I’m Not Giving Up for Lent

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We’re smack in the middle of Lent, y’all:

That feared-but-blessed 40 days of fasting undertaken by the Faithful before we revel in the joyous, holy Feast of Feasts: Pascha [that’s Orthodox Christian for Easter]. For those of us who observe Lent, the experience is varied. Some give up things they love or have dependence on: chocolate, booze, and social media come to mind. Some choose to add-in rather than take-out, and incorporate good habits- like exercise and meditation-into their daily routines. For Christians following older traditions, there are prescribed fasts (see: Orthodoxy, Catholicism).

One thing rings true about Lent no matter your tradition: it’s hard. We live in a “whatever makes you feel good” culture of consumption and instant gratification. Saying “no” is looked on with suspicion, especially when it comes to denying my own wants and impulses.

Not only is it hard for me to keep my body in-tune with Lent, my perspective is often skewed as well. If I’m being honest, I tend to interpret “how Lent is going” one of two ways:

Fail-centric: I can’t believe I ate that cheese cube! And then the other cheese cube! Why didn’t I do better?! And how many times did I forget to pray today? Probably like a thousand. Boy, am I terrible at Lent!

-or-

Fast-centric: Looks like I made it through another week of eating nothing but chickpeas, black beans and almond milk. I would love to join you for dinner, but it’s God’s will that I eat yet another peanut butter and jelly sandwich, seasoned with tears. Boy, am I great at Lent!

The problem is both of those thought patterns are are self-focused, with little attention being paid to God’s help, or the actual point of the fast. Not to mention they are the opposite approach to the one Christ tells his followers to take in the Gospel [essentially: if it’s to make you look better or more pitiable, you’re doing it wrong, Matthew 6:16-18].  I became frustrated with the emotional pendulum swing between my two approaches, so I took it to Confession. “I just don’t like Lent,” I said. “It’s hard, I don’t enjoy it, and I’m not very good at it.” Father turned to me and said quietly, “It’s not supposed to be easy. If you’re not enjoying it, you’re probably doing it right.

ImageSo Lent is not about whether or not I am winning the struggle to be righteous. It is about whether or not I am struggling to be righteous at all. If it’s difficult then  I’m struggling. If I’m struggling, then I need God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. If I realize this and turn to God for that grace, I will receive it, which will bring me into closer communion with God. The point of Lent it’s not to be perfect, it’s to be in touch with imperfection. It’s not for everything to be easy and well done; it’s to continue to push through the difficulty in prayer and humility toward God and others.

If your Lent is hard, it’s real. If you’re failing, you’re doing it right. If you’re struggling, you’re receiving grace. Even the smallest step forward is one toward Pascha and the feast.  So, hang in there. If you’re “not doing great at Lent”, keep up the good work. No matter what you’re giving up for Lent, just don’t give up.

 

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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.

He hath converted my soul.

I love my little green Psalter. It reminds me that to be a saint and a human being [or a saint and an artist, for that matter] is not mutually exclusive. With the Psalter’s help, I can have my pick and pray any one of more than a hundred different ancient prayers anytime I choose.

And [the good news for someone like me is] they run they emotional gamut; it seems like there is a Psalm for every sentiment, a prayer that reflects every mood or experience.

But I always come back to one of the simplest, most beautiful, and most familiar:

 

“The Lord is my shepherd, and I shall not want.

In a place of green pastures, there hath He made me to dwell; 

Beside the water of rest He hath nurtured me.

He hath converted my soul, he hath led me on the path of righteousness for His Name’s sake.

For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me;

Thy rod and Thy staff, they have comforted me.

Thou has prepared a table for me in the presence of them that afflict me.

Thou hast annointed my head with oil, and Thy cup which filleth me, how excellent it is!

And Thy mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord unto length of days.” – [Psalm 22 (23)]

 

It has been an uphill climb lately, for me, and for a lot of people around me. But this gives me so much comfort. To know I can pray with faith “He hath converted my soul”. To know that I can believe-whenever I say this prayer, and whenever else I choose to remember it-that G*d Himself has changed [and is changing] my soul. The poking and prodding of the crook is unpleasant at times. It’s unwelcome, it’s unwanted, and it seems to come from all sides. But it is keeping me on the right path. It is changing me.

One of my laments during this season of repentance is “I don’t know if I’m changing. I can’t tell if anything is really getting any better, or if I am really getting any closer to G*d.” I hope that remembering and saying this prayer will ease my distress. I am changing. And it can only be for the better. Because He Himself is the one changing me.

Easier to believe than see, granted. But then, true faith is rarely glamorous.

If G*d is changing me, then what is my responsibility? To keep near him, To not stray-in my stubbornness and shortsightedness-from His path. The Psalm reminds me He leads me to rest. He makes me lie down. He prepares a table for me. His Mercy itself chases me down. 

I am beginning to see that this Psalm is perfect for my frazzled, frustrated, exhausted, confused but sincere soul, as it sits just past the middle of Lent, longing for the Feast and for New Life. I must be humble enough to accept His guidance, yes. But I cannot forget to accept His Grace and Mercy in my determination to stay on the right path. 

Jesus says in John’s Gospel that the sheep will hear His voice and recognize Him, and that He will be among them and Shepherd them (John 10). It is my hope and prayer that I am learning-as I wander through what feels like a wilderness-to listen to and follow not only his discipline, but His great love,

May it go with you also.

 

 

it takes all kinds.

I have been debating whether to write this for weeks now. And once I decided to write it, I turned over and over in my head the question of whether or not to share it with anyone [and everyone, as the case may be].

At the risk of sounding a bit Doom and Gloom, I have to level with you guys and say this is the hardest, weirdest, most difficult Lenten season I have had yet. There has been lots of uncertainty, sadness, fear, brokenness, and anxiety. There has been a little reprieve here and there. But even that seems strained and out of place.

So, if we haven’t talked in a while, forgive me. I haven’t known where to start, and I haven’t wanted to trap you under a fast-flowing stream of molten Sad.

It’s the strangest feeling; it’s not just introspection. It’s something like isolation. Lately, I feel like I am a million miles away from how my life used to be. And not in the inspirational, empowering chick pop kind of way, either. And I feel a million miles away from figuring any of it out. In spite of the love I know surrounds me, it seems the comfort of even my closest friends is still somehow out of my reach. My whole life has that feeling you get when you realize you are light years away from the stars.

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Philo of Alexandria [or Plato, or your mom] once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Everyone. The guy that cut you off in traffic, the girl who is mean to you at work, the annoying close-talker seated next to you on the bus. Every single person you come into any kind of contact with has it rough in some way. Sounds kind of emo, right? But held up to the right light, it can be comforting to know we’re not alone, even though it is easy to feel that way when the going gets dodgy.

We’re all getting tested this time of year. Lent (and life, to an extent) seems to be the kind of thing where, if it’s not difficult, you’re probably not going about it the right way. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself lately.

But we have the solace of Grace to comfort us, even when it seems very dark. And when it’s difficult to discern its coming from Above, we can do our best to share it amongst ourselves. In other words, hang in there. I love you. You’re doing just fine.

O, Lord and Master of my life

Grant me not a spirit of sloth, meddling, lust for power and idle talk.

But grant unto me, thy servant, a spirit of integrity, humility, patience, and love.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults, and not to condemn my brother,

For Thou art blessed unto Ages of Ages. Amen.- the Prayer of St Ephrem

so. what’s wrong with me?

In an older post, I described a near-miss I had at a faith-healing service a few years ago. While many might assume an experience like that is just a fluke, being approached by those who fancy themselves to have healing hands is commonplace for me.

In fact, many such hands have been laid on me. Many earnest prayers and supplications have been offered on my behalf. Many concerned glances have been cast my way. I have been approached [and often ‘prayed over’] in churches, in college dorms, passing through downtown, in cafes and in parking lots; most often by complete strangers. To put it another way, many well-meaning, kind people have spent a lot of their time making things kind of awkward for me.

Late Wednesday night, a trio from a well-known religious organization here in town approached me, asking if they could pray for my healing. I conceded that, yes, they’d be welcome to pray for my much-needed spiritual healing. But I pretty much stopped there.

This sparked a 20 minute dialogue about healing, complete with an emphatic “I just don’t agree with that” from the young man who said he had the gift. I don’t think I have made another person that uncomfortable in a long time.

To sum it up, they were baffled. I don’t want to be healed? What gives? I am-after all-a Christian who believes God can do anything He chooses. I believe He can give us “life, and abundantly so” (John 10:10). So, why not ask Him if He can throw in a patched-up brain and a working set of legs?

I’ll tell you why not.

The problem I have with faith-healing is not the faith. I have been given that gift, by Grace and the example of others.

The problem I have with faith-healing is not the healing. I certainly believe healing and other ‘big’ miracles are possible.  Scripture, and stories from the lives of the Saints, have many examples of people seeking-and receiving-relief from their intense sufferings through Jesus.

Of course, these people sought and called out to Jesus in despair, identifying and owning a need for healing. Jesus not only had the compassion and the ability to heal them, but the respect for their free will and their dignity to ask them “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6)

I would appreciate being asked the same question when it comes to my own circumstances. [Before I emphatically answer “No, thank you.”]

The first [most selfish] reason I decline prayers for physical healing is that I like my life the way it is , and would not want my circumstances to be drastically altered [other than with a job and a place of my own; in that area I admit, I remain discontent]. Without having a disability, it is very unlikely that I would have the friends I have, the passions I have, the same quirky sense of social awareness, or my startling and dark sense of humor; all of which I am deeply grateful for.

I would not look how I look, say the things I say, or think how I think. I would draw different conclusions about challenges. I would learn different lessons. I would have completely different talents, weaknesses, and strengths. I would not be who I am. I am not being some kind of martyr. I just enjoy things the way they are.

And even if I was physically healed: who’s to say I would continue to rely on God and others in the way that my circumstances teach me? Remember the healing of the 10 lepers? Only one returned to thank Jesus for changing his life. Who’s to say that I would remember to lean on God, if I was delivered from my physical and emotional distresses? Not to mention to suffer is to truly live a Christian life. We all have crosses to bear. We all have thorns in our flesh. Some you can see, some you can’t.

Honestly, I find the whole insistence that I be physically healed bizarre. It seems to completely disregard both my spiritual needs and my strengths. Or worse, it equates how I am doing on the inside with how I am doing on the outside. This is completely illogical and dangerous for how we relate to one another. If everyone was treated this way, many of my friends with typical bodies and appearances would never be prayed for, and might never be healed or delivered from suffering. God forbid.

So, consider this my Public Service Announcement. There is a healing I need. [It’s the same kind we all need]. I need the kind that comes with forgiveness, with peace, and with Communion with God. I need the healing that can be experienced in the love of a friend, or the beauty of Creation. And, that we might all receive this healing, I humbly ask for and offer prayers.

The rest of it, I can do without.

Happy New Year

The last few weeks had been rough. I wanted to give up. I wanted to throw in the towel. There were several times when I stumbled and failed; others, when I just whined and complained.  Just a few more days, I told myself.  A few more days, and I can put it all out of my mind.

And then that great day finally arrived. I put on one of my best dresses, and my shiny shoes, and headed out for the big night. I gathered around with my family and close friends, waiting with gleeful impatience for the clock to tick over to the new day.

The excitement in the air was palpable. We were counting down the minutes. And then, there rang out three simple words:

Christ is Risen!

With those three words, time stood still. All was made new, all was washed clean. Everything began again.  And since the beauty, glory and holiness of Pascha [or Easter, if it’s all Greek to you] is so difficult to explain to those who have yet to experience it, I have taken to calling it Orthodox New Year.

The Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom helps clarify that sentiment with beauty and eloquence. No matter what has preceded this moment, no matter how I have struggled, fallen, or shown disregard in my spiritual obligations along the way, I need not worry. I am given a new day- and in a very real sense, a new life.

Being someone who hates to feel stuck, I crave-and relish-the feeling of renewal. And to know I have it, and to spend an entire day immersing myself in the knowing, is a beautiful thing indeed.

So, Happy New Year to you, too!

Truly He is Risen!

forgive (v.)-

Heaven forbid I use an actual dictionary to determine the most precise meanings of words and concepts when I can consult the boundless bastion of knowledge that is the Internet and get the same things done in a fraction of the time.

Today, my utter laziness and tendency toward the practicality of copy-paste did me a good turn. Here’s what I came up with for “to forgive” and its variants.

  1. Stop blaming
  2. Absolve from payment
  3. Concluding resentment, indignation or anger
  4. Ceasing to demand payment or restitution

You may wonder, what’s with the heavy, thought provoking mini-list? You may be longing for seeming bygone days of glorified complaining or interviews with the super cool.

But everything has a time and place. [And you can rest assured that I will be right back to complaining in no time.]

And today- in my Faith- is the time to forgive people. It’s the Eve of Lent, also known as Forgiveness Sunday.

On this day in the Orthodox Calendar, there is a special service where every single person, from the priest to the smallest child, asks for-and receives in turn-forgiveness from one another. It is a very simple and beautiful exchange. Each person asks for forgiveness; and when asked by the other, each responds “G*d forgives, and I forgive.” In the process, you bow and embrace one another. It is one of the more humbling things anyone can ever do.

It is done on the cusp of Lent to lighten our burden, to clean our slate, to give us a fresh start. And as I was thinking back on it, I realized. “Forgive” is not a noun. It is not a feeling, or a nice notion. It is a verb. It is an active release.

It is a little awkward to have a massive “letting go” or “release”; I felt a little bare emotionally in the aftermath, to be honest. But then I got to thinking, to love is also to act. So, what if, when I put down the burden of offenses and debts, I took up the act of love instead?

Every year, everyone talks about what they’re “giving up” for Lent. And I just realized that, in being called to forgive, I am called to give up the offenses of others, to let go the burden of grudges, bitterness and resentment.

No wonder I feel lighter. [I thought at first it was the obscene amount of sugar in my system from all the cinnamon rolls I ate earlier tonight.] But I don’t want to stand around twiddling my thumbs till Easter. My forgiveness is hollow without love; so I have a lot of work to do. And, besides that, there is one more person on my list of people to forgive.

Forgiveness of self is perhaps one of my greatest challenges. This was an area I left untouched today until now. But I realized how important it is in my reflection. Because when I am weighed down by guilt [far too often], it makes it harder for me to focus on others. It will take some serious thought on my part, but I am determined to find a way of thinking about this that is practical and balanced.

In the meantime, each of you is loved and forgiven. I wish you all Clean Slates and Sweet Dreams.