Praise God in His Sanctuary

There’s nothing spectacular about this picture of Jared and the dog. It isn’t even recent. Two years old, in fact. I just happened to be looking for something else in the picture files and ran across it. When Lonna got a new camera for Christmas, she didn’t know that the date was incorrectly set to 2010. So, all the pictures she took were randomly placed by the camera software in the folders already established with pictures we actually did take in 2010. She still hasn’t changed it, so finding a picture is kind of like a mix between a journey down memory lane and the most annoying scavenger hunt ever.

Poor, pitiful Jared. This picture stuck out to me, because he just looks so peaceful, and his baby soft complexion (without a trace of a facial hair, he’s sorry to say) shines. Not at all like the Jared of 2012. He is well into his third week of fighting scarlet fever. I admit, I had no idea what scarlet fever was until three weeks ago. I thought it was one of those old-time illnesses that was crushed by the mighty blow of the discovery of penicillin. Nope, it’s alive and well. Scarlet fever is that old nemesis strep. Strep gone wild all over your skin. It started out as a blotch here and a blotch there. A bit of a fever. A yuckiness. A stomach ache. Soon, he was knocked on his butt with sickness and became one giant rash. Just what every teenage boy wants…something that makes everyone stare at your face. Now, he wishes for those days. The rash is long gone.  He’s in the peeling stage. Parts of him peeled like a sunburn. Other parts, like the palms of his hands, have skin coming off in what can only be described as chunks. And then yesterday, as a further insult, he came down with pink eye. Did I say how pitiful the poor guy is?

He has missed eleven days of school. Eleven…unbelievable.  He has missed social events and family events and pretty much everything else you can think of. But the worst for him has been missing all those church services that heralded the beginning of Lent. No Forgiveness Vespers change of robes from gold to purple. No Presanctified in the candlelight. No Akathist rejoicing. No Sunday of Orthodoxy proclamation of triumph. Jared loves church, because he loves to serve God in the altar. He’s always there. Always. Even if we’re not. Missing is a huge deal for him.

So, to have these services taken away has been a humbling lesson for him and me both. A friend mentioned that not being in church has become Jared’s fast during this season. So true. It’s making us both think about prayer and worship. Jared loves to be at church, and so do I, but do we love God as much as we love church?  We ache to miss a service, but do we ache to miss God in the daily moments?

I told Jared that this is a great opportunity. It is a gift to see that he doesn’t need an appointed time and place to worship. Worshiping God in illness is the stuff of a multitude of prostrations. He doesn’t need certain sights and smells and sounds to lead his heart to prayer. Finding God in the stillness is an awesome pleasure.

Lent is a time of so much more, even when more comes dressed in less. As I watch my child struggle back to health, I thank God for the lessons I’m learning through his journey. How every soul needs to praise in suffering to truly taste the sweetness of rejoicing. How having what you thought was important taken away shows you where the value truly lies. Not in the doing or the going, but in the being and the resting in the presence of God. The God Who is truly everywhere and fills all things. With that in mind and heart, all the world is a holy place and all of life is an altar.  How sweet it will be for Jared to worship God again in His sanctuary.  All the sweeter for realizing and appreciating the sanctuary of his own heart.

Advertisements

The View From the Passenger Seat

When does 35 mph feel like 100 mph?  When it’s your teenager driving.

Lonna has been learning to drive for a few months now.  It’s getting better for me in the passenger seat (the incidents of gripping the armrest and breathing in sharp intakes of air have faded drastically), yet it’s still odd.  I’m THE driver, ya know?  I am the one who drives us everywhere.  Even when my husband is in the car, it’s often me who drives.  Sitting in the passenger seat with my hands lying in my lap searching aimlessly for something to do is foreign and something I don’t much like.  I like to be the driver.  I guess I like the control.

As Lent approaches, I am thinking a lot about control.  About the things and people and influences that drive my life, and they are a lot scarier than fifteen year olds with learner’s permits.

What drives me? I confess that far too often, the driver is indeed me.  My wants.  My desires.  My emotions.  My passions.  My sins.  And God?  Where is He in all this?  In the driver’s seat?  The passenger seat?  Even in the vehicle?

Great Lent is a time to gain control of our bodies.  Our minds.  Our prayers.  A time to control what we put into ourselves in an effort to open ourselves to what God wants out of us.  Eat less.  Give more.  Less and more.  More and less.  Decreasing so He can increase.

So, we approach this multifaceted time of give and take.  I must remember that I am not in control of the world or the events of my life.  To learn this, I actually focus on control.  Not the illusion of control, but the awesome quest of controlling myself.  Saying no to me is saying yes to God.

Great Lent.  A driving journey to the Cross.  The Resurrection.  Lord, help me on the journey.  Show me the way I should go.  The view from the passenger seat is lovely, when it is the driving force of Your mercy beside me.

For My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation

Today is the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord, also known as the Presentation of Christ, in the Temple.  On this day, forty days after His birth, Christ was brought to the Temple by His parents, fulfilling the Law for all firstborn males.

Yesterday, we spent much time preparing for the Feast.  And in our preparations, I could only smile at the mixed up medley of smoothness and chaos.

Hilary and I began the day by driving to a little artisan bakery to pick out just the right five loaves for the Litya at Vespers.  Then, we bought a vibrant bouquet of tulips to set before the icon of the Theotokos.  We traveled to multiple stores to buy supplies to make candles to be blessed on the Feast.  We labored to make those candles.  We went to church and prayed at Vespers.  We immersed ourselves in the Feast for virtually the entire day.  Then, as we prepared our candles to bring to Liturgy in the morning, we talked about the names of the Great Feasts.  Hilary struggled to place the significance of each one, so I helped her remember and categorize them.  When we got to the Meeting of the Lord, I said:

“This one is easy, right?  This one we know a lot about.  What happened on this Feast?”

“Uh…uh…well, somebody met the Lord, and then…uh…uh…somedbody ascended???

I had to laugh.  All that preparation, and Hilary seemingly still had no clue what we were doing.  But you know, I don’t really think that’s true.  Teaching our kids about the Faith is all about layers.  It doesn’t happen in one day or one year.  It’s a lifetime of layer upon layer of grace.  What we’re laying now as a family is the foundation.  Every prayer, every feast, every merciful moment will build on that foundation.  It doesn’t have to be perfect right now.  This isn’t the end, it’s the beginning.

On the Meeting of the Lord, candles are traditionally blessed.  In the prayers at the blessing, we are reminded that it is Christ who enlightens our darkness.  The burning fire of His glory consumes us with His pure brightness.  Like candles, we glow and flicker for the love of God.

This year, we made some homemade candles to have blessed.  I wanted them to be simple and of Hilary’s design.  We decided to make twelve small candles, one for each of the Great Feasts.

First, we melted paraffin and filled miniature terracotta pots with the wax.

Hilary wrote the names of the Feasts on strips of paper, and we glued them to the tops of the pots.  She chose red beads to glue to the pots for the Feasts of Christ, and blue beads for the Feasts of the Theotokos.  We painted a wooden tray to hold the candles and finish off the project.

The second project started off as a hit, because we bought little cartons of chocolate milk to use as molds.  This time, we added a crayon to the wax as it melted for color.  As we filled up the carton mold, we alternated layers of wax with layers of crushed ice.  When it cooled, it was supposed to look like this.  Yeah, that didn’t work out so well.

The idea is to end up with a candle peppered with textured holes and interesting crevices.  Our candles had about three holes apiece, so it basically just looked like we either dropped the candle or just don’t know how to pour.

But that is what Feast Day crafts are all about.  I love doing crafts with my children.  I enjoy researching and imagining and buying supplies to create lovely, functional, classy pieces of art.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with encouraging kids to strive for beauty.  Sometimes, the beauty comes not from the success, but rather the failure, the attempt, or the totally unexpected randomness of working with children.  So, one of our projects was a flop.  So, my daughter chose grey as the oh-so-fetching color for the flowers on the candle tray.  So, she whined that she was bored and wanted to quit and then got flaming mad that I finished one of the things without her.  So, she can’t, at age six, spout out the names and origins of every feast and every saint in the Church calendar.  So what?

Celebrating feasts is not always smooth.  It doesn’t always go as planned.  But embracing the mishaps and turning them over to God as part of the celebration is one of the greatest blessings of all.

Today, we sang of the elder Simeon, who was overcome by the emotion of holding the burning coal of God’s fire in his arms.  Who lived and waited and watched for the Savior, and in that moment, found Him.  Who embraced who?  Who met who that day?  A babe forty days old on his Mother’s side and eternal on His Father’s side, was presented to the world for us and our salvation.  Truly, truly Lord, you have brought us from darkness to Light.

What a lovely celebration we had today.  A special Feast.  We shared the experience of creating something to be blessed.  Throughout the year, we’ll return to these candles as we burn one on each of the twelve Great Feasts.  We’ll remember the day and the laughs and the love that filled our hearts as we celebrated.  We’ll give glory to God for meeting us in these moments, and we’ll present ourselves to Him as offerings.  Though we may be lopsided or off-color or mismatched, we offer it all to God.

Praying with and for my family.  Lighting a candle in the darkness.  Embracing the gift of love.  A joyous, joyous Feast.

O Heavenly King

Yesterday was Pentecost.  It seemed like a brisk, fall day with temperatures in the sixties.  That was an extremely welcome change after last week’s heat.  So, I enjoyed sitting outside in a jacket, with an occasional shiver and a bowl full of gluten-free strawberry shortcake (our ode to the flames of Pentecost).

I was contemplating how the mental and spiritual benefits of living in the calendar of the Church year don’t just revolve around the day of Pascha itself.  Everyone knows that Lent is a journey, but the path to perfection is not a straight line.  There is no “start” and no “end”.

The Paschal season is a lesson and a journey as well.  Christ is Risen!  Just that one day?  Just that one time?  No, no.  Christ is risen every day.  In Him all things are new and born fresh.  Eternally.

So, can’t we give Him more time?  The Church’s celebration has lasted for fifty days.  Weeks of long services and fasting may have exhausted us, but if we gave that much time to prepare, we should have made sure that we gave just as much time to celebrating!

For forty days, Christ walked and talked and ate with His followers.  He opened up the Scriptures.  He nourished them and gave them all the tools they needed.  Not for them alone.  Christ prepared them to build the Church.  His Bride, the living, breathing Church that would spread the love of God throughout the world for the rest of time.

But then, it was time to leave.  As they watched, He ascended into Heaven.  The risen Christ…in His risen body.  Do you see what that means?  The Ascension was not just about Christ going to Heaven.  It is about humanity going to Heaven.  The Psalms tell us that the angels stood there in complete amazement.  A man in Heaven!  Amazing!

While fully man, Christ was fully God.  While on earth, He never really left Heaven.  Yet, before He could ascend, He had to descend.  He went down to the depths of Hell and death and shattered them all.  Arising in glory, He opened the way to Paradise for all of us.

For the last ten days, there has been a hole.  A nagging tension.  No more “Christ is Risen”.  No more “The Angel Cried”.  No more “Let God Arise”.  All of the songs and prayers of the Paschal time ended on Ascension.  Yet, things are not back to normal.  There’s still something missing.

We show this by not singing the Paschal hymns, but also by not singing the hymn to the Holy Spirit.  My prayers seem jilted and off balance without the beautiful anchor of the words.  Like the Apostles, I look and wait.  Just like Christ told us to do.  To wait for the Comforter.  He is coming.

So, now, Pentecost has come.  The Holy Spirit has indeed arrived and the words are here again:

O Heavenly King.  The Comforter the Spirit of Truth.  Who are everywhere and fill all things.  Treasury of blessings, and Giver of Life, come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One!

When we first sing them in church again, I am enveloped in the comfort.  The peace that fills the day of Pentecost is so full, it can be touched.  In a spark.  In a burning flame.

The journey to this Feast began on the calendar a hundred days ago with the beginning of Lent.  It also began with the birth of Christ.  The Incarnation.  Christ was born.  Christ was crucified.  Christ was buried.  Christ arose.  Christ ascended.  Christ is in our midst.

As I lit a candle in church, I watched the flame with attention.  Lord, may the Holy Spirit burn in me.  May I not let the celebration end.  You come to be in me.  To fill me.  I am not worthy!  I am Your temple, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.  And if I am a temple, then the response must be to do what is logically done in a temple…sacrifice.  I sacrifice myself to You, Lord.  I set aside my wants and desires and take up Your will for my life.  Fill me to the brim, Lord, with Your Spirit, and then, help me to see that what I thought was full is only just the beginning.  Fill me, Lord.  Burn away the impurities.  Try me in the fire, and draw me to You.

To the Heights

On Saturday, we got up early and drove south.  It was only a bit over an hour, but it’s interesting how quickly the landscape changes around here.  The urban sprawl soon gave way to open fields waiting for spring planting, gentle rolls of hills, and horses pulling buggies.  I sure do love the convenience of city life, but I really am still a country girl at heart.  I was glad to get away.

The second Sunday in Lent is a day to commemorate St. Gregory Palamas.  So, we went on pilgrimage to a monastery that bears his name.  Last week, we remembered the triumph of the icons.  This weekend, we remember a triumph of another kind.

St. Gregory was a monk and Bishop of Thessalonica in the 14th century.  He devoted his life to simple, constant prayer…specifically the Jesus Prayer.  There was controversy at this time between the East and the West over the Orthodox practice of prayer.  St. Gregory defended the Orthodox position and clearly defined our dogmatic teaching on the subject.  He is remembered at this time during Lent as a call to prayer.  A call to holiness.

I eagerly anticipated this pilgrimage.  Life has been insanely chaotic of late, and the peace…I crave the peace.  Stepping into a monastery chapel is an instant ticket to another world.  A taste of possibilities.

The devotion of the monks; the gentleness; the quiet.  No extra, unnecessary words.  No extra, unnecessary entanglements.  Prayer.  Peace.  Pursuit of God.  The icons on the walls are images of those who lived the godly life.  These men in front of me are living icons of the Faith.  This is what holiness looks like.  This is what peace and love feel like.  And it’s not just for them…it’s available to all of us.

I treasure all of the saints, but sometimes, you just connect with one particular saint.  They seem to show up when you need them in ways you weren’t expecting.  I met St. Gregory Palamas in that unexpected way yesterday, and I was so touched to make his acquaintance.

On the eve of St. Gregory’s repose, St. John Chrysostom appeared to him and encouraged him with the words, “To the Heights!  To the Heights!”  When I look at these monastics and the life of St. Gregory, I am moved to compunction.  My prayer life recently has hardly been to the heights.  I seem to be hearing more of the mantra, “To the plateau!  To the plateau!”

Unceasing prayer.  Not a mental exercise.  Prayer of the heart.  At times it seems impossible for me.  At times I am tempted to despair in my failed attempts.  So, I get into a satisfactory prayer groove, where I pray just enough to not feel too guilty, but nowhere near enough to move forward.  I look around and realize that I’m just treading water.  I’m staying in one place.

Lent is a challenge to step things up.  Blow up the plateau.  Reach for the heights.  You might fall when you reach, but you’ll come back even stronger just for the attempt.

Orthodox prayer is not canned words with no depth.  It is not a quota to be filled or a box to be checked.  There is no such thing as praying enough.  Every moment, every breath is calling on the name of Jesus.  The prayer never ends.

Being on the plateau seems like a safe place.  The surroundings are familiar.  Not necessarily attractive or inspiring…but familiar.  In reality, the plateau is a dangerous precipice.  Treading water is an illusion.  If you aren’t going forward, you just drift backward.

Inner prayer.  The joy that never ceases.  The petition that never wavers.  The name of Jesus.  So many words in one name.

St. Gregory, pray for me.  Show me through your example how to pray.  Let my “amen” not be a transition from one moment with God to a string of a thousand moments in my own passions.  My own words.  My own illusions.  Rather, let my “amen” be not the end of prayer, but only the beginning.  To the heights!  To the heights!  There’s nowhere else to go but up.

A Cloud of Witnesses

The first Sunday in Lent is the Sunday of Orthodoxy.  I feel so blessed to live in a true melting pot of Orthodoxy.  We have so many parishes and monasteries in easy driving distance.  So much variety.  So much unity.  It is something I try never to take for granted.

This year, the service to celebrate this day was held at the Ukranian Cathedral.  So lovely…

 

The Sunday of Orthodoxy remembers the restoration of icons to the churches.  The fight over images of Christ and the Saints was a long and bloody battle.  That battle still rages today for many people.

We must fight for the icons, for if we deny the image of Christ, we deny the Incarnation.  We do not make images of God in His essence.  That is impossible.  But God became man, and it is that flesh and blood that we show.

It is a well known fact that I cry like a baby at every Sunday of Orthodoxy.  Seeing the priests and children carrying their icons overwhelms me.

All Christians are icons.  We all have Christ in us.  And in that picture…what is it that we see?  It is not appropriate to say that an icon is painted.  We say that it is written.  It is more than a pretty work of art.  It is God.  My icon…how is it written?

I see the Saints.  I am overwhelmed by the portraits of men and women who gave their lives for Christ under horrendous, unspeakable persecution.  They were undeniable.  How often do I deny Christ in my words?  In my actions?

I see the Saints.  I am awed by the renderings of men and women who lived simple, unassuming lives of peace and prayer.  No outward battles, but inspiring ones of the spiritual war.  They were steadfast.  How often do I waver in my commitment to prayer?  In my wandering, fickle heart?

I see the Mother of God.  I am humbled by the sight of this woman who followed God when it didn’t make sense…when it seemed impossible.  She was faithful.   How often do I question God’s ways?  How often do I choose my own path?  In my choices?  In my decisions?

I see Christ.  I am brought to my knees, face down before this image.  This is God….this is God.  How can I ever be like this image?

If an icon is written, what story does the icon of me tell?  Is it a tale of my accomplishments, failures, dreams and disappointments?   Or is my icon instead the story of Christ?  The Word who became flesh.  The suffering servant who gave Himself up willingly to be crucified.  The triumphant One who rose again.  Love.  So much love.  Is that my story?  Giving and receiving love?

As I stand in this church, I look around me, and I am surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.  They witness to the strength and power and truth and unshakable love.  They witness to the pain and the sorrow and the wisdom of the struggle.  They witness to Christ.  What is my witness?  What is my truth?  Is it my own icon I’m writing, or instead, am I allowing myself to be written?

I fight for my icons.  I fight for the witness.  This day, I pray that I will never forget my own icon.  The picture of Christ in me.  The picture of Christ in everyone I see this day.  So many faces everywhere I look.  So many pictures.  From the first buds of spring shooting up from the ground still chilled from snow.  From the newborn breath.  From the dying breath.  From the ups and the downs and the struggles and the triumphs.  This world is an icon.  I am an icon.  Lord, may I look less and like me each day and more and more like You.  A picture of faith.  A portrait of love.  Christ…an image written on my heart.

A Spoonful of Ice Cream Helps the Humility Go Down

It begins like any Vespers service.  The peace and stillness of the darkness.  The close of the day.  But in Orthodoxy, the evening of the calendar day is the beginning of the next liturgical day.  Evening to evening.  So, as we sing, there comes the moment when it is no longer Sunday.  It’s Monday, and not just any Monday…

The reader slowly chants: “…Blessed are You, O Lord.  Teach me Your statutes.  Blessed are You, O Master.  Make me to understand Your commandments.  Blessed are You, O Holy One.  Enlighten me with Your precepts.”  Girls approach the icon stands, remove the gold cloths beneath them, revealing a different color cloth underneath.  The altar boys make a gentle swishing sound behind the iconstasis as they quickly change from one robe to another.  Even the lampadas have their golden, glowing glass removed and replaced with a different kind of brilliance.  Everything has gone from gold to purple.  There’s been a change of season.  A change of time.  Lent is here.

The service goes on, but the mood in the room has visibly shifted.  The signs are clear on the outside.  In the colors, the melodies, the prayers.  The Great Fast, the time of repentance is here.  Has something changed inside me?

At the end of the service, a unique and profound thing happens.  One of the things I read about as a non-Orthodox and just could not believe actually happened.  This is Forgiveness Vespers.  This is our journey to the death and Resurrection of our Lord and Savior.  A time, more than ever, to look deep within, find what shouldn’t be there, and let it go.  A time to repent and ask for forgiveness.  But how can I expect God to forgive me, if I can’t forgive someone else?

The priest faces the congregation, asks for our forgiveness for anything he did to us this year, knowingly or unknowingly.  Then, he drops to the floor on all fours and bows his head to the ground in a prostration of repentance.  Rising, he starts a line, and one by one, snaking around the room, we all join in the line.  The next person goes up to the priest, they both prostrate (or bow as physically able), ask for forgiveness, and exchange the kiss of peace.  Then, that person goes in line, and the next person follows the same pattern.  Eventually, everyone has joined in, and we ask for forgiveness from each and every person in the room.

Forgiveness.  What does it mean?  Does it mean avoiding or ignoring an issue just to keep the peace?  Does it mean playing nice while harboring a resentment that clutches deep inside?  Sometimes we just say we’re sorry.  But this night, we have to show it.  If I can’t let go of the little things…even the big things…and just love like Christ, if I can’t look at these people and just see Christ…how will I ever recognize Him?  He’s here in all these people.  He’s right here.  And I’m so sorry for all I’ve done to offend Him.

As the line progresses, what started in silence and whispers moves on to a hum of smiles and laughter.  We all fill a bit silly…and sweaty.  It’s a big workout for the body; it’s a joyous exercise for the soul.  I remember the first year I came to this parish.  I barely knew anyone.  I had nothing against these people.  This act didn’t seem to make much sense.  Later, I began to see how many times we really do wrong others just in the course of daily life.  Whether we meant to or not.  This past year, we’ve had quite a bit of unfortunate drama at our parish.  We’ve been rocked to the core.  I did feel wronged by some of my fellow parishioners, and I know that some of them felt wronged by me.  We needed this Forgiveness Vespers.

The line went on, and I began to come to my own family members.  My eyes watered as I embraced my children.  From the time they can talk, we train them well.  “Now, say you’re sorry!”  But how often do we say it back?  As we’ve transitioned into the teen years, I’ve tried especially to do that.  To admit when I’m wrong, but sometimes, I just don’t say it, even when I know it’s true.  Please forgive me…  Please forgive me…

Those of us in the choir had been some of the first in line so we could finish and return to our stands.  As the rest of the parish continued, we began the music that instantly took us to another night…one still to come.  “Let God arise!  Let his enemies be scattered!  Let those who hate Him flee from before His face!”  The music of Pascha.  Still weeks away, but we sing it now to remind everyone where we’re headed.  The beacon, the goal.  Because of Pascha, we forgive.  Because of Pascha, we’re forgiven.

Again the tears come to my eyes as we build up through the song and eventually reach a shouting crescendo…”Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”  Forgiveness…it is death transformed to life.

Lastly, everyone goes into the parish hall for a sweet reward to our efforts.  Bowls of ice cream are piled high with sprinkles and colorful sauces.  There’s fellowship and community and sugar highs everywhere.  This Sunday was also Cheesefare.  The last day before the fast from dairy products begins.  Meat has already been left behind for a week now, as the Church eases everyone into the rigors of fasting.  Now, for those who are able, it is no meat, no dairy, no oil, and no fish with a backbone for the next seven weeks.

It seems only fitting to have ice cream.  Not just because of the dairy, but because of the sweetness.  Being forgiven is sweet, especially when you don’t deserve it.  Asking for forgiveness is humbling, but there is a sweetness to it, as well.

Forgiveness.  Something I seem to always assume and expect from others, but pridefully don’t always give.  Forgiveness.  Something I seem to frequently assume will come from God, but pridefully won’t admit that I need.  To ask for forgiveness means admitting I did something wrong to begin with, and that can be a bitter pill to swallow.  Lord, help me to see inside myself.  To really see all those sins that happen daily.  I want to see.  I want to confess.  I want to be forgiven.  I want to forgive.

Wasting My Life in Laziness

“Open to me, the doors of repentance O Lifegiver, for my soul rises early to pray towards Your holy temple…”

Sunday night, as I finished up some things before bed, I was startled by the sound of thunder.  A thunderstorm? On the next to last day in February?  The light and sound show intensified outside the window, as I watched the rain pour down hard and fast.  As I crawled into bed, I was actually looking forward to a rainy night.  The sweet lull of the water on the roof hadn’t been heard in months.  It did pass through my mind, though, as I drifted off to sleep, that surely all that rain couldn’t be good on top of nine inches of snow.

Monday morning, my husband texted me, saying that he had brought a box of work materials from the garage to the office.  For some reason, the papers were awfully damp.  I walked over to the door from the house to the garage.  As I opened it, I was instantly hit by what my husband didn’t notice in his hurry-to-work-at-dawn routine…the smell.  It smelled like the lake on a breezy day.  It smelled wet.

I stepped out into the garage, and my bare feet squished on the sopping wet mat by the door.  It took a minute for everything to register, because there was no water on the floor at the time.  But my eyes began to focus and scan the distinctive line running all around the room.  The flood line.

The drain in the middle of the garage had backed up.  About two inches of water had filled virtually every corner of the garage.  Apparently, it went down as fast as it came up, but just a few inches of water can do a lot.

For many people, water in the garage would be no big deal.  Their garages are just homes for garden tools and kids’ riding toys.  But not our garage.  Definitely not our garage.  Our rental house is on the small side…I hate to even use the term “small”.  It’s small by American standards, but our standards are often skewed.  We have no basement and limited storage, so we store everything in the garage.

Last year, I began a simplicity journey.  I went through each and every corner of my house, decluttering and conducting a massive overhaul of our space.  Life was getting too complicated, and it’s hard to pray in chaos.  So, as I went through the rooms, we boxed up items we didn’t need anymore and put them in the garage.  We were going to have a yard sale.  The pile grew and grew, until one corner of the room was filled to bursting.  Then, we started the shop.  More things got added.  Extra inventory, packing supplies, etc.  What didn’t fit on the shelving unit we put up stayed in boxes on the floor, waiting to find a permanent home.  The other side of the garage was lined with plastic containers of camping supplies, out of season clothes, and old homeschool materials.  Not that you knew what was actually in any of the containers.  They weren’t labeled, so whenever someone went out to the garage to look for something, they just shoved everything out of the way and created more disarray.

By the time I finished decluttering the inside of the house, the garage had become a seething pit of despair.  My teeny little compact station wagon barely fit in the mess.  I was always cautioning the kids not to open the doors too quickly.  The leaning towers of excess might topple at any moment.  Every time I pulled in the driveway and opened the garage door, I sighed.  What a mess!  And then I ran in the house and shut the door.

You see, that yard sale never came.  I was sick all summer and then was in the hospital.  It turned cold, and nobody wanted to stand out in the garage to do anything.  My husband’s insane seven day a week, three job work schedule made for little free time as we just tried to keep our heads above water.  Oh, the water…

I called my husband and told him to take the rest of the day off work and come home.  As we stood in the garage, we looked at the situation.  Sure, only the bottom of every stack was wet.  But to get to the wet, we had to go through the rest of it.  No more putting it off.  We were going to have to use this opportunity to clean it all up once and for all.

“…and have wasted my life in laziness.”

About twenty minutes into the clean up, I turned to my husband and asked, “What is wrong with us that we let our lives get this way?”  We are not a rich family, so we don’t have a lot of toys.  No electronic wonders.  No newest and best and brightest.  We are surrounded by mismatched hand-me-downs and thrift store make-do’s.  We are not a rich family, so it’s far too easy to convince ourselves that we’re not attached to material things.  Actually, it’s quite the opposite.  The less you have, the more you keep.  You don’t know if you’ll have the money to buy a new such and such, so by golly, you better hold on to this worn down no good such and such just in case!  We cannot afford many things, but we sure as heck have a lot of stuff.

There are a lot of excuses why I found myself going through boxes of curtains from four houses ago, books no one ever read or ever will, and craft supplies that seemingly reproduced of their own accord when you shut the lid of the box.  Some of those excuses are pretty valid ones.  But life just gets so exhausting, when all you do is make excuses…

I have a candle lit in my icon corner right now for all the families who truly suffered this week.  People are living through severe damage to homes and businesses.  People are trying just to live.  It’s raining outside again, and just when we thought it was over, there will be more flooding somewhere today.

We had our own mess this week, but it was no disaster.  It was a gift.

All week long, I’ve been singing…Open to me the doors of repentance, O Lifegiver.  A song we hear this time each year, announcing that Lent is coming.  Lent begins on Monday, and I needed a good flood to motivate me.  I’ve spent years shoving out of sight those unpleasant memories, those pesky little sins that can just be dealt with later.  Or really aren’t so bad.  Or are inconvenient to face.  I’ve treasured and held onto so much baggage, crushed by the weight, yet comforted by the familiarity.  I’ve moved those precious sins with me from place to place, squirreling them away in that special corner I reserve for the darkness.  I’ve filled and packed my soul with boxes and boxes and boxes.  I’ve run inside myself and shut the door to avoid looking at the mess.  And I’ve made excuses…oh so many excuses.

Open to me the doors of repentance, Lord.  Let this Lent be one of purging and renewal.  Help me throw away all this garbage.  It’s all just garbage…  And it’s not that I really even want all this stuff, I’ve just been too lazy to deal with it.  I’ve wasted my life in laziness, Lord.  Help me not to waste another moment.

“Like David I cry to Thee…Have mercy on me, O God.  Have mercy on me, O God.  Have mercy on me, O God.  According to Thy great mercy.”

The Orthodox Life: Part 1 (The Church)

We spent a thankful Thanksgiving with family.  As we gathered around enjoying the company of my siblings who I see woefully infrequently, the topic of Orthodoxy came up.  To my Protestant family, Orthodoxy is foreign, especially since they all live in areas of the country where Orthodoxy is a limited or non-existent presence.  Whenever I try to explain the Faith, I find myself feeling inadequate.  Afterward, I have a long list of things I wish I had said.  Orthodoxy is not something I can explain in a list of what-it-isn’ts, even though it’s easier in some ways to describe it that way.  I feel like I left so much out in our conversation.

I decided to write a series of posts about the Orthodox life.  It is not a battle against the Protestants or the Catholics.  It is not intended to offend.  Rather, it is intended to answer questions.  To dip into how and why the Ancient Faith is lived.

*****************************************************************

It is Sunday.  The Day of Resurrection.  I enter the nave of the church slightly dead myself, wearied by travel and lack of sleep.  When I open the door, I am welcomed by a wave of peace.  The gentle drone of the chanting of the prayers of the Hours fills the air, the smell of the incense greets my nostrils, and instantly I am transported to Heaven.

Over a thousand years ago, Prince Vladimir sent out envoys to explore the religions of the world, desiring to find one religion for his new empire, Russia.  His ambassadors visited virtually every conceivable religion, but they said they found no glory there.  However, when they came to Greece, they experienced the Divine Liturgy in an Orthodox Church.  The envoys recounted to Vladimir that when they were in the Liturgy, they knew not whether they were in heaven or on earth.  They did not understand everything about the Faith, but they said that in an Orthodox Church, they could see that God dwelled among men.  Vladimir converted an empire based on the description of the service I am about to participate in.

In my hand is a beeswax candle.  I approach the icon of Christ and light my candle beside it.  As I fit the candle into the holder, I say a prayer.  The desire that weighs on my heart this day.  Today, I pray, “O, Lord, as the fire illumines this candle, so also illumine me.  Fill me with the fire of faith.”  Then, I cross myself, bowing before my God, and kiss the image of Christ.  The glass protecting the icon is cool against my lips, and my heart is humbled by the knowledge of how great and marvelous is this God.  Orthodoxy does not accept just my mental assent to the Gospel.  It is not satisfied with part of me.  Orthodoxy demands all of me.  In Orthodox prayer, I use all of my senses.  My human mind wanders, is misled, and easily confused.  Orthodox worship uses my entire body to reach my soul.  I cross myself, bow, prostrate and stand in prayer.  I smell the incense.  I hear the prayers.  I touch and kiss and breathe in holiness.  It is not the image of Christ that I worship.  It is not the paint that I adore.  It is God who I worship.  Through my actions I show Him that He is more than a mental exercise.  I offer myself to Him…mind, body and soul.

Orthodox Churches are modeled after Heaven.  Every description of the Temple in the Old Testament.  Every prophecy of Heaven in the Scripture.  All are repeated and true in this space I stand in.  The placement of the altar.  The vestments of the priest.  A thousand different symbols that are more than symbolic.  They are the links between the human and Divine.  They are God in us.  As the service begins, the priest proclaims that, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  We are no longer just in a building in Northeast Ohio on a chilly day in November.  We stand in the Kingdom.  We stand before God.

There is a book with the words to the service, but I do not need it.  I have it memorized.  These are the same words said every time we celebrate the Liturgy, except for a few portions that change depending on the day.  These are ancient words, written long ago and filled with worship and Truth.  As I sing, I think of the millions of Orthodox who have said these same words throughout the centuries.  I think of the other Orthodox in parishes down the street praying the same prayers at this moment, as well as those across the oceans who celebrated Liturgy in their time zones as I slept last night.  I think about the angels in Heaven, who will continue to sing the prayers after we finish.  I am overcome by our unity in the Faith.  This is not just me.  This is not an individual faith.  It is a faith of community.  Of all mankind.

I have prayed the prayers many, many times before, but every time, there is something new.  There is no risk of boredom.  In God, all things are new.  I did not come here for myself.  It is not about music with a good beat that moves me to an emotional high.  It is not about eloquent words in a sermon making me feel good or bad; guilty or glad.  It’s not about feeling at all.  It’s about worship.

Sometimes I come to church, and I “feel” nothing.  It’s like just another service.  Just another day.  Sometimes I come to church, and I am touched beyond measure.  I come either way, though, and in that, I am moved to the core

There is an attitude in our culture.  An individualism.  This is the attitude that on the one hand has led to much good.  It gained freedom for my country and opportunity for my children.  On the other hand, this same attitude has led to an arrogant, can-do-no-wrong jumble of modern theology.  If every person can come up with their own version of truth, then how do you tell what’s true?

I am not ashamed to say that I do not know everything.  I make mistakes constantly.  I am not God.  I am His creation.  It is He who should get to decide how He should be worshiped.  There was a time when I thought that I could decide everything about my faith.  When, where, why and how.  It was all up to me.  Lord, forgive my arrogance!  Psalm 50 (51) says, “A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit, a broken and humbled heart God will not despise.”  There was no brokenness in my worship before Orthodoxy.  No humility.  I thought there was…I really did.  But I was wrong.  There was no humility, because there was no authority.  I let no one be in charge.  Tens of thousands of different versions of the truth added up to one big lie.

God speaks to me as an individual.  His love for me is clear and a comforting joy.  That is not the end of the story, though.  It isn’t just about me.  Christ came to the world to save it….all of it.  Not just me.  It is not about what flavor of God I like best.  As if He’s a buffet.  Christ established a line of authority through the Apostles.  He instructed them and guided them.  I am no Apostle.  I’m just a simple woman.  God does speak to me just as I am.  But He also speaks to me through the Church.  An example of two thousand years of holy people who fought and died for the Faith.  An example of two thousand years of knowledge gained from mistakes, life experience, and moments with the living God.  I do not know it all, but I know that God is in His Church.  People are imperfect.  Even Christian leaders and “good” people.  The Faith is perfect, though, and the Church preserves that Faith.

I trust God.  I trust that He knows the best way to live.  I trust that Christ did not just teach the Apostles for a time and leave them to figure out the rest on their own.  Instead, He instructed them to go…to go and make disciples.  To establish the Church in unity.  To nurture each other and encourage each other.  To also not turn a blind eye when someone got a crazy idea or made a mistake, but rather to set them straight and bring them back in line.  Much of that was done through what we now call the Scriptures, treasures of knowledge and inspiration.  The Scriptures are essential, but they did not come first.  The Church came first.  It is not just me and my Bible.  It is me and the Church.  She encourages me and helps me understand.  She reins me in and keeps me on the right path.  She disciples me.  She loves me.  Through the Church’s direction, I find the correct interpretation of Scripture.  Through the Church’s direction, I see the path of Christ.  Through the Church’s direction, I find  the Truth.

I have the same Faith as the Orthodox Christians one hundred, five hundred, one thousand, and two thousand years ago.  I have them as my family.  I rejoice to humble myself to the authority of the Church.  We are one in the Faith.  We worship the One God.

On the first Sunday of Lent, it is the Sunday of Orthodoxy.  On that day, we gather together…Greek, Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Antiochian, American and all the rest.  We celebrate our unity in the Faith.  Near the end of the service is the moment that always brings me to tears.  The moment that I cry out with thanks to God for leading me home to the One, True Church.  The choir sings of the martyrs, our history and our future.  But then they stop, and everyone in the church shouts in one, loud voice:

This is the Faith of the Apostles.
This is the Faith of the Fathers.
This is the Faith of the Orthodox.
This is the Faith which has established the Universe.

Orthodoxy is a faith of deep individual involvement.  I will be writing much of that in the next few days.  It is the most personal experience of God that I have ever encountered.  Before all that, though, it is a faith of community.  It is a family.  Brothers and sisters to love.  Fathers and mothers to respect and obey.  It is this church in my town on this morning.  It is the Church throughout time.  It is the Ancient Faith of the past.  It is the vibrant, living Faith of the present.  It is the shining beacon of the future.  It is my faith.  It is the Faith.  One life in Christ.

Next post: The Orthodox Life: Part 2 (Prayer)

 

Unto ages

It was my birthday.  Before you wish me joy on this day, please let me clarify…it was my birthday…about a week and a half ago.  So, I’m slow.  That’s how it is when you get older!

I didn’t have a big milestone birthday.  No intimidating “0” at the end of my age.  No, I turned thirty…five.  Turning thirty didn’t bother me.  It felt normal and long overdue.  Birthdays in general never affect me much.  The kids get way more excited about my birthday than I do.  But this birthday was different.  It’s not that I think I’m old and decrepit.  It’s just that 35 doesn’t sound right.  It doesn’t seem like that should be my age.  Does that make any sense?

Perhaps it has to do with the way the media and the medical community talk about age 35 in women.  It’s like it’s our expiration date.  Your body just goes along its merry little way, skipping and singing no doubt, and then…BAM!  You’re 35.  Fertility goes down.  Risk of everything else under the sun goes up.  Look out!  You’re 35!  It’s the beginning of the end.

I’m not having anymore babies, thirty-five or not.  Sometimes I think for a brief moment about what it would be like to have another baby, but it’s very brief.  My body is not able to do it, so I don’t dwell.

I’m most reminded of my age in the presence of the parents of my kids’ friends.  Since it’s so common to have children later in life in our present society, I seem to frequently be the odd man out.  Lonna’s teenage friends have parents pushing 50 or well into their 50’s.  On the flip side, when I take Hilary to the playground, I do find mothers my age.  But their five year old is usually their oldest child, not their youngest.  I know I’m clearly not the only one in my generation to have a baby at 20.  All those other women out there sure don’t seem to live around here, though.

I do feel like I’m missing a child sometimes.  With Lonna and Jared so close in age, the gap down to Hilary is pronounced.  Seems like there should be another child in the middle.  So, it’s not that I’m missing a baby.  Rather, I seem to be missing an 8 year old somewhere.

I grew up in the same situation.  I was the youngest trailing along, much younger than my siblings.  Sometimes I wish Hilary had a sibling who she could bond with like Lonna and Jared have always clicked.  Sometimes I look at large families and sigh…just for second.  Glory to God, I did let Him choose my family size.  He just happened to pick the number three.

Jared had a doctor’s appointment on my birthday, so we trekked to the other side of the city.  Even when we moved, we kept our pediatrician.  Any mother knows that if you find a good pediatrician…you keep him/her no matter what!  I’d drive much, much farther than I do now to see this doctor.  She’s the best!

Since we were over in our old stomping grounds, we decided to pack a lunch and stop at our favorite park.  We hadn’t been in a long time.  It’s just a simple little nature area.  Not much land.  But the creek is so sweet in its whispering, and the rocks are so pleasing in their solid surety.  It is a special place.

November here is a swinging mix of weather.  You never know what you’ll get.  On this day, we got the brightest sun that I’ve seen in months.  Middle of July lazy day kind of bright.  Casting a kaleidoscope of shadows from the mostly leafless trees.

I thought a lot about numbers.  And days.  And years.  And time.  Honestly, there have been multiple times in the last few years that reaching age 35 seemed like it might not happen.  Every birthday is a gift.

How much I appreciate God’s rhythm of time.  The cycle of the Church year, the flow of the daily services, the gentle push of the seasons.  It reminds me that time is not at all what I think it is.

Last night, the cathedral had a Pan-Orthodox Unction service.  The Orthodox version of an oldtime healing service.  Unction is one of my favorite services.  Not for the opportunity to pray for the healing of my body.  I do pray for that, but it’s not the main point for me.  Bodies come and go whether they are healed or not.  Even if God heals me now, I’ll still die eventually of something.  That’s life.  That’s death.  I’d much rather pray for the healing of my soul.  For in it, I glimpse eternity.

Somewhere in the middle of the Unction service, I lost track of time.  Rather, it stopped.  The world melted away.  I glimpsed God’s plan for time.  Not one day to the next.  Not past, present, or future.  Not all those silly restraints I put on hours and minutes and seconds.  Instead, one moment.  One moment in a timeless God.  Where numbers don’t matter.

How often I am at that place, swearing I’ll do everything I can to stay there.  And then I seem to forget, and I get back to my plans and definitions for time.  As if I could extend my life of my own will for even one second.  In my ways there is no rhythm.  No harmony.  Only a clanging clash.

Forgive me Lord for numbering my days.  Thank you for this year, this moment, this prayer.  In the bright, bright sunlight.  The length of shadows.  The bubble of a brook.  Yesterday, today, and forever.