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The Next Right Thing…

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. ~Michelangelo

The year of empty was a year of whittling away. A year of freeing. Not the beginning. It is a work that has been going on for years. Most especially the past 5 or 6. But the chisel struck even deeper this year. It was painful at times. Disorienting. Much of what I have used to define myself has been stripped away.

I am learning to hold all things with an open hand. To find my worth outside of my abilities or accomplishments. It is a cleaner way of being. But raw, too. Exposed. Uncomfortable. Still.

As I have pondered one word to give shape to 2013, I have thought much of the story in Luke 11. A demon is cast out of a person. He roams about for a bit, comes back and finds the “house” swept clean, and brings in a whole posse of his friends so that “the final condition of that person is worse than the first”. While I am certain there is still much about me that needs to be carved away, I would also be intentional about what is permitted to enter.

Of late, I often find myself feeling as though my life is an ocean. I stand near the edge of it. Circumstances roll toward me like waves, and I am tossed about from one thing to the next like so much seaweed.

I don’t want to be seaweed.

I would be more like a buoy. Able to bend with the waves as they come, but grounded. A fixed point for those around me.

With all this in mind, one word keeps echoing in my brain.

purpose

A lofty word, this. It sounds good. I am still figuring what it looks like where the rubber meets the road. (And if this year is anything like last year, there will be plenty of surprises.) But here are some of the thoughts I have been jotting to myself on scraps of paper and rumpled napkins, and the occasional morning page…

Focus. I have only about a billion pursuits that capture my interest at any given time. Incurably curious. But, this causes me to begin, then abandon, too many projects. So one of the first action points has been to identify only a few precise goals for the coming months and shelve the rest for later.

Get. Up. Early. This is one of the more odious components of the plan. But necessary, I believe. Once the household starts buzzing, I have responsibilities to my family and others. Getting up early gives me silence and head space.

Boundaries. Because my life is mostly other centered, it is easy to completely lose myself in the lives of those I love. While it is honorable, and delightful, to care for my beloveds, there are contributions I believe I am to make to the world that require me to sometimes separate myself for a few hours of undivided attention to a project or a class or a writers group, etc… I am not good at this. So very not good. But I am putting these on the schedule. Because, what gets scheduled gets done. Right?

This is it, really. So far. If I can be faithful in this, I will be considerably less sea-weedy.

Just for kicks (and maybe a little accountability) here are some of the things I am purposing to do…

*Morning prayers. EVERY day.

*A disciplined study of ancient Church music. (at least 2 days/week)

*Become more durable; less vulnerable to injury. Run (a little) less. Significantly ramp up core work. No major running event this year. (first time in 6 years) Instead, a hike. Grand Canyon. Rim to rim. To rim. Roughly the same distance as a marathon one way. With packs. But we will give ourselves a day for each direction. Mike and I both look forward to training on the trails this year.

*A more consistent approach to the mandolin. (at least 2 days/week)

*Complete all 5 levels of Fluenz Spanish. This I am doing with my youngest, and we love it! (5 days/week)

*Write. The main reason I began blogging was to keep me accountable for writing something on a regular basis. As you might (or might not) have noticed, I have been a slacker of late. There are many (pitiful) reasons for this. And it is an exponential equation. The longer I do not write, the harder it is to resume. So, I am allying myself to a writer’s group to keep me accountable for producing some sort of content, and to receive (and hopefully give) valuable criticism. Blog posts will probably be somewhat less frequent than in the past as I focus on a couple of other writing projects. But there will likely be something here at least once a week. Please pop by every now and again. Or, better yet, subscribe and you won’t miss a thing.

How bout you? Do you make resolutions? Have you chosen one word to give shape to your year this year? I would love to hear about them.

**This post inspired by the One Word 365 project. Check out hundreds of like posts (and leave your own) here.

***The title of the post is a phrase my beautiful, wise friend, Gail, often uses when one or another of us becomes overwhelmed by a situation that is too big for us. All that is ever required of us is to do the next right thing. Thanks, Gail.

Lord, You Know

“You carry so much stress in your body!” they both say to me. (The chiropractor/kinesiologist who has been treating my ailing ankle, and the massage therapist who once a month or so tries to untie the knots into which I tie myself.)

My first thought is, “Like I can do anything about that!” But then, I begin to wonder, “What is it, really, that I have to be so stressed about?”

I…am a worrier. I never thought it would happen to me, but it has. And what’s more, I am coming to see this worry as sin.

Hear me out…

I learn my child or my friend is in crisis. I immediately absorb this crisis into myself. My stomach hurts. I can’t sleep. Because I need to fix it! I begin rolling the situation around in my head. What should I say to them? What can be done? Who should I talk to on their behalf? What if they won’t listen? What if they persist in self-destructive behavior? What if someone hurts them? What if they do not understand how serious this is? (Read this faster and faster getting louder with each phrase and you will have some notion of the cacophony in my head.)

Do you have any idea how long I will stew over this before it occurs to me to mention it to God?

And even then, I have to say it just right. I need to present Him with a solution and implore Him to implement my plan. Is this arrogant? Is this foolish?

Truth is, apparently, I trust myself more than I trust God.

Ouch.

Fortunately, He has been good enough over the last few years to provide me with some situations that are completely out of my depth. Slowly…slowly…I am learning a new way to pray.

Lord, You know.

Someone I love is making choices that have potentially devastating consequences. I struggle with what to say and what not to say. I am terrified for him. I have NO answers. So I offer him to God. Every morning. I have stopped telling God what to do. Lord, you know. That is my prayer. Lord, you know how to help him. Lord, your resources are illimitable. Lord, please make haste to help him.

Every time I think of him throughout the day…every time I am tempted to begin scheming about how to fix this…I pray.

Lord, you know.

And in the night when my restless mind presents to me a laundry list of dear ones who are hurting…

Lord, You know.

I am sleeping better than I have in a long time.

But, far more important than that, I am reminded every morning and all throughout the day that God has each of my beloveds under His wing. That the power of heaven is being unleashed on their behalf. And that is worth far more than any “solution” I might come up with.

Does this free me from the responsibilities of being wife, mother or friend? Absolutely not. And I will still serve those I love with all I have. But I am letting go of the arrogant notion that it all depends on me.

With silence, tolerance, and above all by prayer we benefit others in a mystical way…What we are unable to do, His grace will achieve. ~Elder Porphyrios

P.S. I use the following prayer from the Orthodox prayer book every morning to bring before God the names of my family and my very close friends, along with others who I know to be at a point of particular need. They are the words I would pray if I were smarter. I am glad someone wrote them down for me. I offer them to you…

O God, our heavenly Father, who loves mankind and art a most merciful and compassionate God, have mercy upon Your servants (Name those whom you wish to remember) for whom I humbly pray to You to care for and protect. O God, be their guide and guardian in all their endeavors, lead them in the path of Your truth, and draw them nearer to You, so that they may lead a godly and righteous life in Your love as they do Your will in all things. Give them Your grace, and mercy so that they may be patient, hard working, tireless, devout and charitable. Defend them against the assaults of the enemy, and grant them wisdom and strength to resist all temptation and corruption, and direct them in the way of Salvation, through the goodness of Your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, and the prayers of His Holy Mother and the blessed saints. Amen.

Lifted by Angels

I read the whole book in one day. I just could not stop reading. In language potent, precise, and poetic, Joel J. Miller crafts an enthralling narrative supported by impeccable research on a topic that most of us know precious little about.

Miller begins by inoculating us against our sentimental, but erroneous, misconceptions about angels. He paints a picture, “...using the pigments provided by the Scripture, art, services, hymns, and teachings of the ancient Christian church. The image that forms from these sources is, I think, more exciting, more frightening, more humbling, more inspiring, and ultimately more real than our popular conceptions.” Yes! Oh, yes!

The following chapter tells the ominous story of the “light-bearer”, that radiant angel Lucifer who, because of his great arrogance, becomes “ring leader of the apostasy” (Irenaeous of Lyons). He then seeks to use that pride as his primary weapon against humanity. “As Augustine understood it, pride is the source of all sin, and envy flows from it like a fetid stream.”

Chapter three shows us angels interwoven all through the story of Israel. Joel’s masterful storytelling kept me greedily flipping one page after another to see what happens next, even though I mostly know what happens next. A promise to Abraham, courage for Gideon, nourishment for Elijah, and a celestial army to protect Elisha, are only a few of the angelic errands explored. Then the chapter takes a sobering turn as Israel herself becomes arrogant and rebels against God. Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel will all have powerful interactions with angels as God prepares them to speak on His behalf. Angels will also have the regrettable task, at times, of carrying out God’s judgement against His beloved, but recalcitrant people. By the end of the chapter I am crying out with the rebels and exiles for deliverance. As the author tells us, this time God will not send an angel, or even an army of angels, but the Lord of the Angels Himself.

Chapter four wrecks me. “The story of Christ is shot through with angels,” Miller begins. He then threads these divine appearances through the narrative of Christ. When Gabriel begins to speak to Mary of the child she will bear, I am undone. Even now, reading it again for this post, my heart burns with his words. By the time the “skies erupted over the birthplace in Bethlehem” I can hardly breathe. Then he show us the story from the vantage point of Revelation 12 with a woman travailing in birth and a great red dragon who would devour her child, and my heart pounds. We continue to see angels ministering to their Lord at his baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, as he heals and casts out demons, at his crucifixion, and finally his resurrection and ascension.

Angels and ministers of grace, defend us.  ~Shakespeare, Hamlet

Chapter five is a beautiful and illuminating treatment of our guardian angels drawn from Scripture and the teachings of the early church fathers. My favorite passage is this, from the lips of Christ, “See that you do not despise these little ones, for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father.”

Chapter six is an exciting reminder that when we worship we enter into a service that is already underway, joining the angels and the saints who have gone before us who perpetually offer their praise to the Father. We get tastes of this in Isaiah chapter 6, as well as John’s vision in Revelation. Also, God instructed that cherubim be depicted both on the tapestries of the tabernacle as well as the ark of the covenant as symbols of this. The early church followed suit by adorning their places of worship with images of the angels as well as the saints, a practice which continues in many churches today. Included in the chapter is this beautiful version of the cherubic hymn, from the liturgy of St. James, sung as the priests process with the gifts of bread and wine.

Let all mortal flesh be silent and stand with fear and trembling, and meditate nothing earthly within itself: For the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed and to be given for food to the faithful; and the bands of angels go before him with every power and dominion, the many-eyed cherubim, and the six-winged seraphim, covering their faces and crying aloud the hymn, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Fittingly, the final chapter looks at angels as our “guides from one world to the next“. The chapter concludes (or nearly so) with this passage that I mean to commit to memory and perhaps recite to myself daily.

“This is the staggering assymetry of God’s goodness. There is more grace than envy, more love than hate, more heaven than hell.”

Lifted by Angels: The Presence and Power of our Heavenly Guides and Guardians is a remarkable book. Compellingly written and replete with good theology about far more than just angels. I commend it to your attention.

*All quotes in the post are from the book. Unattributed quotes, Joel J. Miller.

 

 

The Crowd, The Critic, and The Muse

“Our art and our humanity are inextricably entwined, and within these pages I hope to–through story and reflection–examine the soulish ground from which creativity arises.”

Elder Porphyrios said, “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.” A poet has a way of seeing that is cleaner, purer, more acute than most. One of the compelling poet voices of our age is Michael Gungor. He and his compatriots are creating art that is deep and rich, beautiful and true. Art that is born out of stillness and out of communion.

In his remarkable new book, which releases today, this poet/prophet explores thoughts about art, about the roots that shape our art, and about nourishing our soil so that what we create is life giving and worthy. He’s a great storyteller, and the book is filled with vulnerability and good humor. I have had to resist the urge to bombard you with a zillion quotes because his wordcraft is gorgeous and the ideas so important. Herein is a sampling. I strongly urge you to read the book for yourself.

Part 1: Art

“Art is the body’s pronunciation of the soul.”

“The book of Genesis begins with a poem about a Creator who took a universe writhing in chaos and formed it into something cohesive, visible, and beautiful…” Gungor reminds us that as images of the Creator, we are called to do the same. He also alerts us that how we go about that says much about who we are,

“If you want to know what is in the heart of a culture, look at its art. Read its poetry, listen to its music, and you’ll begin to know the tree from which it fell.”

Part 2: Roots

Noise

“The world is getting so loud. We are over-stimulated. Numb. Bored….We consume our art like moths. We gather, momentarily, around wherever the biggest, brightest light seems to be. The danger of art created to rise above the noise is that it may end up being noise itself.”

Technology

With auto-tune, anyone can sing “on pitch”. With self-publishing anyone can be an author. But are we cultivating a culture of mediocrity? And are we robbing our art of its humanity? He speaks of their sometimes pianist John and how his humanness infuses his playing,

“His hands carry stories, emotions, doubts, and passions, all unique to John. A man cannot spend thousands of hours sitting at a piano without having some of his soul soak into the wood.”

First World Mindset

Indolence has destroyed the arts. –Pliny, ancient Roman author

In a comparison of the cultures of ancient Rome and modern America he sounds an ominous warning about where the sensationalism we demand could lead us, and about the insidious crippling of entitlement and luxury.

Capitalism

“Art’s primary value system shouldn’t be monetary. Art is too soulish, like love or sex, to be treated like a mere commodity.”

“Money is not the root of all kinds of evil. The love of money is. It’s also the root of a lot of bad art.”

Celebrity

“The crowd’s affection, with all its adrenaline-inducing power, is a fickle and shallow drug.”

Religion

“All art is an expression of the soul, an expression of faith. All art is sacred. All art is religious. And no art is Christian.”

“There is a humility in faith, a hope, an acknowledgment of the possibility of error and the need for growth and change. This openness
leaves room for creativity.”

 

Part 3: Soil

Faith

Gungor speaks of how faith is formed of the stories we tell ourselves. And he speaks of the power of the one story. Of Body and Blood. Of community and the Table…

“So I listen to this story again and again. I let it do its work in the places that I can’t reach on my own. In a culture numbed and indifferent from overstimulation and noise, this story begins to infuse life and feeling back into my limbs, awakening my senses with the anticipation of new creation. It begins to enliven my dulled imagination with new color and possibility.”

Doubt

“Doubt asks questions that need to be asked to make our faith pure and healthy.”

Hope

“This is why people have long turned to practices like solitude, prayer, study, and meditation. These disciplines help us find our breath; they help us become more human. They help us hear the Voice.”

Love

“Faith, doubt, and hope are the stuff of good soil for creating and cultivating, as are honesty, integrity, patience, courage and any number of nutrients. But all of these only find their true value when they are made consummate in love.”

He closes the book with a benediction of such exquisite loveliness that I would like to include the whole of it here. That seems to be taking a bit too much liberty. So again, I offer you a taste. It is my fervent hope that you will give yourself the gift of reading this book. Whether you consider yourself a “creative”  or not, you are leaving your imprint on the bit of earth that has been entrusted to you. This book probes the heart and invites us to be intentional about the imprint we make. May it be so.

“…May your heart be opened to the love that formed you and everything else, the love that holds all things together and shall make all things new in the end, and may that love that was broken and poured out for you impel you into the world to break your own self open to be poured out for the world that God so loves. Poured out in acts of justice and mercy, poured out in good and hard work that brings order rather than disorder. Poured out in songs and liturgies, business plans and water colors, child-rearing and policy-making.

May your life be a brush in the very hand of God—painting new creation into every nook and cranny of reality that your shadow graces. Be courageous. Be free. Prune that which needs pruning, and water that which thirsts for righteousness…”

*All unattributed quotes in the post, Michael Gungor, lifted from the book.

Reckless

It was such a desperate thing to do.

Reckless.

Extravagant.

She had probably bought the perfume for her own burial. How many times had she sold her body to earn the money?

I wonder how it felt to walk into the room. I suppose she had grown accustomed to the whispers. “Righteous” people leaning away so that she would not soil them by a brush of her garments. Little children throwing stones.

Where did she find the courage? How did she know He would understand?

It was such a desperate thing to do.

Reckless.

Indignant.

Fed up with forgiveness, peace, grace. Disillusioned.

He condemned the woman for her waste.

Then he sold his friend.

For the price of a slave.

I wonder how it felt to walk into the garden. I suppose he had grown accustomed to feeling important. Necessary. People making way for him. Following his cues.

Did the silver in his pockets suddenly make him feel heavy? And sick? And small?

When the sinful woman was offering her spice, the disciple was making a bargain with the transgressors of the law. The one rejoiced in pouring out the spice so great in price, while the other hastened to sell the Priceless One. The one knew the Master, the other was separated from the Lord. She was freed and Judas became a slave to the enemy. Indifference is evil, but great is repentance. The latter grant to us, O Savior, and redeem us…

Ah for the wretchedness of Judas! For, seeing the adultress kiss the traces of His feet, he was thinking with deceit of the kiss of betrayal. She loosed her braids, and he was bound with wrath, offering instead of spice, rotted evil; for envy knoweth not how to honor anything which is good. Woe to the wretchedness of Judas, and save from it our souls, O God.

I know Judas all too well. I know what it is to be critical and self-righteous, frustrated and confused. To defiantly seek my own way. To be so blinded by my own expectations and demands that I cannot see the gifts before me.

And I know the fallen woman. I know what it is to be broken, desperate, despised, wrecked. I know what it is to fall on my face and wail, “If you reject me, I am without hope! I am lost!” To recognize that the most beautiful parts of me are rubbish unless He makes them clean. Unless He makes me clean.

It is gift to be wrecked.

To be undone.

O Lord God, the woman who had fallen into many sins, having perceived Thy divinity, received the rank of ointment-bearer, offering Thee spices before Thy burial. Wailing and crying: Woe is me, for the love of adultery and sin hath given me a dark and lightless night. Accept the fountains of my tears, O Thou Who drawest the waters of the sea by the clouds. Incline Thou to the sighing of my heart. O Thou Who didst bend the heavens by Thine inapprehensible condescension; I will kiss Thy pure feet and I will wipe them with my tresses. I will kiss Thy feet Whose tread when it fell on the ears of Eve in Paradise dismayed her so that she did hide herself because of fear. Who then shall examine the multitude of my sin and the depth of Thy judgment? Wherefore, O my Savior and the Deliverer of my soul, turn not away from Thy handmaiden. O Thou of boundless mercy.

*All quotes in the post are from the Bridegroom Matins service of the Orthodox Church as sung on Tuesday evening of Holy Week. The passage immediately above is the Hymn of Kassiani. Kassiani was a poet, composer and hymn writer in 9th century Constantinople. She is the saint I received upon entering the Orthodox church. I liked her upon first encountering her, but it is this hymn that indelibly knit my heart to hers.

 

23

Wedding

Twenty-three years ago two children promised to love “until death…”  It was folly, really.  They were babies.  He was 22.  She was 20.  They had known one another 9 months.  What were they thinking? They had no idea what they were getting themselves into…

Twenty-three years.  Three babies.  Better or worse. Eight homes.  Thousands of miles traveled.  Richer or poorer. Hundreds of acquaintances.  A precious handful of really close friends.  Sickness and Health. Six dogs.  One cat.  An infinity of memories and moments…

I was the wide-eyed, innocent girl.  And that naively optimistic boy has loved me better than I deserve.  I owe him a thousand ‘thank you’s.  But today, I will offer him twenty-three.  Twenty-three thank yous for twenty three years.

1.  Thank you for loving me all the time, no matter what.  I know it hasn’t been easy.  And I don’t pretend to understand it.  But I am grateful, all the same.

2.  Thank you for being a fellow gypsy.  I have so many beautiful memories of our family, and of the two of us, in remarkable locales all over the world.  Thank you for watching all those Rick Steves videos with me and listening to me wag on incessantly about mind-numbing minutia.  You are a very good sport.

3.  Thank you for being the sane one.  I have never been qualified for the role.  It has been nice to know that while I flit about erratically, experiencing my ecstatic highs and my abysmal lows, that somewhere there is a tether of sanity that will never let me be completely lost.

4.  Thank you for providing for our family.  I don’t say it enough.  How do I tell you what it has meant to be home with our little ones as they grew up?  To witness the little miracles and discoveries.  To teach them.  To open the world for them.  To read and play.  I could never have done that without you.  It means more than I can say.

5.  Thank you for surrendering your suspicious nature with regard to food.  Does this sound familiar? “I don’t like that.”  “Really, how have you had it prepared?”  Oh, I’ve never eaten it, but I don’t like it.”  Or this?  “I just can’t eat squash.  I don’t like the name.”  🙂  Thank you for triumphing over your fear to become a fellow culinary explorer.  And thank you for understanding how much it means to me to eat artfully prepared food in a beautiful place.

6.  Thank you for being god of all things technological at our house.  Thank you for providing me the opportunity to remain blissfully ignorant and still have computers, phones, iPods, etc… that work.  🙂

7.  Thank you for our beautiful piano.  Thank you for buying it when we were so poor.  When we had nothing, you knew I needed a piano in my home.  So many hours of pleasure and therapy it has given me.  And, of course, as each of our children has grown up playing, the joy continues to multiply…exponentially.

8.  Thank you for being a godly man.  You haven’t done it for me.  But it does matter to me.  I respect and admire your integrity and your piety.

9.  Thank you for every art museum you have traipsed through with me.  I know sometimes you did it entirely as a gift to me.  But it seems to me that over the years you have developed your own affinity for them.  Sort of.  😉

10.  Thank you for all the made up words you sing to songs.  I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother me at first.  Being a neurotic first born who needs things to be right, and who happens to remember every lyric she has ever heard, I cringed at your inaccuracies.  But over the years, I have come to prefer your…ahem…creative take on things.  You make me laugh.

11.  Thanks for Pikes Peak.  I know you thought I was crazy at first.  But you were unwilling to let me be crazy all by myself.  Thanks for all those trail runs at the Warner Parks as we prepared.  For slanting rays of sunlight, wild flowers, chipmunks, deer, squirrels.  Those still comprise some of my very favorite running memories.

12.  Thank you for indulging my passion for books.  I am a pretty thrifty shopper with my Goodwill/clearance rack wardrobe, but I do go a little crazy with books.  Thank you for understanding how important they are to me and for not cutting up my credit card or exiling me from Amazon.

13.  Thank you for spending New Years Eve in Times Square with Kelsey.  What a glorious memory that will always be for her.  I know your bladder will probably never be the same, but thank you for giving her that gift.

14.  Thank you for snow boarding with Jake, and for dozens of cub scout camping trips with both of the boys.  Thank you for teaching them how to be men.

15.  Thank you for taking care of all things financial on behalf of our family.  Thank you that I never have to worry my pretty little head about that.  I trust you. I have complete confidence in your ability and your judgment.  That is a wonderful feeling.

16.  Thank you for opening your heart to Orthodoxy.  I know that each of us has walked our own road to the Orthodox faith, and that it means something distinctly different to each of us.  But I am delighted that we were able to go there together.  I look forward to uncovering the riches of our faith over years and years to come.

17.  Thank you for your generosity.  Thank you that, even when we had nothing, we gave to others.  I remember the first budget you drew up for us.  I remember that the first line item was our tithe.  It was never open for negotiation.  I also remember that it was your goal for us to increase, not just the amount of our giving to others, but the percentage of our giving each year.  This we have done.  I believe God has honored that, and I highly esteem you for it.

18.  Thank you for loving my family.  Thank you that I have never had to choose between them and you.

19.  Thank you for Bill Cosby, Himself.  I love the DVD.  But I have always loved watching you watch it even more.  When you start laughing so hard you can hardly breathe, it doesn’t really matter any more what he is saying.  It’s funny.

20  Thanks for being my partner in the delightful, magical, terrifying, difficult, bewildering, wonderful adventure of parenting.  It has been (and continues to be) the most challenging and most rewarding experience of my life.  You have been a worthy partner in crime.

21.  Thank you for forgiveness.  Seventy times seventy times seventy times seven times.  I wish I didn’t require it so often.  I hope there is still more where that came from.

22.  Thank you for memories.  Thanks for jokes only our family knows.  Thanks for the stories and experiences that have become so much a part of the warp and weft of who we are we don’t know where they begin and end.

23.  Thank you for loving me all the time, no matter what. I know I already said that.  But it is the most important thing.  You have astounded me with your relentless love for me.  I have fought it sometimes.  Sometimes I didn’t even want it.  And I know I don’t deserve it.  “And this is love, not that we loved God, but that He first loved us…” Thanks for showing me what that looks like.

I love you…always.

Family2

*Photo at the bottom of the post copyright Angela Davis.

Of What Value, a Life?

We laid her body to rest on a cool, clear summer morning.  Blackberries were just beginning to ripen along the fence rows.  Sweet pea blossoms nodded in the breeze.  The whir of insects, and the intermittent gossip of birds, supplied the only sounds.  The cemetery was an island of green in a great field of freshly mown hay, lying in strips, waiting to be gathered into bundles of winter sustenance.

I remember walking down there with my grandmother as a little girl to visit the graves of our forebears and to share stories.  And now she will sleep there in those mountains where she raised her babies…where she rose in the pre-dawn hours and walked with my grandpa to the dairy barn that provided their livelihood…where she carved a garden out of the earth, then preserved its yield so that her family need never be hungry…where her table was always laden with good things, and her chicken and dumplings were the stuff of legend.

She welcomed her grandchildren (and later her great grandchildren) to this world apart.  It was a life of simple elegance.  You could see a million stars in the night sky, and almost as many lightening bugs hovering over the fields.  There were barns, and corn cribs, and old pieces of forgotten road to explore. Here the dogs frequently smelled of skunk, and the water smelled of the iron that was heavy in their well. And when the summer heat was too much, there was a deep swimming hole nearby that was always cold.  Life was slow here.  And good. We got snowbound one Christmas.  It was the best Christmas ever.

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord…they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”  Revelation 14:13

I have pondered this verse since the minister shared it at her funeral.  Even though she now abides in the Presence, I know that she has left bits and pieces of herself in us.  As I contemplate her legacy, the deeds that follow, here are some of the traits that live most vividly in my recollection, and I hope live, at some level, in me.

Extravagant Love She and my grandpa were married 71 years.  That, in itself, would be quite a feat.  The beautiful thing is that they were still crazy about each other.  He used a different voice when he spoke to her than he used with anyone else.  I have seen Grandpa teary before, but never in my life have I heard him sob……until yesterday.  He has lost his sweetheart.

All of us who sat on her porch yesterday, who gathered around grandpa and sang away the afternoon, have been the grateful recipients of that love.  That doesn’t mean she was oblivious to our faults.  She never hesitated to offer words of correction or advice when she felt they were warranted.  But she found ways to make each of us feel as though we had some singular value, as though we were special.

Exceptional Vitality She tilled her garden until she was in her 80s.  Quite frankly, I am in awe of that.  My mom laughed about the fact that when Grandma went along with the sisters on summer vacations they thought she would give them an excuse to move slowly.  They were wrong.  She and my grandpa visited my aunt in Germany when I was a teenager.  And I still have fond memories of a trip our whole family, grandparents included, made to the beach after I was already married.  Hers was a vitality of mind as well.  Always learning, always curious.

Perhaps this was one of the hardest things about watching as both body and mind betrayed her after her stroke.  We knew the vivacious woman who lived inside.  And even within the confines of a body that no longer did everything she asked it to, those sparks of ebullience, of wit and good humor, still emerged from time to time.

Extraordinary Generosity The line of mourners stretched across the room, down the hall, and out the door at times.  So many people loved her and came to say so.  She had given of herself to them…encouragement, advice, understanding, sympathy, courage.  Some of them she had taught, others she had fed, driven, served, mentored.  Grandma had a way of seeing people others do not see and drawing them into her loving embrace.  My daughter is very like her in this.  I loved hearing their stories.

“How does someone who lived so simply leave such a hole?” my cousin Amy asked through her tears.  My grandma was not famous.  I’ll warrant you have never heard her name.  But every life that intersected hers was made richer by her presence.  I would take that over being famous any day.  She lived a quiet life of ordinary, extraordinary beauty.  And that is profoundly valuable.  I am blessed to have known her.

The Martyrdom of Marriage

Corpsebride

Marriage is hell.

Sometimes.

I did not sign up for that.

I signed up for a husband who would understand me all the time.  He would anticipate needs without me speaking them so that I would never have to humble myself and ask for help.  He would be romantic and creative, regardless of the pressures of providing for a family, or responsibilities he might have to others.  But, more than anything, he would fill all the empty places in me.  He would make me feel beautiful, smart, and important.  Any unanswered questions I had…about me…about whether I mattered…he would answer.

My husband has failed me in this.

I imagine he had a list of expectations too.  And I can assure you, whatever was on that list, I have failed him.  More than he has failed me.

For a long time we limped along in our failings, too polite to say to the other how disappointed we were.  Too afraid to talk about the things that mattered.  Until all the resentment finally hit critical mass and exploded like a compromised container of toxic waste.  And the husband I had lived with peaceably, if not always passionately, for years, became an object of loathing to me.  I could no longer remember any of the things I loved about him.

And I made his life hell. I wanted to hurt him as much as I felt he had hurt me.  I was so angry at him for not being who I needed him to be.  Who I thought I needed him to be.

“The collapse of the family today, the rate of divorce–all this is due to the non-acceptance by man of marriage as martyria, and this means patience, endurance, travelling together along a difficult, yet ultimately glorious path.”

~Alexander Schmemann

For four years we have fought and scratched and clawed our way back to one another.  Our kind and able couselor taught us to be honest.  Generous friends loved us viciously and refused to let us give up–and I really wanted to give up.  And we learned to cling to God like a man lost in the desert clings to his last few drops of water.

Healing has come.  Is still coming.  And we have learned so much.  But perhaps the most important thing we have learned is to give one another permission to be who we are.  And to allow the other to fail us.  In those empty places where I miss him and he misses me, God is.  And we learn a little more about surrender.  And about the kind of love that gives without requiring response.  The love of a martyr.

martyr: a person who is put to death or endures great suffering on behalf of any belief, principle, or cause

Turns out, each of us was what the other needed all along.  And we are finding a rich, seasoned love that is worth every torturous step it took to get here.  If you find yourself in the hell season at present, PLEASE, don’t give up!!!  Ask for help.  Gather a band of brothers and sisters around you.  And ask God to meet you in the empty, broken places…and to teach you to love like He loves.

“…marriage, as life itself, is above all a journey, and its goal, as that of life itself, is the Kingdom of God…Then what will remain is true love, the one that overcomes death and gives us a taste of the Kingdom…It is this love that transforms through forgiveness, and so in the marriage, in this martyrdom,…we grow together as to constitute in the end the very image of that Divine Love between God and man.”

~Alexander Schmemann

Return…

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion…How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. Psalm 137: 1, 4-6

The Lenten season is one of the great good gifts of the Church….though it might not always feel like it. It is not punishment for all the bad things we have done the rest of the year. It is not an opportunity for us to prove our piety to God, or to one another. It is, more than anything, a return. A return to first things. To our most essential selves. A return home.

The way each of us go about getting there varies. Here is how it will look for me.

The Fast:

We do not fast because there is anything itself unclean about the act of eating and drinking. Food and drink are, on the contrary, God’s gift…We fast…so as to make ourselves aware that it is indeed a gift–so as to purify our eating and drinking, and to make them no longer a concession to greed, but a sacrament and means of communion with the Giver. ~Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

For Orthodox, the fast is prescribed. We will not eat meat, eggs, or dairy again until we celebrate the Resurrection. Wine, oil and fish are permitted only on Weekends. It will make me crotchety at times. It will reveal how accustomed I am to having what I want and indulging my cravings. I do not always like my fasting self. But it is important to bring that detritus to the surface. So it can be dealt with. It is important to learn to discipline my passions. It is much bigger than the food.

The Services:

I am grateful to spend much of this journey with my brothers and sisters. We need one another. It is impossible to do this alone. We began with Forgiveness vespers, one of the most powerful services of the whole year. It is important to begin this journey clean, unencumbered. This week the Canon of St. Andrew invites confession and looking inward. Each week we will receive sustenance from an extra liturgy on Wednesday. There are lots of prostrations. I can not tell you how powerful it is to wear your faith in your body. Hungry. Face to the floor. And during Holy Week, we will be there every day, sometimes twice, as the final week of Christ on this earth is re-membered in our presence.

The Books:

Don’t even act surprised. I am always reading. But during this season, I am especially purposeful in choosing literature that challenges, provokes, inspires, and nourishes. Here are some of the voices I have am inviting into my journey:

Great Lent: Journey to Pascha by Father Alexander Schmemann
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Mother Gavrilia: The Ascetic of Love by Nun Gavrilia
The Lenten Triodion by Mother Maria and Bishop Kallistos Ware
The Golden Key by George MacDonald

The Beauty:

As the natural world around me springs back to life, it is filled with reminders that what looks like death may only be a time of gathering strength…that if I am willing to surrender my striving and just be still, God will adorn me with beauty for ashes. He will work Resurrection in me.

How about you? What will the Lenten journey look like in your life?

*The idea of Lent as return is not original with me. Father Stephen has been talking to us about it for several weeks. Alexander Schmemann also speaks of it in Great Lent. For this lovely image, I am in their debt.

Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice

It is, I believe, a stroke of genius to give the task of defining a crafter of words to a crafter of words. His profound respect for language…his awe and delight…translate as well as anything he will actually say. So, I am glad that William Tyndale found David Teems. It is a match made in heaven; a literary pas de deux that says as much in the spaces between the words as in the words themselves.

He writes with tenderness, with paternal authority and warmth. His voice is immediate, scintillate, penetrating, translucent. His text has a like-there-is-no-tomorrow desperate kind of charm that is both intense and weightless at the same time…

Biographical details of Tyndale’s life are sketchy and suspect at times. So Teems elects to piece together a life–as Tyndale would probably have it–from his own words. The letters, the treatises, and, above all, the translations.

I have decided to write this review in much the same way. Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice is a vast, complex, wonderful work and I can hardly do the whole of it justice. I will give you a few of my favorite bits as a taste. An enticement. And commend to you the rest.

Of Exile:

England had refused him. He would never see her again…Playing Pilate, she washed her hands of him…And once he set sail, he no longer belonged to England. He belonged to all English. And there is a difference.

[The] state of exile is the deepest memory in man. Beneath the surface of the Scripture, in its quiet heart, is the call to come home…For the Jew and the Christian, diaspora is an inevitable part of the inheritance.

Sing or go silent. Transcending exile will ask one or the other.

Of an art forged through fire:

Between imagination and faith there exists a kind of twilight…in the divide between them, eyes are irrelevant. Sight comes by another method, by a deeper more reliable sense.

And David was known as the sweet singer of Israel, her true king. To understand this is to understand the nature of the lyric itself, that mystical expressive afterglow–the inward life suddenly emancipated by an ecstasy that flows upward, forward, as from a deep gulf. David’s joy was ever as large and imprudent and unrestrained and electric and shameless and weeping as his sorrows.

Art demands intensity from its makers, complete possession. It is a kind of bright madness, one that often begins as an unrest in the artist’s center, the chaos from which order must be imagined.

The artistic, the prophetic, the headstrong, the expatriated, the exiled, all these come together in a confusion of living elements that render a single inimitable creature. It was such a creature that gave us our English Bible.

Of the lyric:

Maybe the young Tyndale was enchanted by the strangeness of the Welsh tongue, by the music it made, a kind of jazz…the carnival it made in the mouth…there exists in the Welsh language a whole system of mutations where two words “rub against each other and soften each other”…the transaction between words has a kind of romance in itself, submissive and aesthetically pleasing as great romances by nature must be.

By a passion that was “never purely academic,” we might say Tyndale’s wordcraft was a form of prayer. The result is a transcendent text.

His text possesses a kind of practical beauty, an accessible magnificence. It speaks well. It also sings well.

Par exemple:

Where the Spirit is, it is always summer.

Who taught eagles to spy out their prey? Even so the children of God spy out their Father.

And they heard the voice of the Lord as he walked in the garden in the cool of the day.

Entreat me not to leave thee

Let not your hearts be troubled

Take, eat, this is my body

In Him we live, move and have our being

For my yoke is easy and my burden is light

The Lord bless thee and keep thee
The Lord make his face to shine upon thee and be merciful unto thee.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.

All quotes, save the last section, David Teems. Those at the last are William Tyndale. May his memory be eternal.

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