The Oxygen of Faith – Pre-Paschal Reflections

Every year before our Paschal celebration I write a reflection. I usually write it after a busy day of services and preparation, a quiet moment before heading to the church for the midnight liturgy. This year, like the world around us, has been completely different.

Last year we traveled eight thousand miles and spent an entire month’s salary to get to our home parish for Pascha. That’s how precious it is to us. This year, though we live 20 minutes away from the church we are under a shelter in place and like Christians around the world, are live-streaming the service.

But I still find myself reflecting on this life-giving faith during a quiet moment. A few years ago, I was finishing up a film project with a friend of my son’s. We decided to go out for lunch before he headed back to New York City. We began talking about faith in general and the conversation then veered toward my faith in particular. He began asking questions. I don’t remember all of them, but I remember with absolute clarity saying to him “My faith is my oxygen.”

Every time we breathe we take in the life giving gas of oxygen. It enters into our respiratory system from outside our bodies and goes into our lungs. It crosses into the alveolar membranes and capillary endothelium, arriving in our blood stream and settling in our red blood cells, ready for a complex transfer system to every cell in our body. Anyone who has read about COVID-19 has a better appreciation for oxygen, the lungs, and the entire respiratory process.

My faith is like oxygen, my soul the lungs. I need it to breathe, to function, to get up each morning. I doubt, I scream, and I cry out to God for the pain and unfairness in life. I have sleepless nights, I have occasionally been in the intensive care unit needing life support for my failing faith, and I am too often a pitiful representative of my Christian faith. But ultimately I still choose it. To give it up would be like losing my ability to breathe.

In all my faults and flaws, I know deep within my soul that I am woven into the tapestry of his redemptive plan, and that somehow that matters.

And this is what I reflect on this evening. At 12 minutes before midnight, we will tune into our service. The entire room will be dark. A bell will chime once each minute until midnight. Then we will see the priest light one candle. We will hear him sing “Thy resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing. Enable us on earth to glorify you in purity of heart.” He will come out and say “Come, receive the light.” Though we are all over the Greater Boston area, we will move forward as one as we light our candles at home.

And so it will begin. for three hours we will celebrate the resurrection, periodically shouting Christ is Risen in every language we can think of. Our faith will be reaffirmed and I will breathe in its life-giving oxygen. In this, and this alone I rest.

Christ is Risen! In Truth He is Risen!

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.

The Resilient Orthodox – Pentecost Interrupted

Our church was filled with greenery yesterday – the Orthodox color of Pentecost signifying new creation and the breath of life. The priests robes echoed the theme with colors of vibrant gold and green made of materials that reflected the light around them.

In the Orthodox tradition, 50 days following Pascha is Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is a huge day of celebration in the church. Jesus tells the disciples that it was a good thing for him to leave; that there was something better coming. How could something be better than Jesus? How could something or someone come alongside them the way Jesus had during the last three years? And yet, Christ ascended and with his ascent, the Holy Spirit descended, becoming a living reality for those left behind. Like the Trinity, the coming of the Holy Spirit is a complete mystery but one that I gladly accept.

Directly following Divine Liturgy, we settled into special kneeling prayers for Pentecost.

And then in the midst of all of it, a cell phone began to ring. It was a jarring sound that interrupted the prayers and my own thoughts. The ringing was loud, insistent. “Pick me up” it rang. “You need to see who it is, you need to pay attention, you need to obey!” There were shocked expressions and scrambling. All eyes turned toward the area where the sound was coming from.  It was directly in front of me, and for a moment I wondered if it was me. In fact, every one wondered if it was their phone, even if they knew that it couldn’t possibly be. The shocked expressions and wandering eyes found and stared at the guilty phone avoiding the embarrassed eyes of the human who owned the phone, and all the while the vesperal prayers continued.

Do you, then, who are full of mercy and love for mankind, hear us on whatever day we call upon you; but especially on this day of Pentecost, on which after our Lord Jesus Christ had been taken up and been enthroned at your right hand, God and Father, he sent down on his disciples and Apostles the holy Spirit, who settled on each one of them and they were all filled with his inexhaustible grace and spoke in strange tongues of your mighty works and prophesied.

My life in the Holy Spirit is so much like this – I feel the breath of the Holy Spirit, but I am interrupted by the urgency of life, responsibilities, work, people, worries, even joys. I try to listen but the interruptions are loud and insistent. Do this! Do that! Think this! Think that! Obey the urgent and insistent! All the while, the Holy Spirit is gently persistent. And so I come back only to be interrupted again with the tyranny of things that can wait.

The ringing of the cell phone stopped, and most people will not remember that it happened. But it continues to ring in my ears, because of the undeniable truth that it represents, because it so symbolically showed me what my life in the spirit is like.

Shutting off a phone is easy compared to shutting off the distractions of my mind. And yet I continue, ever mindful that the real failure is in deciding it’s not worth trying, that the distractions are just too persistent, I might as well give in to them.  Just as the prayers continued through the insistent ringing of a cell phone, I will continue seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit despite the insistent distractions that call me away.

I stop. I breathe. I pray.

Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present, and fillest all things, treasury of good gifts and giver of life. Come and abide in us, and cleanse us from all impurity. And save our souls, O Good one. 

Advent Reflection – A Mom’s Tears

jerry-kiesewetter-198984

Ask any mother and she will tell you that the tears we weep for our children are like no other. They are tears that come from deep within our souls as we cry out in pain, either for them or because of them. They are the tears we weep in solitude when our daughter has faced her first break-up. At that moment, should the boy be present, we would possibly commit a crime that locks us up, unless the lawyer can use the grounds of love, impulse and passion to convince a jury that we are not dangerous.

They are the tears that we shed when our pre-schooler is not invited to the birthday party that every other kid seems to be attending. They are the tears that come when we know that we are helpless to make life better for our children, that the days when we could control who comes and goes from their lives are now gone. They are the tears of rage when we feel wronged or misunderstood by these products of our womb, when the path they are taking is leading to a place that we know will cause pain.

They are the tears of agony when we know they are in deep pain, pain they can’t share with their moms. They are also the tears of unspeakable delight and joy at weddings and graduations; tears of admiration as we are invited to participate in their world; and the tears of happiness as we realize how proud we are and how much we love them.

One of the Orthodox icons depicting Mary, the Theotokos or God-bearer, is an icon that shows Mary with seven swords going into her heart. The icon is called the “Softener of Evil Hearts”. In Orthodoxy, these seven swords are seen as representing the immense sorrow that the Theotokos experienced at the foot of the cross; the sorrow that was prophesied by Saint Simeon when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple.

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”*

I had been a mom for many years before I first heard about, and then saw, this icon. I thought about it for a long time. Here was one who understood far more about a mother’s tears then I could ever imagine. Sitting there at the foot of the cross, helpless and watching her son die, she did not yet know the full picture. The resurrection would be three days later. Her heart was pierced by a sword many times over before she saw the risen Lord on that Paschal morning.

I think about this icon as I shed tears for my children. Though we know but a fraction of this pain, our hearts too are pierced. We shed our tears and we too, wait; wait for the God of resurrection and miracles to comfort and strengthen us.

We wait for our souls to heal, for wrong to be made right. And we press on.

*Luke 2:34-35

Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

 

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

The Resilient Orthodox: Pepper & Salt


My Godmother came into my life around four years ago. At the time, I didn’t know she would be my Godmother. In fact, she didn’t know she would be my Godmother.

When I first asked her to be my Godmother, she looked at me with not a little terror in her eyes. At that moment, I knew I had made the right decision.

The Godparent/Godchild relationship is taken seriously in the Orthodox Church. Every person, whether a child or an adult, is to have someone who takes on this role. The role and responsibilities are lifelong. From baptism and onward, the Godparent is to pray for their Godchild, to take interest in who they are both in and out of church, to model faith in all of life, and to cultivate a relationship.

But I didn’t know all of this when I asked her to be my Godmother. I just knew that it was something I was supposed to do. And it had taken me long enough to get on the bus for this journey; I wasn’t going to let the matter of a Godmother stop me. Still, it was not easy to ask, especially when I didn’t know her well.

She didn’t respond quickly. Instead she paused and looked at me. “Well…,” her tone was measured. “If you need to get together all the time and talk, then I’m probably not the right person.” I breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing I wanted was an overly sincere, motherly Godmother. I wanted someone who would walk alongside me but not be pedantic. I wanted someone I could trust, who wouldn’t guilt me into being someone or something I couldn’t be. Most of all, I wanted someone who knew that Orthodoxy was a long journey, not a short hike.

And so, she agreed.

We are two different people, she and I.  

I am pepper and she is salt. I am feisty and angsty, reactionary and passionate. She is calm and rational, thoughtful and steady. I am the questioner, she the receiver of questions.

But we both know the long road of obedience is never easy.  We both know that community takes work. We both know that we are desperately in need of grace. And so the differences dissolve, the tastiness of pepper and salt realized in the relationship. Slowly, I realize that Salt is not only my Godmother, she has become my friend. 

Now these four years later, I wonder sometimes – if she really knew what the role included, would she still come alongside? I like to think she would. 

On Monasteries, Children, and Loving Our Enemies

Gunmen Kill at Least 28 Coptic Christians in Egypt

The headline spares nothing, except that there were children. I numbly read the article describing the pilgrimage. The group was headed to St. Samuel Monastery for a pilgrimage when pick up trucks reportedly drove up to the busses and began firing automatic weapons. I read as little as I have to to get the story. Then I stop and I feel myself getting sick. 


During our years living in Egypt, my husband used to love taking our oldest son, Joel, to monasteries. The first time he went, Joel was only three years old. He went off happily into the desert with his dad, secure and excited.  The pictures taken later that day show a tow-headed pre-schooler with a bearded monk. They are absolutely comfortable with each other and the camera captures this well. 

Our introduction to Orthodoxy came through the Coptic Orthodox Church. My husband went on countless trips into the Sinai desert, enjoying the hospitality and growing through the spirituality of monks who had devoted their lives to prayer in the desert. Christianity in Egypt is alive because of these havens and those that set themselves apart to pray for Egypt and the world. It was a monk who said to my husband “Cliff, you are Orthodox. You just don’t know it yet!”  This was years before we entered the Orthodox Church. My husband just thought this is what the monks say to Protestants who they liked. It turns out it was more prophetic than we could have imagined. 

These trips to monasteries are a respite from the chaos of the massive cities in Egypt. But they are so much more! Pilgrimages to monasteries are part of the spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian, so when I read about the group who were attacked it felt personal. It should feel personal. These are fellow Christians, members of what we call the “body of Christ”.  


The commands to “love our enemies” and “do good to them that hurt you” are not ambiguous. They are clear and forceful. Along with this, we have the words said by Jesus as he died on the cross:

Father – Forgive Them. 

In the most outrageous act of love the world has ever witnessed or will ever witness, we have these words. They are recorded and echo through history. They are heard in great cathedrals and small,village congregations. They are said aloud, and they are whispered in the soul. 

These words – they feel too hard. How can a grieving mother say them? How can an angry father believe them? 

And yet – still they echo. 

After the attack on Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday, a television station interviewed the wife of a security guard who was killed during the attack. It was this man who stopped the suicide bomber and made him go through the metal detector, an act that cost him his life. His widow’s words echo the words of Christ on the cross:

‘I forgive you and I ask God to forgive you. I pray that God may open your eyes to light your minds,’ 

Violence lasts but a moment, forgiveness echoes forever. 

Holy Saturday 


Yesterday was Good Friday, a day when all of Christendom takes a moment to stop and pause at the memory of sacrificial love. 

But what happens between Good Friday and Easter Sunday?
What happens to us on the days between tragedy and healing? What transpires when the crisis is over, but the end is not yet revealed? The days after the car accident, but before the broken leg has healed and the insurance has been paid. The days after diagnosis of cancer, but before treatment. The days after a funeral, but before we’ve adjusted to the loss.
These are the days between, when instead of darkness or light there is a lingering nervousness and knowledge that something is not quite settled, not quite right. The days between are often the most difficult and the most lonely, and they are undoubtedly the most common.

So has this day often seemed to me – this day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, where we are suspended between death and life. 

“It is Finished” has been spoken, “He is Risen” is yet to come. 

In the West the day is often filled with shopping for marshmallow chicks, chocolate bunnies, and fake grass to line plastic easter baskets. 

 As I’ve moved into the Eastern Orthodox Church, I’ve formed a different view of this day between. A day between – yes, but a day of immeasurable importance in the Christian faith tradition. 

Madeleine L’Engle describes her journey of greater understanding of this day in her book, The Irrational Season:

In the Western Church, we jump directly from Good Friday to Easter Day, with Saturday a vague blank in between. But in the Eastern Church, Great and Holy Saturday is one of the most important days of the year.”


She goes on to say:


“Where was Jesus on that extraordinary day between the darkness of Good Friday and the brilliance of Easter Sunday? He was down in hell. And what was he doing there? He was harrowing hell, or to put it in simpler words, he was ministering to the damned.”


Madeleine L’Engle says this about the first time she ever saw the fresco of the Harrowing of Hell over the altar in the Chora Church in Istanbul: 

“I stood there, trembling with joy, as I looked at this magnificent painting of the harrowing of hell. In the center is the figure of Jesus striding through hell, a figure of immense virility and power. With one strong hand he is grasping Adam, with the other, Eve, and wresting them out of the power of hell. The gates to hell, which he has trampled down and destroyed forever, are in cross-form, the same cross on which he died. . .”

This same icon has become a part of my church tradition. 

I am almost ready to head out the door to our Holy Saturday service, because I have come to realize that what happens in the days between, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, is crucial to the final outcome.

Lenten Journey: Palm Fronds and Hosannas


Palm fronds await us as we enter into our parish. It is Palm Sunday – that joyous day before Holy Week, where all of life makes sense as Jesus rides into Jerusalem, greeted by masses of people proclaiming him king. Unlike those crowds who gathered that day so long ago, we know what is coming. We know the grief and sadness, the immense pain and suffering that filled the following week. 

I think of this as I stand listening to our choir chanting. Two things blot the joy of this day: a bomb has exploded at a church in Alexandria Egypt, killing people as they too worshiped on Palm Sunday. The second is that my mother-in-law is dying. She is surrounded by family and excellent hospice care, but that does not take away the fact that soon she will no longer be on this earth. 

How did Jesus feel as he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when he already knew the tension between joy and sorrow that would take place the week following? How did he feel knowing the very people who waved palm branches would shout “Crucify him!” This is when I am more interested in the humanity of Christ than the divinity. 

How did he feel knowing the grief and suffering his mother would experience as a sword pierced her heart? 

In the midst of joy, did he feel grief for what was ahead?  And then the reverse – on the cross when he was in anguish, did he also experience the joy of knowing that finally, death would be conquered? 

It will take a lifetime for me to understand the grief/ joy paradox and there is no week where it is more profound then Holy Week. 

I’ve written before about my friend Kate, and her experience during a church bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan. But I share it again, because I can’t think of a more profound illustration of the grief/joy paradox. So on this Palm Sunday, as I prepare to go into Holy Week, I give you this story. 

A couple of years after the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers, there was a terrorist attack on the International Church in Islamabad, Pakistan. The attack felt personal. It was a church we had attended for a year and a half while living in Islamabad; a church my oldest brother had pastored; and it was a church where many of our friends worshiped. There were several of our friends present in the church that day, one was Robynn’s father. Another was a friend who was there with her husband and small children. In the attack she shielded her small child from flying shrapnel and was severely injured in the process.

In a poignant letter describing the event, she and her husband speak of the indescribable joy she felt in saving her son.

I wanted to save my boy. I knew I was hurt badly, but when I looked down and saw that Iain was unhurt, in the midst of the pain and shock of the blast I felt an indescribable joy, knowing that I had taken the violence intended for him.

In the face of terrible violence and possible death, my friend felt indescribable joy at saving her boy.

This is the absurdity and irrationality of my Christian faith; an absurdity and irrationality that I will hold to for all my days. In the midst of suffering, in the midst of sorrow, there can exist indescribable joy.

A bomb in Egypt, a family member’s imminent death, palm fronds and hosannas, death and a resurrection – in the midst of grief and sorrow, indescribable joy. 

This I cling to as I enter into Holy Week, covered with an umbrella of grace. 

Photo credits: Cliff Gardner 

The Resilient Orthodox – Breathe in Holy

As I step into church, I breathe in pungent, sweet incense. I can see smoke rise in front of evening shadows on the wall. Fading light reflects off of gold and burgundy icons.

I take a deep breath and I breathe in holy.

I breathe it in, my whole being alive to incense and all that accompanies it. My ears take in three part harmony from the chant sung on the far side of the room. My body responds in reverence to the saints that surround us.

I was so hesitant to take this journey and yet, every time I enter, I know his presence in ways I cannot articulate. God is in this journey and I can rest.

So I breathe in holy and all else fades away.

Vigil before the Feast of the Ascension from Marilyn Gardner on Vimeo.

Pre-Paschal Reflections

It is ten pm on Saturday night. I sit on the couch in a darkened room. White lights peak through the window from the outside. We are the rare family that keeps Christmas lights up all year long, for who doesn’t need more light in their life?

All day there has been a sense of expectancy in the air, like something big is about to happen. It began this morning when, in the middle of a Vesperal Liturgy on Holy Saturday, the music and tone changed from somber to joyful; from dread to expectancy; from death to life. This afternoon, the entire church was alive with energy as vines were wound around pillars and white roses arranged by icons and stands.

In a short time, we will leave for Pascha – the height of the Orthodox calendar where we celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. It is a time when we celebrate that he conquered “death by death” and “bestowed life on those in the tomb.”

It’s like getting ready for a wedding, without the stress of envious bridesmaids and relative angst.

It has been seven weeks of preparation, seven weeks of learning to say yes to something better than what we’re saying no to. Seven weeks of a season called Lent

“The strongest man or woman in the world is not nearly strong enough to triumph over his or her sin simply by saying no to it. What we need is the strength-giving grace occasioned by us saying yes to something else, by saying yes, and yes, and yes – ceaselessly – to Someone Else.” [The End of Suffering by Scott Cairns]

And tonight we say a final ‘yes’ to a Resurrection that we believe by faith. A Resurrection that brings life and light, for who doesn’t need more light?

 

The Resilient Orthodox – Healing a Hole in the Heart

hole in the heart

When I was six years old in boarding school, we had prayer and devotions every night. We would pray for the teachers and the house parents; we would pray for our parents who lived far away and did important work; and every night we would pray for Esther Cutherell. I had never met Esther Cutherell, but I knew that we prayed for Esther because she had a hole in her heart. As a little girl, I couldn’t imagine this. A hole in her heart? How is she living? How can she walk around? She was three years younger than I was. I didn’t understand it, but in my child-heart, I prayed.

And then one day the news came. Esther was better. The hole in her heart was gone. She had surgery and she was alive and well, and one day we would all meet her. There was great rejoicing in our little girl’s dorm. Our prayers had worked – a little girl was now well, the hole in her heart was healed.

Esther was a beautiful little girl and she turned into a beautiful woman. I always thought it had something to do with the miracle that had healed the hole in her heart.

I knew that it was doctors who had helped with the miracle, but that didn’t make it any less a miracle in my mind. As I got older, I began to meet people who had different sorts of holes in their hears. These holes were holes left from death and divorce, from pain and abuse, from betrayal and disappointment. I learned that they were just as life-threatening as the hole in Esther’s heart. I learned that those holes desperately needed miracles – only it was a different kind of miracle.

It’s been a long time since Esther’s miracle and the truth is, miracles are not something I talk about or think much about.  They don’t come up in conversation in my rational every day world. When they are talked about, it’s usually in dramatic terms like “we need a miracle to get this grant out the door in time,” where the reality is that we just need someone to do their job correctly.

But on Friday morning I longed for a miracle. The why is not important, it’s enough to know that my heart was heavy with things far beyond my control. It was grace that the timing was perfect. In the Orthodox Church icons play a big role in worship. And there are some rare icons around the world that are considered “miracle-working” icons. On Friday night, I would be going to see one of these icons, an icon of the Theotokos – the Mother of God.

I had purposely left Friday morning free to pray and read. I didn’t know if I would witness a miracle but I did know that my cynical heart needed softening. I reached out to Robynn, I told her about my cynicism, my sadness, and my hurting heart. She responded both wisely and practically.

“Light a candle. Take some deep breaths. Take your heart (frayed, fragile, falling apart) and lay it down next to you….ask Jesus to come be there with you next to your heart. If you are brave, ask him to take it up–all of it: the pain, the disappointment, the longings, the hole, the cynicism…..Imagine your heart in his hands….he’s turning it around, he’s looking at it gently with care and compassion….He looks up at you…into your eyes….quiet yourself and listen–what is he saying to you as he holds your precious heart and all it contains? Consider what he says. Receive it. Rest in it. If he doesn’t say anything rest in the silence. Even silence is sacred and sweet when Jesus is making eye contact with you…when he’s holding all that is you. Can you identify where the hole is?”

I found myself sobbing as I read the words. “Can you identify where the hole is?” As I sat in silence, I knew exactly where and what the hole was, and I longed for it to be healed. My broken, hurting heart needed the touch of the One who heals. In one of those all too rare times of soul confession when it’s just you and God, no human to comfort or collect the tears, I gave it up to God. All of it. Like handing over a back pack that is so heavy I could hardly bear the weight of it another second, I handed it over to God.

The day moved on and at five in the evening I found myself in Friday traffic heading to our church. I knew only one thing – I wanted a moment with that icon, preferably alone. I knew the minute I arrived that the alone moment was not going to happen. The church was packed with people, mostly strangers to me. Word had traveled far – I was not the only one with a hole in my heart.

And so we came, the holes in our hearts wide open with longing for the touch of God.

It is too difficult to explain with mere words the power of the evening. But as I think back on it, and as I contemplate miracles, I know this: In every situation, the real miracle takes place in the heart. It may have outer manifestations, like the miraculous healing of the body, the eyesight, the hearing – but the real miracle always, always includes the heart. Because it doesn’t matter how whole the body is, if the heart is not right, if the heart is not fixed, then the healing can only go so far. A healed body is temporal, a healed heart is eternal.

On Friday night, like my friend Esther so long ago, the hole in my heart began to be healed. And that is miracle enough for me. 

The Resilient Orthodox: We Come Needy

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The morning light reflects off the gold of the icons and it is beautiful. The church is quiet, save footsteps walking up to venerate the icons. We are in community, yet we are alone.

We come needy. We come with hearts heavy with the burdens of the week. We come with anger and with pain, emotional and physical. We come with sickness and sorrow. We come with hearts longing for more, knowing that though we are created for eternity, we get mired in the clay of the every day.

And in this place, where Heaven meets earth in divine liturgy, we will glimpse the eternal. 

In any group of people, there are so many stories of life lived, good and bad,

We have children with autism and diabetes; foot problems and depression. We have bodies that betray us and hearts that are alternately hard and soft. We have tongues that choose to speak life-giving words or words that damage and destroy. We have children who weigh heavy on our hearts, ones who we pray will not lose their way. We have parents who can no longer move well, or speak well, or think well. We have burdens deep and wide. But in this space, we can place them before the altar of God’s infinite love.

We are humans made in the image of God, made for his glory and in this space we take time to remember that.

We come needy to the altar and hear the words of the priest as he gives us the Holy Gifts on a spoon. For a short time, we remember. We enter into the eternal and time doesn’t matter. We don’t try to solve the mystery of salvation, we accept it as the needy ones. 

We come needy, and we leave full. 

When Someone Takes Your Paschal Cheese

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Let me tell you about Paschal Cheese. Paschal cheese is a special, sweet dish that originated in Russia and made its way to the United States and I thank God it did.

Paschal cheese is made of cream, eggs, butter, confectioners sugar, candied citron, chopped almonds, golden raisins, vanilla, and farmers cheese. It goes into a special mold where it comes out creamy and delicious, with the Orthodox cross molded into the sides. It is indescribably delicious.

I discovered this cheese at my first Pascha. It was four in the morning and I took one bite and thought it was a bite of heaven. It is creamy goodness full of ingredients you are encouraged to abstain from during Lent. It is the opposite of Lent – indulgence, extravagance, and luxury as compared to moderation, abstinence, and simplicity.

I never make this Paschal cheese because I have discovered that in a church full of Russian immigrants (and an American chef who is incredible) there is no need. Why try to duplicate what someone else already does so well? But at the end of our early morning feast I always try to take a container home, excited to eat it for the next two weeks.

This year was no exception. There was the Paschal cheese in the center table. One large one with a decorated cross on the top and several smaller molds surrounding it. A beautiful centerpiece for the table. I pushed my way through the jubilant crowd of hungry Orthodox Christians until I got to the table. And I loaded a piece of kulich, a sweet yeast bread that is more like a cake, with the cheese. So good.  Put it this way – to describe how good it is you need a thesaurus with a hundred options.

When it came time to head home I had my two take away boxes — one of them full of the cheese and kulich. There were many of us filling take away boxes with delicious foods that we hadn’t eaten for seven weeks.

We drove over the Charles River as the sun was coming up, its early morning glow reflected off the tall buildings in Boston that we see from the bridge. We arrived home tired but euphoric – it had been an amazing celebration and it was now time to sleep. Except first I would look at my Paschal cheese before putting it into the refrigerator.

I looked in the first take out box. Nothing. Oh right – that’s because I put it into the other take out box. As I peeked in I couldn’t believe what I saw.

There was no Paschal cheese. Since all the take out boxes looked the same, someone had taken my Paschal cheese and I was left with a poor substitute. I couldn’t believe it! No Paschal cheese??? I need my Paschal cheese. It’s the only thing I really wanted from that table that was laden with food. My husband had purposely not taken any, knowing that I would fill a take out box with this sweet, creamy goodness.

No Paschal cheese. And oh how I wanted that Paschal cheese. 

Other folks would probably just let it be, but because I am who I am I pondered this. How much I had looked forward to this dish, how disappointed I was that I ended up without it. Why was I so disappointed? It’s just a yummy food – and the truth is I don’t need it at all.

But I wanted it! And it was special! And it was tradition! 

It’s Monday morning and I can’t help thinking that life is full of moments of Paschal cheese where what we long for, what we want more than anything is not available. And usually it’s way bigger than Paschal cheese. We make ourselves crazy trying to get what is unavailable. Or we feel someone took our take away boxes. We try so hard to box up what we love, what we long for, and someone accidentally exchanges our takeout boxes for theirs.

All the while God gently but persistently urges us that if we trust and rest in Him, we will have enough. He will enter those longings and slowly, steadily re-shape them, until we realize that in Him we have what we wanted for all along. 

Photo Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/russia-golden-ring-historically-704855/

The Resilient Orthodox: Pre-Paschal Reflections on Faith

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It’s Saturday evening and bright, soon-to-set sunlight still shines through our windows. It is a blessed contrast from what the weather has been for the past two months and we delight in it.

It has been quiet around Communicating Across Boundaries this past week for it has been Holy Week in the Orthodox tradition. It began with Palm Sunday last week and took us through somber and reflective services until last night’s Lamentations service to commemorate the death and burial of Christ. It is at this service when we walk through Allston – a busy area where bars meet with restaurants and students, where the sacred seems difficult to find – with a decorated bier chanting “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Have Mercy on Us.” People stop and openly stare for it is a sharp contrast to the world that surrounds us.

And then today the somber tone turned to joy–Great and Holy Saturday. In Orthodox tradition this is one of the most important days of the year, where we believe Christ descended to Hades. Madeleine L’Engle puts it well “Where was Jesus on that extraordinary day between the darkness of Good Friday and the brilliance of Easter Sunday? He was down in hell. And what was he doing there? He was harrowing hell, or to put it in simpler words, he was ministering to the damned.” We have an icon of this – the Resurrection Icon where Jesus reaches down with strength and unyielding power, taking hold of Adam with one hand and Eve with the other, rescuing them from Hades. It is an incredibly powerful depiction of this event between Good Friday and Easter.

All week there has been a sense of something big coming, but today even more so, for tonight is our Pascha — our Easter celebration. We will gather at the church around midnight and celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Our priests will stride through the crowd shouting “Christ is Risen” in many languages and the joy will be palpable. In the wee hours of the morning we will end the celebration with a feast to top all feasts – lamb, ham, chicken, special Paschal cheeses and breads, fruit, cream, chocolate – it will all be there and in abundance for we have kept a fast, free of dairy or meat for seven weeks. Tonight, that ends and feasting begins.

So there is much to anticipate, much to look forward to, but now I sit in the quiet and think about the mystery of faith.

We all live by faith. Whether we acknowledge it or not, faith is a huge part of what it is to be human. Make no mistake – even if we believe nothing, we walk in faith. Some would argue it takes more faith to believe in nothing than to believe in a god or gods.

Woven through our life journey is a journey of faith. We’re all born – whether it be in Shanghai, Karachi, Los Angeles, or a million other places around the world. We all go through early stages of childhood where we are shaped for better, or sometimes, for worse. We move on into later years and our lives are shaped by circumstances, our response to those circumstances, those around us, and faith.

Our spiritual journey can include many events and even more emotions. Perhaps we’ve gone through a period where we are so angry at God that we feel bile rise in our throats. Perhaps we have yelled to the Heavens that life is unfair. Other times maybe we have questioned whether God is good, or whether there is universal truth. And throughout this journey life happens: friendships are formed, marriages made, babies birthed, funerals attended.

There was a time when I saw this faith journey as black and white. If I deviated from the path then there would be unforgivable consequences. There was a “perfect will of God path” and I had to find it. More recently I’m grateful for ‘process’; that God is a God of process. He takes the clay that he has and molds it, shapes it, and then often reshapes it – an artist that works with our soul and our character, creating something worthy, something beautiful, something that reflects its maker. There was a time when I thought the struggle was a problem, that it had to be eliminated. Through my own struggles and the struggles of those I love I have found that the struggle can and should be honored.

But there are those other times like the one I anticipate tonight – when my faith is celebrated with joy and in community. When I don’t try to make sense of this journey, but accept the mystery and grace that are a part of it. Where I take the body and blood of Christ, “not for judgement or for condemnation, but for the healing of soul and body.”*

So now I sit in the quiet, watching the sunlight fade, grateful for this week, this day, this faith. 

*From the end of the prayer before receiving Holy Communion.

Photo Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/pottery-potter-s-wheel-crock-457445/ Word Art by Marilyn R. Gardner

The Beginning of Lent – Eyes Wide Open

I idly sit down at the bench waiting for the subway. I am part of this early morning crowd, here before sun up. We are a quiet, sleepy group.

As I look around my eye rests on something someone has left on the bench just a foot away from me. I open my eyes wider as I realize it’s a used, out of the packet, pregnancy test. From where I sit the result is clear: two distinctive pink lines. The test was positive.

I feel a wave of profound sadness come over me. A pregnancy test sitting here, inanimate and silent, on a subway bench. What is the story here? Why was it left? What are the circumstances of the woman who used it?

In the world I long to inhabit, pregnancy tests don’t work this way. Pregnancy tests happen with joyful expectation, to couples who are healthy and secure.

But this is the world I live in, where babies come when they are not wanted. Where abortion clinics thrive on a woman’s crisis. Where a used pregnancy test is discarded on a bench in a subway station.

Somehow that I see this on the first day of Lent in the Orthodox tradition seems right. It is my eyes being opened wide to a hurting world. My eyes wide open in realization that the world is not as it should be. And it is into this world and for this world that the greatest sacrifice of all was given.

So I move into a Lenten journey, a journey not of legalism but of grace. A journey that beckons me forward, even as my stubborn heart wants to stay put. A journey that better equips me to pray for, and sit with, the hurting of this world: the homeless mom of five by my office, the displaced refugee at a clinic, the woman who leaves a pregnancy test on a subway platform, the colleague/friend who unexpectedly lost her dad. A journey that is both practical and spiritual — asking me to go with almond milk when I want thick cream; beans when I want meat; humility when I want glory.

A journey that demands I have my eyes wide open though I want to keep them shut. 

Excerpt adapted from The Reluctant Orthodox – On Forgiveness & Fasting: In the Metropolitan Museum of art there is a sculpture called “The Struggle of the Two Natures in Man”. It sits in a large atrium and shows two men wrestling, one stands over the other, his foot firmly placed on the other man’s arm. My friend James is a wrestler. He says this about the sculpture:

“Having wrestled throughout high school, I thought I could lend a bit of insight to the sculpture. The two poised are actually in a pretty precarious position. It is really ambiguous who is winning. The one standing has his foot on the other’s arm, but the one lying down has the “planted” leg of the standing man in a scissor lock. Most of the standing man’s weight is on that one leg, so by “scissoring” his legs the lying down man can topple the standing man. Depending on what the standing man does, he could counter and establish control or be taken down to the ground none-too-gently (e.g., face-plant).”

This powerful and beautiful sculpture resonates with me at this time. The part of me that loves God and moves forward gladly in obedience wrestling with the part of me that whines for comfort and basks in my own will.

This is the picture I will carry with me during this time of Great Lent, knowing that God reaches out to my wrestling soul, beckoning me with a love beyond understanding. And as he persistently beckons, I slowly come.”

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On Celebrating Nativity

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Yesterday was Feast of the Nativity – our Orthodox Christmas. As people new to the Orthodox church, we are still learning how to walk between these dates and traditions. Our Protestant families celebrate the 25th of December and we will continue to do this. But along with that is a new celebration on the 7th of January. While December 25th held stockings, gifts, and a special Christmas dinner, January 7th is celebrated completely at the church.  We are celebrating with many others around the world who also celebrate the Nativity on this day.

We began Tuesday evening with a vigil preparing us for the celebration on the 7th. Beautiful troparions reminded us of the importance of this day, along with readings and scripture all pointing to the birth of our Lord.

Wednesday had us up and at the church by nine in the morning for Divine Liturgy. The icon of Mary giving birth, surrounded by angels and midwives was at the front of the church, surrounded by flowers. As I went to the front to venerate the icon I longed to stay longer, standing before that icon, thinking about the birth, remembering and honoring this woman, who all generations will call “blessed.” But the line behind me had grown and it wasn’t the time to stop.

I wish I could describe for you the beauty of these services. The candles casting a golden glow over icons, the hush and expectancy in the air, the choir to the right of the iconostasis, leading us in these words:

How is he contained in a womb, whom nothing can contain? How held in his Mother’s arms, he who is in the Father’s bosom? This is all as he knows, as he wished and as he was well pleased. For being without flesh, willingly he was made flesh; and He Who Is, for our sake has become what he was not; without departing from his own nature he shared in our matter; wishing to fill the world on high, Christ was born in two natures.
-Kathisma from the Orthros of the Nativity of Christ

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angels, with shepherds, glorify Him! The wise men journey with the star! Since for our sake the Eternal God is born as a little child (Kontakion).

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom! For by it, those who worshiped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness and to know Thee, the Orient from on high . O Lord, glory to Thee! (Troparion).

I have often missed the Christmases of my youth; Christmas celebrations that contained so much more corporate worship. We always went to church on Christmas, celebrating with the Pakistani Christian minority, singing carols in Urdu at the top of our lungs accompanied by a harmonium. Miss Mall, a Punjabi woman with lungs as large as her personality would begin the songs when we lived in Larkana, others when we lived in Shikarpur. We were dressed in our very best, and “Barra Din Mubarak ho” was on the lips of everyone.

Our new traditions in the Orthodox church remind me of the community gatherings of my past, gathering to celebrate the birth of Jesus. We gather together in our best. We have been fasting together for six weeks, honoring the struggle as a community. We meet with the words “Christ is Born!” and we respond “Glorify Him!”  Who better to gather with than fellow Christians?

Yet in the west, our church celebrations have been replaced by the all important nuclear family. They become individualized, lacking community focus. It is nuclear families that gather, preferring ‘family’ time. But that leads to all kinds of sad. When nuclear families are struggling, when a teenager is not speaking to their parents, when family members decide against going to mom and dads, when divorce divides a family, it leaves people alone on Christmas. Alone to celebrate an event in history that even those who don’t believe acknowledge through the yearly calendar. For so many it has become a day marked by stress, debt, loneliness, and sadness. The individual has replaced the community and we are the sadder for it.

After Divine Liturgy, we eat a feast fit for a king, or at least a bishop. All the cheese, cream, and meat that we have fasted from in the past weeks is on the table in abundance. We fill our plates so high that half way through we laughingly acknowledge that we over estimated our ability through that age-old idiom “My eyes were bigger than my stomach!”

We left the church in the bitter cold of the day, heading into a world that was busy with the day’s work, business as usual. But despite this, the words of the troparion continued to go through my head – “Thy Nativity O Christ our God, has shown to the world the light of wisdom….” 

This is Nativity. This is the celebration of the birth of our Lord.

The Resilient Orthodox – Now Lay Aside All Cares

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It comes at the perfect time of the service, after we sing the Beatitudes and the gospel is read. After the homily and during the service of the Eucharist. It comes when my mind has started to wander and the worries of the coming week begin to creep in.

The choir leads us in what is called the “Cherubic Hymn” and we sing this phrase “Now lay aside all cares.” It is part of a longer hymn but this is the phrase that challenges me, draws me in every time. It’s repeated twice – for needed emphasis. This phrase beckons me, calls me out, asks me if I can, for this short period of time, lay aside all those things that bother and irritate, all that causes pain and sadness, all that causes confusion and anger – can I lay all of it aside? Can I come to the Eucharist with body and mind fully fixed on the eternal?

Each week this calls me – Lay aside all earthly cares.

Some weeks I do this willingly, so glad to drop my backpack of burdens at the feet of Jesus. Other weeks I hold tight. Worry and earthly cares are clasped in my tight little fist like a child grasping tight to something that will hurt them. During the first time we sing I still want to hold on, but by the second the words soak in and I begin to release. It’s as though God takes that small act and works with it, accepting my paltry attempt at release and honoring it.

Lay aside all earthly cares – who else says that to me all week? Who else gives permission to rest, release, focus on the eternal? It’s a rhetorical question for the answer is obvious. No one. The only time that I am outwardly and verbally given permission to lay aside these earthly cares is Sunday morning when earth meets Heaven in the body and the blood of Christ. I would be a fool to hang on. And so I slowly release the tight grasp I have on all things temporal, on all worries and fears that haunt and threaten to destroy, I lay them aside for this time and a small sigh escapes my lips.

“Now lay aside all earthly cares” – it’s not a suggestion, it’s a command. And so I do.

When do you lay aside all earthly cares?