The Cross and the Stag- The Life of a Saint in a Graphic Novel

69641967_10157907034903352_5565236816191160320_oPerhaps I’m not the only mother of a child who struggled to read, nor the only to find that graphic novels, comics, and Big Nate style hybrid books were part of the key to helping such a child to ease into reading, spurred on by visual story to decode the text that would give the key to understanding.

When I met the author of The Cross and the Stag, Gabriel Wilson, at a writer’s conference, I was intrigued by his project with Ancient Faith, the Among the Saints Series.  Graphic novels with beautifully rendered illustrations that tell the stories of our beloved saints?  I immediately thought of my newly-illumined eleven year old son and how much he’d appreciate this way of learning about the saints.

The Cross and the Stag tells the story of the life of St. Eustathius, his wife, and two sons through their conversion to Christianity, their seemingly insurmountable trials and tests of faith, and their martyrdom circa AD 118-126.  I had heard his story before, but somehow seeing it illustrated placed and grounded my imagination into the scene, the horrors he faced as he lost all that he held dear were inescapably before my eyes, indelible as ink.

As a mother raising six children, I am so incredibly grateful for every tool available to teach my kids about the heroes of our faith.  Finishing the book in one sitting, my eleven year old wrote out his thoughts, among them:  “Never give up God, even in the hardest times.  It’s hard for me to find God when I miss a playdate or something, but St. Eustathius lost his cattle, servants, grain, and got his wife taken away from him.  He thought his kids were dead, but he kept praying to God.”  What a powerful example of perseverance for all of us to aspire to!

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Hold

Why, wild Giver,

This loathsome, leaking

Wretched blackness

Threatening to swallow, to swallow swift

All good gain, all light

 

You say it so softly, so softly

Right into my tingling ear

Wrought red by weeping, by raging

-My love, despair not

Take this wretched, this leaking, this puncturing

This pain

Take it in hands of flesh and hold it.-

 

I cannot hold it

I scream

It weighs, I bend

Hands slip under my arms

-Hold up your arms, I aid you-

Tight, tense, through pale lips

I CANNOT HOLD IT, TAKE IT AWAY

-Hold, beloved, hold.-

 

I hold.

Screams.

Arms, every muscle quivering, alive with weight pulling into the ground

His hands under my arms lifting.

-Stronger than the weight

Dear one

We hold, we lift.-

 

Up it rose, past my swollen face

With salt, salt of tears, all traced

Up and above us

Held.

-We go to offer it, we go to make an offering

This way go the martyrs; they held

Take courage, dear one,

You will not always lift

I myself will lift you up

When arms no longer tremble, when backs threaten not to snap under the weight

This way go the martyrs; they held.

Dear one, hold.-_mg_8393

 

 

CrushedMess at Christmas

We held each other’s hands in the quiet of the house; the Christmas-charged children had finally settled down; it was like the moment after a parade, when the workers come out to sweep up the confetti.

We had just prayed, and we had warbled a broken “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.  Tears slipped down my cheeks, and there was some constancy to that, like perhaps my eyes would never stop pouring forth.  “This has been the worst, the hardest Christmas I’ve ever had”, he said, rubbing his hand over his face, the way he does when he’s stressed and sad.  I nodded.

We’ve invested in rental properties, and a tenant kept falling farther and farther behind on rent, running into one disaster after another with his addictions, and resultant loss of jobs.  We rented to him, fresh out of jail, his girlfriend expecting their baby any moment. For a few months it looked like maybe this small family could make life work.  The baby loved her mama, her drug-addicted mama, and it hurts my soul to speak of this.  He called us from prison, we bailed him out.  We did not have money for this, but we knew he needed to be able to work or they’d lose their daughter.  Please, can there be some redemption?

The baby was taken into foster care.  Sweet baby, how you will bear this?  I am glad she is safe and cared for, and I am heartbroken too, for she loved her mama, her mama who also loved drugs.  We served them eviction papers and gave them time to relocate their things.  They broke back into the house and sublet space to other people, not giving us any rent.  We called the prison when our calls to them weren’t answered, and discovered they were both back in jail.  Unpaid rent was up to $5,000 now.  School taxes were due.  We had to clear out the house and get it ready for another renter.

There is great sadness in all of it.  My husband has been so stressed and saddened by it all that he hardly sleeps at night.  He shakes with stress, and he apologizes for not being able to provide for us all, for the lack of rent income, plus the mortgage, and impending taxes have put us firmly in the red.  That’s a sobering thing for a family of eight in the middle stage of life.

“We are vulnerable…one car breakdown, an appliance failing, a medical need…”  We let the silence extend.  I put a load in the washer, dropped to the cold tile floor, and wept.  A crushed mess at Christmas.

That is the load on our backs, weighing heavy.  Now let me speak of the beautiful.

A high school friend gifted us two bins full of Legos, many of them Star Wars sets.  These became the Christmas gift for our two older sons, who were overcome with wonder and joy.  They’ve been joyfully playing with them constantly ever since.

A friend here passed along her kids train track set and wooden castle set; my two middle sons received them with joy for their Christmas gift.  The baby was pleased with his thrifted wooden toys, and my daughter quite happy with the clearance bin goods we got for her.

Our families gave beautiful gifts to us; there was merriment as the children opened things they’ve dearly wished for.  We were gifted a Christmas tree, because our family helped unload a flatbed full of them at a friend’s business.

On Christmas day a package arrived for me.  A book I’ve wanted for three years!!  A friend somehow found out and ordered it.  I held it to my chest and smiled.

We made cookies with the help of the neighborhood kids, whose own stories are difficult and pain-filled, and I gave up the rolling pin and cutters and let them have at it, mess and all.

…………………………………….

We held hands in the quiet.

“Do you know what makes me so happy though?” my husband asked.  “Our kids.  They are so cute and funny and I love watching their faces as they open gifts; just that expression of joy and surprise.”  I nodded.

So much pain, so much stress, so much uncertainty, but oh so much beauty, so much joy, so much life.IMG_2861

Small

I’m small, and my voice doesn’t carry very far. I don’t have answers; it’s like staring at a giant tangle of strings and being asked which one to tug on to begin to unknot the mess. It really doesn’t help that we tend to dive in and grab the “right” string and yank on it, tightening the tangles and frustrating our neighbors. We argue and the knots get tighter as we pull. Impasse.

I can only do small things. I look deeply into my kids’ eyes and search for brokenness; I ask questions; is there a kid who doesn’t get included? Is there someone who struggles to connect with others? How are you; no…how are you really? Kid, where is this anger springing from? Talk to me. I want to hear you.

Love. Hugs. Kisses. Tears and prayers. Long, slow, revelatory conversations.

The big ones…the politicians and the lobbyists and the organizations having a war of words; their work is large and beyond my understanding. No one can untangle knots while shouting and jerking the strings. I can’t tell them anything; I’m small, and my voice doesn’t carry very far.

But I will pray, and it isn’t a small thing; not a trite thing. Not a half-hearted thing, not an opiate, not a crutch, not an “out”. It is the Made saying to the Maker, we are undone; help! Our children are bleeding out under their desks and pain is written on our turned-away faces. Our hands are sliced by pulling strings and we can’t see through our tears and our voices are hoarse from shouting.

“The children are dying!”, my shout rings out and the string-pullers look at their bloodied palms and at the tightened wad of chaos quivering in the middle of them. “But the right to bear…” “But video games….” “But mental health”…”But background checks…”, whispered, chanting, building into shouting, and I back away.

“Love well today; be kind to those who need a friend”, I say as my kids head off to school. My prayers trail after them. I am small, and my voice carries to God’s ears.

 

*I wrote this in February, after a school shooting.  Which one was it?  That is a painful question to ask.  Lord, have mercy.shortstory9

Thus It Pleases God

I leaned back against the bathroom door, the cold from the tile floor below, hot tears running down my face above, my shoulders bowed inward from deep crying.  It was just an argument, an impasse of heated words, and expectations let down.  When I couldn’t cross swords any longer without fear of inflicting deep wounds with my fiery tongue, I retreated.

Like usual a small thing had lain atop a big thing and then both had exploded together, and one could mistake the heat coming from just the small thing.  I hadn’t even gotten out of bed this morning and we were deep into a conversation about finances, the upcoming private school bills, our revenue streams, and we talked ourselves into circles, without a viable exit point, without a hopeful stratagem.  The big thing was:  How do we send our children to their school and not fall into debt?  Is it folly to try to send them at all?  But we feel a peace in our commitment to send them, but we don’t have enough money to pay the bills.  So is God telling us “no”?  Or are we to walk in faith?

We already economize, to the point that I’m accused of living in the wrong century; we garden, preserve our food, keep bees, mend our clothing, make bedding, cook from scratch, buy our clothes and shoes and sports equipment secondhand, we have no tv, no cable bill, I often line dry the wash, I buy at discount grocery stores, we butcher our own deer, make our candles and soap, and on and on.

The school bill went up this year, as school bills tend to do, and tutoring fees heaped on top of that for one of our kids who desperately needs timely help.  Our narrow margin got narrower.  We had to tell our daughter that she wouldn’t likely be able to attend with her friends past eighth grade.  There’s a mountain of grief in that for her, and we hurt for her pain.  It’s hard to see a nearly fourteen year-old girl, just absolutely thriving, surrounded by caring and kind friends, and excellent teachers who have made a good impact on her life, and imagine disrupting that, and sending her into a school where she knows nobody.

Do not say, “this happened by chance, while this came to be of itself.” In all that exists there is nothing disorderly, nothing indefinite, nothing without purpose, nothing by chance … How many hairs are on your head? God will not forget one of them. Do you see how nothing, even the smallest thing, escapes the gaze of God?
(St. Basil the Great)

How can you find out if you are living within the will of God? Here is the sign: If you are troubled about any thing, this means that you have not completely given yourself over to the will of God. A person who lives in the will of God is not concerned over anything. And if he needs anything, he gives both it and himself over to God. And if he does not receive the necessary thing, he remains calm nevertheless, as if he had it. The soul which has been given over to the will of God is afraid of nothing, not of thunder nor of thieves – nothing. But whatever happens, she says, “Thus it pleases God.” If she is sick, she thinks: this means that I need to be sick, or else God would not have given it to me. Thus peace is preserved in both soul and body.
(St. Silouan the Athonite, Writings, VI.4)

Tears have rimmed my eyes the whole day, a whole day of aquarium vision.  There is a baby quilt to make, for this dear son who bumps and jolts about in my womb.  Fabric is another cost, it feels like a step down further into the hole.  I took the bundle of my husband’s worn-out or ill-fitting cotton dress shirts out of the yard sale pile and carefully cut out usable sections of cloth, filling a bowl with buttons for later use as I went.  One was the white shirt he wore as a smiling groom on our wedding day.  I cried as I cut it.  He looked like a prince to me; my breath caught when I saw him vowing his love to me, to me!  IMG_1413

The baby will have a quilt, not one of precisely chosen colors and patterns, put together like a textile symphony, blending in this way and that and harmonizing in this way and that.  But I will tell my son, when I wrap it around him that the quilt was born from hard times, and that each patch is a part of the years of struggle, but also joy.  I will tell him about the joy.  I will tell him how it won.

 

A Tale of Two Kingdoms, or, Why a Conservative Christian Cried on Election Day

I rubbed tiredness from my eyes as they tapped red and blue-smattered digital maps and now and then cued the dramatic music for the next incoming projection.  A yellow checkmark shone beside the beaming candidate’s triumphal face, claiming another state, another trove of electoral votes.  There was disbelief, conjecture, and momentum towards an outcome radically different than expected.

When it ended I slipped into bed beside my sleeping husband, waking him.

“Trump won.”

“What?  You’re joking.  No way.”

“Yep.  Hillary conceded.  He’s going to be our President.”

“Wow.”

Then we lay in silence.

Tears came readily, for me, a pro-life Christian conservative.  Yes, when the power seemed to fall in my peoples’ laps.  The tears weren’t for Hillary, though I did feel sad for her own grief, having worked so hard.  I did not want her as my President, but I felt for her loss and frustration.  I grieved for the people whose hearts felt hope because of her support for the marginalized; I grieved for their fear.  You don’t have to agree to feel.  You can look into the eyes of those with whom you experience profound disagreement and feel compassion for their hurt, their disappointed hopes, their suffering.

No, I didn’t grieve for Clinton; I grieved for the Church.

History has taught me to grieve this; I cannot ignore it.  The government may or may not be improved with Christian morality legislated; this is complex and hard to quantify especially because Christian morality itself is interpreted so differently among Christians! Is it Christian to execute criminals?  Is it Christian to initiate war?  Is it Christian to tell non-Christians whom they can form a civil union with?  And clearly there are certain things that an effectively self-sustaining government must be ready to do that a good Christian could never do; we are constrained by the laws of another Kingdom which are incompatible with any earthly one.  How does a country operate in global relations if its beliefs include loving your enemy, blessing those who hurt you, turning the other cheek, loving your neighbor as you love yourself, not thinking only of your own interests, denying yourself, overcoming evil with good, welcoming the sojourners (immigrants and refugees), honoring them and caring for their needs without qualification?  History shows us that those who have attempted a Christian theocracy have either split their lives into two parts (public life and private life), or they have ignored the merciful and radically-loving commandments and used the Christian name to incite fervor and unity into their subjects.  Both distort Christianity.  When the Church and power hold hands, the Church loses, it loses its very heart and medicine.

Christianity is the path, the way, the hospital where our sin sickness is diagnosed and healed.  It is where we encounter Him, Christ, our very life.  Trying to make people behave like Christians through legislation ignores how each of us really experiences transformational change.  I would argue that we are changed by love, by humility, by joy, by good examples, by beauty, by heroes, by music, by art, by godly grandmothers’ prayers and the lives they led before us, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit’s work within us; not from top-down laws that govern our bodies but not our hearts.

Of course I want abortion to end, but I also don’t fool myself into thinking that true change will come if it’s made illegal.  Theft, perjury, child abuse, and rape are all illegal too, and yet how prevalent they continue to be.  Of course I don’t want to suffer persecution for holding on to God’s sexual ethics, but God never promised me a cost-free faith.  God does not say, “Make sure you don’t have to suffer for Me”; he calls me to suffer well for His sake, enduring.  We are to be the conscience of the nation, not the constable.

Which kingdom are we invested in seeing triumph?  And, importantly, at what cost?

“It has become more evident to me that we are to be given a great popular national Church, whose nature cannot be reconciled with Christianity, and that we must prepare our minds for the entirely new paths which we shall then have to follow.  The question is really:  Christianity or Germanism?  And the sooner the conflict is revealed in the clear light of day the better.”  -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor who was executed by the Nazis

When I see that 80% of evangelicals rallied behind a man who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy, and that they’d let him because he’s a “star”, and who laughed at his own failed attempt to seduce a married woman, and who mocked both prisoners of war and a reporter with a disability, I am sickened (especially when I remember how they eviscerated Bill Clinton for his moral failures).  I am also disturbed by Christians who found the life of the unborn an insubstantial reason to not support Clinton.  I’m disturbed that they could so easily brush aside some very real concerns about her integrity.  I have heard all the justifications about voting for a platform rather than a person, about how God uses sinful people for His purposes, and so on, but what the world sees is far different.  They see that our bar is extremely low for the person we want in power and hypocritically high for those we don’t want in power.  Character matters until it doesn’t.

How did I want this election to go?  My hopes weren’t pinned there.  My hopes were that Christians would vote for those who both represented what they cared about AND were capable and experienced people of sound character and integrity, even if they lost.  That they would be kind and warm to those who disagreed with them.  That they wouldn’t vote if there was no one they felt in clear conscience that they could affirm.  That they wouldn’t choose a lesser evil, but would rather choose good always, even if it meant abstaining from voting.  That in all things, that they were more invested in God’s kingdom work than in the power plays of Washington.  I wanted the Church to be the Church, a distinct and beautiful thing that reaches not for power but for the downtrodden and broken, embracing them.

Last night at our local English as a Second Language program I sat down and played a board game with two young Muslim girls, their hijabs framing their playful, beautiful faces.  Their mother was in class, learning the language of her new home.  We laughed together.  I was so glad they’re here, and I hoped that their bright joy wouldn’t be stomped on by the hate and fear of my fellow Americans.  I stopped by the home of one of our Indian students, enjoying their delicious food and warm hospitality, laughing together, hugging them both as I left, saying “May God bless you, Mamagi (Mother, with respect).  May God bless you, Papagi (Father, with respect).”  These experiences were a balm on my raw heart.  Here was the kingdom work that I could be a part of, each connection a vote for love and compassion.burden

 

 

Bodily Tyranny

It made sense to me, laying there in the dark at two in the morning, after I remembered that moment in the kitchen, a few hours before, when he’d casually mentioned that he’d mixed his regular coffee into my leftover decaf.  I’d been just finishing up a reheated mug of it while cooking our dinner.  “Oh well,” I thought, “it’s just half-caff, shouldn’t affect me too badly.”

After prayers I went to bed because I should, not because of any tiredness gathering in my eyes.  I picked one of the five books on my nightstand, The Boys in the Boat, and started reading.  Since it’s a rowing book, and I rowed for six years, I thought it was the tense racing narratives that had me so alert.  My heart pounded as I read of the final sprints in the Olympic qualifying races; I could feel that pain and my lungs tightened in empathy, my legs stretching taut under the sheets.

Hours were passing, but I kept reading.  I was waiting for my body to signal me to sleep; any pinching around the eyes, any blurring of letters, any yawning.  None came.  And then I remembered what he’d told me as I deglazed the pan the sausages had been browning in. Half caff.

Then one toddler woke up, then the baby, who decided that he was also going to feel inexplicably chipper in the wee hours.  There were some hours of rest, maybe two of them, before the baby awoke at six.  All the tiredness the half caff had repressed had all piled up and settled on me like a ton of bricks.

Henri 153

This picture was taken after laboring throughout the night and day and finally holding my dear Henrik.  I remember trying to smile but finding that I had only semi-smile-twitches left in my facial muscles.  My eyes felt like they were being pulled shut by invisible cords.  I was so full of joy and wonder and exhaustion.

I am still there.  At four in the morning I stroked my baby’s curly hair, even as my body screamed for rest.  I slogged my way into the boys’ room to comfort one who had cried out from a bad dream.  Parenthood has a way of subjugating the tyranny of the body’s wants and sometimes its needs; suspending them indefinitely, but it covers that insult to bodily comfort with sweetness and baby breath and the way a child sighs with joy when they are safe within our arms.

It is eleven thirty, and I’ve had my cup of decaf coffee (though I was greatly tempted to suppress my tiredness with the regular stuff), and have accomplished nothing except feeding my boys and monitoring their playful destruction of the house.  Oh, and writing this, of course.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Lent.  It’s a far way off yet, but last year I participated in it in an introductory way, my priest encouraged me to fast Wednesdays and Fridays, since I would be doing so without my family.  Orthodox Christians fast from meat, dairy, eggs, olive oil, and wine for the 40+ days of Lent, and I was amazed at how hard this diet was for me just two days a week!  No cream for my coffee nor butter for my toast.  No eggs.  And that was just breakfast!

My body wanted what it wanted, and it wasn’t used to being told “no”.  My body craved fat and protein; I missed cheese.  But like getting up in the middle of the night to comfort a child, it was time to tell the body no, and attend to the growth of things that don’t thrive in times of satiation and comfort; self control, humility, discipline, and meekness.  And the amazing joy and bright celebration of the feast at the end, Pascha, a wild frolic of meat and cheese and eggs and laughter; was only so sweet because of the bitterness that went before.

It’s like in rowing, when you’re halfway through a regatta and all you want to do, really, is die.  Just die and make the pain searing through your muscles stop.  But you keep slicing those oars into the heavy water, keep pounding the burning muscles in your legs, back, stomach, shoulders, and arms, in lung-crushing repetition.  You do it for the sweetness, at the end when the crowd is roaring and the air horn heralds your finish and you can flop over your oar handles and dry heave, so glad to have stopped, just stopped that torturous pain.  And when your legs and arms work again, to stroke back to the docks, to a pat on the back from your coach and medal around your neck and a hug from your double.

The sweetness, the prize, the thing that makes the “no” worth it; it calls us out of the plush arms of daily comfort and ease.  It calls us to be more than the collection of demands of our bodies and spirits.  But there has to be a prize, there has to be a yes at the end of no; whether it is a comforted baby, a medal, a feast, or a deep-seated sense that something wrong has been set right, and let us press forward to attain it.