“…children are a heritage from the Lord…”

Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from him.  Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their opponents in court. Psalm 127:3-5

Family can mean so many, many different things. Some of us, me for example, have very small families. My parents immigrated to the USA. Both of them are only children. So I have no aunts, uncles, or cousins. And I have just 1 brother. Any other relatives I have are living in other countries. My paternal grandparents came to the USA, because they did not want to be away from their only son. So for me, 6 people at the table was big. I married into a large family. My father-in-law was the eldest of 10 siblings. My mother-in-law is the eldest of 3 siblings. They are all “Germans from Russia” or “Volga Russians” and they all married within their culture. Until me. Our wedding  was filled with literally hundreds of people I did not know, and may have only seen that one time.

When we got married, we wanted a large family. We decided on 6 kids. Well, biology and God chose to make that number 2 and then we adopted, which brought us to 3 boys. My oldest son has two kids (although I think they may be thinking more might be fun) and our middle son has three girls (and we think there will be more!!). Our youngest is not married yet, so we will see on him. My sister-in-law, however, decided to keep up with her paternal grandmother (Grandma Kaiser) and is the mother of 10 children. They are vacationing with us with 9 of their 10. It has been so exhausting but has brought so much joy and laughter. I will miss them terribly when they leave. And when they leave, I leave for 10 days! LOL! Our lives are insanely crazy right now, but as my head hits the pillow each night I am so grateful for these many moments with family.

When you live so far apart, relationships have to be re-established and sometimes there can be mis-communication and missed opportunities for healthy communication. It is a tightrope and/or a tap dance. But if you work at it, you can enjoy such a wonderfully full life.

Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
“Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the gates. (Proverbs 31: 28-31)

The crown of marriage (quite literally in Byzantine/Orthodox weddings) is our families. Some of us have to adopt to have a family; some of us have friends who become our families. However you gain a family, it is what we pivot our lives around.

In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence,
and his children will have a refuge. (Proverbs 14:26)

I truly feel that when we surround ourselves with the love of God and instill this love in our families, we are doubly blessed. But oftentimes we worship differently and this causes issues, too. In order to keep the peace we sometimes have to be silent. And being a silent witness to your beliefs can challenge even the greatest theologians. And above all, we need love. And love translates to some of the most sublime moments we will ever experience in our lives. This week, we have had some of the most precious moments in our lives, so far. And it is through “smushing” all this family together around a single table; into a motorhome and SUV and trudging through rain and wind and enjoy the beauty of where we live, that we are forging a stronger family. We are blessed.

 

 

 

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“…whenever you face trials…”

The weeks seem to race past us. Days become a blur. And every once in awhile, we stop, look around, and get confused. What day is it? What was I going to get accomplished today? Some days I am so tired and I cannot figure out why. I think stress is taking its toll.

I know I am not the best when it comes to managing issues. I prefer to ignore them until I have to deal with them. Putting your head in the sand truly helps no one – especially yourself. We always hear about people being afraid of something and then when they experience that fearful thing, comment something like, “It wasn’t all that bad. I don’t know what I was afraid of.” And truthfully, you sleep better once you tackle that thing you are avoiding.

For me, there are just so many plates I am juggling right now. And the pots are boiling over. And I dropped the ball…again. Sometimes it is just more than one person can focus on. I feel like I should just fall down in a blob of crying messiness. But somehow, when I think I will collapse, I just feel empty. Like a great silence. I can feel my heart racing. I know my blood pressure is raised because I can feel it in my ears and at the top of my head. And yet, I feel still and silent. And that sort of scares me.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

Inside my heart, and sometimes actually in my right mind, I know this verse. I know the Lord is with me, and what I face is NOTHING compared to those 3 hours spent on the Cross for me. NOTHING is compared to that sacrifice. And so I started thinking of other promises from God, as I could hear my heart beating in my ears:

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4

“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

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27

Just reading these verses calms my heartbeat and restores a lovely pattern of inhaling and exhaling that is not one of stress. And as I calm down, once more I recall one of my favorite Psalms:
“When hard pressed, I cried to the LORD; he brought me into a spacious place.
The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” Psalm 118: 5-6
It is hard to stress too much, when we truly believe in the promises God has given us in his Word, and through our Traditions. God has placed Himself here for us. We can visit Him in
our hearts and minds, and we can join others in rejoicing when we attend Church as a community of believers. It is so nice to know that there is a place I can go where I am welcome and I can pray with others. We can also seek asylum in the friendships we develop around us. We can share our stressors and sometimes just talking about them really helps.
Sometimes we are just called to juggle things for awhile. The Lord is setting the pieces in place and when it is time, everything will settle in. I know that. I do. Reminding myself of that is the hard part. Reminding myself that the Lord is in charge, and not mere mortal man, gives me great comfort. It is a practice I need to hone! LOL!  And as I look at facts, figures, and my calendar, I sometimes let the issues of mortals cloud my peace; they interrupt my sense of the holy. And that is a man-made construct, of which I am guilty. I need to embrace that emptiness and that silence I find when I stop to contemplate my stressors, because what I have come to see is that the silence is the peace of God and the faith of God in my life. He is allowing me to calm my heart rate and my breathing, and grasp the fact that He has all of this. Truly all of it. I write this to remind myself. And if I can help give others hope and a sense of security by sharing this crazy journey, that is an extra blessing.

“…wait patiently for Him to act…”

May their memories be eternal. The bombing of Churches in Egypt and the Middle East on Palm Sunday makes reflections on my Lenten journey seem so superfluous; silly in some ways; and almost disrespectful in others. It is certainly sobering and makes most of us stop and take into account what we are doing and what is important to us, in our daily lives.

This past week has been pretty stressful, personally, dealing with the health of my parents and my mother-in-law, as well as trying to find housing solutions. I don’t know about you, but purposely going into debt scares me. Taking on a home loan after not having one for a few years is pretty intimidating. The bankers have been wonderful to deal with, and apparently we are a good “risk” for them, but still, the idea of a lot of debt at my age is a little scary. And then to see these images of death and bloodshed on Palm Sunday, it made me draw up short and just stop the nonsense for a few minutes. The least we can do is pray for the lives lost and their families. It is just so horrific. The shooting of 60 Tomahawk missiles into Syria set me on edge to begin with; I do not want World War III. I don’t. I am a mother of a veteran. One son is enough, trust me.

When my dad was talking to me from the hospital ICU, he sounded so far away and so very vulnerable. My dad has always prided himself on his physical strength. His handshake could always crush another person’s hand, and he always shook your hand in a strong way; his hugs could steal your breath away. Even in his 70s. But now, at 90, with Parkinson’s and Dementia stealing much of his daily life from him, he was still able to tell me how amazed everyone at the hospital was with his overall strength. And he took much comfort in that. And pride. And he always joked that he never exercised, not since his 20s, and he never understood the craze. He did power walking and rode a bicycle, but nothing more. And he’s always been so very strong. It is hard for the strong to allow themselves to become weak; to allow others to care for them is hard; to acknowledge their weakness is even more difficult.

I believe that we are seeing a time in our world where the strengths we have come to rely upon are being challenged, in a world-wide, political realm, but also personally. And this is Holy Week, too. God has timing that is beyond our comprehension and beyond our expectations. I know that the people at the parish church in Tanta had no idea that Palm Sunday was their last day on earth. They had gone to Church to celebrate Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, knowing that in the next 3 days He would be condemned to death….”Crucify Him” the crowds would chant after yelling “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” a mere three days earlier. And these Coptic Christians, who are now martyrs for the faith, were chanting, “Hosanna” as their lives were taken. 43 lives taken and 100s injured in an act of terrorism against innocent Christians. Our world is careening out of control in the sense that things are not as they were, and I wonder where we are headed. My dad, personally, is having to surrender control over his life and well-being. He has to allow others to care for him. He has to trust others will have his best interests at heart. Who do we trust to do that for us on a local, national, and international level? Who has my best interest at heart?

I have learned over this Lenten journey that God is in control. Always. We see life taken away and we wonder why; we question things like this bombing in Egypt; we wonder where God is in all of this. But I honestly believe His hand is in it all. Every moment of it. Sometimes the souls He brings home to Him, He wants with Him in Paradise. We mourn the lives lost, yes, because of the horror of how they were taken and the loss we experience when those we love are taken. But I try to remember the promises God has made. It is hard on those of us still here – those He has taken are still singing “Hosanna in the highest,” only with Heaven’s choir. We are angry at the violent way in which they were taken. But mostly we grieve for ourselves. Because we are still here. Learning to trust God in all things? That, my friend, is the journey. Always trusting. Always.

God is looking at the entire timeline. We are standing in our own little section of eternity. (Teeny-tiny little space we each occupy during our lifetimes). He sees eternity from its inception until He comes again and makes all things whole. I place my trust in His wisdom and love for me. I let my frustration and fear, sadness and expectations, completely go. Once you allow God to rule in all areas – truly all of them – you are free. It is a constant struggle to release our control and hand it to God. A daily struggle. But the rewards are eternal. If we think about the control we exert on our environment on a daily basis, handing all of that over to God is intimidating and frightening. We argue over who has control of the TV remote; who is driving which car; whose choice it is for the meal we will eat or where we go that day; even which house to live in or what Church we attend. Handing over complete control to God in a culture of “control freaks” is an intimidating task, and one that is impossible without prayer and complete trust in God. It’s something we all need to focus on, moment by moment. Trust, and allow God to “take the wheel.” (from Carrie Underwood’s song, “Take the Wheel”). During Holy week, we need to focus on our journey, and walk with Christ on His journey this week, humbly asking Him to give us hearts to see the way.

I pray that our Holy Week be ever fruitful and we each allow God to “make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 2:5-6) God is in control and He truly has our best interests at heart. We cannot allow ourselves to overly trust in human choices and decisions. Things go awry daily. Missiles are shot at the wrong target; people say stupid things; poor choices are made. In amongst all of that, God is silently, quietly, waiting for us all to listen to Him.

Blessed Holy Week. For those lives lost in these bombings – our Coptic Christian brothers and sisters – may their memories be eternal.

“..it is not yet prayer.”

Have you ever been told that you need to provide more quiet time, so your child does not get “over stimulated”?  Mondays were always the worst day of the week for me. Especially when our kids were younger. Mondays were the day after the weekends. And every Monday morning I have ever had with my kids was always “melt down Monday.” My kids were done. They needed sleep, quiet, time outdoors just digging in the dirt, and this momma needed some quiet time, too. Our house always looked the worse for the wear on Mondays. And I realized it was because our weekends were spent running all over the place, basically just checking in at home to sleep, change clothes, and run out and “do” until we collapsed on Sunday nights.

Well, this grandma is overstimulated. I am raw today. This weekend was insanely busy for us. We went to a meeting with lots of new people on Friday evening, a banquet that we volunteered to help with on Saturday, breakfast with our kids/grandkids Sunday morning (followed by a new Disney movie, so we were there until after 2pm), preparing for the husband’s business trip today (laundry, etc), Church Sunday evening, and dinner was late after Church last night – 9:30pm. My poor husband had an early flight out this morning – 4:30am. Ugh. He is tired! And I am strung out and raw. Sometimes, even though I do love being with people, I prefer being at home. Quietly at home. With my husband and a good book, a nice fire crackling in the wood stove, and my dog sitting next to me. Maybe a glass of Scotch next to me, or a cup of tea, or both! Ha-Ha!

Today’s journaling exercise for Lent was to list 30 interesting things about yourself. It was so hard. And I realized some things. I prefer being at home. Pretty much a homebody. I prefer the company of my husband, most of all, and our family and close friends. I don’t need to go out and party or do a lot. In my younger days, I was in a sorority. I worked at a TGIF restaurant, waitressing and bartending – talk about a lot of people! I have partied until I am not really interested in that anymore. I have had the days of kid’s sports and that commitment, keeping us running all week long. And I adore seeing mountains with snow on them over the beach any day of the week (sorry, Mary!! Ha-Ha!). I realized I am a cold climate person. And I have come to learn that I like silence. I really, really, do. I prefer it to music or noise, of any kind, at all. Who would have thought? (Not my parents when I was 16!!).

Our reading today was about how we pray. And I learned some things about myself. I realize that I love the Lenten season above any other season. I love these protracted times of reflection and lessons, of reading Scripture and learning how to pray more often and more fruitfully. I love learning how to be more simple, more quiet, more reflective, more in tune with God. Some quotes by St. Theophan the Recluse really touched my heart today, in a profound way. “Prayer itself is the piercing of our hearts by pious feelings towards God, one after another – feelings of humility, submission, gratitude, doxology, forgiveness, heart-felt prostration, brokenness, conformity to the Will of God, etc.” “When these feelings are present, our praying is prayer, and when they are absent, it is not yet prayer.” And it spoke to me about the quality of my prayer life. Do I prepare my space, my mind, my heart, before I pray? Do I jump back up and rejoin the world once I have completed my prayers? Do I allow those wonderful feelings to follow me out into my day? One of his suggestions was to “focus your thoughts, casting off from them all earthly activities and objects. Then call to mind the One to Whom you are praying, Who He is and who you are, as you begin this prayerful petition to Him.” How often do we center ourselves, detaching our minds from the world, and wholely giving ourselves over to this connection with God? I have spent many years, in many different ways, trying to accomplish this feat. And often I have come up against a sort of roadblock to what I feel is a successful time of prayer. And St. Theophan said this, “..stop, do not read further, but stand with attention and feeling in that place, and use the prayer in that place and the feelings engendered by it to feed your soul.” And I felt that I had learned something valuable. Quite often we read scripture and we only retain a word or two, perhaps a phrase, but the entire reading is off, floating out of our minds. Or when we read the words of philosophers or the Church Fathers, we retain such a small bit of it, and we feel like we have failed. But today I learned that it is not a failure, but it is precisely what I was intended to receive from that exercise. My soul was touched and I felt buoyed by reading that tract of writing, from whomever, and was able to retain what was pertinent to me and my soul.

As I read the Psalms today, a verse here and there struck me. For example, “…God is on my side. God, I praise your promise; in You I trust, I do not fear. What can mere mortals do to me?” (Psalm 56:10-12) and then “My soul rests in God alone, from Whom comes my salvation. God alone is my rock and salvation, my secure height; I shall never fall.” (Psalm 62:2-3). And I was touched, in light of my experiences and our current political climate, by this: “..they bless with their mouths, but they inwardly curse.” (Psalm 62:5) . And that last is just a portion of a phrase.

I was able to take these moments from Scripture and feel them in my heart. I stopped and recorded them, so as to keep them close to me. I believe St. Theophan was right when he said, “All praying leaves prayer in the soul – continual prayer in this manner gives it root, and patience in this work establishes a prayerful spirit. May God grant this to you by the prayers of our All-pure Lady, the Theotokos.”

Sometimes our resolve to live peacefully gets dashed upon the rocks of reality. My weekend totally invaded my space, and used up any of the “social” energy I had within me. Don’t misunderstand; I totally enjoyed my time out and spent much of it laughing (especially at the cross-eyed and mounted Mountain Lion they were trying to auction off) with friends. But, I wore my psyche out. And, more than usual, I was looking forward to my prayer time today. As our Sunday wound down, things got worse and worse. Our drive-through experience at 9:00pm on a Sunday night? Well, we waited 20 minutes in a line we were stuck in; our food finally arrived and off we went only to spill the drink in my new car as we pulled into our driveway, and the bags broke as we exited the car, with burgers flying into the snow…even the last bag split as we made our way inside. It was an exhausting end to a very “peopley” weekend. Thanks be to God for silence, quiet, and prayer time to rejuvenate my mind and soul. And as we laid our heads upon our pillows, we both apologized for the misplaced anger we had towards one another, and just rested. I recited the Jesus Prayer over and over, as I drifted off. And I knew my husband would be tiredly flying off to his commitments across the state, and I would be blessed to spend my morning with God, in prayer. My husband has blessed my soul in so many ways, but chiefly among them, is the ability to be at home. Thanks be to God for these priceless moments and opportunities to pray, for generosity of faith of my husband, and for this wonderful season of Lent, lately realized as my favorite time of the year.

Blessed Lent

“..your Father, who sees what is hidden…”

“Sacrifice and offering you do not want; but ears open to obedience you gave me. Holocausts and sin-offerings you do not require; so I said, “Here I am; your commands for me are written in the scroll. To do your will is my delight; my God, your law is in my heart.”” That is from Psalm 40, verses 7-9 in my New American Bible (2007).

As I read this during my prayer time today, I realized that I am a wanderer. We all are. Like someone roaming in the desert, as the Jewish people did for 40 years (there’s that number 40 again) searching for the Promised Land. We all try and fill ourselves with things of this world, thinking we will be satisfied. But nothing, absolutely nothing, can fill that hole in our souls like God. And today, as I prayed and read and journaled, I realized something profound. All God asks of us is an ear to listen to His commands for our lives. He just asks us to listen. Just listen.

As we raise our children, we begin young (hopefully) to teach them how to sit still. I can still hear myself admonishing my sons, “Would you just sit still and listen???” And hopefully they come to learn how to enjoy moments of stillness and silence. I have a very close friend who is a teacher. She had been teaching older kids for a few years and decided to return to teaching kindergarten. One of our first conversations after her change of grade levels this year was pretty funny. She kept telling me how exhausted she was and then she said, “Oh my goodness!! It’s like herding cats!!” And I just laughed. I know what it is like when I have just two of my grandchildren (both under 5) over here, and I try to get them to sit with me for a bit of quiet time. Ha-Ha! Not gonna happen. (Unless they happen to want to cuddle, then I just bask in the moment). Recently my oldest grandchild and I had a slight disagreement when he informed me that I had been “breaking the rules” when I wore my shoes inside their house. Long story short, I explained why I had mine on; however, I wanted him to just listen to me and he would not stop telling me I was in trouble and a rule-breaker. I held up my hand (signaling “stop”) and told him to just think on what I had been telling him for a moment (my reasons for having my shoes on). He kept trying to speak, and I kept holding up my hand. I’m sure you can just imagine the scene in your head – a grandma and a 5-year-old having a lively discussion! The expression on his face was hilarious, as his mind juggled “thinking” and “being quiet,” at the same time. Eventually he realized that at that moment, that it was okay we had our shoes on. And I also shared with him that I was glad he understood there were rules in his home, and that he needed to obey, as do we all. And that I was proud of him for finally listening, and being quiet.

Don’t we all struggle with being silent and listening, while learning at the same time? My youngest son loves to plug in and listen to his music while he studies, with those darn earplugs in his ears. It is so loud that I can hear it when I am in the room with him. He would wear them 24/7 if he could!  I just cannot read or learn that way. But for him, it somehow settles his mind so he can think. And sometimes things that “distract” us can actually be instructive, and bring us closer to what it is we need to hear. The world and all its chaos can be that thing that brings us closer to God. It has for me. I was able to see it as an entirety, and not as separate things. I chose to unplug from much of the noise around me.

The book of Matthew today was our Scripture reading and it was so perfect. Matthew 6: 16-18: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father, who is hidden; and your Father, who sees what is hidden, will repay you.”

We often want others to know and acknowledge our efforts at fasting and keeping other traditions in our faith life. As silly as it may seem, this can be seen in other aspects of our lives, as well. For example, who doesn’t want everyone in the world to see and acknowledge our new driver’s license? Or to share accomplishments like passing a course we were taking or graduation from schools? “Did you see what I did?” We want others to acknowledge us; to be proud of us. And that can be a distraction. The Lord asks us to work at our holiness with Him, and in secret. No one needs to know how we are changing, spiritually, or exactly what it is we are working on (“I gave up coffee for Lent and it is killing me” or “I gave up TV this Lent – what is happening on Chicago Fire?” “I spent three hours at Vespers last night; I am so tired!!” or worse, “I didn’t see you at Stations this week; why weren’t you there?”). Quite often our Spiritual Fathers or our Priest/Pastor may give us spiritual instruction – that is for our edification only. We need to do the work to become closer to God, but do it in quiet solitude. We should not complain that we can’t join friends for drinks, or food, and good times during Lent, either. A wise clerical friend of mine (you know who you are!!) once told me that we are also bound by the “laws of hospitality.” If a friend invites you over for dinner, or shows up at your home with foods that are not compliant with the fast, do you eat them? Or do you complain that you are fasting and cannot enjoy a meal with them? My wise friend insists that, no, we need to enjoy the hospitality of others, extending to them the art of friendship. The Lord will see what is hidden, in our hearts, and will know our mindsets. It does not mean, however, that we party every night and just say, “I’m keeping the law of hospitality,” either. We need to make our best effort to keep the Fast in our own way each Lent; but nonetheless, we can still be hospitable and kind to others. We smile, we wash our faces and “anoint our hair” even though we are fasting and spending more time in prayer than what may be our normal routine. “..your Father, who sees what is hidden…”

And I have found that, this Lent in particular, I am enjoying the separation from distractions even more than I thought I would. I never could study like my son, in headphones or with noise. I did my best studying at a library, surrounded by books and quiet. At my quiet time in the mornings, I am so excited to read more and learn more, that I have no other distractions! Now, don’t get me wrong – I approach it sort of backwards! Usually, I get up and have my coffee, catch up on social media (I am only checking in once a day, if I can limit it to that) and then I have a second cup of coffee while I enjoy the daily press briefings from Sean Spicer. I know it is weird, but it gets my day going and I love how he does his press briefings!! By that time, my son has left to catch the bus and I make my way to my office, in silence, TV off/social media put away for the day. I am ready to truly start my day. It is profoundly effective for me to shut myself away in the stillness of my home. And I am also discovering I would much rather do this every day than go back and forth on social media. I realized that I am not missing a whole lot. And I may just continue to use my phone as a phone, and not have social media run/control my life. I miss some things, yes, but I sure am gaining an awful lot, too. Detoxing from anything is hard, and this is no exception.

And today, as I entered my little office and opened the drapes for the morning sunshine to sweep over my desk, and when I saw the Psalms and the Scripture from Matthew, I was so happy. I realize that this Lent, I am happy. Honestly happy, with a slight tendency to giggle and enjoy my days. I am not wearing “sackcloth and ashes,” and I am prayerfully aware that I am in a good mood. I am in week 2 of Lent and I can feel that my life is being redirected in a good way! I love that I am once again tying myself to my spiritual roots and it is invigorating me. It is making me come alive. One other thing that has begun to really help with this is our weather. I find it so interesting that the Church, in all its wisdom, ordained that we have Lent when we do….as we are emerging from the cloister of those many dark and wintry days, as we are beginning to “see the light.” We have had some extremely cold days – it was -10 again this morning – but the sunshine has been spectacular. The icicles on our house are shrinking (as my son happily pointed out to me today – I am challenging him to not knock them off so we can see how long they get) as the days alternate between sunny and sunny/windy. But for me, this is the first winter when the glorious days of sun have really affected me. I happily pop my vitamin D every day, but seeing the sun itself is glorious. (It also shows all the places I need to clean. Which goes hand-in-hand with my “40 bags in 40 days” cleaning spree! God is so good!). I am not over-sharing, I hope, with this Lenten experience, because there is just oh, so  much more, that I am learning and discovering. But I also share to inspire! I know my Lord sees what is hidden, and that just makes my joy even bigger!

So for me and my experience this year, I’m all about digging in to this Lent. I am loving it so much! Reading, learning, quietly praying, and always giving gratitude for my many blessings. Let us all clean our homes and our hearts, and prepare for the upcoming rough days of Holy Week, when we somberly walk with our Lord through to His tortuous death. But let us also be ready to open the windows, let the spring sun shine in through our clean windows, and celebrate His Glorious Resurrection!

 

“…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.

pharisees

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?

truefasting

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.

“…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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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