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


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.








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.


Pink Punch and Lemon Squares


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.


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!


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.

When the Lights Go Out and Jesus Isn’t Enough

Lightbulb quote

I was tucking him in tight, sheets pulled up to his chin, blanket over the sheet, pillow fluffed. His attic bedroom was a chilly room and his toddler body was curled up tight.

I had read.  We had done the “Great green room” and  “a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of a cow jumping over the moon,” several times.

I had sung.

I had prayed.

Time to go. Time to turn out the light and go downstairs where four other kids waited for bedtime tea and talk.

“Mommy, I scawwed.”

“Jonathan you don’t need to be scared. The boys are right next door. I’m right downstairs.”

“Mommy, I still scawwed.”

“Jonathan, Jesus will be with you.”

“I hate Jesus.”


This was not the way this bedtime scenario was supposed to go. My words were supposed to comfort. These were the words of a good Christian mama – Or were they?

I suddenly saw things from this tow-headed toddler’s perspective.

The light was out, mom was leaving, and Jesus wasn’t enough.

Each night I read. I sang. I prayed. And then I told him Jesus would be with him, shut off all the lights and left him alone in a cold room. In his mind, left alone in the dark with Jesus, he was cold and scared. Jesus was proving a poor bedfellow.

No wonder at that moment he hated Jesus.

It was this pivotal night that turned around our bedtime routine. I found a night-light. I tucked him in tight. I told him we were right downstairs. I prayed with him. I shut off the light and, with night-light glowing, I stayed until I saw his eyes close. I no longer left him in the dark with a cold-hearted “Jesus is with you.

I have many parenting stories, many tales of my inept parenting and resilient kids, but this is one of my favorites.

For it served as a good reminder – a reminder that Jesus needs skin and we are that skin, to our children and to others. A reminder that there have been times when I have translated the original bedtime routine to others. I have in essence patted them on the back, made appropriate noises and told them Jesus would be with them. And I imagine them saying to my back as I walked away, so busy with other things, “I hate Jesus” for what they needed was me being His hands and His feet, me offering bread and tea, comfort and love, a heart of compassion, but most of all — being present and offering a night-light.

The light is out in their lives and Jesus isn’t enough.

And isn’t this why there was an Incarnation to begin with? Because the lights were out, and it was cold and dark. We lay in our beds curled up, far from God. And God knew we needed Him with skin on.

Every year at Advent we set aside time to remember the coming of God incarnate. Remember that everything changed when this baby was born. Remember that people still need to see the mystery of God incarnate lived and offered — a night-light and presence to replace the dark, fear, and cold by offering light, safety, and warmth.

This Advent season, may we be a people who sit for awhile, offering ourselves and our full presence, who bring a night-light so people can see Jesus.

*From the beloved children’s book Goodnight Moon.

This post is linked up with The Parent ‘Hood hosted by Kelly at Love Well blog.

Guest Post: “Longing for the Other Place”

Today’s post came by way of a comment on the post Saudade. It resonated deeply with me and I asked permission to share as a blog post. It is written by Anne Alexander, a fellow TCK. You can take a look at the end for a short bio.

I hope you enjoy this post and may your Sunday be a welcome rest from the chaos and busyness of life. 

Yesterday I went to a funeral for a dear friend. It was a true celebration (the most joyful, Christ-honoring I’ve ever attended), but that couldn’t stop the tears, even in worship.

As funerals and farewells often do, this one brought up the pain of losing my brothers in childhood, and all the related pain of leaving relatives and friends on both sides of the ocean time after time after time. It brought up the longing for the ‘other place’, whichever one I wasn’t in, and the people I love around the world.

TCK lives are filled and colored with losses of all kinds.

Some of us stuff feelings really well for a long time (for me, until middle age), but some of us are blessed, unable to do so.

In the long run, the ‘expressers’ are less likely to develop physical or mental aberrations because ‘the truth must out’, and our pain is truth to us.

The angst the world feels because of the God-shaped, Heaven-shaped longings implanted when we were created for Him hums in their experience like an irritatingly loud refrigerator– sometimes softer, sometimes louder, but ultimately ignorable until the margins of our lives are used up.

As TCKs we live with less margin most of our lives, continually pushed into areas of growth, change and challenge. We may disguise the irritation and angst of being  between homes and Home, but we can’t hide it any more than a person with 3 arms can hide it under a 2-armed shirt.

Growing up, we’ve sampled more fulfillment and full-use of our potential, more of and varied pleasures and experiences, more pain and loss, than many of our passport-country friends do in an entire lifetime.

We are accustomed to adrenaline in traffic and true life-threatening experiences, to fox-hole friendships with those we work and worship with, to ‘relatives’ closer in spirit, purpose and faith than any blood relatives we could find in our passport country.

We have lived life without the bubble wrap, warfare without boxing gloves, and the exhilaration of seeing God come through when it really matters.  And we know it’s more than just making the next traffic light green so we can get to work on time.

Is it any wonder that we grieve the distancing from LIFE that sometimes seems to accompany return to our passport country? Is it any wonder that we long for friends and ‘relatives’ like those with whom we grew up, or worked with in our country of adoption?

Thank God for a word like ‘saudade’ that helps us express the inexpressible longing for that remembered world of discovery, friendship, growth and possibilities. We are not alone. And there will at last be a place where all potentials will be realized as they were meant to be.

But until then, my heart will go on singing (even if sometimes the minor key spirituals of hope);
But until then, with joy I’ll carry on (knowing that even if no one else understands, my Creator, Companion and Burden-bearer does)–
Until the day my eyes behold the city,
Until the day God calls me Home. (Until Then chorus by Ray Price)

And in the meantime, that third arm comes in handy for all kinds of tasks, like wiping the tears I sometimes can’t hide, or helping a friend in need.

Kindergarten in Mandarin was TCK Anne Alexander’s introduction to Taiwan, and for 44 years she has called Taiwan home. At present she’s teaching and researching Bible storytelling in Mandarin for a doctorate from Biola’s Cook School of Intercultural Studies.