The Fragility of Goodness

I have been thinking a lot about “goodness” lately – that word that speaks to the quality of being kind, virtuous, morally good. What does it mean to grow into goodness, to grow beyond the childlike attribute of being “good” and grow into someone whose character makes you think of true goodness.

As children, many of us hear the words “Be good” on a regular basis. “Be good for grandma!” “Be good to your brother!” It is said so often that it sometimes loses both its meaning and its power. Perhaps the importance of how we can mature into goodness is also lost along the way, lost in a world that doesn’t necessarily reward goodness beyond childhood. Instead, being savvy, smart, intellectual, and quick-tongued and quick penned are what gives us an edge in many spheres.

As I’ve thought about goodness, I came upon the story of Bulgaria’s Jews in World War 2 as relayed in a book I am reading called The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. In this particular section, the author is telling the story of a Jewish family in Bulgaria who ended up in Palestine. Central to their survival in Bulgaria is the larger story of the Jews in Bulgaria.

A deportation order had been written that would deport all of Bulgaria’s 47,000 Jews. Unlike most of Europe, this planned deportation was never carried out. It wasn’t carried out because ordinary people and leaders found out about it. The Metropolitan and the Bishop of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church stood up for the Jews, approaching places of power and “imploring the king to demonstrate compassion by defending the right to freedom and human dignity of the Jews.” A member of parliament (Dimitar Peshev) publicly went against his government, gathering signatures and approaching the king stating that a deportation “would be be disastrous and bring ominous consequences upon the country.” Along with these, leaders of professional organizations and businesses, and ordinary people across the country stood by the Jewish population.

The deportation order was stopped temporarily in March of 1943, and then indefinitely in May. The Jewish population of the entire nation of Bulgaria did not die in gas chambers.

The author goes on to say this:

“None of this would have happened withough what the Bulgarian-French intellectual Tzvetan Todorov calls the ‘fragility of goodness’: the intricate, delicate, unforeseeable weave of human action and historical events”

Evil spreads quickly and virulently. Like a virus, it is hard to stop once it takes root. Todorov says that once it is introduced into public view, it spreads easily, whereas goodness is temporary, difficult, rare, fragile. And yet possible.

I have been thinking about this story and the idea of the fragility of goodness all week. Each person in Bulgaria who spoke up for the Jews, people who were their friends, their neighbors, their business partners, and their community members, is a chain in the link of goodness that ultimately preserved life and human dignity. While Tdorov speaks to the fragility and the “tenuous chain of events” that led to a stay in the deportation order, maybe it is not as tenuous as he supposes. Maybe what appeared tenuous and fragile was far stonger then he could imagine.

In my experience, goodness is far stronger than we know, far more powerful than it may appear. Its power is in its moral strength and its stubborn refusal to quit. That’s what I see, not only in this story, but in the small ways that goodness moves in, refusing to give up, determined that evil will not have the final word.

There are two areas where I am deeply challenged in all of this. How can I chase goodness the way I chase beauty in my daily life? When will I get to the point where I choose good without even thinking because it is so much a part of me? Secondly, Like many of you, I’ve increasingly felt disillusioned and discontent with social media. In its best form it serves as a connector, a friendship builder, a way to challenge, build bridges and encourage. In its other forms, it is none of that. It builds anger, doubt, mistrust, discouragement, discontent, and convinces us that we will never have what others have. Where is goodness in our online selves? Why do we usually head for the lowest denominator, convincing ourselves that it really doesn’t matter.

How can I chase goodness the way I chase beauty? When will I get to the point where I choose good without even thinking because it is so much a part of me? I don’t know. But it gives me hope when I think of ordinary people going about their lives in Bulgaria in 1943, deciding that they would speak up and out, never knowing that they would be a part of a chain called the fragility of goodness.

In all this, I am reminded of Christ, the author of goodness, the one who strengthens the fragility of goodness making it into a force that challenges and destroys evil, for it is he who daily calls me to chase after goodness, truth, and beauty.


Note: all quotes are from The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan

Masked Mourners & Bagpipes

Across the street from our house stands an old Catholic church, its magestic steeple reaching far into the sky. From eight o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night, the church rings out the hours on bells that echo across Charlestown. During this time of year, along with the bells are old Christmas Carols – “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” are all treats for the ears during this season. The carols start at the beginning of Advent and go through Epiphany on January 7th.

It is also a church that holds a lot of funerals. Almost weekly, parking signs will appear warning us not to park across the street by the church. The unspoken message is for us to give honor to those attending the funeral by giving up our hard fought parking spaces, for it is a city, and fights landing people in jail have happened over parking spaces. Most of us willingly give up our spots, our contribution to what is already a grief-filled time for those who attend.

In recent months the most common scene at the church has been masked mourners, the most common funeral sound bagpipes, their melancholic sounds echoing through the neighborhood. It has brought me to tears more than once. Could there be an instrument more mournful? I don’t think so.

Whenever I hear the bagpipes I know that a hearse is not far behind.

Though I feel sad, I also feel hope with these funerals. People are gathering. They are mourning together. As a family that has gone through profound grief alone, postponing a memorial service for months following a death, I delight in seeing these masked mourners gather. They are bearing witness to grief and in doing so showing the strength of community.

As I think of the regular occurrence of funerals across the street, and the millions of other deaths and subsequent funerals from this past year, I think of the words of Psalm 139, a Psalm that I have been reading and rereading during these first couple of days of the New Year.

More than any other Psalm or words in scripture, this one gets to the heart of a God who knows and loves us. The words “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” are a powerful reminder that God knows the number of our days. He knows when the masked mourners and bagpipes or their equivalent will be played for each person.

But the Psalm is so much more than just knowing our days. The messages are profoundly comforting: We are seen clearly. We are known fully. We are loved extravagantly. The disconnect comes as I contemplate the truth of those three things with the way I live my life. If I really believe that I am seen clearly, known fully, and loved extravagantly, would I not rest easier? Would I not be more secure? It’s something I’ve struggled with for possibly my entire life.

The Psalmist, because he is human, seems to understand the disconnect. Indeed, he admits his own inability to understand saying that it is too much and too wonderful to understand.

Our world offers a lot of substitutes for the truths in Psalm 139, and many of them feel quite real, but the past year has shown that they are fleeting at best. Our security in health, jobs, travel, friendships, and safety is an illusion. While the “enemy” used to be something that the West thought they could keep out with high fences and strong borders, an invisible virus has broken through all of those illusions, making us servants to fear and grasping and gasping for hope.

What better time then, to lean in hard to these truths of being seen, known, and loved, for the more I lean in, the more aware I am of false substitutes and the more I find rest in God’s safety net.

All things find refreshing calm and peace when they have found their center.

Based on writings from St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain written in verse by Scott Cairns in Endless Life

On Blackwater Massacres and Christmas Eve

I rarely get political on this blog. While the theme of communicating across the boundaries of faith and culture doesn’t exclude politics, it would limit me too much. But I don’t think of this post as political. Rather, I see it as fitting for connecting the dots to a God who cared enough to walk among us

Last night the news came through that President Trump had pardoned several people. For me, the most disturbing pardon was given to four government contractors, who in 2007 massacred 14 Iraqi civilians and injured 17 others. Witnesses described the attack as a completely unprovoked ambush of innocent people. In Iraq, the tragedy is called “Nisour Square Massacre.” The group who were sentenced, now pardoned, worked for a private military contractor called Blackwater.

Among those killed was a 9-year old boy, shot in the head as he sat in the back of his father’s car.

The trial and subsequent guilty verdict was applauded by human rights leaders around the world. It showed the world, but especially Iraqi citizens, that military contractors would be held accountable for their actions.

I remember living in Phoenix at the time when news of the attack was broadcast. I remember being horrified but in an impersonal way. This was before I had visited Iraq; before I moved to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and had the privilege of working under a boss who was from Baghdad; before I had worshiped in churches with Iraqi Christians. This was before all of that. I felt it, but not the same way.

I hear this news, news of justice rolled back, with a heavy heart. It contributes to what my friend calls a year of “incomprehensible sadness.” And this, just a day before Christmas is celebrated by a majority of the Western world.

The questions go through my mind – who paid for this pardon? Whose connections reversed justice? And though I know I can connect the theological dots, as it were, to what any of us deserve versus what Christ has done for us in his mercy and grace, I’m not going there.

Rather, I think about who is so far removed from this event that they make a decision with so little thought to the agony of the victims’ families? Who would dismiss the importance and significance of what a guilty verdict meant in the case?

A quote by John le Carré says that ‘a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.’ This decision was surely made from a view behind a large desk.

As usual, when I encounter something like this and try to make sense of it, I turn to reflective writing. Where is the ‘But God’ in this? Where, on Christmas Eve, can I find some measure of hope in what has proven time and time again to be an unjust world?

So I go back to the desk quote by John le Carré and there is where I find my hope. When Jesus entered our world as a small helpless baby, he moved away from the desk and entered the place of action where all of life happens. He encountered deep pain, anger at injustice, joy at weddings, dining and drinking with sinners, the beauty of a sunrise, the sadness of a woman cast out. He got out from behind the desk and got into the thick of it. We are told he “emptied himself and took on the form of a servant.”

That God, in his love for us, entered gladly through the person of Christ to live out the joys and struggles of life locked within the limitations of the human body, ultimately conquering sin, suffering, and death is the ultimate moving away from the desk scenario. This is the incomprehensible story of the incarnation.

He loves us enough to get away from the desk. And on this Christmas Eve of 2020, a year where I have grieved and mourned personal and collective death and loss, injustice and wrong, I find my only hope is to rest in the promise that some day evil will be conquered and it won’t be from behind a desk.

So I pause, close my eyes, and hear the beautiful words sung on Christmas Eve “a thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and gloriously morn.”

May Christmas Eve 2020 bring a measure of hope to your world.

And So We Wait – Sacred Spaces

Let the gnawing ache ring and discover that we are scanning the horizon for the Messiah

Laura Merzig Fabrycky

I heard the rain falling during the night and woke to it in the early morning. Unbeknownst to us, a nor’easter had been heading our way and landed Saturday morning bringing buckets of rain to our area and feet of snow to other parts of the state.

We suspended our prior plans to go get a Christmas tree today, opting instead for the comfort of a dry, warm home. I sit in the living room, looking out to the rain drenched earth. Like an artist’s paint palette, all the windows are splattered with drops of rain, creating patterns that change with every drop. My Advent candle is lit and I have just begun the process of bread making.

Process is a good word to describe bread making. It takes steps of proofing, measuring, mixing, and kneading. And then you wait. After the dough rises in a warm room, I punch it down and wait again. It’s not time. It still needs another rise. Still later, I punch it down again, form it into loaves and wait while it rises again. Finally, it’s time to put it into the oven.

Breadmaking is a perfect Advent activity. It reminds me of the importance of waiting, not rushing. It reminds me that the process is sometimes as important as the content, that it will be worth the wait when I take out the beautiful loaves of bread.

As I wait for the bread to rise, I’m reminded of the waiting in my childhood. While growing up, I knew what it was to wait. We would wait for hours in trains, when cars broke down, for monotonous sermons to end. We would wait with tears for the end of the boarding term, we couldn’t wait to fall into the arms of our parents and their undconditional love for us. Living in a country where people were valued over time and efficiency, where it took a long time for anything to happen, I learned how to wait.

In more recent years I have lost the art of waiting and in this space, I can confess that I find waiting incredibly hard. I realize when I am asked to wait how much I am a product of the culture where I am now living. And if it is indeed an art, it is an art I want to relearn.

Waiting for bread to rise. Waiting for Advent. Waiting for God to show up. Waiting. It’s not time. God’s waiting room is a sacred space. A sacred space where time is not allowed to predict or dictate outcomes. A space to not hurry, to be okay with process, to learn to live faithfully in the in between.A sacred space where time is not allowed to predict or dictate outcomes.

The sacred space of God’s waiting room was where Simeon, that old prophet in a temple long ago waited. Every day he waited until he could speak words of promise and release. “Now that I have held you in my arms, my life can come to an end. Let your servant now depart in peace, for I’ve seen your salvation, He’s the light of the Gentiles, and the glory of your people, Israel.”*

Along with Simeon was the prophetess Anna, who prayed and fasted, who never left the temple. She too was in the sacred space of God’s waiting room. We don’t know how many years they waited, but we know it was a long, long time. They faithfully continued living in God’s waiting room until their hopes were fulfilled and they met the Christ Child.

Waiting. Scanning the horizon for the Messiah. Waiting in the sacred spaces. This is the journey of Advent and waiting is what we do.


*Luke 2:22-38

Listen to “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” here.

And So We Wait…

Today, those of us who are Christians enter into a season of waiting – the season of Advent.

Advent comes at the end of November and into the dimming light of December. In the Northern hemisphere, days are shorter and grayer and shadows linger. For those of us who love light, it is tempting to push aside the darker days, brightening them with as much light as possible. Waiting in the dark is long and hard.

Yet I know many right now who are doing just that. They are waiting in the dark.

They are waiting for jobs that never seem to come, interviews that are few and far between with the dreaded “Although you are well qualified, we have decided to move forward with another candidate,” that comes every time. Unemployment is their long journey in the dark. Others are waiting for a body scan to show cancer in remission instead of the continual need for chemotherapy. Still others wait for a child to return home, or at least return their texts. There is the waiting for death, which they’ve been told is not far off – and yet, they hurt with the pain of a body that used to serve them well and now fails them at every step. They are waiting for visas and for borders to open. They are waiting for ceasefires – for bombings to stop and a semblance of peace to be restored.

Added to this is the world’s waiting for a vaccine, for a pandemic that has taken over people’s lives, friendships, and emotions to end.

Into this waiting comes the season of Advent. Advent is another waiting in the dark. The difference is that unlike these other situations, Advent is like a tunnel where we see the light at the end. Not only do we see the light, we know and long for this light.

But we are at the beginning of the tunnel and it will take time to reach the end. And so we wait.

And as we wait, we walk toward the light. We walk with expectation and anticipation toward the coming – the coming of hope, the coming of light, the coming of God, birthed in the flesh.

God did not throw us alone into an empty universe. He did not place us on a tiny planet where he afterward forgot all about us. No! He entered into our life, our history. He himself came to us, not merely to save us, but to clothe us with His grace, to transform us according to his likeness.

Father Maximos on November 29 at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church

In this next month, I will be writing each Sunday of waiting, of expectation, of Advent. I would love for you to join me! For companions in my journey I have chosen these two books: Shadow & Light by Tsh Oxenreider and Let all Creation Rejoice by Father Stavros N. Akrotirianakis.

On Choosing Good

Every morning I get a news brief from the Council of Foreign Relations. The news brief is a short summary of what’s going on in the world. I strategically read it with a frothy homemade latte. The irony of that is not lost on me. I sit in comfort reading what is usually difficult news from around the world.

I read about the United Nations preparing for mass displacement from conflict in Ethiopia, how hundreds have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. I read about how the insecurity of the entire continent of Africa is at stake with this crisis. I read about how Egypt’s human rights leader has been arrested, a government crushing dissent. And then there is pandemic news from every part of the globe.

The fact that I’m safe, drinking a great and frothy cup of coffee only serves to make me feel more depressed, more helpless.

And that’s the thing – in the face of all this, we are helpless. There is little most of us can do to make any of these situations better. It would not help for us or anyone involved to get on a plane to go to the heart of the conflict in Ethiopia.. When my oldest brother was in Pakistan helping in earthquake relief he told me of a group that sent hundreds of people to Pakistan. He said there were around 250 people wandering around the hillside with no language skills, no knowledge of Pakistan, and no knowledge of humanitarian aid. It was a disaster, but they all went home with good pictures of the tragedy.

It’s the book of Kings where I find comfort today. For those not familiar, these are books in the Old Testament. They are full of blood shed and violence, full of stories of tragedies, full of the sordid tales of leaders and others doing evil things.

These books tell the narrative of the different Kings of Israel and Judah. The books begin with David’s death and sweep us through history looking at every King. I’ve no idea what scholars say about the books of Kings but it strikes me that the theme is simple; really simple.

Either they did what was good, or they did what was evil. There is no ambiguity. We are told their names and immediately after their names we have an assessment of their lives. They either chose to do right or they chose to do wrong.

Could it be that simple? Could it be that I complicate my life far more than I need when it’s really about choosing God and good? About recognizing that there can be a thin line between evil and good, and if I am in the habit of choosing good, then the thin line becomes a lot thicker?

Could it be that in the middle of these worldwide tragedies that are so far away in distance, and yet so close to all of us in terms of news reports, that what I am called to is to choose good?

Is it that simple? 

I can’t help in any of these parts of the globe but I can commit to good in my small corner of Boston. I can commit to integrity today. I can commit to not comparing myself to strangers on the internet, to not getting lost in envy today. I can commit to reaching out via technology to someone in my world who I know is not doing well. I can be faithful in the immediate, which I’ve found will lead to being faithful later. I can’t do a lot, but I can choose good.

The moments of choosing good add up. In God’s strategic economics the equation seems simple, but like Einstein’s E = mc2 it has lasting impact.

It really is that simple.


“Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.

CS Lewis

Where Does Your Soul Hurt?

November in the Northeast of the United States colors gray. Though there are some bright days of sun and leftover reds and golds from a brilliant October, those aren’t as common as the more dull days that whisper of a winter coming and shout of a summer long gone.

And today colors grayer than gray. Though it began with a brilliant sun shining through our kitchen windows, the sun faded out of sight with thick clouds taking over.

The first question that came at me this morning was from an app that I have been using called “Soul Space.” This five minute meditation focused on “anchoring your thoughts to the love of God” is a beautiful way to ground me after my morning prayers. The question was one that quickly brought tears to my eyes.

“Ask your soul: Where does it hurt?”

Where does it hurt? Where are the painful spots in my soul today? The spots that others don’t see as I go about life. Through the meditation, listeners were invited to put their hands over their hearts and listen to where it hurt.

I felt like I was putting a stethoscope up to my soul to find the wounds and murmurs. I hadn’t realized how much my soul was hurting until I stopped to listen. Tears filled my eyes, and I brushed them away impatiently. But it was no use. They came again and I gave in to their therapeutic healing.

None of us can go through much of life before encountering soul wounds. We can keep busy and ignore them, but sometime they will catch up to us.

This pandemic season they have caught up with us. This time has revealed some deep soul wounds in many of us and we are feeling their weight. Loneliness, isolation, lack of community, division among friends and families, changes in friendships, marriage tensiton, online strife, not seeing family and friends for extended periods – all of this is taking its toll on our bodies and our souls. We are a hurting people who don’t know how to help.

A few years ago, a dear friend of mine sent me a poem. Since that time I’ve seen in quoted many times in many places, proof of it resonating across the world.

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

Warsan Shire

And though I love the poem, I don’t believe we are left hurting alone. I have come to know that there is a wound healer that comes beside us and enters our soul wounds, if we are willing.

And so I imagine God picking up that same atlas in an embrace of love, running his fingers across the whole world and whispering these words:

I heal the broken hearted, and bind up their wounds.  
I whisper hope into your soul wounds and give you joy.  
I take your burdens and make them lighter, invite you into a resting place.  
 
The atlas replied "But it hurts so much."   
"I know" he whispered back. 
"But let me bear it with you so you will not be alone,"  
Ever so slowly the atlas responded to the embrace. 
It still hurt, but she was no longer alone.  
And so she rested.  

[Photo by Omid Armin on Unsplash]