The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 8: The Sign of the Cross”

20130928-093928.jpgThis is the first thing I notice as I begin my journey into Orthodoxy. The sign of the Cross. I shake my head because I can’t figure out when they do the sign. When I’m about to make the sign of the cross, it seems no one else is. When I am least prepared, everyone else is on board.

Always a step behind the sign of the cross.

The thought leaves me depressed. It’s what I often feel on this journey — a step behind everyone else. If I didn’t know this was the right path I would give up, just because I hate that I am a baby in the journey. At heart I know this is pride. And with the sign of the cross, I pray His grace will trump my pride, anyday and everyday.

The sign of the cross reminds me I’m in a humble place of learning. I know none of the answers and am barely able to ask the questions. It’s healthy to realize I know only one thing – Christ crucified for me.

When my oldest daughter Annie was six she began making the sign of the cross. We had a number of Catholic friends, and she picked up the gesture naturally. One day I was talking to my mom about this. My mom is a lifelong believer, a mentor in my faith since I was old enough to understand anything. “There’s nothing wrong with that” she said. “It’s totally Biblical!” This is one of the many reasons why I love my mom. The stuff that counts is black and white, the other stuff is many shades of grey. The sign of the cross? In her opinion whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox the sign of the cross made complete sense.

Because this sign represents the cross itself as well as loving God with my heart, my soul, my mind, and my strength. And as often as I can, I need to be reminded of this.

Orthodox make the sign of the cross differently than Catholics. Pressing my index and middle fingers to my thumb I go up to my forehead, then down toward my stomach, over to the right shoulder and across to the left: “In the name of the father (forehead) son (down) and the Holy Spirit (over and across)”

Up, down, over, across. Up, down, over, across. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The mystery of the Trinity. Up, down, over, across.

There is a rhythmic prayer and beauty to this and I realize I have looked for a symbol like this my entire life. I’ve always envied my Catholic friends, feeling they could, with one sign, indicate a faith. This may sound simplistic, and I am well aware that God’s concern is the heart, not the outward symbols. But when the outward symbol can reflect the heart? This is a gift.

I look toward the altar. The choir, in exquisite harmony, is singing “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity one in essence, and indivisible”.

Up, down, over, acrossThe sign that reminds me of a love sacrificial, a cross that overcomes sin and death, a Lord who is present. I gratefully bow my head. 

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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 7 “From Mary in the Blue Dress to Most Holy Theotokos”

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The image comes from my Sunday School days of long ago. Mary is pale and pure, always in blue, probably to match her distinctively blue eyes. Her head is draped with a white cloth, somewhat like the dupattas I’m so familiar with. She is sweet, submissive, and not a little frail. She looks a bit like the wind could blow her away as she sits in reverent awe of the wee one in her arms. Joseph is always standing. “Does he never sit” asks the irreverent child in an audible whisper.

And of course there are ox and ass and sheep and shepherds and a dirty stable. Because that’s the story that made its way into 20th century Sunday School classes, no matter how erroneous it is.

Mary, just a girl, a teenager who said ‘yes’. Just like you or me.

And then I meet Eastern Orthodoxy and the image goes from white and blue to brilliant golds and reds, deep greens and oranges. I’m aghast! Where is my wee Mary? Where is my sweet Mary?

It turns out she doesn’t exist in the Eastern Orthodox church. Not that Mary. The Mary I’ve been introduced to is a warrior. She is the Theotokos. The God-bearer. She is far more than the young thing that said yes to the angel Gabriel.

The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most ven...

I have been introduced to the woman to whom Elizabeth cried “Blessed art thou among women!” and “From now on, all generations will call you blessed!” These are powerful words, words that many in Christendom have forgotten, for I’ll be honest – I’ve not heard Mary, the mother of Jesus, called blessed once in the past 20 years in any protestant church I’ve attended. She’s not mentioned but on Christmas, and then only in the scripture passage read during the Advent season.

Mary, who both nursed the Christ-child and wept with tears that pierced her soul at his blood stained body on the cross. Mary who urged Jesus to intervene at a wedding. Mary who scolded Jesus for staying behind in Jerusalem, worried sick was she at her son’s disappearance.

And I can’t help thinking, she must abhor the controversy about her. She must shake her head in despair at the extremes that emerge when it comes to views of her role in Christianity. The skeptic in the west who fears any mention may lead to an out of control adoration and the superstition in the east that can lead to a view that puts her on equal footing with God.

So I ask and I search to find out more about this new Mary, who bears no resemblance to the old Mary, the one I was so comfortable with, who was so safe.

I read and I question and I first find what the Orthodox do not believe. They do not worship Mary. They venerate her — just like they don’t worship icons, they venerate them. They hold them in high regard and respect, they are careful in the ways they treat them, careful not to treat them with apathy and disregard. The Orthodox do not believe Mary was born without sin. Nor do they believe that she is “co-redemptor” with Christ.

And then I move farther and I find that Mary is a picture of what it is to become Christ-like. As the bearer of God, the Theotokos, she represents a willingness and humility to bear the Son of God. She, just as all humans before and after her, had free will. She used that free will to say “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according to your word.”

Mary was a precious and contributing member to the early church, cared for by the apostles and loved by early believers.

It turns out when it comes to Mary, I am not a Reluctant Orthodox, but a hard-core believer that this woman who exudes strength, humility, truth, and the deepest obedience is worth respecting and loving. I am grateful for a fresh view, a new view of Mary. She is, after all, the Mother of my Lord.

The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 4 “On Fasting”

It’s when I taste the bitter coffee that I’m most aware I’m heading into a Fast Day, for I like my coffee rich, sweet, and creamy. I get lost in my one-time-a-day, o-so-sweet, pleasure coffee. My strong as death, sweet as love, black as hell coffee.

It is with this small sacrifice that I bow my head in thanksgiving that God helps us to see and know sacrifice first through the small things, those human things that have little significance in eternity, but seemingly great significance in the now. And after these small things, faithfulness to sacrifice the small things, he moves us on to that which is far more important.

Fasting is a hallmark of this ancient faith dating back to Jewish tradition and Jesus. As with all things Orthodox I have to search to find the significance of the fast being on Wednesdays and Fridays. I find out it is because Christ was betrayed on a Wednesday and crucified on a Friday.

Fasting in the Orthodox church is considered “grace-bestowing and life-giving”. 

I am not familiar or used to fast days and extended fasts like the Lenten Fast. I am familiar with the “giving up chocolate for Lent” sort of sacrifice; the “Lenten fast from soft drinks”. This is not the same. 

I search farther and find that the fast is not a ‘complete’ fast, rather it includes no meat, no dairy products, no fish. This is the weekly fast. The Nativity fast and the Lenten fast are separate and take more thought, more discipline.

Fasting is mentioned many times in the Holy Scriptures, over seventy times at least. Jesus and his apostles regularly fasted. Fasting accompanied by prayer is clearly something important in this journey of faith. As I read and ask questions about fasting, I find myself tensing in frustration and rebellion. ‘How legalistic’ I think! ‘Jesus came to abolish the law, yet all these rules?’ Yet are they rules? No one will know if I don’t fast. No one is looking over my shoulder. I’m just being encouraged to do so, with the support and comfort of the Church behind me and thousands of years and examples of saints who have done the same.

Why my tension over something considered “grace-bestowing” and “life-giving”? For a long time I have walked a spiritual path void of discipline, doing what I want when I want, making excuses in my heart and living them out in my body. I know myself. And I know that I want excuses. I need excuses as to why this won’t work for me. Saying ‘no’ to food, ‘no’ to sweet, creamy coffee, ‘no’ to self – this is not comfortable. Our journey into the Eastern Orthodox church challenges me in ways that I did not know possible, I find the heart of much of what I do spiritually to be about self. Learning (slowly mind you) to fast, learning to accompany that fast with prayer, learning honesty as I kneel before God with the words that are slowly becoming familiar to me “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Have Mercy on Me” — all of this pushes me gloriously “further in, further up”.

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!”CS Lewis in The Last Battle

I’m back to another sip of my bitter coffee, the bitter coffee representing a discipline leading me closer to the One who sacrificed all – for me. 

A View and a Door

I never realized how empty and quiet a coffee table could look.

I’ve written before about our love for books and how dull women have immaculate coffee tables. Our coffee table always has a minimum of 20 books (usually more like 40) on it. It’s square and sturdy, a well-lived and loved table. What I didn’t realize is how many books would be going out the door with my son, leaving a quiet coffee table.

My husband dropped our youngest off at college yesterday morning – I was to join them later in the day for parent orientation. When I asked my husband what Jonathan’s room was like he said enthusiastically “It’s great! It has a view and a door!”

For almost six years Jonathan has had a basement room with no view and no door, only a black curtain for privacy. This fifth child of ours is now living in 8 by 13 feet luxury!

By the time I arrived in the afternoon he was completely unpacked. Every book put on a shelf, every shirt hung up, and a bed made with crisp new sheets and comforter.

Who is this child and where have they taken my son? His room at home did not look this way.

I’ve been thinking about those two things: A view and a door. For they are a great picture of what college and life beyond mom and dad should be for a kid. A view of what can be and a door to get there.

Jonathan has chosen to attend an Orthodox school, Hellenic college, located on a beautiful campus in Brookline just outside of Boston. In distance he’s not far from home, in every other way he’s a million miles away. Hellenic sits apart on a hill, the gold dome of the chapel rising up to the sky. The view of Boston from the hill is stunning, one of the best views in the city.

The college does not just sit apart geographically. It’s entire ethos could not be more different from your average college, for this college experience is not about finding yourself. Rather, it’s about finding a way to serve Christ, the church, and society as the unique person God has created you to be, whether this be through business, science, medicine, art and more. The maroon and gold t-shirts worn by orientation staff bear the college logo and name on the front, and on the back “Through the cross, Joy”, a remarkable statement for college-age young adults, indeed a remarkable statement for any of us.

We sat through orientation and heard from a number of people from the dean to director of housing. The thread that tied all these together was finding your calling in Christ through vocation.

A view and a door. I have no doubt our son is already enjoying his view and his door, basking in sunlight coming through a large window and in the privacy that a door affords.

Far more important, he’s begun a journey that offers him a view and a door to so much more. Maybe it’s what we all long for in our souls – a view of something larger than us and a door to get there.

Readers – thanks for coming along on this journey with me by reading. There are many thoughts that aren’t making it to the page, but those that are have been met with tremendous support from you.

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The Christ Candle

Christ Candle

The Christ Candle by Robynn

Advent is the season of waiting for the Christ. It’s typically celebrated during the month of December as the church collective waits, again, with eager expectation for the arrival of Jesus—joining in the ancient longing for His first coming and looking forward to His second arrival. Often a special wreathe with four candles encircling it is used to count down the weeks. Each week a different part of the narrative or a different virtue is commemorated. A pink or lavender candle is lit for joy or for hope or to remember the shepherds or the angel’s part in the Old, Old Story.

And normally there is a fifth white candle, the Christ Candle, which is lit in tremendous elation on Christmas morning. Christ has come. He is here. The waiting is over. He has arrived.

Obviously I put away the Christmas decorations months ago. But the past several years I’ve kept out the Christ Candle.

I light it when the worries are too consuming and I need to remember that Christ is here.

I light it when the world is in shambles—Egypt is volatile, Pakistan is again attacked, Syria is still unrested, political corruption spreads here and around the globe. I light it and I bring to mind that Christ is Ever Present.

I light it when my friends are hurting: someone’s roof is leaking, someone’s child is sick, someone is overworked, someone is facing a new job and is nervous, someone struggles at family reunions to remember she is truly loved. I light my precious white candle and I recall that Christ Himself attends to my friends. He cares deeply and personally for each one. He alone is the light in their dark night.

I light my Christ candle when I fear for my own children, when I see the anxieties of their souls creep out on to their faces, when I know by their eyes that they are weary and worn down, afraid or battling loneliness and longings beyond their ages. I light my candle then.

I light it for myself too. Sometimes the sorrow is too great. Sometimes the sadness threatens to steal all joy. Sometimes my own weaknesses, my own sins, my own selfishness consume me. Sometimes I worry, I fret, I fear. Anxiety and panic dance on the edges of my sanity. I light it then. I deliberately recollect that Jesus is very near, he is Emmanuel, God with us. The waiting is over. I can breathe. I can trust. I can rest. The flickering flame repeats these seemingly fragile truths back to my knowingly fragile soul and I am comforted.

Yesterday morning our three children marched out the back door to three different schools. They took notebooks in their backpacks and butterflies in their stomachs. I lit my Christ candle then too. Christ goes with them. He has already inhabited their classrooms. Assigned seating puts Him right next to each of them in their various classes.

Jesus sees their hearts, he hears their prayers, he knows their problems. And in lighting my candle I remember all that.

                                    ~St Patrick’s Prayer~

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me,

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

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Pink Punch and Lemon Squares

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They served pink punch at the funeral.

Pink punch with sherbet in it. And lemon squares and those little finger sandwiches stuffed with different fillings: egg salad, ham, salmon salad, tuna. There were vegetables cut up neatly, in bite-size pieces. And there was dip for the vegetables and more sweets – chewy blonde brownies, Rice Krispies squares, dark chocolate cookies.

It was a spread to make a church proud; the sacrificial hands of church ladies who had done this before were there, waiting to direct and refill plates.

And I sat idly back, an observer feeling the pain of the widow. A widow who was burying her life partner, the man who had wooed her as a young college student and grown old with her; a man of integrity and faithfulness, by all counts a man of God – now dead. She would go home to a bed and a house half full, echoes of a life lived well all around her.

To live means to lose. To live means to experience death. To live means loss.

In Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts she writes “I will lose every single person I have ever loved.Either abruptly or eventually. All human relationships end in loss. Am I prepared for that?”*

All this loss wrapped up in pink punch and lemon squares

And if the end is just a service, pink punch, and lemon squares then it’s pathetic. The human heart cannot handle sustained loss on a diet of sweets. That every single relationship ultimately ends in loss is too much for the heart to handle without a Saviour.

I think about words from my faith tradition, words to an ancient church in Thessalonica, a church that had experienced death and loss: “Therefore we do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope”. There’s a mystery to the words. The mystery of Christ conquering death — Christ, risen from the dead, trampling down death, bestowing life.

Bestowing life so that serving pink punch and lemon squares is not an act of irony, but rather an act of sweet hospitality and grace to those who have come to offer comfort, to grieve with hope.

And as I think about all of this, the life and the loss, the hope and the hospitality, I realize I want pink punch with sherbet in it and lemon squares at my funeral.

*page 85 of One Thousand Gifts

The Victory That is Easter – A Guest Post

He is Risen EggOn this day Christians across the world are using a greeting that began over two thousand years ago – greeting each other with the words “He is Risen” and responding in turn: “He is Risen Indeed!” They are words that I have heard since I was a child, and in my faith tradition they are words of Hope.

My oldest brother, Edward Brown, wrote an Easter blog post earlier in the week and it resonated deeply with my soul. He has allowed me to re-post so I am sending you over to his blog today. Enjoy and make sure to take a look around his blog.

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It is the start of Holy Week. Christians of whatever label take time this week to remember and celebrate events that are at the heart of our faith: A coronation march into an ancient city. A sham trial. A barbaric execution. An unexpected finale with earthquakes, empty tombs, and wild rumors. And finally, a dead man come to life. Euphoria, despair, confusion, victory – all in one short week.

This up and down cycle of Holy Week is a pretty good metaphor for life. Whether it is our own small lives or the grand drama of human history through the ages, we experience the same wild swings from giddy joy to awful despair, with a lot of waiting time sprinkled throughout. This is a picture of how God works in our histories, small and large, to bring us to an end that he sees and has ordained from the beginning.

We know how it ends before we begin

That last phrase is where we have to begin: The end has been planned from the beginning. As Jesus went through the cycle from the exuberance of the Triumphal Entry (Palm Sunday) to the sorrow of the Last Supper to the humiliation of his trial and the agony of the cross, he knew that that he was participating in a drama whose end had already been written. There was pain. There was shame. But there was no uncertainty. He knew how it would end.

John makes this clear in his introduction to the events of the Last Supper:

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end… Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper… [John 13:1,3-4]

Jesus’ whole-hearted embrace of events that had been laid out for him from the beginning of time reminds me of Psalm 44:4 where we are told that God “decrees victories” for his people. What a great thought: We don’t have to earn our victories! God has decreed that we will win. If this was true of Jesus, and of the ancient people of Israel, it is also true of us in our day. Whatever today feels like, God has already decreed that there will be a victory. It almost feels like cheating – like starting your first game in the NCAA tournament knowing that strings have been pulled and you have been guaranteed the crown.

Not what we expect.

But the victory that God has decreed is not like winning a tournament. It may in fact be a ‘win’ that looks and feels like a defeat……Read more here!

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Ed Brown is the Executive Director of Care of Creation, an organization whose mission is “to pursue a God-centered response to the environmental challenges that brings glory to the Creator, advances the cause of Christ, and leads to the transformation of the people and the land that sustains them.” In this role he travels extensively both nationally and internationally, leading seminars and speaking on the topic of caring for God’s creation. He is the author of Our Father’s World, Mobilizing the Church to Care for Creation and a second book that was just released, When Heaven & Nature Sing:Exploring God’s Goals for People and His World published by Doorlight Publications.