A Little Brave

Photo on 2-25-15 at 9.42 AM I don’t know where the change begins.  But there was, the other day, a very vigorous inner monologue that ran: “I am an artist, and I’d better start living as one”.  So, of course I cut my bangs.  I very imperfectly gave them the shape that I’ve admired on countless others rather than spending one more day without them.

After watching a YouTube tutorial I took our hair scissors in hand and looked into my reflection’s eyes in the splattered mirror and breathed.  And cut, and fixed, and trimmed and near laughed.  They turned out fine (to my taste I should say).  Imperfect and cute and endearingly quirky.  YouTube had also taught me how to do a sock bun and I made a perfectly coifed high bun to go along with my quirky imperfect bangs.  I smiled; it’s a good thing when you’ve wrested even the smallest of victories out of a weekday morning.

Photo on 2-25-15 at 9.41 AMThen it was time to get braver, a little.  I shopped my attic for my oil paintings; those that I could not bear to paint over nor throw out.  Many had met their end covered in white, a blank stretch for some future perfection to cover over.  Others have gone into the trash; sometimes our imperfection can be that painful.

Armed with a screw gun, I started a gallery wall and FOUR of my own works are RIGHT THERE on my wall.  Right on the wall that people visiting our home will see first.  In outright defiance of fear and the pride that hides all but the best, most marketable skills we have.  It was my version of taking a selfie without make-up.

On Facebook I wrote:

My great-grandmother Nora, whom I am named after, was a brave woman. During the Great Depression she had the nickname “Mrs. Got-Rocks” because even though times were hard and lean, she’d go out dressed to the nines with all her sparkly costume jewelry on. She learned to paint in her eighties, producing hundreds of works in oil and watercolor. She wasn’t afraid to try new things and she rejoiced in beauty. I thought of her today as I hung up three of my oil paintings which have been hiding in the attic. I often respond to my art with a mix of shame, fear, and joy; joy that something of what was in my heart was translated into color and pattern and form, shame and fear in dreading what label or impression another set of eyes will give it, have from it. I hung a small oil painting of hers, “Violets”, right above one of my works “Pears on the Horizon”, and just diagonally from them I hung an unfinished still life that I bought secondhand. It’s a smudged charcoal sketch of an apple and a pear; the pear’s stem rubbed out and begun again numerous times. There is in-progress-beauty all over it and also the frankness of being unfinished. How fitting a reminder for me, that God is always working on my heart, but that there IS present beauty, and I do not need to be afraid to display it.

And that’s where I am.  A little braver.  A bit more of an artist.  A bit more honest.

 

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Customary Love

cropped-img_2107.jpg“Arising from sleep, I thank You, O Most Holy Trinity, that, for the sake of Your great kindness and long-suffering, You have not had indignation against me, for I am slothful and sinful….”

My voice was near a whisper as it formed the words and the morning light filled the window over my prayer bench last week.  The children’s school had been delayed and they’d gotten off to a later start so no candle was needed to illumine the words.

Neither have You destroyed me in my transgressions.  But You have shown Your customary love toward mankind, and have raised me up as I lay in heedlessness, that I might sing my morning hymn and glorify Your sovereignty….”

Fast forward to today, in which I was furious.  I looked into my childrens’ rooms and saw there every possible form of chaos and lack of care.  This has been a recurring theme for as long as they’ve been mobile, and we’ve tried every methodology we could think of to train them into neater habits. Yes, even boxing up their toys and putting them in the attic, but their hearts weren’t changed.  My voice was eerily calm as I gave them a monotone speech at breakfast that I was seriously considering getting rid of all their toys, since clearly they didn’t care about them.  Tears and quivering chins and promises that they’ll never let things get to such a state again.  I dryly remarked that I’d heard that a thousand times and yet they hadn’t reformed their ways.  Time was up, I was done, they’d gone too far, too many times.

Do now enlighten the eyes of my understanding, open my ears to receive Your words, and teach me Your commandments.  Help me to do Your will, to sing to You, to confess to You from my heart, and to praise Your All-Holy Name:  of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.  Amen.”

I had finished the prayer and let the warm light pour over my kneeling form, and even with my eyes closed it was bright.  I got up from the floor and for whatever reason I turned around to sit a moment on my bench, lifting my eyes to the other side of the room.  There was our icon of Christ, a gift at Pascha last year from our dear friend Leon Miller, where I had placed it near our Lent candle calendar just the day before.

It was absolutely, stunningly, glowing.

The face was so full of light that I was startled.  Like I’d caught someone staring at me boldly.  The morning light had come in at just the right angle, and just at that moment, leaving only the face illuminated and everything to the sides in darkness.  I sat there dumbfounded, and it seemed special, but in a way I don’t have words for.  Many of the things of God are like that; He seems to leave us margin to see or not to see the burning bushes in our lives.  To take them as holy or coincidental.

I sat and I thought.  I had just begun the practice of saying the morning and evening prayers from my Orthodox study Bible the day before.  If the weather had not been predicted to be bad, the children would not have had a delay, and my prayers would have been in the morning’s dark rather than the light.  I had just placed the icon there the day before, and uncharacteristically, I placed it oddly, off-center; not at all as I would normally arrange things.  I had turned around and sat down, I hadn’t just leapt up and started in on the day’s duties as I normally would.  The light had filled that one square foot of space and no other, almost like a spotlight.  But, still, it could be a happy coincidence.FullSizeRender-43Icons might be one of the most misunderstood things in Christianity.  In western eyes they are at the worst, idols, and at the best, unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

ICON:  A transliterated Greek word meaning “IMAGE”.  Icons of Christ and His saints depict the reality of the incarnation; because the Son of God became Man, He can be imaged.  Orthodox Christians honor or venerate icons, but never worship them, for worship is due the Holy Trinity alone.  The honor given to icons passes on to the one represented on the icon, as a means of thanksgiving for what God has done in that person’s life.  (The Orthodox Study Bible, p.1782)

This icon is known as Christ Pantocrator, “Ruler of All”.  In this year of church-homelessness I have been blessed by this visual, physical reminder that God has all things in His control and that he steadily cares for us.  As the prayer reads:  “You have shown Your customary love towards mankind...”  Customary, as in habitual, constant.  What grace.

So my day went on and the afternoon found me in study at my desk._MG_4776It’s a cherished spot in our home.  The children love the special occasions when I let them do work there, but most of the time it is a place set aside just for me.  Again, for whatever reason, I turned my chair around and looked across the room.  I have there hanging a print of Christ praying in Gethsemane.  It was an image clipped from a Ladies Home Journal in 1922 and carefully matted with strips of cardboard by a loving hand.  I’d purchased it at a thrift store, stunned by the care someone had given to preserve the cheap print.

Well, the face was glowing bright.

christ in gethsemane 1

My first thought was that I’d never noticed how drastically the painting was done; like a Rembrandt with his startling use of shadow and light that made the bright points of the painting near leap off the canvas.  I kept staring and was suddenly sure that something was different; the painting had never been so striking before.  I got up and walked toward it.  All of a sudden the light calmed flat as my presence interrupted a singular ray of light that had pierced the filigree on my front porch, sliced through the uppermost corner of one of the tall windows and hit solely upon the inch-wide face of Christ, leaving the rest of the painting in shadow.

I stepped back and the face filled with that singular light again.  In another moment the light had shifted and was gone.

Again, God leaves margin; there is nothing miraculous in sunlight striking where it pleases as the earth rotates and orbits the sun.  It is, however, highly unlikely that the face of Christ in two distinct works of art would be illuminated singularly twice in one day and that both times I would pause uncharacteristically in my work and witness it.

I was hesitant to tell my husband; afraid I’d be dismissed as the sort who saw the Virgin Mary in a tortilla or something of that sort.  But it felt so special, so astonishing, that at evening’s end I did share it with him.  He shared my wonder and my pleasure and the mystery of it.  We didn’t try to wrangle a meaning out of it.  I was left with two strong emotions:  joy and surprise.  It was the feeling when you know someone thought of you especially and sent you flowers or a note.  That “I am noticed and loved” sort of pleasure.

________________

I had sent the children up to their rooms to clean, my disapproval a palpable presence in the house.  There was a nudge in my spirit though, and I was drawn to the morning prayer.  God filled my heart with the words;

“Arising from sleep, I thank You, O Most Holy Trinity, that, for the sake of Your great kindness and long-suffering, You have not had indignation against me, for I am slothful and sinful.  Neither have You destroyed me in my transgressions. But You have shown Your customary love toward mankind, and have raised me up as I lay in heedlessness…”

Daily He extends mercy and grace.  Daily I fall into sin and repent of it bitterly.  I resolve in my heart to hold my tongue, to exercise more patience and grace, and daily I must repent of my failings to do so.  I was ashamed that I had offered my children less than I had received.  I called them downstairs.

I read them the prayer and tears filled my eyes.  I told them the story of the debtor who was forgiven his great debt and then had demanded unjustly the payment of a small debt from another in anger.  I told them that I had no grounds on which to withhold forgiveness and mercy from them when they failed, because forgiveness and mercy were not withheld from me when I did. Seventy times seventy times seventy.  I looked into their eyes that swam with emotion which matched my own.  I said, “You will screw up, just as I do.  But I will forgive you as I have been forgiven, and each of us will try again.  God promises to forgive our every failing and to help us to do what is right.”

The prayer writes of the “customary love” that God has for us, and that is just what I seek to grow in; customary, habitual, constant love, a reflex of sorts towards compassion and mercy and kindness.  The experience with the light last week has reminded me of God’s presence with us, His interest in us, and His lovingkindness towards us.  The prayer has reminded me to extend that great mercy and love to those who’d be most keenly effected by the absence of it in my words and actions, my children.

God whispers in His Word and in our hearts and through art and burning bushes, and let us pause so that we do not miss a word of it.

 

Adjusting Focus

untitled (7 of 32) untitled (8 of 32)It was another average Friday night with friends; sitting around a table with a board game spread out, sushi rolls long-disappeared, chips and salsa, and a rousing debate about the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary.  If this isn’t part of your life, I daresay I pity you; nothing goes with sushi like discussions about theology.  As long as both are worth chewing on.

We even got out the Greek Lexicon.  Deep waters, my friends.

Happily, it wasn’t a debate pivoted upon proving a point, but rather about seeking truth.  Together.

As we discussed and researched the historicity of the claim, the Biblical and extrabiblical support or lack thereof for it, the implications of it, etc, we were eating and I was breastfeeding and any number of our combined eleven children were popping in and out of the room.  “When did the doctrine first appear in writing?”  (Baby grunts and poops, husband and wife banter about who will change the diaper)  “What did the early church fathers say about this?”  (Child needs help finding pajamas)  “Were Jesus’s brothers Joseph’s sons from a previous marriage?”  (Munching of chips)

The focus whiplashed from the micro to the macro and everywhere in between, and that is precisely right and quite good.  Have you heard it said with a note of disdain that we shouldn’t worry about fine points of doctrine, but rather we should focus on Jesus and loving others?  As if the macro precluded the micro?  That both couldn’t be important?  I’ve heard it a lot, especially in the evangelical world.  But maybe it’s possible, and important, to care about all of it?  To find both orthodoxy and orthopraxy of equal weight and worth?  I read it somewhere, how Christians these days are always trying to give truth a crew cut, to get down to the “essentials of the faith”, as if Christ Himself weren’t as complex as they come.

I’m studying Byzantium at present, at day’s end when quiet enfolds our home, and I burrow into some soft corner of couch or bed with my book and what remains of my cognitive functions.  What caught my attention is how much the Byzantines cared about theology, even the finest, most micro points of it.  And not just the clergy, but the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, so to speak.  The micro mingled with the macro in the market.

I’ve been told that I think too deep about things, as if it were a miserable condition that hopefully I could be cured of.  But isn’t God infinitely deep?  Aren’t His mysteries just so?  Isn’t it quite right that we yell down a well to test the depth?  Don’t we shine small lights into vast caverns to see what we might see, even knowing that we don’t see more than a fraction of the grandeur?  If we photograph a landscape with a wide-angle lens, a broad sweep of the Grand Canyon for instance, don’t we also find a world of beauty in the wildflower clinging to the rocks at our feet?  Can’t we adjust our focus and find in all of it a glory to behold?

Yes, I daresay, we can!

We can care about the Filioque AND the homeless man begging over by Kmart.  We can debate the implications of the Council of Chalcedon AND attend to the spit-up streaming down our respective shirts.  We can share Jesus’s love in simple ways and simple words AND analyze the early church’s beliefs about His mother.  One focus doesn’t kick the other out of the room; together they bring the whole room into view.

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