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

For Your Aching Heart – On Blessing & Beauty

It’s been a week. I heard of the death of Dr. Paul Farmer at the beginning of the week and the news of the invasion of Ukraine at the end. This did not include my own struggles and sorrows, made seemingly more difficult in the winter season. A conflict with a hospital, a work struggle, and feeling dismissed at multiple levels had me talking through tears in the presence of a gifted counselor.

I know what most of us are seeing. We are scrolling through news and social media where yellow and blue colors light up our feed. Many of us are oceans and continents away from conflict, yet we feel the heavy weight of invading injustice.

It was not so long ago when our world posted the same messages for Afghanistan; when feeds filled with the Afghan flag and images of fleeing Afghans. And yet, and I think it’s important to remember this, soon the crisis died for most.

It is good to be aware of world events. It is good to be willing to take on prayer for nations and leaders. Yet, there’s a real danger to this kind of emotion derailing us and taking us away from what is in our midst, for giving us license to ignore those things that we do have some control over. Might I suggest that it’s easier for us to post passionate prayers for a country far away than it is for us to love our neighbor with different political views? It was certainly easier for me to bemoan the evil of a world leader than confess the darkness in my own heart that led to yelling at both a nurse and a doctor. And yet, truly respecting their work and loving them is a small but significant step toward peace-building.

In the midst of a broken world’s chaos and turmoil, I continue to believe that one of the best antidotes is seeking blessing and beauty.

A volume of John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us sits on the bedside stand in our guest room. I looked at the book this morning in an effort to clear my mind and seek poetic words of beauty. In a passage on page 215, there is a section called “Blessing our World Now.”

“Sometimes when we look out, the world seems so dark. War, violence, hunger, and misery seem to abound. This makes us anxious and helpless. What can I do in my private little corner of life that could have any effect on the march of world events. The usual answer is: nothing….yet the world is not decided by action alone. It is decided more by consciousness and spirit; they are the secret sources of all action and behavior….When you give in to helplessness, you collude with despair and add to it. When you take back your power and choose to see possibilities for healing and transformation, your creativity awakens and flows to become an active force of renewal and encouragement in the world. In this way, even in your own hidden life, you can become a powerful agent of transformation in a broken, darkened world.”

As I read and reflected on this I began to think of images of healing and transformation, of blessing and beauty.

The image of Ukrainians gathered on their knees on the snow covered ground, in prayer for safety and peace; a gifted physician taking the time to hear my anger and walk me into greater understanding and resolution; a cardinal in a snow covered tree; facilitating a retreat with staff who work all day with those at the farthest margins of our city; talking through what helps give us perspective with a colleague; laughing with a friend; and facing my own weakness with an eye toward the One who is strong. All of these are compelling pieces of blessing and beauty.

I don’t know what chaos holds your heart today, but I do know that living in the chaos of despair never adds to world peace. I know, because I’ve tried it. Just as blood, tired from traveling through our bodies arrives back into the heart to be replenished with oxygen and go back again, so do our heart’s emotions need to be replenished with hope, beauty, and blessing. When our hearts are heavy with grief it is difficult to see beyond the grief. It takes courage to step out of despair and connect with the life around us, the life we’ve been given, willing to be filled with the oxygen of beauty and blessing.

If your heart and soul are weary and in despair, I offer you the antidotes of blessing and beauty.

Prayer for Equilibrium

Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore, May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.

As the wind loves to call things to dance, May your gravity be lightened by grace.

Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth, May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough, To hear in the depths the laughter of God.

Verses from The Space Between Us

Prayer for Ukraine and our world from Psalm 46 and words from my nephew:

“Offering prayer in the midst of chaos can seem trivial and unhelpful. I get sick of calls for thoughts and prayers when what’s needed is action. Yet today I woke up to this image…Ukrainians gathering outdoors in February (!) to pray, even as the shells begin to fly. I’m reminded of the solidarity that prayer gives us, both with one another, as well as with the One who put the stars in the sky, yet knows us by name. I’m reminded that prayer is far from trivial. I will pray for the people of Ukraine, as well as for those around the world whose actions may be helpful toward ending this. May they know courage, and may we find the courage to support them.”

“He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow  and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.” -Psalm 46

Today, may your heart be strengthened through blessing and beauty.

The Fragility of Goodness – Part 2

From my window seat, I look out on bright red geraniums and a bird feeder that brings different types of birds from all over the neighborhood into my yard. A red headed finch, blue jay, male and female cardinals, swallows, chickadees – all colors and types jabbering over this food source like it is manna come from Heaven. Perhaps, in a bird-like way, it has. Today I sighed as I looked out. The scene that greets me is so far from the reality of the tragedies on the world stage that I cringe. The question I ask is asked by many: How can I live in so much safety and peace when those around the globe are struggling so much?

From explosions in Lebanon, to an earthquake killing thousands in Haiti, to frantic news of Afghanistan falling to the Taliban, we are assaulted on all sides. It is not only information overload, it is also tragedy overload. I think many of us are feeling this, feeling the unfairness of life, and the helplessness in the face of all of these global events.

In the midst of this are our own trials, whether large or small. Some are facing seemingly insurmountable personal tragedies that leave no room for paying attention to larger, global tragedies. What is world shaking to the individual or family unit is often hidden from the wider world and cataloguing and comparing degrees of grief and loss is unhelpful. Though my bird feeder/geranium view is beautiful, I have my own deep pain and struggles during this season.

Where is goodness and grace in the midst of personal and gloabl tragedy? Or more personally – how can I contribute to goodness and grace in the midst of all that is going on?

A few months ago I wrote a piece called The Fragility of Goodness. In it I referenced a story from World War 2 that took place in Bulgaria, a story about small acts of courage that made a stunning difference for Bulgarian Jews. While some of the people who stood up for the Jews were leaders, others were ordinary people, people who would not be considered influencers in today’s social media economy. They were people who decided to do the right thing, even if it seemed small. Each person in Bulgaria who spoke up for the Jews – people who were their friends, their neighbors, their business partners, their community members – was a chain in the link of goodness that ultimately preserved life and human dignity.The author of the account I read said “None of this would have happened without what the Bulgarian-French intellectual Tzvetan Todorov calls the ‘fragility of goodness’: the intricate, delicate, unforeseeable weave of human action and historical events.” Todorov contrasts this goodness with evil, saying that once evil is introduced into public view, it spreads easily, whereas goodness is temporary, difficult, rare, fragile.

Perhaps from a philosopher’s perspective, he sees this as true, but I disagree. Despite all the evil and sadness present in our world, there is goodness and it is not as fragile as he would have us believe. The mystery is that were are invited to be a part of that goodness, no matter how small. Goodness will never make the kind of headlines that evil makes, it will never create a show, instead goodness is content being a silent but persistent force. While evil is focused only on itself, goodness focuses on others. Goodness happens quietly, while evil is loud.

We dismiss small acts of goodness and kindness, opting instead to despair over our inability to do something big. We forget that any noble acts of goodness and courage started as acts that were seemingly insignificant. Tish Harrison Warren says in her book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, that peace on earth begins with forgiving and living at peace with people in your household, your parish or church, and your neighborhood. I would extend that to say goodness begins with at home, it extends to my neighbors – knowing some of their struggles and joys, offering cookies or help with taking out the garbage – and then moves on to my wider world. I might long to offer relief and goodness in Haiti, Lebanon, or Afghanistan but that is not where I am. I’m in Boston and it won’t help any of those countries for me to get on a plane and fly in as a naive do-gooder.

What can we do when we feel helpless? When we want to do more? I don’t think it is a stretch to say that a decision to be kind to the check out person who is always mean to you matters. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that frail prayers and faith like a mustard seed are large in the Kingdom of God. I don’t think it’s off base to say that a donation, no matter how small, matters.

Goodness is not as fragile as we think. It’s a strong thread in what becomes the tapestry of “the intricate, delicate, unforeseeable weave of human action and historical events.”

Just a bit ago I read the following from an email from Christianity Today, and I offer it here as both challenge and encouragement:

Your calling may not be to humanitarian work, disaster relief, or medical care. But whatever your profession may be, you can take a moment to remember the God of compassion, consider the needs of a hurting world, and give your prayers, time, resources, or expertise to alleviate suffering…however large or small, public or private your act of compassion, you are joining with the body of Christ to display God’s love in the world…

CT Women – August 18, 2021

“Go forth and do good” are the words I hear. I don’t yet know what that means today, but in the intricate, delicate chain of goodness that is part of God’s vast and mysterious economy, it matters.

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.

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

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…

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.