The Resilient Orthodox – Pentecost Interrupted

Our church was filled with greenery yesterday – the Orthodox color of Pentecost signifying new creation and the breath of life. The priests robes echoed the theme with colors of vibrant gold and green made of materials that reflected the light around them.

In the Orthodox tradition, 50 days following Pascha is Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. It is a huge day of celebration in the church. Jesus tells the disciples that it was a good thing for him to leave; that there was something better coming. How could something be better than Jesus? How could something or someone come alongside them the way Jesus had during the last three years? And yet, Christ ascended and with his ascent, the Holy Spirit descended, becoming a living reality for those left behind. Like the Trinity, the coming of the Holy Spirit is a complete mystery but one that I gladly accept.

Directly following Divine Liturgy, we settled into special kneeling prayers for Pentecost.

And then in the midst of all of it, a cell phone began to ring. It was a jarring sound that interrupted the prayers and my own thoughts. The ringing was loud, insistent. “Pick me up” it rang. “You need to see who it is, you need to pay attention, you need to obey!” There were shocked expressions and scrambling. All eyes turned toward the area where the sound was coming from.  It was directly in front of me, and for a moment I wondered if it was me. In fact, every one wondered if it was their phone, even if they knew that it couldn’t possibly be. The shocked expressions and wandering eyes found and stared at the guilty phone avoiding the embarrassed eyes of the human who owned the phone, and all the while the vesperal prayers continued.

Do you, then, who are full of mercy and love for mankind, hear us on whatever day we call upon you; but especially on this day of Pentecost, on which after our Lord Jesus Christ had been taken up and been enthroned at your right hand, God and Father, he sent down on his disciples and Apostles the holy Spirit, who settled on each one of them and they were all filled with his inexhaustible grace and spoke in strange tongues of your mighty works and prophesied.

My life in the Holy Spirit is so much like this – I feel the breath of the Holy Spirit, but I am interrupted by the urgency of life, responsibilities, work, people, worries, even joys. I try to listen but the interruptions are loud and insistent. Do this! Do that! Think this! Think that! Obey the urgent and insistent! All the while, the Holy Spirit is gently persistent. And so I come back only to be interrupted again with the tyranny of things that can wait.

The ringing of the cell phone stopped, and most people will not remember that it happened. But it continues to ring in my ears, because of the undeniable truth that it represents, because it so symbolically showed me what my life in the spirit is like.

Shutting off a phone is easy compared to shutting off the distractions of my mind. And yet I continue, ever mindful that the real failure is in deciding it’s not worth trying, that the distractions are just too persistent, I might as well give in to them.  Just as the prayers continued through the insistent ringing of a cell phone, I will continue seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit despite the insistent distractions that call me away.

I stop. I breathe. I pray.

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, O Good one. 

The Resilient Orthodox: Pepper & Salt


My Godmother came into my life around four years ago. At the time, I didn’t know she would be my Godmother. In fact, she didn’t know she would be my Godmother.

When I first asked her to be my Godmother, she looked at me with not a little terror in her eyes. At that moment, I knew I had made the right decision.

The Godparent/Godchild relationship is taken seriously in the Orthodox Church. Every person, whether a child or an adult, is to have someone who takes on this role. The role and responsibilities are lifelong. From baptism and onward, the Godparent is to pray for their Godchild, to take interest in who they are both in and out of church, to model faith in all of life, and to cultivate a relationship.

But I didn’t know all of this when I asked her to be my Godmother. I just knew that it was something I was supposed to do. And it had taken me long enough to get on the bus for this journey; I wasn’t going to let the matter of a Godmother stop me. Still, it was not easy to ask, especially when I didn’t know her well.

She didn’t respond quickly. Instead she paused and looked at me. “Well…,” her tone was measured. “If you need to get together all the time and talk, then I’m probably not the right person.” I breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing I wanted was an overly sincere, motherly Godmother. I wanted someone who would walk alongside me but not be pedantic. I wanted someone I could trust, who wouldn’t guilt me into being someone or something I couldn’t be. Most of all, I wanted someone who knew that Orthodoxy was a long journey, not a short hike.

And so, she agreed.

We are two different people, she and I.  

I am pepper and she is salt. I am feisty and angsty, reactionary and passionate. She is calm and rational, thoughtful and steady. I am the questioner, she the receiver of questions.

But we both know the long road of obedience is never easy.  We both know that community takes work. We both know that we are desperately in need of grace. And so the differences dissolve, the tastiness of pepper and salt realized in the relationship. Slowly, I realize that Salt is not only my Godmother, she has become my friend. 

Now these four years later, I wonder sometimes – if she really knew what the role included, would she still come alongside? I like to think she would. 

A Bigger Picture

I arrived back from Egypt yesterday, bleary-eyed after hours of travel. Having coffee in Cairo, sahlep in Istanbul, and mint tea in our Cambridge living room reminded me yet again of how connected our world is. We fell asleep and woke up on the other side of the world. 

The trip was a gift that will take a while to process, and I plan to do some of that online, but for now I feel like I’ve been invited into a bigger picture. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. I have been deeply angered, troubled, and discouraged by the infantile politics that have become an acceptable part of our society. I am increasingly frustrated by how deeply I am connected to social media in all its forms. The trip was a break from all of that and revived me in the best way possible.

Just two days ago I stood in the shadow of a 4th Century church while listening to the Muslim call to prayer. All around me, women in hijab were entering the church to read the history, view ancient icons, and hear stories about this church that has survived centuries of life. The church is known as either the “hanging church” or the “The Church of the Virgin Mary.” Built into the walls of a Roman fortress, this church is considered the oldest in Egypt.

Just down a stone path from the ancient church is the Ben Ezra Jewish synagogue, built in the 9th century over a 4th century church frame. The voices of thousands who had been there before echoed from the silent walls. While leaving the synagogue, we passed a fully veiled woman, only her eyes showing. I had seen her earlier in one of the churches, now she was making her way down the same path we had come to visit the synagogue.

We were in Coptic Cairo, an area known as one of the oldest in Cairo. I have been to Coptic Cairo many times before but I have never experienced the sense of life and God’s orchestration of life like I did.

Throughout the Bible, Egypt is seen as a place of preservation, protection, and testing of God’s people. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all played a part in Egypt’s history, each with truth claims that sometimes seem similar and other times are completely opposite and non-negotiable.

As the call to prayer rang out from mosques across the city, one beginning as another was ending, I was struck by God’s big view of people and history. I see this pinpoint in time; he sees from beginning to end. I focus on the small things while he calls me to see the big things. I am stuck in time; he is the creator of time. I often see a narrow way to grace; he who is grace personified opens his arms wide as he calls us to himself.

In those moments, I realized yet again the call to a see a bigger picture – a picture beyond politics, beyond the current crisis of the day, and beyond my own inadequacy. I’m called to see the world through eyes of love and grace only possible through knowing the Creator. 

It’s a mystery that will take a lifetime to understand.

 

Three young women asked for photos with me, both individually and as a group. I was completely honored and glad the moment outside this church was captured! 

 

The Resilient Orthodox – “Axios”

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“Axios!” The Bishop proclaims in a strong, authoritative voice. “Axios!” We respond in loud unison.

“Worthy!” He proclaims and again we repeat after him – this time the word in English “Worthy!”

We are witnessing our friend John’s ordination as a Deacon of the Bulgarian Diocese in the Orthodox Church. It has been a beautiful morning. The choir is at their best, the church is full, the Bishop is leading the service, even the saints who look most severe in the icons surrounding the sanctuary seem to be smiling, fully a part of this solemn yet celebratory event.

“Axios!’ “Worthy!” 

Suddenly I feel my cheeks wet with tears. “Axios!” “Worthy!” These words are proclaimed over this man affirming his service within the Church. The last time I heard these words were at my own baptism several months ago, when on receiving the oil of Chrismation “Axios” was proclaimed.

The tears come from deep within my soul. I am overwhelmed by the thought that God looks on us and proclaims “Axios!” Says that we are “Worthy!”

My cheeks are wet because this “Axios” took all that Christ could give, his body broken, his blood shed. I am worthy only because of this great sacrifice, the mystery of the Church.

This journey of faith comes with many ups and downs; with much failure and doubt. There are so many times when I try to do it on my own, only to fall flat and beg for help getting up. But days like this, surrounded by the gold and burgundy of icons, listening to the harmonious hymns that have been sung through the decades, I am humbled and strengthened by that one word proclaiming “Worthy!” Everything changes with one word. 

It is a small taste of Heaven where we who now see so poorly, where we whose vision of the eternal is cloudy at best, see face to face and God himself proclaims us worthy. Until then I drink in the word “Axios” “Worthy” like a woman dying of thirst. I drink deeply and as I do my parched soul is revived.

Blogger’s Note: The Reluctant Orthodox ended and the Resilient Orthodox has begun! Join me for occasional glimpses into my ongoing journey in the Orthodox Church. Posts will usually be on a Sunday and, unlike Orthodox services, will rarely be lengthy!

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 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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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 23 “On Repentance & the Mystery of Grace”

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I didn’t know about Saint Mary of Egypt until this past year. What is known about her primarily comes from a biography written by the Patriarch of Jerusalem after her death. She was born in Egypt in 344 AD. At 12 years old she ran away to Alexandria and entered into a life of promiscuity and prostitution. She was not forced into this. This is what she wanted. She would regularly refuse money for having sex, mostly living off of begging or spinning flax. She lived this way for 17 years with no regrets.

At that time she joined a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to attend some religious feasts, although her main goal was to seduce other pilgrims on the journey.

Something remarkable happened when she tried to approach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the feast day. While other pilgrims entered – she was held back. It was a force that she couldn’t see, but she realized that she was not allowed to enter because of her sin, because of her impurity. She saw the icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) and cried out to it, begging for forgiveness and promising that she would give up this life that she knew, give up the “world”. When she tried again to go into the church she was allowed inside. When she came outside again and went before the icon to give thanks, she heard a voice saying “If you cross the Jordan, you will find true rest and peace.” She went then to a monastery on the banks of the Jordan river and received holy communion. The next morning she crossed over the Jordan and went to live the rest of her life as a hermit, ever penitent. It is said she took three loaves of bread with her and after they were gone ate whatever she could find.

One year before she died she told her life story to a priest who, on going into the desert, saw a naked figure who hardly looked human. She asked him for his robe to cover her body and sat down with him telling him her story. She had remarkable insight and perception into the life of this priest. She asked him to meet her a year later and bring her Holy Communion. He returned a year later and found her and gave her communion. A year later he returned and found her body in the place he had last seen her.

The story was preserved for generations through oral tradition until finally recorded by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. And, as in all our lives, there is more to the story. This is a condensed version.

Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

The words of Oscar Wilde are oft quoted. But there’s nothing like a story to remind me of their truth and Mary’s is that story.

There was a time when I wanted a past like Mary’s of Egypt – when I wanted to know that Grace stretched far and deep rescuing me from a life of sin. Instead I grew up in a home that nurtured my faith. I never ran off to Alexandria, Egypt to seduce men. I was never turned away from entering a church. But here’s the problem – there was a time I believed when it didn’t take a miracle of Grace to reach me, when I thought I could do this Christianity thing pretty well, that repentance was for the “difficult to save.” And me? I was easy to save. Perhaps I even thought God was ‘lucky’ to have me in his little group.

But that Pharisaic stance put me in the most dangerous of postures. For Christ offered forgiveness to prostitutes and saved harsh words for the Pharisees. He was friend to sinners, Saviour to the truly repentant.

Saint Mary of Egypt above all teaches me of repentance. What it means to live life, marked first by sin, but remembered for repentance. If I don’t believe it took just as much of a miracle of Grace to reach me as it did to reach her then I have a twisted theology. If I believe that I am ‘easier to save’, if I arrogantly and sinfully pat myself on the back and look up to Heaven believing that the trinitarian Godhead is lucky to have me on their side, then I am the worst kind of Pharisee.

So I am learning more and more about the saints. And I am learning more and more about a sinner – me.

And as I learn I am confounded by the same thing that confounded Saint Mary of Egypt — the Mystery of Grace.

For Mary it was the unseen force, Holy Communion on the banks of the Jordan, years in the desert. For me it was the unseen hand on my 6-year old self in boarding school, the heritage of a family of faith, years of feeling alien yet knowing God’s presence. For both of us, along with a host of other saints and sinners “Those nail-scarred hands stretch out to us in unlikely spaces and places and we marvel at the mystery of Grace.” from The Hard Questions.

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