Lent a Hand

The approach of Lent is everywhere, hints in the flora outside; Lenten roses ready to unfold their majestic petals, the pussy willow whips full of emerging puffs, peeking out under brown husks.  The faithful are eating meat with a certain urgency, and the pre-Lenten Sundays tick by, marking the approach to the “bright sadness”.

It reminds me of my rowing days.  In the weeks preceding a regatta I’d be an absolute bundle of nerves, all that tension settling in my stomach in a hard, twisty knot.  As a catechumen, I feel the same way as Lent approaches.  Will I make it?  Can I fast well, pray more, give more, attend more services, and grow spiritually…and not lose my ever-loving mind?  My thoughts are full of logistics and bean recipes and, honestly, a bit of panic.  It’s not just my journey, but my whole family’s; how can I help my kids connect to the beautiful, difficult season of Lent?  How can I make sure we don’t miss it?Tending the Garden of Our Hearts FINAL COVER

Last year we huddled around our aging laptop and listened to “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts”, a Lenten podcast on Ancient Faith Radio by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger.  It was such an unmitigated blessing to have a spiritual meditation at the end of each day that wove in the strands we’d otherwise miss in our fatigue and busyness.  Stories of the saints mingled with the history behind the services we were attending, helping to anchor what we were seeing in a deeper understanding.  We were all challenged by the holy lives we read about.  This was a catalyst for great conversations with our toddlers, all the way up to our teenagers.

I’m thrilled that the podcast has been adapted into a book, and as I read through it again this month, I’m blessed anew by the thoughtful meditations that will again lead my family through Lent, one living room gathering at a time.  Being a visual person, I decided to make a calendar of sorts to further anchor the stories we read and the lessons we learned in our hearts.  I’ve included it here for your use as well, if it would be helpful for you!

The book is available on ancientfaith.com.  I pray you enjoy it as much as we do!

Tending the Garden of Our Hearts- Lenten Heart Calendar

Materials:

  • 12×12 piece of scrapbook paper for heart
  • scissors
  • thin ribbon, baker’s twine, or yarn
  • small safety pin
  • printable ornaments:  Page 1, and Page 2
  • color pencils
  • hole punch
  • marker

FullSizeRender-88

 

Fold the piece of scrapbook paper in half, draw half of a heart and cut out.  While still folded, punch 25 holes along the edge.  Unfold and press flat.

FullSizeRender-93

Each day, after the meditation, color in the ornament of the day.  The littlest children may enjoy the word ornaments where they can color quite freely, while the older ones may prefer the more intricate illustrations.  Cut out the ornament.

FullSizeRender-94

Cut a length of your string or thin ribbon that is roughly two times as long as the perimeter of your heart.  Tie one end to the first hole, and the other to a small safety pin for a “needle”.
FullSizeRender-95

FullSizeRender-96

Go up from underneath, looping each ornament into place each day, allowing the string to hang for the next addition.FullSizeRender-97

May your Lent be blessed!

IMG_8469

Is Stress Inevitable?

untitled (24 of 28)

We were gathered over our Bonhoeffer biographies, ostensibly discussing Dietrich’s life story, but our words had skipped off trail into the lives we were living.  We were talking about stress; how everyone seems to have quite a lot of it, how it becomes unbearable, overwhelming.  How do we manage it, reduce it, live well with it?

As we spoke, I found I couldn’t fully relate to the levels of stress, anxiety, and it’s corollary, depression, that seem endemic in our society.  Yes, I’d had stressful moments; I think of those times when the phone is ringing, the baby is crying, and someone spills the rice bag across the floor, but they are moments, not a chronic state of affairs.

“Is stress inevitable?” I asked.  The question left a wondering silence.

“Stress is simply a reaction to a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium. In other words, it’s an omnipresent part of life. A stressful event can trigger the “fight-or-flight” response, causing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to surge through the body.”  -Psychology Today

Certainly there will always be stimuli that provoke us to internal agitation, but can we determine the dominance of that energy?  Can we contain that disruption and maintain inner peace?  Are we at the mercy of stress?  How does our faith, or lack thereof, inform our response to this malady?

I head to my bookshelf and open my 1970’s Webster Dictionary and look up stress.

stress:  tension; strain

That was it.  Wondering if “anxiety” would yield a more modern interpretation:

anxiety:  worry; concern; disquietude; uneasiness

The modern version of Webster’s Dictionary defines it thus:

stress:  a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.;  something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety

So is it, following Psychology Today’s wording, an omnipresent part of life, or is it a reaction to normal life that can be chosen or not chosen?

Clearly this isn’t only a modern problem; life’s stressors may have changed over time; we may no longer worry as much over marauding bands plundering us, nor famine, nor dying of a simple infection; but we fragile humans have always had provocations to worry.  What has changed though, is how we regard this agitation, and what we believe about it.

Christianity has always taught that worry and anxiety are sins; a choice to not trust God.

“O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” (Mt 6:30–34)

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; . . . not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)

 “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  (Philippians 4:6)

Today though, it seems, we are led to believe that stress, anxiety, worry, and depression happen to us, and that it is the norm.  It is something, thus, to medicate, moderate, and live with.  When did it go from being a choice to a  chronic condition?  I do not speak here for those with chemical imbalances in their bodies who wisely have sought medical treatment; I am not a doctor and certainly not an expert on mental health; I address only here the very common experience of being regularly “stressed out”, anxious, and/or depressed without an underlying medical condition.

Understanding stress, anxiety, and depression as external to choice would have been unfathomable to our Christian predecessors; if God had commanded us to not worry, nor be anxious and cast down, would He not also provide us with help to fulfill that command? Could it be that we are to take life’s stressors as good medicine for us, rather than reasons to fall into despair and fretting?

“Sometimes men are tested by pleasure, sometimes by distress or by physical suffering. By means of His prescriptions the Physician of souls administers the remedy according to the cause of the passions lying hidden in the soul.”  -St. Maximos the Confessor

“You have anxieties about your life… Pray fervently to the Lord from your heart in this way: ‘I place my fate in Thy hands, O my Saviour. In the way that Thou knowest, arrange my life as is best. From now on I cut off every care about myself, having but one care, to do what is pleasing before Thee.’ Speak to God in this way, and by doing so you will already have placed yourself completely in His hands, not being concerned about anything, but calmly accepting every sort of situation, pleasant or unpleasant, as being arranged for you purposely by God. Your only concern should be to act according to God’s commandments in everything. This is all that is required of you.”  -Saint Theophan the Recluse

 “Without winter there would be no spring, and without spring there would be no summer. So it is also in the spiritual life: a little consolation, and then a little grief—and thus little by little we work out our salvation. Let us accept everything from the hand of God. If He comforts us, let us thank Him. And if He doesn’t comfort us—let us thank Him.”  – St. Anatoly Zertsalov, 19th Century Optina Elder

 

That admonition, “Let us accept everything from the hand of God,” has changed me deeply, causing joy to seep into the cracks where despair and anxiety had reigned.  If I truly trust God to be working diligently on my soul through the hardships, blessings, and day-to-day occurrences in my life, to make me more like Christ in all of it, then I have no reason to worry.  Being captivated by worry and anxiety would be like turning away my face from Him, the Great Physician of my soul, and declaring that the prescription was all wrong, and that I’d take care of my self, thank You very much.  I speak not as someone who has arrived at a constant state of peace, but as someone who has discovered a tool to help me get there.

untitled (23 of 28)

Well, how do we learn this trust then?  How do we stop the swirling, anxious thoughts, the mounting stress, and the harrowing depths of despair?

Here, as in many things, children are a good example for us.  If they have good and loving parents they do not worry that they’ll not be fed, clothed, and cared for.  They can look back and remember that all of their days everything necessary was provided for them with loving hands.  In speaking with their parents they feel the love and kindness in their voices; they hear good words and feel assured.

So also with us, we must look back and acknowledge that God has been faithful to us, bringing us through, sometimes in spite of ourselves.  We must speak with Him and listen to His loving voice.  When thoughts swirl we must take them captive, holding on to truth, praying for God to help us.  We must trust in His abiding love which does not let go.

rest2

“O Lord, I do not know what to ask of You. You alone know what are my true needs. You love me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation. I can only wait on You. My heart is open to You. Visit and help me, for the sake of Your great mercy. Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Your holy will and Your unsearchable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to You. I have no other desire than to fulfill Your will. Teach me to pray. Pray You Yourself in me. Amen.”   – Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow

Is stress inevitable?  The causes for stress, yes, however our reactions to stress need not follow a dark trajectory.  We have, through constant prayer, a good defense from fear and melancholy, from anxiety and fuss.  We choose, and we can learn to choose well.

The Goth At The Pep Assembly

It was all RAH-RAH and pom-poms and school colors and loudness.  A high school pep assembly.  Looking through the lens of time it’s easy to wonder what the point of it all really was.  Something to the effect of stating:  We are this school!  We are a-w-e-s-o-m-e!  Other schools (shouted shrilly) are less awesome and we’ll eat them for breakfast!  Accompanied, as it was, by the almost-provocative routines of the cheerleaders and the more conservative twirls of the color guard and the strident blasts of trumpets and trombones, it was like a circus of self-aggrandizement.  And I always pitied the goths.

How on earth do you survive such a pep fest?  When your muse is wearing black and looking dour and avoiding sunlight and all things cheerful?  When all around your peers are standing up, stomping their feet, waving their arms, hollering themselves hoarse, and there you are, sitting, quiet, wishing for all the world to be in a corner of the library, reading Poe.

I’m not a goth, but I do have an attitude problem.

It struck me during a service at a local evangelical church.  Our burgeoning family filed into a pew, the worship being already in full swing.  The words to the songs were displayed on large flat screens, with nature scenes as backgrounds.  I ground my teeth.

Why do the songs need to look like obnoxious motivational posters?

Oh my word, this song is idiotic.  Worst of all, it’s theologically untrue.  

That woman over there is actually going to punch the air with her fist every time that lyric is repeated.  Yep, there she goes again.

Stop it, stop it.  Sorry, God.  I’m having a hard time worshiping You today, this way.

By this time I usually have sat down with one of the babies, bowed my head, and under my breath, began to pray.  Sometimes one of the ancient songs will fill my heart and I’ll sing that “..for His mercy endureth forever, alleluia”.  All around me people are swaying and singing, hands lifted up in the air, joy in their smiles and cheer all bunched up in the creases ’round their eyes.  And I’m like a goth at a pep assembly; I couldn’t possibly feel more out of place.

It isn’t right to mock or disdain, that I know and I regularly confess with sincere grief.  But there’s more to my reaction than just pride.  I am mourning and I am angry.

I am mourning because I’ve come to know the beauty, warmth, truth, and joy of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but I cannot be a part of it.  I honor my husband’s leading of our family, and have had to lay my desires down.  It is one of the few areas in our married life that push came to shove and he had the final say.  Most of the time we reach an accord naturally.  Not with this.  But though we attend evangelical churches (as we are yet in-process of finding a church home), I have his blessing to continue my studies of Eastern Orthodoxy and occasionally we attend services at St John’s.  Dustin regularly comes home to me listening to ancient chants and hymns or absorbed in a theological work with a pencil at hand.  I partake of the feast by crawling under the table for crumbs.  Some is better than none, I remind myself, when tears flow and the sorrow sticks in my throat.  Some is better than none.

I am angry because so many churches are singing nonsense.  And heresy.  Seriously, who is writing this crap?  It feels like a narcissistic romp through my own emotions with Jesus thrown in.  Music is a powerful medium for informing our beliefs; are we singing our theology?  Are we singing true things?

I have to be fair; not all the songs are bad.  Maybe even Byzantine chants would look cheesy overlaying some picture of a waterfall.

When the final prayer has been said, to the background accompaniment of soft guitar strummings, I keep my head low.  I gather our things and hope no one talks to me.  Because, though I am a believer and a sister in Christ, and though this was all once as familiar to me as sliced bread, I am painfully out of place.  I cannot put on a false and brave smile and speak Christianese with the cheerful strangers around me.  I’ve never been good at pretending, so I’m afraid this would happen:

Good morning!  I haven’t met you yet!  Are you folks from around here?”

“Morning.  Yep.”

These all your kids?  Are you just visiting or….?”

I don’t want to be here.  I don’t like evangelicalism anymore.  I think I’m burnt out on everything that’s happened in the Western church since the Byzantine times.  I’m tired of the autonomy, the lack of authority, the sola scriptura-touting denominational sectarianism. I’m only here because my husband likes this.  I’m a mess.  I’m sorry I’m so rude.  I’m going to go to the car and cry now”.

I don’t want to do that to someone on a Sunday morning.  I am getting to know the patterns in the carpet well.

Trust me, I know, I know my attitude is bent and snarly.  But I’m also in pain.  Deep pain and grief.  Measure me some grace on that account.

And pray, I beg you, that God would give me His peace about where I can be and where I can’t, where I can feast and where I can’t.  And may the crumbs from His table satisfy and nourish me as I seek Him.

 

 

Are You My Mother?

It was a day like any other.  I felt the uneven lip of the curb through my threadbare shorts and my feet were gritty in my mismatched flip flops.  My hands were perpetually open and raised to the passersby, I droned on a monotone of petition.  It takes too much effort to put emotion into words that run on, unbroken, unchanged.  “Money please.  I need to eat. I’m so hungry.   Money please.”  I was six years old.

It was a day like any other, but a woman unlike any other.  She stooped down and looked at me.  I was looking at the air, waiting for a cold coin to be pressed into my hand.  I didn’t see people anymore, not unless they got close.  She was close.  I dragged my eyes from the air and looked into eyes that startled me.  Had anyone ever looked at me full in the eyes before?  She was old, her kind eyes framed by wrinkles that cascaded one over another, kind of like the piped waves of frosting on the wedding cakes in the bakery window that I’d look at to torture myself.  She had gray hair and it was long and braided.

While the crowds pushed past we sat and looked at one another.  Without words she offered me her aged hand, opening it like a beggar and waiting.  I gave her mine and we stood.  She spoke simply, “I need a daughter and you need a mother.  Will it suit you?”  It was all too surreal to protest, so I just nodded.  We climbed the stairs to her apartment and I was surprised to find her rooms overflowing with people.  I knew some of them, other beggar kids, a local drug dealer, some teenagers I’d seen living fast.  They turned at our entrance.  They smiled.

I was given a blanket and a toothbrush and the woman went to a large closet and rummaged through bins until she found me clothing.  She seemed radiant as she brought an armload of clothes to me.  Why was she so happy?  Look how many people she was already caring for!  “Go and enjoy a long bath and then you can put on these and see what fits.  The girl’s bathroom is down the hall to the right.  I’ll make supper early; I’m sure you’re hungry!”  She turned then to go to the kitchen, but stopped suddenly, coming back to me quickly.  In a low whisper she asked, “Have you bathed before?”

“No.”

She didn’t seem surprised.  “I’ll show you what to do and then leave you to it.  When you’re done washing, I’ll comb your hair out and trim your nails.  Just call for me, my name is Mama.”

An hour later I felt five pounds lighter and my fingertips tingled where the long jagged nails used to be.  My hair felt soft and it smelled good.  My clothes were soft too.  Was this Heaven?  Mama was kind and loving and imperfect too.  Sometimes she lost her temper with her many responsibilities, sometimes she doubted that she’d be able to put food on the table for all of us sons and daughters.  Sometimes she’d see another beggar near our home and she’d turn away, overwhelmed.  I didn’t judge her; the rest of the people never even considered bringing ones like me home at all.  She was just one woman, after all, and she did her best.

She made sure we were educated, she clothed us, she tenderly drew our stories out of us, celebrated our victories, and got mad at our lies and meanness.  She prayed for us; oh man did she ever pray.  What our home lacked in beauty, it made up for in joy and rich memories.

A courier came to our door when I was sixteen years old.  I remember that was my age because Mama had just celebrated my ten year anniversary of being adopted into the family.  Celebrated with a big fluffy cake and everything.  He gave her a letter addressed to me, and we all sat down as I read it out loud:

“Dear Lenora Winter (Winter was Mama’s last name, I’d never known my own),

Your real mother lives just across town.  She is ready to receive you at any time of your choosing.  Her address is below.

Cordially,

Anders Simm, Secretary of Marie Knox”

My real mother?  She lived?  Why hadn’t she ever come looking for me back when I was living in cardboard boxes and begging for bread.  Real mother?  Ready to receive me, but won’t actually come and introduce herself?

Mama’s eyes narrowed.  “Lenora, you’ll have to do as you see fit with that bit of news.  Just know that your family here loves you and you’ll always have a home here with us.”

I stared at the paper.  Something moved within me; what would it be like to find my real mother?  To feel connected to a large extended family that went back through the ages?  To be no adopted orphan, but a real flesh and blood relation?  A day later I stood outside the gates to a splendid mansion and I rang the doorbell.

I was ushered into a grand hall and portraits, gigantic beautiful portraits decorated every wall.  I walked past the watchful eyes of my ancestors.  I wasn’t sure how I felt when I looked at them.  Some strange mixture of comfort and unease.  Large doors opened before me and there stood a magnificent lady.  Very regal and very ancient, she threw her arms wide and bid me come.

I awkwardly hugged her.  She really did seem to love and welcome me, but hurt kept crawling up my throat when my eyes would meet hers.  Why had she not looked for me?  Why was she glad to receive me, but not to seek me out when I needed her most?

She smiled at me and said, “Welcome home”.

I spent a few hours with her.  She read me the family history from big leather-bound books that lined an impressive library.  She explained who all the portraits depicted.  She introduced me to the warm and loving brothers and sisters I had.  They were beautiful and ordinary and joyful.  She showed me my room and asked me to change for dinner.  A lovely gown was all laid-out across my bed.  Such finery, such beauty.  She’d almost left the room, but paused and came back to my side, something weighing on her mind.

“I must tell you, my daughter,” she said seriously, “that if this day you sit at my table and share my bread and wine, you may never eat with your former family again.  This will be your only place of nourishment, your new and true family.  Though your former family meant well, they do not know how far wrong they are in their beliefs and table practices.  Do you agree to my terms?”

“What?” I exclaimed, “Never share their table again?  Why?  They are the ones who adopted me, who picked me up from the street corner and loved me, filthy and lost as I was….abandon them?  They may be wrong in some ways, but they are right in others.  I cannot do as you have asked.”

She sighed.  “But I am your true mother and this is your true home.  I hope you can see that someday.”  With that she turned and left.

I left the gown where it lay and walked back out the long hall, the eyes of my ancestors watching me from painted faces.  I went home to Mama and she embraced me.  I went to my bed and curled up into a ball.  I wept.  I had no idea whose claim on me was valid, but I knew whose hands had reached out to me.

……

A reflection in short story about my recent research into the Holy Orthodox Church, which has a strong claim about most accurately reflecting the practices and beliefs of the early church.  Growing up in the cradle of Protestantism, however, it is hard to swallow the things which the Orthodox Church asks of me.