“…Hallowed be Thy name…”

FatherSonHands

Yesterday was Father’s Day. Some of these holidays seem so contrived. But the ones wherein we recall those who have played an important role in our lives, well, those days seem extra special. Sometimes my kids would joke, “Oh, it’s just another ‘Hallmark Holiday'” because they seem so contrived. And a lot of these days do. A friend posts on Facebook every day what the special cause or theme of the day is. Things like, well did you know that today (Monday) is “National Vanilla Milkshake Day”?  Our government took the time, some time in the past, to declare a national day remembering Vanilla Milkshakes. Seriously? Although I would admit it is a remembering I would enjoy…along with National Steak Day, or National Chocolate day…but, seriously? Is this what I need to remember on these days?

Dadson hunting

We can recall all sorts of father figures on Father’s Day. I grew to be exceptionally close to my stepdad, and always remembered him on Father’s Day, as well as several of my close friends’ fathers. They were a part of my youth and I always wish them happiness on Father’s Day. I have many special memories with my own dad. Moments of me standing on his feet to learn to dance. Sightseeing all the Missions in California. Waterskiing. Dates to Father/Daughter dances. Traveling in England and trying to sneak warm beer (yucky). Walking me down the aisle as I was married. I spoke to my dad, who will be 90 on his next birthday, as he was off to Sam’s Club to get some coffee, shop, then off to eat with his family. He lives on the complete opposite side of the continent from me, so it is rare anymore that we spend these sorts of days together. It was nice to chat for a few moments, as I rounded up our crew for my husband’s outing of shooting with his sons. It was his choice of what to do! And they sure enjoyed themselves. Immensely!

Fly Fishing Float Tube

But when we think of Father’s Day, do we remember our Heavenly Father? Do we pray extra prayers of thanksgiving, to a God Who loves us so much, He allowed His Son to die for us? I thought of the joy on my husband’s face when we presented him with this floaty thingy for Father’s Day. I believe the proper term is, “Fly Fishing Float Tube.” Floaty thingy. (I do not fish. I accompany my fisherman, complete with my comfy chair that has a built-in cooler, and my Kindle. He fishes). My oldest son found one on Craigslist that did not break my secret-stash-budget and when I went to pick it up, found it had been used once! It was in perfect condition and my husband is so excited. It is, however, standing on its fully-inflated side along the back wall of my office at the moment. I need to find a better storage place for it, because soon it will smell like fish (if we are all lucky, Alaskan salmon!!). But I planned the purchase and had it hidden at my son’s house. When we gave it to him, he seemed to truly smile. And it just warmed my heart so much. He does so much for us, a simple thing like a tube to fish in was such a small gift. And it got me thinking – how do we gift God, Who gave us life??

OurFather.meme.

We ask God to forgive us our many sinful ways, and to provide us with our “daily bread.” We ask for our lives be “on earth as it is in Heaven.” Wow. A pretty stiff order. What are our gifts to our Heavenly Father…the Name above all names….the Alpha and the Omega, on a daily basis, let alone a special day like Father’s Day?  I know I fail so miserably at giving thanks. I seem to always be asking for something from God. I find it hard to sit in His presence and just let Him surround me with His Grace and blessings. Silent prayer, wherein I am silent and the Lord speaks to me. Being a Child of God means I need to recognize His Kingship over me, His protection of me, and His many blessings and gifts for me, every day I breathe. Every, single, day. “Hallowed be thy name.” Have you ever stopped to think what that means? Hallowed is something that is sacred, holy, or sanctified. Many theologians say that when we use this phrase, what we are saying is, “Let your name be holy.” Per Matthew Henry (an English clergyman who died in 1714), “We give glory to God; it may be taken not as a petition, but as an adoration; as that, the Lord be magnified, or glorified, for God’s holiness is the greatness and glory of all his perfections. We must begin our prayers with praising God, and it is very fit he should be first served, and that we should give glory to God, before we expect to receive mercy and grace from him. Let him have praise of his perfections, and then let us have the benefit of them.”  I think that is just such a neat way to phrase what we are doing at the start of the Lord’s Prayer. We are giving thanks; we are praising Him. And this from one of my favorite Orthodox saints, “When I pray saying ‘Hallowed be Thy Name,’ the meaning of these words apply to me actualizing God’s blessings. Lord, through the cooperation of Your help, may I become blameless, just and pious. Abstaining from every evil, may I speak the truth, practicing righteousness and walking on the straight path. May I shine with prudence, be adorned with incorruption, and be beautified with wisdom and discernment. Overlooking earthly things, may I set my mind on the things above (Col 3:2) and be radiant with the angelic manner of life.” ~ St. Gregory of Nyssa

incensor.pantocrator

As I acknowledged my husband for the many, infinite ways he incredibly fathers our sons, and now our daughters-in-law, and grandchildren, I could not help but think of Our Lord.  How much more adoration and acknowledgement Our Lord deserves, on a moment-to-moment basis. Think of all the ways He Fathers us. Every day, every way, God the Father guides us and blesses us. I should kneel and “hallow” His name always. “Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place, and gave Him the name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:9-11)  I know I am woefully short when it comes to this aspect of my faith. One of the things I have decided to do is that each time one of these days shows up, a “Hallmark Holiday,” I will endeavor to make the day about God…I will try to relate even today, the national “Vanilla Milkshake Day” about praising God.  And today I will thank Him for the sweetness that is in my life, and pray for those who have particularly touched my life by their very presence in it. And we should all have a Vanilla Milkshake, and remember to hallow the sweet name of God, with every breath, with every day we have been blessed with.

Vanilla beans.milkshake

“A still, small voice…”

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“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.

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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

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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