“…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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To everything there is a season…”

Christmas Ornaments

Well, we did it. We put our tree up. Normally, it’s up on Black Friday. This year, I was feeling sort of bah-hum-bug-ish and did’t feel motivated to decorate. But now, I am glad we did. Sometimes we need to force ourselves to do things we may not want to, and we may even like how things turn out.

Saturday, my husband and I had a date. We went to this “door buster” sale that said it started at 7:00am. I was up and showering at 6:30, while my husband enjoyed some coffee. Off we went, expecting crowds, and me with wet hair, in the snow. We arrived to a pretty much empty lot. I was worried I got the dates wrong, checked my phone and my coupons, but I was right. We entered and remarked to the many employees, who were wearing their ugly Christmas sweaters, that we were lucky no one else arrived early. They had been expecting crowds, too. And for those of you who are men and can relate, my husband was able to relax with so few people around; shopping is not his thing. We try to spend at least one day each Christmas, just the two of us, shopping for the family. I refer to it as our Mr. and Mrs. Claus day. Last year we videod a message for our grandchildren who live out of state, while we shopped. It’s usually a good time and Saturday was no exception. We felt blessed. We had hot coffee, coupons, there were indeed “door buster” sales, and there were no crowds! And the bonus? We were home, unloaded, and sipping more coffee by 10:30am – done with our annual Christmas shopping and watching a huge snow storm!! (Which ended up lasting all of about 1 hour!) Whoot-whoot!

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It’s nice to set a goal, get moving, and accomplish something. And it’s nice when things sort of come together. I am working at being healthier in my approach to expectations. I know that God expects me to always do my best, especially when it comes to my faith and family. But sometimes my expectations are pretty out of whack with reality. It leads to depression and disappointment. Up here, we have so few hours of daylight during the winter, that depression is a reality. They have “happy lights” they sell at all the local stores. But one of the best things about winter and Christmas and decorating, is the lights. We have this tradition of lighting the inside, as well as the outside, of our homes – and by lighting, I mean a lot of lights!! We try to get the outside up before the first snow/freeze and the interior ones usually stay up until almost Easter or Pascha. And this year we have lots of interior lights, which just makes me smile. Most are mixed colors, some are red, and our tree is all white. So I am glad my family pressed me into decorating. It does feel good.

I am also an avid Christmas song person. My cell phone even has a Christmas ring tone. I love some of the songs that an a cappella group, Pentatonix, does. They have done an amazing job of “Mary, did you know?” If you want a treat, google them! They are worth it. We played Christmas songs off our various iPods and phones while we hung lights and decorated our tree. It was good. To add to the environment, it was snowing like crazy. Perfect!

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One of the most wonderful things about being Byzantine is that through our Vespers and other prayers, as well as our Liturgical songs, we are never left surprised by the holiday or feast day approaching. The Nativity Fast is one of those things that helps us prepare for the Christ Child. I think that sharing this with others make the season so much more alive. We often skip the prep and go straight to the event. But the journey is the most important part. A pastor spoke at a funeral and the gist of what he said was when you see the dates on the death announcement, remember our lives are lived in the dash marks (like 1945-1995). And how do we fill that space? For each holiday, each season, how do we fill our days? My expectations, as I said above, make movement sometimes difficult. We freeze out of fear of doing it wrong. Within the gentle movement of the liturgical year, we are brought forward for each feast. More than likely, we fast prior to the feast. It is the Church’s way of preparing us. We sacrifice our stomach’s demands, the demands of self, and bring our reality into line, focusing on the feast. Like dragging my feet about decorating, I realized I was becoming a reluctant participant in this glorious preparation of the Nativity Feast (aka Christmas Day) because I am worried about doing it wrong. What if I neglect prayers? Proper fasting? What about all the gifts for all our family and friends? When do we see whom? What do I serve for dinner? Who goes to which home, which day/night? So many things to juggle around these high-pressure holidays.

Nativity icon

We are all called … very few come. There are some amazing things about the Nativity of Christ that get lost in all the red and green, lights and tinsel, gifts and cooking. “Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth to the Eternal Word of God in an ineffable manner. Rejoice, therefore, O universe, when you hear this news, and glorify with the angels and the shepherds Him who shall appear as a newborn Babe, being God from all eternity.” (Kontakion of the Preparation). We’re missing the point of all this stress, all this hoopla. And I am as guilty as the next stressed-out parent! Historically, in the quiet of the desert, the Theotokos (Mother of God) was making her way, on a donkey, escorted by Joseph, her espoused husband to the land of Joseph’s birth, Bethlehem. I do not think they were concerned with anything other than finding shelter so She could give birth to the Son of God.

desert.bethlehem

How can I help myself, my friends, my family prepare for the celebration of the Birth of Christ? It is hard when many we are close to do not attend Church, and Christmas is all about Santa Claus, not even St. Nicholas. Some children I am very close to do not even know who Jesus is, let alone that Christmas is when we celebrate His birthday. And I had an “ah-ha” moment. The “ah-ha” was this: keep it simple! For Thanksgiving, I reverted to paper – plates, napkins, tablecloth, utensils, etc. I had people bring dishes to share. I simplified everything and we had a wonderful day. But since that is a secular holiday, how do we infuse Christ into this, a Holy Day, a Feast Day celebration? I am thinking, that in addition to simple, we need to share what we believe. We need to invite people to come to services at our churches with us. We need to send cards that reflect what we believe. Our priest has been talking to us (repeatedly) about Christmas cards. His point was that text messages and emails are nothing but steam, or smoke, or keystrokes. But a card? A card you can hold in your hand? A card with a personal note is like letting someone know you thought of them; that they were important enough for you to spend the time and effort to think of them, and bring them in, with you, to this joyous holiday, to that cave as we share this journey through the desert to Bethlehem.

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Around our communities, our friends, our families, our tables we should share who we are and what we believe. We need to put our actions where our faith is. Too often we cave to the media’s interpretation of who we are, what our country is like, what Christmas is all about. Schools are telling teachers, parents, and students that they can no longer say “Merry Christmas” but must refrain. No mention even of Santa Claus. There will be no Christmas vacation; it’s now Winter Break. Happy Holidays, so we don’t offend anyone. Instead, let’s be the Christ Child, simple, quiet, unassuming, yet firmly who we are. Let’s invite others to share our faith walk. Let’s simplify Christmas in the gift giving and instead “do” for others. Make dates, have dinners together, park days, hikes. Shovel a neighbor’s driveway; help elderly people by singing Christmas Carols to them. Call old friends. Mend fences that need to be mended. Be present. Be loving. Above all, put self last and other first. Forgive without expectation. Love expecting no love in return. Give until you have nothing left to give. Often, even if we are reluctant to participate, or feel afraid of failing, we need to commit to being a part of this world we live in. But instead of being of the world, be in the world, but be a person of God. Sometimes, in this life, we are the only Jesus people will ever know. I know that I am reconfirming my determination to take deep breaths, reaffirm my determination to love others, and to positively share this faith I proclaim. I am going to be present when the Christ Child comes to us, and I am going to invite everyone to share in His Birthday.

“Today the virgin, gives birth to the incomprehensible One;
and the earth offers a cave to the unapproachable One;
Angels and shepherds glorify Him;
the Wisemen journey with a star;
since for our sakes is born the ETERNAL GOD, as a little Child.”

Christ is Born

“…You are praised by the Seraphim …”

Archangel.2

I absolutely love angels.  I love reading fantasy novels which pit good against evil.  Most of the time, good wins; sometimes evil is just too powerful in the face of purity.  But I am drawn to that sort of literature. I mostly read the Young Adult genre because there’s not much profanity, of language or situation, in them.  And I love battling evil. I believe it is what all Christians need to do.

I read a great article on Thursday. “Why Orthodox Men Love Church” by Frederica Mathewes-Green (Here’s a link: http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english.42390htm. I think if you click on the word, Orthodox, above, it will direct you there, too).  I have loved her writing for years and years.  There were some great insights into the spirituality of men in the article and I highly recommend it.  This is one of her quotes, “A convert priest says that men are drawn to the dangerous element of Orthodoxy, which involves “the self-denial of a warrior, the terrifying risk of loving one’s enemies, the unknown frontiers to which a commitment to humility might call us. Lose any of those dangerous qualities and we become the ‘JoAnn Fabric Store’ of churches: nice colors and a very subdued clientele.”  I love this because I happen to adore JoAnne’s Fabric Stores, and my husband hates stepping inside one. He says it’s a “woman’s domain.”  Although he is crafty, he would prefer to shop at Home Depot or Lowe’s for his crafting supplies, as would our son.  And I get that, I truly do. I feel that one of the reasons we were drawn to the East was because we were challenged in what we knew, what we thought we knew, the historical context in which the Eastern Churches arose, and where we, as Americans, all fit in.

Luckily for us, we found the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Our pastor, Fr. Justin Rose, ensured that we would know to what we were committing ourselves.  We went through some wonderful faith development and enlightenment around the tables in our hall.  We had wonderful shared meals with other journeymen of faith; we shared bottles of wine and some amazing bar-be-ques and hookahs. We loved every moment of that experience. The Melkites are a church of the MIddle East. Most of our parishioners did not speak English as their primary language, nor did they speak it at home. Our Liturgies are sung in Arabic, English, Greek, and occasionally, a little Spanish. I was blessed to learn the tones in Arabic as well as English. I will clarify that for those of you who know my singing ability and say that I can “follow the guy in front of me” pretty well.  Heaven forbid one of the other deacon’s wives and I sat too close together, because she is as bad as I am.  Fr. Justin told us we sing in Tone 10 – deacon’s wives tone! (For those of you unfamiliar with tonal singing in Church, there is no Tone 10!). For another quote in her article, “As Leon Podles wrote in his 1999 book, “The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity,” “The Orthodox are the only Christians who write basso profundo church music, or need to.”  It is wonderful to hear good, clear, tonal music from men’s voices in Church. I love it.Male Cantors

And one of the things I get most from Eastern-styled worship is a sense of safety and comfort. The faith is not watered down; there is no ambiguity about what I need to do to strengthen my relationship with Jesus Christ. I need to not sin. Period. I need to place my complete faith in Jesus Christ. Period. “The prayers the Church provides for us — morning prayers, evening prayers, prayers before and after meals, and so on — give men a way to engage in spirituality without feeling put on the spot, or worrying about looking stupid because they don’t know what to say.” The same holds true for women. We love that we can come to morning prayer, even a little late, and just join in. No surprises. We always know what comes next and there is comfort and a feel of protectiveness in that.

Our world is careening out of control these days. There is wantonness everywhere you turn. Sex sells. It sure does. And it saddens me that promiscuity is now rewarded. How many times do we hear, “So and So were just engaged and plan to marry after the birth of their first child, due next month.” Wow. There’s even hedonism  – it is defined as seeking pleasure as the highest good in life (think of Herod and the licentiousness of the late Roman Empire) – and even when seeking to have children. There’s an up and coming trend these days among women who make a living in the public forum and who don’t want to look “bad” in the press or in their business suits, so they are hiring women to have babies for them.  Because they don’t want to mar their bodies with the glories of stretch marks, or appear to be fat. Oh my. There is an over-importance placed on the purse you carry, the car you drive, even what clothes your children wear, which restaurants you frequent. How can all of this come into line with an Orthodox, as in right-thinking, life of faith? It just doesn’t. Pretty simple, really.

I am feeling so out of control about how this world is affecting my friends, my kids, my church family. There have been seemingly innocent kids caught “sexting” at a high school in Colorado (click on the word and it should take you to a CNN article about it). Some of their nude photos were taken on campus. Literally hundreds of students were caught with hundreds of photos. There is an app kids can get for smart phones that looks like a calculator on their phone but is really a “secret” file sort of like Snap Chat, where kids can hide their nude photos from their parents. And there was a game involved – who could collect the most photos of fellow students – nude photos – was the winner. Now many of these teens face felony charges and life-long registry as sex offenders. How do we combat this? It is NOT okay to send nude photos of yourself. Things on the internet never die. Ever. Someone has a record of it somewhere. Every, single, keystroke or attachment, file or photo is stored in the great internet “cloud” of information somewhere. A friend’s son is going through the process of becoming a fire fighter, which is something my youngest son aspires to. There are intensive background checks, as well as lie-detector tests, health screening, and psych exams you have to pass, above and beyond the skill set of firefighting, itself. If a 14-year-old kid made stupid statements on FB, or posted inappropriate photos of himself or others, 8 years later, as a college graduate, he could not get a job because there’s a record of that idiocy on the internet somewhere, that some expert in unearthing stuff, will find. How do we stop it before it begins?

Icon wall

Orthodoxy preserves and transmits ancient Christian wisdom about how to progress toward this union, which is called “theosis.” Every sacrament or spiritual exercise is designed to bring the person, body and soul, further into continual awareness of the presence of Christ within, and also within every other human being. As a cloth becomes saturated with dye by osmosis, we are saturated with God by theosis.

A catechumen wrote that he was finding icons helpful in resisting unwanted thoughts. “If you just close your eyes to some visual temptation, there are plenty of stored images to cause problems. But if you surround yourself with icons, you have a choice of whether to look at something tempting or something holy.

Do we surround ourselves and our families with things that bring us into the “Presence of God?” Do we watch our speech? Is what I say life-giving? Is it destructive? Do I harm others by my speech? Are others better because of knowing me? Or do I bring others down? Are my actions reflecting what I believe in? Do I allow abhorrent behavior to continue around me? Do I associate with others who reflect what I believe? Do I allow my children to associate with others who are not good for their character development? Will I be able to stand before God, when He asks me, “What have you done for the souls I have entrusted to you?” Will I answer, “Lord, I prayed for them; I sheltered them; I fed them; I instructed them; I set them on the path to You?” For my children, I pray I did this for them. And they then made their own adult choices and decisions. We can only “lead a horse to water, but you cannot make them drink.” Each person’s faith is specifically that – their own. As parents, we try to lead our children to a life of faith. In the world, at times we are the only Jesus a stranger, even a friend, will ever know. So how do we conduct ourselves, even at the grocery store, on the highways and byways of life, with our own relatives? Are we Christ to them? Do we lead by example? Are we the light and leaven in this fallen world?

Christians in the world.

I have been feeling so out of control of the things around me. It seems like nothing I can do can affect a change, especially an immediate one. I feel hamstrung some days. Thursday was a particularly trying day. I was trying to affect movement and change in the world of business and was thwarted at every turn. I was trying to help my children and some friends. But the Lord decided I needed some fine tuning today. He wanted me to learn patience and utter reliance on His Word in my life. He wanted me to learn that stopping, taking a deep breath, and praying is more often the valued path to choose. Sometimes my words are not what others need to hear. Sometimes I cannot effect change in the timeframe my brain had settled on. Some things have to germinate and take forever to change. But God truly has my life in His hands. I truly believe this world is a fallen place where I am to work out my salvation for the next. We are tried again and again. Sometimes we fall. The trick is to always get back up, ready to battle evil again.

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It is proper and right to sing to You, bless You, praise You, thank You and worship You in all places of Your dominion; for You are God ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same… We also thank You for this liturgy which You are pleased to accept from our hands, even though You are surrounded by thousands of Archangels and tens of thousands of Angels, by the Cherubim and Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring with their wings

I try to imagine Heaven, where all the choirs of angels are constantly singing praise to God. Where they are flying to and from His Throne, ministering to their charges. And I pray that some day the sweet sounds of their eternal song will be heard by me, for eternity. I pray I can greet my family members and friends, who have made the journey before me. All the angels and saints, greeting me as I approach the Throne of God. And I wondered, with all the stress of the day I had yesterday, the chats continuing on today, the many conversations and actions throughout my life, if I have done enough – for others. We are called to love those who persecute us; to love our enemies; to pray for those who hate us. Have I, honestly, done that? What have I done for the souls entrusted to me? I pray that all of us, as our world continues to careen out of control, that we stop; we all just stop, take a deep breath and pray to God. Stop and notice those hurting around you. Re-evaluate the words you use with others; the actions you take with others. If each of us were to truly be Christian in this fallen world, we could affect a change. A real, authentic change. We are called to be the “light and leaven” in this fallen world. And not because of what we do, but how we believe, take that belief of Christ Jesus living in us (Theosis) and turn it into love for one another.

For indeed He was crucified because of weakness, yet He lives because of the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, yet we will live with Him because of the power of God directed toward you. Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you– unless indeed you fail the test? But I trust that you will realize that we ourselves do not fail the test.…” (2Cor 13:5-8)

Prayer candles cross

This year will be epic!

Lately, it seems as though there is less and less respect, respect about a great many things.

I don’t want to glamorize or give more air time or credence to the new porno movie coming out today, but that is one example of no respect.  The man has no respect for the womanhood, or humanity, of the woman.  I remember how privileged it felt to share in the Divine process of procreation.  Becoming a mother is the one time you cooperate fully in the procreative process with God. God creates all life and He created a life in me..my children. How awesome is that?  This new round of Hollywood madness (and now literary madness as well) has cheapened the physical relationship between a man and a woman. Unfortunately, due to this “success” in the book world, there is now a lot more of this style of writing.  In all genres, and it still has no respect, most especially for women and for the union of man and wife.

I just read an article about Tabernacles being desecrated.  So much so that the local Bishop has ordered all of them in his area closed.  No more adoration.  No more keeping the light on because we know Jesus is home, and we can walk in and chat with Him.  We can even drive by and know He is present.  No more serenity and peace, just being in the same room with Him in a chapel.  Once again, because no one has respect.  I don’t mind if you do not believe in what I believe in. I do not mind that you even dislike what I believe in.  But I offer you the respect of your beliefs and I just want the same in return. I’m not here to shove my beliefs or opinions down your throat.  I just want to practice my faith.  There is no need to destroy the property of a church, or desecrate the Tabernacles within one.  You can voice your opinions in so many other ways, that would perhaps be even more fruitful and cause more people to stop and think.  Even those of other faiths decry the desecration of another church, be it in their belief system or not.  Radical actions by a radical few do nothing to bring others to their point of view.  Please stop.

There are also people out there who share so much, we sort of wish they would not.  Sharing things that should be kept within their family, or their faith family, at best.  Far too much blatant reality and sharing, from my point of view.  Which brings us to blogging.  Some people share far too much on blogs. I have been guilty a time or two myself, and have tried to rectify that trend in my writing.  I feel that when you hope to share your faith and when you hope to bring others over to what you believe, you put your best foot forward.  You don’t disrespect fellow worshippers with poor descriptions of events, sharing your dislike of what happened and continues to be a point of irritation for you.  That does not make anyone want to join you on your journey.  It turns people off, and turns them away.

In our faith tradition in the east, we have lots of opportunity for worship.  We have (in most parishes) evening Vespers, morning prayers, and we have Divine Liturgy. In most eastern parishes, there is one Divine Liturgy a weekend, because we want all our faith family together, worshipping at the same time. In lots of churches, there are so many services offered, you would never have to see the same people twice.  Nor hear the same music or chant twice.  Never have to scurry for the favorite pew seat, because it changes so often.  (We all have people we know who sit in particular places all the time. And heaven forbid someone should come and take their spot in Church…knowingly or unknowingly. I move around all the time, just to keep people on their toes).  We have so many opportunities to live our life of faith, with our community, that we should be so very grateful.  And there are plenty of times when we can worship as a family outside of formal worship, as well as with friends outside of Church time itself.  But we also need to attend and respect the times we are together.

For our tradition, a feast is always prepared with a fast.  And there are readings galore for every feast.  If you attend regularly and read outside of Church, no Saint’s feast day or Holy Day should ever catch you by surprise.  We always lead up to it with readings and fasting.  There are many days we fast in our tradition, and many days that we celebrate with fervor, for long periods of time. We believe a feast begins at sunset the day before.  So we start, for say, Easter Sunday, in the afternoon of Saturday.  We come together in the evening and we stay together until the sun rises and we share our first taste of meat together.  In fact, for the three days until Easter, called the Triduum in the West, we are rarely apart.  Lots of people plan vacation days from work for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Saturday night prior to Easter Sunday, and then a day of rest for Easter itself.  Many of our friends also take the following week, Bright Week, off work to recuperate and enjoy Easter.  In the Melkite tradition, it is my favorite time of year.  The Lenten evening services are incredible and I have felt God so closely during those moments of total prostration and prayer, enveloped by the sound of my priest’s voice and the cloud of incense over all of us.  The Presanctified Liturgy is, for me, like a moment of Heaven on Earth.  Very special moments for me.  Getting into the habit of spending time in the presence of God can change your outlook on time, itself.

In the eastern Churches, we believe that the moment you step into the Church you have left the world of Chronos (looking at your watch) and into the world of God, Kyros.  It is in Kyros that we loose ourselves in the worship of God and time as we know it ceases to exist.  We flow through the worship services, surrounded by chant and incense, and are quite often amazed at how much Chronos passed us by while in the Temple with God.  If you are current on the readings leading to these longer services, and you understand the whys and wherefores of the Liturgy itself, Chronos has little to no affect on you.  If you drag the world in with you, constantly worrying about what is going on outside, fussing over worldly details, Kyros will become lengthy and bothersome, and in fact, you won’t really have entered into an authentic experience of Kyros.  You will loose the essence of God’s time and be stuck in the world. Of course, sometimes the world intrudes (diapers need changing, little ones need comfort, or you just have to use the restroom!!) and they cannot be helped.  I recall a father of many, behind me in the pew one Sunday, handling a variety of upset kids.  Criers, fussers, generally cranky kids.  And I turned around at one point and saw him cradling a baby, eyes closed, swaying to the movement of the chant, reciting the prayers right along with the priest. His face was one of utter contentment.  He was in Kyros, while dealing with the world’s problems in the person of a crying baby.  It can be done, but it requires a determination sometimes to shut the world out.

This viewpoint is not respected by lots of people.  They view church as some sort of hour-long drive through where they can get their sacraments and get out, to get on with life.  They complain about lengthy services, about times, about requirements of participation.  My thoughts are, keep shopping.  There is bound to be a church that will cater to your whims and wishes.  Which is not very Christ-like! However, God only asks us to worship Him for an hour a week.  Anything we do over and above that is gravy to our souls.  One lousy hour.  Okay, on a feast day, it may be 3-4 hours.  It is truly not much when you look at the many hours we waste in traffic or in lines for things like coffee.  It comes down to your devotion and your priorities.  And you can complain, yes.  Feel free.  God listens to our joys as well as our sorrows.  But respect the faith that you are sharing.  Don’t turn people off or away by not respecting the very place you turn to for your “God time.”  Perhaps investigate the workings of the Liturgy itself and try to get into the movements of what is happening each week. You would be amazed at what you thought, versus what is.  And if your life just does not have this sort of time available in it, there are places that are faster, simpler, cleaner.  I just find it a shame someone would miss out on the beauty of worship that is relatively unchanged for 2,000 years in favor of a few extra minutes of Chronos.  Giving up the Kyros moments with God?  Not me.  I’m so excited for Great Lent and all the Lenten devotions.  I respect the chosen faith, that for me, fulfills my needs so much more than I can ever properly share.  A Church that has prepared for me for millennia; a Church who knows I need these times to keep my life on track.  I am so blessed, and as I said, so excited for Great Lent.

This year will be epic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings.

“Please forgive me…”

Holy Season of LentForgiveness Sunday was yesterday; today is Clean Monday. In many traditions, these next three days of the Lenten Fast are among the strictest.  We try, during the first three days of Lent (in the Orthodox tradition) to take nothing before Vespers on Wednesday but water.  Well, I am just not that good.  My blood sugar would go all catty-wampus (as my grandma would say) and I would pass out or something.  It is not that I am unwilling, but the flesh is very weak! We are trying some new ideas with fasting this year and we are excited.  It is so fun to learn all of the many aspects of universality our Church has to offer.  Learning new ways of doing things and new traditions from other countries.  I love it – it adds immeasurably to my faith.

At Forgiveness Sunday yesterday, we had a wonderful parish experience.  We had Divine Liturgy, and then a wonderful pot luck meal together, followed by Forgiveness Vespers.  It is our first Byzantine experience, as we are Melkite, which is an eastern-rite Church, but with a decidedly Middle Eastern flair to it.  Our parish here is Ruthenian, and culturally eastern European.  During the Vespers itself, much was sung and prayed about forgiveness, and it was nice; contemplative at times, too. But the most touching aspect of it came at the end. Our Priest stood up there in front of the Holy Doors, asking us to forgive him, and through him, all the clergy. He mentioned several times that people often think clergy are angels.  He laughed and said, “I am no angel!”  And then he asked us to remember that none of us are angels!  He then had each person in the parish approach him and asked them to forgive him, and they asked him to forgive them.  They received the oil of Mirovanije and and then took their place next to him, forming a line around the inside of the church.  Each person, in turn, asked each person for forgiveness. I cannot properly do justice to what a moving experience this was for both my husband and myself.

anointing1I love the tradition of mirovanije and how wonderful it feels (and it usually smells good, too!) to be blessed and to share that blessing with forgiveness. It was so very moving.  Unfortunately for me, I was plagued with back problems yesterday…too much sitting on hard chairs, I guess.  After sitting through Divine Liturgy, then having the pot luck and then Vespers, my back had just had it (it was my second attempt at going outside the house since I hurt my back two weeks ago).  So I received the oil and blessing, exchanged forgiveness with Fr. Michael, and promptly went back to my spot.  By this time, I was actually weeping.  It was a combination of forgiveness, pain, and the fear my back was as bad as it was two weeks ago.  But as I sort of laid on my side in the pew, so many people came to me, wanting to exchange forgiveness.  They got out of line and came to me, hugging me and asking for forgiveness. I cannot even tell you how humbling and beautifully freeing it was.  Of course, being the mushy person I am, I cried all the more!

40 Days logoAs we take this journey together during Lent, I wanted to share once again how beautiful and freeing forgiveness can be.  And that we truly make no progress with the fasting, the praying, the attendance at prayers, if we have rancor, hatred, anger…any of those ugly, festering, emotions…deep in our soul.  Lent becomes meaningless, really, if we do not approach it with a clean heart; a heart ready and willing to be open to God working in our lives.

As Orthowiki defines it: Liturgically, Clean Monday—and thus Great Lent itself—begins on the preceding (Sunday) night,at a special service called Forgiveness Vespers, which culminates with the Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness, at which all present will bow down before one another and ask forgiveness. In this way, the faithful begin Great Lent with a clean conscience, with forgiveness, and with renewed Christian love. The entire first week of Great Lent is often referred to as “Clean Week,” and it is customary to go to confession during this week, and to clean the house thoroughly (or to have it clean before the beginning of the Fast).

The theme of Clean Monday is set by the Old Testament reading appointed to be read at the Sixth Hour on this day (Isaiah 1:1-20), which says in part:

Wash yourselves and ye shall be clean; put away the wicked ways from your souls before Mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well. Seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, consider the fatherless, and plead for the widow. Come then, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: Though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white as snow; and though they be red like crimson, I will make them white as wool (v. 16-18).”

So today, being Clean Monday, I am trying to get my home together.  Working carefully, and trying to prepare to enter fully into Lent.  It truly makes the entire “Spring Cleaning” philosophy completely different for me.  First, I learned about the desire to clean my home with the increase in daylight and, second, the impending blessing of our home (in the process of cleaning for the priest to come, I injured my back) and now with the start of Lent, yet another reason to “Spring Clean”!  Isn’t God and His Church awesome??  So many reasons to do what comes naturally.

I just wanted to share a short post on Forgiveness Vespers and what an incredible start it gave me for Lent. I will be fasting from media and noise this Lent, so postings will be sparse.  May your Lenten period prepare you for an incredible Pascha and may God bless you each of these wonderful 40 days!

Lenten Candle Stand Gold