Glory: Beowulf Dies on an Empty Stomach

Aside

“‘If more of us valued food, cheer and song above hoarded gold it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!'”
Thorin’s last words from The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkien

While the writer of Beowulf, a classic epic poem, intertwines heroic values and Christian values, the tension that these often contradictory values create does not threaten the overall integrity of the story. Although the Christian writer illustrates heroic values of glory, treasure and pride, he equally illustrates the ephemeral nature of life and thus questions the significance of these values.

The last three lines of the poem glorify Beowulf as a “man most gracious and fair-minded kindest to his people and keenest to win fame” (lines 3180-2). Beowulf had generously given to his subjects both kindness and riches which is clearly a Christian value. On the other hand, the later trait, his hunger for fame, taints the first. Humility would be the more Christian of traits for a king, but Beowulf does not appear to have a humble bone in his body.

Well, even if he did have one, all his bones were burned on his funeral pyre. Every battle in Beowulf’s past had climaxed to the final one with the dragon, a symbol of Beowulf’s burning hunger for glory.

Beowulf and the Dragon (J.R. Skelton, 1908)

Perhaps this hunger, this greed, points to something bigger.  Perhaps, like all humans, Beowulf longs for the eternal.   To quote C.S. Lewis, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”  Yet, Beowulf would die without the satisfaction of the knowledge of Christ.  Beowulf would sacrifice his life for earthly treasure  and afterward would be consumed by fire.  What use to man is a pile of gold and a chorus of exaltations once he is dead?  Can riches and respect defer the judgement of the Almighty?   All the ashes that were left were buried with the treasure “as useless to men now as it ever was” (line 3167).  With these words, the writer laments that the treasure was unworthy of Beowulf’s life.

Which brings us to another character from familiar story of a rich fool.  Jesus tells us about him in the 12th chapter of Luke.  The man can be commended for his shrewdness.  How many people could benefit from storing up treasure for many years to “relax, eat, drink and be merry”?  But God calls this man out, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you and the things you have prepared whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20).  In the same way, Beowulf faces death on an empty stomach.  “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (12:21).

Similar to The Hobbit’s hero Thorin, Beowulf is a noble character with both admirable qualities and tragic vices.  The integrity of the writer of Beowulf lies in the fact that he neither undermines the importance of heroic values to the protagonist nor does he neglect the futility behind the objects of his pursuit.  Let these men be like parables to all of us.  That we (myself included) may learn to give our lives for true gold that doesn’t perish.

Gospel for Extroverts and Introverts

For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. 2 Timothy 1:7

I learned to speak English at five-years-old. Everyone else in Miss. Denty’s Kindergarten class was fluent, but my family spoke only Spanish at home.  The only words I knew in English (“thank you”; “I love you”; “apples and bananas”) I learned from Barney a dinosaur in my imagination who I frequently watched on the t.v. It was a rough year. But I learned quickly because I was fearless and made many mistakes.  I was the loudest in the class when we learned the ABC’s, when we learned to read out-loud, when we sung songs about monkeys jumping on the bed.

Perhaps I was always an extrovert. But not all Latinas laugh loud and throw parties and make many mistakes (nor do all extroverts). My sister Karina is a thinker. Her mind is as vast as the sky. She says little to strangers, but once you gain her trust she’ll open up like a treasure box. If only you could see it, you wouldn’t believe the jewels before your eyes.

I once gave Karina 2 Timothy 1:7 like a one verse remedy for the introverted Christian. We prayed for boldness. I don’t take it back, but I do wonder if I’ve underestimated the way that God has created Karina, the way that God has created all introverts.

I recently saw a video based on the book Quiet by Susan Cain (click here to see video) that made me re-evaluate the value of strong personality in U.S. American culture and consequently the U.S. American Church.  We live in a society that encourages individuals to express their opinions in a loud voice.   However, when I went to Japan I realized my recklessness was a misrepresentation of Jesus, my boisterous songs were an annoyance to the salary man sitting beside me on the train, and the little Japanese I knew was inadequate for preaching the gospel. I didn’t know how to be a Christian in a society that valued silence.

I’m not saying that all Americans are aggressive nor that all Japanese are docile. However, there is a significant difference in our cultural values. Which one is right?  My mother tells me cada cabeza es un mundo, every head is a planet.  She means to point out the variety of people there are all around us. So the question is: are you an introvert or an extrovert, Lord Jesus? Or more importantly: How do we evangelize?

Matthew 4:19

God clearly wants all believers to give witness to the good news of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.  I’ve come to realize that you don’t always have to preach with a megaphone to your lips.  Sometimes you can preach in the intimacy of a friendship.    The best sermons are sometimes one on ones.  You don’t have to be in front of a sea of people to fish for men.

On the other hand, God loves to stretch us.  We are his children and he wants us to grow.  For some extroverts, this means learning to shut up and serve.  For some introverts, this means learning to speak up and lead.  Let’s not forget Moses, slow of speech and tongue, a man who God used to free the nation of Israel from slavery in Egypt.  The most important thing to remember is that God created us for his glory, and we each are important assets to the church.  Regardless of our different personalities we are all one in Christ.

Lastly, we have ALL been commissioned to go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  As we obey and walk in the Spirit of God, we will inevitably be fearless.  So don’t worry about mustering up courage on your own.

Just go fishing.

Dumpster Diving: The Make-Up of Stories and Dreams

I am one chapter into Robert Olen Butler’s book “From Where You Dream.” This is the first post I write among many about his sharp observations on the process of writing fiction.  Butler advises the aspiring writer to toss aside her ambition “to be the person on the dust jacket” (13). Trash the desire to be published! to be famous, to win a prize, to create art.

self explanatory 🙂

Instead, let the sensual experience of life teach you a little something about creation. The worst stories come from ideas: generalizations, abstractions, analysis. For a story to be real it must be experienced while it is written  like a dream. As new-agey as this is going to sound, bear with me, a story much be entered into like a house. You must find the door: what color is it? Wrap your hands around the handle, and swing the door wide open. Walk in. See, hear, feel. Taste, smell. Simultaneously, write.
Butler ventures that our bodies have built up plenty of defences to keep us out of our dreams while we are conscious  I can see why. The other night I had another one of those pants-less-in-class dreams. I’m not sure why those are so typical. I am an awfully forgetful person, but in my waking moments seldom do I ever forget to put on pants before I go to class. The point is that normal people don’t want to revisit the place they dream. Which is why it’s so hard to find the door to a good story.

For me it is more of a heavy lid to a dark dumpster full of sensory details both good and bad. Many of them I try to avoid because they are broken and I don’t want to be hurt. My literal dreams, those that take place when I’m asleep, are not always pretty and often take the colour of those past experiences that I would rather not relive.

When I first became a Christian, I thought I was no longer allowed to break. In my father’s house there’s this bowl of porcelain fruit. My poetry, like this hollow fruit, was shiny, polished and completely artificial. Inedible. When my readers asked for substance, I was insulted. Why couldn’t they accept my ideas? Were they too religious? I didn’t want to cut myself on the jagged edges of the things inside the dumpster.

This isn’t me, but, next time I dumpster dive, I’ll make sure to wear heels, nylons and a long black skirt. Pretty classy.

But in the end, it wasn’t poetry that called me to deal with my past. It was God:

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective (James 5:16).

Recently, I have heard a rumour going around that Christian art is dead or dying at the least. But I don’t think its true. Most art worth your time speaks truth. Most art worth your time recognizes the fallen nature of this planet. If anyone on this crazy globe can speak these about these two things, it is the Christian, broken and familiar with her hurts and failures.

I am not attached to my past. It is afterall in a dumpster. But I will not refuse to scavenger there for pieces, images that glorify God. Whether for their brokenness or for their wholeness. Mr. Butler, I will take your challenge to dumpster dive from where I dream. I got my head lamp on, and I’m about to take the plunge

Prison, College, and the Circle of Life: God’s Purposes for the Here and Now

“I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire, with the kettle just beginning to sing!” It was not the last time that [Bilbo Baggins] wished that!
The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkien

For the past three and a half years, I have called Michigan my home. While other college freshmen counted down days until break, I made my nest on the third floor of my dorm and forgot to phone my mother. I stayed in Michigan over the summer and avoided going back to Illinois as much as possible.  As I prepare to graduate, however, I can see how God is preparing a place for me. I know I should temporarily return to my father’s house, and I actually look forward to it.

This Christmas break left me longing for the comforts of home. The food, the family, the freedom to do whatever I wanted, when I wanted. Now, I’m weighed down with assignments. I am like a maple tree, and creativity is being drained out of me like syrup. Things I love like reading and writing have suddenly become mandatory. I woke up the first Friday of my last semester at Hope muttering, Why can’t I just go home?

Paul, two thousand years ago, must have asked himself the same thing. In fact, his letter to the Philippians shows a sort of homesick longing.

For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account (Philippians 1:21-4).

I must sound completely absurd to compare my experience in College to Paul’s experience in prison. After all, I await graduation not execution.  I won’t disagree that the accommodations here are much nicer, but I think it is of some value to draw this parallel.  Our desire for home-cooked comfort ultimately points to our desire for God.

Perhaps the biggest comfort of home is to be known. To not have to explain oneself. And who knows us better than our Father? As the psalmist says in the 139, “Your eyes saw me before I was put together, and all the days of my life were written in Your book before any of them came to be.”  As a senior, I find myself fading into a crowd of unfamiliar faces. New students that will soon replace the old ones. This is the cycle that characterizes a four year college. This is a cycle that characterizes life as a whole. I don’t mean to sound morbid. I’m simply observing that this isn’t our permanent home and homesickness is completely understandable.

On the other hand, we must not neglect that God’s purpose for us here on earth.  As my college career winds down,  I must remember, first of all, that this is not a prison cell, and second that God has a plan for me here and now.   There’s a reason why we are not home yet.  We have a church to build.

Building Community in a Familiar Place

Home
Christianity tore my family apart from the beginning and it was painful. I remember telling my mother that I wanted to be baptised  She took it as an insult because she and my dad had already made the decision for me to walk with God when I was a baby. But I knew that it wasn’t her decision to make, and I had lived 18 years of my life in rebellion toward God. My dad didn’t take it well either. Catholicism is part of our Mexican tradition. In his eyes, to become a Christian was to cut off my roots. My little sister Karina wondered if Christ was worth all the arguments and heartache. Continue reading