Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Peacemakers


The bickering and squabbling are to be expected; we do spend an exorbitant amount of time together. But being a referee can be really exhausting, especially when the earth shattering issues draining me of my energy involve absurdities such as who copied whom, and whose turn it is to have milk poured first in their cereal bowl. These small family tiffs are usually resolved quickly without too much backlash, but there have been a few that have made me sick to my stomach. I have looked on in horror while my children worked themselves up into a frantic, hateful tizzy, turning on each other with cold detachment. “Stop it!” I cried, less like a firm disciplinarian, and more like a victim of violence whose heart has being cruelly ripped from her chest, still pulsating with love and disappointment.

Being so utterly and sometimes maddeningly devoted to the four distinctive souls stitched with purpose in my belly, I am as vulnerable as they are to the insults tossed back and forth between them out of anger. In those rare instances when their enormous eyes glaze over with resentment and their clenched fists aim like loaded pistols, I am as much a target of that wrath, even if unintentionally, as the child who broke the favored toy or swallowed the last piece of Halloween candy without permission. Because they are a part of me and because I adore this family with every fiber of my being, my greatest hope is that they would in turn love and adore each other, that the role of “brother” and “sister” would be recognized as sacred and worthy of defending at any price.

Is it any wonder then that my own merciless contempt for the cruel, the vulgar, the demanding, and the outspoken, whose opinions differ vastly from my own, has been called out as inappropriate? Is it all that strange that even when these thoughts fester quietly in my own mind, a mind glazed over with resentment, they are still offensive to Him who did the intricate stitching with equal portions of hope and adoration for each new life begun? Wouldn’t any father desire for his children to rise above the impulsivity, in acknowledgement of their sacred ties to one another? Wouldn’t any parent take delight in sons and daughters making peace?

In this world so crippled by fury, where neighbor is pitted against neighbor on every issue known to man, could there be a more profound opportunity to open the shades drawn tightly in disgust, and let light pour in upon the darkness? To cross the lines dividing a nation, armed only with kindness, respect, and prayerful persistence, reaching out to the lives behind the controversies, is to cross the barriers of hell itself with triumph and holy defiance. Few are converted by icy accusations. It is the unwavering convictions of those who have found and offer peace, that are capable of bringing hatred to its knees. None of us can manufacture such hell defying love using only our own corruptible resources; it is Christ’s perfect love rushing through us, unencumbered, that will warm our brothers and sisters with healing grace.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall see God.” Blessed are they who do not let contemptuous thoughts soil a heart where Christ, Himself, abides. Blessed are they who neither seek out confrontation nor timidly avoid it, but who wait on the Spirit for wisdom and courage prior to the correction of a misunderstanding. Blessed are they who wait ten seconds before responding. “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and thousands of souls around you will be saved,” said St. Seraphim of Sarov. Blessed are they who legitimize God’s love through sincerity, consistency, and self control.

Click HERE to listen to this reflection. This is a service of Ancient Faith Radio.


Sunday, February 25, 2007

Pure in Heart

Carefully, we opened the rectangular box and marveled at all of the choices. Priscilla was anxious to get started, fidgeting in her seat during the brief explanation of how to first dip in water and then in one of the smooth dry ovals, swirling the slender brush until a pool of paint magically appeared. My daughter chose red. She whirled and twisted the bristles of the brush, splayed out like a fan in the now soupy tray of watercolors. That first stroke is always the brightest, and she squealed with delight when it christened the crisp white paper with a crimson imprint. Her canvas called out to her then to be covered, from edge to edge with a rainbow of vibrant hues. If one shade could be so beautiful, she figured, than five different shades would surely be five times more magnificent.

I knew what would happen, even as she dipped her brush with excitement in blue, then green, and then violet. But my Priscilla is a stubborn little thing. Why waste my breath on words that would never be heeded? Sure enough, the layering of colors did not produce the iridescent masterpiece she had been hoping for. Each new addition to that sopping wet montage of a painting only muddied the original glory of red into a nondescript grayish brown. It was obvious, by the scowl on her tiny face, that she was disappointed with the final result. “Sometimes less is better,” we decided.

At the base of my heart lies imprinted, an innate desire for God. That crimson seal, passed down from Adam, christened my existence with majesty. This desire, so brilliant and clear, is what separates me, as a human being, from every other created thing in the universe. I have been marked as one destined for holiness. While I have never attempted to disregard the seal completely, I regularly try to enhance it with a montage of my own. There are so many stunning choices calling out to me from the supple lips of intelligence, attractiveness, comfort, and notoriety. Glossy, luminous choices I just know would layer with equal brilliance upon my spotless mark, and innate purpose for living.

With well-meaning excitement, I dip into pursuits not directly opposed to that purpose, but distracting enough to camouflage its purity. All I want is a house that isn’t falling apart, a future not marred by tragedy, a name for myself within morally upstanding circles, a few moments of quiet to refuel and unwind from the hours I have spent trying to secure all of the above. Why does the stress of juggling these goals tend to leave me antsy and on edge? Why are the interruptions and closed doors so frustrating? Why am I never satisfied? I search within my soul for any clues or clarity, and I see it – glimpses of majesty peeking out from under the pile of pursuits meant to complement my life, but instead have merely muddied and complicated a straightforward calling to be holy. And I scrape away the mess of grayish brown in search for the original glory of red, my crimson seal.

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Blessed are they who view every conversation, joy, setback, and tragedy as a chance to point back to Christ’s goodness. Blessed are they who strip away their many layers until only God’s will remains. Blessed are they whose faith is untainted by fruitless distractions. I am so tired, anyhow, of my self-created burdens, may my restless heart find freedom in letting go.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Mercy



When you live in the heart of Chicago, thick skin is a required adaptation for survival. Within any random city block, residents are confronted by the disorienting enigma of excessive wealth meshing with dire poverty. To care too much is to dangle ineffectually between longings for more and disgust for the chasm that separates the haves from the have nots. One grows quite accustomed to the outstretched hands reaching from anonymous bodies for leftover change out of bulging pocketbooks. The first thing to go is eye contact, followed soon after by the “no, sorry, not this time,” until finally the hands are ignored completely, like the white noise of ocean waves or a ceiling fan.

In college, I had one friend who never quite evolved like the rest of us, whose skin stayed translucent and tender. Much to our dismay, she kept her wallet open, laying dollars and coins in every dirty palm that beckoned from its street corner. “What are you doing?” we hissed. “That newspaper you just bought is three days old, he totally picked that up off the ground and sold it to you.” Our arguments fell on deaf ears. She never disagreed with us but never changed her habits either. Finally, after one too many accusations that she was essentially funding drug addictions, my benevolent friend quietly but firmly relayed to us, that judgments on the spending of that money were not of her concern. Someone in need had asked, and she gave what she could.

I remember the first time I was ever told about the Prodigal Son. I could tell by the way it was presented, that I was supposed to be happy for the youngest son’s glorious reunion with his father, and disappointed in his older brother’s snotty attitude. Maybe it was because I was just a kid and hadn’t experienced yet the remorse of truly foolish behavior that the parable left such a sour taste in my mouth, that in fact, the whole story seemed to reek of injustice. I wish, as a footnote, the Sunday School teacher would have added, “Isn’t it ridiculous that God’s compassion has nothing to do with our actions?! Isn’t it crazy that, heavenly speaking, mercy trumps out fairness and common sense?!” Because who, more than children, are still open to outlandish possibilities and pliable enough to feel at home with backward notions?

The more years we spend here, the more encased we become by our earth-centered logic, where kindness is commendable when bestowed upon the deserving. Giving aid to orphans in Africa is good, very good. Pardoning thieves, liars, murderers or rapists is unacceptable. Handing out cash to homeless alcoholics is just plain foolish and na├»ve. When we start from here and try to carry this sensible ethos upwards, try to apply it to Christ and His teachings, a disastrous meshing of privation and richness leads to a spiritual stagnancy. No sense can be made of the chasm between logic and divine love, so we dangle ineffectually from a noose of our own making. “God is disgusted with us,” we assume “because we are disgusted with ourselves.”

The only way that mercy, as illustrated by the father of the prodigal son, could even begin to puncture an earthbound worldview, is by Christ, rather than logic, becoming the context out of which all of our thoughts and deeds originate. We pray for our eyes to be opened and for our ears to be attentive to the white noise carrying whispers of Spirit guided directives, reckless with illogical grace. God is love, and thus we must be love. Jesus forgave his murderers, even in the throes of an agonizing crucifixion, and thus we must forgive. Christ desires that “all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth”, and thus we must petition Him for that exact desire.

I have been blessed with an abundance of mercy, and thus it is my duty to be merciful to others, not because I deserve it or they deserve it, but because it is my offering to God. Blessed are those who have the faith to clothe themselves in the promises of Christ, laying aside all earthly assumptions. Blessed are they who rejoice in the mercy bestowed upon them, and in thankfulness spread out that mercy like an impartial blanket on this cold and hungry world.


Monday, February 19, 2007

Hungry for Righteousness



I have fallen for this before: the giddiness of filling my cart with all things meat and dairy-free, the euphoria of rising early to bulk up a rule of prayer thinned out by inattention, the welcoming of silence. I have fallen for the romance of Lent’s inception like a lover falls hard for her idealized notions of intimacy, untested by time or turmoil. Initially, my passion is what inspires me to attempt the unthinkable. My spiritual adrenaline is what fuels my desire to turn my back on what is valued by a culture obsessed with immediate gratification. My yearnings for escaping myself hurl me straight into the arms of the Church.

For a few glorious moments I am tuned in to the contemplative nature of this Fast, spending days in prayerful awareness of Christ and His sacrifice for me. It is natural and good to take pleasure in a honeymoon, as long as the pleasure is enjoyed for the fleeting, tingling happiness that it is. See, here is where I take the bait, where I am lured by the faulty impression that only pleasure equals substance. Somewhere, I picked up a debilitating habit of losing interest when the sparks die down, and the fireworks fade into puffs of smoke barely visible in the heaviness of an evening sky. I know this about myself, and yet it continues to be an effective tool for crippling my progress and blinding my vision. Because hell is unaccustomed to these pursuits of transcendence, it attacks me with viciousness using subtle diversions and twisted truths.

It is usually about three weeks into my Lenten journey that the hunger overwhelms me, when my cravings for variety simmer slowly with resentment. Like the Israelites I pout at my portion of manna, and grumble despite the promise of Milk and Honey. At that point, my strength gives way to weariness. Thus I arrive at a fork in the road. Two choices lie mapped out before me. What will I do with the hunger?

Having emptied myself of enthusiasm, my thoughts become ravenous for a distraction. If I could just take a break from the intensity for a while, turning off the meditations chewing through my insides like a termite, then I could find myself again and seek out the original warmth of Lenten satiety. Inevitably I turn toward the wide and easy, where questions of life and death seem too extreme and counterproductive, where I shake off the burden of restraint in exchange for a regrettable indulgence in the sugary, empty promises of secularity.

But what if this time I expected the starvation? What if I separated my feelings from obedience? I would know then that stumbling upon a fork in the road did not mean I had failed, but rather had arrived at Lent’s climax. We are never told, “Blessed are those who can take or leave righteousness.” Christ needs my emptiness, my desperation for nourishment, in order to bless me with complete fulfillment. What if I took that burden to Him, handing over all of my guilt, fear, resentment, and weakness, without a single ounce of regret? What if this time, at my lowest, I took one more step down that narrow path, in faith, and discovered the “pearl of great price”?

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Blessed are they who have been disappointed by the flimsy offerings of wealth, lust, power, and beauty, and are longing now for something solid and secure. Blessed are they who come to that fork in the road, and cry out to the Lord for mercy. This Lent, by the grace of God, I will pace myself through the mountains and valleys leading upwards to Pascha. This Lent, I hope to revel in my honeymoon and then focus in on the eternal rewards of perseverance, of laying aside everything for the Kingdom of Heaven.


Click HERE to listen to this reflection. This is a service of Ancient Faith Radio.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Blessed are the Meek


She walked through the door wearing a drool splattered sweater, and an exasperated spark in her eyes. She could tolerate the physical stress of restricting the limbs of her primary pupil, a fifteen-year-old boy with the mind of a toddler, and she was up for the countless repetitions necessary for guiding him in dropping the square through its appropriate hole in the shape sorter, but she had very little patience for injustice.

I poured her a cup of coffee, my dear, beautiful friend, while she spilled her grievances at my kitchen table. You see, she hated to be a nag, or even worse a goodie-two-shoes, but how could she not complain when such unreasonable measures had been taken to prevent her student, one of the more difficult to bring out in public, from participating in a class field trip?

One could argue that it didn’t really matter, that taking any of these kids out to lunch, to a park, or to a bookstore where patrons stared, smiled awkwardly, or rubbed their own pregnant bellies with a sense of dread (what if … oh, please, no), was essentially just a way to bide time. More than likely, he would not be dwelling on the disappointment of staying in the classroom, and how convenient that his signed permission slip came a day too late.

I tried to conjure up her passion for protecting the rights of someone hopelessly unable to protect his own, but not all hearts are created equal. Mine could only dress the part of empathetic protester, wearing borrowed convictions and a mimicked frown. Across from me, pouring her fourth packet of artificial sweetener into a lipstick stained mug, was the real deal, and I adored her for it.

I have seen her laughing while pushing that “little boy,” who in all likelihood weighed more than his slender teacher, in a modified infant swing for adults with mental and physical disabilities. I know she could be tough on him, unyielding when it came to his refusal to practice a skill he had previously mastered. She was at home in his embraces and conversed with him respectfully, never stiff or with patronization.

Sometimes, just for fun, she and her husband would pick up the boy on a Saturday morning for breakfast, and she forgave him regularly for the frustrated biting, and the mess of bodily functions he often could not control. When her own time came to be a mother, she was sick about the prospect of leaving the school and its students who had stitched themselves into the fabric of her soul. It had always been an honor for her to serve them.

That sticky sweater and furrowed brow is what pops in my mind when I think of good Samaritans and the washing of feet, all instances of meekness in action. I wish it came naturally to me. I wish that my wishes would evolve into authenticity, but my old feisty ego will not go down without a fight. If it were easy to soap up a rag and kneel before my neighbor, than I wouldn't have to think up so many legitimate excuses for not doing it. And Jesus could have used words only to emphasize the importance of servitude defining His followers, rather than driving the point home by example.

If serving others did, in fact, define me, rather than merely describing an aspect of my character, than seizing opportunities to soothe the wounds of others would be my first priority, by default. The fact that I agonize over how and when I could possibly find the time to stop for that stranger, unconscious in a ditch beside the road, reveals a little something about my line of reasoning - a line that begins and ends with me.

“Blessed are the Meek,” and blessed will I be if I believe in the miracle of transformed hearts and supernatural interventions. Blessed will I be if I stop huffing and puffing in a useless effort to blow down the bricks, all built up, protecting my interests. For blessed are they who trust Christ enough to finally stop trying, and fork over the measly amount of love they have in exchange for a love that is perfect, inexhaustible, and available to anyone who takes the time to ask.

And then, when my eyes are opened, and the possibilities to share that hope become all I can see, hear, taste, and feel, then blessed will you and I both be by the insanity of such heavenly satisfaction.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Those Who Mourn

When he walked through the entrance, I gripped my kids a little tighter. Glen did not hang back like the others, waiting for the Liturgy’s conclusion to ask for a dollar, a bus pass, or the canned food and bottled water kept next door for distributing to those in need. “Again?” I cringed, as he made a beeline toward the front and center of the sanctuary, hoarsely whispering random greetings along the way.

Not intimidated by the length or sobriety of the service, Glen brushed off his novitiate and cannon balled into an unknown experience while the rest of us stared dumbfounded, waiting for somebody, anybody, to blow the whistle. Wandering into the choir, he sang boldly his own renditions of “Holy God” and the “Cherubic Hymn”. From there he would make the rounds, kissing saints like long lost companions. Eventually, he’d move back to his front row vantage point where he would plant his feet, raising his eyes and hands toward heaven; a glittering rhinestone embedded within a conservative string of pearls.

It is not at all surprising to me that those weeks with Glen fell squarely in the middle of Lent, right when I needed to be concentrating most on my penitence. The pre-sanctified Liturgies on Friday evenings have always been a particular favorite of mine. “Let my prayer arise,” we sing on bended knee, “in Thy sight as incense. And let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.” Of the handful of people in attendance, Glen would inevitably be one of them, always disheveled with the lingering odor of stale alcohol following close behind. We gasped as he fumbled up the stairs to venerate Christ and the Theotokos, whose icon stared down at us austerely from altar doors.


My heart raced with the inappropriateness of everything Glen said, did, and did not do. When the rest of us would kneel, he sprawled out flat, face down, just like a bear skin rug. It didn’t seem fair that he could waltz in and ruin this for me, me who had followed the Church’s guidelines with dedication. His wet eyes and undecipherable mumblings were distracting me from mourning my sins and receiving the comfort of God’s mercy.

It took awhile for me to actually notice he was gone. After four consecutive weeks of Glenn-free Sundays, however, we began to theorize on his absence. But having no address or phone number to work with, we were stuck with those theories instead of answers. It did seem puzzling, why he would come so regularly and so passionately, and then just disappear. I prayed for Glen and let it go. He became legendary to us who remembered him, and fodder for many an amusing anecdote.


Truth be told, I was thankful for Glen’s absence. I could breath again in Church, not having to fret over his unpredictable responses to the hymns, litanies, and Scripture readings. I felt relief at getting back to our uninterrupted, orderly worship; much like Simon the Pharisee must have felt when that filthy harlot finally packed up her empty perfume bottle, peeled her grimy fingers off his houseguest, and meandered out his door into oblivion.

“Blessed are those who mourn.” Blessed are they who have lived through the horrors of their own bad decisions and carry their sins like a ball and chain. Blessed are they who throw off all inhibitions, foraging bloodstained through the crowd, for the unbiased hem of Christ’s garment. Blessed are we reeking of liquor, ravaged of purity, and steeped in the shame of spiritual arrogance, but who weep bitter tears of regret. For we shall indeed be comforted by He in whose image every one of us were created.


Friday, February 09, 2007

Poor in Spirit


It was quiet except for the sound of running water rinsing dishes in my sink. One glass, spoon, and bowl after another, I scrubbed and then dried, an assembly line of domesticity. For the most part, I was indifferent to the monotony of a chore whose repetition has permanently altered my once soft hands into living tools, blotchy and abrasive. It was ridiculous then, to all of a sudden feel a volt of happiness charge through fragmented thoughts and half-hearted contemplations. I smiled, impulsively, at my reflection in a steaming window, entranced by the frigid winter evening framed within in its borders. It took only seconds to douse the joy of my gift, as unexpected as a parrot in a cornfield, with suspicion. It is never enough for me, to feel and move on.

The exact same scenario of my calloused hands in a sink, washing dishes, has conjured up tears of frustration, longings for adventure, heart-wrenching despair, and calm satisfaction. As the owner of my personhood, I will not abide by such flagrant inconsistencies. And so I over evaluate, smudging with greasy fingers the high-gloss purity of each emotion. “I am evil.” “I am selfish.” “I am good.” I am obsessed with conquering my weaknesses using nothing but logic and a little elbow grease. A million of possible airbrushed circumstances, usually involving more time and money, fuel my ever-changing pursuits of fulfillment, with hope. Because it is wrong, all wrong, to live with disappointment.

I do pray, with words: “Here is what I need, trust me on this one.” I split my time between earth and heaven. Removing the filter of self-protection so adequately buffering the entire searing Truth from eating me alive, would give me no say whatsoever in the outcome of my life. How much wiser to spend a few years interpreting such extreme commandments? And so it goes, me defining impulses while wiping down dinner-stained countertops, in an effort to figure out, on my own, why the hole in this heart is growing larger, why everything and every person I toss into it is incapable of sewing it back together.

There are days when I wish for release. There are moments when my achievements feel heavy, like a burden. How am I supposed to carry this family, these goals, these pursuits of fulfillment, when my strength comes and goes without warning? Sometimes the ugliness is too obvious to camouflage with carefully selected words and smiles, and my own inconsistencies make me sick, sick enough to give up on myself completely. But aha! There I am, right where Heaven wants me: laid out on the table, too tired to resist. “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit.” Blessed are they who acknowledge they are nothing outside the context of Christ and His resurrection. Blessed are they who come humbly and empty-handed. Blessed are they who open their mouths, in faith, to swallow God, Himself, finding rest at last as shells of flesh and bone, encompassing Divinity.

“Lord have mercy,” the publican prayed, and this was the petition found pleasing in the eyes of God: no layers of expectations between he and his creator. What would it be like to rip out the filter and let Christ flow through me, undiluted, like the water flowing clean through the faucet in my kitchen sink? Am I ready to live life to its fullest by choosing to die, once and for all? Blessed are they who can find either happiness or sorrow in the frosted reflection of a window and accept them both for what they are, opportunities to praise God for his goodness.