When You’re in the Middle of the Story – and You Want to Know the End

Several years ago I was in the middle of a riveting book. Every time I had a spare moment I would pick up the book and continue reading. My husband was traveling and so after I got my five children settled for the night, I got into my own bed and continued reading. The night got later and later as the book took on more and more suspense. I suddenly looked at the clock and it was three o’clock in the morning. I was stunned, but also faced with a dilemma: Do I go to bed? Do I keep on reading? Or….and this will stun many of you….do I skip forward and read the end?

Knowing that I may disappoint you, I will not tell you what I did. The bigger point is that sometimes we’re in the middle of the story, and we desperately want to know the end. Will the protagonist’s longing be fulfilled? Will the boy find the girl? Will the child be rescued? Will the villain be caught? This is what makes The Princess Bride such a delighful and longstanding movie favorite. Princess Buttercup, Wesley, the Villain, the Giant, Inigo Montoya….it’s all there and it is deeply satisfying because we get to see the end. Wesley’s words to Princess Buttercup “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.” stay with us even after watching countless other movies.

The stories each of us live, sometimes caught up with the story of another, are a bit more complicated. We don’t always know the ending. We pray for healing only to watch someone die of cancer. We pray for peace only to see war after war after war. We pray for courage only to see ourselves cower in the moments that we most want to be brave. We pray for understanding only to be crushed by the weight of misunderstanding. We pray that we will have faith to believe in something bigger than ourselves only to doubt everytime life gets difficult. We pray for unity in churches and families only to watch as chasms grow in both. We long for a good ending, but in the dark of night we wonder “How will it all end?”

This week it is Palm Sunday in my faith tradition. Palm Sunday was an amazing story. It is the hero riding into Jerusalem. Right there in the middle of palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!” is a story of hope and joy. Things will change! Here he comes! We’ve watched what he can do and he will make everything right.

But a few days later, the unbelievable happened and all hopes were gone in a moment. A moment of denial, a moment of a mother’s tears, a moment of fear. They thought that this was the end of the story.

But it wasn’t. It was the middle of the story and it felt like the end.

We are much like that. It’s easy to feel despair, to sit in the middle of the story thinking it is the end. Because in this Christian faith, a faith that I describe as my oxygen, the Story is not yet over. It is ultimately a love story that continues to call us into believing the impossible, to hope in the unseen, and to live in the light of a bigger reality. It calls us follow that great cloud of witnesses that went before, It whispers in the night, and shouts in the daylight that there is more and that it matters.

As for faith and the middle of the story? I so often want to skip to the end, to forget the pages inbetween. To get resolution and redemption without all the pain that goes along with it. Here is the truth: Sometimes I believe, sometimes I doubt, always I pray “Help my unbelief.” Sometimes I love God and people, sometimes I do not; always I pray “Teach me to love more and judge less.” Sometimes I believe the story is not yet over, other times I believe that it has ended, that what I see is all there is; always I pray:

Help me to remember that the story is not over, that the story I see with limited vision continually points to a bigger story with an absolutely astonishing ending.

And since ultimately this Christian story is a love story, perhaps I too would do well to remember the words of Wesley in The Princess Bride “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.”

Photo by Reuben Juarez on Unsplash

Waiting in Peace

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
    "For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"*

An extraordinary Christmas story from World War 1 tells of a Christmas Eve truce forged by soldiers on opposite sides of the war. Taken from several different sources, including letters written home by soldiers involved, the story goes that on Christmas Eve in 1914, British troops heard German troops across a field singing Christmas Carols. The Smithsonian account writes that “The first signs that something strange was happening occurred on Christmas Eve. At 8:30 p.m. an officer of the Royal Irish Rifles reported to headquarters: ‘Germans have illuminated their trenches, are singing songs and wishing us a Happy Xmas. Compliments are being exchanged but am nevertheless taking all military precautions.’” 

Another account, written by Private Frederick Heath gives this account of the night: “All down our line of trenches there came to our ears a greeting unique in war: ‘English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!’” 

“Come out, English soldier; come out here to us.’ For some little time we were cautious, and did not even answer. Officers, fearing treachery, ordered the men to be silent. But up and down our line one heard the men answering that Christmas greeting from the enemy. How could we resist wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even though we might be at each other’s throats immediately afterwards? So we kept up a running conversation with the Germans, all the while our hands ready on our rifles. Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity—war’s most amazing paradox. The night wore on to dawn—a night made easier by songs from the German trenches, the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines laughter and Christmas carols. Not a shot was fired.”

Christmas 2014, one hundred years after the truce, a British company created an advertisement based on the event. The video poignantly shows a reenactment of the Christmas Truce brought on by hearing enemy troops sing Christmas Carols on a cold, weary and war-torn night.

A strange and extraordinary peace. The next day, fighting resumed and commanders sitting safely inside their plush offices were none too happy about the reports that came out of the night. Nevertheless, for a few hours there was peace in the midst of war.

The ad has been viewed 23 million times, an indication of how desperately we long for these stories of peace in the midst of war. No matter how contrary we are, as humans we come to points where we are aching for peace. Whether it is peace in our families or peace in our friendships, whether it is peace in politics or in ideas, we come to places of weary cynicism. Is there nothing that can help us forge peace? Is there any hope for humanity when we can barely stand our neighbors, let alone the person on the other side of the globe or the opposite end of the political spectrum?

We are hungry and thirsty for these kind of stories, for knowing that there is hope for peace in the midst of war, there is hope for peace in families and marriages, hope for peace in church conflicts and disagreements, hope for peace in our own hearts.

Into this world that longs for peace came a Savior. A baby – small, unassuming, vulnerable. Hardly a threat save to an insecure demagogue, who so feared losing his kingdom that he had every male child under two years old killed. A small baby who came into a world of occupation and displacement, a world of outside rulers and internal threats. A baby, prophesied to be the Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace. Is it any wonder that so many years after the miraculous birth of the Prince of Peace, a cautious peace was forged in the middle of a battlefield?

This second week in Advent, in this season of waiting, we wait in peace. May our hearts turn with longing to the only one who can create lasting peace. May our hearts turn to the one who enters gladly into our lives, not only during the Christmas season, but every day that we will have him. God incarnate, long expected Jesus, born to set his people free.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."*

*Words are from the poem Christmas Bells by Henry Wadworth Longfellow created into the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

Photo by Sunguk Kim on Unsplash

And Lent Begins

Lent begins.

It begins with minus degree weather and sore legs from prostrations.

It begins with personal pain and so much unknown.

It begins with a stomach that is already gurgling, wondering about its food source.

But still it begins – and that is something.

It begins with forgiveness Sunday, and a heart of compassion toward my church body, even those I may not be fond of.

It begins with a fraction of hope and whispers of Pascha.

It begins with blue sky, and that is a wonder.

It begins with awe and wonder that the God who created the universe reaches out his compassionate hand beyond space and time to comfort and whisper in the dark “you are beloved.”

It begins with the love of God the Father, the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion and beautiful fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Oh Lord, let it begin.

Grace-filled Snow

A soft snow fell over night, blanketing our city with white grace. I woke up to grace still falling – huge flakes floating effortlessly from a grey sky.

A city gathers dirt quickly. All the trappings that make our modern life easy and comfortable find their way into the air and onto roads and buildings. Silently moving over and through the city, snow covers all of it.

As I look out on the snow, I think on how desperate I am for snow-like grace, how I am looking, longing for, and trying to grasp mercy and healing for myself and for others. It is an awful and wonderful privilege to be invited into the pain of another. And yet, there is a cost. Sharing and bearing the pain of another does not come without a price tag.

My theology should fare well under pain, I think to myself. Is not Christ my example? Christ, the Suffering Servant? Christ – the one who was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities?

In the second century, a slave named Felicity was imprisoned for being a Christian. She was a slave of Perpetua, a wealthy woman who was also a Christian and had discipled Felicity. Both were young women and on their imprisonment they lost everything. Perpetua was put into a part of the prison reserved for the wealthy, the only ones who had relatives wealthy enough to bribe the guards, ensuring better treatment of their loved ones. Felicity remained in the worst part of the prison, that part reserved for slaves.

Perpetua had a baby and Felicity was pregnant.

Both were sentenced to die a martyr’s death in the arena unless they renounced their faith.  Before the time came for them to be put in the arena, Felicity gave birth. On seeing how much pain she was in during labor and childbirth, the guards mocked her. How would she stand the arena, they wondered, when something like childbirth caused her so much pain.

“Now I am the one who is suffering,” Felicity said “but in the arena, Another will be in me, suffering for me, because I will be suffering for Him.”

Felicity knew that in the arena God would not leave her, that he would be fully present bearing her pain. I never thought of the arena being filled with grace, but how could it not be grace-filled with the presence of God’s spirit when those killed were killed because of their faith?

You and I are unlikely to die the death of a martyr, but daily we do battle in the spiritual arena.  Daily we face wild beasts and lions, often disguised as benign pets. These arenas can cause extraordinary spiritual pain. And we are sometimes called into the arena of another. Called to love, called to fight for them, called to walk with them, called to help them bear the pain, called to be reminders of the presence of God. In the words of my dear friend Lois, we are “given the calling of ministering grace in painful and profound ways.”

In the Arena, another will be in me, suffering for me, because I will be suffering for Him.” The words of Felicity, spoken so long ago, are a profound challenge to which I prayerfully respond: May it be so, Lord Jesus. May it be so.


 Note: Parts of this blog were previously posted under another post “In the Arena” published in 2016.

The Blessing

The Lord Bless You

The Lord bless you, and keep you.

It’s grey outside, a day marked by fog and sadness. It is a holiday weekend in the United States. It feels far from celebratory. But this year it feels right to be lost in a fog.

Make His face shine upon you, be gracious to you.

Maybe you are feeling like I am these days – that life and the world feel weighty. I hear and read bad news and evil on every page and around every turn. From too many deaths in the Black community to second waves of COVID-19 to division about both, our news is flooded with opinion and voices. It all feels like too much. It is too much.

The Lord turn His face toward you, and give you peace.

And then I pause for a moment, and I watch “The Blessing” for what feels like the thousandth time. This song (based on several different Bible verses and written co-written by Steven Furtick and Chris Brown and with musical artists Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes) began in the UK in early May. Since then, my husband and I have watched renditions from India, the Arab world, Afghanistan, Australia, Indonesia, Sweden, Spain, France, Turkey, Cyprus, Qatar…too many to list and too many to count.

May his favor be upon you and a thousand generations.

The words and music fill my soul and I feel my eyesight and my heart healing. There on my screen are people of every beautiful color and hair of every amazing texture, from every country imagineable, singing a blessing. A blessing that is thousands of years old, originally penned by writers of books in the Old Testament.

And your family, and your children, and their children, and their children

And I know that this story, this story God is writing is bigger than our immediate crises, it is holier and more beautiful than any response to injustice that humans are capable of, it is more powerful than any imperfect government or political party.

May His presence go before you And behind you, and beside you
All around you, and within you, He is with you, He is with you

The story God is telling is a worldwide story of people and redemption. It is far bigger than superpowers, politics, political parties, and opinions – it is a story that goes from Pakistan to Tasmania; from Iraq to Germany; from Russia to the Maldives; from Senegal to the United States; from North Pole to South Pole and all places between.

In the morning, in the evening, in your coming, in your going, in your weeping and rejoicing, His for you, He is for you.

It is a story that makes us laugh and weep, bow down and rise up. It is a story that sustains and delivers, that breaks the conscience and demands that we act. It is a story that convicts and comforts, that holds us and heals us. Because this God of the universe, who created us, who loves us, who transforms us – he is for us.

He is for you, He is for you, He is for you, He is for youHe is for you, He is for you

And when we believe this in our bones, than we are changed.

Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

So if you are feeling like I’m feeling, stop for a moment. Take a listen. And know that He is for you.

The Oxygen of Faith – Pre-Paschal Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ is Risen! In Truth He is Risen!

A Life Overseas – Grief and Gethsemane

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

On February 15, at five o’clock in the morning I received a phone call from my oldest brother. My second brother, Stan, had died tragically from a fall in Thailand. The news traveled fast to our large extended family. From Thailand to Saudi Arabia to Istanbul, to Greece and on to California, New York, and Boston and several parts between, the news stunned all of us with its magnitude.

Within a few short hours, a couple of us had tickets to Thailand. It was the beginning of the spread of the coronavirus beyond the borders of China, and along with the throat catching grief of death and loss was the background worry of travel and an epidemic that was rapidly crossing borders to become a pandemic. We went anyway. 

My brother worked alongside farmers in Central Asia, teaching them more efficient and effective ways of farming and working the land. He loved God’s good creation. His life, his work, and his photography reflected the tension of seeking out and searching for glory in the midst of a broken world that groans. For Stan, there was glory all around – nothing was mundane. 

A couple of days after we arrived in Thailand, surrounded by the beauty of a grief-laden garden, eleven of us gathered to remember my brother. The depth of love and bearing witness to grief that we shared as a group was indescribable. We spent four days together – four days of grieving which meant we wept, we laughed, we ate, we reminisced, and we talked about how we were angry at him for leaving us too soon. 

Within days after arriving back in the United States, our world had changed. Suddenly dinner table conversations became about working from home, shelter in place, the number of fatalities, and borders closing in countries all over the world. The solidarity that we shared as a group together in Thailand, grieving my brother and taking comfort in each other’s love and grace, was overshadowed by a global pandemic. Suddenly the vice grip of grief and loss became a world-wide vice as the death toll began to rise in country after country. My brother’s death faded in people’s memory. He was just one more dead in a world where death was becoming numbers instead of people. With gallows humor we talked about putting an engraving on his as-yet unordered tombstone with the words “He did not die of COVID-19,” but realized it would be far too expensive.

We waited with dread, knowing that the church where his memorial was to be held would be cancelling the service. We would have to postpone grieving with others who loved him, with my mother who had lost her son, with my oldest brother who had not been able to make it to Thailand because of a separate tragic death, with friends from around the world who were sending expressions of love and grief through cards and messages. 

In the meantime, we were still spread around the world. We waited anxiously as different family members made plans and then watched them fall apart as borders closed and planes stopped flying. We welcomed some family back and began communicating daily with other family who were staying in their host countries. Our collective grief spilled over in messages and phone calls, trying to comfort each other, to see silver linings where there were only frayed edges. 

I felt the grief of my brother’s absence in every statistic I saw of those who had died from the pandemic. I felt it in every article I read that took the statistics and changed them into actual stories of those who had died. Who were they? Who had they loved? Who would miss them? Who would mourn their absence for years after the pandemic ended?

And where was God in all of this? God of the individual and God of the masses, God of the broken-hearted and God of the joy-filled. God of Gethsemane, another grief-laden garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives where Jesus reckoned with the mission he had come to accomplish. Where he, overwhelmed with sorrow, poured out his human heart before the Father.

We see Jesus, in the mystery of being fully man and fully God, taking friends along with him to bear witness to his sorrow. And yet, in his hours of great grief, they fell asleep. They disappointed him. Anyone who has known grief knows the pain of grieving alone, the discomfort of awkward interactions where people don’t know what to say, and the sense of disappointment when our friends don’t understand. In this time of worldwide grief, we are witnessing families broken apart by grief, unable to honor those who have died and bear witness to each other’s grief. Yet, it is in this place of deep sorrow that we find a comforter and counselor.

So it is to this garden that I go today; a garden significant in this Holy Week for Protestants and Catholics around the world. A garden that stands as a symbol of grief and the costly weight of the journey to the cross.

It is here that we see Jesus in his frail human state speak of his soul, overwhelmed with sorrow. We watch as he begs the Father to “Take this cup from me.” We feel his grief, we see his sorrow, we enter into his suffering. We bear witness to his journey to the cross.

The journey of Lent leads us to the Garden of Gethsemane. We don’t stay there forever, but right now, let us pause a moment and gather in Gethsemane. Let us stay with the broken world of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – with the cry that echoed to the Heavens “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Let us stay with the grieving and those who have lost, let us bear witness to pain, to suffering. Let us grieve for our broken world and let us do it together. Let us not be alone in our suffering, but let us journey to the cross as a people who are living out the “fellowship of his sufferings.” And there, at the foot of the cross, let us fall down and weep.

[Scripture from Matthew 26: 36-39]

Author’s Note: in my faith tradition, we are going into Holy Week with Palm Sunday this Sunday. Because I write for A Life Overseas which is a largely Protestant group, I have posted this today.