Christmas Eve Reflection from Thessaloniki

Every year I write a Christmas Eve Reflection. Usually it’s in a fully decorated home with Christmas music playing in the background. It’s written in the midst of the frenzied joy of Christmas in the West and I usually have presents to wrap and stockings to fill.

This year I write it from the sunshine of Thessaloniki and a 4th floor apartment. The sun is starting to set and the fading light peaks through floor to ceiling windows. My youngest son is sitting near me in what can only be described as a “companionable silence” – trite except it’s not. It is delightful.

Our Christmas reflects the year we have had. It is unusual but we are grateful. There is little stress as we prepare for a midnight Liturgy and the dawning of Christmas morning. It is a gift.

Earlier today I sat in a salon and got my hair cut. The longer I sat, the more Greek I became and the result pleased the stylist greatly. Later I walked toward Aristotle Square, joining crowds of cafe goers, musicians, and city dwellers. I thought about my family members who are not here and missed them.

I got back to the apartment where we are staying and read about a friend who is dying. She has lived life so well, she has loved so well. Tears and the juxtaposition of the joy of a holiday combined with an imminent death flood over me.

I am so aware this year of the many events in all of our lives that we keep hidden from the spotlight of social media. Despite what the social media developers would like us to believe, we share only the highlights and the well-edited photographs of our lives. But the truly important things we share with those who don’t need edits or highlights, those who walk us through shadows and into the light of grace.

The betrayals and separations, emergency room visits and hospitalizations are left out of the public narrative. We don’t share the trips to the counselor’s office and the hard soul work of confession. We don’t share the nights of tears we shed for those we love or the sadness of a womb that is empty. We don’t share those moments of grace when we have prayed for the impossible and have received.

We share the newborn baby – we don’t share the 35 hours of labor that birthed the baby.

And this is as it should be. We don’t have the capacity to be emotionally naked with everyone, nor should we cast our great pearls of grace before the swine of social media.

Instead we live life in the light and shadows of daily grace, periodically posting snapshots of that grace for the world outside to see.

So as you see my snapshots, and as I see yours, may we not yield to the temptation to believe that these are anything more than snapshots. May we remember that there is enough sadness in all our lives to crush us, and enough grace to raise us up.

Most of all, may we remember that a baby in a manger changed our world and hope was born.

Merry Christmas Eve dear friends!

The Resilient Orthodox – “Axios”

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“Axios!” The Bishop proclaims in a strong, authoritative voice. “Axios!” We respond in loud unison.

“Worthy!” He proclaims and again we repeat after him – this time the word in English “Worthy!”

We are witnessing our friend John’s ordination as a Deacon of the Bulgarian Diocese in the Orthodox Church. It has been a beautiful morning. The choir is at their best, the church is full, the Bishop is leading the service, even the saints who look most severe in the icons surrounding the sanctuary seem to be smiling, fully a part of this solemn yet celebratory event.

“Axios!’ “Worthy!” 

Suddenly I feel my cheeks wet with tears. “Axios!” “Worthy!” These words are proclaimed over this man affirming his service within the Church. The last time I heard these words were at my own baptism several months ago, when on receiving the oil of Chrismation “Axios” was proclaimed.

The tears come from deep within my soul. I am overwhelmed by the thought that God looks on us and proclaims “Axios!” Says that we are “Worthy!”

My cheeks are wet because this “Axios” took all that Christ could give, his body broken, his blood shed. I am worthy only because of this great sacrifice, the mystery of the Church.

This journey of faith comes with many ups and downs; with much failure and doubt. There are so many times when I try to do it on my own, only to fall flat and beg for help getting up. But days like this, surrounded by the gold and burgundy of icons, listening to the harmonious hymns that have been sung through the decades, I am humbled and strengthened by that one word proclaiming “Worthy!” Everything changes with one word. 

It is a small taste of Heaven where we who now see so poorly, where we whose vision of the eternal is cloudy at best, see face to face and God himself proclaims us worthy. Until then I drink in the word “Axios” “Worthy” like a woman dying of thirst. I drink deeply and as I do my parched soul is revived.

Blogger’s Note: The Reluctant Orthodox ended and the Resilient Orthodox has begun! Join me for occasional glimpses into my ongoing journey in the Orthodox Church. Posts will usually be on a Sunday and, unlike Orthodox services, will rarely be lengthy!

I’ve Lost My Longings

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I’ve Lost my Longings! by Robynn

Several years ago I accidentally attended an eight day Ignatian silent retreat. (Robynn? Quiet for Eight Days? That doesn’t happen on purpose!) At the start of the retreat, before we slipped into our silences, the director had us go round the circle and name our longings. What were we wanting to experience? What were we asking God for? What were we looking for?

Our longings is where we start. Knowing what our hearts are yearning for is the place the journey begins. It’s the start line, the place of departure.

I’m re-reading Ruth Haley Barton’s book, Sacred Rhythms. She says it perfectly:  When we pay attention to our longings and allow questions about our longing to strip away the outer layers of self-definition, we are tapping into the deepest dynamic of the spiritual life. The stirring of spiritual desire indicates that God’s Spirit is already at work within us, drawing us to himself. We love God because he first loved us. We long for God because he first longed for us. We reach for God because he first reached for us. Nothing in the spiritual life originates with us. It all originates with God. So it is that the spiritual life begins in this most unlikely place. It begins with the longing that stirs way down deep, underneath the noise, the activity, the drivenness of our life.

I’m so ready for these new awkward routines to feel like regular life. Many of you have tracked the Bliss family and the tumultuous summer of 2014. We’ve entirely turned our lives upside down and inside out. We moved and then a week later welcomed a new house-mate and family member into our daily lives, namely my mother in law. The kids started back to school. Lowell’s started back to work. I’ve started back to a schedule that screeched to a halt to accommodate our newest family member.

With an ache coming from a deeper place than my tummy, I’m determined to settle down and find myself again. I’m intentionally seeking a rhythm, some routine, some regularity.

And apparently that search begins uncovering my longings.

I’m trying not to panic. According to the directions Barton gives, I’ve sat quietly, I’ve been willing to “name that desire in Christ’s presence,” I’ve waited patiently. But…and here’s the scary part…. I can’t seem to find my longings!

I’m not sure what I really want. I can’t put my finger on what my deep desires might be.

I do want a glimpse of what our new normal might eventually look like. But that’s hardly a profound pining.

The story that Barton highlights is set on a dusty stage. There’s only a couple of main characters: Jesus  the prophet and Bartimaeus the blind man. Bartimaeus sits on the side of the road and he begs, usually for money I suspect, but on this day he begs for mercy and for healing. He knows what he wants. He’s pinpointed those desires. Like every good drama there’s a crowd in the story. Everyone knows if you don’t get a main part you’re lumped into the crowd. Here the crowd says, “Be quiet!” They shush him. They squelch his honest assessment of what he longs for. Bartimaeus cries louder, over the chorus, a particular tone that stands out, “Have Mercy on Me!” The crowd, now again in unison, continue to quiet him. But Jesus hears. And he stops half way across the stage. He turns. He calls for Bartimaeus to come. The crowd, now completely off script and a little confused, change their tune. “Cheer up,” they said. “Come on, he’s calling you!”

And I love what happens next. He doesn’t hesitate. He doesn’t weigh the pros and the cons. Na-uh…!

Bartimaeus threw aside his coat, jumped up, and came to Jesus.

Jesus simply asks the blind man to articulate his desires, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus doesn’t hem and haw, he gets right to the point, still honest, still humble, still aware of his weakness and Jesus’ power and strength, he names it. “I want to see.”

Simple. Inelegant. Vulnerable. Obvious.

I feel like a member of the crowd at this point. I mutter, I shake my head, I walk away jealous and a little sad. Admittedly I’m surprised at the healing. I’m surprised that the ignored and street-side beggar knew how to articulate what he was after. I’m jealous that I wasn’t calling for mercy. I’m jealous that I wasn’t brave enough to ask. And if I’m honest I’m sad that I’m not sure what it is that I want. I’m sad that the idea of wanting something from Jesus still leaves me wanting.

Is it so simple? Am I over complicating my longings? What if in saying what I want I realize that what I want doesn’t sound very spiritual? What if that’s where my vulnerability leads me. If I’m honest and if I dare to speak the obvious I might not come off as profound as the blind man sitting by the side of the road.

And honestly it’s hard to imagine Jesus taking the time, stopping, and actually asking me, “What do you want Robynn? What can I do for you?”

I want healing. I want rest. I want to forgive. Those sound noble and they are all true. I want a new sense of purpose. I want a guarantee that I won’t disappear in this large house with this new living arrangement. Those don’t sound quite so valiant.

Sigh.

But what if I also want a nap? What if I want a night out with a friend and an Amaretto Sour?

Barton says to be patient. She says, You may need to sit with the question and your response for quite some time before you have fully gotten in touch with your heart’s desire or have fully expressed it. Give this question and its answer all the time it needs.

What do you want? What do you long for? When you stop for a bit and listen what is your heart crying out for? Maybe no one’s asked you in a very long time. Maybe no one has taken the time to look you in the eye and inquire after you. How are you? What do you want? Jesus has stopped, and he turns around, and he’s seeking you out, looking you in the eye, he’s asking, “What do YOU want? What can I do for YOU?”

In the meantime I’m auditioning for the blind man’s part. You could try out for it too if you like. These are open try outs. We can run lines together. We can take turns practicing Bartimaeus’ lines, “Have mercy on me.” It’s not a hard line to memorize. I’ll keep reciting it until my hankerings surface, until I have better sense of what my longings really are. Somehow, I think, if we both try out for it, we might just both get the part!

And then at the point when He stops and asks, when he stops and sees me and I dare to make eye contact….hopefully, maybe, I’ll happen upon my longings reflected back to me.

So I’ll ask again – What do you want? What do you long for? When you stop for a bit and listen what is your heart crying out for?

 

Endurance….A long walk in a dark tunnel

Endurance….A long walk in a dark tunnel by Robynn. Follow Robynn on Twitter @RobynnBliss

Tunnel of trees

2014 has been a long year.

We returned from an extended trip to India on January 4th. It took me two weeks to regain my equilibrium (meaning—to remember how to do laundry, make lunches and cook supper!) Toward the end of January I came down sick with a twenty-four hour violent flu bug. I had never experienced that before. It was intriguing and it took its toll. That led to a cough that settled and simmered in my soul as well as in my chest. Seven weeks later, one round of antibiotics and another of steroids, I was finally well.

In the midst of that we learned that the landlords at the retreat center we used to run in Varanasi had evicted the current leader. That was devastating and painful. Our whole family grieved it. It was our spot. It was a tethering point in our beloved Asia suddenly severed.

Soon after that dear friends in Pakistan were involved in a tragic road accident. My Auntie was killed as a result. Her daughter sustained serious head injuries. Her granddaughter broke both her legs. Meanwhile my Pakistani Uncle was still battling cancer.

No sooner had the shock of that worn off a little then my father in law was killed in a farming accident.
We remembered him at a memorial service on Tuesday evening. Thursday morning both my parents, visiting from out-of-town for the funeral, took ill. They left on Friday. By Friday evening I had a fever. Our youngest started on Saturday. Two others came down with it on Sunday.

Sunday evening Lowell’s brother’s father in law also died. More sadness. More grief. Another funeral.

This morning I broke down and cried. It’s been a long, dark tunnel. I’m worn thin.

And Lowell prayed that we would endure.

Honestly endurance is our only option. I see no light at the end of this particular tunnel. There are glimmers of hope but nothing substantive. All we can do is put one foot in front of the other. We keep walking. We are hard pressed. We are squeezed. It’s dark and damp where we are just now. I can’t see where I’m going.

This morning at the doctor’s office I thought about faith and truth and hope. What would it look like to wall paper the inside of the tunnel. I’m not talking about settling in permanently….but since we’re going to be here for a time it might help to make the place a little more cheery. What images would I stick on the walls? What verses would I write out in thick black marker? What photographs would I frame?

It’s in a tunnel that faith becomes oh-so-practical! There’s no faking it now. That’s not an option. Truth and hope have to hold strong. They have to work now or I’m done. I’ll throw in the towel. What I stick on the walls of the tunnel has to be life-giving and sustaining. It’s the reminders I need if I’m going to endure.

I looked up the word, endurance, in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It’s “the ability to do something difficult for a long time; the ability to deal with pain or suffering that continues for a long time; the quality of continuing for a long time.” Lowell and I have done long-time stuff before. We have some experience at enduring. Perhaps we’ve grown to possess the “quality of continuing for a long time”. The thing with enduring is it’s hard. Enduring implies something needs to be endured. It’s the difficult, the pain or suffering, the continuing from the definitions that are the kickers. Enduring a picnic or a party aren’t as difficult! Enduring hard things, dark seasons, long tunnels —that’s the painful part.

When I look up the word endurance in scripture I’m astounded. We are called to endure suffering, temptation, persecution, hostility, testing, trials, unfair treatment. We aren’t left to our own devices. We’ve been equipped to endure: “We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need.” (Col 1:11).

But what is the most astounding thing I’ve discovered in my hunt is what endures even beyond our own calling to endure….. God’s love endures forever! His faithful love endures forever. His name, his kingdom, his throne—those all endure too. But over and over, a refrain in the perpetual rhythms of each story, the line is the same, His faithful love endures forever.

Are you stuck in a long dark tunnel too? I’m not naïve enough to think it’s just Lowell and I. Our darkest days probably seem grey to others. Cancer, unemployment, broken-hearted children. Tragedy, betrayal, divorce, loneliness, financial despair. These things come along at a merciless pace. They take our breath away. Our spirits lose vitality. Our bodies break down. Whatever we’ve been asked to endure there is a force that endures longer, stronger, past whatever limited capacities we have. His faithful love endures forever!

I’ve poured myself a cup of tea. My Christ candle is lit and I’ve pulled out the glue. I’m sticking that truth up inside the tunnel. I’m writing it out in large cursive letters. It’s the one thing I can hold on to right now. His faithful love endures longer than I have to. His love endures. Forever.

What about you? Where are you learning about endurance? What can you hold to during this time?

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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 24 “On Pascha, Sophia Maria & Isaac”

 

The Orthodox hymn gets in your brain and you find yourself wanting to belt it out in loud measure everywhere you go.

Christ is risen from the dead, 
trampling down death by death.
And upon those in the tombs 
bestowing life! 
 

Pascha in the Orthodox Church begins with a darkened sanctuary. The light of one candle is held by the priest and as one we move forward as he calls us to “Come, take the light!” Candles now light up the church and we head outside around the church as though to the tomb. We come back to the door of the church and are told “He’s not here – He is risen from the Dead!” As we enter again into the sanctuary we move forward in joyous hymns and priests rushing joyfully into the congregation declaring in many different languages “Christ is Risen!” to which we reply in various languages “Indeed! He is Risen!” or “In Truth, He is Risen!”

And all this happens between midnight and three in the morning.

The first time I went to a Pascha service I lasted from 11:30 until 12:30. I was beyond reluctant – I was like “You all are, in my daughter’s words, ‘cray-cray’ (the vernacular for crazy)” Now I’m like “When will I get to take grandchildren to this glorious service?!”

A lot has happened in 11 years. And today – Holy Saturday – the reluctance was buried in an Orthodox Baptism, and as reluctance died, acceptance rose. Yes – my husband and I were baptized and chrismated into the Orthodox Church. We were cheered on by a church body that has loved us well these past couple of years, by a Poppadia (priest’s wife) who walked beside me these past weeks, even when I sent emails saying “I can’t do this thing!”, and by two priests who we trust and who have heard the bad, the hard, and the ugly, telling us there’s nothing we could tell them that they haven’t already heard in some form or another and assuring us that God’s grace covers all.

This is not new information. I was taught and loved well in my life by parents, brothers, sister-in-laws, friends. So many who have reflected love and grace and the very best of Christianity. But as I’ve said before, sometimes old information needs new clothing. And so it has been in our case.

We celebrate Pascha as “Sophia Maria (Marilyn)” and “Isaac (Cliff).” I figure that two saints are better than one. The lives of both Sophia and Maria (Mary of Egypt) exemplify Wisdom and Repentance and I find I am in need of both of those, in abundance. You can read up on their lives here and here.

This step in no way erases all reluctance or all questions. Indeed, the more I learn the more I realize this Grace is a mystery and confounds much of the time. I’ll be writing a bit more in later posts on going from reluctance to acceptance; on being Sophia Maria; on legalism and grace; and on some of the more humorous ‘mistakes’ I have made (including calling the priest’s wife a “PoppaDokka” and our son calling Father Patrick “Pope Shenouda.”

But tonight I celebrate Pascha, Sophia Maria, and Isaac.

Because with Christians all around the world I sing the words:

Christ is risen from the dead, 
trampling down death by death.
And upon those in the tombs 
bestowing life! 
 

“*A few drops of blood recreate the whole world and become for all human beings like a curdling agent for milk, binding and drawing us together into one.” 

 
Nazianzen, Gregory. Festal Orations. Trans. Verna E. F. Harrison. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 2008. Print.

Baptismal photo credit: Dn Tudor Sambeteanu

 

 

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Grief Quotes During Holy Week

Grief Quotes by Robynn – 

Grief quotes: Even when grieving someone has to do the laundry… Hard to get it dry when the tears keep coming.

Grief quotes: I’m a pretty smart person. .. how come i can’t figure out death?

My father in law died suddenly in a freak farm accident early Saturday evening.

He was out cutting fire wood and then hauling it in. The tractor lost traction, flipped and landed on dad. From what we can tell, Dad died peacefully and instantly. He was doing what he loved.

For Christians around the world this week is Holy Week. I am finding that experiencing a death in the family during holy week is oddly spiritual. I find myself thinking about Jesus’ death in different ways. Dad’s death was such a shock. We weren’t expecting it. Jesus’ death was also a great shock to his friends and family. That wasn’t the plan they had. The women that came to the burial to properly prepare his body…you know they tucked that in the midst of a lengthy to-do list. They had mourners to cook for too I suspect. They had shopping and laundry and out-of-town guests to accommodate. There were children to soothe late at night. There were visitors who stopped by to console and grieve. Those women were real. Their tears were wet and salty. Just like mine.

Of course there is a great difference. Jesus doubly shocked them when he rose from the dead! To-do lists were suddenly obsolete. The funeral was turned upside down into a Resurrection Celebration!

Or maybe there isn’t that much difference. Dad knew God. I firmly believe he now enjoys his own resurrection. I don’t have a clue how these things work. But I know that Jesus welcomed Dad home. While we are having a funeral, they’ll be turning it upside down into a resurrection celebration! He’s home. Safely Risen.

Christ has risen! He has risen indeed

And so has my father in law!

Grief quotes: We had plans. God had other plans. It is good.

***************

Note from Marilyn: 

I read somewhere that grief sets its own agenda, it cannot be controlled. You don’t know when it will flood over you and whether the manifestation will be tears, nausea or distraction. Hope seems so false when grief is so real. Words are ineffective and empty, Bible verses can bring more pain.

But one thing does seem to bring comfort. The presence of a person.  Being available, not with words but with our presence. Not a false hope that says “Is there anything I can do for you?” when there are no words to express what may be needed. Not a phone call that is lost every time we are out of range of a cell phone tower. But the fullness of our presence. In the midst of grief, the presence of one who loves can offer hope and comfort.  And that is a picture and glory of the Incarnation. That in the midst of our grief, God became present among us. If you live around Robynn, words might not be the right thing to offer – but a meal would, or your presence just sitting with the Bliss family, or picking up her kids from somewhere. Thank you readers for being present today in this grief.

You can follow Robynn on Twitter @RobynnBliss

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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 10 “On Bread & Wine”

Liturgy of Saint James. Russian Orthodox Churc...

I’ll admit it – I felt irritated, angry even. The little kid who had wandered through the service all morning had his hands full of blessed bread. He was enjoying every morsel – while I stood on the outside of the circle, not allowed in.

Of all the things that have made me reluctant to move forward in this journey towards Eastern Orthodoxy it is communion, the bread and the wine, body and blood of Christ.

Communion. Christ died for us, for me. Christ broken. Christ bruised and beaten, then dead in a tomb covered with an immense rock designed to keep any who would tamper with the body away. Communion – served only to those who are Orthodox, a closed table, a fenced table, designed to keep people away. At least that is what I felt.

I think back on churches I’ve attended in recent years. There were our ‘mega church’ years, the ones in Phoenix where church was a cool worship band swaying to the beat of guitars, drums, and a fabulous soloist. Those years had us begging for more fencing, longing for a closed table as we realized no change or transformation was ever expected of anyone who attended. It was just feel good and above all, Jesus wanted you to feel good. He wanted you to feel good about yourself, about your flaws and faults, and especially about who you had taken to bed the night before. No guilt there. Jesus is Love and we would prove it to the world by showing that no matter who or what we did or were, there was no need to change.

There was the church that brought a wagon down the aisle and served lemonade to all of us. That was cool – but of course, you could get better lemonade at a good restaurant and you wouldn’t have to tithe. Charlie Brown Christmas theme music filled the auditorium on Christmas eve, no candles or Silent Night here – that was too traditional.

The church that didn’t want to speak of the Resurrection on Easter, for fear that with so many visitors it would be unrelatable – What?!

With so many of these it didn’t matter what you believed — the point was to feel accepted and loved and so communion was for all. Communion was served once a month, unless it fell on Christmas or Easter and then there would be a break in the predictable schedule and we would wait until the next month.

So I don’t like the open table and I don’t like the closed table. What do I like? What do I want? 

In more recent years the church we attended had a gentle fencing, why can’t Orthodoxy “gently” fence the table instead of asking so much of me?

But communion is not about me and what I want or don’t want. And this is why I’m now glad that I haven’t been able to take it for the last year, despite seeing little kids grab blessed bread.

I’ve needed the time to read and find out what exactly Orthodox believe about the bread and the wine, about communion. And I find it differs profoundly from Protestant belief. For to Orthodox communion is not a symbol – it is the physical body and blood of Christ. It is not a ‘reminder’, it is a sacrament. Church centers, not around the sermon, or the music, but around the Eucharist, around the point where all Orthodox Christians are invited to partake of the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ. This is the presence of the resurrected Christ in our midst, the central theme of Christianity. All of time stops in these moments, this is why it is Divine Liturgy. 

It is also about the Church, the Church as a community of believers and my willingness to submit to the authority of the church, to not go out on my own, but that is certainly material for another reflection.

In the book Facing East by Frederica Matthewes Green, the author speaks of being at a conference with many varieties of believing Christians. The discussion on communion came up and the Orthodox and Catholics, in arguing for a closed table, said that “open communion is like premarital sex – a premature sharing of intimacy without commitment”. She goes on to say that she thinks it’s a “good analogy”. 

I’m still working this through, I still have questions and struggles with all of this. But as with so many things in Orthodoxy, the Eucharist is not something to take lightly, it never was. And in it, like so many things in Christianity, there is deep mystery.

So I sit and watch others go and take communion, pondering the mystery of Christ crucified, resurrected, present in our midst. And my irritation with little boys and blessed bread dissipates, replaced by deep gratitude that I am in this place, worshiping the Christ, son of the Living God.