Tag Archive - Faith

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.

Deep Calling to Deep…

I wish you could know my friend Kendra. She is a remarkable young woman. Heart wide open. Generous, courageous, curious. I walk away from every encounter with her encouraged and challenged.

So when she made a request of me, a couple of weeks ago, I took it very seriously. She asked for suggestions for some creative, inspiring, heart-and-eyes-wide-open reading. As I began to compile my list, it occurred to me that I would have you know these books. And I would LOVE to know what would be on YOUR list.

Here are some of the authors and books that call to deep places in me. That rankle and provoke, that compel me to dream better dreams, that stoke the fire within.

Mary Oliver, especially Thirst  Oliver sees the world with extraordinary eyes, and she paints it with lovely, evocative words that allow us to see it, too. Her writings on longing and prayer and the life within are some of the most excruciating and exquisite I have ever read.

Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away expect-
ing to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.

P.S. I love hearing her poetry in her own voice. Listen to three poems here. The first will surprise you, I think. The second, one of my favorites, will leave you undone. Marvelously undone. The third will nourish and delight.

Thomas Merton, especially The Seven Story Mountain and New Seeds of Contemplation. Also, the Book of Hours offers a lovely sampling of his work. Thomas Merton is an Anam Cara. A soul friend. One who sees the world in a way very like, only more so. I can pray his words and feel as though they are mine, just more elegant. More piercing and concise. More thorough. I crawl into them and travel through them to a place I want very much to know.

“You have made my soul for Your peace and Your silence, but it is lacerated by the noise of my activity and my desires.  My mind is crucified all day by its own hunger for experience, for ideas, for satisfaction.  And I do not possess my house in silence.

“But I was created for Your peace and You will not despise my longing for the holiness of Your deep silence.  O my Lord, You will not leave me forever in this sorrow, because I have trusted in You and I will wait upon Your good pleasure in peace and without complaining any more.  This, for Your glory.”

C.S Lewis, especially The Great Divorce and Till We Have Faces  Well crafted stories carry profound truths to deep places in our hearts. I have read the first title 6 or 7 times, and the second twice. Once each with friends. I still see these characters regularly before my eyes. Lewis’ insight into the meandering of the human psyche and his ability to convey these are unmatched. *Note, The Great Divorce starts slowly in my opinion. Persevere! It is SO worth the effort. Soon you will be reading so fast you forget to breathe. And re-reading. I promise.

Chaim Potok, especially My Name is Asher Lev I have read three books (thus far) by this author, all excellent. But this is my favorite. Important questions about talents and gifts, about faith, and most especially about where (or whether) one can live at peace within the other. Excruciating. Riveting.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho An evocative tale about a young man seeking his “treasure”. He finds far more than he could have dreamed. Something richer, deeper, better. Something MORE…

“When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible…”

Madeleine L’Engle, especially Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art I happen to know Kendra already loves this one, but it is most essential. This is a sweet washing of life and imagination and God and story and creativity and everything that makes us truly alive in the world.

Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God When I am lost; when my soul is terribly troubled and I do not know how to say what is happening, I rush to Rilke. Almost always, I find the words I need here. His was a turbulent, hungry, desperate, ecstatic journey with God. And he wrote it all down. So I borrow his words. And say what is already in my heart.

In deep nights I dig for you like treasure.
For all I have seen
that clutters the surface of my world
is poor and paltry substitute
for the beauty of you
that has not happened yet….

My hands are bloody from digging.
I lift them, hold them open in the wind,
so they can branch like a tree.

Reaching, these hands would pull you out of the sky
as if you had shattered there,
dashed yourself to pieces in some wild impatience.

What is this I feel falling now,
falling on this parched earth,
softly,
like a spring rain?

John O’Donohue, especially Beauty the Invisible Embrace and Anam Cara  O’Donohue’s lyrical prose reads like poetry. (It doesn’t hurt that I heard him read before I read him.) I can always hear him now. A rich, Irish brogue that sings the words. Words about the beautiful. About love and kindness and spirit and God.

“…beauty is so quietly woven through our ordinary days that we hardly notice it.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, especially The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky’s world can be dark at times, but his characters are nuanced and layered. No villain is without hope of redemption, and no protagonist is thoroughly without vice. All are pilgrims. We see more of ourselves in them than we might care to.

Lilith by George MacDonald  The path to resurrection will ALWAYS lead through death. But none of us wants to die. Really. This is one of the most difficult books I have ever read. Mostly because at the time of my first encounter I was digging in my heels and refusing to die to all the things I had used to define “me”. I felt like letting go of these would be death, NOT figurative but LITERAL death. This book, this fantasy of the highest order, helped me get inside that dark place. It gave me courage to do the hard work of becoming, by first being willing to walk into the terrifying darkness of being nothing.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield  This is one of the most important books I have ever read on pursuing your calling, whatever that calling may be. I re-read it frequently because I so need the kick in the pants it delivers. Here is an example of what you will find within:

If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.

Julia Cameron’s  The Artist’s Way: Creativity as a Spiritual Practice  Cameron is a successful writer, but she remembers all too well what it is like to be silenced by fear. In this book she teaches us how to break through barriers to our creativity. Barriers we are not even aware of that are blocking our art. It is highly interactive and requires homework. But it is so worth it.

Thanks, Kendra, for giving me a reason to revisit old friends. Pick and choose whatever seems right to you. It is a worthy start, I believe.

To all of you, friends near and far, who is it that fans the flame of your passion, your creativity?

 

empty: an update

Be careful what you ask for.

In January I chose one word to give shape to my year. Innocently. Naively. Not suspecting the can of worms I was opening. If I had only known…

empty

This I said I wanted.

This I asked for.

And it has been delivered.

In spades.

It doesn’t look like I thought it would.

Here is what I said I wanted….

To stand silent and empty before God. Without demand, without pretense, without excuse, without words. To be still. To be with. It is harder than it should be. For me. But I am learning. A little.

To empty myself of arrogance and self-sufficiency. To walk humbly with others. Most especially with my family. And close friends.

To empty my life of clutter. Frivolous pursuits (ie: the black hole of the internet, mostly), Items I no longer use (which could benefit another, and occupy space in my home), Things I might like to buy (or that might be a really good deal) but I don’t need, etc…

To stand silent and empty before God.

In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron speaks of the serendipity that aggregates around us once we step into a given path. Each of the two groups of women I gather with on a weekly basis have gravitated at some point this year, without my intervention (mostly), toward a book that cultivates stillness.

At the inaugural Luminous conference this spring, I exulted in the teaching of Ian Cron, and the experiences of silence that he led us through. It is a rare gift to be able to lead others into silence. To create a safe place for surrender. To go there together, yet alone. It was a gift of deep refreshment.

Finally, guess what the theme of our upcoming women’s retreat is? Living Prayer!! On becoming prayer. Being silent and still before God. Wow!

To empty my life of clutter.

Yes, I realize I am going out of order. There is method in this.

When I dream of silence, stillness, emptiness, this is mostly what I see. And though I am willing to surrender some of the clutter I initiate in my life, I also want others to refrain from cluttering my life. I MOSTLY want others to refrain from cluttering my life. It’s not noble or attractive, but true.

I am discovering that I am extraordinarily selfish.

Imagine my delight. :/

Which brings me to number two…

To empty myself of arrogance and self-sufficiency.

(To walk humbly with others. Most especially my family.)

Herein lies the rub.

I had imagined my life looking different at this point in my life. Children mostly grown. Lots of time to pursue interests I tabled while raising my wee ones. These interests, these activities, would give me identity. Would tell me who I am.

Instead, I am starting all over again.. I care for my granddaughter at least four days each week. Sometimes more. All this while getting one son ready to move away to college and hauling my other teenage son to voice lessons, theater rehearsals, tutorial classes. Oh, and did I mention, he is homeschooling again this year? Somewhere in the midst of that I scrub toilets, pull weeds, cook meals, and wash laundry (which will be dirty again this time next week). Sometimes it seems so futile. So temporary.

And I wonder…

Who Am I??????!!!!!!

All these jobs. With no salary. No dignity. Do these define me?

God has allowed me to know an emptiness I never asked for.

Well……maybe I did.

In my naivete I asked for something I need, but do not want. And I am struggling with the “gift” of emptiness visited upon me.

What if I never do anything remarkable? What if I never write a book? What if, when I die, only my closest friends know my name? Is this a life worth living? These are the questions I find myself asking just now.

They are worthy questions, I believe. And answers are coming from the most unexpected quarters.

I had coffee recently with one of my favorite people. A  young woman who is a nanny. A woman who is changing the world one encouraging word at a time. Her words are truly life. To me, and to scores of others. She is struggling with the knowledge that God called her to ministry when she was very young. And what she is doing is clearly not “ministry”. She is a nanny. But I look at her words. At the life they carry. And I tell her that she could not be more wrong. She is not famous. She is not employed by a church. But every day she is speaking life. What better ministry is there than that?

I asked her, “What if, at the end of your life, you had never worked for a church…you had never written a worship song that was on everyone’s lips…but every person who encountered you walked away different for having spent time with you? Would that be enough?”

On the drive home, I heard a question in my own mind.

“Is it enough?”

If you do not shatter and empty your ego, how will you make room for God? ~Mother Gavrilia

The emptying continues…..

 

The Soft Seduction of Silence…

Silence is an urgent necessity for us. ~Martin Laird

We all experience it, even if we do not know how to name it. The restless frenzy. The onerous availability…to everyone…all the time. The constant barrage…of NOIZE.

And inside it

our souls crave

stillness

silence

space

Perhaps we are aware. Many of us are not. But the need is there nonetheless. Unheeded, it drives us to medicate, to escape, to make horrible, selfish, destructive choices. And still, we hunger, our insides a jumble of confused nausea.

Today I offer you a deep breath. An invitation. To be still. To breathe slow. To listen. From voices more capable than mine. A poem, a proposition, and a portal. Do with them as you like.

Poem

The Moor

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God was there made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In movement of the wind over grass.

There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions — that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.

~R. S. Thomas

Proposition

In the New York Times, of all places. An article from some months back. Pico Iyer, The Joy of Quiet. Compelling.

Portal

I am in my second reading of Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land (Thanks, Ian). This time I am reading it with friends. And we sit around the table and groan as our hearts resonate with his words, and with those of the saints and mystics who populate the work.

He tells us we cannot manufacture interior silence and communion with God any more than a gardener can make plants grow. But, like a gardener creates receptivity to growth by tilling the soil, providing fertilizer and water, removing weeds and guarding against marauders, we can cultivate practices that welcome this silent communion. It is one of the most inviting and instructive books I have ever read on the subject. I commend it to your attention. Laird is a worthy guide.

Praying that stillness and silence find you (and me) today.

Shalom.

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.

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