The Beginning of Lent – Eyes Wide Open

I idly sit down at the bench waiting for the subway. I am part of this early morning crowd, here before sun up. We are a quiet, sleepy group.

As I look around my eye rests on something someone has left on the bench just a foot away from me. I open my eyes wider as I realize it’s a used, out of the packet, pregnancy test. From where I sit the result is clear: two distinctive pink lines. The test was positive.

I feel a wave of profound sadness come over me. A pregnancy test sitting here, inanimate and silent, on a subway bench. What is the story here? Why was it left? What are the circumstances of the woman who used it?

In the world I long to inhabit, pregnancy tests don’t work this way. Pregnancy tests happen with joyful expectation, to couples who are healthy and secure.

But this is the world I live in, where babies come when they are not wanted. Where abortion clinics thrive on a woman’s crisis. Where a used pregnancy test is discarded on a bench in a subway station.

Somehow that I see this on the first day of Lent in the Orthodox tradition seems right. It is my eyes being opened wide to a hurting world. My eyes wide open in realization that the world is not as it should be. And it is into this world and for this world that the greatest sacrifice of all was given.

So I move into a Lenten journey, a journey not of legalism but of grace. A journey that beckons me forward, even as my stubborn heart wants to stay put. A journey that better equips me to pray for, and sit with, the hurting of this world: the homeless mom of five by my office, the displaced refugee at a clinic, the woman who leaves a pregnancy test on a subway platform, the colleague/friend who unexpectedly lost her dad. A journey that is both practical and spiritual — asking me to go with almond milk when I want thick cream; beans when I want meat; humility when I want glory.

A journey that demands I have my eyes wide open though I want to keep them shut. 

Excerpt adapted from The Reluctant Orthodox – On Forgiveness & Fasting: In the Metropolitan Museum of art there is a sculpture called “The Struggle of the Two Natures in Man”. It sits in a large atrium and shows two men wrestling, one stands over the other, his foot firmly placed on the other man’s arm. My friend James is a wrestler. He says this about the sculpture:

“Having wrestled throughout high school, I thought I could lend a bit of insight to the sculpture. The two poised are actually in a pretty precarious position. It is really ambiguous who is winning. The one standing has his foot on the other’s arm, but the one lying down has the “planted” leg of the standing man in a scissor lock. Most of the standing man’s weight is on that one leg, so by “scissoring” his legs the lying down man can topple the standing man. Depending on what the standing man does, he could counter and establish control or be taken down to the ground none-too-gently (e.g., face-plant).”

This powerful and beautiful sculpture resonates with me at this time. The part of me that loves God and moves forward gladly in obedience wrestling with the part of me that whines for comfort and basks in my own will.

This is the picture I will carry with me during this time of Great Lent, knowing that God reaches out to my wrestling soul, beckoning me with a love beyond understanding. And as he persistently beckons, I slowly come.”


The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 20 ‘On Forgiveness & Fasting’

Even when I fast I have plenty.

This realization comes to me half way through my first week of Great Lent. When you live in a country that has more to eat during a time of fasting then much of the world does during times of feasting, you know you are a person of privilege.

Great Lent in the Orthodox Church begins with an evening Vespers and Forgiveness Sunday. I first experienced Forgiveness Sunday a year ago. In all my years of faith I have never taken part in a service like this. The principal is simple: before we can embark on the journey of Lent toward the sorrow of the cross, and on to the glory of the resurrection, it is important to reconcile with those who are walking the journey along with us. We cannot move on this path without love and forgiveness, personified in the person of Christ.

This year as I knelt before every man, woman and child in our church to ask their forgiveness and then proclaim the two powerful words “God Forgives” it was harder than last year. This year people knew me better and I knew them. There was more to annoy, more to gossip about, more to forgive, mostly more to be forgiven. This service is hard to describe. The act of bowing in humility, physically posturing yourself in an attitude of repentance is more powerful than words can articulate.

And your legs – oh how your legs hurt! The repetitive bowing is a work out of the soul to be sure, but it is also a work out of the body.

Monday dawned and with it a 6-week discipline of going without any meat or dairy products, essentially a Vegan diet. Along with this, during week days we don’t have olive oil or wine. On weekends this is relaxed and olive oil and wine are both allowed.

It has helped me to read about this. The last thing I want to do is create a legalistic behavior around the grace that is given in abundance so it helps to look at what those in the past have said about this time of fasting.  As I read I find these principles about the fast:

  1. It is to be done in community. This is huge. The fast before Lent was never designed to be a single decision and a single act. That is the westernization of the faith. Instead it was designed to be observed within a community of believers. The paradox of course is that it is also a time where we journey alone. No one else can do this for us. But they can do it with us.
  2. It must be combined with prayer. There is no way this fast can be kept without the communion and communication that prayer allows.
  3. Should not be about the ego but about obedience.
  4. It’s a time of joyful sadness – not gloom.
  5. It in no way implies a rejection of God’s creation. God’s creation is Good. All of it. The Apostle Paul tells us that nothing is unclean in itself. So we’re not to do this in rejection of creation, but rather in preparation of the great celebration of Pascha (Orthodox Easter).

True Fasting is to be converted in heart and will. To return to God. To come home like the prodigal.” From the Lenten Triodion

Above all this is not a time of legalism, but a time of grace. I love the words of Wesley J. Smith in First Things “If we see someone we know to be Orthodox eating a hamburger, it is none of our business. We have our own vegetables to fry.”

I learned a few things about myself during this first week. Things that humble me and cause me to cry out to God. I’m learning that I despise authority. I hate being told what to do. If I’m told I have to do something, even if I want to do it I’ll argue. Is that why I’m so stubborn when I hear the voice of God? I’m also learning that I love to be comfortable. And saying no to food I like, or food I want, being hungry occasionally makes me uncomfortable. Lastly, I’ve learned that I am far weaker than I think I am.


In the Metropolitan Museum of art there is a sculpture called “The Struggle of the Two Natures in Man”. It sits in a large atrium and shows two men wrestling, one clearly more powerful than the other, as he stands over the other his foot firmly placed on the other man’s arm. This powerful and beautiful sculpture resonates with me at this time. The part of me that loves God and moves forward gladly in obedience wrestling with the part of me that whines for comfort and basks in my own will.

This is the picture I will carry with me during this time of Great Lent, knowing that God reaches out to my wrestling soul, beckoning me with a love beyond understanding. And as he persistently beckons, I slowly come. 


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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 18 “On Prodigals”

Last Sunday was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. The Orthodox Church remembers this Sunday yearly.It is one of three special Sundays preceding Great Lent. The first is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. The second is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, and the third is the Sunday of the Last Judgement.

prodigal sonAn icon of the son being received in a loving embrace by his father is displayed, a visual reminder of this relationship and the healing that comes as we move into the loving kindness of God. A special hymn is chanted:

When I disobeyed in ignorance Thy fatherly glory, I wasted in iniquities the riches that Thou gavest me. Wherefore, I cry to Thee with the voice of the prodigal son, saying, I have sinned before Thee, O compassionate Father, receive me repentant, and make me as one of Thy hired servants. – See more at:

I’ve not met many people who don’t know this story — of a son who asked for his inheritance, essentially wishing the father dead. Of a father who gave that inheritance, the son squandering everything he had in the far places and then suddenly, in the squalor of a pigs sty, coming to his senses. “I’m going home” he says to himself. “I can’t live like this anymore. The pain of my choices is all too much. The servants in my father’s house live better than this.”

So he comes home. His father, who had waited for him all these years, daily looking out so he would be first to greet him when he finally made his way back home, runs to him. Of course, there’s the older brother sulking, angry that this little punk who had ruined his life was being treated as a long, lost treasure.

The story is about God – about this father that waits and longs for the return of his children.

I don’t know many parents that don’t have a prodigal, it seems to come with the territory. And we’re not God – so we don’t always wait patiently, daily looking to see if they will return home. Sometimes we spew angry words through letters or phone calls. Often we are so consumed with our hurt that we think harmful thoughts of these ones who we love so much, who we call our sons and daughters.

When you give birth you don’t know you’ll have a prodigal. You cradle that baby thinking you never loved so much and so hard. You laugh at that toddler’s faltering steps as they reach out to you, encouraging them each step. “You can do it! Come to mommy!” You write down the words and phrases, so funny to you alone. “Frogs sucking on my fingers.” “Let me go, let me jump, let me hurt my lip.” You brace yourself at kindergarten as you realize you are relinquishing some of your organized and tight control to a world that will not appreciate this child the way you do.

Each award and milestone leaves memories stamped in permanent ink in your mind. You try and capture some of this with pictures, but mostly its captured in the heart.

And then for many of us, prodigal years come and you never thought you’d hurt so much. You don’t know how to give God, the one who knows prodigals so well and loves them so much, your prodigal. The hurt comes and goes at odd times. You treasure occasional awkward phone calls and you confess. You go through your parenting like a fine tooth comb through a head of lice. Finding all the nits and lice of what you did wrong, ultimately having to rest in your imperfection and God’s abundant grace. It’s hard to express this to other people of faith — Because other people have ‘good’ children, and you apparently don’t.

They felt good eyes upon them and shrank within-undone; 

good parents had good children and they- a wandering one. 

The good folks never meant to act smug or condemn, 

but having prodigals just “wasn’t done” with them. 

Remind them gently, Lord, how you have trouble with your children too.*

But you slowly learn to hope and rest. You become more like the father, daily going out and praying, looking, but continuing about your business because that is what you’re called to do. The more you pray, the more you realize that you are a prodigal, continually wandering away from God, only to find out that there is no future in the far land. So you run home, and God the Father runs to meet you. 

So you pray, and you hope, and sometimes the day comes when this great schism ends. Only Heaven could possibly understand the joy in your heart.

All creation waits as the prodigal is in the far places. All of creation joins in celebration when the prodigal comes home. 

Every year, on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, I pray a prayer I have prayed more times than I could count. “Lord, Let all the prodigals come home.”

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