Small Things/ Great Love

A couple of months ago, while talking to my priest. I was doing my usual: unpacking my laundry list of worries about life and the cosmos. And I don’t just talk about my worries, y’all. I pile them up. I stack them carefully, one on top of another, like scary, toxic Fear Pancakes:

Well, what about racism and police brutality?

What about global warming?

What about natural disasters and the end times and the future and GMOs and- and- and. . . 

You get the idea. We’ve all been there: that point where we are literally Can’t Even-ing because the Whole Entire Flip-Flappin’ World is just so Out-Of-Its Mind-Crazy. But I had stayed there in that state of mind and pitched a tent. I scrolled through (and wallowed in) the misery of the world and drank up all the injustice I saw in a medium where [more often than not- I know there are exceptions] no direct action can be taken by me to fix the problem.

For an aspiring social activist, I was pretty immobilized But that’s what happens when exposure is equated to involvement. The choir and I took turns preaching, we all shouted AMEN. I wrote the perfectly researched comments that silenced my opponents. I had become callous in the name of caring. I had replaced engaged with enraged. And I was beginning to drown. In fact, I noticed that the discourse on Social Media was simultaneously doing the following [and on a 24-hour, ever refreshing loop]:

Demanding I care passionately, constantly

Demanding I demonstrate I care in a specific way

Heavily implying [or outright stating] that to the degree I didn’t post, discuss, or engage in a public forum, I didn’t care.

Is it just me, or does the News Feed turn social causes and opinions into that horrible snob in every 80s coming of age movie? You know, the one who pressured their boyfriend or girlfriend with the words “You would if you really loved me”.  So much of the rhetoric on The Book turns everyone into That Guy [or Girl, anyone can be a jerk]. I see it happen all the time.

And if I’m being honest, I’ve been That Person often, and I’ve done so in the name of being correct, open-minded or [worst of all] theologically sound. I’ve done it for the recognition, for the praise, and to prove my own moral amazingness. And that both humbles me and grosses me out.

While it’s a great tool for fast communication and spread of good ideas and causes, Social Media and the Internet can also increase feelings of alienation, polarization [us vs. them], and snap judgement.

What- in a normal conversation- would amount to “We don’t see eye to eye on this, but I know from our other conversations and interactions that you are not, in fact, a soulless monster, but my friend” becomes “OMG U FASCIST I HATE YOUR STUPID FACE AND I HOPE YOU FALL DOWN A WELL!!!!!!!!”

So what’s changed? Am I off Facebook? [Girl, please- it’s open in the next tab.] I did- however- find a more realistic way of looking at it, and at the whole idea of social engagement.

My priest-remember him? the patient guy at the beginning of the story?- told me about something he read about that helped him not to become overwhelmed, hate everyone, and spend the rest of his life crying [paraphrasing there]. He told me about the Circle of Influence: areas we can actually change and influence vs. the Circle of Concern: the big, ever-present problems of the world.

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According to the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the most effective [and/or proactive] people focus the majority of their time on their Circle of Influence, and far less on their Circle of Concern. This not only made total sense to me and struck me as a really healthy way to be,  it helped me realize that social media, and media in general, distorts things such that our Circle of Concern is either presented as identical to our Circle of Influence or vastly more important when it comes to changing our circumstances, when it’s really the other way around.

“Imagine,” Father said, “what it would be like if you took that energy for those causes you cared about and put them into action in your community and in your day to day life.” I  could write a letter to the editor, have a conversation that promotes empathy and understanding of someone different than me, treat a friend who is struggling financially to a meal, recycle, look someone in the eye and tell them they matter. The wonderful paradox is: I can do almost nothing to solve the big problems of the world, but the “small” things I can do that would truly make a difference are in fact vast, endless, and ever-evolving.

What if I- what if we all- took that approach first and foremost? Would all social problems be eliminated? Probably not. Would action be taken consistently, and would things change? Definitely. And that seems like what all us are truly after.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta changed the way the world views poverty, service, and love. She transformed the lives of countless people with her work, and continues to do so with her teachings. Yet she did not use a computer, and rarely traveled outside of the area where she lived. Would we dare say she didn’t care?

Even contemplating shifting my focus from “great things” to “small things with great love” has been immensely freeing. To do so helps me see more clearly how much I am loved. I realize more clearly what I can do for others.

I believe that thinking and acting in our sphere of influence- doing small things for our friends, enemies, neighbors, communities, opponents and compatriots- deliberately and consistently with great love will shift our connection to humankind from virtual to reality.

***

What do you feel connects us to one another? What harms that connection? What helps it?

What small things have been done for you with great love?

What small thing can you commit to doing this week for someone that you love? For someone that you don’t always agree with?

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Love, Needs, Giving: A Partner’s Perspective on Disability [Guest Post by John Thielman]

Happy spring! Today the blog breaks its unintentional (but by no means surprising by now) silence with a special treat. Yesterday marks 3 years since one online exchange began a friendship, which grew into a relationship, and is on its way to becoming a marriage. Since May is the month John and I met, I am honored and proud to share his guest blog with you, which offers his perspective as the partner of someone with a disability. I am sure his kindness and honesty will encourage all of you, as it does me every day.  Enjoy!

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K Summers Photography, 2014

Beth often shares stories with me of her odd encounters with well-meaning, but socially awkward, strangers. One of the questions she gets most often is: “So is your fiancé in a wheelchair, too?”

It’s tempting to try to laugh that question off, but the more I think about its implications, the less I like it.  Nobody asks me if my fiancé needs glasses too, or if she is also Caucasian, or is also going grey at the temples.  Everyone seems to recognize that a woman wouldn’t have to share my bad eyesight (or any other arbitrary, superficial characteristic) to be interested in marrying me, but for some reason it’s very common to assume that only a man who also has a disability would be interested in a woman with one. It’s as if people believe “typical” cannot love “different”. And this assertion that is not only false, but painful.

So, how does a relationship work when one of the participants has a disability?  Truth to tell, I don’t know how a relationship works when neither does (I was in a relationship once before, with someone without a disability, but I can’t say the relationship actually worked).  Ours is like any other relationship: we talk to one another, we listen, we try to help.

As far as I can tell, everybody needs help with something in life.  Some people are bad at doing their taxes, some are late everywhere they go, many have insecurities and some have legs that don’t work properly.  So just as Beth doesn’t think anything of helping me with my insecurities and the challenges I face as a student in a foreign country, I think absolutely nothing of helping her get up and down stairs, preparing a meal for us to share, or helping her around the house.

In fact, it is this act of helping that brings us closer together.  In order to allow her to help me, I have to make myself vulnerable to her emotionally, which is never easy (well, by now it’s easier because we’ve been doing it for so long), and in order to allow me to help her, she has to be very vulnerable to me physically.  It all requires a lot of trust, but our trust in one another is always rewarded.

Honestly though, it is the distance between us (not her disability) that has always been the biggest problem to overcome.  We have never lived in the same city, and never less than 800 miles apart.  Now it’s more like 4,600.  But we talk every day on skype, often for hours, sometimes more than once. [Since starting our relationship in September 2012, we have only gone 2 days without Skyping!]  We’ve been told that we talk more to one another than do some couples who live together.  This is no surprise, since we can’t do much more than exchange words, so we exchange lots and lots of them, and we weigh them carefully.

So, distance has become our teacher, helping us learn to communicate honestly and lovingly with one another.  And because being apart forces us to find a silver lining, each of us strives to discern the best and most loving interpretation of the other’s words.  When we can’t find that right away, we push through any negative feelings, and ask for clarification.  We do our best to understand each other’s needs and to help fulfill those needs.   And it turns out not to matter so much what [or even whose] those specific needs are; the remedy is still the same. We speak, we listen, we understand, we give and take, we help each other. We love each other. That’s really all there is to it.

***

Originally from Menomonie, Wisconsin, John is earning his Master’s Degree in Historical Linguistics from the Humboldt University in Berlin, and holds a B.A. in Classics from Gustavus Adolphus College. He enjoys tailoring, cooking, and all things Tolkien. His favorite pastimes are reading, sipping fine whiskey, and shooting the breeze with his Intended. 

DOMA: One Christian Speaks

With the DOMA decision hot off the presses this week, my Facebook news feed has been fascinating. I just sit and watch the screen refresh with anticipation; waiting for the gloves to come off.

One minute: OMGRAINBOWTEARSOFJOY.

The next: OMGWORLDCRASHINGDOWN.

And about every half hour: Something about Jesus, churches or the Bible, and how they feel about “The Gays” getting married.

As an Orthodox Christian, I view marriage [which my Church defines as being a physical and spiritual union between a man and a woman] as a Sacrament. Something spiritual and supernatural happens during a wedding for an Orthodox Christian: Christ is the Celebrant, He joins the couple together. And in a Mystery, they become one person. Because of this, sex is meant for marriage because it is a participation in that oneness. It is meant to be experienced within the context. So, taken together: having a wedding, being married, and having sex are beautiful, holy, and sacred.

Marriage is also known as the White Martyrdom within the Orthodox Church: you are giving your life for your spouse before God; this is represented by the “crowning” part of the marriage ceremony [Yep, those are Martyrs’ Crowns. Intense, right?!].

I cherish this view of marriage and sex as a healthy, full one. I look forward to experiencing it; I believe it is truth, and I believe this because I trust my Faith. It’s not an easy thing to believe, wait for, or live by, believe me. [White Martyrdom does not exactly come up as a topic of conversation at most parties these days.]  But I know it’s worth it.

However, I don’t expect every single person in the United States of America to have the same beliefs I do about marriage any more than I expect them all to show up at my Church on Sunday morning.

To follow the teachings of Jesus or the Church is now, and always has been, a choice, not a legislation or ruling. Jesus has never been shy; He has never been a shrinking violet, but He has never been a politician, either. He loves, He teaches and lives from Love; we choose how to respond.

Jesus never ran for President, and America is not now, nor has it ever been, an exclusively Christian nation. The Founding Fathers did not all go to the same Church together. They did not pen the Constitution at a Small Group at Bible Camp, and they never intended for a particular brand of religion to be legislated from Capitol Hill. In fact, the need for Freedom of Religion [any, not just mine] is what brought those rowdy ex-Brits here in the first place. That’s why it’s [still] in our constitution [right now, actually]. So, because the Constitution is what guides our law/political process, DOMA shouldn’t be discussed in terms of religion, because Church and State are separate here. And that’s where it gets tricksy, my little hobbitses.

See, within the American political sphere, marriage can’t be viewed as religious, because there is a legal component to it [and Church and State are separate]. So, the real question behind whether or not the Supreme Court should’ve upheld DOMA is not “Is it Christian for people who are in same-sex relationships to get married?” it’s “Should they have the Constitutional right to do so, based on what the rest of our law and Constitution says?” When marriage is being debated in politics, it’s a civil issue, not a theological one.

As much as I love my Church and my Faith [a lot, you guys, it’s changed my life in the most beautiful ways possible], I cannot find within it anything that says I should impose or enforce my own moral code on someone who is not choosing to be a part of my Faith. And  as an American citizen, I can’t find a place in the Constitution where it says I  have the legal right or civil obligation to do that, either.

So, yes, I am a straight, heterosexual Orthodox Christian. That means a someday I will marry a man in my Church: we’ll put on Martyrs’ Crowns and kiss dramatically in front of all our relatives [awkward!], and then we’ll dance the night away. And you’re all invited. Because it will be a beautiful, real experience, with a great party to follow.

My devotion to my Faith and its teachings about marriage does not mean I have the right to make anyone else’s faith or marriage illegal. And it doesn’t mean I should be unkind, rude, or unloving toward anyone, whether my theology agrees with their lifestyle choices or not.

I pray I have spoken the Truth in love, and that I can live it the same way. And I hope for your patience and respect as I spend my life figuring out the best way to do so.

Look At Me: Why Looking Past Disability is Toxic for Relationships

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If there’s one thing people love to do, it’s dream of their perfect mate. We might not all admit to it, but we’ve all done it, repeatedly. I’ve passed many an hour at a slumber party (and, in more recent years, over a cup of coffee) doing just that.  And it’s good to dream. Dreaming gives us faith and hope for things to get better. It helps us set our expectations higher than we might have otherwise. But for people with disabilities, there is one area, when it comes to dreaming, where we need to raise the bar.

Invariably, when I’m at a Girls’ Night with friends, the Perfect Mate topic comes up, followed by the list of ideal qualities: poet, rock star, Democrat, Republican, Anarchist, PhD, MD, and so on. I remember once, when it was my turn. I gazed wistfully into space and said, “And I just know that he’ll be someone who can look past my disability.” Everyone murmured and sighed in agreement, and I was immensely proud of myself for being so profound.

I shouldn’t have been. The truth is, hoping to find a mate who will “look past” my disability was (and is) the wrong approach to finding the right person. It sounds noble, but what are the real implications?

In my experience, disability doesn’t tend to disappear overnight. For myself, and many, it is permanent. If we want someone to look past that, we are asking, expecting, and hoping for him or her to avoid and ignore a big part of our reality. How can we talk about our lives, our challenges, and our experiences apart from our disability? And how can our partner truly share any of that with us, if he or she looks past it?

While not defining me, per se, my disability is a part of my identity. It has colored my perspective, shaped my career path, and helped form my peer groups. Do I want someone to look past such a fundamental part of my life? Of course I don’t. He would be left with an incomplete picture of who I am. And being with someone who doesn’t really know who you are: it strains the relationship; it fosters a sense of dishonesty. And it’s just awkward and weird.

I’m not immune to any of these pitfalls, by the way. . .I wouldn’t be equipped to write this if I wasn’t guilty of talking about “looking past” disability for the better part of my life. We live in a world so focused on physical ideals, it’s hard not to do it. But every time I’ve done that, I’ve been settling. I’ve really been saying to myself, “There isn’t a person who will accept and love you for who you are. He won’t be able to truly find all of you attractive.” Not only is that a lie, it is a lowered expectation that no one deserves to have for themselves, their partner, or their relationship.

It’s time for a change. Next time we’re at a Girls’ night (or Guys’ night, for that matter), and discussion turns back to that Perfect Mate, let’s drop the lackluster expectations. No matter if it’s a disability, or some other difference, we have to talk (and think) of who we are honestly:

Looking past me isn’t good enough anymore. It’s time to look at me. This, everything you see, and everything you don’t, is part of who I am. The perfect person for me is someone who loves and accepts all parts of me: typical and different.

Let’s not settle for relationships where someone looks past, ignores, or avoids any part of who we are. Let’s start to dream of someone who looks at us intently, and loves what they see.

Behold Your Mother: Getting to Know the Virgin Mary

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During my conversion to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, I had myriad experiences that sat in stark contrast to the nondenominational, Protestant faith I had carried since childhood. One of the most challenging things to grasp was the apparent prominence of the Virgin Mary in the Church. Other than what I could glean from some familiar Bible verses, I hadn’t known Mary at all. I had only even seen her during Christmas and Easter plays, where she stood in the backdrop, saying little or nothing. I had a fragmented idea of who she might have been, but no clear picture of who she was.

Orthodox Christians [and many from liturgical traditions] just plain love Mary. And we aren’t shy about it. In fact, you can’t miss her. Every time I go to Church, there she is, larger than life: in a giant icon right above the altar, with Jesus in her womb and her arms outstretched in welcome. The choir sings to her every Sunday. And the priest asks her for her help and prayers, calling out to her as if she is right there with him in the sanctuary, standing next to Jesus. It jarred me at first. Was that kind of thing in the Bible? Did the early Church really think of human beings like that? And why are we talking to her in the present tense? It all seemed quite weird. I was griping about the whole struggle with Father Stephen one day when he diffused the tension with his typical gentleness, “She is a person,” he said, with a smile, “Not a theological concept.”

Okay, I’d thought. Mary was a person. I can’t argue that. But it’s not like she’s with us now, right? Wrong. The Bible itself talks about being surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). The faithful men and women who have gone before us are, in a mystery, hemming us in with their prayers, which help us “throw off everything that hinders us, and the sin that so easily entangles us”(v. 2-3).  And who better to help me bring my requests before the throne of the Incarnate God than His mother, who carried Him in her womb, held Him in her arms, and kissed His face when He cried?

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Though I wasn’t used to or comfortable with relating to Mary at first, Christianity often brings us to many crossroads where we have to decide to step out of our comfort zone and love because that is the example set for us:

When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25-27)

Why had I not seen this before? The Early Christians did love and honor Mary as their mother, because Jesus loved her and cared for her as His Mother, even to His last breath.

Seen in this light, loving Mary, honoring her, and asking her for help makes perfect sense. We have all loved and honored our mothers, or those like mothers to us, constantly leaning on them for support.

Beyond that, our mothers teach us, and Mary is no exception. As I’ve heard several priests put it: she is not the great exception; she is the great example. Her acceptance of the will of God [“I am the Lord’s servant, let it be done unto me according to your word”, Luke 1:38] should inspire us. A single act of faith and humility allowed for God to work the great miracle of the Incarnation in the womb of a young girl from Galilee. Because Mary offered her humanity for Christ to take on, our flesh can now be sanctified and saved.

As His Mother, Mary has a tender, deep relationship to God that we can learn from and emulate. Caring for and loving Jesus, mourning His death, and celebrating His life and resurrection; Mary’s simple, deep love for her Son is woven throughout the Gospels.  We get a glimpse of this intimacy in a beautiful excerpt from Luke: And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart” (2:18-19).

Just as she treasures the chance to be close to Jesus, it is evident for anyone who looks to her that Mary loves all of us as her children through Christ. Countless times throughout Church history, she has intervened for the faithful with the aid of her intercession, comfort and consolation, right up to here and now.

At Christmas, the image of Mary cradling and kissing Jesus is especially powerful. She reminds me of the humility of Jesus, as I realize He was willing to be cared for by His Creation. She reminds me of the power of prayer, as her intercessions bring me peace. And in his calling me to love His mother, the Lord welcomes me as His family, allowing me to abide in Him and with Him.

Wishing you all good news, great joy and His Peace this Christmas.

With His love.

left behind

Well, I’m still here.

Either that means that I missed out on something very, very important in the wee hours of the morning, or Armageddon did not, in fact, arrive upon our cosmological doorstep.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think each of us, regardless of our background, should always be prepared for our time on this Earth to expire, in order that we might leave something beautiful here in our stead and [through Grace] move on to bigger and better things.

But the reason I think we should all be prepared isn’t because we know exactly when such a thing will happen. It’s because we don’t have a clue. [Jesus tells His followers just that in Mark 13:32 and Matthew 24:36; His followers have been trying to sort it out amongst themselves ever since.]

not crazy about the font. but brilliant otherwise.

What has ruffled my feathers about the whole thing is this: the sensationalists presuming to have discerned the End of the World as we Know It, the funeral protesters, the overzealous Bible-toting politicos and their fold; their approach to Christianity troubles me. I worry that, when we get wrapped up in who around us is right or wrong, we leave behind [pun totally intended], the Spirit of Love.

Don’t misunderstand me. Just because judgmental attitudes bother me does not mean I am immune from them myself, and for that I beg forgiveness. And if I’m being honest, I get why judging others is appealing. Because when I judge something or someone, I am certain about it. I know where they stand, and where I stand. ‘That is right’ or ‘That is wrong’ I can declare. But there is nothing certain about love, other than the fact we are called to take it up and give of it freely.

What am I saying? Am I saying we can’t disagree with one another? Can we not get angry about the harmful choices of others? Can we not take a stand against injustice?  Of course I’m not saying any of that. All those things are normal, good human responses to wrongdoing.

What I’m driving at is the issue of focus. What am I focused on doing with the time I have left? I’m betting that, if I am focused on judgement-on determining just what’s wrong with all these folks-that a spirit of judgment will prevail in my attitudes and actions more often than not.

If I am focused on love, I will be more inclined to love others, or at least be more inclined to desire with all my heart to do so. We were put here out of Love, and to love one another. And I suppose I have been left here for a little longer to better learn how to do just that.

I’m not sure how exactly to go about it. But I promise, at the very least, never to hold up any angry signs.

the only thing we have to fear

For “the past little bit” [a decidedly Southern time increment, if there ever was one], something has been amiss with me. A “something” I have had difficulty putting my finger on; and those are the worst kind of somethings. Because how do you know what to fix, if you don’t know what’s broken, right?

The other day, though, I realized something. A lot of my emotional troubles are governed by the same overarching, negative little booger: FEAR.  For example:

  • What I think of as Loneliness is actually Fear of Friends Leaving or Friendships Changing Unexpectedly.
  • What I see as Mopey-Single-Girl-Syndrome is really Fear of Not Finding/Losing The Right Person.

And

  • When I complain about being Unemployed, I really am just Afraid that I Won’t Be Able to Be Independent.

Okay, so now I’ve gone from being “ambiguously emotionally troubled” to being a scaredy-cat. Not that promising on the outset. But, all is not lost. Apparently, there’s an antidote.

In one of his letters, Saint John writes, “There is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out fear” [1 John 4:18].  And if you think about it, this makes perfect sense. In many of the scariest moments of my life, I have been comforted by the thought [or the presence] of someone or something I love.

So, I know I’m afraid. Great. And I know love can help soothe that. Excellent. What do I do now?

I Can Do my Best to Love G*d

Of course, I understand that books and books could be written on this topic alone. But in the simplest sense, I can start by spending time with Him, thanking Him, and talking to Him some throughout each day. He has, after all, loved me lavishly since Day One.

I Can Do My Best to Love Others

If there is one thing I am reminded of every single day, it is that I have been given more friends than I could ever hope to have. There is no logical explanation for how loving, sweet, hilarious, and downright talented each and every one of them is. Should you try to combine their good qualities into any given place without proper supervision, there would likely be an explosion that would cause a Triple Rainbow and simultaneous Reese’s Pieces Deluge.

So, maybe, if I keep focusing on how great they are, and trying to help them realize that, their presence and positivity can help put some of my fears to rest.

I Can Do My Best to Love Myself

I once had a therapist tell me, “You should really be nice to yourself”.  When I really got a hold of that statement, I understood: I would never say anything to others like the negative things I tell myself. Undoubtedly I make it a lot scarier for myself than I need to by filling my own head with a lot of ridiculous untruths about who I am and what I “can’t” “won’t” or “may not” do.

The fact of the matter is, I will always have things to be afraid of. [And I think some of the things driving the fears I listed earlier are “legitimate” in that they are based on real things that have happened]. So, I don’t mean for any of this to be a cure-all. I have never trusted a Snake Oil Salesman myself.

But I think I may have taken three tiny little steps in the right direction.

Now to check in the closet, and under the bed.