“A still, small voice…”

nativityicon

“The best laid plans of mice and men … ” (Robert Burns, “To a Mouse” 1786). The quote seems appropriate. I worked very hard to try and make Christmas happen for our family and friends, those nearby and those far away. For the first time in 31 years of marriage, everyone’s gifts were either under the tree and wrapped, or wrapped, boxed, and mailed the week before Christmas. And, Christmas cards were all sent out at the same time. I was free to plan my meals and goodies. I should have known other plans were afoot when, on our way out the door to a birthday party, we dumped our 9-layer dip upside down in the snow, breaking my grandma’s casserole dish I had inherited. Things tanked from there.  I was able to attend that event, even making a scad of pizzelles while the kiddos “hung out.” But by the end of the day, I felt awful and in the space of about 2 hours, had completely lost my voice. This was December 23rd.

As many of you know because you know me, or have read about it here, I am an avid convert to the use of essential oils in my life. I also added a nutritional system to my life. I have not felt better in, quite literally, years. Over the summer, I back-slid and I did it big time. I never walked away from my oils, but my nutrition and exercise tanked. We’ve started back with our nutrition and I am using vitamins that, for the first time in my life, do not upset my stomach. Taken twice a day, these packets are awesome and since I received them on the 23rd, I only missed once, because I flat out crashed in bed. Ha-Ha. The exercise is starting as soon as I am better. I am coughing far too much to exert myself. I am dressed, so that is a bonus! (Although I must say I love spending the day in PJs).

I find it amazing that changing something like adding essential oils to my life, had such a drastic effect. For the first time in my life, I no longer use any over-the-counter medications, nor any prescriptions. My aches and pains have ceased. My mood and energy levels were such that I could keep up with my grandkids! And I was taught a HUGE lesson – being healthy affects every aspect of your life. Because right now, I am missing out on the holidays. I am home, alone, in sweats (at least I have on clothes and and not just jammies) while family and friends celebrate. I spent the entire day of Christmas, alone, on the couch with a diffuser on right next to me, nursing a hot cup of thieves tea. It stunk. But thankfully, I am open to new experiences and I am always open to learning. Because of that, I had my first raindrop massage with essential oils and I must say, I would love one every day! (God bless you, Mindy). I am thrilled beyond thrilled it worked. The oils did their thing, but then I “overdid” my thing. Attending Christmas Eve Divine Liturgy until 3:30 am while fighting this bug pushed the limits of endurance for me. I cannot expect oils to save me from myself. And therein lies my lesson…

The Good Lord asks us to give Him our best, always. He asks us to love Him and love our neighbors as ourselves. He asks us to be attentive, to listen more than talk, to be present to those around us.  To trust Him and His Word for us in our lives. He also granted us free will. That darned old free will is something each of us uses daily in our walk. Do we take a step towards God, or one away? Trying to do everything, trying to get everything “perfect” for everyone, running yourself ragged. Silly, silly me. God’s got this, not me. The reason for the season? Because the Christ Child came to us in a cave, with NOTHING but Himself, to save us from ourselves. And I thought I had this wired. I thought that, for the first time in 31 years, having presents and cards ready, the house decorated, that I was ready for Christmas. That I was ready to welcome that Babe in the Manger. What gifts did I give Our Lord? Instead, He gave me a break away from all the festivities, and He gave me time and quiet to get myself together.

Christmas is a mess

I decided to try and make soup from our leftover ham, while my husband is off, serving as a Deacon on the altar, and our son accompanied him. I even sorted laundry. And then I sat down, coughing my head off. I reapplied oils, added water to the ham bone making us soup on the stove, and petted the dogs. I am exhausted. But I am not tired enough that I cannot see how so much of what the Lord has in store for us, we miss. We miss it because we are so busy getting ready for it, it passes us by.  My personal Christmas was a mess. Sickness made me flat out stop.  Just stop. And this time, I was quite literally stopped in my tracks.

I believe that when we come face to face with God, it should stop us in our tracks and we should become something different; distinct from our “former selves.” If we do not embrace and accept the change that an encounter with Christ should engender in us, why bother? Why keep banging your head against a wall, telling the world you have changed, when the evidence everyone can see tells a completely different story? I can adopt a healthier lifestyle. I can opt to create a healthier environment in my home. So why did I allow all those sweets to come into my home? Why did I encourage poor choices by making sweet things to share with others? How am I the example someone needs for their walk with Christ if I cannot even stay the course myself?

Cheaters never propser

“Cheaters never prosper” was yelled by kids on the playgrounds when I was young. We used to sing-song it to people who cheated at games. It is an old English saying (idiom) that actually was about treason, but we Americans changed it up a little bit. In any event, cheating never does us any good. The most blatant lies will show to be just that, given time. People position themselves certain ways and presume and assume no one is the wiser, but most of us can see the truth. I tried to cheat. I was given a healthier alternative and thought I was on the road to health and less weight, more energy, less pain..all the benefits I had been seeing. But I also thought I could “rest on my laurels.” (Another fun idiom we inherited from mythology. A laurel wreath was worn around the head as a distinction for a level achieved; a reward. To lay down and rest, not putting forth further effort because you already were crowned with a laurel wreath, was to presume what you had done was good enough and would last). But as with anything, we need to stay current. We need to keep at it, to become good at anything. If someone is trying to get healthy, you don’t stop doing whatever you have chosen once you reach a healthier status. You have to keep up living healthy or you become sick, like me. Ugh.  I really hate that I am still sick and it is almost 7 days later. But I am happy that I am still learning.

Confession

“Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God.” + St. Maximos the Confessor, Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice 3.62, The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 2)

When we go to confession, as when we unburden ourselves to a friend, when we open our hearts to hear the Word of God on our souls, we are changed. We have been given a new breath. We can inhale and feel the burdens we bore removed from our shoulders. We can start anew. Start what? That daily step – that step we take with each choice, each decision, each breath of every day. Did the Lord allow you relief? Were you given a choice and opted to repent? Were you contrite? What now? Is your next step, your next breath towards God, or are you backing away? One of the hardest things in life is to know that you do not know. You do not know pretty much anything, outside from the Grace of God. Without God’s light and Grace, we become “noisy gongs and clanging cymbals” (1Cor 12). I know so many people who are nothing more than air. And usually hot air. Because they jabber but they don’t change. They do not listen. They do not open themselves to the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. They are stuck, clanging away, because they already know it all. And today I reaffirm my commitment to not be a noisy gong, insisting on my own way, rumbling through life sick and miserable. I embrace what I have been shown and I am determined to inherit the Kingdom of God as a loving daughter of the Most High. I do not want to make so much noise with my own sounds, my own opinions, that I cannot see the path that God has laid out for me. I know that God acts in my life through others. He allows people to come into my life to help me, to make me a better person. I need to acknowledge that in my life; to embrace it; to accept it; and most of all, to act upon it. So this is sort of a New Year’s Resolution, if you would allow. I intend to listen more, speak less, and to follow God’s Word in my life much better than I often do. I will endeavor to hear that still, small voice. Will you?

Small voice

 

“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!

Christmas sales. jpg

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!

window.tree.snow

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.

Christmasdinner

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

Red Cups and Controversy

I am all torn up inside. I made a comment on my Facebook wall recently where I said that words can be harsh, but our hearts are soft… and that we need to be kind. In this world of media, most especially social media, we need to realize the power of our words.  And on media like Facebook, photos as well. Photos can be harsh to see, and sometime evoke memories we work hard to bury.

There was legislation pending about cutting funding to Planned Parenthood, and an article was posted by the local TV station on Facebook. Let me start off by saying that I am 100% pro life, from a NATURAL beginning of life, to a NATURAL end of life. That statement says a lot. That I truly value all life. Insofar as being fertile and successfully bearing children, I know from which I speak. And speaking of photos on social media, when I stated that I did not think abortion was the solution for any life endangering problem, I was assaulted with photos of anacephalic children; of aborted fetuses from ectopic pregnancies; of women dying from ectopic pregnancies. I know what loosing a baby is like. I did not have to see aborted babies to understand their point of view. I had nightmares about some of my labors and the babies I have lost. Thanks for that. But regardless of the pain I felt at the words flung at me, and the horrible photos sent to me, I still stand as 100% pro life and prayed our legislature would do the right thing. I think it is important to stand for what we believe as Christians. Abortion is murder. Period. It is my political line-in-the-sand and a stance I do not waiver from. I believe it is the point from which other character traits can be discerned and I use it to discern things about other people, be they friends, “Facebook friends,” people on social media I do not even know, and politicians in particular.

NoLaw.Abortion.Lincoln.

As if my day/week were not complete, and my tears not enough, along comes another assault. It is known as the Starbucks “Red Cup” controversy and conversation. Ad naseum. The remarks and photos have been hateful, to say the least. The creativity of the memes has been impressive, I will give you that. However, this discussion is so much more than the color of a cup. I just wish people would see where we are headed. I still say most people miss the point. I do not think that our faith is at all decided upon by the color of a cup used by a retail coffee seller. Supporting that company has far more implications than coffee. I had a great discussion with a friend (and she put me on speaker because her daughter was learning these concepts in school) about economics and the power corporations have in our government. Starbucks wields enormous power in the marketplace. They are the largest coffeehouse company in the world. They are one of the largest buyers of coffee crops – around the world. (In 2000, they bought 136,000 metric tons of coffee). If they stop buying coffee, economies are affected. Many countries depend on exporting their coffee to buyers like Starbucks.

800px-A_time_for_a_cup_of_coffee

I love coffee – coffee to drink; I eat roasted coffee beans; love coffee in ice cream; love Kahlua and coffee. I am a coffee lover! And when I discuss it, I feel pretty confident in the conversation, insofar as beans, brewing, the buying and selling of coffee worldwide, and all the different ways to brew it. (French Press is still my favorite method, although good, old, “Cowboy Coffee” is pretty wonderful, too). I learned more than 30 years ago all about importing and exporting coffee beans, reputable buyers, growers, etc. And I can tell you, once Starbucks came into being on the world-wide market, things changed. They have made a huge footprint into the industry. And they allow their economic health and power to impact our government. When we lived in Seattle, Starbucks was a huge presence. In neighborhoods, people purposely avoided them, preferring local coffee brewers to “give the little guy a chance.” Sort of like buying at a vegetable stand versus the grocery store. 

The corporation of Starbucks threw their weight behind Prop 8, the Defense of Marriage proposition. The CEO of Starbucks has made it plain at shareholder meetings and in the press that he defends and supports diversity in all its forms.  Here is a quote from a March 2013 article,

“At the Starbucks annual shareholders meeting on Wednesday, CEO Howard Schultz sent a clear message to anyone who supports traditional marriage over gay marriage: we don’t want your business. After saying Starbucks wants to “embrace diversity of all kinds,” he told a shareholder who supports traditional marriage that he should sell his shares and invest in some other company.”

Mr. Schultz, and Starbucks, also fund Planned Parenthood through their employee matching program. It’s an interesting way for corporations to subvert their funds to their pet causes. Employees get a list and the corporation tells them that if you give part of your salary (pre-tax) to one of these causes, we will match (or even double) your contribution.  Starbucks gives their employees a choice, and one is Planned Parenthood.

The rumors about their lack of support to our Military, both active and veterans, has shown to be largely false, and I admit that. My personal experience was working with Blue Star and Red Star moms, in trying to get them to donate to active duty, deployed servicemen and send coffee in coffee care packages. They refused. That was more than 10 years ago. They wanted to do it in a corporate fashion, ensuring a larger market share and brand recognition. I get that. At the time, it was hurtful. But at least they now supply coffee packets to our servicemen overseas. They took the idea from small, local support groups and did it on their large, corporate scale. At least it was done. For that I am grateful.

DunkinDonuts cup.

This is the new Dunkin Donuts cup. It’s nice. It’s a cup. It was revealed this week, in response to the Starbucks Red Cup reveal. I am not particularly fond of Dunkin Donuts coffee, and their cup doesn’t make me want their coffee, or a donut, more. It is a cup. 

Starbucks red cup

That’s the infamous Starbucks Red Cup. It is a cup. I could care less. The cup is plain. Their other cups used all year long are exactly the same, just white. It is a cup.

Gingerbread-Latte%5b1%5d

This is a holiday cup from 2010, I think. It’s red. It has snowflakes on it. It is a cup. Yippee.

The reason I showed all these cups is because the internet is on fire, and even MSM is doing stories on this cup controversy. Do I think Starbucks is trying to “dis” Christians or do harm to Christmas and the Holiday Season? Of course not. A new hashtag on social media has now popped up, “#Itsjustacup” lets us all know there are bigger issues in the world right now, than the color of Starbucks’ cups. Some people are saying it is just another way corporate America is taking the Christian aspect away from Christmas and making it just another shopping holiday; some particular day in the year in the wintertime where families get together and eat a meal and exchange gifts. For many people around the world, there is no such thing as Christmas, and for many in our own country, Christmas is just what I described – a day to get together, eat, and exchange gifts. And that makes me sad. Christmas, the word itself, means, “Christ’s Mass” – the celebration of the Birth of Our Savior. It is kind of a big deal to practicing Christians. As a Byzantine Catholic, Christmas is big. Not as big as Lent and Easter, but it is big. We have a Fast before Christmas, just like the Fast before Lent. It is called the “Philip’s Fast” or the “Apostles Fast.” Since the Council of Saragossa in 380 AD, the Church has been practicing a special period leading up to Christmas. One of increased Church attendance, reading of Scriptures, and other devotionals. The current St. Philip’s Fast was formally decreed by the Council of Constantinople in 1166 and the council decreed it would start on November 15 and last until December 24. It is called the St. Philip’s Fast because it begins the day after his feast day. The Apostle’s Fast (same fast, other name) is more lenient than our Lenten Fast, but it is a period of preparation. Typically, practicing Catholics do not attend Christmas parties and celebrations until after Christmas. Makes all the local celebrations with employers and well-meaning friends a little dicey, but it can be done. We prepare for the birth of Christ through increased Church participation and through fasting, so for most of us who keep this fast, we won’t be going to Starbucks anyway!

My point in all of this is that we are trying, valiantly, to keep our traditions alive and well. As Christians, we believe, for example, that marriage is only to be between one man and one woman. We believe in the sanctity of all human life. We do not support abortion or other ways to end the life of a pre-born human being. Fertilized human eggs are just that – human – from the moment of conception. They are 100% human and are a separate entity from the mother. They are not parasites; they are babies. Regardless of how they came to be created, they deserve life. Abortion should never be a form of birth control, or gender selection, or other methods of producing designer babies. Corporations who support Planned Parenthood should not be supported, if we can at all help it. It is difficult, and at times impossible, but it is a worthy challenge. I try to do everything I can to not give my dollars to entities who support abortion. Period. Up to and including the coffee I drink. And I was heartily slammed for it, by fellow Christians. I am finding more and more that if I do not fall in line, exactly, with other believers, I can be thoroughly trashed in social media. I had to lock down my Facebook page, as well as my Messenger page. It was painful and so unexpected. One particular series of comments was from a person I did not know, who was in politics, but a “friend of a friend,” who decided I needed an education. He was angry, mean, and hurtful and told me I was the one with the problem. I had asked for his prayers and understanding, and proceeded to be trashed even harder. I just do not understand some people. As I said above, this is about far more than the color of a cup. This is about our culture, our faith, and this country.

Rockwell-freedom from want

In our insane world of hyper-political correctness, we need to be concerned that while we are being so “correct,” we are allowing our own faith to be compromised. And yes, this is a Christian country. We were founded on Judeo-Christian values, by practicing Christians. By holding fast to our beliefs, I am not shoving my faith down someone’s throat. As a Christian, I am called to share my faith. “No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light” (Luke 11:33). Separation of Church and State means that the State cannot dictate which faith I practice. They cannot declare a “national religion.” The protection from a state religion does not, however, mean that Christian principles cannot be inherent in our laws. We have a Christian-based Constitution. Read it. Look at it. Absorb it. The principles inherent in it are Christian-based. We do not live “an eye for an eye” existence, as do the Muslims. We believe in a fair trial by our peers. These are all Christian philosophical stances; they come from nowhere else.

The coffee cup controversy is just emblematic of the inherent problems we are facing in our politically correct times. It is coming to a point where people are going to want to silence all of us who disagree, and we need to be prepared for that. I often have shared that to be a Christian, we need to be prepared to be that “stick in the river” that stands tall and does not bend with the flow. Just because Hollywood actors say things does not make them so. Why is their opinion worth any more than mine? Because they act in movies? Because they can sing? We need to say “no” when it is appropriate to do so. But I am finding that it is becoming more and more difficult to do that. People really do not want to know what you think, especially if it is different from what they are espousing. Be careful of this trend. It is socialist in nature, communistic in many aspects, and can be found in countries with little to no personal freedoms. It is certainly not Christian.

St. Anthony the Great

 

 

…is the final act of love.”

Writing is such a personal, intimate thing. Authors are usually people who look inward and create fantastic worlds for us, report on the world around us, or help us reach back into the past and see the world as it was.  I have always thought of blogs like having your personal diary open on your desk and other people stopping by and reading it.  Each post added to a blog is like turning the page in that diary.  I write because it’s sort of like something that needs to come out.  Some days I write a lot.  Sometimes I have gone, quite literally, months between posts.  Most often, I write to get something off my chest, or to express something that feels like I have a need to share with others or I will burst!  It’s like my cell phone.  (Bear with me a little here).  My iPhone is so complete, I usually only use my computer for doing this blog or paying bills (I know the arguments against that, but it is just so much simpler!).  All my information about family and friends is in my phone.  I lost my phone for a few hours last weekend in the snow.  A kindly stranger turned it into a customer service desk and I cannot tell you how relieved I was…because I realized it would take me FOREVER to get the information back that I had stored in my phone. It has so many neat apps on it and one of my favorites is Notepad. I use it ALL the time!  Well, if you ask me someone’s phone number, email address, or house address, I’d have to excuse myself while I looked it up on my phone. I don’t have to remember things like this anymore, because my phone does it for me.  And when I write, after it is written, I am usually over the issue and I forget about it.  I am also one of those types who gets angry (hard to believe, I know).  I may yell or speak harshly (ask my boys) but once I do, I move on. I don’t harbor grudges or stay mad at people.  I blow up and then it’s done.  I use my writing as a way, sometimes, to ease the pressure…sort of like the steam escaping a boiling teapot.  Once you release the steam, the pot settles down.  That’s me.

And so I am musing over something that is really bugging me.  I have noticed that I am loosing my ability at times, to think clearly and remember details. It worries me because my mom has dementia and Alzheimer’s. And I realize that I forget things all the time. People say to me, “Oh, you remember when we….?”  And honestly, many times I don’t.  I’m not sure if it is because my brain gets lazy, if I rely on my iPhone too much to remember for me (gasp!?! Reliance on technology!) or I just get distracted.  Am I not giving the moment the attention it deserves and so I cannot recall it later on?

Abba AseniosIn our world of chaos and noise, I often think that adding to this noisy chaos by blogging is not helping the situation.  Computer usage really draws us away from others.  Computers can, however, bring disparate people together – those who are geographically separated can connect and it eases that separation somewhat. I do try, however, to keep more silence than aimless chatter.  I try to steer away from adding to gossip or just the noise around us.  So does my memory loss have more to do with going through them and throwing out the ones that truly don’t matter? Is it important I remember the color dress I wore 10 years ago, or if it was raining or sunny at some event I attended?  Perhaps not.  Someone with Alzheimer’s will know those details, though.  A person with dementia can’t recall yesterday, let alone years ago.  A dementia patient has short term memory and that is about it.  Alzheimer patients cannot recall what a fork is for, or remember to eat, but they know incredible details about years past.  So I am leaning towards a sort of mental evolution, if you will allow that terminology. A pattern of memory losses and gains, I guess!

I am learning that God is never through with me.  He allows me to trip up and make mistakes over and over again, until His lesson gets ingrained in me.  All of us come from somewhere.  We all have pasts that perhaps are not worthy of remembering.  I have let go of many things from my teen years and young adulthood that do not speak well of me. I have been taught, and I have learned, over the years to adjust my vision to things that are not so much “of the world” and tend to the more philosophical and theological.

2Thessalonians3-3

I was recently helping my daughter-in-law to make a memory book for my mom.  I have been told these sorts of things help them to cling to their own history, and to see their lives in snapshots helps to keep them grounded.  As I was going through the 84 years of my mom’s life, I was drawn back to memories I thought I had lost.  I realized I had put them “on a shelf” and let them rest there.  But when I wanted to, I could recall all sorts of details (my poor daughter-in-law had to sit and listen to them with me for over 6 hours earlier this week!  God bless her!).  And I so enjoyed remembering my life as a young child and the things my brother and I did.  I could pull them off that shelf and remember, fully, all the wonderful times of my childhood.  The Lord is good; He has allowed me to live in His light, in His love, and has guarded me from the evil one.  He has healed many of my memories and has allowed many others to just fade away, all while helping me retain what is good and positive about my life.

St Tikhon 3This is the season where we prepare to welcome the Son of God as a Child.  We should get our “houses” in order in more ways than one.  Confession is good for us and helps us become clearer-headed and hearted, as we wind our way to Christmas.  If you do not believe in confession to a priest or cleric, it is certainly priceless to sit and contemplate before God all your sins and seek His forgiveness.  I personally feel incredible after a good and holy confession. And I believe it is more important to prepare our hearts than our homes.  Decorating for Christmas is so fun and I love it, as you would know if you have read my posts before. I love pretty much everything about Christmas.  But I also know that my spiritual preparation is more important than baking cookies and buying gifts.  Christ smiles at us when we are clear and free in our hearts and spirits after confession.

There is a wonderful Catholic theologian and author, Peter Kreeft, who I quote quite often.  In one of his many books, he spoke about Confession and told this wonderful story (which I will totally paraphrase):  When we face the judgement seat of Christ, we can picture ourselves standing there, before the Throne, with nothing but a couple of suitcases.  Christ will ask us what we have brought with us.  Our response will be, “Lord, I brought my sins with me.”  And He will tell us that when He forgave us our sins, it was as if they never happened.  He will go back into the timeline of our lives and pull those sinful acts or omissions out of our timeline and it will be as if they never existed.  We are the ones who need to forgive ourselves and to let our sinful pasts be just that; our past.  And this is what I think is happening to me and some of my memories – they are memories that are best forgotten because I was (and still am) a fearful sinner and I lug these sins, over which I have sought forgiveness time and again, with me wherever I go.  I need to let them go.  As I am maturing in my faith, and I find holes in my memory, I am learning to be okay with that.  I trust God and I know He is guiding me in the way I need to go.  He is allowing me to forget certain aspects of my past, in order for me to have a better future.

And so I post now and then.  I blog. I add to the cacophony of sounds around me by tapping away on my laptop.  And I allow issues to come and go and I try not to cling to those things I need to let go. I get out of God’s way and allow His healing to reach deep into my heart and rip out the things I need to let go of.  And I am finding my way to that peace that knows no understanding, that peace of God.  (Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7)

My prayer is for forgiveness from past sinful acts or omissions. If I have offended you in any way, please forgive me.  I extend my hand to you as a friend and a fellow journeyman on the road to Divine Eternity with God.  I pray for company on this journey and as I ponder the things in my life, I extend an offer to join me by reading this blog.  Let us not judge one another, but love each other as God intended us to love one another: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35).

ON Forgiveness

“..is the great I AM?”

baby-feet8I typed a link to a you-tube video above because it is my favorite Christmas song, ever.  And I think Kathy Mattea, the singer, did it the best I’ve heard.  Not sure why her version touches me the most, but it does!  The song?  “Mary, did you know?”  The song speaks to the wonder most of us feel, gazing upon our babies.  Only in this case it is particularly poignant, because Mary is the Theotokos, or Mother of God.  Her Son is God, the Christ Child come to save us all.  I’ve spoken before about our period of preparation prior to Christmas, and that it is almost as important as Christmas, itself.

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.” Luke 1; 26-38 (RSV)  It is agreed in Christian theology that this occurred.  So why would a song writer pen the lyrics to this song, asking if Mary knew all these things about her Son?

Mary did you know that your baby boy would some day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you?

Mary did you know that your baby boy would give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you’ve kissed your little baby, you’ve kissed the face of God?

Oh Mary did you know?

The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb.

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I AM?

All the questions the writer poses to Mary are all the same questions we should pose to ourselves, as we prepare to receive Him at Christmas; this little baby prepared to save each and every one of us.  Did you know?  Perhaps Mary did not know the details that would surround Her Son during His lifetime.  But she knew, oh yes, she knew He was the Son of God and also “the great I AM!”  In Old Testament terms, the “great I AM” is how people would refer to God, because no one felt that saying His name was appropriate. Yahweh is another term used for “God.”  When we really think about the fact that God manifested Himself as an infant, coming to walk among us as a man, devoid of the pomp and circumstance common to rulers in that age, it is pretty incredible – meaning almost “not-credible.”  Why would God do that? I mean, some of the most amazing things of the Old Testament are when God would do something out-of-the-ordinary, signifying His Presence.  I love the imagery of Moses’ face as played by Charleton Heston, after seeing God in the Burning Bush.  He was astonished; his face was sunburned and his hair bleached completely white.  Or Elijah ascending on his fiery chariot up into the sky?  Moses parted the Red Sea!  But this Baby comes in a cave (in most versions of the story) among the cattle, on a cold night under a cloudless sky.  The Christmas Star appears (only in the Gospel of Matthew) and the Shepherds come to adore the Child (Luke 2:8-18).  It is all so quiet, so serene, so peaceful.  No crowds, no parades, no splendor; a simple birth (“…and she brought forth her firstborn Son…” Luke 2:7).

So did Mary realize the immensity of this event? I think both she and Joseph were fully aware of their participation in the salvation history of God.  We don’t really hear much about Joseph in the gospels from here on out.  Christ was a carpenter, as was Joseph, during His life before His preaching began.  So we know that Joseph influenced Him as a child and young man.  The early years of Christ are shrouded in mystery. Perhaps it was because they were mundane and normal until His ministry began.  So Mary, at His birth, was perhaps not aware of the fullness of His yet-to-be-lived life of ministry and His Ultimate Sacrifice on the Cross.  But she was very aware of HIM!

We celebrated the birthday of our youngest son last night. I cannot fully express what an incredible evening it was.  So much was against it happening, at all, and yet it was a great night.  The weather wreaked havoc on our plans with icy rain, slick roads, closed schools, highways, and transportation.  But it happened, and it happened through the efforts of my husband daring to get our Costco pizzas and our older son and his wife’s determination that his brother’s birthday would be a great one.  They blazed a trail through the ice and snow, bringing friends over and an amazing cake!  They played a pretty amazing prank on me, too!  I loved that!  (Shhhh….they think I freaked out but it was so fun!!).  My son and his friends had a ball together, and I was able to stand back, and watch my children interact and just smile; my heart aglow with it all.

Baby handThe pregnancy I had with my older son was so frightening.  I was in and out of the hospital so many times, that when I showed up at the labor room, everyone knew me by name.  I was there so often, I had my favorite labor-monitoring chair!  He was born 5-weeks prematurely and we rejoiced that he was here, and healthy, and alive.  I was so afraid of NICU’s and the whole preemie process, that when he was born, God lightened our fears!  He was 8 lbs and 20.5 inches long.  All the NICU equipment they had on standby was too small for him.  The oxygen mask, the isolette, all the little t-shirts, booties, blankets and hats – too small.  He was the biggest baby born that day, and the only boy in the newborn section!  Our youngest son had a pretty rough time of it, too.  He was just 18-inches long and only 6 pounds.  I wasn’t used to such little babies! (My middle son’s pregnancy and birth were so normal, I felt neglected by my OB/GYN! He was 8 lbs. 9 oz!).  And as I sat on the couch last night, watching my oldest and youngest sons interacting over a new air-soft gun (given by the eldest to the youngest) my heart just swelled with love.  I was holding my grand daughter, seated next to my daughter-in-law, and chatting with both her and my husband, while our almost-2-year-old grandson ran around the room.  It was pretty much perfect. (Just missing our middle son and his family – whose birthday it also was!!).

handsDid I imagine or envision this event at the births of my sons? When I was holding my oldest boy in my arms, did I imagine him as a husband and father?  Did I see him as a big brother? A soldier?  When my middle son was born with those gorgeous strawberry blonde curls, did I imagine him holding his strawberry blonde baby girl? His marriage? His college graduation?  When my youngest son was placed in my arms, did I see him as that adorable toddler he grew to be? As a teenager? A pilot?  No to any of that.  All I saw, when I held my children, were these precious babies, themselves – little baby boys, alive, wiggly, and beautiful in my arms.

Mary participated in the salvific history of mankind in a special and unique way.  But she also participated in the act of creation, with the Creator Himself, God.  Each of us who bears a child participates in that same creative process with Our Creator.  What a gift, this gift of life is.  And each year, at Christmas, I feel myself participate, once again, with the Theotokos, as she holds her Baby Boy.

Mary, did you know?

King Size Bed

“…being God from all eternity.”

Snow cabinThis is the season I love the best.  I love winter and I love Christmas.  We were married on December 29th because I wanted to have our wedding and subsequent anniversaries around this time of year. I had always dreamed of a winter wedding, complete with white fur muffs, a horse-drawn sleigh, and wearing red in my wedding outfit.  I loved having a candle-lit, winter wedding.  I love the cold weather, the snow, the lights on people’s houses, the tree with all the ornaments that tell of our lifetimes in them, the smell of Christmas baking, the Christmas music my husband plays continually from Thanksgiving Day onward, seeing friends we haven’t seen in a long time, enjoying the joy of gifts given and received.  I especially love Christmas Eve Vespers and staying out late and seeing all the lights, drinking hot cocoa and splurging on Christmas cookies.  I love making Gingerbread Houses, a fairly new tradition my daughter-in-law brought to our family.  I love baking during Christmas.  I was never much of a holiday cook but since I married into this family, I learned so many delicious holiday treats.  I love preparing the stockings even for our grown and married children.  This year we get to add three stockings of our grandchildren.  I love the prep and the running around and the chaos of it all.  There are days I just sigh in contentment.  All of it, Christmas; I just love it.

Snow fence lightsIt was brought to my attention that I started sharing Christmas-themed posts and photos before Halloween.  I am not sure about the October date, but I do know I started before Thanksgiving.  It is my first season living in the Arctic Circle and I can tell you that weather definitely had an affect on me.  Up here, people try to hang the lights on their houses and fences, front yards, and outside trees prior to the first snow. It makes sense.  We were a little late, and with the help of our older son, hung our lights after the first serious snowfall (we got 6″ overnight) and it turned out to be a fun experience! The older sibling dumped loads of snow off the eaves onto his younger brother, as he carried the string of lights for his big-brother up on the ladder.  The oldest brought his dad a cigar and the two of them smoked cigars in the snow (it started to snow while they were half-way through) and they had a lot of fun.  We have since received a couple of feet of snow, and our Christmas lights glow through the snow accumulating on the roof.  It is pretty.  Because the house lights were up, we brought in all our decorations the following Monday and put up our tree and completely decorated our house.  My husband came home and just smiled.  Another tradition this far north is to keep house lights up until Spring and the days lengthen a little bit.  The basic decor is taken down, but the lights remain to keep our spirits up in these long days of dark.  And maybe I started a little early, but all this snow and minus temps just got me excited for the season, seeking some joy and happiness through decorating for it; I also was beginning to prepare for Christmas in my heart.  A friend also reminded me that I used to decorate my homes all in red and green, it was wasted in Southern California, and perhaps I was always meant to dwell in the Arctic!  She may be right, because I don’t like hot weather, the beach or sand, and I love wearing coats, sweaters, boots, and living in all this snow!

sit with you lordThe season of winter and Christmas is also a very interior or prayerful time for me.  We are indoors a lot, it is dark a lot of the time, and it brings with it a sensual experience of warm fires, gentle lights, and the quiet of the winter terrain, all buried in deep snows.  I have found myself contemplating the whys and wherefores of Christmas and the traditions that go with it.  And I have also been chatting with various people about Santa Claus, and other winter traditions.  For me, I find that matters of faith, tenets of faith, all germinate in reality.  The story of the Wise Men; the birth of Christ; the slaughtering of the Holy Innocents; the Crucifixion and Resurrection…these all had their start in truth and historical occurrences.  There are those who poo-poo the whole December 25th date and the fact that the “Church” stole the date from the pagans of the early centuries; the fact that pagans had trees indoors for far different purposes; the “wise men” were not all that wise, nor were there just three of them…on and on it goes.  I know that; I was blessed with studying Biblical Archeology as my minor in college.  I know what we have physical evidence for, and what is real and what is hysterical – or historical – and what is not.  And I acknowledge those who love just Santa Claus (made jolly and friendly by the early Coca Cola ads in the 20s), the Tooth Fairy (recently made famous again by “the Rock” in a movie), and the Easter Bunny (whose fame was resurrected in the movie, “HOP,” and which I just watched today with my grandson), and they do not want to know where those traditions come from. I will agree to just enjoy those “Hollywood” versions of the truth, but all the while knowing there is so much more to it.

I choose, however, to understand, celebrate, and share the historical roots of the things we believe in.  Our parish here is St. Nicholas of Myra.  It is the only Byzantine parish in the area and the diocese exempts our parish from the pre-Christmas Fast on the Feast of St. Nicholas, which we celebrate this Friday, December 6th.  I have invited my son and daughter-in-law to attend, so my grandson can be exposed to this story surrounding Christmas.  It’s wonderful to share these traditions with our families.  St. Nicholas has been real for my husband and myself at least all of our marriage. There were many Christmases where we were in such dire straits that we should not have been able to provide gifts for our sons; St. Nicholas always interceded for us and Christmas was always a joy for our children.  In Russia, St. Nicholas is the patron of the family and we took him as our family patron many years ago.  St. Nicholas exemplifies giving and his determination to help families in trouble is one of the many reasons he is a Saint of the Church.  (http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/fatherchristmas.shtml). Regardless of which story you have heard, or have not heard, Bishop Nicholas of Myra (now Turkey) was a Saint who later became a legend, and whose legend we keep each Christmastime.  I love St. Nicholas and I love keeping his memory alive.  This year, our youngest son remarked that he knows there is no Santa Claus and that we are the giver of the gifts.  But he also said he likes believing in things at Christmas, so he’s choosing to still cling to Santa, and enjoys the stories of St. Nicholas.  All of those heroes in our children’s lives are actually Saints, making their way into modern culture. A little twisted and turned to meet modern culture where it is, but they are present nonetheless.

Nativity_htmIn many Christian cultures, we celebrate Christmas until the 6th of January, or in the west, Epiphany (in the east, it is the Baptism of the Lord, or the Theophany).  In the west the different feasts were all celebrated together, and is where the tradition of the 12 Days of Christmas come from.  In the East, as these feasts began to separate themselves, the Byzantine and Orthodox chose to celebrate the Theophany, or Baptism of the Lord, on the same date the west celebrates Epiphany.  Interestingly enough, the term “Epiphany” is defined as a revelation.  We can all have epiphanies when we learn something new or gain an awareness of something we never knew before.  The Epiphany is the celebration of the revelation of Christ to the world, and started with the 1st of the 12 Days of Christmas when Mary accepted the Word of God and proclaimed her great fiat of, “Be it done unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38).  The Epiphany continues through the Birth of Christ, the visitation of the Magi, and the Baptism of the Lord.  Most people in western countries use the day to celebrate the Gifts of the Magi to the Christ Child and often have parties called, “Little Christmas,” where they give one another gifts (some families have adopted this date as their major Christmas celebration, keeping December 25th more as a reflective day and a day to celebrate the Birth of Christ). In the East, we celebrate the Theophany, or the Baptism of the Lord.  Theophany means: “the manifestation of God to man; the sensible sign by which the presence of God is revealed.” It is when Christ was Baptized and His Kingship made known to man through His Father’s recognition in his declaration of “This is my beloved son” and of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. Both of the terms, Epiphany and Theophany, are words explaining the revelation of God to His People; to each of us.

Baptism-of-Christ-theophany-icon-444-200x300“At Your baptism in the Jordan, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was revealed, for the Father’s voice bore witness to You by calling You His beloved son, and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of these words. O Christ God, who have appeared to us and enlightened the world, glory to You!” (Kontakion of the Theophany).

So much surrounds us during this Christmas season.  I don’t understand why we need to limit ourselves to specific times; artificial dates.  Some people will only decorate for Christmas between the day after Thanksgiving, and then take everything down by December 26th.  In the seasonal feasting and fasting cycle of the Church, the preparation for the Feast is almost as important as the Feast itself. We in the East began our preparation for Christmas on the 15th of November, with the Feast of St. Philip.  It is often called, “Philip’s Fast,” or the “Apostle’s Fast,” but is commonly called the “Pre-Christmas Fast.”  In the Melkite tradition, this is when we begin singing the Kontakian of the Preparation:

“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.”

We’ve been preparing for the Birth of Christ since November 15th, and have been since the Council of Constantinople in 1166 AD.  Prior to that, the worldwide Church celebrated different dates, requiring daily attendance at Church for services and prayers, with moderate fasting.  After 1166, the tradition we now keep was begun in earnest.  So for at least the last 900 years in Christianity, the Preparation for Christmas began on the 15th of November.  This year, I opted to keep the tradition of the Preparation alive by decorating my home, to coincide with our fasting and liturgical year.

snowy tree.lights

The other interesting side-note to this is that our Liturgical traditions allow us to keep our Christmas decor up from November 15th through January 6th.  It is a good thing we use a fake tree! Up here it seems we tend to celebrate Halloween and run straight into Christmas, with a brief respite at a little family dinner – Thanksgiving – in between. Thanksgiving, to me, is like the practice run for cooking Christmas dinner!  It’s also a great day for Football on TV!  And this year, our Parish celebrated Divine Liturgy with a potluck afterward; it was nice to celebrate as a parish family.  Recently, my feelings were pretty stepped on and I was criticized for this early Christmas thing, and after thinking about it, and now posting about it, I feel sort of justified in keeping the traditions of my faith, even if public pressure is to downplay it.  I will celebrate through fasting and preparation, decoration and cooking, gift giving and singing of Christmas songs, putting my tree up and hanging lights, from November through January, at the least.  And in our tradition, you don’t party until AFTER the Feast…so true Christmas parties are from December 25th through Theophany on January 6th. It works perfectly for someone who decorates year round in red and green colors, collects antique Santas from around the world, loves the snow, and lives where people keep their Christmas lights up until Spring.  Maybe I was meant to live in the Arctic all along!

back lit blue trees.snow

The Gift of Life…

On Friday, a friend shared a video that was posted on The Blaze website about a mother and her reaction to her prematurely-born son, and their journey of life. He was born 3 1/2 months early and weighed barely a pound.  When she held him for the first time, she wept.  I am sure it was with joy,  but also with sorrow/trepidation at the journey that lay before them.  The video was put together by her husband, for her birthday, and it detailed their journey through the NICU, the day they brought their son home, and it continued up through his first birthday.  And I have to admit, I wept.  No, I cried.  I really, really cried.  Watching that little heart beat right through the skin of his chest just unraveled me.  I have not had the best success when it comes to bearing children.  My husband and I have suffered through 7 miscarriages in our marriage and it is hard for most people to even understand what that means.  Many of our family and friends don’t even know I’ve had that many losses.  It got to the point of just keeping quiet when my mother said to me once, “Why do you keep having babies?  You have a son; just be happy with that.”  She did not understand my desire to birth lots of kids.  My parents are both only children.  And my parents came here from New Zealand.  Think about that for a moment.  I have no aunts, uncles, or cousins.  My dad’s parents eventually moved to the USA to be near him and their grandchildren.  My parents had me and my brother and opted to not have any more children.  My dad always joked and said, “We had one of each; any more would have been repeats.”  Our holiday dinners consisted of six people.  My parents, grandparents, and my brother and me.  Pretty quiet, tame, and boringly British.  I longed for the chaos of a large family.  We had good family friends who were Greek.  Now there was a fun family!!  They only had two daughters themselves, but man oh man, where there ever cousins, aunts, uncles, 2nd and 3rd cousins, etc.  I loved holidays at their house. I learned to roll grape leaves and make Wedding Cookies as a young girl.  I loved being in the kitchen with all the ladies, the noise, and the wonderful foods cooking.  My quiet, staid, British heritage always seems dry and boring to me.  Don’t get me wrong, I love British food; I was raised on it, and I love being British and am proud of my heritage, but I always longed to be a part of a large family.

When I met my husband, he rocked my world.  To start with, he was pretty cute!  And a man of deep faith, and it was like a moth to the flame!  I was immediately drawn to his faith life; I wanted that for myself.  And then he had 3 siblings, his dad was the oldest of 10 kids, his mom the eldest of 3 kids, and they were Volga River Russians!  On both sides! How exotic!  My first holiday with them, I was freaked out.  There were going to be 17 people at the dinner table and I was a nervous wreck.  How would I remember all their names?  Which kids went with which set of parents?  My future husband thought to calm me by saying, “Don’t worry! This is my mom’s side; there aren’t very many of them!!”  Ha-Ha-Ha!  It was one of the most fun Christmases ever.  I learned about snow and I taught them to love snow all over again. My father-in-law was tickled by the fact that I noticed how the snow sounded under my feet – crunch crunch crunch!  He never forgot that.  I met several of my father-in-law’s siblings and while we stopped alongside the road to chat with an aunt,  I saw my first snowflake, too.  I always thought when we cut them out of paper at school it was all make-believe.  I didn’t know snow flakes really looked like that (California girl!!).

fallen-star.img_assist_custom-600x400My husband and I married on December 29th, almost 29 years ago.  I loved winter and wanted a Christmas or New Year’s Wedding and got as close as I could.  We had no snow on our wedding day, but it snowed the day after and kept snowing for about a week.  We were married in Colorado with all his myriad family in attendance.  People asked me if I was nervous to walk down the aisle and I truly wasn’t, as I only knew about 20 people there!  Hardly anyone from my side because there were just the six of us, and my grandparents were too old to travel, which cut down considerably my side. My parents had divorced and remarried by this time, and my brother brought his fiancee, so I did have 6 family members there.  My in-laws were so nice; they reminded me that St. Thomas More was set up as a sort of round church with no center aisle, so it wouldn’t look lop-sided and they would have the ushers just seat people in the center area.  I could save face! Ha-Ha!  It was an incredible, candle-lit wedding and from the moment we said “I do” my husband and I were open to the possibility of life.  We wanted children as soon as God would give them to us.  I conceived almost right away.  Our oldest son was baptized on our 1-year anniversary and each of our children has since been baptized on that same date (makes it very easy to remember!!).  Our oldest was born 5-weeks prematurely, and I should have guessed pregnancy would not be easy for me.  I lost 4 more babies before conceiving our second son, who was born 4 years after our oldest.  After his birth, I suffered three more miscarriages and God just stopped allowing me to conceive at all. We adopted our youngest son 15 years ago this month.  In about 15 days, actually!  What a blessing he has been to our family.

While watching that video, I was brought back, once again, to the fragility of human life.  I commented to my friend that maybe if science would have been more advanced all those years ago, I would have 7 more children in my life.  But then again, perhaps my “quiver” would have been full much sooner, and the joy of my youngest son would not have happened.  God knows the reason; He opens the womb and He closes the womb.  I thank God for the gift of my sons, and for all the babies I did not get to hold and love.  I think that loving through death made me stronger. It made me more sensitive to the gift of life. I met a very dear friend many, many years ago.  It was a casual meeting. She was pregnant at the time.  We struck up some wonderful conversations, but it was nothing too serious or deep.  Then she lost her baby.  I thought to call her and offer my comfort, as I knew deeply and personally her pain.  Our friendship grew from that day into something I will always treasure. Our children became friends and my husband and I are the godparents to the beautiful daughter she welcomed the very next year, after her loss.  Death bonded us together in ways no one understands.  And it also made us fiercely protective of these fragile lives of the unborn.

I know some people are fiercely protective of the right to choose.  I get that. But for me, I feel that it is a mis-construed ideology that has caused that fierceness to develop in our culture.  When we choose to engage in behavior that can produce a life, we need to take responsibility at the point we are choosing that behavior.  It is like saying that spoons make us fat; guns kill people; cars kill people…we don’t get rid of the spoon, we stop eating so much.  It is called self-control.  We don’t kill the product of our choice of behavior, we welcome that child and we change our behavior.  There are so many who cannot have children; we bear those children conceived in “error” and we allow them to be adopted. I have personal experience with adoption and it is an incredible blessing.  The right to kill another human being is wrong.  Pope John Paul II said that in a “just society” we have the right to execute people.  But our society is so far from just.  There are loop-holes, exceptions, corruption…our world is in a mess.  God is the ultimate judge, not me.  Incarceration is a completely different topic from this post, so I will not delve into it here.  I am lamenting, rather, the right to choose to kill a child.  An innocent life.  It is not the mother’s body…it is a baby in there.  It is not an organ, or her tissue.  The heart is struggling to beat, the little hands and feet are working their magic. Random tissue doesn’t have brain waves.  It is a child.  And I believe that even if we cannot afford a child, or have the life-long desire to commit to another human being (parenting is for life…it’s one of the little things people don’t tell you when you become a parent.  You just cannot turn it off even when they are parents, themselves!!) we can allow that child to have life, outside of our life, by allowing them to be adopted. It is the loving, best option.  Be chaste to your state in life.

And as I watched the video that morning, watching that little boy grow and smile, and the adoration on the face of that mother, my heart just swelled with love for my sons and for the babies I longed to hold but whose souls I know are safe in God’s care.  In this season when we celebrate the Birth of Our Savior, Jesus Christ, I offer a prayer for all our unborn babies, to come safely into this world.

This is the Christmas Kontakion, or the Kontakion of the Preparation, we sing in Church from now until Christmas Day.  I offer this as a prayer, through the story of Mary preparing to give birth to God the Son, for all our sons and daughters, and those still to come:

“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.”

King Size Bed

There’s a random post going around Facebook, asking people to list 10 things you might not know about them.  It has been interesting reading about my friends and acquaintances.  It is a sign of the times that we have so many people in our lives, but when it comes down to it, there isn’t the depth we used to have in relationships.  I am opining here, so I know there will be objections!  And that is okay, too.  Our world has become so instant and so automated, that quite often, there is much we do not really know about the people we interact with.  Quite often I have been told people date, have a relationship, and break up – all either online or through texting someone.  I find that absurd in some ways, and infinitely sad in other ways.  And the other part is the instantaneousness of it all.  “I just met this guy and he is so awesome! I am in love” or I was friended by this girl online and we’ve been talking on Facebook.  I don’t know but I think she might be “the one!”  I find it all so indicative of our culture, and immensely sad.  We do not converse any longer, we chat.  We do not write or read, we text.  We do not sit down to dinner and actually talk to each other, rather everyone is on their phones.  A friend suggested this article to me and I just read it.  “18 Things Everyone Should Start Making Time for Again.” (http://thoughtcatalog.com/brianna-wiest/2013/11/18-things-everyone-should-start-making-time-for-again/).  I commented to my friend that just reading it was like a sigh, or a pause, like a breath of fresh air.  It is depressing to think we even need a list like this, but it is also wonderful!  It brings into the light things we do not often think about.  One of my favorites was #3 – Thinking before responding.  You can actually watch people in conversations and see (sometimes I feel I can hear the gears turning in their heads) them formulating their response before the speaker has even fully expressed their idea or position on something.

Intent to replyAnother point she made was #13 – Making sure relationships are based on spending time with people.  This speaks to our digital, instant, rapid-paced culture.  There is nothing like a cup of tea shared with a good friend, taking hours and hours to talk about our lives.  I miss the friends I have who enabled me to sit and chat with them. Those moments of my life are some of my most treasured.

The past few days there was a discussion on pews or no pews on a Facebook page, as well as another post about confession that was a video tape of a conference.  The talk was awesome; the discussion on pews was enlightening.  I enjoy the intellect and the banter, although I am saddened at the vehemence with which Christians attack or defend positions.  It still baffles me, but I love the fervor, nonetheless.

Tomorrow we begin our Advent Fast (well, we really start today).  Today is the Feast Day of St.Philip and the Fast is often referred to as St. Philip’s Fast.  Regardless of the title, this marks 40 days until Christmas.  This year has sped by so rapidly, it is hard to comprehend it.  We have had such an upheaval since the Holiday Season of 2012.  Thanksgiving last year we were hosting my god daughter for several days, and attended a dinner at some very dear friends’ home.  It was one of the most memorable Thanksgivings for all of us. A peculiar mix of people at the table, wonderful food traditions shared, great wine, and some of the best conversations, ever!  The joy, laughter, and love experienced that day will stay with me always. I loved that day.  And Christmas of 2012, we hosted extended family in our home and it was lovely.  It was a difficult Christmas, as it was the first without my father-in-law, but it was wonderful to sit with his brother and sister-in-law, as well as my mother- and brother-in-law, and share stories about Joe and his early life, and to hold each other up in our own grief over his passing.  It is hard to believe we are entering into the preparation phase for holidays so soon.  This year, I am facing the season without my stepfather, whose birthday is today (Memory eternal, Frank) and trying to support my mom, who is suffering with Dementia and the loss of her “anchor” in life.  We are also in a completely new community and physical environment, but have the blessing of family nearby (son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren) and a great support of our Church family.

All of this lead me to think on my relationship with God.  If I look back on all the things, events, and people who have made up my lifetime, I find that God is the constant – always there, always the same

“Let us go straight to Bethlehem…”

fallen-star.img_assist_custom-600x400A few people who actually read my posts asked me why I haven’t posted anything recently.  Life has been chaotic.  This move has “upset the apple cart,” as they say.  We had lots to adjust to.  We moved about 3,000 miles to a completely new environment and God had lots to do with us.  We found acceptance at a wonderful parish and are making friends I know will last many years.  We are learning new traditions, new foods, and new tones to try and sing (I am tone deaf, so it is particularly painful for everyone.  I have no idea if I sound bad or not! Ha-Ha!!).  We have entered our first “craft fair” season in a place that takes craft fairs quite seriously, which is a new thing for me.  Although I have found I am drawn to them and enjoy them very much.  Working at one all day is also not that bad.  Lots of fun conversations, amazing co-workers, and scrumptious perogies and haluski filling the air with amazing scents and delicious tastes!!  I am a perogy convert!  LOVE THEM! Haluski, well, not to brag, but I made it and it was VERY GOOD!!! (In case you do not know what it is, it is cooked cabbage, onions, lots of butter, and noodles.  So good!! Thanks to a wonderful family who taught me how to make them!)  So much that is new in our lives.

In addition to that, my husband was blessed with employment.  God waited for the right time to bless us with work.  He knew what we needed to go through, and how we needed to find work.  We bring so much with us (baggage) when we go from place to place, and learning to belong to a new culture sometimes takes awhile, and sometimes requires prayer, patience, and work.  We also learned how we can be extremely humbled and taken down to pretty much our lowest denominator, but to feel the love of God surrounding us all through it.  He brought us to a place where we fit in with all areas of our lives first, and then He provided work.  In our last home, we had the job, the house, the money, but lacked community and a strong place to worship.  This time, He brought us to a place filled with people who accepted us and loved us right away.  He let us feel “belonging” and “home,” before He brought us work.  Our home is little but is perfect.  Our neighborhood is modest but in the perfect location.  My husband’s job is a little bit of a drive, but is working out perfectly for us.  We have family around us and faith and friends, too.  We are blessed.

Since I last wrote a post on this blog, we have also been blessed with a new grand daughter.  Being at the hospital and holding that tiny baby on the day she was born, was absolutely incredible.  (Well, she weighed 8 lbs 13 oz!!).  I was able to stay overnight with my grandson, who is 21 months old, at my son’s home…just the two of us…for two nights.  I cannot even describe how my “gaga” heart just exploded with love for that little guy!  We had so much fun playing together.  (Gaga is his name for me).  We live less than a mile from them and being able to see our grandchildren often is such an incredible blessing, I cannot properly express it. We had dinner with them just last night and I melted, just holding my little grand daughter.  God is good.

And we also had our first serious snowfall of the season.  We got 6″ overnight.  And all my Thanksgiving/fall decor came down.  It feels like Christmas!!!  It was all of 7-degrees this morning, and as I type this, it has dropped to just 1-degree on our back porch, and it is in full sunshine!  There is such a difference in the approach to Christmas here.  It is a snow state.  There is often snow from November to April.  That’s 6 months of the year, if you were counting.  So for a climate like this, Christmas takes on a whole other meaning.  To fight off all the hours of darkness, Christmas lights are up all over town.  Downtown keeps lights up for months, to encourage joy in the hearts of everyone, while our days of sunlight significantly lessen.  The tradition is to get your lights up early (before the first snow) and keep them up until almost Easter.  Inside and outside.  I remember in California it was hard to keep our tree up until Epiphany, or the Baptism of the Lord, because they got so dry and it was usually getting warm outside.  Here, people keep lights, decor, and trees up until there is more sunshine.  A completely different outlook!

Recently, a friend remarked to me that our fasting for Advent seemed a little strict.  In the East, when we fast, we traditionally fast the same during Advent as we do during the Great Fast of Lent, except we are not as strict as during Lent.  But we Fast in a serious way.  No meat, dairy, wine, olive oil, eggs, or fish.  Basically, a vegan diet.  And I started to think about the juxtaposition of decorating all out and early, and starting a fast.90_02_53---Christmas-Lights_web_zpsbe84d5fa

When I was first introduced to the concept of a strict fast, one that lasted each and every day of the 40 days of Lent, I was overwhelmed.  My pastor assured me that with years of practice, I would be able to fast well, and in fact, that I would welcome the periods of fasting throughout the Liturgical year.  That was more than 10 years ago and I am still not a total vegan during the Fast, but I have made great strides towards that.  And one of the things about keeping a strict fast for whatever season we are preparing for, is that fasting becomes a way in which we enter more deeply into the preparation of what we will be feasting.  All around us, during the Great Fast of Lent, we are assaulted by ads for Peeps (my husband’s favorite Easter treat), chocolate eggs, and the Easter Bunny.  It detracts from the fact that we are preparing to experience once again that ultimate sacrifice of life – the Crucifixion – and ultimately, the Resurrection.  To get to the good part, you have to go through the hard part.  Entering into a strict preparation period helps us enjoy the feasting and celebration we have prepared for.  I remember my first Divine Liturgy on Holy Saturday night.  We started about 10pm and ended in the 2-3am time frame.  Our pastor jokingly told us no vegetables were allowed in the hall!!  We exited the Sanctuary and made that short walk to the hall and when the doors opened, the smell of meat was enticingly overwhelming! Boy, did we feast!  Meats and treats we’d been without for 40 days were joyously eaten (and imbibed).

My family and I have been passing through that hard part and are starting to see that good part of life.  And so I can sort of see why my friend would think that our fasting is a little strict.  The neat thing about belonging to a truly universal Church is that there is room for a variety of traditions and a variety of liturgical expressions that support those traditions.  I believe that I have been tested and strengthened through the recent hardships we have been through, and that without it, the sweetness of the good times would just not be as sweet.  Christmas morning’s joy is enhanced by the anticipation of what lays before you.  I love rethinking, reliving, and retelling the story of the Incarnation of Christ.  The part where an angel appears to the Theotokos and she contemplates what has been prophesied about her; “A virgin shall bear a son and His name shall be Immanuel…” (Isaiah 7:14). Not to mention the moment Our Lord is born “and suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.”… (Luke 2: 14-15)  We have so very much to celebrate and look forward to, and so much to reflect upon as we prepare to celebrate.

lightsI don’t know about you, but I personally love the separation of the Holidays. Up here, we seem to go from Halloween directly to Christmas, skipping Thanksgiving.  On November 1st, and even during the weeks leading to Halloween, the Christmas items were already in the stores.  They are now all decorated for Christmas and lights are up and the Christmas music is playing.  I tried to find a new Thanksgiving yard flag but had no luck.  We are now in full Christmas mode up here.  So why fast?  Why deny myself the full enjoyment of the season?  For me, it is a way to slow things down, to simplify our lives, and to learn to stop and focus on what we are putting in our mouths and why.  Do not get me wrong! I love Christmas and I love Christmas baking and creating wonderful meals, decorating my home and sending out cards. I love everything about Christmas!  I collect Old World St. Nicholas statues and wall decor, anything remotely reminding me of the historical “Santa Claus.”  I also love eating and drinking things we only have at Christmas.  But I also know I can get caught up in baking and buying, wrapping, shipping, eating and celebrating, that I forget what I am wrapping and buying and baking for.  And in the Eastern Church, we are not supposed to attend or host Christmas parties until AFTER Christ has been born.  That week between Christmas and New Year’s is when we celebrate…and on until the Baptism of the Lord (in the west, Epiphany). In the past my husband was always off work that week between Christmas and New Year’s because that is the week we were married.  It makes the Christmas season that much more special and each of our children were baptized on our anniversary, and so that week is very unique for us.  But how special is it if we indulge from Halloween until the middle of January?  When do we look up from our bowls of Halloween candy, turkey stuffing, and candy canes and take note of what we are celebrating?  How can we make Christmas more meaningful?

I believe the fast is how we bring Christmas into a reality that we can appreciate and handle.  There are foods only eaten during this time of year.  Plan for them, savor their imminent presence on our tables, but keep a check on what we eat and drink until we can celebrate the birth of our Savior.  Consider baking a birthday cake for Christ.  Consider not eating meat from now until Our Lord arrives.  I cannot fully describe how awesome Christmas dinner is when you haven’t had meat for a month.  The sights and smells are overwhelmingly decadent and so much more enjoyable. In this world of excess, why don’t we try and do without and perhaps donate money not spent on food to a local food bank or homeless shelter, ensuring a holiday for those with less? Instead of buying meat, buy small tubes of toothpaste, soap, brushes, towelettes to put in bags for your local shelter? Instead of eating out, attend Divine Liturgy or Evening Vespers an extra night a week.  Denying self allows Christ to enter in.  Going through the rough stuff makes the good stuff so much more enjoyable!!!

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