Ancient Greek mythology is replete with stories about the Phoenix, an immortal bird that is born again and again. The story of the Phoenix reminds me the Christian idea of being born again. The Phoenix gains new life by rising from the ashes of its predecessor. There are different schools of thought about how the Phoenix dies, but that may not matter much; what matters is that it rises. Death, in itself, is not enough to keep the Phoenix down, for it rises. I am sure you may have heard enough from me about my recent trip to Atlanta, but I bid you indulge with me for one last time... In downtown Atlanta, there is a bronze statue symbolizing Atlanta's rise from the ashes of the Civil War to become a cosmopolitan city. The statue depicts a woman being lifted from flames by a Phoenix. The story recalls the devastating nature of the Civil War when Atlanta was burnt to ashes by the Union Army. Out of the ashes arose a new city, with new life and new possibilities. The fires of Sherman destroyed the city, just in the same way as Putin’s missiles are destroying the cities of Ukraine. But like the Phoenix, Atlanta has been rebirthed with new life, and Ukraine will rise again with new life, as well. The prophet Ezekiel recounts a vision where he was transported in the spirit to a valley filled with dry bones. The Lord God then asks Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel is dumbfounded, for how is he supposed to know? This was his response: “O Lord God, you know.” The Lord determines if the bones, like the Phoenix, will rise with new life. This new life is possible especially when we feel constrained by our weaknesses - the sort which creates the room for us to sin. Sin destroys us, but the irony is that it is through our sins that we come to rediscover God’s gracious and infinite goodness, which then becomes our strength. It is when we are weak that we are strong, “For God’s power is made perfect in our weakness,” St. Paul assures us. I want to share with you the story of one 10-year-old boy who decided to study judo, despite the fact that he had lost his left arm in a devastating car accident. The boy began lessons with an old Japanese judo master. The boy was doing well, so he couldn’t understand why, after three months of training, the master had taught him only one move. “Sensei,” the boy finally said, “shouldn’t I be learning more moves?” “This is the only move you know, but this is the only move you’ll ever need to know,” the sensei replied. Not quite understanding, but believing in his teacher, the boy kept training. Several months later, the sensei took the boy to his first tournament. Surprising himself, the boy easily won his first two matches. The third match proved to be more difficult, but after some time, his opponent became impatient and charged; the boy deftly used his one move to win the match. Still amazed by his success, the boy was now in the finals. This time, his opponent was bigger, stronger, and more experienced. For a while, the boy appeared to be overmatched. Concerned that the boy might get hurt, the referee called a time-out. He was about to stop the match when the sensei intervened. “No,” the sensei insisted, “Let him continue.” Soon after the match resumed, his opponent made a critical mistake: he dropped his guard. Instantly, the boy used his move to pin him. The boy with one arm won the match and the tournament. He was the champion. On the way home, the boy and sensei reviewed every move in each and every match. Then, the boy summoned the courage to ask what was really on his mind. “Sensei, how did I win the tournament with only one move?” “You won for two reasons,” the sensei answered. “First, you’ve almost mastered one of the most difficult throws in all of judo. And second, the only known defense for that move is for your opponent to grab your left arm.” But he didn’t have a left arm. Sometimes our biggest weakness can become our biggest strength, but it depends on how we perceive those weaknesses - either as opportunities for the new life that rises out of the ashes of our sins or confining us into spaces where there’s no room for regeneration. Our sins may expose our weaknesses but remember, it is when we are weak that we are strong. And we are not strong on our own accord; the strength in us, the strength that keeps us rising like a Phoenix is one gifted to us by the God who is undaunted or intimidated by the many bones in the valley or the skeletons in our closet. The beauty of Lent is that it provides a window for us to look at our own weaknesses but also the possibility of new life. It is an opportunity to be reborn, to rise again and again like the Phoenix. And so, during this season of Lent, I need you to remember that within the ashes of our sins lie the gift and power of new birth, the power to rise again and again like a Phoenix. Rise up; refined, refreshed, renewed, and fit for purpose - God’s purpose. Rise like a Phoenix. ~Manny.
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