A Prayer for Monday Morning

The rain has been falling steadily since I woke on this grey Monday morning. The worries of the day fall steadily beside the rain. Neither lets up. The sound of the rain outside echoes the sound of worries in my head.

My weather app says that heavy rain will fall for another 51 minutes, then – only a drizzle. Maybe my worries will echo this. Heavy right now, but gradually fading to drips and drops.

I press pause willing both to stop. But they both continue, persistent and drenching.

I’m in Rockport, my place of healing and rest, where the rocks and the sea meet with crashes of foam – nature’s majesty reflecting our creator.

I close my eyes.

I breathe, exhaling fears and worries, inhaling words of truth. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. With each inhale I breathe in the gift of life. And so I thank God for the rain (though my cellar may be flooding, and my spirit drowning). They say that gratitude precedes the miracle, so I give thanks and I wait for a miracle on this Monday morning, and as I wait, I pray.

Lord God, 
On this Monday morning the rain falls, my worries with it. 
Yet you are the God who urges me not to worry, who says "Don't be anxious!" 
May I rest as a lily of the field today, May I see the rain as your gift. 
May I exhale worry and fear and inhale your peace. 
May I walk as one who is beloved, resting in grace. 
May I accept what comes this day.
May I know your joy.
May I know your presence, your wisdom, your peace. 
May the words of the Psalmist fill my soul "May your unfailing love be with us Lord, even as we put our hope in you."* 
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,
Amen 

*Psalm 33, verse 22

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!

The Resilient Orthodox – Explosions of Life

There are times when I feel like life has exploded, as though all parts of it collide and nothing goes the way it is supposed to go. From unexpected expenses to surprise illnesses, life laughs in the face of our careful planning, mocks our ideas of control, and smiles sarcastically at our shocked expressions.

I’m left wandering aimlessly, feeling like this is all a big, fat joke authored by a pre-teen boy who can’t get enough of cheap joke books.

These are the times when my cynical side says “Why pray? Why read daily scripture? It won’t make a difference so why do it?”

I walked into Divine Liturgy yesterday feeling this way. Our church is in the middle of a busy city neighborhood. Parking is difficult and no matter what hour we are there, life is teeming around us. As I walked up the steps, a friend met me and stopped, asking how I was. In the middle of the noise of the city, I found myself pouring my heart out to her, touched and healed with her empathy. On those concrete steps, the questions of what is this all about, the whys, the anger at the suffering of those close to me all poured out of me in a flood of words and tears.

I entered the service comforted and heard by the presence of another.

I went through the motions of the service: Venerating icons, crossing myself, singing the Beatitudes and all the while I was saying the Jesus Prayer, an internal plea for mercy and grace.

It was during the homily that I began to relax. Our priest, Father Patrick, talked about being away on vacation with his children and six grandchildren. “I saw what your life was like,” he said. All around him were explosions of life, he was not in his study surrounded by his books and icons. He was not in church serving the Eucharist or praying before icons. Instead, babies with diapers and toddlers with messy faces were ever present. “I saw how hard it is to continue the disciplines of prayer and scripture reading in the midst of this,” he said. But he didn’t stop there. He went on to say that he also saw how absolutely imperative it was to continue these disciplines in the midst of this, how we can’t go on without these practices. Because these explosions of life demand so much that we can’t do it alone.

I have tried to do it alone the past few weeks. I rationalize that I am too tired to stand in front of our icons and pray. I rationalize that nothing will change even if I do pray. I make excuses, I blame, I dismiss – but all the while, life explodes around me and I have no tools to cope.

These explosions of life call for explosions of grace, but I can’t see grace because I’m to caught up in trying to do it by myself.

I found myself deeply comforted by Father Patrick’s words, by his acknowledgement that this is hard. None of this is easy. And it’s precisely because it is not easy that I need these beautiful and grace-filled disciplines of prayer and scripture.

Life comes with its explosions and the only thing that can withstand it is grace.  Beautiful grace, that hard to define something that we don’t deserve but we get anyway. That good word that has not been corrupted through time, instead it shines through dark days, and says “boo!” as it surprises me around hard corners.

Yesterday grace met me on concrete steps and through a homily. Today is a new day. Life is still an explosion, but the explosion of grace is at the ready. I open my hands, ready to receive. It’s all I can do and somehow it is enough.

“Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.”*

A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. – Frederick Buechner

*Frederick Buechner

The Resilient Orthodox – Breathe in Holy

As I step into church, I breathe in pungent, sweet incense. I can see smoke rise in front of evening shadows on the wall. Fading light reflects off of gold and burgundy icons.

I take a deep breath and I breathe in holy.

I breathe it in, my whole being alive to incense and all that accompanies it. My ears take in three part harmony from the chant sung on the far side of the room. My body responds in reverence to the saints that surround us.

I was so hesitant to take this journey and yet, every time I enter, I know his presence in ways I cannot articulate. God is in this journey and I can rest.

So I breathe in holy and all else fades away.

Vigil before the Feast of the Ascension from Marilyn Gardner on Vimeo.

The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 30 “From Reluctance to Acceptance”

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The journey from reluctance to acceptance isn’t usually a dramatic event, it’s a slow process. It happens so slowly, in fact, that it is almost imperceptible. But the realization that you have crossed a line can come as suddenly as a summer storm. In that instant you realize that you are no longer fighting or questioning, instead you are slowly moving forward on a journey toward the Cross.

I’ve been asked so many times about our journey toward Orthodoxy. “Why” ask my Protestant friends. Often unspoken is the “Isn’t the Protestant Church good enough? Why do you need to change?”

The journey began over 11 years ago. On attending an Orthodox Church in Chicago my husband, Cliff, came home and said to me “I felt like I had come home!” His face portrayed the peace he felt. I ignored this. “That’s nice dear. Now let’s move on with life.”

And so we did. Periodically the Orthodox journey would arise and our house began to fill with books and articles, with icons and discussions. We argued about it a lot. For every thing he said I had a counter point. It was exhausting. It was defeating.

And so he backed off. And I was so grateful. I needed the space and I needed the time. In conversation I have found that this is similar for many couples who have converted: it is their husbands who first enter a church and find they are called to a discipline and accountability they never feel they had in the past. Their wives come along three steps behind, glassy-eyed and tired, initially unable to understand the draw, unmoved by the icons and images, the incense and symbolism.

But in 2012 we found out that our daughter-in-law’s father was diagnosed with cancer. He was given a few months to live. We had last seen this vibrant man, full of life and joy, dancing at our son’s wedding. Specifically having a father of the bride/father of the groom dance-off. It was unbelievable but it was true. When you begin to see friends and family die in your middle years you ask some questions of yourself and of God. You think about life and its brevity, you wonder what is next, who is next. You reevaluate and talk to those you are close to. And so we asked ourselves some questions. What would you do if you were given a couple of months to live? One answer was the same for both of us – we would travel overseas a last time to see the places and people we love. The second answer came from my husband “I would become Orthodox.”

The words hit me like a deep punch right in my gut. And it hurt. At the same time that this conversation happened, I had been praying about us for a couple of months; about our faith as individuals and as a couple. Where had the passion gone? We claimed faith as paramount to our existence, yet we were living like ones who have no faith, who don’t believe. We had gone a couple of months without attending church and we did not miss it. In fact, it was a relief. Our conversations on faith with our children felt hypocritical and flat — how could we encourage and challenge them in their faith when ours was so defeated?

After a particularly difficult weekend Cliff and I were texting back and forth on a Monday morning. Both of us sad. Both of us discouraged. Both of us defeated. And Orthodoxy came up again. In that moment I knew, beyond doubt, that this was our next step. It could not have been clearer if it was shouted from the Heavens. This was where we were to go. This was the journey that would take us from middle to old age. This was right.

And so began the journey of the Reluctant Orthodox. I now know so much more of what others go through as they are walking into faith, or fighting faith. I understand far more of the arguments and frustrations, of feeling like you are on the outside of something and wanting to get in, yet hesitating.

And you as readers have journeyed with me. Through wondering about the length of the services to being angry about communion; from learning to love icons to a physical faith, from learning not to kiss the pharisee to myrhh bearing women.

The journey is not over, but as Marilyn went in the waters of baptism, Sophia Maria emerged. As struggle surrendered, God was faithful. As reluctance was buried, acceptance resurrected. Questions will always be there, and that is a good thing. It keeps me ever humble, understanding that this is a walk of faith. I see through a glass darkly and will until I see the face of Jesus, in all His everlasting glory welcoming me to my true home.

Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth 
Who art everywhere present.
And fillest all things, treasury of good gifts and giver of life.
Come and abide in us, and cleanse us from all impurity, 
And save our souls oh good one. Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal one have mercy on us.

Thank you for reading and walking with me. 

In the United States, today is Father’s Day. I want to give a shout out to fathers everywhere! Where would we be without you? Well….we wouldn’t be at all. So thank you. It’s a tough job and takes immense grace. A special thanks to my own dad – Ralph E. Brown and to the father of my children, my husband Cliff.

Blogger’s note: This ends The Reluctant Orthodox series on Communicating Across Boundaries. To all of you who have read – I thank you.

The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 27 “Myrrh Bearing Women”

myrrh bearing

There were eight of them. Eight who on Palm Sunday were overjoyed with the honor given to their teacher, their rabbi. Eight of them who on Wednesday could not believe that this man Jesus, a man who they had followed and loved, this man who had known their deepest sins and pains was unlawfully arrested and taken into custody. Eight who on Friday wept soul-tears at the foot of the cross as they looked at the bruised and battered body of their Lord.

Eight who were in a white fog of grief on Saturday.

But on Sunday they got up and did what they had to do. They got up and went to the tomb of Jesus to bathe the body with oils and spices, committing his body to the grave and the ground. Because as women that’s what we do. We grieve for a time, and then we get up and do what has to be done.

That is why the Orthodox church has a Sunday set aside specifically for the myrrh bearing women. Last Sunday was that Sunday and on this, a day set aside to honor Mothers in our society, I think of these women.

Tradition tells us that these Myrrh Bearing Women were Mary Magdalene, Mary the Theotokos, Joanna, Salome, Mary the wife of Cleopas, Susanna, Mary and Martha, both of Bethany. Each of the Gospel accounts talks about these women and it is thought that they arrived at different times and in different groups. Several of these women were women of means, they had given of their time and their money for the years of Jesus’ ministry. All of them had tasted of his grace, all of them knew of his love. And all of them saw it end on a cross in a common criminal’s death.

And that is the wonder of what happened next — because these Myrrh Bearing Women would be the first to find that the tomb was empty. They go down in history as being those that went to the tomb early morning, only to be greeted by an angel and told those most precious words “He is not here for He is Risen – just as he said.” It was these women who were told to go tell the apostles what had happened. It was these women who were entrusted with this incredible joy.

But imagine if they had let the white fog of grief overtake them? Imagine if they had decided not to go to the tomb – because it was too hard. Imagine if they had missed the glorious proclamation of the Risen Lord? That’s where my mind goes. Because I know how easy it is to sink into despair, to think that circumstances will never change, that God cannot do the impossible. 

And so I miss out. I miss out on the gifts that are there when you show up. The more I learn of this faith journey the more I realize that some of this is about showing up. Some of it is about not knowing anything more that that you are supposed to get up and go. And when you arrive – that’s when you find out why.

Though weary from tears and heavy with grief these women stand out in history. They showed up and that’s when it made sense. With tears in my eyes and a prayer on my lips, I think about these Myrrh Bearing Women and I ask for strength to show up. 

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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 26 “On Midwives and Confession”

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I wait on a side pew with several others. Vespers and vigil have ended and most of us are sitting in silence. In the far left corner of the sanctuary our priest sits with someone. We sit and wait, none of us impatient.

Like a waiting room in a doctor’s office, each of us come with our own particular needs, pains, sorrows.

My mind travels back to Chicago and my pregnancy with my firstborn. I didn’t yet know that it would be a baby girl and that we would name her Annie. I sit in the small waiting room of a midwifery practice. The room is full, all of us at various stages of pregnancy, some of us accompanied by husbands, mothers, or others. We sit and wait, none of us impatient. Because each of us know that when our turn comes the midwife we are waiting for will have eyes and ears only for us. We will be her focus, our problems and pregnancies the only thing that matters right then. The midwife will examine each one of us with care, checking the heart beat of the baby, measuring our expanding bellies to make sure our babies are growing properly. At times she will ask a question, at times she will give advice or a warning. We are all grateful for this midwife. She is amazing and gifted. We wouldn’t think of going through an important time like pregnancy without her.

When we leave we are encouraged and comforted, moving forward and resolving to have as healthy a pregnancy as possible. And each of us will return, not at the same time intervals — some will come in a week, some in two weeks, some in a month. But we will all return.

Somehow this waiting in the church feels similar to the waiting for the midwife. We are waiting for confession. None of us impatient because we know when it’s our turn we will have the undivided attention of a priest who is called to walk with us through this spiritual journey. He will listen to us, ask an occasional question, at times give advice or a warning. Like a waiting room in the midwife practice, each of us come with our own particular confessions, needs, pains, sorrows.

Confession in the Orthodox Church is not about confessing so a priest will forgive you. The belief is that no one can forgive but God. The priest serves as witness to the confession. So we confess our sins to God with the priest present. He in turn gives advice, counsel, or encouragement. We live in a society where self-help, advice columns, and ‘bettering oneself’ are daily topics of writers, pop psychologists and motivational speakers. There is a constant stream of information for those who are on the journey of self discovery, of self betterment. I find it ironic that despite this, people think it odd and archaic that a priest be involved in the process of confession. The message is clear as is the irony of that message – it’s okay to go to everybody else for advice or help, but a priest? Why would you need to go to a priest?

In honesty, I too pushed back at this idea for a long time – these things are no big deal, I thought, and as long as I’m being honest with God then that’s all that matters. But the accountability is compelling and there is comfort and growth in learning how to confess honestly before someone I trust. I know I am a novice at this practice of confession. I had my first confession just days before baptism and that was a life confession. Think about that for a minute — I’m 54. That’s a lot of life. That’s a whole lot of bad, an abundance of wrong, a life-time of needing to say I’m sorry or I forgive. But in a way that one time life confession feels easier than the regular act of going before God and confessing that I still struggle with the same things – envy, pride, discontent over, and over, and over again. So I still don’t know what to do and when, instead I am learning as I go. But one thing I am clear on is that I need help. one thing I am convinced of is that I need the cross. 

The sanctuary is gradually emptying out. Only a few of us remain. Daylight has gone, replaced by the soft glow of lights and candles in the church. It’s my turn – the wait has ended and I go, nervous but at peace that just as I couldn’t go through my pregnancies without a midwife to walk beside me, I can’t go through my spiritual journey without the same.

To Confess your sins to God is not to tell him anything he doesn’t already know.  Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you.  When you confess them, they become the Golden Gate bridge. ~ Frederick Buechner

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