The Shortest Season

Summer came to us for a few short days, and it has left again. While last week saw us basking in sunny 80-degree weather, today I am curled up on the couch with my warmest sweater pulled tightly around me. A blanket is over my legs and slippers warm my feet. It is 50 degrees outside! We know we have adjusted far too much to New England because we are refusing to put on the heat. The menu for supper will be grilled cheese sandwiches and soup when what I want it to be is grilled chicken and salad, with a drink that has a twist of lemon served in our city yard with the breeze of summer coming over us. I’ll not have my way. It is what it is, and I have no control over it.

Despite this, the flowers continue to bloom the way they do, and right now it is peonies. Peonies amaze me. Big, showy flowers, there is nothing shy about them. Their fuchsia, pink, or white blossoms take over a garden screaming “Notice me! I’ll not have you ignore me!” And then bam! They are gone. It somehow seems wrong. As though I am given this glimpse of glorious beauty and just as I’m breathing it in, it’s gone. Gone until the following year, only a memory to look back on.

I sometimes feel that way about those things that are so beautiful and good in this life. That they come, bringing us into the beauty and glory of the moment and then, like the peony season, they are gone. I stand wistfully watching, not quite believing that the beauty I was offered is no longer present, longing to bring it back. Wanting to grasp at it with my hot little hand, willing it to stay.

Like peonies, the moments come again. Though they may come in different forms and contexts, they hold the same beauty and goodness. The moment in a family wedding, where it is just you and your family and no one else really matters – all is right, and you are fully present in celebration of a sacred union. The moment where the sun is just hitting the horizon and you gasp with the beauty of it. The moment where your son arrives and surprises you, and you didn’t realize just how much you needed this gift until suddenly, there he is. The moment where you feel so fully at peace with your surroundings that you are not quite sure the peace is real, but you want to hold it for as long as you can. Those moments of newborn babies or deathbed love, moments of receiving the Eucharist, knowing that heaven just met earth through Divine Liturgy.

Yet like peonies, they are short and then they are gone. I think as humans we ache for the redemption that seems so fully present during those times. Born to be whole, set in a broken world, we drink in these moments of redemption as those who are dying of thirst. We drink them in, and then they are gone. Yet when life gets terrible and evil feels like it will win, the memories call us back and stay with us, urging us on and reminding us that faith is required to believe that beauty and goodness will come again. Reminding us that redemption is real, that someday all will be restored, beauty and goodness forever present, a broken world put together by a God who calls us home.

Chocolates, Flowers, Crutches

I had major surgery yesterday. It has been a long time coming, cancelled initially because of Covid-19 and other family illness, and finally after frantic messages to my surgeon about my pain level, I had a date.

With the date scheduled and all pre-appointments completed, at an early hour yesterday, my husband drove me to the hospital. I was registered, questioned, tested, given meds, and given an intravenous line with outstanding efficiency, and the next thing I know, I woke up. Surgery was finished, textbook like in its rapidity and lack of any complications. I have to remind myself that 12 hours of preop, surgery, and recovery time is actually efficient.

I arrived home evening of the same day – not a usual occurrence, but so welcome for me. As I sat in the house, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. My mortality and dependence were right in front of me. It was both sad and beautiful. The chocolates from my neighbor Chase, who I joke roams the neighborhood looking for someone to bother, fresh lilacs from a neighbor who clipped them from her lilac bush that is in full bloom, and my crutches – my sure companion in the coming weeks of healing. They are reminders that right now, I need help for everything. My two hands are used on crutches and one of my legs is not in service. It is a humbling place to land, yet all of us at some point will be in similar positions.

It’s funny, isn’t it? The way we go through events that feel monumental to us, but others continue in their days, blissfully unaware of births and deaths, of surgeries and tragedies, of family shaking traumas and blinding insights. And of course, we are the same. When things are going at a “normal” pace with work and family, when pain is not ever present, when our lives have not been disrupted by any of the things above, we are the same with others. Though we may show empathy and compassion in the moment, none of us has the capacity to bear constant witness to the ongoing joys and pains of strangers.

As I think about my homecoming last night, I think that is what hit me. That it was a big thing for me, and I am too fortunate in being surrounded virtually and physically by people who care about me, but for others it is like any other day. My sadness came and tears flowed from a place of shared humanity, for the millions of us who had something momentous happen yesterday and are facing the aftermath today – whether others knew it or not.

I wish I could sit with others in this space, and we could swap stories of chocolates, flowers, and crutches, wish that I could know what physical signs they had that made them aware of their dependence, their need, their humanity. Yet even as I say this, I know that not being able to is a gift. These are the places where God dwells and speaks into the pain and into the healing. In creative ways, he urges people who surround those of us with needs to step up, to bear witness. Not to everyone, but to the people in our neighborhoods and churches, in our schools and in our work. The best thing I can do during this season of healing is to lean into this, the God of the universe who cares as much about individuals as he does about the nations.

My first step in leaning in is gratitude for chocolates, flowers, and crutches – all symbols of healing, friendship, and interdependence.

If you are in the place I am in today, for whatever reason, may you feel the abundance of these things and may we be surprised and delighted by the presence of God.

Paschal Reflections – Deeper Magic

This week has been Holy Week for millions around the world who are part of the Orthodox Church. It is the final week before we celebrate Pascha and the world changing resurrection of Christ.

It is my custom to write a reflection before Pascha. Our service begins at midnight, but we generally try and arrive by 11pm to get a seat. We enter into the nave in darkness with only a few candles burning and someone chanting the Psalms. Just before midnight, the bells begin to ring, and the room goes completely dark. At midnight, our priests begin to chant “Thy Resurrection, O Christ Our Savior, the Angels in Heaven sing. Enable us on Earth to Glorify Thee in Purity of Heart.” The senior priest then comes out, a candle in hand and says “Come! Receive the light!” The people surge to the front, candles in hand, and receive the light either from the priest or from each other. It is glorious! It gets even better, but I’ve described this before in this space, so I won’t go into detail other than to say that there is an enormous amount of joy, hundreds of “Christ is Risens” in every language that is present in our parish, and it all ends with a huge feast at 4am.

So now, at 7 pm with several hours to go, I enter my reflective space.

During these last weeks of Lent, I have been listening to the audio version of the Narnia series – specifically The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Horse and His Boy.

My connection to Narnia started in childhood when my mom would read to us during the evenings when we were on vacation from boarding school. Dressed in pajamas and curled comfortably in the living room or on my parents’ bed we would listen to tales of an enchantress, winter, and a lion who was not safe but was good. We heard stories of talking horses and boys turned into dragons, of Puddleglum and a giant mouse called Reepicheep, and finally of a poor donkey manipulated by an evil and cunning ape into dressing as a lion and a final battle that opened the door to a new world “farther up and farther in.” These stories captured my imagination, and I would dream of doors in our world that led to worlds beyond like Narnia.

As a teenager and then adult, I began reading the series on my own, never growing tired of the stories and metaphors, the word pictures and wisdom that the Narnia series offered.

As I have listened to this during Holy Week, the author’s brilliance in capturing this timeless story has struck me anew. It has been profound to listen to this during this time of the year.

On this eve before Pascha, I think about the climactic event from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where Aslan, innocent of any wrongdoing, took on the punishment of Edmund, and was brutally killed at the hand of the White Witch.

But that wasn’t the true climax or the end of the story. The story was bigger, deeper, and more powerful than the White Witch could ever know. And the gift of understanding this was first given to Susan and Lucy by Aslan as he conquered death.

Consider these words:

At that moment they heard from behind them a loud noise—a great cracking, deafening noise as if a giant had broken a giant’s plate…. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan.

“Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”

“Yes!” said a great voice from behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.

“Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad….

“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

“There is a magic deeper still”,,, I don’t for a moment believe that my faith is magic, but I do believe in my deepest soul that there is a mystery so big and so deep that I will never fully understand it in this life, that the greatest love imaginable in heaven or on earth has been given to us through the Resurrection. I do believe that before time dawned Christ “the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages” the Redeemer knew what was to be. This is one of the glories of Pascha, that I get to both experience and bear witness to a collective, community gathering of celebration, entering into the timeless truth of Christ’s resurrection and what it means for the human race.

“Looking back into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned…” As I enter into the wee hours of the morning, I will once again reflect on this mystery and what it means for me and millions of others around the globe.

And with that, I will say:

Xristos Anesti! Χριστός ανέστη
المسيح قام Al Masih Qam
Khristos Voskres!
Hristos a Inviat!
Christo Ressuscitou!
Christ is Risen!

Indeed, He is Risen!

Image – Coptic Cairo, 2016

Hospital Waiting Rooms: “I have heard your prayers; I have seen your tears”

“Anonymous, liminal spaces where broken and hurting people go to get fixed.” That’s what I am thinking as I sit, silently people watching in a hospital waiting room.

It’s early morning in this particular waiting room and the still mandated masks contribute to the anonymity. It’s a busy place with ages spanning 10-month-olds to late life. The large and small, fat and thin, old and young, physically fit and not, black, brown, white, and all colors between are either finding their way to their appointments or waiting in chairs under glaring fluorescent lights.

In the western world it is unlikely that anyone will escape having a hospital waiting room experience at least once in their lives. The experience is a weekly experience for some, a once in a lifetime for others, and daily for a small but significant few. Unless we enter into conversation, we have no idea of the stories that have brought people into this place despite the fact that it is a shared space. Some people hide their anxiety and stress inside while for others it is out in the open, verbal and strong.

Adding to the general melancholy of the waiting room is the grey day that comes through the lobby windows. For now, the sun is covered, almost like hope itself is gone. We are all on hospital time, that unique time that begins the minute you enter a hospital and will continue throughout your stay. Minutes and seconds are replaced by procedures and diagnoses, bad news and good news, when the doctor comes and when she leaves. It has nothing to do with real time, and the quicker you accept that reality, the better you are.

In my reading the other day I read about King Hezekiah’s illness and recovery in the book of the prophet Isaiah. Hezekiah is what is described as mortally ill. He is going to die. He is in a waiting room of sorts when the prophet Isaiah comes to him and tells him that he won’t recover and that he should put his house in order. Hezekiah’s response is to weep bitterly and cry out to God saying that he had walked with and loved God. The subtext is clear – “God, give me more time. I’ve been faithful. I’ve obeyed you. I’ve tried to please you.” God’s beautiful response is in verse 5 of chapter 38.

I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears, so I will add fifteen years to your life.

Isaiah 38: 5b

I read those words in awe, because isn’t that what all of us want in a hospital waiting room? Don’t we all want God to look at us and say those life-giving words “I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears.” For these are words that tell us we are seen, we are known, and we are extravagantly loved.

As I leave the hospital waiting room and look around for one last time, I pray these words over all those I see: “May God hear your prayer and may he see your tears.”

A Prayer for New Year’s Eve

Here’s to the elderly, their memories thick with days gone by, wistfully longing for the time when staying up until midnight or dancing until dawn was a joy. May they know their lives and their memories count.

Here’s to the one who has been left, either by death or divorce, unshed tears just behind their eyelashes, as they watch the clock longing for bedtime to come. May their tears be received, and their hearts healed.

Here’s to the couple with the newborn, eyes wide open with newness and hope, bodies aching with the tiredness a newborn brings. May they have enough sleep to love each other and their little one well.

Here’s to the couple who just met, the ones who are wondering if this is just another in a long list of disappointing relationships. May they not put their hopes in another person but in a relationship-loving God.

Here’s to the ones who just got engaged, starry-eyed with the delight of sharing a lifetime of dreams together. May the strength of their love and the mercy of God equip them for the joys and tragedies ahead.

Here’s to the one who is single in a world of couples, always wondering why they feel second best. May they walk tall in the joy of friendship, growing in God and knowing in their bones how much their lives count.

Here’s to the new arrivals, fresh off a flight from warmer places, the cold and the unfamiliar hitting them as they walk out the doors of the airport. May they be greeted with bread and tea, a place to sleep and people to help.

Here’s to those who pray for peace but suffer in war. May they be safe, and may they know that they are not alone, that there are those praying for them – that wars would end, and peace would reign.

Here’s to the suffering one, who dreads the dawn of a new day. May they be wrapped in comfort and love.

Here’s to the dying one, ready to enter eternity on the cusp of a new year. May they die knowing the love, rest, and mercy of God.

Here’s to those who are heavy with conflict, weary of fighting, broken with fractured relationships, longing for peace in their families and communities. May we know the one who is mighty counselor, everlasting God, and Prince of Peace.

Here’s to you and to me, wherever we are and whoever we are with. May the hopes and dreams of all our years be met in the One who promises his presence.

Happy New Year’s Eve.

Advent Reflections – Falling

On Thursday night I fell. It was dark, wet, and my arms were full of bags. I had been in downtown Boston for a meeting, and I was so ready to be home. Parking was difficult, but I finally found space a couple of blocks down the hill. I had almost reached home when I lost my footing and splat – down I went.

I spontaneously cried out but there was no one to hear me. I was shaking badly as I tried to get up. My whole body ached. I knew my left knee was hit the worst as it took the brunt of the fall. Tears began to fall as I finally regained my balance and began trying to pick things up from the ground. Little chocolate stars with white dots were strewn all over the ground, the leftovers of a beautiful afternoon tea at my daughter’s house shining in the light of a gas lamp. It felt like they were mocking me “See – just a couple of hours ago you were having a wonderful time, but it doesn’t last. It will never last.”

I finally pulled everything together and limped my way to my door. Sniffling, I walked into warmth, light, and a husband who was deeply concerned for my wellbeing.

The tears continued to fall. I felt like all the pain in the world was wrapped up in that one fall. All the displaced suffering that I know exists around the world. All the extended family struggle and pain, death and betrayal that has been a part of our family for the past couple of years was in that fall. All the difficult nights and angry days were represented in my bleeding hands and knee. I cried and I cried.

We are all just one fall away – one fall away from tragedy; one fall away from illness; one fall away from a life changing event. No one goes to work on a Monday morning expecting to fall, or to die, or to hear that someone else died. Yet, every single day people go through events that change their lives.

One Fall Away

In truth, my fall on Thursday night was not life changing. Though my knee has turned all shades of pretty colors, I didn’t break it. I skinned my hands, but they will heal with minimal scarring. I bruised my body, and it brought me to my bruised heart and soul. And that’s why I cried and cried. That’s why my tears fell. They were my expression of looking to God for comfort, looking to God for healing.

In the classic book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, author Eugene Peterson talks about the honest expression of suffering found in the Psalms. The model in the Psalms is far removed from the platitudes of comfort that are often offered to us by friends and acquaintances. Instead of telling us to get up and dust ourselves off, the Psalmist cries out against all the pain, suffering, and evil in the world. The Psalmist cries out in agony asking God why he has left him. It is a tremendous comfort and challenge to me that we have this model. The Psalmist doesn’t look at God as someone who will scold him and tell him to try harder. Instead, the Psalmist begins in pain.

Help God – the bottom has fallen out of my life!….By setting the anguish out into the open and voicing it as a prayer, the psalm gives dignity to our suffering. It does not look on suffering as something slightly embarrassing that must be hushed up and locked in a closet (where it finally becomes a skeleton) because this sort of thing shouldn’t happen to a real person of faith. And it doesn’t treat it as a puzzle that must be explained, and therefore turn it over to theologians or philosophers to work out an answer. Suffering is set squarely, openly, passionately before God. It is acknowledged and expressed. It is described and lived

Eugene Peterson – Psalm 130 in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

I don’t know what is going on in your lives right now. That is the reality of writing publicly. But I know that Advent, the time of waiting, can give rise to hard emotions. I know that when all around looks shiny with bright lights and sparkles, the things that are hard seem magnified. And that’s why we have those beautiful Psalms. They invite us into honest dialogue with a God who loves us so much. They allow us to cry out to a God that hears, that sees, and that dignifies our suffering by allowing us to express it. And when it’s all cried out, written or voiced in lament, we end in the same hope that the Psalmist did.

I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.*

*Psalm 130: 6-7

[Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash]

Advent Reflections – Time Redeemed

One of my first impressions of Orthodox Christianity (besides a jarring dose of culture shock) was that time flows differently here. Something mysterious happened when I entered the church for services: time became beautiful. No longer merely the engine of change and decay, time in the Orthodox liturgical setting seemed to bear something of eternity.

Nicole Roccas in Time and Despondency

We put up our Christmas tree this week – a Frasier Fir, fresh from the forest of Quebec via a large truck and Boston Christmas Trees situated right in the middle of a busy part of Boston. We did not wander into a forest and, in a Hallmark movie moment, cut down the tree with an axe and drag it through the snow. No – we went to an area busy with traffic, bars, hair salons, and Korean restaurants. It is steps away from our church and a place we’ve been going to pick our tree every year since 2008, with the exception of our year in Kurdistan. Trees are piled up high as seasonal employees help the idealists, romantics, and realists pick out the perfect tree (which of course is different for all of them!)

It is decorated with no less than 400 twinkle lights as a way to bring light to a season characterized by waiting in the dark. We had neighbors come over to help decorate, filling the void that five children who have left, now establishing homes of their own, creates. Our home filled with laughter, mulled wine, and Christmas treats as we enjoyed creating beauty together.

In our church tradition, Advent is not only a time of waiting, but also a time of fasting. It is counter intuitive and counter cultural to be sure, but I have come to appreciate the fast before a feast, the way this draws me into deeper contemplation of pivotal events in the church, in this case the Incarnation and God becoming man.

It is an extraordinary mystery that the creator of time willingly confined himself to the limitations of time through the Incarnation. Suddenly he who is above and beyond time knew what it was to enter into it. His entering time came full circle and allowed us to enter eternity – first by being reunited with God himself through Christ and then recognizing, believing and entering into these events through the Church and her liturgical reminders of what goes into a life of faith.

Our Epistle reading yesterday was from the book of Ephesians – specifically Ephesians 5 where the writer of the book exhorts the readers to walk as children of light, “redeeming the time.” It’s a beautiful and hard phrase. Beautiful because those of us who have lived for a while have regrets and long for time that we wasted, or time when we hurt people or suffered hurt, to be redeemed. We long for hurt and suffering to mean something more than a wasted time of pain and grief. It is a hard phrase for the same reasons. “How can this be redeemed” we ask during the quiet, dark of a sleepless night when no one is there to listen except God. How are these things that are so broken restored? How are relationships mended? How is wasted time and conversation ever really redeemed?

We also long for the more mundane aspects of seemingly wasted time to mean something. I was just in traffic that made me batshit crazy. It’s those Boston drivers….and I’m one of them! How do I redeem that time? Meetings at work that mean nothing to eternity – how are those redeemed.

Again, I come back to the mystery of Advent. If a virgin can give birth to a Savior, give birth to a Redeemer, then surely in some mysterious way, time can be redeemed. In recognizing Christ’s incarnation, I also recognize his capture of time, this one event changing all of history – what came before and what came after. This birth that led to death and resurrection is the pinnacle of time redeemed.

What does it mean for me, then, to live as one who walks in the light, redeeming the time? Perhaps an important step on that journey is recognizing Advent and giving thanks that a time of waiting brought forth a glorious life altering birth. Perhaps in the waiting in the hard of the night or the hard of the morning traffic, the waiting is bringing about a redemption that I can’t even imagine. I’ll be on that journey until the day when my breath and life stop. Until then, these words from St. John Chrysostom offer me a further glimpse into what this looks like.

The time is not yours. At present you are strangers, and sojourners, and foreigners, and aliens; do not seek honors, do not seek glory, do not seek authority, nor revenge; bear all things, and in this way, ‘redeem the time’.

St. John Chrysostom

Advent Reflections – Faith in the Irrational

If you are like me, everywhere you turn you will see someone writing Advent Reflections. While I’d like to apologize for joining the crowd, I find I can’t. One look at headlines around the world and I’m convinced that our world needs as many Advent Reflections as possible.

From suicides to refugee traumas, from wars to famines, from deep loneliness to deeper despair, we are a people in need of hope. My job takes me into this hopelessness (if not physically, emotionally) on an almost daily basis. From statistics to stories, I witness so much difficult news, so much sadness, so much despair. It is in these darkest days, when even the physical days grow dimmer and shorter, that we come upon Advent – the coming of the Christ Child.

As I was reflecting on Advent and all it means this afternoon, I was once again overwhelmed with the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of Christ coming, his channel for coming a woman’s womb. For nine months he was nourished through what his mother ate and drank, protected by his mother’s body. He was, like all babies, connected to her through his umbilical cord, his life sustained by God through Mary’s placenta. The God who said, “Let there be light” and so there was light, reduced to the smallest of cells to become one of us. There is a line in one of the hymns of the Orthodox Church that says, “All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace…. He made your body into a throne, and your womb become more spacious than the heavens,” and when I first heard these lines, I could hardly breathe for the wonder of them.

I get it when some of my friends and family say to me “I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t make sense. I just can’t believe it.” It IS irrational and yet, every day, I choose this over all else.

Perhaps this is why the first Sunday of Advent focuses on faith. Because faith is foundational to Advent. How can I possibly move into hope, love, and peace unless I first acknowledge the faith it takes to believe that God is the creator, author, and perfector of all of those?

I choose faith to believe the seemingly impossible. Faith to get up every day and live by this impossibility. Faith to not get defensive when others challenge that belief. Faith to say, “I don’t know how this all works, but I’m still going to believe.” Faith to believe in the irrational, hope in the impossible, and love with abandon. Faith to believe that somehow in the presence of God, all of this will make sense, mystery wrapped up in indescribable love.

This is the irrational season, when love blooms bright and wild! Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the child

Madeleine L’Engle

If you are one who celebrates Advent, may you be encouraged to continue on in this wildly irrational faith journey that ultimately leads all of us Home.