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

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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