Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Despite the fact that the sight of numbers makes my brain go numb, at twenty-years-old I had a brief stint as a bank teller. I was, admittedly, horrible at this job – habitually out of balance, a known tripper of silent burglar alarms, and often guilty of handing out more cash than requested due to crisp new bills and their tendency to stick together. And although I would sweat through my day, always antsy and second guessing myself, there were a few aspects about the position that didn’t make me nauseous: slow and early mornings at the drive-through window, rarely needing to work past 3:00 pm, and occasionally having reason to use the change counter.

One afternoon, a five-year-old boy walked into our bank with his dad. Refusing help, he staggered toward me carrying an enormous glass jar filled to the brim with coins. I could tell this was a special event, a momentous event that had taken months to come to fruition. With all of his dwindling strength the little boy raised the jar over his head and placed it in my hands.

“Wow,” I asked appropriately, “did you save all this by yourself?”

“Well, mostly” he admitted.

“It’s going towards his savings account,” added the father.

“Let’s see what you’ve got,” I said … “any guesses?” While some outrageous suggestions were being thrown at me (“twenty-two thousand, hundred, million!”) I opened the jar and turned on the change counter. The rumbling, sucking noise, much like that of a vacuum cleaner, muted my young customer mid-prediction. Tilting the jar, I turned to face him with a smile as the first quarters and nickels rolled out of his sight and into the hungry mouth of this coin-chomping monster. Like a slow motion movie sequence, his eyes grew wide, his lips parted in horror, his arms reached out helplessly, and then “No-o-o-o-o!” came the cry of dismay. By this time the jar was nearly empty and my smile had been flattened by his obvious grief and the sudden realization that this process had not been carefully explained to him.

“Here you are,” I said meekly, after every last penny had been swallowed up, after scribbling down the actual and rather impressive figure on a deposit slip, after offering back a now vacant jar and the lousy piece of paper.

“That’s great buddy!” attempted his father, also realizing (a bit too late in my opinion) that to his son, a written dollar amount would mean absolutely nothing.

The boy was livid and inconsolable. I was the enemy, a thief, a dirty rotten cheater. No matter how hard I tried to explain that all of that cumbersome and virtually useless change had been replaced with something of actual value, his distain for me only intensified. What he loved, much more than the padding of his savings account, were the coins themselves – how they clinked together, how cool and solid they felt when gripped in his sweaty fist, how they were tangible and visible – unmistakably present. What he desired was the freedom to retain his self-perceived treasure without his parents, or me the evil bank teller, trying to convince him that by letting go he’d become a wealthier man. What he couldn’t wrap his mind around was the enigma of nothing being something, of less being more in the end.

“For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it,” said Jesus in the eighth chapter of Mark. This verse has made me uncomfortable since the first time I heard it, since I first grasped the gravity of its message. I, too, prefer my treasures to be visible, tangible, unmistakably present. With all my dwindling strength I protect them – my things, my health, my family. I’ve lost years of sleep, wasted millions of moments, imagined countless horrific scenarios due to my anxiousness about possibilities outside of my control. I’ve retained just a sliver of a barrier between God and myself, a buffer between me and a reckless abandon to follow Christ at any cost, to lose the life I know and love in order to ultimately save it.

But see, here’s the thing, I’m miserable. Withholding even a fraction of my heart from Christ, praying “Thy Will Be Done” while simultaneously begging that nothing too difficult be asked of me, cherishing the blessings themselves over union with the Originator of every sweet thing I wake up to, is the opposite of peace and freedom. Fear and faith are like oil and water, like square pegs and round holes, like wet kindling trying to catch a flame. From this side of eternity I can’t possibly understand the enigma of how losing is really finding, I can’t imagine the grace that infuses those more willing to empty their jars until I hand mine over and accept that my vision is limited, my desires corruptible, and that my best bet for obtaining anything of actual value is trusting, truly trusting, in my Savior.

Change, on a daily basis, can feel heavy in our pockets, unwieldy in our wallets, inconvenient when counted out and used to purchase goods. But change in the long-term, when stored for future spending, can make us richer. Change is inevitable; change is an impetus for either giving up or going forth. Through change, push comes to shove, rubber meets the road, and I, of little faith, (God willing) begin to think beyond the grave and live accordingly. So here I go …plink, plink, plink, one little possession at a time, exchanging earth for heaven, trepidation for confidence, and spilling my doubts like dulled copper pennies transformed into a weightless fortune, padding my soul with wealth that never dwindles, gaining by forfeiting it all.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Idle Talk

As far as waiting rooms are concerned, this one was a disappointment – no Thomas the Train table, no miniature chairs, no kid’s books save for the one issue of Highlights Magazine that we already had at home. And it was packed with people, none of whom were emanating any child friendly vibes that might put me more at ease while I shushed the relentless whining: “Mom, you said this would take just a few minutes? I’m thirsty! How much longer?”

But just as I was confiscating the illustrated article on the slaughtering of Gorillas in Uganda from four-year-old Benjamin, lo and behold did a knight in shining armor waltz through the jingling glass door wearing Capri pants and clutching an American Girl Doll. Vanessa, I will call her, who looked to be about eleven or so, sat down next to her mother and proceeded to open a mouth that would not close again until after our eventual departure. Catching six-year-old Priscilla’s obviously staring eye, Vanessa invited her to come on over and get a closer look at Kit, the Depression Era representative within American Girl’s highly popular doll line who, ironically, was carrying a cell phone. “Maybe I better hold on to that,” said Vanessa gently dislodging it from my daughter’s fist. “That thing alone costs like forty bucks.” Before long, Vanessa had captivated, with her knack for colorful story telling, all of my children’s undivided attention. “Thank goodness,” I thought, before losing myself in a two-year-old issue of National Geographic.

Within ten minutes, everyone in the doctor’s office knew more than they should about the credit card bill causing tension in Vanessa’s family, about her uncle who gives his four-year-old anything and everything she desires (much to the consternation of his siblings), and the exact cost of most of Vanessa’s possessions. “She’s a talker,” her mother mouthed to me, looking more and more uncomfortable with each of her daughter’s revelations. It wasn’t until Vanessa’s provocative announcement that she knew for a fact her mom and dad had not kissed since the day of their wedding, and that anytime her dad came close to her mother she demanded he back off and take a shower, that Vanessa’s mom finally said, “Stop. That is enough!”

“Even when he does take a shower,” Vanessa added quickly, “she still won’t kiss him.”

Never one to be outdone, Benjamin chimed in with a tidbit about his father. “My dad,” said Benji, “has to see the doctor about a sore…”

“Sh-h-h!!!” interrupted Priscilla, picking up on Vanessa’s mother’s not so subtle suggestion that family secrets were not to be shared.

After a slightly uncomfortable pause, I felt the responsibility to vindicate my husband from the embarrassing assumptions of his fellow patients. “Shoulder,” I clarified for those within earshot. “Your dad is seeing the doctor about his shoulder.”

Somewhere between the outright sin of slander and the nobility of words used to encourage, uplift, and speak the truth, lies the seldom-explored abyss of idle talk. “This, too, must be tempered?” I thought to myself after first reciting the Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim. “Oh Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth (yes, that makes sense...I’ve wasted lots of hours avoiding work by playing around on the computer), despair (oh boy, now there's an issue I've wrestled with half my life), lust of power (H-m-m, interesting. I suppose I have hungered for control over my children, my husband, and even my acquaintances), and idle talk (Whoa, where do I begin with this one?).

The entire time you’re speaking, I wait for a chance to interject because I know something pertinent to the subject matter, because I’ve been to that place your describing, because I like the sound of my voice and how it complements our conversation. But then later, I’ll replay that dialogue in my head, evaluating to death every superfluous syllable that, in hindsight, could have easily been left unsaid. From start to finish, from the initial urge to be heard to the subsequent regret of having never truly listened, the outpouring of my thoughts and energy land squarely upon my own person. I am so concerned, too concerned, with myself.

Before I discovered Orthodoxy, before I became so “salvation as a process” oriented, so ultra aware of the thousands of daily decisions made for myself alone, I was contented with staying clear of the “biggies”: lies, verbal abuse, and vicious gossip. It honestly never occurred to me that expressing my position on any number of controversial topics, sharing juicy information under the guise of Christian concern, updating my family on exactly how hard I work around here, and looking for opportunities to casually toss out accolades I've received, could slowly erode my desire to be wholly defined as a follower of Jesus Christ.

“But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment,” said Jesus in the book of Matthew. Imagine, all of our arrogant assertions, all of our nagging and whining, all of the out of context statements weve passed off as totally legitimate information, being aired on a loudspeaker in front of God and everyone. And now imagine the reverse, the release of neither hating nor adoring ourselves, of never feeling desperate to either promote or defend our own agendas. Imagine, just imagine, having the freedom, the confidence, and the discipline to stay quiet. “O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall show forth thy praise,” we sing with David in Psalm 51. Even in this, the decision to speak or stay silent, I cannot be trusted, without Christ’s direction, to choose wisely. Or in other words, if I don’t have anything edifying, praiseworthy, or positive to say, if I feel anxious to articulate my personal opinions, if I am not in a state of prayerful submissiveness, it is far better to say absolutely nothing.

So try me again. Let’s sit down together and use the privilege of our voices to promote strength, courage, and godliness. Let me hear you, this time with ears not muffled by selfishness and insecurity. Let us laugh, cry, or discuss what's in our hearts at the Holy Spirit’s bidding. Let me seize the opportunity to be a better friend, daughter, sister, wife, mother, customer, co-worker, and neighbor by shutting up and tuning in, by saying nothing that could deflect from your God-given worth and importance to me- absolutely nothing at all.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007


They were given specific instructions: take the letter, buy a stamp, and mail it. In the upper peninsula of Michigan, life moves a bit slower, families stay out a little later, and eight and nine year old boys start chomping at the bit for a taste of freedom. My sister-in-law, Michelle, had brought with her a walkie talkie and now she clipped it to our son, Elijah, before he and her son, Nathaniel, took off on their own for an adventure – a quest for the neighborhood post office.

My husband, Troy, and his siblings had always loved vacationing at his grandparents’, partly because they were allowed to explore the quaint downtown storefronts without the suffocating breath of adults streaming down their necks, without stuffy moms and dads to cramp their style. With twinkling eyes and nostalgic smiles Troy and his sister sent these two cousins on their way. “Just call when you get there,” they requested.

Beep,” went the walkie talkie, not five minutes after their departure. Between fits of static Elijah’s voice broke through,

“We’re at the end of the street, where do we go from here?”

“Keep straight ahead,” they were told.

Beep, Beep,” a few moments later Elijah checked in with an urgent update.

“We’re running a little late,” he shouted, “Nathaniel has dropped the letter!”

“Alright,” replied Michelle, now giggling. “That’s fine.” Our two brave navigators were also scrupulous communicators, leaving nothing that might possibly be important to the imagination.

Beep. Beep. Beep,” came the signal one more time.

“Hello,” answered Michelle, “Did you make it?”

“It’s closed,” said the boys, “what should we do?”

“Come on back,” she instructed.


“Come – on – back,” Michelle repeated slowly, aborting their mission after a valiant attempt, making alternate plans for the stampless letter en route to its orginal starting point.

It isn’t the infrequent petition for a helping hand, the “uh-oh, I really screwed up this time” kind of dialogue, that makes us feel connected. You know how it is, when you’ve been out of touch but you find yourself in need of some assistance. How awkward to make the necessary small talk before ashamedly getting to the point, before revealing the true nature of your relationship – a relationship based less on reciprocal love and more on convenience and obligation. If you could of just kept up in the first place, seeking out advice, sharing the joys and struggles along the way, those phone calls home would seem natural, warm and comforting instead of distant – like a voice lost in static, all distorted and misunderstood.

It’s the little things that hold us together, like strands of twine wrapped all the more securely with each and every length of string that’s added. It’s in the sharing of the particulars (not general and sweeping overviews) that one leaps from casual acquaintance to trusted friend. It’s the ability to speak truthfully, into ears never fickle or judgmental, that gives us strength to crawl out of a rut and try again tomorrow. It’s the frequency of our correspondence that makes it easy and enjoyable, to call, write, and visit with you on a regular basis. But it’s the little things that also stand between us, the nit picky to-do list pulling us into ourselves, allowing days to turn into months without the proper notification that time is slipping away, that you are slipping away, that we are slipping away from each other.

I am certain I know where I’m going and this confidence betrays me. I’ve been out of touch due to lack of need or restlessness. But when, inevitably, I reach a crossroads, uncertain of how to proceed, the rust building up on my prayer life makes it difficult to converse without stiffness. The regret of having forgotten my First Love makes it even more humiliating to approach Him when all looks lost, when all appears hopeless, when I am lonely and empty and tired of wandering aimlessly. If I’d just kept in contact with consistency, laying all of my thoughts and desires, every trivial detail, every step in front of me at His feet, I’d have stayed on course, avoiding dangerous detours and taking courage in our intimacy – my lone connection to what truly makes sense in this world.

When mind and heart are united in prayer, said St Seraphim of Sarov, and the soul is wholly concentrated in a single desire for God, then the heart grows warm and the light of Christ begins to shine and fills the inward man with peace and joy. We should thank the Lord for everything and give ourselves up to His will; we should also offer Him all our thoughts and words, and strive to make everything serve only His good pleasure.

My family is back to reality, our suitcases unpacked, our floaties and lifejackets in storage. We are back to the grind of chores, bills and deadlines and I am extremely tempted to dive right in without pausing to seek out Christ’s guidance. There’s so much to do, so much to fuss over, so many reasons for scrupulously communicating - “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy on my soul.”

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Sunday, August 05, 2007


“So here are some things I should probably not say out loud in the third grade…”

While I was sitting at the computer, minding my own business, eight-year-old Elijah walked into the office ready to unload, apparently, a wealth of smutty information he had received from fellow bus passengers the previous school year. The entire scenario was so disorienting that I literally froze up, unable to type, unable to focus, unable to respond with any semblance of authority to the expletives and anatomically correct terminology assaulting my ears through the innocent voice of my son. “Think! Think!” I commanded my brain, short-circuiting from an overload of shock and confusion. Obviously, he was feeling me out. The curiosity, after all this time, was killing him. “Don’t get weird,” I coached myself, “you knew this day was coming.

I discovered that older boys had teased him by writing words on notebook paper, words as foreign to my Elijah as Chinese characters, mysterious, exotic and bold, and having him recite them out loud - as they laughed, as he wondered for months what exactly was just so funny. Steadying my voice and composure, I turned to him with an expression that relayed how normal and natural this conversation between a mother and her growing child should be. I camouflaged my squirminess with questions. “Did they tell you what those things meant?” I prodded, trying to assess how accurate were the sordid scraps of details floating through his head, trying to buy some time while I conjured up possible explanations that would inform Elijah without embarrassing him, without discouraging him from feeling comfortable enough to step right up to me and let loose all the honest inquiries that silence or chastisement would have him take elsewhere for answers.

Just as I suspected, Elijah’s informants turned out to be inaccurate, impressionable, and immature - their view of intimacy representing, to a tee, the audaciousness of our culture at large where boundaries are meant to be crossed, where familiarity breeds disrespect, where nothing is considered “off limits” any longer. I’m tempted to hide them from it, sheltering my children in dark, antiseptic corners while they fill in the gaps of missing data with titillating assumptions about what exactly is going out there in our great big planet of sin. But I can’t risk having any of my kids come to their own conclusions about morality and faith without my guidance, so I will try to walk beside them staying alert for opportunities to put the chaos into context, to shed light on the shadows that creep into spirits blocking out peace, hope, and freedom.

The entire far wall of our upstairs hallway is a backdrop for icons and candles, hung generously on its center and down its sides. This austere display of Orthodox infused spirituality could easily be mistaken for an over-the-top, in your face, endorsement of a rigorous, outdated, and completely irrelevant form of asceticism; such foreign images, mysterious, exotic, and bold, exude black and white convictions ill fitting with a society cloaked in gray. In this day and age - where even God, Himself, has become subject to a well-intended makeover, His hardcore requirements softened and smoothed to appear more palatable to the church visitors sipping lattes in their pews - unfiltered glimpses of white hot holiness tend to burn before they purify and enlighten. But to my weary heart, so easily tempted and then ultimately disappointed by the empty promises of excitement and comfort sparkling like fool’s gold on self-centered choices, this section of our home devoted to prayer and meditation is like a little piece of heaven. These saints, crosses, and depictions of Christ evoke the courage I need to not compromise my beliefs, to stay leery of the fast and easy, to follow in the footsteps of those who persevered until their very last breath here on earth.

With all of the unconstructive at best (and totally destructive at worst) messages being pumped into my kids, it is imperative that I counter that negative stimuli with that which is good and noble. So we gather before our icons as a family to offer praise and supplication to the same undiluted God the apostles worshiped before us; we enter into the timelessness of Christ. This consecrated focal point, unlike anything else we will gaze at throughout the day, is essential because we are human, because senses are the portals to our soul. And no one’s eyes see further, no one’s ear hear louder, no one’s nose inhales deeper than those of young children trying to make sense of this world. May our homes be a refuge of Truth, sacredness, and beauty.

“It’s time for the talk,” I told Troy over coffee. “Its time you had the talk with Elijah.” Like a deer in headlights my husband looked back at me - I could almost smell the friction of his own brain churning, his mental gears burning, his memories returning to a decades old adolescence. And we both begin to painfully, slowly, begrudgingly understand that it is time to adjust, time to pray ceaselessly, time to keep up with our son.

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