“…and I am now standing at your gates, Jerusalem.”

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Every once in awhile (I am not a theologian, so don’t know the exact occurrence) the eastern and western worlds join together for Lent. Today marks Ash Wednesday, when the western Christians join the eastern Christians and Orthodox, who began Lent on Monday. And it is so joyful to walk together during this season of preparation and a cleansing of our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies as we prepare to walk with Christ to Calvary and weep, and then celebrate with Him His Divine, and glorious, Resurrection.

This year I am doing a new Lenten Study and I am so excited. (It is by http://www.orthodoxmom.com and I highly recommend her blog and her Facebook page, too). I am not in the least artsy, as those who know me well will attest to. But this year, I am keeping a notebook and journals. One is a journal about the Psalms, and another is called the “Gratitude Journal.” And each day’s assignment offers us a time to reflect upon our readings and the things we are grateful for (it is a directed reflection). The first three days have been staggering for me, to say the least. The author of the study has carefully weaved our Scripture readings together and I have already learned so much in such a short time (which is why I was compelled to post).

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Lent is a time when we reflect, we pray, and we fast. And through these processes, we hope to come to a better place in our walk with Christ. It is a time when we try to still that chaos that is the world, and spend time in quiet reflection and prayer. In the Scriptures (Matthew 17:19-21), Christ admonishes the Apostles for their lack of faith in trying to exorcise demons:

“Then the disciples came to Jesus privately, and said, “Why weren’t we able to cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your unbelief. For most certainly I tell you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will tell this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. But this kind doesn’t go out except by prayer and fasting.”

There are times when simple faith is not enough to move the mountains we face, nor exorcise the demons in our lives. We need to pray – and fast. And that is an integral part of Lent. We deny ourselves all this instant gratification. Of course there are many who also admonish that if you Fast from food, but gossip or slander someone, how are you a good Christian? How is that fasting from the demons inside us all? Lust, Greed, Gluttony, Envy, Anger, Pride, and Sloth are characterized as the 7 Deadly Sins. What can we do to eradicate them from our lives? How can we lessen the impact they have upon our souls? The Roman Catholic Church teaches us the Capital Virtues, which counteract each of these sins. They are: Chastity, Generosity, Temperance, Brotherly Love, Meekness, Humility, Diligence. How do we get these virtues? We pray. We starve the enemy of our flesh by denying it the thing it wants. Sloth and Gluttony, I have said many times, sit on either shoulder for me. How do I starve them? I set an alarm clock, I make a list, and I tackle my daily duties with zealous abandon, fighting sloth! This year, I took Facebook off my phone. I am trying to distance myself from social media. It can become a crutch and every bit a sickness, like an addiction. It sucks your time and adds to your sloth. What can you be accomplishing if you spend hours on a computer, reading things that are not necessary, nor edifying, but gauged to our interests so they suck us in? What desire am I feeding? How many sites do I need to go to? How many ways can I distract myself from my life? And how can I combat that? I sometimes have to help my lesser self (or that bad demon on my shoulder) to become my better self (the angel on the other shoulder) by denying myself – on purpose. Gluttony? Well, fasting sure helps with that. We are returning to Whole30 and who knew there was a Whole30 support group for those to use during Lent? So excited to find that! We have to work with what we know to be true about ourselves, in order to help ourselves. It’s why I took Facebook off my phone, along with lots of apps and groups. I make it harder for myself to get to it – like putting that bag of Oreos on top of the fridge, behind the cookbooks, making it harder for me to indulge myself. And to be honest, this year for Lent, there are no cookies in the house to begin with. I know Gluttony all too well. It is one of the many demons I constantly and consistently struggle with. And it is one of the ones I desire most to conquer this Lenten fasting period. I need to control my desire for food and replace it for a desire that will benefit my soul.

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Lent is our eternal struggle condensed into just 40 days. But the Church, in her wisdom, gives us this time every year. We are not expected to become Saints overnight. I love that about my faith. I try, sincerely, to make the right choices day in and day out. Some days I get it pretty good and can lay my head on my pillow with a clear conscious. Some nights, not so much. “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” is often recited as I finally get to sleep.

During my reading for this Lent, I read an article about forgiveness. In the Eastern and Orthodox Churches, we begin Lent on Forgiveness Sunday. On this day (the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday) we actually make lines around the Church and each parishioner approaches each other parishioner, asking for and giving, forgiveness. I can honestly say that the first time I participated in this, I wept as I made my way around the Church. How humbling and how beautiful. But when we think about forgiveness, what is it? In this article by Metropolitan Anthony of Sorozh (+2003)  in the Orthodox Heritage Vol 05, Issue 2, February 2007, he says, “Forgiveness begins at the moment when, realizing the frailty of others as I realize mine, the need of others for help, for mercy, and for protection, I am prepared together with them to bear the burden of their weakness, their frailty or their sinfulness. Forgiveness begins at the moment when I take it upon myself to put up with others, without waiting for them to change, to put up with them as they are in order to make lighter their burden and to make it possible for them to eventually change.” He goes on later to say, “Every one of us, side by side with them, have people who are difficult to bear, who are a cause of suffering, of misery or of anger; we can undo this anger and outgrow this misery if we make our task, the task of our life, our business, to carry their burden together with them, to be the person who, wounded and offended, and rejected, will turn to God and say, ‘Lord, forgive, because I bear no grudge, I want to become and remain solid with this person in his frailty and his sinfulness. I will not stand in judgement against him, and I am not yet capable of doing this. You do this for me: do not endorse my judgement, do not endorse the condemnation I rashly have pronounced, do not stand by me in my anger. Stand by the person who has done wrong, because he, because she needs help, forgiveness and healing, for that very reason.'” forgiveness

And so we begin Lent by learning to forgive. Truly forgive. This quote above stunned me into silence. It caused me to rethink what I know about forgiving others. Our Psalm readings were full of the forgiveness from God. And I realized I was actually excited about Lent, and that I was preparing for this Lent to be one of change for me. I was getting a notebook and making dividers; I even got stickers and colored pens! I bought a new journal and yesterday, I began writing things about the Psalms. And I was happy – happy about a task of cleaning my heart and soul and becoming more in tune with God. Because I know I can only become better through this process. As I eagerly began to read the Psalms, I read, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’ And now I am standing within your gates, Jerusalem.” (Pslam 123). And reading that, I smiled. I had been looking forward to this journey, and now I was on the doorstep. And we are all fully into Lent, as of today.

I am apprehensive (as change is always hard) and exultant at the prospect at becoming a better me. God is not done with me, yet. And I know He is not done with any of us, either. Thanks be to God for this opportunity. Blessed and Holy Lent, everyone.

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“…grant me to see my own sins…”

The readings at Mass last night were some of my favorites. They reminded us that God wants us to trust Him. That worrying cannot add a day to our lives. (Matthew 6:26). Our priest spoke about his early days, as a new driver. He was so concerned with staying in his lane, he would focus on the lines, often missing what was around him, and even what was in front of him.

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From this example, I readily laughed at all the times I, too, get so concerned about lines, that I am missing what is around me. Every year, I endeavor to keep all the rules of the Great Fast – during Great Lent. One great quote I love is an exchange between two people. One asked the other, “How do you plan to keep the fast?” And the other replied, “By paying attention to what is on my own plate.” Sometimes I get so concerned over thoughts like, “Am I doing this right?” “Am I fasting enough?” “Did I remember my prayers?” “Are my kids doing it right/enough/with the right attitude?” And somewhere in there, I am forgetting that I need to prepare my heart.

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” Matthew 5:21-23

The Book of Matthew exhorts us to leave those Pharisaical ideals and be simpler. How can you fast and do prayers and make prostrations, when you are in a long-standing fight with your brother? Your friend? Your boss at work?

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This Great Lent, which for those of us who practice in the Eastern Catholic/Orthodox Churches, began today with “Clean Monday,” I am trying to pursue different sorts of Lenten practices. I am going to get rid of behaviors that are not good for me, and I am going to foment those that help me. The lines I follow will probably not look like your lines, as in Father’s story last night about driving.

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Up here in Alaska, the lines in the roads are pretty much blurred, at best. We have snow. Then we have ice on top of snow, with some more snow on top of that, just to make driving more interesting. Last night we had some thawing, along with some amazing road plowing, and we could see the roads, and the lines. About 7:00am today, it started with icy-fog and crystals floating around. By 8:00 am, we had falling snow. It wasn’t even swirling; just falling straight down. It has been doing that for the past 4 hours. We have at least another inch or so on top of that morning ice fog. The lines are gone, again. So we make our own lines; our own lanes. And so it goes until Spring Thaw (which is looking more and more like May). You learn to ad-lib and be flexible while driving. And I am taking this analogy about snow driving without lines to my approach to Lent. I will be flexible and learning to adapt to new ways of looking at it; looking to my own plate, so to speak.

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I have had priests and spiritual fathers caution me over the years to try adding something, rather than giving something up. Yes, we should curtail our diets and definitely fully fast on specific days the Church requires, but generally, we should work at adding things to our lives that we normally leave out or ignore. How often do we spend time in silence, perhaps reading a book by one of the Early Church Fathers? How often do we sit in silent prayer, perhaps praying the Rosary or the Jesus Prayer? Have you read through the Psalms and made notes? One Orthodox writer I love suggests keeping a journal of everything we are grateful for. And also one on our readings of the Psalms and other spiritual works each Lent. It helps to journal, to see how we grow. Each year we can give up chocolate or sugar or coffee…we can abstain from foods, but what about behaviors? In the words above, there are ideas of things we can abstain from during Lent.

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But what can we add, to make Lent more meaningful? Have we forgiven those who have wronged us? Have we sought forgiveness from those we have wronged? Do we repent for the evil in our lives and what we have done to add to it? Do we abstain from harmful music or movies or books? How can we develop a culture of true, Christian love for one another when we read “50 Shades of Gray” or go to those types of movies? How does a book like that generate so many sales? And it is just the first in a series. People laud it as a love story. Really? (The book sold 29 million print and 15 million digital copies in 2012. It topped the 2012 best-seller lists in the categories adult fiction and romance). What sort of love are we sharing with others? I’ve often blogged about that hole in our hearts that only God can fill. I believe this example shows us where people lack spirituality in their lives. For those of us who identify as Christians, how are we presenting ourselves to others? Do you know that today, you may be the only “Christ” people see – perhaps ever? Especially during Lent, we need to turn inward and focus on our personal relationship to our Spirituality and our core beliefs, so we can present ourselves to others.

“Ever the lawyer, Tertullian the apologist subscribed to the view that the best defense is a good offense. His treatises To the Gentiles and Apology directly attacked pagan beliefs and practices as superstitious and immoral, and argued that the Christian life as taught in Scripture and practiced in the church was morally superior. He imagined pagans looking at Christians and saying, “Look . . . how they love one another (for they themselves [pagans] hate one another); and how they are ready to die for each other (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).” (Tertullian, as quoted on the website, Christianhistoryinstitute.org)

Can you imagine if people knew we were Christian just by watching us? How we drive? How we shop? How we live in our homes? How we treat others in the workplace? In our families? And all the other interactions we have daily? How can we make Lent a time for us to reconnect to our base in our faith?

This year, for the first time in many years, I am going to participate with the Roman Church and try to attend some Lenten offerings at our local parish. I haven’t see the “Stations of the Cross” or prayed those prayers in decades, literally. I haven’t participated in a lot of things over the past few decades. I dearly, dearly miss our Liturgy of the PreSanctified Gifts. And I dearly miss our prostrations during the Prayer of St. Ephraim. I carry that prayer with me always. Our Eastern practices offer us so many opportunities to reflect and repent. Almost daily services, like Vespers, where we can pray the prayers of the Church with others who are working on their own salvation. Salvation is not an event; it is a process. And one that the Church offers us to work on over and over again. We are blessed with the words of the early Saints and Martyrs; those closer to the time when Christ walked the earth; simpler ages. I love the stories of St. Ephraim, the Syrian. And the writings and prayers he left us are priceless. “Lord and Master of my life…” is just a magical way to address God in prayer.

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I will always pray that prayer. This year, I will revisit some other prayers I have long ago treasured. It is beautiful to know our Church is truly universal and we can gain from all her rites and prayers, songs and chants, and places of worship. This year, I am praying for enlightenment and a different approach to life that will stay with me. And perhaps I will find my own lines in the snow. And perhaps I will look up and see what is right in front of me, keeping my eyes on my own plate and not the plate of others. I think that is a good start, here on Clean Monday.

“…nor any other created thing…”

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I am seeing more and more addictions, of many types. And I read something yesterday that brought it home. It was in a novel by Victoria Dannon and the character replies to a demon that he is not an addict and this demon, who is trying to extract payment on a debt says to him, as he laughs at him, that basically, he does not care what you are addicted to, addiction is addiction, whether it is to alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, plastic surgery…you get the idea. And the demon laughs as the man realizes that his addiction is just that, an addiction. He actually had no idea he was living his life around his addiction. In the storyline, his particular poison was horse racing. And he was willing to risk even his life, to continue betting.

I have seen comments from addicts who say they are not addicted to a particular thing (alcohol, drugs, porn) but rather are running from, or trying to turn off from, life. And that, to me, is sad. We are repressing our inner thoughts by an activity. I know many of us have developed an addictive relationship to social media…Facebook is worth billions of dollars. How? They do not give me a product, but they allow me to communicate with people I would not normally see. I joined to stay in touch with my kids all over the world (literally) and some friends who had moved away. It has become a life-line to many relationships and I have made wonderful friends through Facebook. But what is social media costing us all? Have you actually looked around at restaurants recently? Everyone is on their phones! People are not communicating with that warm body sitting next to them. They are preferring that alternate reality of social media. People text to break up. Don’t even bother to see the person in real life, real time, but send a text. People declare they are “in a relationship” and yet they never see one another. It is totally online. It is just one of the ways we are losing our humanity to technology.

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There are many other addictions and some of them are far more costly. Do we surround ourselves with stuff to cushion us from the world? What is it about accumulating each thing we collect? I have seen women who have more shoes than I thought possible. I have seen men with tools that take over their garages so they cannot park in them. I have seen women collect cooking utensils – how many strainers do we need? (Okay, I have 3…) But why do we spend money on all this stuff, until we are busting out of our homes, when we complain about being broke? How can we spend on stuff and have no savings? How can we wear all those shoes? Ugh. How much make-up or plastic surgery does one woman need? How many cars are enough for some men? Collecting is one thing, whereas hoarding is quite another. And many of these addictions/obsessions are shielding us from a host of other things.

It is not the stuff itself that people need. It reminds me of a scene from a cartoon movie my kids used to watch (they watched it so much I knew the dialogue by heart!) where this bug cannot stop heading into one of those zappers that has a bright light to attract them. One character says, “Don’t go into the light” and the other responds, “But it’s so beautiful!” And that bug is then zapped. We always laugh at that and have used that line (“But it is so beautiful”) often to express our concern for people who go toward something that is not good for them. In the movie, “Percy Jackson, The Lightning Thief” they find themselves in Las Vegas at this “Lotus” hotel. They lose days in this hotel, because there are no windows or clocks (typical for casinos) and they are fed these Lotus Flowers, which drug them. They finally snap out of it and leave. How many days have I gone through, not remembering what I accomplish? Do I numb my mind with thoughtless activities like cruising social  media or watching endless TV programs or movies? Do I thoughtlessly eat? Do I mindlessly read junk? How do we “snap out of it”????

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We are an inherently spiritual being. Each of us. We are created in the image and likeness of our Creator. We long for that intimate love relationship with the God of all Creation. And we all have this “God Hole” that we try to fill with things. Sometimes the world is a cruel place and humans are cruel to one another, creating individuals who are damaged and seek relief through drugs, alcohol, overeating, shopping, and other behaviors. All the while, people are trying to fill this gaping hole inside each of us. You cannot own enough shoes to fill that. You cannot buy enough leggings or tools or toys for yourself or your children, and expect to find fulfillment and contentment. You cannot drink enough alcohol to fill this wound, this hole, that only God can fill. And it saddens me greatly. Because I am just as guilty as many, in that I acquire things and have behaviors that are not, arguably, the things and behaviors of a Godly woman, wife, and mother. Because quite often, I lack the fortitude to persevere in my faith walk. It is much easier to plop on the couch with a cup of coffee and an Oreo in my hand, and check Facebook, than it is to accomplish something meaningful, like prayer. Or comforting a friend or loved one. Or doing the duties I have acquired from my station in life – a housewife and homeschooling mother. Being lazy is much easier than being accomplished, but the rewards are definitely not the same.

I read an article this morning about why millennials don’t go to Church and how the American Church is losing people faster than they are gaining them. The article spoke to all the ways the American Church could act, to attract these young people. And as I read the article, several things struck me. It was not about any of the mainstream Churches in America. It certainly was not about the Eastern Catholic or Orthodox Churches. Much of what they were proposing Churches do, most of the mainstream Churches offer already. One of the complaints is that the American Churches need to adapt to the world around them. I took great offense at that. I love my Church specifically because it has NOT changed. I see lots of young people in there every week. I am seeing more women dress more modestly and even wear veils. They prefer that their faith remains steadfast, strong, and unchangeable. It offers them comfort in a crazy world. It helps them fight their addictions by remaining the same – unmovable, unchangeable, and steadfast. “And on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18 This is where millennials, and whoever is hurting in this world, needs to come to be filled with God. It is a place for the broken, the hurting, the sinners.

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It is not easy to fight addictions. At all. There are attractions, tempting us almost 24/7 into sin and deviant behavior. We make almost hourly choices towards good or towards evil. And with Great Lent soon upon us, it is the perfect time to slow down and focus on these many addictions, and to seek God’s Grace to help us fight them. To help us overcome them by filling our empty lives and hearts with Him, instead of stuff.

One great suggestion given to me was to do the “40 bags over 40 days” purging project. Definitely doing that this year. The timing is perfect for our family. Another suggestion I saw was to spend 1 day per week with no electricity in the evenings. Instead you light candles and read, pray, play games together. But nothing you do can be supplied by electricity. The author of the blog about it noticed some immediate benefits.

(Here is the link to the article:

http://www.ncregister.com/blog/jennifer-fulwiler/8-reasons-to-turn-out-the-lights-during-lent#.WK3C5oWG7FI.facebook)

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Here in the wintry north, sunset comes early. But I still think this could be a valuable Lenten aid, in that it quiets our lives. It calms us down. It helps set a mood, a tone, in our home of quiet reflection. As one who reads by Kindle at night, going to bed without reading will be weird, but maybe it is time I took a break from that habit. We would have to turn off our phones (agh! We’d have to talk to one another!). And there would be no TV or computer. My son does his Spanish totally online, so I would have to be sure he’s on top of his lessons before we unplug! My Instant Pot dinners would have to be completed on time. No late night laundry panics. We would just sit in the candle light and be together as a family. I think this may assist us with some of our addictive behaviors.

Please consider slowing down and coming more into the Presence of God. Rededicate yourself to becoming closer to He Who created the world. Closer to He Who commands the seas and sets the sun on its rounds every day; Who holds the stars in His hands. He is so much greater than anything we try to substitute for Him.

But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

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Slaying our dragons…one day at a time.

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There are so many times I just *sigh* and think, “God is good.” And there are those days when I think, “Life is just so hard.” Luckily, I believe God has got this in balance. He balances our days and give us hope for those days to come.

Don’t get me wrong, I am no saint. I am not holier, nor more sinful, than the next mom driving to the grocery store. I am just me. And somedays I feel the joy in my heart of God – He resides there and I know it; I sing as I drive to the grocery store. I sing as I load the dishwasher. I sing as I carry another load to the washing machine. Why? Well, the alternative would be that I have no money to buy food; no one to buy food for. Or perhaps I have no dishes to unload because I have no family to eat with, or a place to eat my meals, or plates to eat them on. I have to wash the clothing, because I have clothing. So many blessings in amongst the sighs of life’s trials.

Today I was reminded that Lent is almost here. I read a post I had written a few years ago on this date and it brought me up short. I have nowhere near the spiritual experience going on now that I had then. And I am a little sad about that. But I also know I am surrounded by blessings. And there are many things I can do, in order to get more out of Lent.

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I posted this on my Facebook page today. I had a friend respond that she is not Catholic but it still sounds like a good idea. And I realized that so many people approach our seasons without any preparation. We see things in the stores and say, “Oh. Look at all the green. Saint Patrick’s Day is coming.” Or we see all the cute Easter decor and realize that Easter and Spring are right around the corner. I will tell you, that living in a snow state that is seeing a ton of snowfall and cold temps (today it was -5 this morning!) it is hard to even wrap your mind around the fact that Spring is coming. My Merry Christmas sign is frozen in place and we cannot even see the top of the flag part. So to see Spring in the stores and cute Easter eggs on display, it is hard to prepare for that, let alone Lent. For me, this approach of purging every day for 40 days is perfectly timed. I am busting out of our little house. We all need to purge (meaning the three of us who live here). So for me, giving up my clutter and over-abundance in clothing and, well, all our stuff, is a wonderful idea.

In the light of the Church’s seasons, we always fast before we feast. And if you have not experienced that, I feel bad for you. It changes everything – especially how you look at holidays. It’s like always attending banquets and formal events, you get inured to it. They mean nothing. It’s one of the reasons I hated “Kindergarten Graduation.” Or formal graduation from Elementary/Primary school, another for Junior High/Middle school, and then finally, High School. So many kids think HS graduation is no biggie. Half of them don’t show up. For college, barely 25% participate in walking for that diploma. It becomes something not worth the effort. If you do not understand the affluence you experience daily, you will come to stop appreciating it.

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Fasting from food, without a change of heart, is worthless – it’s just a diet. Instead of giving up chocolate, give up yelling at your mom or dad. Instead of spending money at McDonald’s, drop those dollars in the collection box at a homeless shelter. Instead of being envious of someone and disliking them for their success, why not have a coffee with them and get to know them? Instead of hating someone who disagrees with you (and there are so many issues we can disagree about) perhaps spend some time with them, exchanging ideas about something else. I have many dear friends who I disagree about politics with, but who are close to my heart and very loved. I have so many friends who are Protestant, or Orthodox, or Jewish, or many other styles/types of worship traditions, and we meld together beautifully. It’s like this amazing, colorful tapestry.

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One year many years ago, when we first discovered the eastern Churches, specifically the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, we experienced true fasting for the first time. I have never eaten so much tofu in my life. I have never been so sick of salads, ever. Melkites are sticklers for the rules of fasting; however, our priests and Bishop would always tell us, “Do what you can do. And each time we have a fasting period, try adding something else you can do.” They never expected us to keep the full fast, as most monastics do. (The full fast is no meat, dairy, wine, or olive oil for all 40+ days of Great Lent). But we tried the full fast that first year, and it was when all our kids still lived at home. The kids protested when they saw tofu again, and cringed at that next salad or bean dish.But we persevered for the entirety of Great Lent. (And below is a favorite fasting recipe of mine, that I enjoy year-round. It is called Majedra. You can add meat to it when you are not fasting. Google the recipe. Divine!).

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In the Melkite tradition, Easter is celebrated on Holy Saturday, starting at about 10pm and lasting until well after 2:00am. There are prayers, singing, processions, and all sorts of tears and laughter. And the incense? Oh my word! We used to have to open the side doors and let that Holy Smoke out! Ha-Ha-Ha! A good Melkite Easter Vigil and Liturgy is something I wish everyone could experience. It is a sensory experience I will forever treasure. Each year, one of our parishioners would make a deal with a local hamburger place (In and Out Burger) and would leave Liturgy just before the end, to pick up a stack of burgers for our Priest. And when those arrived, we could smell them over all the incense in that Church. Because we had fasted every, single, day of the 40 days of Great Lent; not a morsel of meat crossed our lips; not a sip of wine; not a drop of Olive Oil. And not one bit of dairy. But after the Liturgy, we all paraded to the Hall and boy oh boy, did we Feast! I have never experienced such an incredible thing in my life. Our youngest was asleep on the floor that first time, but our older sons were devouring everything meat they could. Our pastor used to say, “This is the one feast day when no vegetables are allowed!” Ha-Ha.

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We had denied ourselves and it made the eating and feasting, and sharing with one another, such an amazing experience. It heightened our experience of Easter. We wept with Christ as He denied His very life for us. And we celebrated when He rose again, and showed each of us the Paradise that awaits us, all of us who believe. Each time the Church requests we Fast, we try to comply, because it makes the Feast afterwards incredible. It makes that “Holy Day” aka “Holiday” that much richer. Christmas is an incredible experience when you have fasted from before Thanksgiving, which is called the Apostle’s Fast, for those 40 days before celebrating the Birth of Christ. (Most American pastors allow feasting on Thanksgiving Day, here in the States).

So, to deny yourself allows you to appreciate what you have. What you have gathered to yourself. When we have over-indulged and allowed ourselves to be gluttonous about life, we do not appreciate the intricacies, or the inherent but tiny blessings in all aspects of our lives. Trust me, to live with a leaner closet and sparser walls, fewer items in your pantry, and a clean or orderly home and garage, does much to help you appreciate what is contained within it. For me this Great Lent, I am going to focus on a learner life. In all aspects of it. I have already begun by containing my social networking presence. I have left groups and stopped watching things like programs that do not enhance the best of me, but rather feed the worst that is in me. I have stopped communicating with lots of people who do nothing more than make my blood boil. I now pray for them instead. But I no longer expose myself to them. Sometimes things, situations, and people do not enhance our lives. They do not make us better people. They feed the worst that is in us and in order to be our best selves, we sometimes have to cut people, situations, and things out of our lives.

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We all have our dragons that need to be slain. When my husband and I started Whole30, we both had Sugar Dragons that needed slaying. Some people have issues with alcohol, and some will say that is also a Sugar Dragon. Carbohydrates are also like sugar for some metabolisms. And some of us have dragons that interfere with our healthy interactions with others. We have issues that are perhaps mental or psychological. We all have things that need to be plucked from our lives, in order for us to live a better life. And Great Lent is offered by the Church every year, as a time for us to focus on our dragons. This year, orderliness and cleanliness, less clutter and junk in my life, is going to be my focus. How lean can I make my life? How can I be simpler? It has such huge ramifications. And right now, I am going to start by bringing a large, black, plastic bag into my room and tackling my dresser. It is a start. I will pick up my sword daily, starting again, for these 40+ days, to slay the clutter/gluttony dragon that is part of my life. I thank God He gives us this time every year, to rededicate ourselves to becoming better at this thing we call life, preparing us for eternity with the God who created even the stars.

“Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created these stars; the One who leads forth their host by number, He calls them all by name; Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power, not one of them is missing.” Isaiah 40:26

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“…handle what we are given…”

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Today has been a rough day. Today I had to take two dogs to the groomers. The one pictured above is Chet. He is 15 years old now. He is stubborn. He runs away. He has dementia. Today he took off, in falling snow, running away from me. I was finally able to step on his dragging lead and stop him…in snow up to my knees. I was not a happy mamma. And then he planted his behind and refused to move. So I dragged his butt so far, until he was under the snow and gave up and walked. He had yanked so hard against me, he lifted two of my fingernails. Ugh. I wasn’t going to pick him up, because he was soaking wet. I had on ankle boots and leggings – the snow was up to my knees, still falling, and I was soaked. Our other dog (God bless her) was running around, having a ball. She was teasing Chet and me, loving being in the snow, having her leash on, knowing she was going for a ride. She is over 10, but was acting like a puppy. Poca is our sweetheart. She is such a “velcro” dog – she wants to be with you and would never run away. (That’s her below). Not like Mr. Chet – Mr. Independent; Mr. Stubborn; Mr. Goes-His-Own-Way. He’s been that way since we got him at 6-weeks old. Runs away the first chance he gets. He’s done it so many times and it’s always at the most inconvenient time. Like today. I tried not to be too mad, because he has doggie dementia and a bad hip, but he sure seemed fine as I was trying to corral him today!

poca

So we get to the groomer’s, after slipping and sliding through town. I go to get the dogs out of the back seat and notice that Mr. Chet had not moved, and he had pooped in my new car. He pooped in my car. I was beyond frustrated. And wet. The groomer, bless her, had cleaner for me, so I could clean up the mess and remove the odor. In my new car. Ugh. You’d think it was a Monday. Ha-Ha. But no, just a snowy, cold day in Alaska!

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And so I called my husband. And he laughed. And and it made me laugh. And then we spoke about his mom, who is ill and was rushed to the hospital early this morning. My anger dissipated in my concern for her, and for her children, and our children. She has been an integral part of our lives for so long, that in perspective, my morning was stupid to worry about, let alone get so angry about. (Although dog poop in my car is something I can get angry about, right???).

I have been thinking so much about how invested in this world I have become. There are memes galore about wasting our time online. About forging relationships that are not real, but seem to be, because we are not out and about, investing in personal relationships. Even if you are out in the world, working every day, how well do you invest in your co-workers and people you see every day? I saw a sign a preschool posted, asking parents who were picking up their kids, to not have their phones with them. And it hit me. We all grab our phones, looking at the latest post or text, over being present to the people we are with. Some people are creating phone “stations” where guests and family alike are asked to deposit their phones when they walk in their homes. I am leaning that way.

I have been influenced by the sites I have allowed in my life and the things I give great importance to. Each day, I get my coffee and eagerly await the morning press briefing from the White House. Why is that? I don’t even check the weather! LOL! I check statuses and notices on Facebook and voila! Two hours have passed. That is insane. I read news bits after news bits. I see videos and sound bites. Are they making me a better person? Are they edifying my life? Are they helping me to achieve my daily and lifetime goals?

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be obvious to everyone. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think on these things. Whatever you have learned and received and heard from me, and seen in me, put these things into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4: 4-9

One of the things I believe is a catalyst to the further downfall of our society are “reality shows.” I know so many people who cannot get enough. Who tape them and binge watch  them for hours on end. Who comment on reality star’s Facebook pages like they are personal friends. Who share their status’ like it is their own information or status. Who somehow relate and feel attached to these people. Most of us could never emulate the life styles of these mega-rich stars who are rich just because they are famous…and famous because they are rich. It’s so weird. I have some friends who discuss actors and actresses who appear on soap operas and care about who plays the role and who they are replacing and it is a life-or-death event. I just don’t get that. But I see it influencing people around me. I see people forming relationships with famous people, or people they have met online on some forum, or gaming site, and feel like (and treat it like) it is a real relationship. And when you look around, they don’t have very many actual friends they do things with. Or friends they call and chat up about life. Or friends they go to the movies or dinner with. No; their friends are all online.

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Lent is fast approaching and I am attempting to do something for myself that is so very difficult. I am going to attempt a Facebook fast. I am already getting rid of groups and news in my feed. I have blocked people who make me worse, and not the best I can be. I am endeavoring to listen to better things than what I have. I love the local Christian Radio station here called Air1. They have such great music. I am going to try to listen to that more. I am trying to adjust my online experience to one that makes me a better person. I need to stop being a slave to automation. I need to be more present to my home, taking care of it and my family, and I need to read more and watch less. We all get to a point where we realize we are sinking and not being the person we could be and that is one of those “man in the mirror moments.”

I’m gonna make a change, for once in my life
It’s gonna feel real good, gonna make a difference
Gonna make it right…

As I turn up the collar on my favorite winter coat
This wind is blowin’ my mind
I see the kids in the street, with not enough to eat
Who am I, to be blind? Pretending not to see their needs
A summer’s disregard, a broken bottle top
And a one man’s soul
They follow each other on the wind ya’ know
’Cause they got nowhere to go
That’s why I want you to know

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
(If you wanna make the world a better place)
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change
(Take a look at yourself, and then make a change)
(Na na na, na na na, na na, na nah)

I’ve been a victim of a selfish kind of love
It’s time that I realize
That there are some with no home, not a nickel
to loan
Could it be really me, pretending that they’re
not alone?

A willow deeply scarred, somebody’s broken heart
And a washed-out dream
(Washed-out dream)
They follow the pattern on the wind, ya’ see
’Cause they got no place to be
That’s why I’m starting with me
(Starting with me!)

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
(Ooh!)
I’m asking him to change his ways
(Ooh!)
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
(If you wanna make the world a better place)
Take a look at yourself and then make a change
(Take a look at yourself and then make a change)

Those are the lyrics to the song by Michael Jackson – the Man in the Mirror. And I really feel like right now, in our world, we could all take the time to reflect on the “man in the mirror” and “make that change.” I know I need to hit the brakes before I become someone I would not like to be friends with…someone who disregards what she knows is right, what is true, what is God’s plan for me, rather than the world’s. Satan is working overtime right now, trying to destroy us all. It’s the game plan and we witless idiots are following it like it’s tattooed on our foreheads.

“For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires. So they will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” 2Timothy 4:3-4

And so I would like to challenge those who read this to think about changing the direction in which they are going. Perhaps just change the way they are going, to the goal they have. My ultimate goal is to be in Paradise with the Creator of the Universe. Between then and now, my goal is to edify God and myself, by being the best person I can be, to those I bang into every day. And to that end, I need to make changes. Those changes are to what I see, watch, listen to, what I read, and those I associate with. Man, is it going to be tough. Because it is so much easier to be lazy and simple and follow the lemmings over the side of the cliff.

From Wikipedia, we find the history of the saying, “They way to hell is paved with good intentions. And it is this: The saying is thought to have originated with Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who wrote (c. 1150), “L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirs” (hell is full of good wishes or desires). An earlier saying occurs in Virgil’s Aeneid: “facilis descensus Averno (the descent to hell is easy)”. In any respect, we know that it is far simpler to be bad/evil than it is to be good. I know being a Christian is far more challenging than being a hooligan, protesting and rioting in the streets. So we are called to transform ourselves from our lowest common denominator to our best selves. We are not guaranteed our next breath, as Fr. Justin Rose is fond of saying. And we are not. Little things get in our way and make us lesser beings…the peas in our mattress of life. We allow the setbacks to be stumbling blocks. We come to expect less of ourselves. And every, single year, the Church, in her Wisdom, gives us the period of Lent to reflect and reform ourselves. We have this 40+ day period to stop, reflect, and reform ourselves into the people God calls us to be. And I met the “man in the mirror” today and I know I need to change.

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“Do not conform to the pattern of this world…”

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I am sort of all over the place today. My hubby is off on a business trip again. He is gone 2 weeks of every month. Lately he has chosen to take them back-to-back so he has more of a steady time at home. The house felt sort of empty this morning. Getting old is weird. Hormones are all over the place. Squirrel. My hair is gray. I am trying new products to tame the frizzes. I tried the method where you wash just with conditioner. Not pretty. Tried for a week and could not stand it. Discovered my hair needs keratin. Who knew? Conditioning today. We got 18″ of snow the past 3 days. We are using either our wood stove or floor heating and it makes the air so dry. And my hair flies all over the place. Lovely when you add wool scarves and sweaters. Not. See? All over the place.

I just reconnected with a friend from High School. She and I were so close, for so long. I am not sure why we stopped being in touch. Perhaps me getting married and having kids and she was seriously in school and having a career…and we moved away from one another, too. But it is so good to get connected via Facebook, and to relaunch our relationship. I was so excited!! It gave me a spring in my step today.

So I blow dried my hair and it is still so fly-away-ish. Had to re-apply the leave-in conditioner. We will see how this formulation works for me. Gray hair is so picky.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2

My hubby and I have been dealing with issues regarding our parish and the practicing of the faith we have come to love (and were so well instructed in, by an amazing priest and many friends – priests and monks among them). And it has caused a little friction. Nothing like damaging to our relationship, but in our 34 years together, our faith journey has always been a joint one. Perhaps friction is not the right term. It’s more like there was a pea in our mattress and we just were not comfortable. We always walked together in faith. Our journey has amused many, and confused even more! And over the past 6 months or so, we have sorted of marched to a different drummer. And that is never good. I was always cautioned to not marry outside of my faith practices because people who are “un-equally yoked” do not work out. And I experienced it once, in a long term relationship. I was even engaged to him. He was Jewish. (Reform, not Orthodox, or it probably would never have happened in the first place). But eventually, especially after having developed such an amazing relationship with his rabbi and knowing I was firmly a Christian woman, his cultural adherence to many Jewish traditions, and me not fitting in well with his family, caused me to call things off. He was a great person and I did not wish him ill. I just realized we could never work. His rabbi and I remained friends, up until his death, often meeting for coffee and chats, long after my relationship had waned. I knew I needed a good, strong, Christian man in my life and was wise enough to call the wedding off. And when I met my husband, he lit up my life. And the more I got to know him, the more I wanted his faith. I wanted that relationship he had with God. I used to watch him pray, and while kneeling next to him, prayed that I could be like that. He has been good for me. I often tell him that he saved me from my worst self. He dragged me into a more pious life and I loved it. Over the past 6 or more months, that has waned. And I admitted to him that I miss it. At this same time, my husband realized our relationship with our faith practices needed to change. We spoke and realized we felt the same way about things. About some pretty important things. Whew. A good talk is sometimes all you need to realign your northern star – in my case, that is my piety and sense of faith permeating everything; my relationship to Christ and His Church.

 

prayer-family

I have taught my kids that it is better to be that lone person, standing for what is right, rather than going with the majority. I believe that to be so in pretty much everything. You can apply it to your chosen career – be the best you can be at whatever it is you do, even if you are not a part of the crowd. In politics, for me, I rarely follow what the majority is calling for. I am conservative – socially, financially, spiritually, and pro life. Period. It permeates even the voting booth. In my faith, I prefer historically connected, profound, and deeply rooted worship. Throw in beeswax candles and icons, and I am there! I was raised next door to Russians, whose parents immigrated from Russia. They had such an interesting spin on life. From the father of the family, I learned to fence, using rapiers from the Royal Court in Russia. I learned to drink Russian tea made in a Samovar. And I learned about Russian tales and foods, traditions and history. I fell in love with Russia, reading everything I could find on it. The old, the traditional, the historically connected has always grabbed me. As an adult, I found myself learning all about my faith at a secular university, funnily enough. I converted to Catholicism as an adult. Coincidentally, about this time, I met my husband. (When I was dating my Jewish boyfriend, I was Geneva Presbyterian – until I converted to Catholicism at age 27). Over our 32 years of marriage, as we have journeyed through a very “orthodox” Catholic life, we discovered the Eastern Catholic Church. It was then that I truly began to breathe with both lungs. I was hooked. We moved over to the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, which is culturally Arabic, but Byzantine/Greek in worship style. My husband became a Deacon, after attending the Melkite seminary. We made life-long friends we dearly miss, during this time period. I literally fell in love with Church. I was there 2-4 days every week. I helped with our homeless kitchen and soon found myself transporting donated food weekly in my suburban, dragging my homeschooled kids with me. I loved working in the kitchen with all the Arab ladies. We had so much fun. And they taught me Arabic traditions, histories, foods, clothing styles, and how they raised their kids and the many faith traditions they held precious. When we moved to Alaska, we discovered there was no Melkite Church up here. We have been adapting. Our youngest son found a youth group he loves, at the local Roman Catholic parish. We support him in attending their “young men’s bible studies” and trips, and youth group every week. (He is well-known in the local parish and usually brings up the gifts on Sundays at Mass. He’s quite the popular teenager. We joke that he knows more people in Alaska than any of the rest of us does). We attend there as a family and it has been good. It is not our beloved Eastern tradition, but it is Church.

Kneeling Prayer.Orthodox Church

 

 

We’ve adapted to this culture up here. (It’s cold and white everywhere these days, because we have so much snow!!) We have become sort of bland. Ha-Ha! And I got pulled away from the practice of what I love, into a rather generic sort of Christian expression. Even in these posts, I was more inclusive, even of the photos I would use to illustrate my posts. I have stopped explaining about my faith practices, letting people just assume I am a generic “Christian” woman. Which I am, but I realized that I have been compromising myself. It is not all of who I truly am. I cannot please the public; I cannot continue to “pose” as something I am not. And I was caving into the pressures I had warned my kids about all these years. I was not being true to who I really am. I am an Eastern-rite Catholic woman. I love the smell of incense. I love the Divine Liturgy. I love chant. Not Gregorian, but old world, eastern chant. I love icons. I love being in a church where you can scent the incense from a previous Liturgy, and light the beeswax candles and be transported to a holier place; a place of oneness with God. It eases my soul. And even if I am “all over the place” and a tad bit scatterbrained today, I am also more at ease because I have realized these things about myself. And it comforts me.

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I realize that many of you do not worship this way, nor understand why people would. Our democratic ideals have permeated our styles of worship, and that is okay, if it sits well with you. I have always been a history-oriented person. I majored in Anthropology and minored in Biblical Archeology. History – church – faith. It has alway been a part of who I am. When I walked the parapets of a castle in Wales as a 16-year-old, I felt those walls speak to me. I would run my hands down them, marveling at how ancient they were and how connected to that antiquity I felt. I was walking the lands of my ancestors and I felt truly at home and very welcome, in among all the artifacts and tapestries, old walls and artwork. Walking through Churches and Cathedrals while we visited England, I constantly had a backache because I spent the entire time bent over, looking at all the engravings on the stones. I took so many rubbings. I felt rooted. I could really breathe at some of these places. It is the same for me in the way I choose to worship. I love tradition and the fact that I can historically trace my Church back to the Apostles. We have songs that are so old, there is no written record of them, just references to them by the Church Fathers, talking about how old they were back in the Apostolic days. Those of us who are Melkite like to tease our Roman/Latin Rite friends that we had St. Peter before they did, because he established the Church in the east before he meandered his way to Rome (wink-wink). And so I have decided that I am not going to hide who I am any longer. I am not going to water things down. I am not going to represent an American Jesus for the palpability of my newer friends. (And those in my business world). I believe in Jesus Christ and I do that in communion with them. However, I also believe in the traditions that brought Protestantism its lifeblood. We had the traditions long before they were put into a book – the Bible – the same one we all read, before all those pesky books were removed out of it. And we were an oral people – sharing our faith and our traditions with others through the practices passed on to us from the Apostles themselves. This is not a haughty or conceited viewpoint, nor is it meant to put people off. But it is the Church I choose to worship in; it is the tradition which gives my lungs breath. It is part of who I am.

apostolic-tradition

[By the way, my hair feels amazing right now. The blow drying has cooled and it feels like silk. Still gray, but not so much frizziness. Maybe this stuff is working!?!?! Keratin – who knew??]

And so my friends, from here on out, I will be sharing honestly about who I am. I will share through an Eastern lens, through the faith I practice. I am ecumenical because I believe we all hold the same God in our hearts, but I won’t apologize or hide that I prefer icons and a Jesus prayer, Divine Liturgy and incense, the iconostasis and beeswax candles, confession in front of an Icon of Christ the Pantocrator, and cantors with no musical accompaniment, to pretty much all the rest of it. It just fits me and I will no longer apologize nor hide it from you. It is part of what makes me, me. And it is part of who I am when I communicate with all of you, on this blog. I hope you will continue to read, if you do. I am still who I am! It’s just me going back to the me I was a few years ago.

May the Lord grant you many blessed years.

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“All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass…”

Symbolism is so much a part of what we do and how we live. We I am scrambling to be sure we have our “spirit wear” all ready for the homecoming game tomorrow. It’s important to show team spirit by wearing our school colors! We clang cow bells painted the right colors and are sure to sit in the booster section, where we can yell without embarrassing our other children! Ha-ha! But we cannot wear colors that are from our opposing team, because that doesn’t show support to our players and cheerleaders. We have to have all the right symbols.

Football

I was recently in a discussion about wearing our wedding rings on the right or left hand. In the west, people wear them on their left hands. People in Eastern European cultures (and Russian Orthodox and other Orthodox Churches) all wear them on the right hand. But in America, it confuses the average person if you wear your wedding set on the right hand with people thinking you are divorced or widowed. The symbol isn’t right; it does not fit into their notion of how things should be. It can unsettle people, seeing the wrong image in the wrong place.

There are logos and symbols all around us. If you give most people quizzes on company logo recognition, they can name many corporations just by seeing their logos. That means their marketing team has been doing their jobs and doing them well!

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There are some images that people enjoy and some that make people uncomfortable. Some images can evoke such strong emotions. If you see something that reminds you of your childhood, it can bring back happy memories, or bring you to tears. Other images are quickly forgotten and we don’t give them another thought.

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When many Christians see a crucifix, the image of Christ hanging the cross, they get very uncomfortable. I have had people say that it is like looking at photos of a murder scene over and over again. I can see that. I can feel that sort of emotion. For most Catholics, the crucifix reminds them of the mercy of God and of His great sacrifice for us. It evokes feelings of safety and comfort. There is a prayer called the Anima Christi that is often prayed while gazing at a crucifix:

Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, inebriate me
Water from the side of Christ, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
O good Jesus, hear me
Within Thy wounds hide me
Permit me not to be separated from Thee
From the malignant enemy defend me
In the hour of my death call me
And bid me come unto Thee
That with thy Saints I may praise Thee
Forever and ever
Amen

It makes looking at that particular symbol not as gruesome as some would think. There are other symbols and ways of representing the Cross of Christ. And I have been pondering these symbols recently. It is easy to have a symbol mean something to you, but when others look upon it, they see something very differently. There are all kinds of crosses out there, and each means something to the culture they are associated with. For many of us in western society, these crosses confuse us, because they are not what we are used to seeing, when we associate them with our faith. This is a wall hanging I have in my home:

images. wall crosses.

I like it because it shows all different ways of looking at crosses. It’s made of metal and 3D. It has engendered many conversations. And some Christians do not have any crosses in their homes, nor do they display paintings or statues. Very few have icons. We are probably the odd-man-out but we have all of it. We have statues, paintings, crosses from all over the world, and icons. We have lots of icons. We have very little secular art, actually.

I have been pondering symbols in other ways, as well. Permanence is something that is not common in the corporate world, although many older companies are very recognized just by their logos!

apple microsoft  pepsi flag2

Each of these logos is very familiar and we all have an opinion about each of them. One of them is not a logo per se, but a symbol. There is a difference. A symbol is a representation, a pictogram, whereas a logo is a trademarked corporate identity that may contain a symbol. Like Apple’s logo with it’s iconic symbol of an apple with a bite out of it, and symbol of our homeland, the American flag.

The cross, of course, cuts through all the corporate hype and is not owned by one corporation or church. It is a universal symbol. For many it evokes comfort and peace, and for others it is a sign of divisiveness. For me, it symbolizes a part of who I am and what I believe. And my faith does not waiver, it does not fade, it does not change. I am a Christian woman. Where I choose to worship, the style of how I worship, may change. Those are externals. But my belief does not change or waiver. So the symbol of my faith, the cross, does not waiver. Which is why I am considering getting a tattoo of a cross for myself, for my birthday. It’s not really for anyone else. It is something that would remind me, each time I look at it, what I believe. But which representation, for me, do I choose? It’s had me up nights, because inking is permanent. Which is why it has also taken me this long to even consider it. And I have pondered this whole issue of logos and symbols, recognition and the emotions they evoke. And I am thinking and praying, and searching my heart. Who knows? Maybe it will be a new purse. I’ll let you know.

Tattoo