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: We Come Needy


The morning light reflects off the gold of the icons and it is beautiful. The church is quiet, save footsteps walking up to venerate the icons. We are in community, yet we are alone.

We come needy. We come with hearts heavy with the burdens of the week. We come with anger and with pain, emotional and physical. We come with sickness and sorrow. We come with hearts longing for more, knowing that though we are created for eternity, we get mired in the clay of the every day.

And in this place, where Heaven meets earth in divine liturgy, we will glimpse the eternal. 

In any group of people, there are so many stories of life lived, good and bad,

We have children with autism and diabetes; foot problems and depression. We have bodies that betray us and hearts that are alternately hard and soft. We have tongues that choose to speak life-giving words or words that damage and destroy. We have children who weigh heavy on our hearts, ones who we pray will not lose their way. We have parents who can no longer move well, or speak well, or think well. We have burdens deep and wide. But in this space, we can place them before the altar of God’s infinite love.

We are humans made in the image of God, made for his glory and in this space we take time to remember that.

We come needy to the altar and hear the words of the priest as he gives us the Holy Gifts on a spoon. For a short time, we remember. We enter into the eternal and time doesn’t matter. We don’t try to solve the mystery of salvation, we accept it as the needy ones. 

We come needy, and we leave full. 

The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 8: The Sign of the Cross”

20130928-093928.jpgThis is the first thing I notice as I begin my journey into Orthodoxy. The sign of the Cross. I shake my head because I can’t figure out when they do the sign. When I’m about to make the sign of the cross, it seems no one else is. When I am least prepared, everyone else is on board.

Always a step behind the sign of the cross.

The thought leaves me depressed. It’s what I often feel on this journey — a step behind everyone else. If I didn’t know this was the right path I would give up, just because I hate that I am a baby in the journey. At heart I know this is pride. And with the sign of the cross, I pray His grace will trump my pride, anyday and everyday.

The sign of the cross reminds me I’m in a humble place of learning. I know none of the answers and am barely able to ask the questions. It’s healthy to realize I know only one thing – Christ crucified for me.

When my oldest daughter Annie was six she began making the sign of the cross. We had a number of Catholic friends, and she picked up the gesture naturally. One day I was talking to my mom about this. My mom is a lifelong believer, a mentor in my faith since I was old enough to understand anything. “There’s nothing wrong with that” she said. “It’s totally Biblical!” This is one of the many reasons why I love my mom. The stuff that counts is black and white, the other stuff is many shades of grey. The sign of the cross? In her opinion whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox the sign of the cross made complete sense.

Because this sign represents the cross itself as well as loving God with my heart, my soul, my mind, and my strength. And as often as I can, I need to be reminded of this.

Orthodox make the sign of the cross differently than Catholics. Pressing my index and middle fingers to my thumb I go up to my forehead, then down toward my stomach, over to the right shoulder and across to the left: “In the name of the father (forehead) son (down) and the Holy Spirit (over and across)”

Up, down, over, across. Up, down, over, across. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The mystery of the Trinity. Up, down, over, across.

There is a rhythmic prayer and beauty to this and I realize I have looked for a symbol like this my entire life. I’ve always envied my Catholic friends, feeling they could, with one sign, indicate a faith. This may sound simplistic, and I am well aware that God’s concern is the heart, not the outward symbols. But when the outward symbol can reflect the heart? This is a gift.

I look toward the altar. The choir, in exquisite harmony, is singing “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity one in essence, and indivisible”.

Up, down, over, acrossThe sign that reminds me of a love sacrificial, a cross that overcomes sin and death, a Lord who is present. I gratefully bow my head. 

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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 6 “Slowly by Slowly”

A few years ago, when I still hoped the Orthodox church would not become a full part of our lives, when I looked on this faith as a distant second cousin, one I was fond of and respected but didn’t necessarily invite for Sunday dinners, my husband met a Bishop who was attending Divine Liturgy.

“I hope to become Orthodox, one day” my husband said. He graciously didn’t add “but there’s this little problem with my wife…..”

The Bishop looked at him, clasped his hands, and said “I want to say ‘Yavash, Yavash’ Slowly, Slowly. We’re not going anywhere”.

This phrase is actually Turkish (“yavaş yavaş”) and while it means “Slowly, Slowly”, it seems to mean more than this. It means “to do something quietly,thoughtfully,without attention from others”.

One thing about this Orthodox journey – no one is in a hurry for us to jump in like we would a swimming pool on a hot day. No one minds that we are going about this more carefully than we’ve done anything in our lives. No one minds that we question, and read, and question some more. In fact – the Bishop’s words to my husband are the way this journey is encouraged.

Orthodox faith is like a slow hike up a tall mountain. You periodically have to stop and rest, take a long drink,and then move on. You are encouraged to do so by those who have gone before. It used to be that those interested in the Orthodox church were given years of intense instruction before being encouraged to be baptized. During this period the one new to the church is called a catechumen — “one receiving instruction in the basic doctrines of Orthodoxy before admission to communicant membership in the Church”. The understanding was that the Church held mysteries that were not immediately available to the one who was ‘seeking’, that it was a slow belief process, not an easy ‘beliefism’. The Church wanted the catechumen to understand that the call of this faith was serious, the demands were huge, the walk of the faithful a steady discipline.

This is far from the practice of many modern-day protestant churches and I find myself occasionally uncomfortable in the Orthodox church, as one who ‘doesn’t belong’. I’ve begun to understand what it was like for my friends who did not believe but occasionally came to churches because something, someone drew them there, to understand why they sometimes thought we spoke ‘Martian’. In a way it’s like the words of the Beaver to Lucy about Aslan: it doesn’t feel safe, but it feels good, it feels right.

For entering Orthodoxy has been like entering a new country, one that I am completely unfamiliar with. I don’t know the language, the practice, or the ‘rules’. A country where I don’t have a passport or visa stamp, just an interest and a strong sense that I am walking in obedience. I sit on the outside looking in to something that I alternately long for and push away.

I am in this process slowly by slowly, yavaş yavaş, attentive to what I don’t know, what I don’t understand. I am humbled by this journey, I feel like a child who “thinks she’s mastered the art of bow tying only to realize that one loop doesn’t make a bow.”*

I am the Reluctant Orthodox and I walk this journey slowly by slowly, sometimes frustrated, sometimes delighted, but always learning.

*source unknown

The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 4 “On Fasting”

It’s when I taste the bitter coffee that I’m most aware I’m heading into a Fast Day, for I like my coffee rich, sweet, and creamy. I get lost in my one-time-a-day, o-so-sweet, pleasure coffee. My strong as death, sweet as love, black as hell coffee.

It is with this small sacrifice that I bow my head in thanksgiving that God helps us to see and know sacrifice first through the small things, those human things that have little significance in eternity, but seemingly great significance in the now. And after these small things, faithfulness to sacrifice the small things, he moves us on to that which is far more important.

Fasting is a hallmark of this ancient faith dating back to Jewish tradition and Jesus. As with all things Orthodox I have to search to find the significance of the fast being on Wednesdays and Fridays. I find out it is because Christ was betrayed on a Wednesday and crucified on a Friday.

Fasting in the Orthodox church is considered “grace-bestowing and life-giving”. 

I am not familiar or used to fast days and extended fasts like the Lenten Fast. I am familiar with the “giving up chocolate for Lent” sort of sacrifice; the “Lenten fast from soft drinks”. This is not the same. 

I search farther and find that the fast is not a ‘complete’ fast, rather it includes no meat, no dairy products, no fish. This is the weekly fast. The Nativity fast and the Lenten fast are separate and take more thought, more discipline.

Fasting is mentioned many times in the Holy Scriptures, over seventy times at least. Jesus and his apostles regularly fasted. Fasting accompanied by prayer is clearly something important in this journey of faith. As I read and ask questions about fasting, I find myself tensing in frustration and rebellion. ‘How legalistic’ I think! ‘Jesus came to abolish the law, yet all these rules?’ Yet are they rules? No one will know if I don’t fast. No one is looking over my shoulder. I’m just being encouraged to do so, with the support and comfort of the Church behind me and thousands of years and examples of saints who have done the same.

Why my tension over something considered “grace-bestowing” and “life-giving”? For a long time I have walked a spiritual path void of discipline, doing what I want when I want, making excuses in my heart and living them out in my body. I know myself. And I know that I want excuses. I need excuses as to why this won’t work for me. Saying ‘no’ to food, ‘no’ to sweet, creamy coffee, ‘no’ to self – this is not comfortable. Our journey into the Eastern Orthodox church challenges me in ways that I did not know possible, I find the heart of much of what I do spiritually to be about self. Learning (slowly mind you) to fast, learning to accompany that fast with prayer, learning honesty as I kneel before God with the words that are slowly becoming familiar to me “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Have Mercy on Me” — all of this pushes me gloriously “further in, further up”.

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!”CS Lewis in The Last Battle

I’m back to another sip of my bitter coffee, the bitter coffee representing a discipline leading me closer to the One who sacrificed all – for me.