Blessings for a Restless Heart

I’m in a coffee shop sipping a delicious latte while I work on a report. I stare out at bright sunshine, trying to find the right technical words while Aretha Franklin serenades all of us, her voice and style distinctive, beautiful, and unmistakable.

From where I sit, I see sunlight reflected off the Charles River. Trees stand with perfect posture on the river bank, their bare-treed branches naked but still tall.

At this time of year I tend to retreat into my winter cocoon. The cocoon is a way that I cope with the cold world around me. My cocoon has a lot of good things in it. Hot drinks to warm the soul, good books to fill my mind, and a journal to write my thoughts. But the cocoon is too self-indulgent to stay in for long. This is why I have found my way to a coffee shop – because just being around people is a reminder to me that I must step out of my cocoon and communicate.

I am acutely aware of all that I have, all I’ve been given. From a warm house to a spot in a coffee shop drinking an expensive drink, my material ‘blessings’ are uncountable. And at the same time, I am so restless. Restless for what? I’m not even sure of that. Just restless. Restless for more.

I’m caught in one of those all too human dilemmas – the “blessed yet restless” dilemma. 

In years past, I would want to climb the walls when this restlessness began. Knowing that I couldn’t climb the walls, at least I could book a trip somewhere, anywhere. I would want to do anything that would take away this restlessness. Worldwide travel restrictions that began in 2020 and ebb and flow these two years later create a pause on clicking “book trip” and my mind goes through rapid tests and vaccine cards, often ending up in a sigh and a click as I close the travel site. Perhaps, ever so slowly, I’ve come to see this as one of winter’s gifts.

Winter’s gift reminds me that a restless heart can’t be filled with material things.  It’s not a good job, a beautiful home, or a full bank account that fill up the empty, restless spaces. It takes something far better than the material and transient things in my life. A restless heart doesn’t need material things, it needs the beatitudes – the blessings.

My restless heart needs to know more about the blessings – the comfort for those who mourn; the righteousness for those who hunger and thirst after it; mercy for the merciful; the Kingdom of Heaven for the poor in spirit; and seeing God for the pure in heart. Those are the blessings that fill a restless soul.

As I sit restless, wanting to climb the walls of winter and jump to the other side, I turn my face to the sun coming through the ice frosted window. I stop and wordlessly surrender this restless heart. As I do, I find that it leads me straight into the arms of God, where comfort, righteousness, mercy, and purity of heart find their home.

Lengthening Light

Today the darkness begins to grow shorter and the light to lengthen, as the hours of night become fewer…. realize that the true light is now here and, through the rays of the gospel, is illumining the whole earth.” St. Gregory of Nyssa

I sit in my living room, watching daylight arrive. The Christmas tree continues to bring much needed light to the room. Orthodox Christmas was two days ago and our tree illuminates, providing beauty and hope in the still dark days of winter.

I’ve often talked about how I am solar powered. No matter how cold it is, when the sun is out the days feel easier. Light makes all things better. The days of winter are indeed dark and yet, the light is lengthening. Darkness is growing shorter. My colleague told me that from January 1st to January 31st, daylight increases by two minutes every day. A year by year, decade by decade miracle of light and seasons.

The thing about light is that you can never diminish it by taking from it. When you light a candle from another candle, it doesn’t take any light from the first candle. They both burn bright. When you put a window into a wall, the outside light is not diminished by bringing light inside. Maybe that is why there are so many metaphors of light in scripture, because the nature of light is that even a little light will spread. A fraction of light is more powerful than all the darkness that surrounds it.

We are not in an easy time. World events collide with personal tragedies yielding an entire universe that feels like it will never be right. The news shouts at us from every corner, a dark and bleak picture of humanity. Beyond the miracle of seasons and measured time, what does lengthening light mean for us at this time in history? At this time personally? Perhaps our challenge is to witness this lengthening light as a witness to God – God who is above all the seasons and all the chaos. God, who illuminates the world with never diminishing, always lengthening true light. A light that pays attention to the tragedies, but knows there is a story beyond and above our current reality.

In the midst of the horror of Nazi Germany, Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest who was imprisoned for his outspoken resistance to Hitler, wrote these words that speak to lengthening light and to our present day turmoil: “The grey horizons must grow light. It is only the immediate scene that shouts so loudly and insistently. Beyond the present tumult there exists a different realm, one that is now in our midst. The woman has conceived the Child, sheltered him beneath her heart, and given birth to the Son. The world has come under a different law. Christmas is not only a historic event that happened once, on which our salvation rests. Christmas is the promise of a new order of things, of life, of our existence.“

Lengthening light, grey horizons growing light, “the promise of a new order of things, of life, of our existence.”

Waiting with Hope

Of all the books I’ve read, Wendell Berry’s character of Hannah Coulter is perhaps my favorite fictional character. You journey with Hannah throughout her life from when she is a girl until she is an old woman, entering into events and relationships that tell you who she is and what she longs for and loves. As Hannah enters her later years in life, she has some things to say about the difference between hope and expectations.

“Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it. Love, after all, ‘hopeth all things.’ But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation.” It is not surprising that Hannah is talking about her adult children when she says this. Every time I read this book, I find myself nodding in agreement, for parenting has been one of my best teachers about hope vs. expectation. When you are a parent, it is easy to get these two confused. Hoping for your children vs. expecting for them gives a parent a necessary freedom. You realize you cannot control the outcome. Instead, you must trust the process.

This distinction between hope and expectation feels profoundly important in our world. Hope means to cherish or desire with anticipation. It’s about a process, a state of being, about faith and trust. Expectation is about an outcome. It depends on certain things happening that we may have no control over.

On this first week of Advent, hope is the theme, and it is a good theme for me to reflect on. In truth, I have not felt hopeful lately. I have felt desolate and resigned. It is difficult for me to imagine resolution in some areas where I am struggling, some areas where our world is struggling, and I realize I have neither expectation nor hope. I simply have resignation and sadness.

How do I turn this into hope? We cannot conjure up hope like magicians who produce rabbits out of hats, but there are times when we can take baby steps that move us toward hope. Hope is often a long wait and walk in the dark. But when we’re walking in the dark, even one step towards a glimmer of light moves us closer. And so it is with hope. Fractions turn into wholes and small sparks into full fires.

You think the winter will never end, and then, when you don’t expect it, when you have almost forgotten it, warmth comes and a different light.

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

Then there are those times when we need others to hope for us. I remember a few years ago saying to someone “I know you don’t have any hope, but I can hope for you.” And so it is with me right now – I don’t have a lot of hope, but I do have others who are hoping for me. This is what it is to belong to the living body of the Church. When I begin to fall, others reach out to catch me. When I lose hope, others hope for me.

I have often wondered why hope is the first in this season, why we cannot begin with something else like peace or joy, but I think hope sets a foundation for us as we wait. A sure foundation that begins this season where we wait for the Incarnation and the one who is Hope personified.

In a beautiful reflection, writer Ann Voskamp recently offered these words about hope:

Hope against hope- that the emptiness will fill, that the wound will heal, that the miracle will happen, that the ashes will rise, that the prodigal will come home, that the marriage will mend, that the page will turn, that the next chapter will dare to bring any dreams come true and more than enough grace to meet you and carry you through, regardless. What you don’t know how to live through, Hope Himself will carry you through.

Ann Voskamp

Perhaps this year, you are one walking in the dark without hope. If so, can I and others hope for you? Can we offer a fraction that can turn into a whole? Or perhaps, you are one who can hope for others this year. Will you offer it this Advent Season, without reservations or conditions?

“I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.” Psalm 130:5

The Stories Behind Our Silence

It’s been quiet here. It feels eerily quiet to me, though for those of you who read – the silence may be welcome. No one needs more noise in their lives. But the quiet feels strange to me because so much of my processing is done through writing.

Whenever my writing goes silent, there is a story behind the silence. I would think that this is true for most of us. Though everyone doesn’t process through writing, we all go through journeys where our inner world and trauma don’t reflect our outward circumstances, where there are stories behind our stepping away from life.

Some things are not for public consumption. In a world that more and more demands our every thought, our every hurt and pain spewed out through whatever public means possible, it feels important to say this.

Yet, too often, people insist on the story. They seemingly can’t give grace without the details. It makes me wonder how we can grow to be the kind of people who can honor the silent stories, giving grace for behavior and actions that don’t reflect what we know about the person’s life. How can we honor the stories behind the silence, knowing that people must feel safe in order to share? How can we become people who don’t operate off a sort of voyeurism, insisting on the hard ingredients instead of offering unconditional comfort?

It was a number of years ago when I first discovered the difference between outside circumstances and silent stories. It was in trying to figure out how I could help a friend. Her outside circumstances were seemingly ideal. A “put together” family – the kind that takes pictures of all their kids with blue jeans and white shirts on a pristine beach – a good job, beautiful kids, talent beyond believability. But behind her perfect smile was an undefinable sadness. At first I was impatient and frustrated. Of all the people I knew, she was the last person who seemed to have a reason to be sad. It was in the midst of frustration, that I felt a strong rebuke and challenge to look beyond these seemingly perfect circumstances. I realized that there must be more to the story then her observable beautiful life.

In truth, I should have been quicker to identify this. I say this because I too have been judged as one who has “nothing to complain about.” Judged for being a baby who can’t cope with the perfect life I’d been given. There were silent stories behind my observable “good” life. Stories that were difficult to share, and even more difficult to live.

The stories remained silent until I trusted a friend enough to reveal them.

Whether others give us freedom for silence or not, there are time honored and tested verses from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes that offer space for these seasons of silence:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

May we strive to be people of the seasons. People who honor all of the times in our lives, including the stories behind the silence – may we be people who offer the gifts of grace, comfort, compassion, and hope, all given without expectation, without insisting on details. And through these gifts may stories be heard, silence give way to a voice, and above all, the seasons of hope and healing be restored.

Spilled Coffee and the Mercy of God

I love my post liturgical coffee. Some love their post liturgical naps (PLNs) but I love my coffee. It’s always the same. We stop at the coffee shop on the way home and I order a hazelnut latte, sipping it contentedly. It’s the same routine in the cold of winter where my breath fogs up the windshield, or in the heat of summer, where the steering wheel burns my hands and the car interior feels suffocating, where text messages from the City of Boston interrupt my thoughts to tell me just how hot it is going to be.

There is something deeply comforting about this coffee routine. It’s the treat of not making it myself combined with the peace of my post liturgical thoughts. Somehow it feels like one of God’s good gifts to me.

I arrived back home today, coffee in hand, and placed it on the kitchen counter. I’m not sure what happened but at one point I was multitasking and the next thing I knew, that beautiful hazelnut latte was all over my kitchen floor. It splattered everywhere, from the front of the cabinets clear over to the garbage can and everywhere in between. It even got on my sandals. Something inside of me broke and I began to sob. All of the pain in the world was in that cup of coffee. All the stress, sadness, and hurt that I have experienced in the last five months combined with creamy, frothy coffee to create a sticky mess. I was undone.

God’s good gift spread across the floor, no longer a comfort but a representation of all that hurts and brings pain.

A week ago I read a beautiful essay by a 30 year old woman who has had cancer three times. Her words were sharp and true and challenging. I am schooled well by younger people who know pain. In this essay she talked about being God’s downstairs neighbor, the one that bangs on his ceiling, trying to get attention, the one that shows up at his door everyday. The words resonated powerfully with me. I am the same. I may shout, I may scream. I may whisper. But I show up. It’s the only thing I know to do. She writes this, and in the reading I weep:

Tears have become the only prayer I know, Prayers roll over my nostrils and drip down my forearms. They fall to the ground as I reach for Him. These are the prayers I repeat night and day; sunrise, sunset.

Jane Marczewski

I remember this today as I soak up spilled coffee with paper towels, get rid of the whole sticky mess. And as unlikely as it is, I feel the mercy of God. The mercy of God in spilled coffee and spilled tears. The mercy of God in taking my exhausted spirit, and giving me an outlet to cry. The mercy of God in the post tears exhaustion where I have no fight left. Just the words “not my will, but thine be done.” Coffee will come and go, the mercy of God is never ending. Tears will be my prayers some days and laughter my prayers on others, but the God who made me and loves me takes all of it, wrapping me in the folds of an invisible embrace, whispering “You are loved” and I know the mercy in those whispered words.

So I’ll keep on choosing to believe in the mercy of God. I’ll continue to whisper a barely audible ‘thank you’ through tears that blind my eyes, and as I whisper, I may begin to mean it.

[Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash]

Pre-Paschal Reflections – Resurrection Hope

Chora Church, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Every year I sit down a couple of ours before our Pascha celebration and I write reflections. The house is generally quiet and I’m ready. Holy Week has ended and our Great and Holy Saturday service ushers us into the harrowing of Hell and the glory of resurrection.

We will enter the church in quiet anticipation. Candles will be lit and low lights will be on. Someone will be chanting the Psalms. Just 12 minutes before midnight, the church bells will begin to ring – one for every minute until finally – the room is completely dark and all are quiet. In the altar, the priests who have been readying for this for days, will begin singing “Thy Resurrection, O Christ Our Savior, the Angels in Heaven sing. Enable us on Earth to Glorify Thee in Purity of Heart.” Then all of us join in joyous song as one of the priests comes out and calls out in joyful command:

“Come! Receive the Light!”

As one, we move forward, our candles held out, desperate to receive the light, desperate for Resurrection Hope. (you have never seen Orthodox move so quickly except to the Paschal feast afterwards where cheese, meat, and cream beckon us from our six week vegan fast.)

This year I am deeply in need of hope. My husband has been sick for some time and the hospital has become my daily phone call or visit. I join the community of the desperate and broken hearted as I make my way into the visitor’s line daily. We make small talk through the nervousness of shared worry and fear for those we love. Occasionally we see a new mom and dad make their way out of the hospital, and we breathe with grateful hope. It’s not all bad, There is good. Didn’t someone once say that a baby is God’s way of saying the world must go on?* We hold out our phones with our Covid passes, indicating that we are safe to enter. We are masked and only our eyes tell the stories in our hearts and lives. We slowly pass through a revolving door and journey on to the floor where our loved one lies. None of us are in control. We tentatively put our trust in a medical system that fails us far too often and can only do so much for us, tentatively put our faith in doctors and nurses who are sometimes wonderful and sometimes not.

A hospital is a place for the sick and the broken – sometimes it brings hope and other times despair. I didn’t always believe this, but I have found that a church is also for the sick and the broken. The difference is it brings a hope that a hospital, no matter how world renowned, can never give, can never promise. A church brings in the sick and says “You are welcome! You belong here! Come – let us walk beside you in your journey to repentance, restoration, and resurrection hope!”

So tonight I go as one who is sick and one who longs for restoration. I will hold out my candle and receive the light. I will hold out for resurrection hope.

Sudden Storms

Earlier this week there was a high wind advisory in our area. It was well warranted. The winds raged from 44 to 50 miles an hour and shook everything around. Though it must have been predicted, for me it was sudden.

We happened to be in Rockport at the time and our entire condo quivered and shivered throughout the night. Beyond the whistling sounds typical of high winds were the sounds of shutters and vents banging, branches hitting the outside walls, and overall ghost-like moans of the storm.

I lay in bed unable to sleep for a long time. The storm felt insurmountable. When would it end? Would the electricity go off, taking with it the heat and hot water? Would there be damage to the condo? So many questions. I fell into an uneasy sleep only to wake again to the seemingly never-ending storm.

The storm reflects my life right now. A sudden storm of events brought with it howling winds and shaking circumstances. The questions too were similar. When would it end and what damage would it do? These questions crowd my mind as I fall into an uneasy sleep.

But the actual physical storm did end. The electricity didn’t go off. There is no damage. There is no evidence of the violent winds that ripped through the area. Today came and with it sunlight reflected through every window. Beauty and light after a storm.

And with the sun came a quiet hope for the life storm, a tiny capsule of rest and redemption. In this light I begin to believe that someday this will all be redeemed.