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!).

majedra

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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“…you were bought with a price…”

 

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“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” 1Corinthians 6: 19-20

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faith-words

Guess where I am at today? Yeah; I am there. It seems like there is a push in our culture to expose us to uber-sexuality. It is everywhere. It is temptation surrounding us. And it is pervasive. The evil one is sitting back and laughing. The movies, the TV shows, song lyrics…and those are the legitimate sources of temptation. I just found out there is an alternate universe of YouTube that is dedicated to pornography (Red something or other). And it is free. There is Snap Chat where kids can sext each other and the image disappears after a few seconds. Except nothing disappears. And our children can find porn so easily. I read an article today that said 97% of all young men before the age of 18 have watched pornography. And it is not like trying to find a centerfold in a Playboy magazine. No. This is hard cord porn. There are images and videos of “rough sex,” and even group sex. Children as young as 11 and 12 are becoming addicted. And they are becoming reclusive and disordered. There was a court case this week against a father, accusing him of sexual abuse. A secondary charge of bestiality was dropped because there was no “penetration.” And that, as sick as it is, unfortunately, is now in our legal system and can set precedent for other cases of child abuse. Pornography and the culture surrounding it is all out there, easily obtained. And it is killing our country’s cultural base, and our families, which are the foundation of our culture. It is creating this disordered sense of what family is supposed to be, our sexuality, and all of our interpersonal relationships. And it is scaring me. And it should be scaring you.

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I am not sure how to combat this epidemic. I do know that I need to change myself, before I can help anyone else change. Do I watch porn? No. Do I read porn? No. Do I allow it in my home? No. Is it here? Probably. Because we allow sexual innuendo and jokes, and poor vocabulary, to sneak into our home and our lives. We slowly allow the level of purity and modesty to sink. It is like the story of the frogs in hot water. You place them in a pot on your stove in warm, tepid water. You slowly increase the heat until the frogs are boiling to death, and they are happy all the way, because they do not notice the water getting increasingly hot. Do we laugh at impure jokes? Do we allow movies rated “R” for sex or violence into our homes? We allowed a movie in that we still regret – the “F” word was used more than 300 times during that movie. That’s more than 1 time/minute. That is ridiculous. It is in the trash. I have to stop this from invading our home. I need to judge myself and see where I am lacking, in that I am allowing this cultural deviation to have a place in our home and family. It is part of the actions that I need to take; that each of us needs to take in order to combat this evil pervading our country, one person and one family at a time.

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What I find so interesting, is that this whole issue was noticed by me, over the past few days, coming from several sources – commercials about this new 50 Shades movie, comments on a couple of ProLife pages on FB, and news reports, even comments from people I know. And the timing is so much the Lord’s. Because this weekend is MeatFare Sunday. This weekend we enter into the preparation for Great Lent. This weekend we turn our focus inward, onto how we are preparing for the sacrifice God made for every one of us. A sacrifice that He would make, even if each of us were the sole person on earth. He would die for my sins alone. He would die for your sins, alone. He is that magnificent of a Creator. He values His creation above all things. He desperately wants each of us to belong solely to Him. Not this world. Not the evil that tempts us in this world. Not the wrong that is trying to invade our righteousness, our holiness, our future of eternity in the presence of God. Because sin separates us from God.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. And this is the verdict: The Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness more than light, because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come into the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever practices the truth comes into the Light, so that it may be clearly seen that what he has done has been accomplished in God.”” John 3:16-21

If we read part of that in light of pornography and evil, we can see how clearly God is talking to us. When John says, “The Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness more than light, because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come into the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” Pornography seeps into the world in darkness – behind closed doors. There are have been studies showing that kids can spend hours in their rooms, on their computers. These computers are tools that can help them with their schoolwork, yes, and can be invaluable tools for education. But think of the study that said 97% of boys before 18 have watched pornography. Where? How? Have you checked their laptops? Do you allow computers, Play Stations and the X-Box in their rooms? Did you know they have internet capabilities? I did not realize they are like having another WiFi Hot Spot. Have you scanned their phones or looked at the photos on them? Do you have their log in codes for the internet or their phones? Do you understand the apps they have on their computers and phones – what they can and cannot do on those apps? Do you have all their passwords? They are sometimes alone, in their rooms, with temptation swirling all around them. We trust our kids to become the people we set the example for them to aspire to be. We instruct them. We pray with them, and for them. We go to Church with them. We send them to Youth Group. We monitor their “dating” practices. We know their friends. Some of us homeschool, in order to keep an extra eye on our kids. But are we with them every moment? Is what we are doing enough? The evil one is laughing, because it is NOT enough. Don’t fool yourself. It is NOT enough.

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As we enter this preparation period for Great Lent, we are asked to focus more on our prayer life. Yes, we fast from certain foods; the list for Melkite Greek Catholics is quite lengthy and strict. Many Catholics and Orthodox give up chocolate or coffee. Some give up Facebook or the internet. But for me, fasting is a exercise in self control that I should be trying to do every week; it is not enough of a sacrifice for me (it doesn’t “hurt” enough to be memorable, if that makes sense). We should be fasting from meats on Wednesdays and Fridays all year long (in the Eastern Churches, we do). What works for me is to add something; to intensify the good, wholesome, faith-filled and inspiring things in my life. Doing so helps drown out all this evil and all these ungodly influences. Paying attention to what influences you can even include how you present yourself to others – too much make-up, or even flashy or revealing clothing. Because ungodly attire is a distraction to everyone and it can come from both males and females. How do others perceive you just from how you look when they see you? What is the first impression you give off to others? Are you a wholesome and Godly young person (or older person) or are you projecting the world and its influences? Are you trying too hard to be a part of the world? Try doing more in the religious and faith-filled part of your life. Go to Church more often. Sit in the presence of God in the Tabernacle, where He waits for us. Spend more time praying. Add volunteering with those who are less fortunate. Donate your time, and the money you save fasting, to those who are in need, to those who are suffering. Dedicate a portion of each day to silent prayer. Read stimulating, religious works by some of the Church Fathers. (The Ladder of Divine Assent by John Climacus and Our Thoughts Determine our Lives by Elder Thaddeus are two of my favorites). Stimulate your mind and your heart with thoughts and prayers of God. Divest yourself of the things of this world that make you less than what God calls you to be. Stop allowing the world and its bright and shiny temptations to skewer your relationship with God. Go to confession. Find a mentor or Spiritual Father you can chat with. Have coffee with your Youth Pastor or confessor. Make Godly relationships a priority, while pulling away from those who would do your soul, your eternity, harm. The evil one is laughing…let’s shut him up.

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Take this time of Lent to get yourself right with God. Work on your relationship with your parents, siblings, children, and friends – but most importantly, with God. Cement the Godly and be rid of the evil. Christ endured beatings and belittling for us. God, Himself, hung on that cross for 3 agonizing hours – just for you; just for me. Do not throw His sacrifice back in His face.

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But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed. Isaiah 53:5

” but up to seventy times seven…”

Forgiveness – Matthew 18:21-22
Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”  Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”

For those of us who are Eastern Rite Catholics, yesterday was Cheesefare Sunday, because it is the last time we eat any dairy and today is called Clean Monday – the first day of the full “Great Fast.” Every year, Lent is prefaced by Meatfare (two weeks ago) and Cheesefare, but more importantly, we also refer to this past Sunday as, “Forgiveness Sunday.” Traditionally, on this day, we are asked by our priest to forgive him any sins he may have committed against us, and we repeat, aloud, “I forgive you.” The clergy on the altar seek forgiveness from one another. In some eastern traditions, this act of seeking and giving forgiveness is expressed in a more formalized, and public, way with a line developing wherein each parishioner personally meets with the priest and other clergy, then joining the line, until each parishioner asks and gives forgiveness to every other parishioner. It can take hours if the parish is large enough.

It was celebrated in our parish, the long way, yesterday. I did not attend Church. I am so hurt in my heart, that I just could not stand to have the hypocrisy of some people played out in front of my face, when I know they gossip disparagingly about my family and I behind our backs. Gossip is alive and well in my life. I was fearful I would say something that would make the situation far worse. For me, and for them.

north_door_of_iconostasis_v-2The icon above depicts the Temptation in the Garden and the Expulsion from Eden and the Shame of Adam and Eve. This icon is used on Forgiveness Sunday to remind us of the Original Sin of Adam. And we are supposed to contemplate our sin, in light of God’s justice in removing Adam and Eve from His Presence. We believe that when we sin, we take a step away, or remove ourselves from, the Presence of God. Depending upon the sin, that step can be minute, or it can create a chasm between us and God. God is consistently standing with open arms, waiting on us to seek Him out, in repentance. In the Eastern Rites, and in the Roman Catholic Church, we go to Confession (or Reconciliation). The Church asks us to go to Confession at least once before we celebrate Pascha, or Easter, and the Resurrection of Christ.

Since last week, I have been thinking long and hard about all of this. I felt that removing myself from this would be better for all of us. I have nothing to prove to anyone, nor do I think my presence should have a definitive affect on others, one way or the other. I have wronged people, I am sure, and need to seek forgiveness from them. But I do not need to do so in a public forum. Do I have anger and frustration in my heart? You bet I do. Do I need to let it go? Oh my, yes I do. And how am I to do that? Therein lies the heart of my moments spent musing over this.

I have been doing this study, which I referenced in my last post, and I quoted from it about the boulders we have in our lives that we need to move out of the way. I have lots of boulders that I need shifted. And I am working on them. I do not think I would have served anyone any good by being at Church. God is working on me. Hard. In the eastern rites, we have no “obligation” to attend religious services. In the Latin Church, there is the pain of mortal sin if you purposely avoid Mass. For us in the eastern Churches, we feel no pain of “mortal” sin; we do not delineate sin in that way. We view sin a little differently and it does not entail whether or not we go to Church. The philosophy behind it is that when you love someone, you want to be with them, above everything else. You will do whatever it takes to be with them. And if you love God, you will do whatever it takes to be there, with Him, at Church. Sin is seen as a step away from God – does your choice put you closer to God, or further away from Him? Does staying home from Church cause you to be further from God or closer to God? For me, I felt that being at Church would be a “near occasion of sin” for me, and for others. And so I stayed away, purposefully.

Today, well, today is Clean Monday. Today we begin the Great Fast in earnest. And today I did something I have never done – I juiced! We bought a juicer and today was its first run. I am now drinking it over ice and I must say, it is pretty darn tasty! With this study I am doing entitled, “The Holistic Christian Woman,” we are also altering our dietary intake and trying to purge our bodies of the stuff that impedes good health. So I thought I would coordinate that with the start of Great Lent. I made my son a smoothie today. It feels good to focus on our health and is such a great way to share Clean Monday and the start of Great Lent.

juicing

Back to why I started this post – forgiveness. It is a rough thing and a touchy thing. To truly forgive someone, you remove the hurt and take it out of your timeline, if you will. You live as if the hurt was never a part of your life. And if the pain is too much, you just give it to God. He has a better way to handle our hurts than we do. He died for our hurts. He hung on that Cross for three hours, taking on the hurts of the entire world. Just for me. Just for you. And He said, as He was being crucified, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).  

Quiet

Do I forgive? Oh, I sincerely do. I really, truly forgive anyone who has ever wronged me. It is as though those things, those words, were never said. And I am completely at peace with that. Do others forgive me? In the same way? Perhaps; perhaps not. But all I can do is seek that forgiveness; how they forgive is between them and God. Forgiving is freeing. I still retain the memories of the hurt, but the pain is somehow removed because I truly let it go. But it does not mean I am stupid. I am not going to consistently, regularly, bang my head against that same wall. Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. I am adult enough to realize that repeating errors is just wasting my time. And it is honestly okay to just walk away….

Nonsense

So I will continue to embark on this Lenten journey. I am focusing on becoming healthier in many ways – emotionally, spiritually, and physically. I do forgive others and I pray for their forgiveness, as well. I read a great blog today by Joel L. Miller enttitled, “The Trouble with me – and  – Jesus Christianity” on Ancient Faith blogs. He talks about the story of the blind men each touching an elephant and describing it to one another. One touches a leg and describes the elephant like a tree trunk; one touched the trunk and described a snake…you get the idea. It is the same with Church, with our faith – if we only see our own interpretation of Jesus, we may only know Him as a tree trunk or a snake. We will not see the entirety of our faith. We cannot be Christians in a vacuum or as islands. Salvation comes in community. We celebrate our faith, we share our faith, we grow in our faith in the presence of other Christians. We listen to the preaching of our priests and deacons; we listen to the Fathers of the Church, who guide us in “orthodox” or “right thinking.” We cannot do this alone. We cannot seek salvation alone. Yes, our faith is between us and our Savior. But the Apostles sought one another and lived in community. We, too, should seek other Christians. So to not attend Church is not the best approach to growing in our faith. However, sometimes removing ourselves from situations that are not life-giving, nor healthy, is the best we can do for everyone. I’m not advocating avoiding communities that help us build and grow in our faith. But I am advocating an intelligent perspective on, as St. John Chrysostom said above, “Let us always guard our tongue; not that it should be silent, but that it should speak at the proper time.” And I believe removing ourselves and spending time alone is a healthy thing to do.

Alone time

This year’s Lenten journey should be amazing. I am working hard on listening more and talking less. On watching less TV and reading more. On making better choices in so many areas. I am working on becoming more fit in my physical, emotional, and spiritual self. This time, set aside each year, is given to us to reflect, repent, and start again. I feel blessed. Working to prepare myself in order to really welcome Christ with Palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna in the Highest.” See you on the other side…

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The Rhythm of the Seasons… the Cycles of Life and Liturgy

Things can be so weird sometimes.  And God is always, and I mean ALWAYS, a part of everything.  One of the things I love about being a part of the Church is the rhythm of life is mirrored in the rhythm of the Church.  We have moments of sorrow, moments of joy; moments of deep reflection, and moments of celebration.  And God walks with us through all of it.  His Hand is in all we do, whether we want to deal with it or not.  And for me and my life, it seems like just when things are reaching another apex, the Church in her wisdom, gives us another opportunity to share. And here we are, approaching Great Lent, and this past Sunday we had Meat Fare wherein we give up all meat for the next 40 days. This Sunday is Forgiveness Sunday and is also Cheese Fare Sunday, where we have our last opportunity to eat dairy and chees through Great Lent. And it is one of those sublime times in my life where it all clicks.

My husband and I have been married for 30 years, and together for 32.  Honestly, we did not even check with those calendars that tell you what to give for what year.  We renewed our vows on our 25th, with silver everything! Ha-Ha.  This year, we spent a wonderful evening with another couple who believe like we do, and celebrate like we do. It was perfect and the evening out was our celebration.  The gifts we gave each other? We gave each other the gift of health.  This year we are promising to invest our time and efforts, and our days, in search of premium health.  We have grandchildren we want to share time with, and three amazing sons and their families (potential family with the youngest son) we want to celebrate life with.  We want to dance at our grandchildren’s weddings.  We want to grow much, much older together.  Our parents are all aging.  My father-in-law has passed away and my mother-in-law is facing more surgeries and poor health.  My mom is getting deeper in Alzheimer’s and my dad recently joined her on the same journey.  We do not want our “Golden Years” spent in ill health!  This past year we were faced with health insurance choices and we chose to participate in a health care co-op.  What that means is that we pay a monthly premium, it goes into a large pot (which grew by over 100,000 members this past year) and when someone has an illness and has expenses, the money is taken from the pot and we all support one another.  We put our money where our faith is.  In the early Church, all believers shared property in common (sort of like a modern commune environment).  They all took care of one another.  The program we joined is Christian based, and in addition to sharing our money with one another, we commit to pray for one another.  What a blessing, and even with the Obamacare option, that is what we chose to do.

We also chose to pay attention to our health – honestly and daily.  We started using Essential Oils and it has been an incredible experience.  My husband, the engineer, was the biggest skeptic but has become convinced because of the effect the oils have had on him.  We are convinced, as a couple moving forward.  And we have begun to include oils as a part of our daily life.  But as a family member says, “Oils won’t make much difference if you’re still drinking dozens of sodas a day.”  And she is right (even though we specifically gave up soda years ago, I get the point).  And so we are approaching our diet and exercise commitment/component of our gift of health.  My son and daughter-in-law have an elliptical machine they are going to loan us.  When you live in Alaska, that is a good thing!  We had snow again today and it is a little chilly out there.  We will be able to walk inside our home and this activity will help us to become more limber and able to tackle the great outdoors, when the temps are slightly better. Alaska is the “last, great frontier,” and trust me, it is a rugged place to live.  This elliptical machine will allow us, especially me, time alone and in silence, to build some endurance and flexibility.  The next thing we are tackling is our diet.

When you start using Essential Oils in earnest, they affect your body in a myriad of ways.  Being so pure, they are working against all the toxins we’ve accumulated over the many years we’ve been ingesting them.  Petrochemicals are in almost everything.  And so the toxins have to work their way out.  I’ve caught every bug walking by. My oil consultant even drove in the snow to bring me relief in oils I did not have.  And we spoke today of purity of content in the oils and the foods we eat.  It all is intertwined.  Our conversation only further cemented my desire to change what and how we eat.

Enter Great Lent.  Part of our focus on health has been to control what we eat, how and when we eat.  We’re making our way through boxed mixes and carbs, to get rid of them all.  We are aiming for more simple, pure eating.  We will be trying a program that helps you detox and eat in proportions that are meant for us.  (Do you remember how much smaller plates used to be? How much smaller proportions used to be?).  This program encourages few simple carbohydrates, lots of vegetables and fruits, healthy grains/complex carbs, and clean proteins.  It also allows us the use of pure oils in our cooking and seasoning.  Great Lent means diligent fasting.  What a perfect sense of timing!!!  It all fits into a wonderful flow and movement.

During Great Lent, in the Melkite tradition, we refrain from all meats and fishes, all dairy, all olive oil, and liquor (especially wine) for the entire 40 days of Lent.  In other traditions, they have moderated the strictness of the Fast and only fast, for example, on Wednesdays and Fridays. It’s just a matter of tradition.  Fasting is not new.  Why do you think McDonald’s has their fish sandwiches and offers specials during Lent?  They get it.  Fish sticks and salmon steaks are featured items in grocery stores.  Why?  Because big commerce likes to earn money from our fasting traditions.  I remember the cafeteria at school had “fish-stick-Friday” when I was in HS, over 40 years ago.  The world at large is aware the Church fasts now and then, it’s just that a lot of people haven’t been doing it at all, or just remember to eat fish on Fridays.  Great Lent gives us a chance to dive into fasting, in earnest.

And the Church also gives us this time of 40 days to reflect, to clear ourselves of the junk in our lives.  It can be diet, yes, and the Church helps us to get rid of the stuff that is making us sick. We can cut back and cut out.  We can change.  You only have to do something for 21 days for it to become a life long habit.  We can add things, as well.  We can make more time for silence and for prayer.  We can dedicate our evenings, devoid of media, to attending Lenten prayer services, or Vespers if offered.  We can gather our children around our icon corner (or our paintings or statues) and we can pray as a family.  We can spend time pouring over Scriptures, discussing the themes throughout Lent.  Our parish is planning inserts into our bulletin, highlighting ideas to share with our kids and Scriptures to read with them, as an aide for families.  Great Lent is a time for great change, as we prepare to share in the single most life-changing event the world has ever known – the suffering, death, and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Great Lent is upon us and we are at the apex of great change in our lives. I love how God has made our world (our little world of our family) spin to the point where we are very ready for great changes.  We are poised to leap into a different way of eating and growing. We are paying attention to how we eat, and how we treat our bodies.  Our youngest son hits the weights every morning, without prompting.  The oils are coming along with him (another skeptic in the family) and we’re working out recipes we can all live with. We are adding scent and silence, prayers and fasting to our lives and it could not come at a better time. I just smile, as I drink my lemon oil in water (a purge) and smell the Thieves oil, decontaminating our house.  I think this Lent will be amazing and as weird as it may sound, I am excited for it to begin.  Praise God.

Blessings.

“…weep for your children…”

The Holy Family

Holy Family IconI am thinking about family today.  Two years ago today (2012) my father-in-law (memory eternal) passed away, with my husband and middle son sitting at his side.  It was a very sad event for all of us, because he was relatively young and the disease of cancer took him so very quickly.  It was important to my eldest son and his wife that they be there, to introduce their newborn son to his great-grandpa, even if it was on his deathbed.  It was a transcendent moment in so many ways. I remember about 28 years ago when my son, around the same age, was sitting with his great-grandfather as he lay dying.  And it was repeated a generation later.  We mourn the loss of my father-in-law today; my husband most especially.  But my sons feel the loss deeply, as their grandpa was such a big part of their childhood and growing up.  We have so many wonderful memories spent together as a family.  Memory eternal, Joe.

In today’s reading, Christ speaks to the women who are following Him on his way to the Cross.  “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me; weep instead for your children, for indeed the days are coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.'” (Luke 29:28-30)  Today, as I was contemplating our family and our losses, when I read this, I also mourned all the children we have lost to miscarriage (there are seven in all). As I lamented the loss of my babies, I also feel blessed for not having a lot of children. That sounds odd, but being barren for most of my marriage has given me a heart for other women who cannot have children; a heart for those who have lost children in miscarriage as I have; a heart to adopt (which we did); and a heart for those mothers who lose their children later in life, and who go before their parents (disease, accident, war).  It is difficult to comfort a mother who grieves the loss of a child.

Today online there has been much chatter about Ukraine and Russia.  What is going to happen?  Who is going to do what? The Russians moved troops?  And I could not help but think of the grieving families in Ukraine, but also in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, Africa, and in South America.  There are so many “hot spots” around the world right now ( if I missed one, apologies).  We mothers never stop being mothers, regardless of the age or independence of our children.  And I worry for all those who must put on a uniform and bear arms against others.  I do not want mothers to grieve over the loss of children to war, or any other cause.  Is it truly the time when we will be happy we have never had a child, as Christ predicted?  A friend sent me a link today to a Catholic organization (or movement or group…not sure how to categorize it) dedicated to just that, the “final battle.”  And I thought, “Wow.  Has it come to this?  Are we really preparing for that last war?”

Great Lent is just about upon us.  For me, Lent is a time when I come into a more simple, basic relationship with God. And for me, that works best when I strip away things that keep me from focusing my attention on God.  During Lent, I work extra-hard on taking down those things that place a sort of blockade between me and God.  The Church has us focus on food during Lent – why? Some far better bloggers than I am have tackled that today.  What I took from them is that food is our original passion:  Adam and that darn apple.  What we choose to consume feeds a baser desire within us.  Food and eating is an intimate act for a person.  We have desires for food and quite often we are unable to separate our desires for satisfaction in our lives for satisfaction with eating habits. I am overweight, and for me, that means I have issues somewhere within myself that cause me to turn to food, when I should turn to something else, like prayer.  So for me, Lent is an opportunity to tame a disordered part of my life and bring it into order.  I try to really fast.  This year my husband and I are digging in our heels and being stubborn.  Last night he chose to not get dessert for the family while at the grocery store.  A small, fasting-led, victory over our base-passions.  (We will take all the victories we can get!).

Abbot NazariusDuring Lent, we are also asked to participate more fully in the life of the Church.  We will be dedicating ourselves to attending as many prayer-evenings, parish functions, and community get-togethers as we can.  We are also dedicated to simplifying the technology in our lives.  Not as much TV, computers, music, iPods, and iPhones.  We will be substituting spiritual reading in place of technology; or just being together, quietly, as a family.

And with all of this paring-down, cutting-back, and increased periods of quiet, I will think of those I miss of our family. I will pray for all our family members who are no longer with us; I will pray for my babies, already in heaven and waiting for me. I will pray for all those lost because of war, famine, and other disasters around the globe.  And in the quiet, I will pray that this is not the “final war” that is spoken of in whispers.  I will pray that my daughters-in-law will not weep for their children, nor I for mine.  I pray that God will grant the world a respite from all the ugliness that is encompassing it.  And when I see those first buds of spring flowers poke their heads over our snow-covered yard, I will once again smile.  Spring itself seems like it is God’s promise of tomorrow.  Perhaps all the quiet, the simple fare eaten, the time spent in prayer and reading, will lead me to a greater love for God and His desires in my life, because I think I can hear Him much easier in a quieter, simpler, less-cluttered life.

BlessingEasterBaskets.RussiaAnd this year, for the first time, I am organizing and really planning our family Easter Basket.  The tradition of a family basket is shown in the artwork above; a Russian village is waiting for their baskets to be blessed. We will be preparing the foods and other items to go into our basket and I am so very excited – I ordered and received our basket cover! (It is so pretty – thank you Matushka Anita, for making it for me). I am looking forward to the preparation and assembly of our basket.  And, rather than argue about what each person does, what they eat or don’t eat, I am focusing on my own spiritual renewal and re-commitment to my faith during Lent, and the plans for a joyous Easter celebration.  Perhaps there will come a day when I weep for my children, or my grandchildren:  I pray that it is not in my lifetime.  For me, now, there is much to look forward to, and this time of Lent is preparing us for our future, our moment of Spring and sunshine, flowers blooming and birds chirping, and a nice roast cooking for dinner!

Cheesefare WeekHappy Wednesday of Cheese Fare week.

Memories eternal to Joe and Frank, our fathers who left us for their blessed repose.

“Hey, Jude, don’t be afraid…”

“Beloved, although I was making every effort to write to you about our common salvation, I now feel a need to write to encourage you to contend for the faith that was once for all handed down to the holy ones. For there have been some intruders, who long ago were designated for the condemnation, godless persons, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and who deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”  Jude 3-4.

This was the reading for today.  It actually calls for Jude 1-10, but these two verses really struck me today.  Whenever I think of Jude, who was the brother of James and not the same person as Judas or Jude the Apostle, but who was a man in the background, an obscure person of the early Church (as the bible tells us in the introduction to the book of Jude) I think of the Beatles’ song, “Hey Jude.”  One of the verses to that song is:

“And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain
Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders
For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder
Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah”

And I often wonder if one of the Beatles actually knew of Jude, what his life was like, and was familiar to his very short book in the Bible, nestled between 2John and Revelations.  What a place to be nestled!!  And I thought about Jude’s warning to the early Church, his statements about intruders and godless persons and how he was trying to warn the early Church of people coming among them who long ago were destined for this condemnation, trying to thwart the teachings of Christ.  Jude was not a well known person in that he was not an Apostle, but the brother of the Apostle James, and many attribute the book of James to Jude.  He is here, warning against people who come among us, trying to pull us away from the faith we have.  In verses 24-25, Jude says, “To the one who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you unblemished and exultant, in the presence of his glory to the only God, our savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority from ages past, now, and for ages to come. Amen.”  What a contrasting statement he makes.  The others who would tear us away from our faith he destines to condemnation, whereas those who keep us from stumbling are given glory, majesty, power, and authority! Wow. He was definitely not “playing the fool,” by “keeping it cool.”

800px-Anastasis-chora1024The last few days on the internet have been pretty wild.  We’ve had what they call “trolls” on many of the sites.  People are designated a troll when they deliberately join a group that they disagree with, to plant inflammatory statements or, in other words, to inflame the group until it degenerates into stone throwing at one another, which makes everyone look bad.  And that is what the troll wants.  He/she wants to disrupt anything good a particular group is accomplishing.  As you become familiar with various groups online, a troll is fairly easy to spot.  And from their first post people are usually calling on the administrator of the site to block them or pull their statements, often asking the troll be blocked from the group.  There have been lively discussions, to be sure!

One person lamented about people setting the bar high for lenten practices, especially when the discussion turned to fasting.  I think some people felt that ideas and examples being shared were somehow meant to be instructions in the vein of “I am so holy, and I do it this way, so follow me” and Pharisaical, at best.  But I do take umbrage with that view.  Partly because I am one of the people who innocently gave fasting ideas, even things that have worked for me.  Lent in the East can be rough, I can assure you!  It is hard to go from our basically hedonistic diets and practices (we are a gluttonous group in the USA) to the lean diet and strict practices of the Eastern Churches during Lent.  I thought the Melkites were the tough guys, abstaining from what they do, and having all the many services they have during each week of Lent, but after reading up on it, the Ukrainian Catholics also have a strict Lenten fast and practices, as do many of the other Eastern Churches.  There are some that have taken more of a western approach and fast only on Wednesdays and Fridays, and not adding more services during the week.  And that is laudable, and often difficult, living where we do (the USA).  We are certainly not outwardly encouraged in this culture to go without…to do without anything…let alone attend more services during the week at Church.

We began to see, as our children aged, a practice that was so frustrating as a parent.  The kids would sign up for soccer, or baseball, or ice hockey, even rugby, and for our fee we got a t-shirt, a team photo, and a trophy.  For our fee.  Not because our children had earned it by winning a tournament or working hard in play-offs, a trophy was a part of the fee we paid to have our sons participate.  Just by paying and showing up, you were guaranteed a trophy.  What lesson in competition, in showing up, in trying your best, was learned? Well, it wasn’t!  And it seems like if we just show up nowadays, we get the trophy.  What is wrong with setting the bar a little higher?

I think that in regards to fasting, we should all consult our priest (or our spiritual director, or both) and discuss Lent and the practices common to our particular Church.  And after that, we will see what we can accomplish during this special time of year.  If others are trying the suggested fasting practices, and can share how they were able to do so, I do not think that sharing that is a bad thing. It is something to strive for.  Our pastor used to tell us, “Hey, I’ve been at this for years. I keep the strict fast. I have worked hard to get to where I can do that.  To begin, try to keep the fast for all of the 40 days; try fasting from just meat for 40 days.  Then next year, add something else to take out of your diet, like cheese or dairy.  Each year, make your own progress to a place where you can feel the accomplishment of your efforts. No one does it the same.  But just take the first step: try.”  And I think that is encouraging.  I try to lead my family (as the main cook and meal-provider) to keep the fast, but it is difficult. Today, as we discussed our dinner menu, my teenaged son said, “Mom, are you sure?  It seems like Jesus was just born!  Are you sure it’s time for us to talk about His death already? Are you sure we have to fast now?”  And I reminded him about Meat Fare Sunday and the readings, and that this Sunday was Cheese Fare, which is why we are gorging on Macaroni and Cheese from scratch tonight (and why I did not want him making himself the boxed stuff for lunch).  Groaning, he just shook his head at the thought of the next 40 days…but we try; we really try.

I have a friend who is a public school teacher.  She once remarked that the bar has been lowered so many times, that most of the kids who graduate high school cannot pass English or Math tests when they get to college.  The tests the districts require each year to fund the schools makes it difficult to do anything else but teach to pass the tests.  And the tests have been dumbed-down over and over again.  It is sad.  Why should we not strive to the highest, rather than settle for lessor accomplishments?  Nowadays colleges require remedial English and Math for most freshmen.

Again, I think this is sad; changing our traditional practices, dumbing-down Lent, so to speak.  We now take the lofty ideal of abstaining…from all meat, dairy, olive oil, and wine…for the entire fasting period of 40 days, and instead ask people to just eat fish sticks on Wednesday and Friday.  Why can we not strive to do better? Why can we not deny ourselves our cushy sustenance and lavish lifestyles, and give things a rest for just 40 days?  Why is talking about that such a bad thing?  A gentleman chastised me in a comment about our legislators who vote for and promote abortion.  I said they should be called out by their Bishops and they should anathematize themselves out of pure guilt.  Pro life is the stance of the Church.  I suggested that we just, as voters, say “no.”  He felt that our faith cannot influence our government, or our legislation, or legislators.  I completely disagree.  We are slip-sliding down that slope, the one we’ve been warned about.  Jude tells us there are those among us who are there to “pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness.”  Does this not apply to everything to do with our belief in Christ Jesus?  Even our government?  Even fasting?

390px-OrthodoxCross(black,contoured)

Fasting is not supposed to be easy.  The Cross was not easy:  “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me, still, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42).  Today’s readings also took us to the betrayal of Christ in the book of Luke.  The apostles could not even stay awake to pray with Him, but were overcome with and were “sleeping from grief.”  Peter denies Him three times “before the cock crows.”  He was alone to face his detractors, those who come among us, “long ago designated for this condemnation, godless persons who pervert the grace of our God…”  And I cannot help but think these readings were selected for us, on Cheese-fare Tuesday, the feast day of Tarasius, Archbishop of Constantinople, who was known as the opener of the 2nd Nicene Council and was called the “father of the poor,” to encourage us to stay the course.  To show by example that there will always be those who try to whisper in our ear, and lead us astray.  It’s like having a commercial from Satan himself, playing in our ear, telling us that if we just “show up” we’ll get our trophy.  Christ paid for our admission, right?  We get the spoils – the t-shirt and the group photo opportunity.  But isn’t it much better to cross the line, to make it to the play-offs, and to win through our own efforts?  To know that we have given it our best and if we fall down, well, Lent is 40 days.  We have the chance to get back in it tomorrow.  If my family grumbles enough, we may sneak in a burger here and there, but for the most part, we will abstain from meat.  As for cheese, well, we are definitely dairy people (lived on them for 20 years) and giving up all dairy is a huge struggle.  My kids really hate tofu, regardless of what I try to disguise it as, but we try to go without dairy.  If we fail, we may attend an extra Vespers or go without TV for a longer period.  The point is to always try.  To be in the game, and not on the side lines.  To put forth our best because Christ was nailed to that cross for each one of us.  He’s paid our admission price.

But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, that they were saying to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following after their own ungodly lusts.” These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life. And have mercy on some, who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear…” Jude 17-23

sunrise easter

Meat Fare – Cheese Fare? Fasting? Lent? Really?

Yep, it’s started. That gradual pulling away from meat and cheese and wine and olive oil.  Great Lent.  This past Sunday (yesterday) was Meat Fare.  It is where we eat all things meat.  From here on, for the next 40+ days, we abstain from meat.  And this week, we enjoy the taste of all things dairy.  This coming Sunday is Cheese Fare, when we eat all things dairy and abstain fully thereafter, because next Monday, the full fast begins.  The Church, in her kindness to those of us in the East, gradually brings about the Fast.  We refer to this period as the Great Fast or Great Lent because it is a full fast, for the entire time.  We have other fasting periods throughout the year, but the Great Fast is a more intense time of fasting, praying, and attending Church services as we prepare our hearts for Pascha, or Easter Sunday.  In the Western or Latin Church, Lent is begun on Ash Wednesday (March 5th, this year).  We always begin our Lent a couple of days before the Latin Church because of Meat Fare and Cheese Fare.

I have had so many questions about these traditions from my western friends and so I thought I would share them with those who read this blog.  We are different from the west in that when we fast during fasting periods throughout the year, we fast every single day.  In the west, during Lent, the fast is Wednesdays and Fridays.  We in the east fast from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays all year long. Lent is especially strict for us.  It does not mean more, nor does it take away from, the fasting practices of the west, it is just different.

There have been quite a number of chats online recently about the possibility of reunifying the Church, Orthodox and Catholic. (I find it interesting that we don’t even mention Protestants in these discussions, but I am sure it is because there are just so many denominations that you cannot enter into dialogue with so many different entities. That is for another day and another blogger to tackle).  In the discussion of Orthodox and Catholic let me state right off that I am no theologian.  I am not versed in the mighty tomes written by the great theologians of history. I am not familiar with verse to verse of the various Councils, nor the validity or non-validity of them.  I am, however, a mom who muses over things; who reads when she can; who studies history when we she can; someone who is trying to live out her faith in the world, as a wife and mother.  And I offer this blog as a place where I ruminate on these things that affect my life and my faith, and in charity, to share those views.  And it is why I subtitled it the way I did.  A professor? No.  A theologian? No. An expert? No.  A wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend and fellow-sinner? You bet!

In regards to all the online discussions, I will admit I let myself get angry at some of the postings and I often deleted all of my input in a string of one series of comments, because I was angry.  But after I simmered down and took a step back and thought about it, I know that getting angry is part of the problem of unifying our churches.  We all think that what we have been taught; what we know of “truth,” is the right way of thinking.  Coming up against opposing views can “get your back up,” as they say.  And I believe that is one of the main reasons true unity will NOT happen, at least in my lifetime.  We have disparity in the Catholic Church, the Latin Rite, itself.  Some want Tridentine Masses only; some want Novus Ordo; some even want women to be ordained…to the deaconate at the very least.  Then there are the differences between the Eastern Churches and the Roman/Latin Church. It is what sparked anger and controversy over the internet this past weekend.  How can we expect to welcome those who are not in unity with Rome, into our messed up family?  As one of my FB friends stated, we are the children (those of us in the Eastern Churches) of divorced parents…the Roman and Orthodox Churches.  And quite often the children of divorce suffer far more than the parents ever did, living a little in both worlds.  That is where the Eastern Churches in communion with Rome find themselves – united with Rome but different….Orthodox in thinking and liturgical expression, but not Orthodox.  It’s sometimes a messed-up place to be. (As I am the child of divorced parents, I feel the analogy is justified).

In the last few days, here in the most northern state in the union, the sunlight has begun to change.  It is coming in my windows during the day, and it is staying light until about 6:00 pm.  We still have Christmas lights up inside the house and outside the house! This weekend, we actually talked about taking them down, because there is so much sunshine!  And I saw something this weekend (well, it really started last week) that bothered me.  Dust bunnies….everywhere.  It is amazing what you don’t see in the dark.  We felt all warm and cozy in our snow-covered lives.  We had these pretty twinkling lights to add to the warmth and coziness, even after all the Christmas decor was removed (we forgot our hanging mistletoe ball, but I am thinking about leaving that hanging in the entryway…just cuz!) to keep us smiling and joyful during the long, cold, snowy winters.  But this weekend, I saw so many dust bunnies.  And as I wrote in my previous posts, I hurt my back chasing dust bunnies last week.  It is still hurt and it makes it worse because I really should not go after them for awhile, yet!  But man oh man, are they driving me nuts! And I am determined to get our shedding dog (English Springer Spaniel) completely shaved…so much dog hair everywhere.  What does all this have to do with Lent?  Plenty…

I realized that in climates and cultures that experience fully the four seasons, that Spring is a big deal.  And Spring Cleaning has taken on a whole new meaning.  Because of the increased daylight, I am encouraged to do more. I am loosing that winter lethargy that comes with just a few hours of daylight a day and mountains of snow.  And I want to get into all the corners and really clean.  It was amazing how much dust I could see in the light of day.  (Note: I clean my house, I do.  Each week I sweep and dust and clean.  But it is amazing how much you miss when you only get 4-5 hours of daylight each day!!).  Lent is like that for our souls.  We are encouraged to pare down the gluttony that overtakes us in the winter and to live cleanly and simply in the light of day, and in the LIGHT of Christ.  He is the Light.  If Christ were to look into all the corners of His home, my soul, would He find “dust bunnies” of bad habits and things I need to clean out?  Oh, most definitely!

And how does this work with mentioning the reunion of Orthodox and Catholic?  Well, in the Spring we clean our homes, we clean our souls, and we prepare for the greatest event in humankind, the death and resurrection of Christ, Our Lord.  We need to get our Spiritual House in order.  And to me, that includes our Churches as well.  There have been scandals and wrong-doing all over our Churches, east and west.  (Even more in Protestant churches, but again, for another blogger to tackle). Our clergy have not had an easy time, be they saint or sinner.  We can never unite two such large and complicated entities as the Catholic and Orthodox Churches if their people are not completely united – and in a state of grace. There’s this corny song that popped into my head:

“Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth
The peace that was meant to be.
With God as our father
Brothers all are we.
Let me walk with my brother
In perfect harmony.

Let peace begin with me
Let this be the moment now.
With every step I take
Let this be my solemn vow.
To take each moment
And live each moment
With peace eternally.
Let there be peace on earth,
And let it begin with me.”

And even though it has been said and said, and we laugh at some of the corniness of it, there is a simple truth in it.  When we lay aside all the things that make us different and focus on what it is that is the same about us, regardless of our current affiliation, it all has to start with me.  Each of us has to choose to take that step towards peace and unity.  And the Church, both east and west, has given us this incredible time – Great Lent – in order to focus our hearts on getting right with God and our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We will “spring clean” our hearts.  The place where God resides in all of us who acknowledge and welcome His indwelling in our innermost self needs to be cleaned out, rededicated, and redirected towards allowing just God to be there.  Lent gives us this time to throw out all the things that get in the way of true unity with Him.

Where we live is unique with regards to sunlight. It is the first time that the pathway of the earth, and so the sun, is different for me.  Growing up in Southern California, I was bathed in sunshine almost all year long.  We relocated to Washington, in the greater Seattle area, for three years.  That is when I first experienced the differing angles of the sun, because of where we are on the earth.  How the earth moves and the sun is in a different place than where I was used to it being…directly overhead…was so striking for me!  We were exposed to shorter days, more rain, and snow (weather!!! A foreign concept to most SoCal people).  Moving an additional 3000+ miles north to the Last Frontier in Alaska, the sun is different, again.  Where we live, in the wintertime, if we do not go into town, we never see the sun itself.  We see the light from it, but the orb itself is behind the mountains.  Such a weird thing for me.  And now that the earth is changing and its pathway around the sun is changing, bringing us the new season of Spring, I am once again noticing where the sun shows itself.  It is only on the south side of our house.  It comes up on the eastern side, about 2/3 of the way south on our living room wall, and as the earth rotates, it moves to the kitchen and finally goes down about midway through our master bedroom wall.  We have no windows on the eastern and only 1 window on our western walls.  We have lots of windows on the northern side of the house, and many more on the southern side.  The sun never directly touches our front yard.  You can see it over the hill on the back yard side of the house.  But it is not directly over the northern side of our property.  And that is so weird for me.  It was always within a visual confirmation in SoCal.  I could always find the sun during the day.  But not up here.  And when that sunlight directs itself through my full-glass dutch doors in my dining room, across the kitchen floor, to the living room….well, let’s just say I am motivated to clean.

To be esoteric about it, the place of the sun is like the issues with the various Churches.  We all have sunlight (son-light) in Christ Jesus.  We hold the same tenets of the faith to be true.  We worship in many differing ways, and still the “son” will light our pathway.  Just like no matter where you live on the earth, you will get some sunshine. It may differ in quality, quantity, and heat shared, but you get the light from it.  Our differing Churches are like that.  What we can do is take note of the differences, as I have from living in different places and noted the sunlight changes, the seasons, the weather patterns.  But we should not focus on those differences and make erroneous decisions based upon what we see as different.  For example, I do not live in an igloo cut from blocks of ice; nor do I drive a dog sled.  I live in a housing development; I drive my same car; I shop at most of the same stores you do (most…I do miss some of them!!) and eat at many of the same restaurants you do (although I would love for my favorites to come up here – hint-hint to Del Taco, Miguel’s and Miguel’s Jr. and In-and-Out Burgers to name a few).  I don’t sit around my igloo “chawing” away on seal blubber or deer meat.  Misconceptions are rampant in the different Churches.  Yes, if you are a Roman Catholic, you can attend Divine Liturgy and it counts!  It’s the same sacrifice, the same faith….and it counts towards your obligation!  We celebrate the same sacraments, we just call them mysteries instead.  We administer them a little differently, but they are the same; they are just as valid.  My husband spent 4 years in the seminary and was ordained. He can serve in a Latin-Rite church (and has) and all of the Eastern Churches.  He is now officially on loan to an Eastern Church that is a different one than the one he was ordained in, because there is only one Byzantine Church in all of Alaska!  And it counts and is valid and licit.

This Lenten season, perhaps we can all try to see into the lives of those who worship differently than we do.  Attend Divine Liturgy at the local Byzantine Church.  Venture into an Orthodox Church for Vespers (you will be so glad you did – trust me).  Try and see, while you are cleaning up your soul, that some of the issues we all share in life are misconceptions about each other.  And as we clean our souls, our homes, our hearts, we can also clean our bodies.  We can abstain the 40+ days of Lent from all the things we over-ate through the Holidays and wintertime.  We can endeavor to find the simple, the humble, the Divine in life.  We can stop with the noise and turn off all noisy media (try not watching TV or listening to music 24/7).  We can delve deeper into our faith by reading the scholars and the theologians of our faith and of the faith of our sister Churches.  We can pray more.  And starting today, for those of us in the east, we will abstain from meat.  It is a start.  I will endeavor to read more, to pray more, to eat less, and to get those darn dust bunnies under control so the light of day can shine – in my home, yes, but in my heart, too!

“…the righteous into eternal life.”

Last Judgement IconFor those of us who are Byzantine or Eastern Catholic, this Sunday is Meat Fare Sunday.  What is that?  Well, from this Sunday until Pascha, we will allow no meat to touch our lips. And to begin the Great Fast, we start Meat Fare by listening to the Gospel of Matthew and looking upon the Icon of the Last Judgement.   The icon of the Last Judgement shows much about the coming Last Judgement of Christ.  I love this scriptural reference to the sheep and the goats that we will read and as we read the words, we can see it in this icon.  (Mt 21:31-46).

When our sons were younger and we were living on dairy farms, we had the supreme good fortune to belong to 4-H.  What a wonderful group of people we came to know and love!  We were encouraged to get as involved as we could, which meant we were very active!  I have fond memories of rushing our junior sheep to the State Fairgrounds in the back of a calf trailer.  Once we got them to their designated stalls, we then had to haul out all the hay and feed, watering dishes, etc.  We set up a mini-campsite and someone from our group was with the animals 24/7.  I can personally vouch for washing and grooming sheep – they can be every bit as stubborn as goats!  The goats moan a lot louder, and dig their feet in a little harder, but eventually, they can be persuaded to cooperate. Sheep and goats are so very similar that some people can confuse them.  Personality-wise, as I said, they can both be stubborn, but goats are a lot stronger and tended to be more “loners,” whereas the sheep tended to bunch together and be more fearful of everything.  The only thing they did not fear was their owners, their shepherd.  In fact, we had problems keeping them in their pens. They escaped numerous times, looking for my sons.  They loved the attention and they also knew the boys would always feed and water them.  Goats can be left in an enclosure but you have to give them something to do or they will eat everything…they have to be kept occupied or they would get into trouble. Sound familiar?

Our Lord used images to teach people and the people he most interacted with were usually connected to the land…farmers.  And they knew the ins and outs of farm life.  They knew the size of a mustard seed; they knew about the threshing floor; they were very knowledgeable about farm animals, especially sheep and goats.  So Christ used them as examples.  It is no different on Meat Fare Sunday, when we muse over the scripture references to sheep and goats, and gaze upon the Icon.  And being intimate with sheep and goats myself, I have always wondered why I identify more with goats than sheep.

The verses we read this week scare me, because of my tendency to be more goat-like.  And Christ does not mince words in these verses, either.  “Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”    I don’t know about you, but being cursed by Christ and told to enter into the eternal fire sort of scares me.  He is lamenting all the times He reached for us and we did not respond to Him. He gave us all free will, an opportunity to hear Him say to us, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;” I would personally much rather hear that,  than the cursing above.  He separates the nations!  On an international scale, that is also frightening.  The Last Judgement applies to EVERYONE.  No one gets to skip this part.  I was taught that we all have two final judgements – the one we experience personally upon our death, and the second one when Christ comes again, at the Final Judgement of the Nations.  It is FINAL. It is complete. It is just.

This Sunday we begin to prepare ourselves for Great Lent by giving up the eating of flesh.  We call it Meat Fare, as I said before.  From this Sunday forward, until Pascha, no flesh may be consumed, but dairy is allowed on all days of this week, even Wednesday and Friday.  The following Sunday is Cheese Fare, and after that we keep the strict Fast of Great Lent, where we do not consume flesh, dairy, olive oil, or wine until the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.  During this preparation for Great Lent, we also celebrate the Saturdays of the Souls, beginning with last Saturday through next Saturday.  This is when we commemorate those who have gone before us.  It all ties in with the Last Judgement.  We pray for the souls of our departed, and pray we see them again, at the Last Judgement.

Mother TheresaSo, when you think of yourself, do you see the cute, little lamb or the cranky, old goat?  Every year I struggle with this because these verses are pretty explicit. And I usually think of Bl. Mother Theresa.  When Christ lists all the ways in which the goats have let Him down, I see Bl. Mother Theresa, out in the alleyways of Calcutta, taking care of all the lost sheep.  She fed, she housed, she clothed, she comforted.  How do I measure up? Not so well.  Now I realize we are not supposed to compare ourselves to Bl. Mother Theresa or any other Christian, we are only to look to Christ.  And I do.  I do look to Christ and when He exhorts us in these verses, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for the one least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt. 25:40) and I tremble, just a little bit.  Am I doing enough?  Is my heart right with God?  Is He the center of my day?  Where do I lack? Where do I fall short?  Where must I rip out the goat and replace it with the sheep?

lastjudgementSo here I am, struggling with my identity, remembering that Christ was literally comparing sheep and goats.  And I remember some things about the animals we had.   Sheep hang out in groups.  Goats go their own way.  Sheep are meekly led where their master directs them.  Goats you have to chase down and collar them and drag them where you want them to go. Christ was revealing His true self to His Apostles, and “when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”  He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21: 15-17).  Christ refers to us as His “sheep.”  It is not because we are mindless drones.  He gave us free will.  We need to understand that our free will can corrupt us until we are goats; we become stubborn and we choose not to follow Christ.  Christ will not drag us by our collars, rather, He will open the gates of Heaven for us, allowing us to meekly enter into Paradise with Him.

I learned something a long time ago that, for me, reminds me of the importance of things said in scripture.  Whenever Christ wants to be sure you get what He is saying, and that He means, unwaveringly, what He is saying, he says it three times.  For example, “Amen Amen Amen, I say to you…” or  “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.”  With the proper emphasis, He was telling St. Peter that the flock Christ was gathering to Himself was to be guided, guarded, and fed by St. Peter in His absence.  Christ left us St. Peter and the Apostles, and their wisdom in the form of His Church.  Their wisdom has come down to us over the centuries in the prayers and prostrations, in the exhortations written down for us, in the historical record left to us, all bound together in our traditions and in Holy Tradition; the unshakeable truth that is our Faith.

“This Sunday sets before us the eschatological dimension of Lent: the Great Fast is a preparation for the Second Coming of the Savior, for the eternal Passover in the Age to Come, a theme that is also the focus of the first three days of Holy Week. But the judgment is not only in the future. Here and now, each day and each hour, in hardening our hearts toward others and in failing to respond to the opportunities we are given of helping them, we are already passing judgment on ourselves.”

“The parable of the Last Judgment is about Christian love. Not all of us are called to work for “humanity,” yet each one of us has received the gift and the grace of Christ’s love. We know that all persons ultimately need this personal love—the recognition in them of their unique soul in which the beauty of the whole creation is reflected in a unique way. We also know that people are in prison and are sick and thirsty and hungry because that personal love has been denied them. And, finally, we know that however narrow and limited the framework of our personal existence, each one of us has been made responsible for a tiny part of the Kingdom of God, made responsible by that very gift of Christ’s love. Thus, on whether or not we have accepted this responsibility, on whether we have loved or refused to love, shall we be judged.”  (http://lent.goarch.org/judgement)  

On this day, we sing tones and prayers that have been handed down to us through the ages.  I find such comfort in that.  I also find that as I pray and ponder on this year after year, I am less inclined to be such a goat. I try, rather, to celebrate my uniqueness of self and soul, and to rejoice in the fact that my faith helps me to prayerfully hope that Christ will say to me, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25: 33-34) 

The Kontakion for this Sunday is:
“When Thou comest, O God, upon the earth with glory, the whole world will tremble. The river of fire will bring men before Thy judgment seat, the books will be opened and the secrets disclosed. Then deliver me from the unquenchable fire, and count me worthy to stand on Thy right hand, Judge most righteous.”
Easter Divine Liturgy