And So We Wait…

Today, those of us who are Christians enter into a season of waiting – the season of Advent.

Advent comes at the end of November and into the dimming light of December. In the Northern hemisphere, days are shorter and grayer and shadows linger. For those of us who love light, it is tempting to push aside the darker days, brightening them with as much light as possible. Waiting in the dark is long and hard.

Yet I know many right now who are doing just that. They are waiting in the dark.

They are waiting for jobs that never seem to come, interviews that are few and far between with the dreaded “Although you are well qualified, we have decided to move forward with another candidate,” that comes every time. Unemployment is their long journey in the dark. Others are waiting for a body scan to show cancer in remission instead of the continual need for chemotherapy. Still others wait for a child to return home, or at least return their texts. There is the waiting for death, which they’ve been told is not far off – and yet, they hurt with the pain of a body that used to serve them well and now fails them at every step. They are waiting for visas and for borders to open. They are waiting for ceasefires – for bombings to stop and a semblance of peace to be restored.

Added to this is the world’s waiting for a vaccine, for a pandemic that has taken over people’s lives, friendships, and emotions to end.

Into this waiting comes the season of Advent. Advent is another waiting in the dark. The difference is that unlike these other situations, Advent is like a tunnel where we see the light at the end. Not only do we see the light, we know and long for this light.

But we are at the beginning of the tunnel and it will take time to reach the end. And so we wait.

And as we wait, we walk toward the light. We walk with expectation and anticipation toward the coming – the coming of hope, the coming of light, the coming of God, birthed in the flesh.

God did not throw us alone into an empty universe. He did not place us on a tiny planet where he afterward forgot all about us. No! He entered into our life, our history. He himself came to us, not merely to save us, but to clothe us with His grace, to transform us according to his likeness.

Father Maximos on November 29 at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church

In this next month, I will be writing each Sunday of waiting, of expectation, of Advent. I would love for you to join me! For companions in my journey I have chosen these two books: Shadow & Light by Tsh Oxenreider and Let all Creation Rejoice by Father Stavros N. Akrotirianakis.

On Missing My Kids

There are days as a mom of adult kids where you miss your children so much that you physically ache. You feel it in your bones. It’s not the sharp pain of an acute appendicitis, rather, it’s the dull ache of arthritis. You remember each labor and delivery, the final push that ushered them into the world. You remember gazing at those eyes, nose, ears, mouth completely in awe of the mystery of birth, the mystery of motherhood.

You know in that moment of birth that you will never forget. Never. That these tiny humans that lived in your womb for nine months, sometimes more and sometimes less, are connected to you in an unfathomable mystery.

You know also, though you don’t want to think about it, that they are yours for only a time. After that, who’s to know?

You break inside for the knowledge that the world will sometimes hurt your child. You know this, because you are an adult and the world has not always been kind to you.

The years go by – some interminably slow, others far too fast. And then – they are adults.

You love the conversations. You love watching them with their friends. You love the unique place they hold in the world. You love watching them connect and find their place. And yet, they are no longer in your house. The daily check ins of “when will you be home?” no longer apply. This is when you know that when your mother says on the phone “I love you more!” it’s true. For you now know the immeasurable love of a mother for her children.

Parenting is a dance and you are in the stage called ‘slow jazz.’

I think about this today as I look at pictures on my shelf. I smile at each kid as though they are present when the reality is far different. I think about the parenting dance, the way it begins as a slow dance or ballet. The music is beautiful and haunting. That baby we take home from the hospital, from the orphanage, from the foster care system comes into our lives, and while everything changes, it’s a slow change. We have anticipated this for a long time. The baby blankets and onesies are purchased and waiting. We have bought or borrowed a crib for the little one. The curtain goes up and the ballet begins.

Every movement of that first baby feels recorded in our hearts and memories, it seems like forever. The first smile, the day they sleep through the night, their eating, pooping, sleeping habits all weave their way into our lives.

As another child comes the music changes and the slow dance stops, replaced by the chicken dance where there’s little grace, just a lot of squawking and moving. It’s fun but it’s exhausting.

Middle years are the Macarena and Bollywood. There’s a rhythm and grace and fun. You got this thing. You can criticize other parents because wow – your kids are amazing and their kids? Better beware because they are headed straight to the state penitentiary by way of the principal’s office. But not yours. Oh. No. Yours are amazing and talented and oh you are so thankful for Grace. The Grace given to you of course – not that bestowed on others.

Every parent thinks they dance well during the middle years!

Then the teen years come and you bow humbly even as the dance changes from the Macarena and Bollywood (which you love) to that of rock and roll where your head is splitting and you don’t understand the words but you think you caught a swear in there. It’s so fast you are spinning. The activities, the angst, the long talks punctuated by angry silence, the fun yet exhausting dance of rock and roll.

And then comes parenting adult children. 

And suddenly it all changes. It becomes like jazz music: you agree on the notes and then you improvise. Negotiation becomes a key word. The parental dance goes back and forth between being too worried and too involved and throwing your hands up saying “Well, it’s their life!” But even though you throw those words around, you are always there waiting. When the text comes at midnight, you hear the buzz. When the call comes in early morning hours, you know to take it. When they make decisions you disagree with, you know that you love them fiercely and will love and pray for them until the day you die.

Slow jazz is in the background, but no longer a central part of your life. The furniture is rearranged and the house echoes with empty. You miss them deep in your soul, but you know you’ve raised them with wings to fly and they are exercising those wings well.

There are times when you pour over photo albums and you remember when they were so little. And you think “I thought they were so big. I expected so much out of them.” But you realize now that they were so little and the world was so big.

And though the dance has changed dramatically through the years, you pray that even as you occasionally stumble and fall you will dance every step with grace.


Note: Excerpts from this were first published in 2014.

Reclaiming Lost Things

We used to rent out our beloved cottage in Rockport for a 9-month season. From a financial standpoint, it was smart. From an emotional one, it was awful. At the end of each rental period I would walk into the cottage with a sense of dread. How had the renters treated our beloved space? How had the cottage survived a group of strangers? What would be broken? Dirty? Irreparably damaged?

The first thing we would do is clean. We would scrub and polish until it regained some of the sparkle. Then I would redecorate. I would change things around and make it ours again. I would reclaim it for our purposes.

When something happens that you have no control over – losing a job, having to leave a country, getting a cancer diagnosis, a death, a pandemic, or a myriad of other things in life – you feel like your life is not your own. Things are happening to you and around you. Things that you did not choose. Your place and purpose suddenly change, and you are left in a tornado of doubt, fear, anger, and loss. Part of recovering is reclaiming.

How do you reclaim what is lost?

How do we reclaim our spaces, our bodies, our marriages, our places of refuge, or our very identities that sometime feel lost in crisis, betrayal, or death? How do we reclaim our faith? How do we scrub, polish, redecorate, and reclaim?

It’s a slow process, but the spiritual truth to this is profound. Perhaps the biggest piece is realizing how little control we really have over things that happen to us. It’s a paradox to be sure, but reclaiming is about getting honest, admitting that there are very few elements of our lives where we have control. We cling tightly to so many parts of our lives, imagining that we have far more control than we actually do. Our hot fists hold on, like a child that doesn’t want to relinquish their favorite toy. “Mine!” we cry. “It’s not fair.” “Why us?” “Its’ my life.” So many responses, but all in the same hard-held fist.

After realizing how little control I do have, it’s about moving forward with what I know. Taking back what is lost.

In this season I’m thinking a lot about reclaiming and being reclaimed. I remember our Rockport cottage as it would once again become ours, its beautiful interior being scrubbed and made new. The same thing is happening during these quieter days, where time loses meaning and days blend together into the season of a pandemic. If I’m willing, I experience an inner housecleaning and reclaiming that can only take place when I lay down my right to control, when I allow the hard inner work of repentance and trust to replace the anger, frustration, and the “it’s not fair” that floats barely under the surface. Perhaps its really when I realize that reclaiming is really about being reclaimed.

My fist opens. My body relaxes. And, over time, my soul is renewed and reclaimed.

On Cardinals and Bread Making

A female cardinal heads toward our bird feeder, interrupting my thoughts as I stare out the window. She is not the dazzling, deep red of her mate, instead her beauty is more subtle – a beak that the most beautiful lipstick could scarcely imitate, a warm red hue at the edges of her wings, but otherwise a light, lovely brown. Her mate is nowhere to be seen, smartly taking cover on a chilly May morning. It is early morning and her interruption is welcome during this time of solitude, nature reminding me that all will be well.

I am deeply influenced by the weather and I look out the window toward the city of Boston, grateful for sunshine and blue sky. Despite that, I find myself sighing, willing myself to focus on the beautiful distraction of the cardinal and not the unknown of the days ahead.

The spoken and unspoken words within all of us are “When will this end?” And even as we speak the words, we know that many have gone through far more difficult times for much longer periods. The cry “How long, Oh Lord?” daily escaping their lips, seemingly without answer.

Those daily chores of eating, taking walks, working from home, video chatting with friends and family, texting and more texting have all achieved heightened importance.

But by far, the most therapeutic, calming act for me has been making bread. I have loved making bread. Not sourdough, with its complicated starter that seems to the uninitiated an organism as needy as a newborn baby. Instead, oatmeal bread – a tried and true recipe that has fed our family through new born babies, tragedies, cold winters, and joy-filled soup suppers. It is therapeutic to create and it is therapy to eat.

I love eating bread, I love making bread. I have written in the past that making bread is better than a counseling session. It is redemptive work, this work of bread making. It grounds me in something solid and sustaining. It is no wonder that throughout history, from France to Egypt to Boston, bread riots have come about when shortages occur or prices rise. Bread is symbolic to life.

Every place I have lived in the world has given me more and more appreciation for bread and the thousands of ways to create it. Each type comes with a unique flavor despite most of them using fairly standard ingredients. Head out to the bazaar at dinner time in Kurdistan or Pakistan and you will hear vendors shouting, luring customers in to buy the fresh naan, fresh bread, hot out of clay ovens.

During this time of worldwide uncertainty and fear, we all long to have something to sustain us. The abundance of recipes and people creating starters for sourdough bread is evidence of how we look to bread to do this for us. In the midst of so much unknown, we want to hold on to the known and the stable, want to grasp things that will take us through uncertainty. No wonder Jesus said “I am the bread of life” to his disciples.

Bread. Beautiful, life-giving, life-sustaining bread – both the physical, tangible bread that I eat and the less tangible spiritual bread of life that I daily seek. Bread that brings order out of chaos, comfort out of despair, and peace out of pandemics, and with it the reminder of words that have lasted thousands of years. “Take. Eat. My body broken for you.”

[Picture Credit: Image by Laura Retyi from Pixabay]

The Rhythm of Grace

I woke up to a cold house. Shivering despite being in a warm robe, I knew something was wrong. The temperature gauge showed a cold 58 and lowering. No heat came from the vents. The furnace was clearly not functioning.

“Could one more thing go wrong?” I thought. Which, of course, is a foolish thought. Yes. Absolutely. A lot more could go wrong. We could have another death. We could have another tragedy. That’s the thing about life – the horrid and tragic things that could happen are limitless. If it were not for grace, why would any of us want to get up in the morning?

And yet – there it is – the last best word one writer called it – Grace.

There is grace. There is hope. There is incredible beauty. There is laughter. There is resurrection. And there always has been.

It’s only been in the past 75 years that life became easy for so many. It wasn’t until the 1940s that wide-spread use of antibiotics became possible, helping people who would have previously died fight infection. It’s been in the last 100 years that we have seen massive advances in infant mortality and morbidity rates, changing the landscape of maternal child health. It was only 102 years ago that the last world-wide flu pandemic killed millions. But even then, there was grace. Even then people lived and loved, laughed and hoped, longed for restoration and resurrection.

Growing up in Pakistan I was introduced at an early age to food rations, no running hot water, no flush toilets, diseases like malaria, dysentery, hepatitis, malnutrition, blackouts, curfews, war, tragedy, and death. While Pakistan was far more than these things, living there meant I was not isolated from many of the things that my peers in the west never experienced. I am not a stranger to the uncomfortable, irritating, and sometimes tragic things of life.

And yet, when I met with a cold house and malfunctioning furnace, I still asked “Why?” I still questioned what else could go wrong.

And then the tears came. First hesitantly and then, when they realized they met with no resistance, they rushed to the surface.

Like so many in today’s world, I don’t know what I’m doing. All that I held dear, all that I planned, all that I worked for earlier feels as though it is no longer a reality. I cried and cried and cried. I didn’t hold back worrying that someone would see or hear these tears. That’s the thing about grieving alone – you don’t will yourself to stop for fear you will be misunderstood, you don’t try to compose yourself. You let the waves of grief move over you, like waves over the sand.

I cried that my brother left us all behind. I cried for my sister-in-law. I cried for my niece and nephew. I cried for my mom, grieving the loss of a child. I cried for all of us who knew and loved this remarkable man. I cried for the suffering around the world – Italy, India, Spain, Pakistan, the United States. I cried for all the people who have become statistics on a sophisticated, computer-programmed map. I cried for morgues that are too full and hospital staff that are too stressed. I cried for the refugees and those who are displaced. I cried for the world.

I don’t know how long I cried. It really didn’t matter. After a while, my sobs subsided, my breathing slowed and I sat still, taking it all in. Nothing had changed, but everything was different.

And then I got up and did what had to be done. Shower. Emails. Meetings. Curriculum development. More meetings.

The rhythm of life in the midst of quarantine. The rhythm of grace.

This is not the end  This is not the end of this  We will open our eyes wide, wider This is not our last  This is not our last breath  We will open our mouths wide, wider And you know you’ll be alright  Oh and you know you’ll be alright This is not the end  This is not the end of us  We will shine like the stars bright, brighter

Gungor

A Salute to All of Us

Photo credit – Stefanie Sevim Gardner

Here’s to the moms, homeschooling when they always said “I’ll homeschool when it snows in Djibouti… or Miami … or Chiang Mai.” In other words “Never” and never has suddenly become now.

Here’s to the restaurant worker, who is suddenly furloughed from an eighty hour work week.

Here’s to the teachers turning their carefully thought out lesson plans into online classes.

Here’s to the young woman who just got a job at Target excited for her first paycheck only to find out there will be no more.

Here’s to the nurse, carefully isolating herself from her family to keep them safe.

Here’s to the student, lonely and feeling trapped.

Here’s to the graduate who will not be able to walk.

Here’s to the bride, who tearfully postponed her wedding Unsure of when it can be rescheduled.

Here’s to the women and men setting up home offices and new systems, trying to continue their jobs.

Here’s to the grocery store employee, wiping down carts and checkout counters with bleach.

Here’s to the healthcare workers, on the frontlines of care.

Here’s to the priest and the pastor, the imam and the rabbi, praying for congregations in crisis.

Here’s to the homeless, fighting one more difficult day, one more crisis in a long list.

Here’s to the families trapped on three sides of the globe, to the third culture kid trying to get home, to the parents and siblings, brothers and sisters separated.

Here’s to the family grieving with no funeral, the community rallying with no physical contact, the church seeking to function while apart.

Here’s to the poor and the refugee – those whose reality has changed little, but whose hope looks even bleaker.

Here’s to the helpers, the doers, the prayers, the seekers, the scholars, the researchers, the neighbors, the givers, the comforters, the organizers, the activists, the optimists, the pessimists, the realists, the pragmatists, the lonely, the sad, the fearful, and the angry.

Here’s to our collective humanity and image bearing. May we reach across what divides us and open our hearts wide to the God who loves us. May we be willing to give of our abundance and receive from our need. May we have patience and resilience, may our eyes be open wide to the world and our small part in that world.

And may God be with us and comfort us.


Advice from a friend in Shanghai:

Since we got a head start with the COVID-19 over here in China, some friends have asked me for advice in navigating this time. Take only what’s helpful for you!

  1. Stay at home. Yes, I totally understand the urge to resist this, but the sooner you can accept it and stay home, the better it will be for everyone, including you.
  2. Assume that you could be the carrier. I haven’t been too worried about contracting the virus myself, but I became much more careful when I started thinking how I could potentially spread it to others.
  3. Don’t bring germs into your house. Wash your hands as soon as you come home. In Asia, we take off our shoes at the door, and this might be a good practice for everyone right now. Consider changing your outer clothes or showering if you’ve been out in a public place. Don’t forget to clean your phone and your keys!
  4. Focus on what you can control (yourself). There are too many things that are outside of your control right now. Instead, find ways you can boost your immune system and/or prevent your exposure. For many Asians, that means wearing face masks and opening the windows. I personally use essential oils to support to our immune systems and buy fruit for my family like a mad woman. Whatever strategies can strengthen you, whether it’s making grandma’s chicken soup or deep cleaning your house, I say go for it!
  5. Take care of your own physical, emotional, and spiritual health. The stronger you are, the better you can survive and even thrive during this time. Get enough sleep, eat well, exercise daily. Pray like crazy. Turn off the news. Watch something funny. Call a friend. Do a conference call with a group of friends. Listen to a podcast. Read a book. Get e-therapy. Learn something new. Go for a walk or a drive. If you have a balcony or a yard, sit outside in the fresh air and sun.
  6. If you have faith, put it into action. Trust in God. Meditate on His promises. Listen to worship music. God is greater than our circumstances, and He provides for us even in times of uncertainty. Be a light during this dark time. Don’t give in to fear or settle for mere self-preservation; your neighbor needs the hope and the love that you give, albeit in creative ways. Look out for those who are isolated, struggling, or vulnerable to domestic violence.
  7. Be generous. Give a gift card to someone who is not able to work during this time. Support your church even though the services have been cancelled. Pay your employees. Order take-out. Support small businesses. Donate blood. Give a phone call to someone who is vulnerable. Send a card to someone in a nursing home. Offer to shop for someone else. Donate to a food bank. Sew cloth masks. There are endless possibilities to sow seeds of generosity during this time. [From my friend Ruth and used with permission.]

Muted Colors – Lenten Journey

There is nothing ambiguous about Lent in the Orthodox tradition. No one contemplates what to give up, or how to spend more time in prayer and repentance. Everyone pretty much knows that you’re going vegan for the next seven plus weeks. Orthodox countries pull out their “Fasting” menus and we, sometimes reluctantly, get rid of all the cheese in the house.

Church services are more frequent and we don’t need thigh masters because our thighs get such a good workout from prostrations.

Coming from a background where Lent was mentioned, but it was more about giving up chocolate or, god forbid, coffee, and sometimes signing up for a daily meditation that would arrive in my inbox reminding me of the importance of this season, it has taken me some time to fully appreciate the intentionality of this faith tradition. I have come into it slowly, but I am embracing it fully.

This year, grief is the background of Lent. It colors everything with muted shades. The sky is not as blue, the brick houses are not as brown, our house is not as red, instead all of life feels muted. I know this will not be forever – instead it is a season. I remember hearing a speaker once talk about grief. “Our churches are full of hurting people,” she said “that don’t take a season to heal.” When we don’t take a season to heal, our grief comes out in other ways. When grief is frozen in time, it can take years to thaw.

Somehow, since it is Lent, and a season of repentance and preparation, I’m feeling the relief that comes with the freedom to cry, to mourn a broken world even as I experience the incredible grace that falls down on the broken and wounded. Lent gives me that time. It invites me into self-reflection in the midst of community, lest I become too inward focused.

And even as I repent and grieve, I’m also invited into a time of preparation that ultimately leads to the Resurrection and glory of Pascha. It is a time of repentance to be sure, but it’s also a time to experience fully the joy of forgiveness and delight in the mercy of God, given so freely to all. It is a time to remember that what I see is only part of the picture.

The muted shades of my life at this moment will one day be replaced with the glorious colors of a world beyond grief, where Lent will be no more, and every color will be richer and more glorious than we’ve ever seen.