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.

Advertisements

Out of Nowhere

I stuffed green beans into the hot jars as the sky grew black.  I had just picked those beans, squinting into the over-bright sky through the dense leaves, my eyes trying to sift through the shapes and find the edible ones, long and slender.  Now the sky was breaking wide open and cracking whips of electricity, and the rain came down as though poured from a bucket.

IMG_4069

It was in the middle of prayer, there laying on my side in bed, all peace and petition, that a rank fear latched onto me.  Like a black blanket being lowered over me, a malignant presence, but this has happened enough times before, and there is always a remedy:  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  The darkness pulled away, but my heart was still disturbed.  I padded across the hallway to check on Henrik.  He was running a low fever, and had refused supper, and sometimes a mother just has to lay her hand on that little belly and feel the life there.

Returning to bed Dustin was awake and wide-eyed.  He’d had a terrifying dream, gunshots firing and his heart was pounding to beat the band.  He’d had his nightmare at the same time I had experienced that dark fear.  We wondered about that as we lay in the moonlight.  We prayed.

It can all come out of nowhere.

One minute sun and clear skies, the next torrents of rain and lighting crashing.  One minute peace, the next a spiritual attack.  In both, there is within this thanksgiving for shelter, for protection.  A sense of being held.

So do not fear, for I am with you;
    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.  

                                                                      Psalm 41:10

As the horrors of the Planned Parenthood videos have rocked the nation, I pray for a bit of blindsidedness, a bit of out-of-nowhere, caught-off-guard reality checks for our convenience-worshipping society.  I pray that those who were comfortable in their distance and apathy will be rattled to the core, blind no more.  I pray that there will be no shelter in their excuses, their rationalizations, their loyalty to the sexual revolution’s mantra of sex without consequence.  And I pray that they will say, “I knew it not, but now I do, and can no longer abide it”.  And I pray for God’s mercy upon them and for shelter true and good, the Father and His startling, strong love.

Come Aside and Hear

Prayer of St. Gregory of Nyssa

O Lord, from You flows true and continual kindness.  You had cast us off and justly so, but in Your mercy You forgave us.  You were at odds with us, and You reconciled us.  You had laid a curse on us, and You blessed us.  You had banished us from the garden, and You called us back again.  You took away the fig leaves that had been an unsuitable garment, and You clothed us in a cloak of great value.  You flung wide the prison gates, and You pardoned the condemned.  You sprinkled clean water on us, and You washed away the dirt.

Outside, Inside, and Deep Inside

I have been ever-so unavailable.  Not busy, just occupied.  With gazing in awe at all the winter-buried life bursting up and out of the ground; the rhubarb looks as though it is gradually going to take over the world.  The peach tree is covered in blooms and the strawberry leaves which have bravely remained a silent green all winter are coming alive and alert and verdant.

IMG_2382

I’ve been planting seeds and hoeing the earth and watching the earthworms wiggle.  The skies, oh the skies so mesmerizing as dark clouds crouch at the horizon and then run across the sky, whipping-up wind and sending sideways rain.  All this fuss and fury and beauty-blitzing after the sober quiet of winter; it’s enough to leave me slack-jawed.  Even if it would just be the magnolia trees, heavy with soft pink flowers, even then.

Indoors, the soap kettles are always being filled and emptied and cleaned and filled again. Soaps stand curing and piles of it sit waiting to be clothed and labeled.  My babies are fed, changed, and played with.  The Lord knows the laundry and I make quality time together a habit.

Truly indoors, below the skin and in the soul, the heart, the mind, another scene, another realm of duties and joys.  Radiant joy is there, gratitude and peace.  Also despair, and the prayers that surround it and carry it off as able.  Yesterday I fought despairing thoughts all through the day.  No one had died, I and my family were all healthy; it was just the disorganization and mess that had settled in my home that battered me.  From the attic to the cellar were vast evidence of lack-of-care:  discarded dirty socks, playthings left scattered, piles of papers, construction supplies, and on and on.  Familial negligence, some laziness, some sin; a mess.  I was overwhelmed and angry; “How can they live like this?  Why doesn’t anyone care how things look?  Why did they tell me they cleaned when there’s dishes and dirty clothes under their beds?”.

Then I remembered to pray.

And I simply started.  Started to clean, to organize, one drawer here, one corner there; staking a flag of peace and order in every conquered space.  And God led despair away from my side while I was cleaning; I hardly heard it leave.

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.

 

When God Says “See?”

I am the queen of wet hems.  I lived for six years in a climate rainier than Seattle without ever buying the most practical of footwear for said conditions:  boots.  I’d see those classy ladies in their slick knee-high boots, all cozy in those leather tubes of dryness and elegance.  Meanwhile my jeans would have a creeping margin of damp crawling up the ankle, causing the heavy fabric to pool and scuffle along the dirty sidewalks as I tried to avoid the deeper puddles.

I tried to shop for some boots, but every time I was repulsed by both the price tags and the hard-won knowledge that footwear sold in Chile was often poorly made unless it was an internationally known brand, which threw it up into the untouchable price range for a missionary gal with damp hems.  Fast forward to life in the United States, with it’s fair share of damp and snow and I trudged through four years more with wet hems after several failed attempts to locate used boots at thrift stores.

It’s funny the things you think about in the shower.  It was Saturday morning and I was thinking through what to wear on my feet for an outdoor wedding in November that evening.  It was to be cold and I had nothing that fit into the categories of both warm and formal.  “Man,” I thought, “If only I had some boots.  It always comes back to boots.”

Why didn’t I just go buy some?  Well, because our tenant left us $4,000 behind in rent along with a $400 unpaid water bill, and we just paid school taxes on both properties, that’s why.  I can’t even go to the grocery store, much less buy footwear.  We don’t want credit card debt, so we just sort of doggie-paddle to keep afloat by living from our freezer and pantry and the food I’ve canned.

So I prayed for boots.  Why it doesn’t occur to me that God cares about me being perpetually soaked each rainy day is perplexing.  If I, sinful and small, make sure my children are cared for and properly attired, how could I think that God would not wish to care for my needs?  I prayed for boots to walk into my life and dethrone me as queen of wet hems.  It felt silly to pray for such when there’s things like starvation and disease and natural disasters wreaking havoc, but I did.

Twenty minutes later I was settled into our faded blue wing chair with my laptop checking Facebook.  I had a message from my husband’s cousin’s wife Deanna, written about seventeen minutes previous:

“Hi Sarah, What size feet do you have? I have a lovely pair of black boots and I am trying to find a good home for them.”

Folks, you just can’t make this stuff up.  I replied:

“Oh my word. This is too funny, because even if the size isn’t the right one, I just prayed when I was in the shower that God would help me to have some boots for winter (we’re broke at present and I don’t own any boots). I am a size 7 1/2 or 8. I am smiling at God’s hilarity.”

I had the most startled and grateful feeling warming my heart.  God was there, right there in the shower hearing my words and He was moving.  He wanted to bless me, surprise me, remind me of his loving care and kindness.  He wasn’t going to make all our problems go away, but He was going to add a sweetness in the trials, a gift.  Deanna wrote back:

“Well, this is perfect. Now these are not work boots, but they are tall riding like boots which are pretty snazzy and without a tall heel. they look like they have only been worn a few times and they are size 8. We got them out of one of the storage units we cleaned out. We can drop them by after church tomorrow and we can leave them at your door if you are not there. Will that work?”

IMG_2766I came home from church the next morning to these lovely Ann Taylor size 8 leather boots which fit like they were made for me.  Alongside was a whole box of size 2T boy clothes, something else I had been praying for as Henrik grows.  I gathered my kids around me and I told them this new story in our family history, about boots and prayer and a God who listens to His children with stunning compassion.  How God is not a cosmic vending machine who doles out nice things if we insert prayer, but rather, He is a surprising, loving Father who likes to remind us now and then in special ways that He sees us, loves us.

And yes, Father, I see You, I see Your kindness to me in this special gift of boots, of dry hems, and renewed hope.  Thank You.

Joy, Grief, and Prayer (or A Reflection on the First Day of School)

The quiet is profound.  After a summer full of little voices chattering and little feet pounding through the house, I’m now hearing birds and locusts and Henrik’s soft breathing as he takes his first undisturbed nap in months.

_MG_4741

There is a moment there, when the school bus starts to pull away from the curb and my children’s faces are framed in those windows smiling down at me that I fight a wave of panic.  “No!  Come back!  Aack!”

This even while knowing that they have wonderful, kind friends at school.  That their teachers are excellent, compassionate people, and that the classes are not over-crowded, but rather cozy and intimate.  There’s so much not to fear.  I see the joy and excitement in my children’s faces; I saw it when they picked a blue folder over a green one, when they slipped on new shoes this morning, when they chatted with friends yesterday at the school’s open house.  They were, and are, rip-roaring-ready.

I’m so intensely glad for them.  So grateful, down to my marrow grateful, that they can attend such a great school.  It’s strange, though, in any sort of change, even changes that are blessings, there can be a sense of loss.  The loss of their vibrant presence had me swallowing my coffee past a lump of emotion in my throat.  I have no doubt that we are all gaining by this parting, but it is hard.  Which got me thinking.

What of the mamas sending their kids out to a school that’s under-funded and over-crowded?  What of the mamas who know that their kid is likely to be bullied again this year or is a bully to others, or who knows that their junior high daughter is being swayed to try dangerous behaviors by her closest friends?  What of the mamas who know their child is addicted and that school friends are his suppliers?  What of mamas who have to send their kids into a school known for gang violence?

I’m betting they’re doing a whole lot more praying and a whole lot less self-pity with their coffee.  And I should too, because we really don’t know what our kids will face each day, do we?

Father of all mercies
We ask that you would bless
the youngest and littlest of learners,
the most helpless and powerless of persons,
with Your infinite and loving mercy,
granting them the strength to learn, concentrate,
and act in love towards
their teachers and fellow students.
We also ask that You would watch over them,
at home and at school
and give them proper direction
so that they may learn
of Your wonderful virtues.
We ask this in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen
-David Bennett