Embracing the Sacred in the Ordinary

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I wake early after a holiday weekend. It is dark and cold outside. I shiver, pulling my sky-blue, fluffy bathrobe around me. “I can do this” I think to myself.

Who am I kidding? I can’t do this. This day after day routine of early rising, walking to the subway, dodging leftover piles of snow, trying to make sure I’m alert and centered…all of it is too much.

I can’t do this alone. Not for a minute.

Waking, showering, brushing teeth, putting on make up, dressing, scanning an app to see if I can catch the bus or if I’ll end up walking, rummaging around a refrigerator so I won’t have to buy my lunch – so many mundane, routine things. They say that character is formed in how we respond to the routine. I believe it because that’s when my true self comes out. Muttering that I wish I was more organized when trying to find lunch, outright cursing the bus schedule, shaking my head in frustration when I am jostled in the early morning rush – all of these are things that I do regularly. Is there a sacred rhythm to this? If so, can I find it?

This early morning hour reveals who I am in ways that I don’t like, in ways that I often get to hide. But when I am stripped of the audience, there they are, my heart naked before God, if not before man.

I think about this today as I begin my routine. How do I incorporate worship into every act, every day, every moment? How can these acts echo my spiritual life?

I think for a moment about the book I am reading: Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren. The book responds to the question “How do we embrace the sacred in the ordinary and the ordinary in the sacred?” The author goes through a day in the life of a normal routine, helping us see the routine through the lens of liturgy.

In the first few pages, the author talks about not wanting to get out of bed and it feels particularly appropriate today:

“I don’t want to face the warring, big and small, that lies ahead of me today. I don’t want to don an identity yet. I want to stay in the womb of my covers a little longer.”

Later in the chapter,  she goes on to say:

As Christians,we wake each morning as those who are baptized. We are united with Christ and the approval of the Father is spoken over us. We are marked by our first waking moment by an identity that is given to us by grace: an identity that is deeper and more real than any other identity we will don that day…..Days can pass in a bluster of busyness, impatience, and distraction. I work to build my own blessedness, to strive for a self-made belovedness. But each morning, in those first tender moments –  in simply being God’s smelly, sleepy beloved – I again receive grace, life, and faith as a gift.”

I stop for a moment and I remember that I am beloved. No matter what happens today, it will never change that I begin this day as a child of God.

I move on to pray the Jesus Prayer. I mean it with all my heart. I know I am beloved, and I also know that I need mercy. I need strength. I need a motivator worth more than a pay check; an incentive that counts more than a retirement account.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, a Sinner.

I repeat the words as I go on with my morning. I plug in the white lights that I’ve put onto a plant, my preservation of Christmas lights to move me forward in the new year. The plant illuminates the room, rather like the Jesus Prayer illuminates my soul.

The day has begun. I move forward as one beloved and armed to face the day.


*Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren, pp 52-53

A Baby and the Cold Slush of Winter

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I slog my way through dirty, melting snow as I walk to work. The pristine fluffy white of one week ago is replaced by the dirt and grime of the city, coupled with slush caused by rising temperatures.

It is Thursday, my last day of the work week, and I am tired. In winter everything takes longer. It takes longer to get ready in the morning, longer to walk to the subway, longer for the subway to arrive, longer to get groceries.

Everything is longer. Everything is harder. It’s more difficult to see grace; more difficult to give grace.

Yesterday I visited a friend who has just had a baby girl. I held her little body in my arms, marveling at her perfection, struck by how this little miracle came to be.

In the midst of the cold slosh of winter, I got to hold this wonder in my arms. Outside may feel cold and heartless, but inside is warm with wonder and grace.

Outside the world is raging, unaware that inside is a six pound wonder. Outside people argue and push, morosely facing winter’s worst. Across the country fires and floods change people’s lives in moments.

But inside there is a baby, perfectly formed and known by a God who still believes that this world is worthy of being redeemed. She is entrusted to, and loved by, an imperfect family and friends; people who will hold her and teach her, love her and cry with her.

And as I hold her I am in awe – in awe of baby soft skin and six pounds of perfectly formed fingers and toes, in awe of the strength and fragility of life, in awe of my friend who waited so long and wanted this baby so very much. Mostly in awe that somehow God believes that we in our human frailty, born as helpless babes who grow to be imperfect children and adults, are worth redeeming.

It’s Thursday and I’m tired. But then I remember – there’s a baby and it’s all okay.

Soul Care and the Reconstruction Process

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When you live in a city you cannot avoid the ever-present construction/reconstruction process. Cranes, detours, iconic orange cones, and construction workers with yellow hard hats and vests are a part of the city landscape.

Healthy cities know that to continue to serve both residents and visitors, they need to repair, construct, and reconstruct. City planning has to allow for growth and change, and sometimes change comes through reconstruction.

The Longfellow Bridge connecting Cambridge to Boston has been under reconstruction for the past three years. It’s a lengthy process. The work takes place steel rod by steel rod and plank by plank with skilled workers supervising and doing the work. When the work is complete, it will be ready to sustain the heavy traffic of cars, trucks, and trains.

Ultimately, the work won’t be noticeable to any lay people. We will just use the bridge and remember back to the time when it was being fixed, and perhaps inconvenient to our travel plans. While cities try to minimize the inconvenience, they know that not doing the needed reconstruction will ultimately prove far more inconvenient.

Sometimes the only way to make things better is to fix them, to reconstruct them.

And so it is with our souls. There are times when our souls need to be under construction and reconstruction, when that is the only way for them to withstand the constant force of life in all its uncertainty.

I heard once at a conference that our “churches are full of hurting people who haven’t taken a season to heal”. This is part of the reconstruction process — realizing that your soul needs to heal and the wisest thing to do is to allow time for the reconstruction and healing process to take place.

our churches are full of hurting people who haven’t taken a season to healTweet: our churches are full of hurting people who haven’t taken a season to heal

A number of years ago my husband and I went through an extended period of healing, an extended reconstruction period. It lasted over six years. During that time we did nothing beyond attending church and getting together with safe friends. We didn’t take part in any Bible Studies, we were not involved in any ‘ministry’, we did no service. We went through a season of healing and it was invaluable.

Besides achieving the desired result of healing and reconstructing, we learned several things.

1. We learned that we were far more use to God as people willing to be healed than we would have been had we tried to maintain a façade. The Psalmist David in a prayer of repentance says: “A broken and contrite heart you will not despise.” He speaks to the mercy of God, his loving kindness, the bones that God has broken. God has never, and will never, despise a broken and contrite heart. It’s the heart of the proud and the deceitful that concerns him far more.

2. We learned that our worth was not, and never will be, in what we do. Church service, ‘ministry’, getting involved – none of that is wrong. In fact, when done out of love for God it is a gift to be used for his glory. But it does not constitute our worth. Our worth is in this: That we are made in the image of God, his creation, his love. Distorted theology about our worth, thinking it is about what we do rather than who we are, is far more dangerous to the soul than taking time out for healing.

3. We came to realize that when you go through a season of healing, God brings people into your life who are broken and need to hear that there is redemption, there is healing. Even in the midst of the hardest parts of healing, we would meet people who needed to know there was hope, needed to know we were also walking the long, arduous path called ‘healing’. Perhaps broken seeks out broken? I like to think that the broken intuitively sense that they can learn best from those also willing to go through the reconstruction process.

4. We learned that the words ‘ministry’ will never be synonymous with ‘God’, and when we make it so, we are in a state of serious delusion. If we are not careful, ‘ministry’ becomes God. The word itself is held up as the ideal, instead of God himself being the ideal and ministry the result of our love for him. Defined as ‘the one that serves’ we can see ministry for what it is – not an end in itself, simply a way to reflect a love of God.

5. Mostly we learned that God is close to the broken-hearted. He cared not about our lack of service, he cared about our souls. Deeply, urgently, consistently he worked in our souls to reconstruct them to His Glory. The cuts that we sustained by his hand during the healing process were cuts of a gifted surgeon, done only to rid us of what would harm. And oh how they hurt, how they smarted. But when all was done, when surgery ended, the dead tissue was gone, only the healthy remained.

While a major construction and healing period is over, we are still ever aware of our fragility and propensity to go out on our own, thinking our souls are fully fixed. But the reality is somewhat different. Just as the Longfellow Bridge will go through this extended reconstruction period and emerge stronger, it will always have its points of weakness, its need for inspections and regular upkeep.

Like the reconstruction of the bridge, the reconstruction of our souls may not be visible to the lay person. But we know, regardless of what the outsider may observe, that ultimately not being willing to have our souls reconstructed would bring damage beyond what the eye is capable of seeing.

As I pass the bridge today it is early morning and still dark. If I strain my eyes I can see that construction workers are already present, ready to continue this important work of keeping a bridge safe and useable.

It is early morning and still dark, but God is present, ready to continue this important work of keeping me safe and useable in this beautiful and continual work of reconstruction. 


Note: This post has been revised from a piece written four years ago.

The Resilient Orthodox – Explosions of Life

There are times when I feel like life has exploded, as though all parts of it collide and nothing goes the way it is supposed to go. From unexpected expenses to surprise illnesses, life laughs in the face of our careful planning, mocks our ideas of control, and smiles sarcastically at our shocked expressions.

I’m left wandering aimlessly, feeling like this is all a big, fat joke authored by a pre-teen boy who can’t get enough of cheap joke books.

These are the times when my cynical side says “Why pray? Why read daily scripture? It won’t make a difference so why do it?”

I walked into Divine Liturgy yesterday feeling this way. Our church is in the middle of a busy city neighborhood. Parking is difficult and no matter what hour we are there, life is teeming around us. As I walked up the steps, a friend met me and stopped, asking how I was. In the middle of the noise of the city, I found myself pouring my heart out to her, touched and healed with her empathy. On those concrete steps, the questions of what is this all about, the whys, the anger at the suffering of those close to me all poured out of me in a flood of words and tears.

I entered the service comforted and heard by the presence of another.

I went through the motions of the service: Venerating icons, crossing myself, singing the Beatitudes and all the while I was saying the Jesus Prayer, an internal plea for mercy and grace.

It was during the homily that I began to relax. Our priest, Father Patrick, talked about being away on vacation with his children and six grandchildren. “I saw what your life was like,” he said. All around him were explosions of life, he was not in his study surrounded by his books and icons. He was not in church serving the Eucharist or praying before icons. Instead, babies with diapers and toddlers with messy faces were ever present. “I saw how hard it is to continue the disciplines of prayer and scripture reading in the midst of this,” he said. But he didn’t stop there. He went on to say that he also saw how absolutely imperative it was to continue these disciplines in the midst of this, how we can’t go on without these practices. Because these explosions of life demand so much that we can’t do it alone.

I have tried to do it alone the past few weeks. I rationalize that I am too tired to stand in front of our icons and pray. I rationalize that nothing will change even if I do pray. I make excuses, I blame, I dismiss – but all the while, life explodes around me and I have no tools to cope.

These explosions of life call for explosions of grace, but I can’t see grace because I’m to caught up in trying to do it by myself.

I found myself deeply comforted by Father Patrick’s words, by his acknowledgement that this is hard. None of this is easy. And it’s precisely because it is not easy that I need these beautiful and grace-filled disciplines of prayer and scripture.

Life comes with its explosions and the only thing that can withstand it is grace.  Beautiful grace, that hard to define something that we don’t deserve but we get anyway. That good word that has not been corrupted through time, instead it shines through dark days, and says “boo!” as it surprises me around hard corners.

Yesterday grace met me on concrete steps and through a homily. Today is a new day. Life is still an explosion, but the explosion of grace is at the ready. I open my hands, ready to receive. It’s all I can do and somehow it is enough.

“Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.”*

A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. – Frederick Buechner

*Frederick Buechner

Reflections on Morning and Evening Prayers

 

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It’s early morning. The day is waking to summer in all its blue-skyed glory. Birds sing and chirp loud in chorus  – a liturgical chant to welcome the day.

I am standing at our icon corner, the place in our home where we say our morning and evening prayers. It is here where I try to begin the day. It is here where I take a few moments from the frantic busyness that can take hold if I’m not careful; here where I thank God for the morning, for a new day. I shake my head in wonder as I read the words “at dawn I might sing the glories of thy Majesty” – this is what life is to be.


It is less than an hour later when my morning peace is challenged, where I shake my head in frustration at someone who jostled me on the subway, where I hold my breath because the smell of urine is so strong in the Park Street T stop.

This is my life. Perhaps it is yours as well – peace and contemplation forgotten as we face everyday life wherever we are. My everyday life is the city, where homeless find shelter in door ways and tourists meander, their faces hidden by maps and sun hats. My everyday life is data mixed with stories, real people who need cancer screenings, real communities that face various difficulties.

I stop for a moment and think of the words of Frederick Buechner: Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. 


It’s at the end of the day when I hold out my hands in a physical gesture of surrender. We are doing our evening prayers, a discipline we began three years ago. We stand with our faces lifted toward icons: The Christ Pantocrator, the Theotokos, and our particular saints – St. Sophia, St. Mary of Egypt, and St. Isaac the Syrian. A tall, thin beeswax candle made by nuns at a monastery is our only light, but it is enough.

There is something about this evening prayer time, something about this physical opening of my hands in release. Those things that I have worried about and held tight, the backpack full of burdens, even the pain in my body is held out to God. It’s during evening prayers that I fully accept what I know to be true – I can’t do it alone. This thing called life is too much for me. There is too much hurt, too much sadness, too much pain. I cannot go to bed with all this – I must release it.

So I do.

With hands lifted up, I give it all to God. I pray the words “Visit and heal our infirmities for thy name’s sake.”

For those few moments, all that matters is this time where earth drifts away and Heaven seems a bit closer.

When a Lion Needs Courage

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The Wizard of Oz is well-known by many. It is referenced in writing and in conversation; called an ‘icon of pop-culture’ for Americans. In terms of characters, there is Dorothy, a sweet cheery girl from Kansas who just wants to get home after she is displaced from the prairies to an unknown land. There is the Scarecrow, who longs for a brain, a Tin Man who longs for a heart, and a Lion who wants courage. Their journey is full of adventures as they set out to find a wizard in an emerald city who can give them what they most want in the world. The story takes us through their journey, until finally they realize that Oz is just an old man from Omaha, Nebraska who is a ventriloquist. He has played into the delusion that he is a wizard for years, but is now tired of it. Ultimately, he shows the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion that throughout the journey they showed characteristics that demonstrate they already possessed a brain, a heart, and courage. Getting Dorothy home turns out to be a more difficult accomplishment.

These characters are used regularly to talk about the characteristics of intelligence, kindness, empathy, and courage.

About that lion- I don’t think of myself as a timid person. I’m loud, strong-willed, and can be stubborn. My family can attest to the fact that I have a temper, and I don’t always use that temper in the right way. But there are times when I long for more courage in writing and in speaking. I long to gently, but clearly, speak into situations.

Early this morning was one of those times. 

Around 6:40 every morning you will find me at the subway station in Cambridge, waiting for a train to take me three stops into the city. The protocol is the same every day: the train pulls up, the doors open, you wait for people to get off the train, and then you step in, hoping there is a seat.

Today as the doors opened, a woman around my age began to step out. As she stepped out, she almost tripped. Our eyes met and I looked inside the doors to see what was blocking her. A much younger man had blocked the door, causing her to stumble and lose her balance. As I realized what was happening, our eyes met and we shook our heads. We were both puzzled and somewhat stunned. I looked at the younger man and said “Whoah!” He turned and shouted out the door “Call the f*&^@in’ police why don’t you?” The door shut and the train began to move.

The man was standing and moved across to the other side. He looked at me and shouted “f’in terrorists! Do you think it’s easy for me? Do you think it’s easy? I’ve seen people die!”  At this point, I got up and walked purposefully over to him. I looked at him and said “I’ve seen people die as well. A lot of us have seen people die.” He looked at me and stomped off to the other door, where he shouted at us again that none of this was easy. At the Park Street stop he got off.

At this point, most of us in the subway were shaking. It was a difficult way to begin a Monday morning. The subway is always a kaleidoscope of color and diversity and everyone was feeling the heavy weight of what went down. As a health professional, my guess is that he had PTSD and severe anger issues.

But it still wasn’t okay. It still isn’t okay.

As I relive the incident, I wish I had calmly but forcefully said “You need to stop.This is not okay.” Or I wish I hadn’t even gotten on the train, I wish I had taken the time to walk with the woman, to make sure she was okay and that she knew she had support.

I feel like the Lion in the Wizard of Oz, begging for courage. Only instead of an elderly man who was living out a delusion, I want courage from God to stand up for what is right, whether in speaking, writing, or everyday living. At the core, I lack courage. I am a people pleaser and I want people’s approval. But wanting people’s approval stifles me and too often leaves me keeping my mouth shut, thinking after the incident of what I want to say.

The incident felt awful and I was in tears by the time I arrived at my office. Thankfully, I have colleagues of many colors and backgrounds who help me process and move forward. There have only been two other times in the nine years that I have been riding the subway where I was truly disturbed, and the reality is, it’s easier to handle when it happens to me than when it happens to others.

But it illustrates to me what my prayer and word for the year need to be. Quite simply, I need courage. I need courage to speak up stronger and better.

And so on this Monday morning, with my heart beating and my soul raw, my prayer is this: Lord have Mercy. Give me courage to get out of the safe bubbles that are so easy to find and crawl into. Help me to  confront the wrong in myself first, and then gently, but firmly, speak up for others.

In Memory of George

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George was one of those guys that I saw early morning. As I would wander up Tremont Street from the Park Street T Station he would be setting up in front of the Granary Burying Ground. This cemetery is Boston’s third oldest cemetery and the final earthly resting place for the likes of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere.

Outside of this historic cemetery, George would set up his earthly belongings. It was a perfect spot in many ways — never in the direct sunlight, but always in the line of visitors to Boston who might spare a dollar or two for the homeless.

So early morning I would walk by and we would greet each other. No matter how grey the day, George would smile. His personality showed through and as I would pass by he’d never fail to say “Have a good day Babe!” Maybe it’s because I’m daily growing older, but somehow I loved that he called me that. I never gave George money. We would just talk and then I would go on to work and he would continue on in his day.

It was the beginning of August that I realized I hadn’t seen George for a couple of days. Perhaps, I reasoned, it was too warm and he’d found another spot. Two days later as I passed by his place in front of the iron fence of the cemetery I stopped cold. Flowers adorned the fence and there hung a picture of George along with a typed story about him. I gasped aloud as I read it. The picture resembled a magazine cover with a banner over the top that read “Rest in Peace.” The bottom had these dates:

October 7th, 1972 – August 4th, 2016

George Dagraca, 43 years old, had died. 

I felt a sense of shock and sadness. I didn’t know George’s story, I had never heard it. We were early morning greeters and our conversations didn’t go deep. Turns out, he was a heroin addict, addicted to those highs that could temporarily remove him from some of the pain of his youth.

Along with the picture was a eulogy of sorts, by someone like me who met George on his daily walks.

We don’t fully know who we will meet in life, who we will touch and who will touch us. Many like me mourn his death and somehow that gives me hope. Because if we who barely knew him care about his death and mourn our short, daily connection, how much more so does the God who sees a sparrow fall?

My faith holds me tight in times like these. Earthly status means nothing to a Heavenly God. Whether our lives be small or great, he counts the hairs on our heads, the freckles on our noses. He cares about our habits, our diseases, and the addictions that sometimes kill us. This is the goodness of the Lord.

A favorite verse comes to mind many times when I walk on Tremont Street and I think of it today:

“I would have despaired, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage,  Wait, I say, for the Lord!”*

I walk up Tremont Street, a sky brightening over the Atlantic Ocean. Sparrows sit on the fence above George’s memorial.

In a sky brightening,in sparrows chirping, and in a homemade memorial I see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. And it is enough. 

You can read more of George’s story here. 

*Psalm 27:13-14