Life is Hard

Yesterday I attended a funeral for the brother of a young friend who goes to my church. His brother took his own life. Father Phillip Rogers, our pastor at St. John Orthodox Church, gave a wonderful talk at the grave-side burial service. Basically (but with much more eloquence and with tears) he said:

  1. Death is terrible. Whether it happens to a child or an older person, or someone in between, it’s not what God created us for, and we mourn it.
  2. Life is hard. Whether a loved one dies from a physical or mental illness, young or old, often it reflects a struggle to find light in a dark world.
  3. Christ is risen! When Father Phillip said these words, many of us at the service responded, “Indeed, He is risen!” as we often did during the recent Paschal (Easter) season at St. John Orthodox Church.
  4. God loves us. Even more than the family and friends who were present at the burial love their son, brother, or friend who died.

thoughtAnd then my friend Ethan spoke (also eloquently) about his brother—their lives growing up in a rural setting where they enjoyed nature and the beauty of God’s creation. Their mother’s love, and her love for God, which she instilled in them.

There was a slight breeze at Elmwood Cemetery, as I found relief from the early summer heat under the shade of the green tent set up near Erin’s grave. Our pastor’s words (and his tears) also gave relief, to our grief, to our near-despair. But I won’t despair, as I believe Father Phillips’ words that God loves Erin, and has him in his loving embrace.

Life is hard. But Christ is Risen!

Truly Human: Recovering Your Humanity in a Broken World

My dear friend Kevin Scherer has written an important book. I was honored to be an early reader for Truly Human. Today I’m sharing the review I posted on Amazon for Kevin’s wonderful book, TRULY HUMAN: RECOVERING YOUR HUMANITY IN A BROKEN WORLD.

OCE_MainSlide_Truly_Human

 

In Truly Human Kevin “retraces the steps of humanity” from the Garden of Eden (first three chapters of Genesis) through the actions and emotions of the humans at “the pit” at Ground Zero in New York City, saying:

“Someone who is truly human will manifest the activities, or energies, of God in their life.”

But most of the time we don’t manifest those energies. Why not?

He lays out in clear theological and psychological terms what man’s condition is, why we are the way we are, and how we can own our brokenness and find healing. Along the way he deals with some tough topics, including a straight-forward answer to a universal question:

“Why is there evil?” And, if a good God exists, “Why does He allow it?” If we are made in the image of an intelligent God, these are fair and reasonable questions, and the same scripture that informs these questions also gives us the answers…. We know from the first three chapters of Genesis that God created only what was good. It’s the human distortion of this good that we call evil. God allows this distortion, because to prevent it would require Him to restrict our free will, and without free will love and relationships are impossible.”

I’ve always struggled with why God allows suffering, but Kevin puts it in a clear light for me, helping me accept its place in my life. He describes the cycle of suffering that we are caught in because of the fall: victimization, survival, and perpetration—especially as parents:

“Despite our parents’ deep love for us, they were trying to survive their own pains and suffering. As a result, sometimes we were the emotional victims of their coping mechanisms. They, like us, didn’t set out to harm anyone else, but the reality is that they did, and we do too. When we can face up to the reality that we often victimize others in an attempt to manage our own pain, we reach a spiritual turning point.”

I have already worked through a lifelong process of forgiving my mother for her verbal and emotional abuse of me, but this insight also helps me forgive myself for the ways I failed my own children. And in recent years, I’ve begun to embrace suffering on a very small scale. Kevin’s words help me continue the process:

“Ultimately, the goal is not to remove suffering from our lives, but to transform it into a redemptive experience. Like Christ on the cross, we can abandon ourselves to the will of God and offer up our suffering in anticipation of His mercy. In these moments, we become truly human.”

Truly-Human-Kevin-Scherer__53082.1496150954.500.659In Chapter 3, “The Logic of Suffering,” Kevin takes this experience further:

“The personal experience of suffering begins when we perceive that our reality is unbearable and out of control. Our perceptions give way to feelings. Generally, when we feel out of control it triggers a self-protective and aggressive emotional response—fear, frustration, anger, bitterness, resentment, etc. These feelings can be directed outward or inward, but they are always characterized by a deep dissatisfaction with the way things are.”

That dissatisfaction often leads, as Kevin explains, to our lives being controlled by vices, rather than by living as truly humans:

“The experience and living out of these vices is the story of humanity. By understanding the psycho-logics and interconnectedness of these vices, we will begin to see the areas of our own life in need of healing and develop a deeper empathy and compassion for others who struggle with them.”

Here’s an excellent description of how the vices work together against us:

“Gluttony, lust, and greed are vicious thinking patterns targeted at how we relate to food, people, and possessions. These vices comfort the pain of our broken emptiness and give us the illusion of an identity. These vices are fueled by, and in turn produce, vanity and pride. And when the first three vices inevitably fail to satisfy the God-given longing in our hearts, they produce the vices of anger and self-pity which, if left unchecked, leads to the vice of despair. This cycle perpetually feeds itself and leads its victims into a deeper and deeper experience of hell on earth.”

So how do we “wake up” from this cycle and move towards becoming the human beings we are meant to be? Kevin says it starts with building a personal inventory (sounds a bit like a twelve steps program, but it’s so much more):

“There are five basic questions we can begin using immediately to build a personal inventory. I call them Identity Paths. These questions act like paths that lead us back to what we really believe about ourselves—the truth and the lies. When used in conjunction with the psycho-logic model, explained in chapter three, they can help us embrace the distortions of our lives and who we’ve become.”

Scherer outlines these questions in the book, and suggests we ask them in a specific way in the presence of a friend, pastor, therapist, family member, etc. In the Orthodox Church—of which he and I are both members—this is available in the sacrament of confession, in which I continue to find healing on a regular basis. But it’s also available through professional counselors, trusted friends, and family members. Kevin describes the healing provided by the church in Chapter 6, “Checking Yourself In,” where he talks about the importance of the church being a spiritual hospital.

And then in Chapter 7 he moves us from the church to the outside world in “Giving Your Life Away,” with the importance of reaching out to those in need, to the poor and suffering in the world. His personal stories of working as a volunteer at Ground Zero in New York City after 9/11, and also on the campus of Virginia Tech after the shootings there, as well as leading young people on pilgrimages to help others in various places around the world are real-life testimonies to the way these interactions can change our lives:

“I’ve discovered that the Christian life can only be fulfilled in sacrificial acts of love. Everything else is just talk. Love is our human vocation, and it is most perfectly revealed on the cross.”

He has helped the young people he has worked with see everyone—especially the poor and homeless—as “real people” and not just random faces:

“We must be willing to take the time and emotional energy to see people for who they really are and the situations in which they really live. We must seek to love real people, not caricatures—“for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20).”

Kevin takes us a step further by helping us learn to control our minds, to stay in the present, where the real work of becoming human happens:

“Our broken humanity has lost its natural intuition and no longer knows what to do with the present moment. The mind is designed by God to be active. It is the organ He gave us to be co-creators with Him. With our minds we learn, solve, and plan. In the case of the past or the future, our minds race endlessly to solve the problems of our anxieties and fears.

With the present moment, however, our minds are confused as to what should be done. Unless there is a clear and imposing objective, our minds naturally speed past the present moment toward the areas of greatest pleasure or pain. In the case of pleasure, the mind races to clear the path or duplicate the experience; and in the case of pain, it seeks to alleviate the stress and discomfort of psychological/emotional equilibrium—they are both distorted survival mechanisms.

In order to fully recover our humanity, we must regain control over our minds. The first step in this realignment operation is to help our minds stay in the present moment.”

photoThis book isn’t just for Orthodox Christians, or any “brand” of Christians. It’s for everyone who is open to understanding why we are the way we are, and how we can change and become the humans God intended us to be. I can’t recommend it highly enough. BUY IT NOW. READ IT. SHARE IT.

Kevin Scherer is a writer and speaker with twenty years of pastoral counseling experience. As a former evangelical pastor and Eastern Orthodox priest, he has pastored in seven churches and served as the executive director of two nationwide Christian ministries. He also served as a chaplain at Ground Zero following the events of 9/11 as well as the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University shootings.

The Leave-taking of Pascha

Today is known in the Orthodox Christian Church as the “Leave-taking of Pascha.” (Here’s a talk given on this topic by a Russian Patriarch in Moscow in 1980. I share it here because I think it sheds some light on the continuous nature of Orthodox feasts.)  We have celebrated Christ’s resurrection for 40 days, and tomorrow is the Feast of His Ascension into Heaven.

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For us, Pascha (Easter) isn’t just one day. We live the spirit of Pascha year-round, as every Sunday’s divine liturgy is a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. But when the feast comes around, we celebrate with much joy during the entire Paschal season. We greet one another with this greeting and response:

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is risen!

Tonight will be the last time we will use this greeting and response at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis until the Feast of Pascha next year. (Tonight we will have a vesperal divine liturgy for the Feast of the Ascension, which is tomorrow.)

It’s interesting how people from countries that are historically Orthodox have this greeting and response ingrained in them, whether or not they are actively involved in church. Recently my husband and I were in Beaufort, South Carolina, where we met a delightful Romanian man at a dinner in a friend’s home. When we met him, my husband looked at him and said (in Romanian):

Hristos a înviat!

And without hesitation the man replied:

Într-adevăr, El a înviat!

How did my husband know this greeting in Romanian? In our church many people learn the greeting and response in other languages, and our clergy shout out the greetings as they cense the congregation during Paschal services, and the people shout back the response in the same language. We have people from Romania, Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Greece, and other countries in our parish, and having this greeting and response said in their languages is a blessing for them and unites us all in our common joy over the resurrection of Christ.

StGeorgeToledo - Ascension of the Lord - Fr. Theodore JurewiczI’ll be missing the service at St. John tonight, due to a book reading/signing that had been scheduled several months ago, (for Tangles and Plaquees: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, at Trezevant Manor Senior Living’s Performing Arts Center, where I’ll be the presenter for their monthly “Southern Author’s Tour”) but I’ll be there in spirit. And tonight at the Feast of the Ascension, parishioners will exchange a new greeting and response:

Christ has ascended! From earth to heaven!

Rediscovering Mercy: Anne Lamott, King David, and Holy Week

books from Lemuria

 

When I was in Jackson, Mississippi, on Monday (my husband had a medical meeting there) I stopped in at Lemuria Books (where I had a reading/signing last Thursday) to visit with bookstore owner John Evans. We discussed this summer’s Mississippi Book Festival and other literary and publishing topics. As I was speaking with one of the booksellers who works there, I discovered these two books at the counter: Joan Didion’s South and West, in which she brings notes from a 1970s road trip journal she took with her husband through Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama into the present cultural and political milieu; and Anne Lamott’s latest book, Allelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. I love Didion and look forward to diving into her essays, especially since they are about the South, but it was the subtitle of Lamott’s book that drew me in immediately: “Rediscovering Mercy.”

As an Orthodox Christian, I am half way through Holy Week, which follows our forty-day spiritual journey known as Great Lent. It’s a “school of repentance” we enter as we walk through Christ’s death and resurrection, but it’s also a time to rejoice in His great MERCY.

This past Sunday our pastor, Father Phillip Rogers, talked about mercy in his homily. I love that both he and our young assistant pastor, Father Alex Mackoul, have kept such a positive, upbeat focus during Lent, rather than overwhelming us with too-heavy burdens for our already difficult ascetic struggles. Instead of reminding us of our shortcomings (don’t we all feel the weight of them without others pointing them out?) Father Phillip reminds us of God’s mercy. He did this with me in a very personal way when he heard my confession a couple of weeks ago. And then he encouraged all of us to discover this afresh in his homily by challenging us to read Psalm 117 every day during Holy Week. He said it would change us. I believed him.

My husband and I love this Psalm, especially verse 24, which we say to each other as greeting and response first thing every morning (a tradition we learned from my parents): “This is the day the Lord has made; Let us greatly rejoice, and be glad therein.” But I hadn’t read the entire Psalm (29 verses) all at once in quite some time. We hear much of it during the services in the Orthodox Church, so the verses were familiar as my husband and I read them together on Monday, and I read them again with my morning prayers yesterday and today. Here are a few verses:

 

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;

For His mercy endures forever.

Let the house of Israel say that He is good,

For His mercy endures forever….

 

The Lord is my strength and my song,

And He became my salvation.

The sound of exceeding joy and salvation

            Is in the tents of the righteous;

The right hand of the Lord exalted me;

The right hand of the Lord worked its power….

 Palm_Sunday-200x300

Appoint a feast for yourselves, decked

            with branches,*

Even to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will thanks to You;

You are my God, and I shall exalt you….

 

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;

For His mercy endures forever.

 

*We were celebrating the Feast of Palm Sunday, raising our palm branches as we processed outside the church remembering Christ’s victorious entry into Jerusalem.

At this time in our country, in our world, we need God’s mercy more than ever. How wonderful to rediscover it this week, both in Anne Lamott’s book, and in Psalm 117. As Lamott says:

I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine and the human; the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.

But what does Lamott mean when she writes of mercy?

Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves absolving the unabsolvable, forgiving the unforgivable. Mercy brings us to the miracle of apology, given and accepted, to unashamed humility when we have erred or forgotten…. The idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway…. Yes, because in the words of Candi Staton’s great gospel song, “hallelujah anyway.” Hallelujah that in spite of it all, there is love, there is singing, nature, laughing, mercy.

 

Father John Troy Mashburn annointing parishioners with holy oil during Unction at St. John Orthodox Church.

Father John Troy Mashburn annointing parishioners with holy oil during Unction at St. John Orthodox Church.

 

I am so thankful to King David (who wrote Psalm 117), Anne Lamott, and Father Phillip Rogers for helping me rediscover mercy during this beautiful Holy Week. Tonight I will experience another taste of that mercy at the sacrament of Holy Unction at St. John Orthodox Church. When the holy oil is placed on our heads and hands, the priest will ask God to heal the disorders of our souls and bodies. That healing—which each of us will experience in a personal way, according to our own physical, mental, and spiritual brokenness—will indeed be an outpouring of God’s mercy. I hope I will go forth from this sacrament with the familiar words, “Lord, have mercy,” on my lips and in my heart.

Saint Mary of Egypt and Sneak Preview from Cherry Bomb #Lent2017

Mary of Egypt weepingThis is a big weekend for those of us who take Mary of Egypt as our patron saint, and for many others who look to her as a model of repentance. In the Orthodox Church, she is commemorated twice during Great Lent every year: April 1 (tomorrow) is her feast day, and the fifth Sunday of Lent, which falls on April 2 this year, is known as the Sunday of Saint Mary of Egypt. So, I’ll say “happy name day eve” to my sisters in Christ who are also her spiritual namesakes.

If you’re interested in reading more, here are some previous posts about St. Mary of Egypt:

“Turning Lead Into Gold” (2016)

“Holy Mother Mary Pray to God For Us” (From 2015, this post contains a prayer/poem I wrote to Mary of Egypt many years ago.)

“Forgive O Lord” (2014)

Original icon from which detail of Mary was cropped. This is Saint Basil and Great and Saint Mary of Egypt, a "marriage icon" I wrote as a gift to my husband, Father Basil.

Original icon from which detail of Mary was cropped. This is Saint Basil and Great and Saint Mary of Egypt, a “marriage icon” I wrote as a gift to my husband, Father Basil.

My novel, Cherry Bomb—which will be published this fall—focuses quite a bit on Mary of Egypt. There’s even a weeping icon of Saint Mary in the book, although I’ve never actually heard of one of her icons weeping. More often it is icons of the Mother of God that weep. (But it’s a novel, after all.) I’m excited that this image (above, right) will appear on the back cover of the book when it comes out. It’s a detail from an icon I wrote over ten years ago. My daughter-in-law, See Cushman, cropped it from the original and added the “tears” to make it appear that the icon is weeping, and the graphic designer working on the cover changed the background to gold and added the frame. I couldn’t be more pleased with the result, although my photo is a bit fuzzy and doesn’t do the image justice.

Today I thought I would share a sneak preview from Cherry Bomb. The following excerpt is from a scene in which Mare (protagonist) and Elaine deKooning (her art professor) are attending an opera about Saint Mary of Egypt written by John Tavener. I learned about this opera many years ago from a nun who was visiting Memphis to speak at our parish’s women’s retreat, and I was able to find a CD of the music. I hope it blesses you and raises your interest in the novel, which will be out in about six months!

Holy Mother Mary, Pray to God For Us.

Excerpt from Cherry Bomb, chapter 14:

 

As they entered the Wells Theatre on Saturday night, Mare and Elaine were greeted by materials, textures, and geometric angles that were part of its Art Moderne splendor. Intricate rectangular carvings repeated themselves along the walls. Gold leaf flickered off every surface. Even the curtain on the massive stage was itself a work of art—tapestries of shimmering gold and copper. The theater seated over a thousand patrons and boasted a state-of-the-art audio system. Just listening to the orchestra warming up sent chills down Mare’s spine. The music wasn’t familiar—it had a foreign, Middle Eastern sound—but even the concordant notes the musicians struck as they tuned their instruments simultaneously had an other-worldly beauty.

“Wow.” Mare had never seen anything like this before.

Elaine smiled. An usher handed them each a program and showed them to their seats. The cover of the program featured an icon of Mary of Egypt and Zosimas. They quickly read the Composer’s Note before the overture began, which was penned by John Tavener.  

Mary’s door was wide open, even though her love was misdirected and distorted …

They looked at each other as they read, and then continued to read the rest of the program notes. Mare wondered how the words were hitting Elaine. She remembered how uncomfortable Elaine had been when they visited the Coptic church. What’s she thinking now?

Zosimas’s whole sound world becomes Mary’s. In her he sees ‘love’ and his own limitations. His world, once so dry, now in the dryness of the desert, flowers into what the Desert Fathers might have called “Uncreated Eros” or a hint of the Edenic state. In controlled ecstasy, they both ask each other to give the blessing.

“That’s what’s happening in your painting, isn’t it?” Elaine whispered.

Mare nodded and they continued reading Taverner’s comments:

“Mary of Egypt” is the intent to create an ikon in sound about Non-Judgement. In a sense, Zosimas loves again when through Mary he can dimly see the beauty of God—and who knows how far Mary has gone in her search for the unknowable and unobtainable in her forty solitary years in the desert? Holy Mary, pray to God for us.

The orchestra finished warming up and the lights dimmed. A group of women and men formed two parallel lines on the stage, representing the extensions of Mary and Zosimas. The women’s sensual movements were accompanied by a flute, wordlessly representing Mary whoring in Alexandria. The men were accompanied by the trombone and the primordial sound of the simantron—a wooden percussion instrument used in liturgical music (especially at monasteries) and sometimes with contemporary classical pieces. Each act was more powerful than the previous, building to a climax with the aria, “Bless.” The characters of Zosimas and Mary—without their extensions from early scenes—prostrated themselves on the ground in front of each other, crying out in song the solitary word, “Bless!” over and over.

Mare wasn’t prepared for how this would hit her—seeing the story she was growing more fascinated with by the day brought to life in such a powerful way on the stage. She felt some of the anger she’d hung onto over the years melt away as the words and music worked to soften her heart. Damn. She quickly brushed away tears, hoping Elaine hadn’t seen them. Sneaking a glance at Elaine, Mare saw that she wasn’t the only one weeping.

Then Mary levitated. The angels lifted her up—with help from nearly invisible wires hung from the stage ceiling—leaving a terrified and awestruck Zosimas to grieve her loss. The opera continued with the conclusion of their story: Zosimas found Mary dead in the desert a year later and buried her with help from a lion, who appeared tame in the presence of the saint’s remains.

On Frizzy Hair, Triggers, and the Cross at Mid-Lent #Lent2017

holy crossMy Orthodox friend, Lia Roussos Douglas, used to be a member at my parish here in Memphis, Saint John Orthodox Church. I was so sad when she moved back to her beloved Gulf Coast, although I completely understand her wanting to be there! It’s been wonderful keeping up with her on Facebook, and yesterday she posted something that touched me on many levels. I have asked her permission to publish it here. As we move into the second half of Lent (and prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation—March 25—with a liturgy and potluck at St. John tonight) my spirits are good. I’m not all down and out like I sometimes get during Lent. At the beginning of the season I said I was going to make this a Happy Lent, and so far, that’s working pretty well. Even though I fell and tore a ligament in my ankle. Maybe that’s just part of my cross this Lent.

So, today’s post is from Lia:

My sweet Em Lani was sharing with me last night all the good nuggets she has been learning at yoga teacher training this week. She was sharing about beliefs, for example “Why do I believe I need granite counter tops?” or “Why do I believe frizzy curly hair isn’t beautiful?” and are these actually universal truths?? Also, who molded my belief system? ALL this has to do with my happiness. She also was sharing about “triggers” we have that make us feel a certain way and how to make a conscientious effort to take note of why we are feeling that way. For me, for an easy example, I notice any time someone comments on my hair I get this dreaded feeling. So my hair is a trigger.

Anyway I digress, today in my spiritual reading, (somehow it ALWAYS ties into my life) I read THIS and it struck me as so profound friends. This week as it is midlent for me, half way there to the end and the Resurrection!!! My Church, my faith gives us THE CROSS. The cross of Christ to focus on and meditate on….. pick up our cross and follow him:

As always, St. Paul puts it very distinctly: “I am crucified to the world and the world is crucified to me.” So often, my burdens come from the fact that I judge myself by the standards of this society. The world defines what is necessary for happiness and I believe it. The world defines what is beautiful and what is not, and I believe it. The world tells me what is moral and what is not, and I believe it. The world tells me what is rich and what is poor, and I believe it. The world tells me what is brave and what is cowardly, and I believe it. The first work of the cross is to crucify me to this worldly propaganda and lunacy.—Father Barnabas, Orthodox on Purpose

Such wisdom!!! Why should I allow the world to form my standards of what makes me happy?? Why do I believe such bull crap at times?? Today, I chose NOT to allow FB or the world or some idiotic standards placed on me to define my happiness! We ALL have our struggles in life, our cross to carry if you may. Just make sure you’re not putting these struggles on yourself from some dumb standard you allowed yourself to believe! Don’t let your struggles carry you through this life but you carry them strong and with the knowledge you will be ok! You are ok and all is as it should be!

There’s a lesson in everything if only we care to open our eyes and just LOOK. Sorry this was so long and if you stayed with me til the end! Well! Thank you! Happy Thursday! I love you!

I Arise Today: Celebrating a Former Slave

St PatrickI arise today through God’s strength to pilot me, God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me.—Saint Patrick of Ireland

Saint Patrick’s Day is often filled with pretty intense partying, although it usually falls during the solemn time of Great Lent. Rivers died green. Pub crawls. Parades. I like a fun celebration as much as the next person, but I also hope that folks will take a moment today to thank God for the saint they are celebrating.

Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, who sends out “Almost-Daily Emos” from The Geranium Farm, says:

Patrick was the first Christian writer to oppose slavery. Its existence as part of the social fabric is assumed without protest in the New Testament, and the theologians of the early Christian centuries had other things on their minds. He came to this position understandably enough: he had BEEN a slave.

So today I thank God for this brave and humble man who fought for human rights.

Have a joyful and safe Saint Patrick’s Day, everyone. I’m off to Little Rock for another literary event for Tangles and Plaques, this time at WordsWorth Books. 

A Thirty-Year Journey (So Far)

Bishop Antoun (left) and Father John Troy Mashburn (right) help Father Basil Cushman at his ordination on March 15, 1987.

Bishop Antoun (left) and Father John Troy Mashburn (right) help Father Basil Cushman at his ordination on March 15, 1987.

Thirty years ago today, my husband, Dr. William/Father Basil Cushman, was ordained into the priesthood of the Orthodox Christian Church, specifically the Antiochian Archdiocese. I did a blog post about this in 2010, “Axios! He is Worthy!”

Our recently retired pastor, Father John Troy Mashburn, was also ordained that day, as were several other priests and deacons from St. John in Memphis and St. Peter in Jackson, Mississippi.

This happened the day after a group of about 70 of us “pilgrims” were Chrismated into the Orthodox Church. For some of us, it was the end of a seventeen-year spiritual journey, one that was often wrought with peril, but a journey that ended (and in some ways began) with the blessed gift of finding the pearl for which we had been searching all those years.

Bishop Antoun assists Father John Troy Mashburn during his ordination, March 15, 1987.

Bishop Antoun assists Father John Troy Mashburn during his ordination, March 15, 1987.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a number of years, you know that there were some times when I was frustrated with my church home. Honestly, I still get frustrated at times. Orthodoxy is an ancient tradition (some say it was the first/original Christian church) and sometimes the very “rules” that have helped hold it together for centuries seem to hold too tightly. I’m not an obedient person, and I have always struggled against anything restrictive. But today I’m finding my way in this beautiful faith after thirty years.

Tonight at St. John Orthodox Church—my parish here in Memphis since 1988—we will celebrate our clergy who were ordained thirty years ago. Most of them have served unselfishly while maintaining full time secular jobs, while others have sacrificed those secular careers to serve the church full time. Either way, they are all “full time” servants, and we thank God for them.

And so I say again, as we declared thirty years ago with Bishop Antoun ordained these men, “Axios!” which means “He is worthy!”

Happy Lent, Mardi Gras, and Five Star Reviews

keep-calm-and-happy-clean-mondayWhile the folks in New Orleans are still celebrating Mardi Gras (today is Lundi Gras and tomorrow is Fat Tuesday, the final day of the Mardi Gras celebration) and Western Christians (mainly Catholics and Protestants) begin Lent the following day with Ash Wednesday, Orthodox Christians (like me) all over the world begin our Lenten journey today, with Clean Monday. We prepared for the launch of this season of spiritual renewal with last night’s service, “Forgiveness Vespers.” At the end of the litany of prayers, everyone present exchanged the kiss of peace, asking one another for forgiveness and responding with “God forgives and I forgive.” As we formed a line around the inside walls of the nave, exchanging hugs with our fellow parishioners, we stood together against enmity, jealousy, anger, pride, and everything else that often keeps us divided. We stood together for love, forgiveness, acceptance, and community. We did this not only for those of us present in the church last night, but for our families, our neighbors, our communities, and the world. It’s a powerful service.

Great Lent is a time for reflection and repentance, of drawing closer to God by removing some of the shackles that keep us away from Him, which is why fasting is part of the ascetic struggle. We also have many extra church services, and redouble our efforts with our personal prayers. All of this can feel overwhelming at times, and it’s often hard for me to approach it with a positive attitude. The fact that it happens as winter is slouching away and spring is arriving doesn’t help. Our non-Orthodox neighbors are outside firing up their grills and the aroma shouts “fun” while we’re fasting from meat. Spring break vacations and other events are scheduled and often conflict with the added church services. It all goes against the grain of our culture. And yet, I choose to participate, although I have in the past called my participation “Lent Lite.”
2009-02-lent-big copyThis year I’m calling my participation “Happy Lent.” I’m choosing to be happy. Matthew 6:17 instructs us to anoint our heads with oil and wash our faces when we are fasting, which pretty much means don’t make a show of it. Don’t look all sad and talk about your self-denial. I know some folks choose to go off social media during Lent, and that’s fine, but don’t tell everyone on Faceback that you’re doing it to be more spiritual. Drawing closer to God shouldn’t make us sad, and certainly shouldn’t cause us to shun the company of others, unless we have need of solitude for a period of time in order to take stock of ourselves. Even as I write these words I realize I can judge others who choose to do this, and that judging is wrong. We each have our own paths and may God bless us all in our struggle.

Happy readingI just started reading two books (because I’m not sure I’m going to continue one of them) that don’t sound like “Happy Lent,” but I guess I’m searching for something. This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, a memoir by Daphne Merkin and The Dark Flood Rises, a novel by Margaret Drabble aren’t spiritual books. But they both talk about aspects of our humanness that I care deeply about—emotional health and care for the aging. I’ll post reviews if I finish either or both of them.

Meanwhile, I’m thankful today that our son was several blocks away from the nightmare that happened near his apartment in New Orleans on Saturday. A drunk driver ran his truck through a crowd at the Krewe of Endymion Mardi Gras parade injuring about thirty people. People who were celebrating life. Thankfully Jon and his friends weren’t close enough to get hurt, but the incident was jarring, so today he’s too concerned to ride his book the short two and a half miles to a friend’s house for a cookout. There are just a lot of crazy and irresponsible people in New Orleans right now, making the celebrations dangerous for those who are just finding some happiness in the festivities. May God protect him and others during these final two days.

indexI’m also thankful today for my first (FIVE STAR!) reviews on Amazon and Goodreads for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. I don’t know the reviewer personally, but she asked for a copy of the book and offered to review it in a couple of newspapers and online. What a nice way to start Lent.

May God help all of us who are choosing to participate in Lent—at whatever level we are able and willing.

Holding On to the Ship’s Wreckage

Man-Shipwrecked-at-Sunset--87235This morning I read these words from today’s reading in the Orthodox calendar I often refer to with my Morning Prayers:

God desires and seeks the salvation of all. And he is always saving all who wish to be saved from drowning in the sea of life and sin. But He does not always save in a boat or a convenient, well-equipped harbor. He promised to save the Holy Apostle Paul and his fellow-travelers, and He did save them. But the Apostle and his fellow-passengers were not saved in the ship, which was wrecked; they were saved with great difficulty, some by swimming and others on boards and various bits of the ship’s wreckage.Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov

I woke up early with messy thoughts. Some were about a conversation I had with a friend yesterday, in which I am sure I hurt her feelings. I plan to call and ask her forgiveness today. Other thoughts were the reverse—my ongoing battle with forgiveness and letting go of past hurts done to me or others in my family, even unintentionally. And finally, I was absorbed with a continuing struggle with my lack of moderation in food and drink, and my subsequent weight gain. I have now gained back 12 of the 17 pounds I worked so hard to lose last year.  I am plagued with increasing pain in my right hip for which I underwent physical therapy three years ago. It cleared up after the therapy, but now it has returned, and I feel that my weight gain has something to do with it.

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New Year’s resolutions never really work for me, but I understand why people have them. If I had them, they would certainly include (1) exercise more and (2) eat and drink less. Those things would surely help my physical struggles. But this morning I’m thinking that my priorities need to be rearranged. My resolutions should be (1) forgive and (2) repent.

Repentance isn’t a popular word. But our retired pastor at St. John gave a wonderful homily about it yesterday. It wasn’t “preachy” but it spoke to my heart. It was about “turning back” as the prodigal son turned back to his father. And about “turning away from” as he turned away from his wreckless life. I thought about how hard it is to do that—to turn away from the very things that are hurting me. And even about how hard it is to turn back… to God, to friends whom we have hurt or whom have hurt us.

In Saint Brianchaninov’s quote above, I am struck by the image of being saved by holding onto various bits of a ship’s wreckage. I see my life—both physical and spiritual—as that wrecked ship. I would love for God to just reach down and pull me out of the storm and set me on calm ground (like my favorite beach in Florida) but I am learning that He doesn’t always work that way. I might have to swim to shore or hold onto those bits of wreckage. I might even struggle with my weaknesses for the rest of my life—again, both physically and spiritually.

Not very happy thoughts as I enter the New Year… and yet I do feel some measure of comfort as I pray for God’s help and ask His forgiveness. Again.

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