Is Stress Inevitable?

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We were gathered over our Bonhoeffer biographies, ostensibly discussing Dietrich’s life story, but our words had skipped off trail into the lives we were living.  We were talking about stress; how everyone seems to have quite a lot of it, how it becomes unbearable, overwhelming.  How do we manage it, reduce it, live well with it?

As we spoke, I found I couldn’t fully relate to the levels of stress, anxiety, and it’s corollary, depression, that seem endemic in our society.  Yes, I’d had stressful moments; I think of those times when the phone is ringing, the baby is crying, and someone spills the rice bag across the floor, but they are moments, not a chronic state of affairs.

“Is stress inevitable?” I asked.  The question left a wondering silence.

“Stress is simply a reaction to a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium. In other words, it’s an omnipresent part of life. A stressful event can trigger the “fight-or-flight” response, causing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to surge through the body.”  -Psychology Today

Certainly there will always be stimuli that provoke us to internal agitation, but can we determine the dominance of that energy?  Can we contain that disruption and maintain inner peace?  Are we at the mercy of stress?  How does our faith, or lack thereof, inform our response to this malady?

I head to my bookshelf and open my 1970’s Webster Dictionary and look up stress.

stress:  tension; strain

That was it.  Wondering if “anxiety” would yield a more modern interpretation:

anxiety:  worry; concern; disquietude; uneasiness

The modern version of Webster’s Dictionary defines it thus:

stress:  a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.;  something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety

So is it, following Psychology Today’s wording, an omnipresent part of life, or is it a reaction to normal life that can be chosen or not chosen?

Clearly this isn’t only a modern problem; life’s stressors may have changed over time; we may no longer worry as much over marauding bands plundering us, nor famine, nor dying of a simple infection; but we fragile humans have always had provocations to worry.  What has changed though, is how we regard this agitation, and what we believe about it.

Christianity has always taught that worry and anxiety are sins; a choice to not trust God.

“O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” (Mt 6:30–34)

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; . . . not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)

 “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  (Philippians 4:6)

Today though, it seems, we are led to believe that stress, anxiety, worry, and depression happen to us, and that it is the norm.  It is something, thus, to medicate, moderate, and live with.  When did it go from being a choice to a  chronic condition?  I do not speak here for those with chemical imbalances in their bodies who wisely have sought medical treatment; I am not a doctor and certainly not an expert on mental health; I address only here the very common experience of being regularly “stressed out”, anxious, and/or depressed without an underlying medical condition.

Understanding stress, anxiety, and depression as external to choice would have been unfathomable to our Christian predecessors; if God had commanded us to not worry, nor be anxious and cast down, would He not also provide us with help to fulfill that command? Could it be that we are to take life’s stressors as good medicine for us, rather than reasons to fall into despair and fretting?

“Sometimes men are tested by pleasure, sometimes by distress or by physical suffering. By means of His prescriptions the Physician of souls administers the remedy according to the cause of the passions lying hidden in the soul.”  -St. Maximos the Confessor

“You have anxieties about your life… Pray fervently to the Lord from your heart in this way: ‘I place my fate in Thy hands, O my Saviour. In the way that Thou knowest, arrange my life as is best. From now on I cut off every care about myself, having but one care, to do what is pleasing before Thee.’ Speak to God in this way, and by doing so you will already have placed yourself completely in His hands, not being concerned about anything, but calmly accepting every sort of situation, pleasant or unpleasant, as being arranged for you purposely by God. Your only concern should be to act according to God’s commandments in everything. This is all that is required of you.”  -Saint Theophan the Recluse

 “Without winter there would be no spring, and without spring there would be no summer. So it is also in the spiritual life: a little consolation, and then a little grief—and thus little by little we work out our salvation. Let us accept everything from the hand of God. If He comforts us, let us thank Him. And if He doesn’t comfort us—let us thank Him.”  – St. Anatoly Zertsalov, 19th Century Optina Elder

 

That admonition, “Let us accept everything from the hand of God,” has changed me deeply, causing joy to seep into the cracks where despair and anxiety had reigned.  If I truly trust God to be working diligently on my soul through the hardships, blessings, and day-to-day occurrences in my life, to make me more like Christ in all of it, then I have no reason to worry.  Being captivated by worry and anxiety would be like turning away my face from Him, the Great Physician of my soul, and declaring that the prescription was all wrong, and that I’d take care of my self, thank You very much.  I speak not as someone who has arrived at a constant state of peace, but as someone who has discovered a tool to help me get there.

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Well, how do we learn this trust then?  How do we stop the swirling, anxious thoughts, the mounting stress, and the harrowing depths of despair?

Here, as in many things, children are a good example for us.  If they have good and loving parents they do not worry that they’ll not be fed, clothed, and cared for.  They can look back and remember that all of their days everything necessary was provided for them with loving hands.  In speaking with their parents they feel the love and kindness in their voices; they hear good words and feel assured.

So also with us, we must look back and acknowledge that God has been faithful to us, bringing us through, sometimes in spite of ourselves.  We must speak with Him and listen to His loving voice.  When thoughts swirl we must take them captive, holding on to truth, praying for God to help us.  We must trust in His abiding love which does not let go.

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“O Lord, I do not know what to ask of You. You alone know what are my true needs. You love me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation. I can only wait on You. My heart is open to You. Visit and help me, for the sake of Your great mercy. Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Your holy will and Your unsearchable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to You. I have no other desire than to fulfill Your will. Teach me to pray. Pray You Yourself in me. Amen.”   – Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow

Is stress inevitable?  The causes for stress, yes, however our reactions to stress need not follow a dark trajectory.  We have, through constant prayer, a good defense from fear and melancholy, from anxiety and fuss.  We choose, and we can learn to choose well.

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It’s All Unexpected

Maybe not everyone is so regularly startled as I am.

I came home from a ten day trip to find that my gardens had exploded with new blooms, clutches of green tomatoes, and dozens upon dozens of cymes of elderberries.  The grapes decided to indulge in a bit of conquest, leaping over the roses and aiming for the sidewalk. It reminded me of the children’s book character Mr. Tickle, who had extremely long arms and used them most mischievously, giggling at day’s end about his tickling pranks.  The sunflowers had thrown their orange petals back in glee and were waiting, swaying and smiling broadly.  I could almost hear them laugh; laugh at their own audacity and pomp.  A flower with a stem the size of a small tree!  The very notion!  In my mind they are the giraffes of the flower world; a small proof of God’s sense of humor.  I digress.

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So that was just walking in the main path.  Then I was assaulted by the sheer number of things, useful and good, that proliferated in my home.  Sturdy pots, a deep sink, machines to wash and dry, toilets to perform humble but ever-useful duties.  The prayer corner, a place that becomes more beautiful with time; this too is an astonishing sight after many days away from it.  There is where home feels most poignant.

It’s all unexpected and I looked about and in my heart the impression was, “Oh, so you’re all here still, I suppose!?  AH, you are so much!  How has this all come to pass?”

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My dear bird was wary.  For a number of minutes he stared back at me as I called to him in our familiar language of clicks and purrs and words.  Then his guard dropped and he pressed his warm little body close to the bars of his cage and purr-trilled back.  It was all unexpected for him, that he’d come home again and be with us all again.  He had no idea of return, of this remembered life being his again.  What joy!  I opened his door and he snuggled under my chin, rubbing his head back and forth.  “Pretty bird!”, he said.

There has been some healing in my soul though I was not aware of any particular treatment prescribed nor followed.  I used to expect too much, want too much; to my shame I truly did have an ugly expectation troll, grumping about in my heart, hollering about what I deserved and stomping around, ruining moments I should have been grateful for, should have enjoyed more.  Somehow he was evicted, and joy moved in, and gratitude. All is in reverse now; it’s a joyful pessimism of sorts…I expect life to be quite hard; I do not expect easy times and smooth ways, and yet, I am almost ridiculously happy with each and every good I encounter.  I do not lay claim to blessings, and yet I find them dumped over my head.

God is kind.  I don’t endeavor enough, I do not struggle enough, I am ordinary.  I did not merit any of this, but God gifts as He sees fit.  It’s all unexpected._MG_5001

 

Rocks and Hard Places

 

burdenIt’s hard to write when a baby is crying.

I lay the words aside, over and over, and tumbleweeds roll across my blog and cobwebs hang dusty in the corner.

There’s pain too, and that can either release words in a torrent or swallow them whole in one dark gulp.

I threw out my back.  Stomach bugs went through the children.  Teething.  Babies up throughout the nights, fitful sleep.  My father had six bypasses put into his heart.  Fevers and hacking coughs.  Long hours caring for a friend who has no one; her hand gripping mine ever so tightly while pain wracks her body.  Tears like ripe fruit brimming my eyes; with the barest touch they fall, and a perpetual knot made swallowing hard.

There’s more, but that is enough.  Who am I to tell you that life can be hard?  You know it too; you have your own sorrows.

The match scraping against the box has become a part of my prayer time.  It’s like the pistol marking the beginning of the race.  We have begun.  The end ignites and I light the shrinking, puddling candles in my prayer corner and feel their warmth.  I blow out the match and lay it on a growing pile.  My prayer book has dog-eared corners; the book’s been opening easily to “Prayer for a Sick Person” and “Compline”.  “Prayer for Forgiveness” too.

My eyes read the words and my lips say the words that my soul longs to pray and set heavenward; they are whispered, and the candles lend beauty and warmth on gray days.  I tell it to myself, that prayer is the most important work I can offer; that I am not helpless.  The enemy knows these things; how often am I led away from my prayer corner, thinking, ah, I should get the laundry changed over first, and then this, then that.

My baby is crying again, and it is hard to write.  He is fed, changed; he needs to sleep but fights what is best for him.  He and I have much in common.

I used to pray at my bench, but my babies were routinely destroying that sacred space, scattering my candles, mouthing the spent matches, throwing the books on the floor.  I have this antique washstand, a beautiful piece, and I moved my prayer corner there, above the curious hands of my  toddlers.  My beeswax candles hang along the towel rail, my Bible, my lectionary reading calendar, and my prayer book lay unmolested.  It’s a place set apart and claimed for holy work.

And when squeezed between a rock and a hard place, you really need a holy place.  I didn’t used to believe in them; at least in my head, my theology did away with holy places when the curtain was torn.  It didn’t stop my soul from feeling the opposite when sitting in a cathedral, when wandering church ruins.  My soul was wiser than my constructs.

A lot changed for me when I read the Old Testament story…

As they were burying a man, behold, they saw a marauding band; and they cast the man into the grave of Elisha. And when the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet.  

II Kings 13:21

Holiness lingered in the holy man’s bones.  Peter’s shadow healed the sick.  Handkerchiefs that Paul had touched were brought to the sick and they were made well (Acts 19:12).  Holiness permeated matter, and suddenly, matter mattered.

This made the keeping of relics of saints a whole lot more understandable; it wasn’t some macabre idolatry, but rather an acknowledgement that holiness remained; that God’s working Presence doesn’t desert our matter; that our matter truly matters.

As this hard season continues, I have deep gratitude for my holy work in my holy place, and the Holy One who catches every whispered word.

What About This Joy?

How is it that the light of midday in August falls flat and heavy; it seems to near bake even the greenest of grass into a sickly hue by it’s unrelenting glare.  My toddler shifted on my lap, beyond squirrely.  My baby twisted and grunted and bucked around his grandma’s lap with the vigor of a newly mobile seven month-old.  The older three wandered around, a mix of listlessness and wildness.  It was forty-five minutes until the next tour through the historic Rockford Plantation; too little time to go grab a bite to eat first, too much time to hope for consistently decent public behavior out of my crew.  We sat on the long backless bench in the shade of the wide front porch, there on the periphery of history, and the light fell flat and heavy.

What about this joy?  Even there, baking in the heat, and hoping the baby’s cloth diapers would hold out long enough, and wondering how on earth I’d keep my littles from getting obnoxiously loud in the quiet museum of a home we were soon to tour; this joy, this bubbling mirth, just below my skin, pulsing through me steady.

Tonight too, facing the sink piled high with cooking pots and greasy dishes, I was all smile within.  Even as my toddler threw his unwanted food right onto the floor, onto the clean floor and rice went flying.  Even as my soul was awash with sorrow over the latest Planned Parenthood video, deeper than the surface storms of annoyance, anger, and despair, there it was, and is, joy.

I know it is the Lord’s doing, and I thank Him, acknowledging that it is a mercy, a grace.  There is something within me now unbroken.

I would call it joy, or this….light; it is love, and I feel held in it.  Much to the annoyance perhaps of my dear ones, it started when I began learning about Orthodoxy; when I began experiencing the Church in it’s liturgy and it’s people.  Something broken became unbroken, and the love of the Lord and the presence of Christ moved from my head to my heart.

I’ve had a dream without sleeping, and I don’t remember when it was, but it’s clear in my mind.  I’m in the sea, black waves rising like mountains, thunder and lightning crashing, swimming hard to keep my head just above the swallowing water.  I’m so tired and so scared.  Then through the peaks of the waves I see a man in a boat coming toward me.  I know, in the way one knows things in dreams, that it is Jesus.  He’s wearing a rough brown robe and there’s peaceful determination on His bearded face.

The scene switches and my face is pressed tight against a coarse fabric and arms encircle me securely.  I am held by Him.  I feel the waves rocking the boat beneath our feet and I burrow my face into His chest and breathe.  I am rescued, found, safe.

I didn’t get to see the rescue; I didn’t get to see how I went from near-drowning to held-safe.  Gratitude, soul-deep gratitude and strong peace, and arms locked around me protectively.

I would never have guessed that it would be Orthodoxy that would bring the knowledge of God’s love for me down into my heart as an experienced love.  But it did and I don’t need to know why it was this way for me.  I am rescued, held, loved; that is enough.

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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.

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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.

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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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The Goth At The Pep Assembly

It was all RAH-RAH and pom-poms and school colors and loudness.  A high school pep assembly.  Looking through the lens of time it’s easy to wonder what the point of it all really was.  Something to the effect of stating:  We are this school!  We are a-w-e-s-o-m-e!  Other schools (shouted shrilly) are less awesome and we’ll eat them for breakfast!  Accompanied, as it was, by the almost-provocative routines of the cheerleaders and the more conservative twirls of the color guard and the strident blasts of trumpets and trombones, it was like a circus of self-aggrandizement.  And I always pitied the goths.

How on earth do you survive such a pep fest?  When your muse is wearing black and looking dour and avoiding sunlight and all things cheerful?  When all around your peers are standing up, stomping their feet, waving their arms, hollering themselves hoarse, and there you are, sitting, quiet, wishing for all the world to be in a corner of the library, reading Poe.

I’m not a goth, but I do have an attitude problem.

It struck me during a service at a local evangelical church.  Our burgeoning family filed into a pew, the worship being already in full swing.  The words to the songs were displayed on large flat screens, with nature scenes as backgrounds.  I ground my teeth.

Why do the songs need to look like obnoxious motivational posters?

Oh my word, this song is idiotic.  Worst of all, it’s theologically untrue.  

That woman over there is actually going to punch the air with her fist every time that lyric is repeated.  Yep, there she goes again.

Stop it, stop it.  Sorry, God.  I’m having a hard time worshiping You today, this way.

By this time I usually have sat down with one of the babies, bowed my head, and under my breath, began to pray.  Sometimes one of the ancient songs will fill my heart and I’ll sing that “..for His mercy endureth forever, alleluia”.  All around me people are swaying and singing, hands lifted up in the air, joy in their smiles and cheer all bunched up in the creases ’round their eyes.  And I’m like a goth at a pep assembly; I couldn’t possibly feel more out of place.

It isn’t right to mock or disdain, that I know and I regularly confess with sincere grief.  But there’s more to my reaction than just pride.  I am mourning and I am angry.

I am mourning because I’ve come to know the beauty, warmth, truth, and joy of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but I cannot be a part of it.  I honor my husband’s leading of our family, and have had to lay my desires down.  It is one of the few areas in our married life that push came to shove and he had the final say.  Most of the time we reach an accord naturally.  Not with this.  But though we attend evangelical churches (as we are yet in-process of finding a church home), I have his blessing to continue my studies of Eastern Orthodoxy and occasionally we attend services at St John’s.  Dustin regularly comes home to me listening to ancient chants and hymns or absorbed in a theological work with a pencil at hand.  I partake of the feast by crawling under the table for crumbs.  Some is better than none, I remind myself, when tears flow and the sorrow sticks in my throat.  Some is better than none.

I am angry because so many churches are singing nonsense.  And heresy.  Seriously, who is writing this crap?  It feels like a narcissistic romp through my own emotions with Jesus thrown in.  Music is a powerful medium for informing our beliefs; are we singing our theology?  Are we singing true things?

I have to be fair; not all the songs are bad.  Maybe even Byzantine chants would look cheesy overlaying some picture of a waterfall.

When the final prayer has been said, to the background accompaniment of soft guitar strummings, I keep my head low.  I gather our things and hope no one talks to me.  Because, though I am a believer and a sister in Christ, and though this was all once as familiar to me as sliced bread, I am painfully out of place.  I cannot put on a false and brave smile and speak Christianese with the cheerful strangers around me.  I’ve never been good at pretending, so I’m afraid this would happen:

Good morning!  I haven’t met you yet!  Are you folks from around here?”

“Morning.  Yep.”

These all your kids?  Are you just visiting or….?”

I don’t want to be here.  I don’t like evangelicalism anymore.  I think I’m burnt out on everything that’s happened in the Western church since the Byzantine times.  I’m tired of the autonomy, the lack of authority, the sola scriptura-touting denominational sectarianism. I’m only here because my husband likes this.  I’m a mess.  I’m sorry I’m so rude.  I’m going to go to the car and cry now”.

I don’t want to do that to someone on a Sunday morning.  I am getting to know the patterns in the carpet well.

Trust me, I know, I know my attitude is bent and snarly.  But I’m also in pain.  Deep pain and grief.  Measure me some grace on that account.

And pray, I beg you, that God would give me His peace about where I can be and where I can’t, where I can feast and where I can’t.  And may the crumbs from His table satisfy and nourish me as I seek Him.