“..and they rejoiced with her.”

I have been struggling with anxiety recently. We stand on the cusp of some major changes in our lives, and I am one of those people whose brains somehow shift into overdrive the moment my head hits the pillow. And the night before last was the worst. I think I slept maybe 2 solid hours the entire time I was in bed. And I woke yesterday so exhausted. But the one thing that I did do a lot of was, I prayed.

I was told this saying above about not being able to sleep, many years ago. And I have tried to apply that. And so, during my wakefulness, I prayed like crazy for all the people who have been asking for prayers. And I even added some who I knew could use the extra help. A friend of mine, who had suffered a few years ago, told me that she could tell when people were praying for her, because she felt a sense of relief each time the praying would begin. I have always wanted to be that sensitive to the prayers of others, and oftentimes I do believe I can feel that sense of calm, in the midst of the craziness, and then I know people are praying.

My Lenten study has been amazingly right on the nose almost daily. It is like God wrote it just for me. The reading of the Psalms has, quite literally, changed my life. And using a Gratitude Journal has changed the way I look at things. The day before  my night of sleeplessness, our writing prompt had been, “A habit you need to break.” For me, it is SLOTH. Basically, laziness. And I completely addressed that, right away. But the other thing is to always balance that by what we are grateful for. I had a friend who was ill and that friendship came into question; that our friendship was pivotal in my life. I realized it is a friendship that my life would be empty without. We do not see one another often, but like I said in my earlier post, I realized she is one of my anchors in life. And I am forever grateful for her. And I loved being able to balance my need for correction with gratitude for an important person in my life.

And one of the techniques I applied while I was unable to sleep was that I vowed to hand everything over to God. Literally, my life. My family. My future. Our future. My worries. The outcomes. Because our directed journaling the next day was, “Prayer for patience,” I actually laughed when I read it. Timeliness. God is always waiting. Always. And as I could not sleep, I prayed the Jesus Prayer over and over again, giving my sleeplessness to Him, to work for His greater good. In among the many Jesus Prayers, I added a decade or two of the Rosary. As one Mother to another, I know the Theotokos can relate to worry. My situation in no way compares to Hers, but I know She waits to offer us Her comforts. I always think of the Passion of the Christ movie, where Mary lays on the ground, and She can feel her Son in the prisons below Her. My heart breaks every time, because I know that connection intimately. And so I sought the comfort of Mary, in my sleepless struggles.

And through that long night, I felt immeasurable comfort. I was actively assisting in bringing Christ to others, through my prayers. God needed my prayers and I happily offered them. The readings for that day in the Psalms also drew a chuckle from me, at their timeliness:

“I trust in your faithfulness. Grant my heart joy in your help, that I may sing of the Lord, “How good our God has been to me.”” (Psalm 13:6)

Keep me safe, O God; in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord, you are my only God.'” (Psalm 16:1-2)

“I bless the Lord who counsels me; even at night my heart exorts me. I keep the Lord always before me, with the Lord at my right, I shall never be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, my soul rejoices; my body also dwells secure.” (Psalm 16:7-9)

And for my Psalm journal, I found an amazing journaling sticker (yes, they make stickers for journaling) that says, “TODAY – Be an encourager” – and another that says, “Delight yourself in the Lord.” And in my gratitude journal I added stickers that say, “But first, God,” and “God bless this hot mess.” Ha-Ha!  It amazes me continually how all these disparate things just seamlessly come together to make my Lenten Journey this year so very fruitful.

“Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown His great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her.” Luke 1:58

Even though I realized that Scripture was referring to the birth of St. John the Forerunner, I rejoiced in the fact that Our Lord has blessed me during this Lenten Journey. That this study has reignited a faith long dormant. And that re-confirming my dedication to doing the Will of God for my life, has strengthened me beyond anything in recent memory. This joy that Elizabeth experienced at the birth of John was shared by her family and friends. Her husband lost his speech because he did not fully believe what was told to him, but at the birth of his son, his speech returned and he praised God. I like to think that I lost my voice a little bit, too, along the way. But I have rediscovered it and my dedication to sharing what counts in my life with those of you who actually read this has returned. Throwing off the world in social media, in a way, helped me to focus on this blessing of faith, regenerated. Lent is such a gift to each of us, that we need to grab hold to it and wring it out for every blessing contained within it.

And one of the many miracles coming out of a sleepless night is the gift of the answering of prayers. The Lord is always, always there. And He is just waiting for us to acknowledge His presence in our lives, and the many promises He made that He is waiting to fulfill for every soul who approaches Him.

“FOR THIS IS THE CHALICE OF MY BLOOD,
THE BLOOD OF THE NEW AND ETERNAL COVENANT,
WHICH WILL BE POURED OUT FOR YOU AND FOR MANY
FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS.

DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME.” (Breviary, Eucharistic Prayer III)

Not all of us feel inclined to come to the Altar. And I get that; I do. I continue to pray for the many who decline to approach God, feeling they have no need of Him or his succor – His aid in times of distress and hardship. I know many who feel that to be a Christian of any stripe is to be weak. And I will continue to pray for them. Because I have been shown, without doubt, the strength of God in my life. I am so blessed.

May your Lent continue to bring you closer to Our Lord. Blessed Lent.

“..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

“…and He shall sustain you;”

For it is not an enemy that reviled me—that I could bear—
Not a foe who viewed me with contempt,
from that I could hide.
But it was you, my other self,
my comrade and friend,
You, whose company I enjoyed,
at whose side I walked
in the house of God.

That is from Psalm 55:13-15. And it was just a small portion of my readings today. But this series of comments from the Psalmist really hit me. It is the lament of a betrayal by someone the writer was intimately friends with. I think that those who we walk in a common faith with, have a certain place in our hearts that is special, and reserved for them in a special way. We tend to trust those we pray with, those we “walk in procession in the house of God,” in a special way. And when those people turn out not to be what they presented themselves as, that presents a special ache in our hearts. However, the Psalmist also says, “God will never allow the righteous to stumble.”(Psalm 55:23)

I took great comfort from this. It is not a matter of one winning and one losing. It is, rather, a protection for both. Because as I read this, I came to see that through my continued prayers and time spent with just God, and His Word, I have been able to control my anger more and more. I journaled about the fact that I am not normally an angry person. I do get frustrated, and that can lead quite easily to anger. But when I have felt betrayal, I have reacted in anger, out of a deep, deep hurt. But God does not allow us to stumble. He will protect us from our worst selves. And he has done that for me. Even when I have felt that betrayal from those closest to me, I have been truly able to let it go. I have quite literally felt the anger, and the pressure of that emotion on my body, leave me. I felt lighter, and so much peace. Our journaling prompt today was to think on how we let our anger go. And I honestly have been able to let things go so much easier, relying on the mercy of God and His Providence over my life, rather than those old patterns of knee-jerk reactions. God has been kind to me. And my continuing growth through this process can only lead to even better outcomes. I love this quote by Saint Seraphim, “Acquire a peaceful spirit and thousands around you will be saved.”

I read this article today about the 5-Second Rule for making decisions and choices…which is not about picking food up off the floor before the germs invade. Rather, it is giving yourself a 5-second delay/review period before making a decision, saying something, reacting in some way to input you are receiving. And after that 5-seconds, you are to do something, say something, react, and be physical in your reaction. That 5-second break is sometimes all we need to stop ourselves from making a poor decision. And it is sometimes the small review period we need to make the right decision. Sadie Robertson, of Duck Dynasty fame, spoke to how using this is helping her navigate growing up in a world where poor choices are rampant and much easier to make. She was pretty articulate in how this method has helped her be a better person, and make better choices. Well for me, I did not realize that I had actually started doing that, too. In those 5 Seconds, I have been silently saying the Jesus Prayer, when these things happen to me. And it is working! I am finding myself becoming more patient, quieter, and much happier.

“God will never allow the righteous to stumble.” If I truly want God to be in charge of my life, He will not allow me to stumble. All He asks is that we listen. Just listen. There was this popular country song entitled, “Jesus, take the wheel,” wherein the woman is lamenting her life and crying…she was driving home to visit her parents for Christmas and it was snowing, her small baby sleeping in the back seat. She was not paying attention and hit a sheet of ice, coming to rest in a snow bank. And that’s when she asked Jesus to “take the wheel,” because she was regretting the “road she was on” and asked Him to just “take the wheel, take it from me.” And I am thankful I did not need to careen off the road on a sheet of ice (well, okay, the hubby and I recently experienced life in a snowbank, after trying to stop suddenly on an icy road, so I know how she feels) but it did not take that sort of 2 x 4 to my head to make me stop the road I was on. Instead, the Church gave me Great Lent. It caused me to stop, to think, to pray, to re-evaluate, to re-order my priorities. We are so blessed we are given this “annual review period” to get our lives back on track.

Continued prayers and blessings for an amazing Lent this year.

“…can go with a stream…”

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.                 Martin Luther King.

This is just such an ugly day in America. There have been so many ugly days. And it seems to be escalating. It makes my heart just sick.

Our family has had an interesting history in America. My parents immigrated here in the 1950s. They were met with extreme prejudice by shopkeepers and others they had to interact with. They put their money in Bank of America because they thought that was the bank for all Americans. They tried to buy their goods at local shops. They collected “Green Stamps” and joined local civic organizations, trying to assimilate. They even attended American churches, so they could learn how “they did it.” My mom watched soap operas, trying to learn American culture. They were repeatedly turned away from retail establishments like the butcher shop, because they could not be understood. My mom was told to come back when she could speak “English.”  The funny part? My parents are from New Zealand.

My in-laws are from Russia. They are called “Germans from Russia” because they are Germans who were brought to Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great, who was German, and wanted to bring Russia into the more modern age. She brought skilled workers to Russia, to share their expertise with her new country. My husband springs from these “Volga River Russians.” When they came to America, to escape communism, they settled in the farmlands of Kansas and Colorado. It resembled their homeland. They developed communities and built churches, but they were not allowed into the “white” areas of these towns. They could only attend schools and churches they built themselves. They were not particularly welcome. During WWII when German distrust was at its highest in the USA, our last name was definitely a hinderance to them. My father-in-law had stories of his youth that made me just shake my head. He was going through all of that in the heartland of the USA at the same time my parents were trying to assimilate on the west coast. Just a bit prior to my lifetime.

I have friends who were “Creole” and escaped the South because they were not welcome in either community – black or white. They relocated to the melting pot of Southern California, where there is pretty much representation from every country on earth. They were strong Catholics and became well-known in local Catholic circles. They brought their deep faith, nurtured in the Deep South, to Southern California. Their mom told me they escaped the South because she could not sit on the same bus or eat at the same restaurants that she could in SoCal. She said it was easier to “pass” in California, but that in the South she had a rough time of it. She said in SoCal she could just be a woman…not hyphenated by black or white. This was very much in my lifetime. *Shaking head* *Sad face*

blackwhitehands

Fast forward 18 years ago and we adopted a child outside our race. Last night, as news of Dallas was shared around the dinner table, I laughed as my very pale grand daughter cuddled with her favorite uncle, many shades darker. I asked her if she loved her uncle and she squeezed his neck and covered him with kisses, saying over and over, “My uncle, my uncle…will you jump on the trampoline with me?” Pure bliss and love and no thought to color.

As a mixed race family, my joke has always been, “I can never have a bad hair day, because people always notice us.” And it is true. I have been hassled by both communities. But truthfully, prejudice is a learned behavior. It is introduced to children. As Webster defines it (it can be both a noun and a verb):

prej·u·dice
ˈprejədəs
noun

preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.

verb

give rise to prejudice in (someone); make biased.

My parents raised me in a very mixed race area. I attended inner-city schools wherein I was in the minority. We lived through the Watts riots, up close and personal. My best friend was black and I often stayed with her family, attending Church with them where I was the sole white person for miles around. I was set upon and beat up in the 8th grade because I liked a Mexican boy (oh, the memories of Armando!!) that a black girl also liked. She set her “gang” on me when I had my legs in casts (my knees were a problem as a girl). My little 4’11” mom saw a pile of girls with chunks of hair flying and dove in, not knowing I was on the bottom! Mom to the rescue. Later, my younger brother was attacked by her younger brother. We decided to sell and move out. We relocated to a very white area, with a few Mexicans thrown in, and I was in culture shock. Seriously. I missed my multi-cultural life and my friends who were black. Several made the trek out to see me, taking busses to get there. But it was too hard to maintain a friendship being so far and having no means to get to each other.

God gave me this opportunity, I believe, so that I do not see color. When I look at my youngest son, I just see my son. When we were in the adoption process, the social worker asked us if we were prepared to raise a good black man. My husband’s response was, “No; I am prepared to raise a good man.” We have never differentiated between our children. And my son never realized he was different until a kid in 4th grade said to him, “Dude, your dad is white. I saw your mom. Dude, you are adopted.” My son’s response, “What’s adopted mean?” He had no idea he was different. He always said he was chocolate and we are peach. He said that when he gets a cut, he has skin like me…peach. And when I get a cut, I get scabs that are brown like him. He also commented that our feet and hands match. He’s hanging out right now with his best friend, who is strawberry blonde, blue-eyed, and freckled. They don’t see color first, either.

love your enemies

The only way we are going to free our country from becoming something none of us recognize, is to love everyone. And trust me, I know it is hard. I find it difficult to love everyone. I have practiced selective elimination of people from my life who are toxic. I get that not everyone can be tolerated. And I don’t espouse blind love, either. We need to keep our eyes open, yes. But we also need to not judge people, prejudicially. How can you hate someone who is different, just because they are different?

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”…Genesis 1:27

God created every creature that roams the earth. Everything. Everyone. No, I do not agree with some creeds and beliefs. I do not. But I believe that God will reach each person in the best way they can be reached. I do not believe that because they have not been “saved” nor ever heard the “Word of God,” that they will be eternally damned. That’s the anthropologist in me! But it is also the Mercy of God. I cannot be friends with everyone. Some people just rub me wrong. And I am sure I rub others the wrong way, too. God did not intend for this world to be perfect; that is for the perfection of Heaven, in an eternity of Grace with God. But on this world and in this life, we are called to love others, even those who persecute us. We are called to allow others to make their choices in how they believe, where they live, how they act, what they eat, what they wear, who they marry, what career they choose, etc. Which is pretty much what freedom is all about and why so many come here. So many come here to have a better life, or to escape persecution. Some were brought here, generations upon generations ago, against their will and have lived here for 100s of years, assimilating as best they can, into our American melting pot.

jesus prayer 2

The only way we can affect true change in America is to change ourselves. We cannot expect our government to change for us. We cannot expect our neighbor to change for us. The change has to start in my heart and my soul, in my relationship to God and those around me. It would create a ripple, reaching all the corners of our world. We cannot always go out and fix the world at large, when our backyard is a mess. I really hate it when people criticize how people keep their house, when they are secret hoarders or something. My opinion is that we have to stop criticizing our neighbor and get out a mirror and affect change in ourselves. I am a poor sinner. A poor sinner. And I fall to my knees every, single, day! The choice I make is to seek my Maker, and get back up again. Each and every Christian needs to examine themselves and then reach out, refreshed in the Spirit of God, to their neighbor, one heart at a time. And we have to stop being dead in the political world, the marketplace, the schools, the neighborhoods. Enough is enough.

logjams

“A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” – G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, 1925

“What does it profit if…”

 

In the Eastern and Orthodox Churches, Great Lent is upon us.  For those in the West, Lent will start tomorrow, with Ash Wednesday.  Great Lent is when we stop and take a good look at who we are, who we have become, and who we truly would like to be. It is a time for reflection, yes.  But Great Lent is when we embark on a renewed road to God.  It is when we embark upon a time of renewed and vigorous re-conversion.  The Church gives us these weeks every year to re-evaluate ourselves in light of the Teachings of Christ and His Church.

I love some of the questions in prayer books, that we can ask ourselves as we approach confession. In the book, “Holy Things for the Holy” published by the Eparchy of Newton in 2006, there is a list of questions to ponder under several categories: “On the Love of God” – Have I had any doubts concerning the Faith or the teaching of the Church?  Have I taken the Name of God in vain, or spoken disrespectfully of Our Lady, the Saints, or of sacred things or religious matters?  Have I neglected to attend the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and Feasts?  “On the Love of Neighbor” – Have I done my duty toward my family?  Have I watched over my children and the company they keep, the books they read, the entertainments they engage in?  Have I been guilty of hatred or vengefulness?  Have I injured anyone by word or deed?  Have I been immodest in my dress or conversation so as to be an occasion of sin for others? Have I neglected to help the poor and needy when I could have done so?  Have I deceived anyone in business transactions? Have I purposely failed to pay my debts?  Have I given false testimony against anyone or passed judgement on anyone?  Have I gossiped or harmed the reputation of others? Have I wished for things God has not given me and been discontented with my lot? And on “Confession in General” – Is there anything that troubles me that might be a sin?  Do I really intend to avoid my sins in the future?

These are a few of the questions under each section, under each of the Ten Commandments of God.  And just these few should bring most of us up short, should we honestly look in the mirror and contemplate them, myself included.  They are a place to start, when we take these initial days of Great Lent to plan our re-conversion, our re-imagining of ourselves into truly the Sons and Daughters of God.

In the East, we celebrate Forgiveness Sunday. This practice was strange to me, and a trifle intimidating, when I first was exposed to it. But you know how things can build up and you don’t even realize you are carrying around a sack of rocks on your back? The stress that builds from anger, hurt, jealousy, unfulfilled dreams, and many human disappointments?  It is amazing how Forgiveness Sunday can relieve all of that.  Even if the subject or focus of your issues is not present.  There is a Latin Term for priests called “in persona Christi” (forgive me, son, if I said that wrong) and it means, “in the person of Christ.”  Our priests are there, representing Christ for us.  They do not become Christ; they are there for Him, like a “stand in.” (If any theologian reads this, please forgive me for my simplistic explanations).  In the same light, we can look at our parishioners as standing in for those who we are having issues with.  When you hug someone and seek their forgiveness, and they forgive and seek yours in return, it is like you dropped that bag of rocks at the altar. You feel lighter, and much more peaceful. It is almost as good as the feeling you get after a good confession, or a deep heart-to-heart with a trusted friend or counselor. Whew. I love it.

The sad part is when people go through motions, but it is nothing more than skin deep.  When people are insincere.  When they laugh behind your back or smirk at you behind your back after something like Forgiveness Sunday is shared.  And that is the crux of the impetus for my post today.  Insincerity.  Deception.  Dishonesty.  When you purport to be a person of God, a Christian, we all make presumptions.  We all do it.  If you say you are a fireman, we presume you put out fires.  If you say you are an attorney, we presume you know the law.  An engineer fixes things.  A mechanic can get your car running.  A nurse can soothe your pain away.  A secretary can organize the heck out of things.  A plumber keeps the water flowing and the toilets flushing. A chef can make you an incredible meal, as a baker makes divine pastries.  We all presume, or profile, about others based upon our perception of their title, or their category/classification.  When you say you  are a Christian, I presume you follow Christ. WWJD?  What would Jesus Do?  Hmmm…sometimes I think He would cringe at what goes on in our churches.  At how un-Christ-like Christians can be towards one another.  Presuming you know Christ and love Christ, and follow His teachings, we all presume certain characteristics about you.  First of all, and for me foremost, is that you are trustworthy and honest.  Christ abhors a liar, as do I.  Being false in any way is not a Christian attitude. “Have I been guilty of hatred or vengefulness? Have I injured anyone by word or deed?”  We’re supposed to contemplate these words before confession.  And we are supposed to live them.  During Lent, we are offered 40 days to reflect on how we are progressing as Christians, and how we are towards our fellow man.  How does dishonesty or deceitful behavior fit into our perspective as Christians? Do we see these as our attributes when we contemplate our own reflections?

Please know that I realize so deeply how far from the mark I, myself, fall.  And I am so very thrilled that the Church offers me these 40 days each and every year to fix myself.  It is an incredible opportunity that so very many of us do not fully utilize.  In the book of Matthew it says, “They give me lip service but their hearts are far from me.”  It is just a sad state of affairs that so many of us Christians do not take advantage of the healing salve of faith our Church offers to us.  The Church offers us countless opportunities to reconnect with our God.  We have prayer times during the week, in our homes, in our cars, on a break, while driving. I have friends who automatically start the Rosary each and every time they are in the car.  People who stop, cross themselves, and acknowledge Christ in the Tabernacle at each Catholic Church they go by – and they know all the ones in their town and the areas around them, so are constantly crossing themselves.  I love that.  They bring the Divine into the every day, in a physical way.  During Great Lent, that can be so enhanced. We can re-focus our energies into our own personal walk with God by re-doubling our efforts at fasting, at praying, at attending weekly services, of reading holy books and books by the early Church Fathers (my favorite Lenten readings are “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives” by Elder Thaddeus, and “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” by John Climacus).

We are personally suffering right now; our hearts are aching.  The little world we inhabit is upset and things are awry.  It makes for a rough start to Lent.  But, as I mourn the Coptic Christians beheaded for our Faith this week, and all those who suffer for our faith, I also feel lousy about complaining and reacting. I feel like crap (excuse me) for being down in the dumps.  People will ALWAYS disappoint you. People will ALWAYS let you down.  People will ALWAYS deceive you.  It is part of being human.  God never deceives, nor disappoints, nor lets you down.  That all belongs to us.  All of that is squarely on our human shoulders.  And that bag of rocks I thought I had left at the altar last Sunday? Well, it’s back up on my shoulders.

I need to remind myself that some people who purport a faith, well, they are not that faithful.  They “Talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.”  It can be for a multitude of reasons.  Life might just totally stink for them.  They could have horrid jobs and even worse home lives.  Divorces, drug abuse, teen issues, their health may be poor, they could have mental issues; they could be facing financial ruin.  I don’t know, nor is it my place to know.  The lesson I have learned is that Lent, Great Lent, is totally about me.  About me and my God. Where I stand with my Creator.  It does not matter where my neighbor stands.  That is between them and God.  It is not my place to judge.  A great man, a Saint, once said, “Let the mouth also fast from disgraceful speeches and railings. For what does it profit if we abstain from fish and fowl and yet bite and devour our brothers and sisters? The evil speaker eats the flesh of his brother and bites the body of his neighbor. ” ― John Chrysostom.  Deceit and deception, dishonesty and insincerity may be present because there is evil in this world, too.  There is the pressure that evil puts on us when we try to be better Christians.  There are a multitude of things that pull us away from God. I need to always focus on my walk with God, on my personal salvation. And I need to be sure that I am not deceitful nor dishonest, nor insincere.  I need to pray always, for myself and everyone around me. My issues are petty and minor in comparison to the lot of our fellow Christians around the world.  We need to gain some perspective.  A good place to start is from the Foot of the Cross.

There is so much wisdom to be found in the writings of the early Church Fathers.  So much caution about fasting from meat but devouring our neighbors.  “I must keep my eyes on my own plate,” as St. John Chrysostom was fond of saying. As we dive into this Great Lent, my prayer for myself and for everyone is this:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

PubPharThis past Sunday (yesterday) was the Sunday we celebrate as “The Publican and the Pharisee.”  It begins our three week preparation for Great Lent. It is hard to believe all the fasting and all the preparation for Pascha are already upon us.  But let me tell you, I am excited for Great Lent! It is an opportunity to truly become simple in how we live, how we eat, and how we pray.  We pray more, we attend more services at Church (my favorite is Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. Absolute favorite part of Great Lent. Thank you, Fr. Justin Rose, for that!) and we watch every bite that enters our mouth. It is good for the discipline in our lives, for us to experience Great Lent.  I actually look forward to fasting.  If you could see all of me, I am sure you would find that laughable, because I am overweight.  But I also love silent retreats – by far my best retreat experiences have all occurred at a silent retreat. And since I blog, quite often rather prodigiously, most people find the thought of me being silent laughable.  It is truly a case where opposites do attract!!  I love Great Lent, and I love silence.  Who would ever have thought that???
Our priest, Fr. Michael, gave a wonderful homily this week on the issues brought up by this look at a publican and a pharisee.  Publicans were the tax collectors.  They were not liked by the general population, because they took their money – but quite often, they took more than what was really owed to the government, which is why they were usually very rich.  The Pharisees were seen as the upper echelon of the religious class. They could always be found near the Temple; they knew the law and they kept to the “letter of the law” very strictly.  One of the most famous quotes from this Sunday is “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’”  He is pictured in the Icon standing, with arms outstretched to God, in a place of honor, and prays to God, looking down on the Publican.  The Publican, however, shows us in the Icon that he thinks of himself as a sinner by entering and remaining in a low place, inconspicuous to fellow worshipers, and the famous quote about him in this reading is: “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”  Christ then exhorts us all to repentance by saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:9-14).  In the Icon, we can see images of how these two men leave the Temple.  The Pharisee is shown leaving the Temple unforgiven and still in need of repentance, whereas the Publican, who came to the Temple, knowing his sinful nature, is shown leaving the Temple, forgiven and exalted.  We are all expected to know our faith and to practice it to the best of our abilities, as the Pharisee.  And we are also expected to behave as the Publican; we enter the Temple and seek forgiveness, knowing how very much we need it.
One of the questions asked during Father’s homily was, “Who do you identify with more, the Publican or the Pharisee?”  And that question made me think.  So often, we preach to others, but we do not live what we preach.  How many of us tell people to fast, to keep Sundays holy, to pray, to keep a holy home, and yet we do not fulfill our own commands to others?  I know I fail miserably in so many areas.  And each Lent I pick myself back up and try it all over again. For me, Great Lent is the time I rededicate myself to my faith, sort of like New Year’s Eve, when people write lists of what they want to accomplish in their year.  For those of us who follow the Church’s calendar, Pascha is the start of our New Year.  Great Lent is when we think about how we want to practice our faith, share our faith, and live our faith.  We start from scratch, so to speak, when we limit food intake and extend prayer time and religious observances.  It is a time to reconsider how we will approach our next year.  I certainly never make resolutions that are life-long, because I know myself and know I am not strong enough to do that. I will let myself down.  So I only take little bites at this.  I resolve things that are doable, and not on some fantasy list.  Great Lent is my opportunity to be still, to listen more intently to what God is asking of me, and to begin to be the person HE wants me to be. I resolve every year to be a better person.  Honestly,  I can say that because I only take small bites, the changes I try to enact usually stick! And that feels pretty good. I am a far better person than I was in my 20s,40s, or even last year.  I believe Great Lent gives me this chance every year to opt to be better at the end of those 40+ days.  (When we add weekends, and exact starting and stopping times, Great Lent is really about 45 days or so).  For us in the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, and for the Orthodox, Great Lent is kept every day, not just Wednesdays and Fridays.  The Church gives us this entire week to eat what we like – even on Wednesday and Friday, to prepare us for Great Lent, and to share with us that the Church knows this next period of fasting and abstinence is a difficult one.  More and more as the years go by, many of my friends and I do not just “give up” something like coffee or chocolate.  We add things.  We pray more.  We volunteer our time in our communities.  We resolve to spend more time as a family.  We read more and watch TV less.  There are so many ways to keep Great Lent as a special time, rather than solely giving up things.
Fifth Sunday of LentPart of Great Lent is facing ourselves, as the Publican did.  We beat our chests and we ask for forgiveness. We see those dark places that are a part of who we have become and we strive to allow the Light of Christ to enter in.  We pray more, we seek God more fervently.  And I am excited to get started!!!  This Sunday gave us pause, gave us a moment with some words from Christ, and a homily from our priest, to stop a moment and ponder – are we more like the Publican or the Pharisee?  The Kontakion for the day tells us:

“Let us flee the proud speaking of the Pharisee and learn the humility of the Publican, and with groaning let us cry unto the Savior: Be merciful to us, for Thou alone art ready to forgive.”

How do others see me? To them, am I the Publican or the Pharisee?  God gives us this coming time of Great Lent to work this out for our salvation.  I am looking forward to this opportunity to once again get my “house in order.”

Kneeling Prayer.Orthodox Church“Mine eyes are weighed down by my transgressions, and I cannot lift them up and see the height of heaven. But receive me, Savior, in repentance as the Publican and have mercy on me.”  (Doxastikon of the Aposticha, Saturday Vespers).

“In the name of the Father…”

Cross sunlight rocksIn making the sign of the cross, believe and constantly remember that your sins are nailed to the cross.+ St. John of Kronstadt +

I was attending the Crowning (blessing their civil marriage of some 9 years) of some friends, who had invited lots of different friends to witness their committment. I ended up sitting behind the groom’s mom (as I was asked to do), in order to help corral some of the kids, and next to a friend of hers I had met at a birthday party earlier in the year.  In addition, her friend had her two children with her; her son was about 10 and her daughter was 4 years old.  Her daughter ended up on my lap most of the ceremony, and I spent most of the time leaning over, explaining a Byzantine Crowning Ceremony to these Protestant guests.  And the kids had so many questions about what they were seeing and hearing for the first time.  I loved every moment of it.

One of the things I noticed, especially when I began explaining it to someone who had no previous experience in a Byzantine Church, was how often we make the Sign of the Cross in any Byzantine or Eastern Rite Liturgy.  The young boy sitting next to his mom, leaning over her towards me, kept asking me what I was doing.  I had to explain that we believe that whenever we hear the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we make the Sign of the Cross. Whenever we hear the word, “Trinity,” we also make the same Sign of the Cross.  He asked me why.  And I thought about it, realizing mom and daughter were also listening, and I replied that I did it to remind myself of Christ’s sacrifice for me, and that He had died on the Cross for me, taking my sins upon Himself. And to remind me also that God is Father, God is Son, and God is Holy Spirit – Three in One – the Holy Trinity.  He saw my husband, who was assisting at the Crowning as a deacon, make the Sign of the Cross across his lips once or twice, and asked me why he “did it then.” I explained that he had made a mistake in the words he was saying, or the prayer he was praying, and signing his lips with the Cross was a way to ask for forgiveness for the mistake, and to seek a blessing from Christ for his efforts, and to protect him from making the mistake again.  The little boy asked me, “You can do that?”  I was surprised and answered, “We do it as often as we feel the need to do it.”  I also told him that God appreciates us turning to Him on the Cross and seeking His aid in everything we do.  We also make the Sign of the Cross as a protection against any evil, or bad things, we see or feel around us.  Sometimes we do it to remind ourselves that God is ever and always present around us.

My husband signs the cross on my forehead before he leaves for work, as I groggily kiss him goodbye and tell him I love him. I don’t think my day starts as well without his loving blessing.  We bless our homes this time of year in the Eastern Churches.  The priest comes, and in times past, he pokes into every nook and cranny, praying and sprinkling holy water, carrying incense.  (Talk about deep cleaning before someone comes to visit!!). I think it is wonderful that our parish priests come to the home of each and every parishioner, at least once a year, to bless our homes.  I love knowing my house is blessed.  I sleep better in a house that has been blessed.  Our priest has not blessed our home yet, but I have.  I always have Holy Water on hand!  There’s also candles and incense in our home, accompanying our icons, statues, and Holy artwork.  This past Sunday we celebrated the Presentation in the Temple of Christ, and the meeting of St. Simeon and the Prophetess, Anna.  As part of the celebration, we were all given lit candles, to remind us that Christ is our light.  We light candles at home, to keep the light of Christ in our homes. We light candles and burn incense when we pray, when we need comfort, when we need to know Christ is here with us. It gives us comfort, as well as reminds us that He is with us always, in all things.

Icon Corner.candlesAnd I thought a lot about making the Sign of the Cross.  I do it all the time, without even thinking about it. I bless my day, cooking, my kids, any project I propose to do. It especially helps me when the chores I dislike are due to be completed (the dreaded laundry or bathroom cleaning!!). It comes as easily as breath.  And I wear a holy object every day.  A Byzantine cross, usually, but I have a selection.  My favorite is a beat-up silver St. Olga cross I bought for myself in Los Angeles, years ago.  It used to have blue inlay, but that has long since worn off.  I love the feel of it around my neck, and reach for it often, when in distress. Most days I also wear a prayer rope, to remind myself to keep praying, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  I say it over and over again.

IncensorThe little girl on my lap was pointing away to the area behind the Holy Doors.  She kept asking me, “What’s that? What’s that?”  I was naming off all sorts of things (icon, altar, fans, cross, Holy Bible…) but nothing was the right thing.  Then I noticed the incensor swinging its way back and forth, occasionally visible from the right side, behind the Holy Doors.  “Are you asking me about the smoke?”  “Yes! Are we on fire?”  Ha-Ha!  “No,” I assured her, we are not on fire.  That is called an incensor.”  She looked so confused. I asked her to close her eyes and to breathe in deeply.  She was so cute, as she squished her eyes shut and took quite a loud, deep breath. “Oooo, what is that smell?”  I asked her if it smelled good to her and she told me she loved that smell.  I then told her to watch the smoke, as it rose above the altar and made its way to the Icon of Christ above us.  She was so adorable as she moved her head and strained to watch the incense.  I told her we love to cleanse the Church of the everyday smells (she, of course, asked about what smells.  That lead to a whole other discussion about hot dogs and coffee – her questions – and lead to her question of, “How much longer is this? I’m starving!!” Kids!). But back to the incense. I explained that incense reminds us that there are angels all around us, that our prayers rise with theirs to God, and that our prayers smell sweet to God.  She loved that explanation.  And I loved that a little child, stopping me long enough to notice all those little details of our worship, caused me to not forget the whys of what we do.

There were lots of other questions about altar boys, what they were carrying, why we hold the Bible up and why we decorate it, why we bow our heads, why we pray the Lord’s Prayer more than one time, and what the priest and deacon were up to (consecration).  The young boy was especially impressed that women don’t go up there, but just boys and men.  He smiled pretty big to his mom!  I explained about communion and the mom quietly asked her daughter, “Remember when we get the little cups at Church? What is that for?”  She answered, “Jesus’ blood.” And then she asked her daughter, “And what are the little wafers we eat for, that we take out of the plate?” “Hmmm”….as she squished up her face and looked dramatically to the ceiling…”I know this. I know this….”  Her mom said, “Jesus’ bod…” And she smiled and yelled, “It’s Jesus’ body!!!”  The little one was so happy she remembered.  I told them they could come with me and receive a blessing if they wanted to, that the priest would place his hand on their heads and say a prayer for them. Well, that little child was not letting go of my hand for anything!  It was so beautiful…their entire family went up with me and received a blessing from our priest during communion and it felt so nice to have them walk with me, holding that little 4-year-old’s hand!

Holy Gifts up closeWhy do we keep all these symbols around us?  What is the purpose?  Why should we?  I think I have shared above some of the reasons, but like the family I sat with at the Crowning of our friends, there are always lots of questions of whys and wherefores, even among all of us who are of one of the many Eastern Churches, or Catholic, or Orthodox.  None of our Churches does it the same way; they just don’t.  I have been at enough of a variety of liturgies that I can attest to it.  And the Protestants are different than any of us!  There was a comment on a Facebook wall that said something to the effect of “Why don’t we all just become one, Eastern Church, then unite with Rome?”  And it is just so hard for me to even fathom that. Yes, we all want to be united in our faith, but our ways of doing things are just a tad different.  My son commented yesterday that automated driving, where you get into a car and give it your destination and it takes you where you want to go, will never happen.  He said it won’t because we are too independent and don’t want to give up our freedom that much.  I tend to agree with him.  It’s why carpooling is just not what it could be.  Or why more people don’t support mass-transit.  We are a group of individuals…and keeping our sense of self is so important to us.  God granted us free will.  We express ourselves to our God in our own ways…that’s why there are so many Churches “in communion with Rome,” and it’s also why there are so many denominations of Protestants around the world…that darned old free will.  We hate being told what to do, or worse, how to do it! Ha-Ha!

Personally, having been on a wild journey of faith my whole life, I appreciate the differences.  I love the differences. I respect the differences.  I think God loves variety; He created variety.  Not all the earth looks the same; plants come in an infinite variety, as do the species of animals, and mankind is an endless spectrum of varieties.  I think it makes God smile.  I would not expect a Latin Rite Catholic from say, Iowa or Arizona, to understand the worship of the little Ukrainian Catholic parish we found in Washington, where the Liturgy is only in Ukrainian.  Nor would I expect a little babushka from the heart of Orthodox Russia to understand the Liturgy of the Melkites, who hail from the Middle East and celebrate most of their Liturgy in Arabic.  And I would not expect a Protestant from a mega-Church in SoCal to understand the Byzantine Liturgy we celebrate up in Alaska.  We can all appreciate the differences, but we can also look to our sameness.  We all worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  The Roman Catholic may make the Sign of the Cross backwards to the rest of the Eastern world, but we still see it is the Sign of the Cross, and we can argue which side to start on, or we can just smile that we all make the Sign of the Cross.  Although, our Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ do not practice making the Sign of the Cross (or most of the other examples from our worship I cited in this post) we can still pray for them and they for us.

light in monastery windowThe little boy and girl I shared a slice of Byzantine faith with, I tried to leave with positive memories of an afternoon at a Byzantine Church where they saw a Bible decorated with gems in a golden case, held up for all to see and venerate, explaining how we love the Word of God; that the wonderful “holy smoke” they smelled will be a warm memory of the enticing smells of an Eastern Church; that the fans emblazoned with images of angels with six wings will remain with them; the stories in the many icons will warm them some day; the kindness of our community and the blessing of our priest will one day be an impetus to join us again, or at the very least, to pray for us.  Perhaps if we all share our love of our traditions, the differences will be swallowed up by the warmth of the love of them, and only the things we have in common will be remembered.  And as I made the Sign of the Cross with those children, it renewed within me my own dedication to sharing what I believe with others.  I also have some more children to pray to God for…to help entice their guardian angels into keeping that loving memory of an afternoon encircled by “holy smoke” and crowns on the heads of their friends alive for them as they make their way in the world.

St John of Kronstadt.4,jpg