Friday, December 31, 2010

A brief note

Felicity and I are indebted to Fr. Joseph Honeycutt's Orthodixie Blog for advertising this conference!  We are really excited to e-ttend.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christ is born!

I'm not sure I (Peter) mentioned in any previous posts (check to see if I did or not), but my first real experience of Orthodoxy was at Nativity.  My roommate E. was baptized that Sunday morning, and then I spent the rest of the day with he and another recent convert talking about the Church and the feast and what not.  The bishop was there that night, too.  And we did the Liturgy of St. Basil.  I stood for three hours in really uncomfortable shoes for 3 hours.  I was so confused!  So much happened that I had no idea about.  I do remember, however, that I was caught up in the wonder and the beauty of it as I tried to listen to the words of the hymns and internalize what I was listening to.

This year we didn't make it to Christmas liturgy.  We were up in New Hampshire with my family, celebrating to the best of our ability.  It was really wonderful.  We ate, sang songs, opened presents, prayed, laughed, gave lots of hugs and kisses--truly sacramental.  I missed being there for the long night, the party afterwards, the big hymns full of deep theology.  What I received in exchange, though, was something truly wonderful.

I have an incredible family.  We may drive each other crazy, but they are loving, compassionate, giving, and unselfish to a fault.  If I couldn't be at Liturgy, I'm glad I was home with people who love me and who also love Jesus.

As I look at the coming year I have a few goals I'd like to set for myself: keep reading spiritual books, meet once a month with Br. S, and work towards our Chrismation at Nativity next year--maybe.  We are all about following God's plan for our lives.  We don't know where our path will lead us this year, but I do know that I have never felt so sure of where I'm meant to be at any time before.

I have so much to write about: my uncle is dying of cancer, my little girl crosses herself and makes deep prostration, our infant is nearly rolling over, my wife and I are learning to pray together and work through our sins in a way that is forgiving and healing, and so much else.  I don't know what comes next, but I do know that I'm in the right place.  Christ is born!  Glorify Him!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Discipline of Not Fasting

This Nativity has presented us with some interesting challenges.  Among them, keeping our toddler away from the Christmas tree, figuring out how to start the tradition of St. Nicholas and, most importantly (and relevant to this blog post) what it means to be Orthodox during the holiday season.  Like most converts, I think, we assumed that Nativity would mean fasting and going to lots of services.  A few weeks into it, we are coming to understand the less glamorous reality.  Namely, we can't fast and we make it to up to the monastery maybe twice a week.
I know that fasting with two small children, one of them nursing, would be against the teachings of the church, but there's a part of me that still feels like we're missing an important part of "being Orthodox" by not doing it.  This feeling is compounded by the fact that I've been losing weight since my pregnancy, losing too much in fact, and so not only am I not fasting, but doing rather the opposite: lots of full fat dairy products, rich oils, meats, etc.  This is the first year that I've really been aware of the Nativity fast and shown any inclination to join in, and yet I am completely and utterly unable to do so.
Going to services has been difficult as well.  When we first moved here, we thought being only a few miles from the monastery that we'd be going up multiple times a day.  Matins, vespers, vigil, liturgy; they'd have to lock the doors to keep us out; only feet of snow would keep us away.  Perhaps such hopes were the naivete of new converts mixed with that of young parents (a nasty double whammy, that).  Needless to say, we make it up to vespers maybe once a week ("we" usually being Peter getting the toddler out of the house so I can breathe for a while and make dinner).  Services are difficult for us to attend all together.  When one daughter is content, the other one wants to run up the stairs into the altar.  When she's finally contented with crayons or a book, the other declares (louder every week) that she's wet and hungry.  Usually, these disturbances occur during a reading, or the sermon, or (worst of all) during one of the times of silence which follow the sermon and the Eucharist.  We don't feel pressure from the parishioners or the monastics to keep the girls quiet, but it's awfully hard to thoughtfully consider the sermon when trying to calm a screaming baby or wrestle a headstrong toddler.
The further we go in this adventure of ours, however, I'm learning how to use all of these things to grow closer to Christ and becoming more like Him.  I hope in this season of life we can learn these important lessons: that fasting isn't the point, and neither is going to church.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thoughts on eating

There's one of the stories from the Desert Fathers about a young monk who is given a rule of prayer which he considers too lenient.  His elder gave him only a handful of prostrations per day when he had been doing some inordinate amount like 200.  I really don't remember the full detail of the story.  I do remember the point, though.  He comes back to his elder to report on his prayer rule and how difficult it was to do so few prostrations, how fatigued he was, and how easily distracted he became.  When he asked why it was that so few prostrations were so hard to complete, his elder told him that it was because the devil had made the extra prostrations easy for him.  Powerful stuff.

We've been given instruction not to fast by two different priests.  Our priest in North Carolina told us not to, but to focus on our family, saying prayers, and trying to live in light of the Gospel as we slowly moved into Orthodoxy.  Our priest here has basically given us the same instruction, reminding us that with two small children, a full time job, and the struggle just to make our income match our outgo every month, we don't need to prove how Orthodox we are by having a long prayer rule, plus however many Jesus prayers, plus 42 prostrations,  He was very clear: you need to find the time to meet God in the ordinary.  So during this Nativity Fast, we aren't fasting.

I really hope this posting isn't going against the injunction against boasting or blowing trumpets during fasting that Jesus gave in the Sermon on the Mount.  If it is, please forgive me.  I just find it strange to be eating while others fast.  It's strange, also, to be receiving the charity and gifts that we would like to be giving to others.  We're learning how to be lilies and sparrows, and if you recall, it is the sparrows that our Heavenly Father feeds.  We're trying to be aware of the fact that true fasting, according to Scripture is a broken heart, forgiveness, sorrow for sin, released prisoners, et al.  We're also trying to be aware of the fact that it would be easy for us to fast right now, and our egos would be stroked quite nicely as we modestly turned down hamburgers and turkey dinners due to our religious restriction.

I'm discovering more and more that Orthopraxy is more than two hours of prayer every day, half the year eating vegan, and learning to converse in four different languages about food.  It's really about living life that is being shaped by the Gospel.  Am I living the Nicene Creed?  Do I really believe all of those things?  Am I seeing that I need a physician to heal me from this horrible disease of sin?  If so, isn't that truly Orthodoxy?  Metropolitan Jonah gave a talk several months (if not a year) ago on the Catechumenate in which he said that it's not a time to catch up on 1500 years of Church History.  It's an opportunity to work on making the best first confession you can make.  I'm trying to live in light of that, and following the advice of my priest and the commands of our Lord.  May God break my heart this Nativity Fast with His love for a broken world, and may the compassion that He showed to a sinful people inform my every action and every thought.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

More is coming!

To all our faithful readers and followers, accept this as my apology for not updating in the last week or so. Due to Holiday activity, family, weddings, and what-not writing has been rather low on the priority list.  Oddly enough, playing ridiculous Facebook games has not been that low.  Please forgive us.  More to come in the coming week!  Have a blessed St. Nicholas day!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Hurried Pilgrimage and the Sacred Space Inside My Car

My oldest daughter and I went down to St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, NY today.  Our plan had been to go down and venerate the relics of  St. Vladimir (one of my spiritual heroes) which were going to be at St. Vlad's for the weekend.  It was a trip of about 3 1/2 hours one-way, and we were going to stop to see my old roommate in Poughkeepsie on the way back.  I was planning on spending a little more time than we actually did, but things didn't work out that way. As a consequence, I'm still dealing with what I can only term as "buyer's remorse."  I don't regret going, but I do wonder what part of it was worthwhile.

The website said that Divine Liturgy was going to begin at 9 in the morning.  No chance we were going to make it for that, so we took our time eating breakfast and making our way south along the Taconic.  When I got to Yonkers and finally found my way through the streets to the seminary I nearly drove by it twice.  (Not a lot of signage present for a major theological institution.)  We found parking easily and the chapel was dead straight in front of us.  My little girl and I got out, stretched our legs, gathered our supplies, and made our way up the hill to the small roundish building that is the Three Heirarchs Chapel.  I realized about half the way up the hill that the liturgy was still happening.  Oh well.  Probably communion.

I wasn't just wrong.   I was very wrong.  We arrived smack dab in the middle of the Great Entrance.  They weren't letting people all the way into the nave, obviously, but I got to watch the bishop process through followed by about eight priests and at least as many deacons and subdeacons.  A very friendly man in a white shirt and dark suit coat started beckoning for those of us waiting around to make our way in and to the front.  The relics were right there in their little blue box.  The people in front of me were making prostrations.  I could only cross myself and bow.  (Holding a little one makes for a rather clumsy prostration, and I figured St. Vladimir would forgive me if I didn't go all the way to the ground.)  No sooner do I realize that we're now in the building and that it's going to be hard to leave in order to make our lunch date, but then I realize that (given the Heirarchical nature of the Liturgy) we were in for at least another 45 minutes with all of these people taking communion!  We left.  Lord's Prayer and everything going on around us, we packed up and went.

During the drive up to Poughkeepsie I was asking myself, what was all of this for?  Was it worth all of the effort for a very short time to spend before the relics and in the presence of God during the Liturgy?  All of this for a paper icon and $3.05 for gas?  Or was there, maybe, something I was supposed to get out of this experience that I hadn't yet understood or grasped in all the hurry of the morning and afternoon.  To top it off, I came home and both girls went crazy for about an hour and Felicity and I just stared at each other.  What had all of this been about?

I checked facebook when I got home.  My old priest had requested that I remember his wife and son while in front of the relics.  I was supposed to remember people?  I just crossed myself, bowed, kissed the box, and then left.  I don't know that I had really remembered to pray for myself let alone anyone else.  Why was I so stupid?  Why was I so forgetful?  Did I do the whole thing wrong?

I'm coming to realize, now, the sacred nature of the whole day.  From the time the alarm went off and I decided to take my daughter out for the day so that her mother could stay home and finish her projects uninterrupted to the time we got home and I tried to debug my brain from all of the clutter, I had been in a truly sacramental moment in time.  We made a special trip for the purpose of venerating the relics of this beloved saint.  We had taken part, however brief, in the worship of heaven during the Liturgy.  And even though I hadn't thought to say more than a brief "Holy St. Vladimir, pray for us" while at the relics, I know that I don't have to be there in order for his intercessions to play a part in my life.  God knows that Fr. C. tried to get in touch with me and is at work in the lives of his wife and child.  God knows the prayers that went unspoken.  Through some mystical union that I have yet to understand, all of my failures to "get it right" are all taken up and made right in the presence of an all-knowing, all-loving God.

Our little Chevy became the sanctuary.  Our hours of driving, playing, singing, walking, eating, laughing, and enjoying each other's company became our liturgy.  God blesses us even when we don't understand how He can get through the baggage we bring to the table.  Maybe the next time we'll plan things better.  Maybe the next time I'll realize that it's not always about the destination so much as the journey.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Surprised by the nomination

Eastern Christian New Media Awards: Voting is open!: "Please go vote here."

Many thanks to whoever nominated us. Humbled. But we're against Molly Sabourin, and there's no way we'll take that prize. :-)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Weekend plans

This is one of those personal/religious updates you hear so much about.  Come to think of it, the more that I look at and try to live out this Orthodoxy thing, I've discovered there's really very little difference between the two.

Good husband points: taking the oldest for a Saturday away!

Plan for the day: Drive down to St. Vlad's to pay our respects to the man himself (St. Vladimir, not Fr. Tom) and spend some time enjoying a warm Autumn afternoon before heading home!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Approaching Season

Yesterday, we experienced an interesting mix of precipitation which resulted in a light crust of ice and snow accumulating on the grass.  While meteorologically it may not have been significant, when coupled with the arrival of the first Christmas toy catalogs, I was suddenly faced with just how fast The Holidays are approaching.  I always seem to find myself being caught off guard by this time of year.  Perhaps this is because, for much of my life, October and November were a whirlwind of extracurriculars and projects which, after a quick breather in the first week of December, dumped me unceremoniously into Exams, end of the year dances (with associated drama), my birthday and then Christmas itself.  Needless to say, for me there's a heavy dose of dread entwined with the usual Christmas merriment.
This year, however, is quite different.  First, I'm not in school, so the rhythm of that life is gone (incidentally, I've been out of school for a while now, it's just a hard habit to shake).  Second, we have a toddler who will be able to truly experience the magic of the holidays for the first time.  Thirdly, and most significantly, we wont be celebrating Christmas (or Thanksgiving, for that matter) in the same way, and I have no idea how different things will be.  I'm excited to learn about the difference between western Christmas and eastern Nativity, but that old feeling of dread is still there, though perhaps tinged more by nervousness and apprehension.  I rather dislike the unknown.
This brings me back to looking out the window yesterday afternoon, watching the sleet turn into snow, and realizing that the next few months will be very different for us and, seeing as how these things tend to run into each other, our church life wont really slow down again until... May, maybe?  July?
I'm ashamed to admit it, but there is a [small] part of me that longs for the days when the church status quo was only interrupted for Christmas Eve and Good Friday.
The rest of me is ready to embrace this new aspect of our lives wholeheartedly.  Feasts, festivals, fasting - Bring it.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

No witty titles, just thanks

I once had a conversation with my mother that went something to the effect of: "Is it all just the externals? Crossing yourself, Jesus on a crucifix, candles, robes?"  I kind of stare blankly.  At that particular point in our year of exploration these things had stopped being externals and just part of Sunday morning.  I had a moment today that went something like, the one thing I would say that I really like about being Orthodox that is actually an external: The Cherubic Hymn.  I called it an external because, truly, it's just one hymn out of the thousands of available hymns that have been written over the past 8 millenia or so of worship.

We sing a very beautiful Cherubic Hymn at our parish.  It's very American.  I love it.  Lots of playing back and forth between the four parts.  Not to mention the echo created by the two not-exactly-domes we have in our Nave.  I love that moment.  We sing it through twice.  The way our service goes is slightly different than other parishes, and by the time the Great Entrance comes around we've finished it and need to go again.  It's my favorite part of the service.  No matter what parish we happen to be in, it will always be my favorite part.

A friend at our old parish once told me that the thing that got him convinced of Orthodoxy was this moment.  If that's not actually Jesus coming through the people, then why bother.  If we aren't actually welcoming the King of Glory, let's all go home.  I remember the first time this hymn had truly caught my attention.  That line, "Let us now lay aside all earthly/worldly cares," just arrested my attention.  I had been so distracted by the cares and worries of my life and then...reminded.  I still haven't taken communion--I'm not one of the faithful, yet--but I have been part of that heavenly procession.  I want to know this more and more.

One of the things I like about being Orthodox: The Cherubic Hymn.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Eastern Christian New Media Awards: 2010 Awards nominations open

Not asking for nominations. I think it's good to know that the time is coming to make your favorite Orthodox web sources for recognition! Please take time to visit the sites of previous winners and explore the depths of their knowledge.

Eastern Christian New Media Awards: 2010 Awards nominations open: "Nominations are now open! To nominate an entrant simply click on one of the below links. Multiple nominations are welcomed and encouraged. ..."

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Working on finding a new rhythm

Glory to God in all things!  Cliche?  Maybe.  True?  Definitely!

I had a most excellent day with my brother; we're building a doll house for my oldest.  She'll be two this March, so it's not a very complicated doll house -- basically four large rooms which we will paint in bright primary colors on Tuesday evening when my brother comes again.  All of this in preparation for Christmas, which I know seems early, but Christmas at our house will also come a little early, at least as far as this particular present is concerned.  Why do you care about this?  Good question.

I had a wonderful conversation with one of the brothers at the local monastery.  I'm still trying to force a "rigorous" catechesis onto my life, you see, and I was hoping to get a kick in the spiritual pants.  (For more on this weekend and our family's "need" for spiritual highs, please read Felicity's wonderful post Spiritual Ups and Downs.)  I certainly got a good nudge in the right direction, but it wasn't what I was hoping for.  Maybe I can unpack this slightly better.

Living with E., I watched him struggle through a very strenuous catechesis.  His prayer rule was a good hour a day (half an hour for morning prayers and half an hour for evening prayers), plus a certain number of Jesus Prayers, prostrations, and spiritual reading.  I was really looking forward to this.  Ascesis is not a dirty word in my book.  I once tried fasting Muslim style during Ramadan.  After the first hallucination I gave up.  This is me, though.  I want to be given stringent instructions and upbraided for my inability to follow them.  Weird, right?

Fr. Stavros took a different approach.  Given that we have two small children (two under two), a new house, not a lot of money, a busy work week, et al. just taking any time to pray is better than trying to struggle to maintain morning and evening prayers.  Sometimes, he said, you find the time to pray when you can; and that discipline is more important than keeping some unrealistic rule that doesn't fit into your daily life.  I hate when monks tell me things like this.  He's the third, and it pisses me off (sorry if that bothers you).  The truth of the matter is that I want to be Jesus.  I really want to have the final say on my spiritual development, and I believe that God will honor my well intentioned revision of His plan for my life.  Surely when I reach the spiritual heights discussed in the Desert Fathers and other compendiums (which I will be able to accomplish following three easy steps in three months for no more than 3 hours a day), He'll hand me the heavenly crown early and I can just breeze through life.

Arrogant much?  And so I'm getting back to normal.  God is still loving, and I'm learning to live within His time table without any suggestions for change.  I am incredibly sinful.  I have noticed what a jerk I am.  I've been keenly aware of bitterness and resentment.  I feel I'm constantly complaining (just ask Felicity).  In short, I have enough to worry about just living where I am now without trying to force my square peg into someone else's round hole.

A new rhythm is needed.  So we're trying to pray together (like really say prayers) once a day (usually at night), say prayers at meal times, and remember to pray when the time is available to me (usually with my little brown prayer beads).  I'm still discontent most of the time and feel a little directionless; but God is faithful, and I need to learn how to trust Him.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Working through all the baggage

For reasons of anonymity, I'll simply refer to our current parish as "church" and try not to give too many hints without sounding like I'm not trying to give too many hints.  Our church is somewhat controversial in the Orthodox world.  Some people might call is "pretty liberal," though in Orthodoxy I'm not sure what that means.  I know it means that the fact that occasionally a young girl takes the censer to the priest through one of the deacon's doors while he serves at the altar gives people the heebie jeebies.  I'm also pretty taken aback, but it happens so rarely and she does nothing else (except hold a candle next to the lectern while the priest reads the Gospel), that I'm not sure you can even call her an alter server.  She's just there.  That's neither here nor there.

When people hear about where we go, their eye brows raise and their tone of voice goes up and they say things like, "What's it like up there?" or "Oh?  What do you think about that?" or (my favorite) "Oh, I know about them."  What they know or don't know about our parish is moot.  I don't really care what people's opinions are. So long as the men and women in my community continue to hold fast to the Creed and remain in obedience to +Met. JONAH, I'm going to stand pretty much in the middle.

I met a woman this weekend who lives in Boston and goes to an Antiochian church in Cambridge.  I responded with, "Oh, we have friends who go to the Bulgarian church in Allston!"  Her response was, "Oh...hahah...the fake Bulgarian church."  I'm slightly taken aback and jokingly talk about how there really is only one Bulgarian and mostly converts.  All she can do is discredit, mock, and joke about their "beginnings" being "suspect" and how they are a "very specific expression of Orthodoxy."  When I still continued to be on the defense for HROC, she just stopped talking to me.  My response: what the heck?!  If you're at a place people consider to be "controversial" with Orthodoxy, why do you go around throwing stones at other places that are also, apparently, considered "controversial"?

I guess the thing I'm dealing with is that the Orthodox church is still full of sinners, and that I'm just as bad as the rest of them.  I guess you leave denominationalism into jurisdictionalism and everyone's opinions bumping into all the others.  So I'm sifting through the baggage, and trying to keep my eyes on my own plate.  I'm frustrated by the judgemental attitude, but that's been there since the beginning of the Church.  Even Paul had to deal with it, and he was an apostle.  I'm just trying to be a sheep.  God forgive me, I need a softened heart.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Spiritual Ups and Downs

One thing that I've always liked about journaling (whether on paper or on screen) is that I can sort out my emotions in print and come to a better understanding of myself.  I'm not sure if it makes for good reading, but some things are more important than being witty or entertaining.
I've realized over the past month or so that my spiritual life has taken a turn towards the dry and dusty, and that this has begun to effect other aspects of my life as well.  Peter and I have been especially on edge with each other, I've felt particularly inept at parenting our toddler, and we've all been struck with a nondescript, stubborn cold.  I say that I've realized it over the past month because while the realization was sudden, looking back I can see that I've been drying out for quite some time.
At first, I'm inclined to say that this started when Z was born and we moved from our wonderful little parish down south.  But, as I think about it, it's been years since I experienced a really good spiritual high.  Growing up in a charismatic, non-denominational, low threshold, very cool church, having regular spiritual highs at retreats and conferences was a normal part of my life and I came to depend on them as a way to survive normal life.  Running from one roller coaster to the next, if you will.
Now, I feel like I've spent the last few years wandering around outside the amusement park, not quite sure what to do with myself, but occasionally finding a sledding hill or swing set, if you will.  Ok, so the metaphor isn't that great, but I'm having trouble getting my head around all this as it is, much less putting it into coherent sentences.
When we found ourselves in the Orthodox church, I felt a bit of that spiritual high at first, but now I think that might have been just a reaction to how different it all was.  In any case, that feeling has worn off now, and I'm feeling all dried out again.  And yet, I know that I'm being watered.  Every week, I'm confronted by something in the the liturgy that encourages, challenges, and pushes me further in my walk, closer to Christ than I was the week before.  Is it possible that I am so used to being deluged in the Spirit that I don't recognize a good soaking rain for what it is?  Am I resentful and bitter because my spiritual journey isn't meeting my expectations of excitement and thrill?  Am I really that petty?  Apparently so -- Lord have mercy.
This weekend the monastery held a spiritual retreat.  We had planned on both going, switching off on kid duty throughout the day.  Instead, with me and both kids not feeling well, I stayed home.  Peter went briefly in the morning and again in the afternoon.  There was some miscommunication between us about when he was going, and I exploded with anger, jealously and resentment towards him.  While there were many reasons for all of my ugly emotions, one of them was that he got to go off on a spiritual retreat (if only for a few hours), while I was stuck at home.  Somewhere in my stuffed up head, I figured that the only way I would get that spiritual high that I'd been longing for was by going on retreat, and that chance was denied me.  (We have since made up and forgiven each other on this point.)
Now, looking back on my outburst, I am realizing that, like so many other things in my life currently, my assumed source of spiritual renewal has to change.  In the same way that I can no longer assume that I will get 8 hours of sleep every night, or that I will be able to do so much as take a shower without someone crying for me by the time I'm done, I can no longer depend on a weekend away or a special conference to re-energize my walk with God.  I must finally do the hard work of climbing the mountain, instead of looking for a way to catapult myself to the top only to fall back to earth again.
I am confident that living the Orthodox life will help me do this.  How, exactly, this works will, I think, be the subject of many future posts.  For now, I'm going to say evening prayers with my husband, and attempt to get a good night's sleep and do better tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Being a dad in church

One of the things I told people when I was starting this blog was that it would hopefully be a good tool for current Orthodox priests and people who are wondering what in the world is going on in the minds of their catechism/converts.  Here's one of those posts.  Touchy subject for some, not so much for others: kids in church.

To give you some background, in all of my Protestant upbringing I never experienced the opposition to children in church during the service that I did in our last Protestant church.  People actually told us afterwards, that having the baby in church was distracting and keeping them from worship.  A hard case to make, but also hard to argue in a church where a "good" worship service includes this nebulous "presence of the Spirit" they all talk about.  This isn't a gripe session.  Just context.

One of the things I've appreciated about the Orthodox churches we've visited is the stress they put on children (at every age) being present in the service.  "This is where they catch the Spirit" a priest once told me.  In general, the attitude is really good towards both of our girls.  Everyone loves the baby (she's adorable and sleepy).  Everyone loves the other one (she's a spitfire and says "amen" and "mama" and "cross" and "bell" and "Jesus" at every minute of quiet in the service).  It's just hard being the Dad in this scenario.

Whether or not we're actually being disruptive, I feel like we are.  It's hard to find the balance where the little girl is able to be quiet (or just a little noisy) and not keeping people from paying attention to the service.  No one has ever said anything to us at either of our parishes.  It's still hard--in that moment--to be okay with my little girl's noises (whichever girl) and understand that it's not up to me (or them) to ensure that someone else has a "good time" in church.

So if you see a dad (or mom) with a little girl (or boy) who may be making a little too much noise, don't shoot them glares across the church.  Don't just ignore them, either.  Be a helper.  Let them know how much you appreciate their presence in the service and the joy their noises bring.  Remember the children in the temple when Our Lord had entered in on the donkey.  They were shouting, praising, singing.  The priests and religious people were all grumpy and "religious" about it and told Him to tell the kids to keep it down.  Jesus' response was very pointed and very clear: No.  I'm trying.  I know that you're trying to pray and worship, too.  Please remember that those moms and dads (especially the catechumens and converts) are painfully aware of the noise their children are making and wishing they could make things easier for you.  Be loving and patient, pay attention to the service, and offer your assistance to those young families who are trying to enter the Church, and feel like they may have a long row to hoe with their little ones in tow.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Go to church, say your prayers, remember God

I don't remember whose mother told him this when he left home, but I'm trying to make it the direction of my life.  Going to church: easy.  I'm probably a religious addict, and I need to see someone about it (maybe...).  I love being part of our little chapel community, saying prayers, worshiping with the community, and trying to learn how to think, act, and truly be Orthodox.

Saying prayers I'm really bad at.  I do say prayers, but not the way that I should.  I picked up a Psalter at the monastery for free, and I'm trying to start reading the Kathisma schedule, but that's also hard.  Easier is just saying morning and evening prayers, but I have trouble waking up Felicity first thing in the morning when the little ones are still sleeping so soundly.  Still...we do try.  Mostly, though, I'm trying to make this my discipline without imposing it on my family in a sort of dictatorial way.

Remember God.  I'm trying.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Getting to Know You

Now that I have music from the King and I running through my head, I'd like to begin this post by saying that I have intending to talk about my topic for a while now, but just haven't had the chance yet.
When we started this journey six months ago one of the most uncomfortable aspects of Orthodoxy was the whole Mary thing, followed closely by icons and saints in general.  I once played the part of Mary in a Christmas pageant.  My role consisted of walking demurely across the stage, and sitting beside a token pile of straw while the choir sang and an angel pantomimed to Joseph behind me.  And, like most protestants, my church growing up had plain walls (except for the occasional wreath around Christmas), a bare cross up front (sometimes) and not much else in the way of depictions.  Aside from occasional references to C.S. Lewis or a nice quote from Mother Theresa, the only people we quoted were in the bible or the latest Christian author.
Needless to say, I was starting from scratch, and skeptical and suspicious scratch at that.
As the months have passed however, I have had  the opportunity to get to know a number of saints, as well as the Theotokos.  I say "get to know", but I feel like my relationship with these people is analogous to being introduced to people at a dinner party.  I know their names, and a bit of background, and I think we'll get along prodigiously, but we haven't actually spent a lot of time together yet.  Of course, the process of getting to know a saint is a bit backwards from getting to know a live person: instead of starting with small talk and working back into their history, you start with their history and work up to small talk and normal conversations.  
There are a number of saints that I've had this sort of connection to, namely Christina, and Ruth, but I've felt this most with the Theotokos.  Perhaps it's because I felt close to her through my pregnancy, or maybe its because she knew how weirded out I was with the idea of her identity as Theotokos and all the reverence she is given for that and has graciously helped me out.  Either way, whenever I hear a story of a miracle that's attributed to her, or how she's stepped into someone's life I find myself thinking "That sounds like something she would do" the same way you hear about a sibling or a friend and say "that's so them."  I'm getting to know her character, her manner.  I haven't had any crazy supernatural encounter, like St. Mary of Egypt or St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, but I can say that I know her.  It's like we're facebook friends, and we're planning on getting together in real life, but haven't yet, but we know we will.
It just occurred to me that this whole entry may come across as rather irreverent.  Perhaps the idea of being friends with the Mother of God is ridiculous.  If so, feel free to chuck this whole thing in the "crazy convert" bin, I'll figure it out eventually.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Considering this Orthodoxy Thing

I've got some time on my hand at the moment.  I'm sitting in a Barnes and Noble in upstate, NY; watching CSI:NY; and feeling slightly introspective.  I had a disturbing dream the other night, and I think I may still be dealing with the after effects of that experience.  Maybe I'm just coming to grips with my own complacency.  I'm not sure why all of this is coming to the forefront on this cloudy afternoon.  It is, though, and I'm trying to figure out where I'm coming from.

I dreamed the other night that we'd just given up.  I dreamed that my wife was finished with all of this trying and struggling and just wanted to stop the process.  I saw this Orthodoxy thing as one more string in a list of stuff that I've tried in my life in order to live out a more authentic faith--not as the Truth that I now know that it is.  I give up on so many thing, and I'm afraid that this is going to be one more of those things.

Conversely, my father is praying that we do.  This isn't really a gripe session about my family and their inability to deal with our decision to move into Orthodoxy.  My parents seem to think we'd be happiest as Missouri Synod Lutherans.  I think this is so hard because we're also so alone up here right now.  Our parish is tiny, and pretty widespread across the region.  Our priests are monastics (something completely different than Fr. C. was) and have a calling all their own.  Where do we fit into all of this?  What are we supposed to do, small family of four with two young daughters and a low paying job in a start-up school somewhere in New York's Capital District?

How easy would it be to walk away?  How hard would it be to just give up?  What would it take to just call it quits and try to be Protestant again?  Could I bring myself to a) take the icons off the wall b) find another church c) re-read the Westminster Confession d) reject the Tradition I'm trying to fit into?  I don't even know where I would begin!  What would motivate me to turn my back on the Church like that?  Peter's words keep coming to mind again and again: "Lord, if we leave, where are we supposed to go?"

Maybe all of this is impatience?  Maybe I'm just suffering from new catechumen syndrom as per my post a couple of weeks ago.  Catechism Breeds Impatience.  I'm excited and scared about what comes next--when the gloves come off and the real boxing with the devil begins.  I've realized that we'll never be done with the struggle.  I didn't realize that the struggle would feel like such a struggle.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Moving towards a beginning

This Sunday was our second Divine Liturgy at our new parish.  It was our third service, unless I miss my count.  I love being part of a community that has regular, daily services (Matins and Vespers) as well as midweek liturgies for major feasts.  Sad that I couldn't make it to Holy Cross day, but we celebrated the feast in high fashion on Sunday, marching around the church in procession with the cross, deep prostrations, the whole bit.  Beautiful service.

Fr. S. brushed the surface of beginning our catechesis.  I think a lot of this is going to require being proactive on our parts.  I don't think I was expecting that, though I'm not sure what it was I did expect.  There aren't really formal classes, per se, and we're being encouraged to ask a lot of questions.  I don't even know what questions to ask.  Felicity's idea was that she wants to know the nitty-gritty: how do you live out a sacramental life day to day.  She's thinking of her life's confession, and she wants to be prepared.  I feel the same way.

What do I want out of this catechesis?  I want to learn to fast.  I want spiritual direction.  I want to be ready to make that confession, enter the Church, and receive the Eucharist.  Whatever that looks like.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Making Transitions

This past month has been a rough for me (Felicity) - mentally, emotionally, physically, financially and spiritually.  Probably in other ways too.
Five weeks ago our second daughter was born.  This alone would account for stress in all the aforementioned areas, but we also moved across the country, Peter started a new job, I spent two weeks with my parents in Ohio, and my sister got married.  Just writing that all out is exhausting.  Honestly, I don't know how we managed to do all of that without completely losing our heads (or, maybe that's the only way we were able to do it); but we did it, and now we can breathe again.
I've been taking a lot of deep breaths since we arrived here.  At our first Sunday at the monastery, I walked into the chapel and spent a long time just breathing it all in.  We were early (one of those Protestant habits that's proving hard to break), and the room was still dark.  Old incense lingered in the air; icons glinted and winked in the sun light peeping through skylights and windows.  The room was sleepy and peaceful.  For me, it was like finding the surface after too many somersaults in the pool.  I hadn't realized how close to drowning I was until I went to venerate the icons.  Standing in front of the Theotokos, I felt my soul gasp for air as the stress of the birth, the wedding and the move begin to melt away.  I nearly wept, and probably will one of these days as we continue to settle in.  Even now, after another Sunday and a week of our new normal in between, I still feel short of breath.  Like we aren't really here that long, so I should get as much in as I can while I can.  I guess that's what uncertainty does to you, after a while you can't believe in things like routine and normal.
Yet, I feel it's important to relay that in the midst of the jumble, I haven't completely lost it.  I have been able to find my center, to be relatively calm, and to take care of the things (and people) who needed taking care of.  Also, I'm grateful that, in some strange way, we were prepared to deal with all of this.  It's like we passed the test.  Our marriage, our family, our faith are all intact - safe on this side of the madness and stronger than they were.  We were asked to step out, repeatedly, into the unknown, and we did.  I can only hope that we can continue to be faithful, even as we relax in this new home.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

New places, new experiences

Finally moved in!  Felicity and I will get back to regular posting now that things have settled down.  Daughters are both doing wonderfully.  The new house is a wonderful place to live in a tiny town that's so easy to get around in!  I've been doing my job for the last couple of days and really enjoy teaching.  The OT class that I teach is much more enjoyable than the Latin, but that's because I get to teach only one class at a time instead of two.

We've also started moving ourselves into our new parish home.  There's a small monastery nearby that we've been attending.  I say "Small" being completely ignorant of the regular size of Orthodox monasteries.  Without disclosing too much information, we've landed ourselves in a place highly recommended by some (including our priest) and irritating to others.  Not because they aren't in communion, and not because they don't love Jesus, and not because they aren't Orthodox; but because they have the blessing of the Holy Synod to be a sort of Liturgical testing ground...or maybe an archeological site for the more historic form of public worship once found in Orthodoxy.

All of that said, we have started making ourselves at home in the parish community there.  We are one of the only families from our city, so when we showed up last night for Vespers for Holy Cross most people were pleasantly surprised to see us there!  We love the brothers and sisters we met so far, and they all love our girls (naturally).

The service is slightly different than what we're used to.  Rather than start with the three traditional antiphons after "Blessed is the Kingdom..." we move right into the Trisagion and the Little Entrance, which actually functions as an entrance of the Bible into the temple!  The huge book is then placed in the center of the Nave and we gather around it to hear the three readings: yes, three.  We have an Old Testament, New, and then Gospel reading.  Following that the priest(s) make (their) way into the altar area--not an iconostasis per se, but a lo railing with icons around it that surrounds the sacred space of the altar.  At the end of the service, we were slightly confused, but having talked with Fr. S and calling our priest in North Carolina we felt a lot more secure about our growing relationship with the community up the hill.

Please keep us in prayers as our catechesis begins in earnest within the coming weeks.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Happy Church New Year

For a long time I was following the Western calendar which starts the Church's year at Advent week 1.  It's a little weird to think about the Church year beginning September 1 (regardless of when Advent begins).  On one level, I'm incredibly excited to be beginning our new Church year: so many feasts, so many fasts, so much still to learn.  On another level, I'm struggling to focus on the coming year in the midst of so much other confusion.  With that preamble passed, let me tell you about my weekend.

I went back to the wonderful church on the east coast this past weekend!  My dear roommate E. told me that his old calendar parish was celebrating the Dormition of the Theotokos this weekend!  Seeing that our daughter was born on new calendar Dormition and we miss ed the services, I was over the moon about the opportunity to go and celebrate the translation of the Mother of Life into Life.  What an incredible service!

I'm still getting used to seeing the Theotokos and the other saints as a regular part of my life and spirituality.  I don't understand her, and I don't understand how people can be so caught up in their love of her...but I'm getting there.  The lamentations at Vigil were both beautiful and profound.  She is so loved and so mourned, and the wonder of the early Church is so easily felt in the words of each hymn.  It was a lovely funeral service: both dead to this world, but more alive than ever before having passed over into the Kingdom.  Hope was the word of the night in my mind, and she is such an image of that hope we have in Christ.

The next morning during the liturgy, I thrilled to hear the hymns again.  Her icon was beautiful with the light from the stained glass window reflecting off of it and the light blue cloth decorating the stand.  I don't even know how to express what I felt during those hours in church.

I want to love Her like that.  I want to know what it means to follow Her example and say yes to God.  I want to experience the love and grace that so many people have at Her intercession.  I don't know what that even means or looks like, but the love of God poured out on a human being gives me hope.  If a young, Hebrew girl can receive God into her life constantly point to Him, then we can do that too.  God be merciful.

Friday, August 27, 2010

My daughter Christine

I promise that a real blog post will be forthcoming.  Lots to talk about: moving, new job, new parish, new house, new state, the whole nine yards.  At the moment I'm at a Dunkin' Donuts in Boston, MA, having spent the last several hours at Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline.  This is my opportunity to introduce to you our daughter...or at least her patron.

Felicity and I spent several weeks thinking we were going into labor.  Three to be exact.  One night of almost constant pain for Felicity, we ran into St. Christina of Tyre.  I say "ran into" as though it were an accident.  Understanding that she stepped up and presented herself to us, we prayed, asking for her help, and "dedicating" our daughter to her.  Here is her icon and her hagiography as it appears on the OCA website:

Martyr Christina of Tyre
Commemorated on July 24
The Martyr Christina lived during the third century. She was born into a rich family, and her father was governor of Tyre. By the age of 11 the girl was exceptionally beautiful, and many wanted to marry her. Christina's father, however, envisioned that his daughter should become a pagan priestess. To this end he placed her in a special dwelling where he had set up many gold and silver idols, and he commanded his daughter to burn incense before them. Two servants attended Christina.

In her solitude, Christina began to wonder who had created this beautiful world. From her room she was delighted by the stars of the heavens and she constantly came back to the thought about the Creator of all the world. She was convinced, that the voiceless and inanimate idols in her room could not create anything, since they themselves were created by human hands. She began to pray to the One God with tears, entreating Him to reveal Himself. Her soul blazed with love for the Unknown God, and she intensified her prayer all the more, and combined it with fasting.

One time Christina was visited by an angel, who instructed her in the true faith in Christ, the Savior of the world. The angel called her a bride of Christ and told her about her future suffering. The holy virgin smashed all the idols standing in her room and threw them out the window. In visiting his daughter Christina's father, Urban, asked her where all the idols had disappeared. Christina was silent. Then, having summoned the servants, Urban learned the truth from them.

In a rage the father began to slap his daughter's face. At first, the holy virgin remained quiet, but then she told her father about her faith in the One True God, and that she had destroyed the idols with her own hands. Urban gave orders to kill all the servants in attendance upon his daughter, and he gave Christina a fierce beating and threw her in prison. Having learned about what had happened, St Christina's mother came in tears, imploring her to renounce Christ and to return to her ancestral beliefs. But Christina remained unyielding. On another day, Urban brought his daughter to trial and urged her to offer worship to the gods, and to ask forgiveness for her misdeeds. Instead, he saw her firm and steadfast confession of faith in Christ.

The torturers tied her to an iron wheel, beneath which they lit a fire. The body of the martyr, turning round on the wheel, was scorched on all sides. They then threw her into prison.

An angel of God appeared at night, healing her wounds and strengthening her with food. Her father, seeing her unharmed, gave orders to drown her in the sea. An angel sustained the saint while the stone sank down, and Christina miraculously came out of the water and reappeared before her father. In terror, the torturer imputed this to sorcery and he decided to execute her in the morning. That night he himself suddenly died. Another governor, Dion, was sent in his place. He summoned the holy martyr and also tried to persuade her to renounce Christ, but seeing her unyielding firmness, he again subjected her to cruel tortures. The holy martyr was for a long while in prison. People began to flock to her, and she converted them to the true faith in Christ. Thus about 300 were converted.

In place of Dion, a new governor Julian arrived and resumed the torture of the saint. After various torments, Julian gave orders to throw her into a red-hot furnace and lock her in it. After five days they opened the furnace and found the martyr alive and unharmed. Seeing this miracle take place, many believed in Christ the Savior, and the torturers executed St Christina with a sword.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

New baby!

We have a new baby.  That's right.  Felicity gave birth yesterday afternoon to a beautiful baby girl. Father was able to get to the hospital that night in order to say the prayers for Felicity and for new baby!

O Lord our God, to thee we pray, and on the we call, Let the light of thy countenance be signed on this thine handmaid, Christine, and be she signed with the cross of Thine only-begotten Son in her heart and understanding, that she may flee the vanity of the world and every evil device of the enemy, and may keep thy commandments; and grant, O Lord, that thy holy name may remain upon her unrenounced, when at the fitting time she shall be conjoined with thy holy church, and be perfected with the terrible mysteries of thy Christ, that, living according to thy commandments and preserving the seal unbroken, she may attain to the blessedness of thine elect in thy kingdom, through the grace and love to man of thine only-begotten Son, with whom thou art blessed, together with thy most holy, and good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and to ages of ages.  Amen.

Hail, grace accorded God-bearing Virgin!  for out of thee the sun of righteousness, Christ our God, hath shined, enlightening them that are in darkness.  And thou, O Righteous elder, be thou glad, receiving in thine arms the deliverer of our souls, even him that granteth resurrection unto us.

The preceding prayers were from the Book of Needs found at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, a ministry of Calvin College

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Picking diamonds out of dustbins

I feel like this post could be about any number of things: my daughter's impending birth; our imminent move to New York; or the growing relationship between us and the Orthodox Church and its feasts, saints, and fasts.  The last topic may be closest to a summary of the forthcoming post.  You be the judge.

I told my father the other day, that you don't know how bad a sinner you are until you start realizing how amazing God is.  It's that understanding of God's greatness and my desperate need for His forgiveness and mercy that has hit me like a ton of bricks this past month, specifically.  God is amazing and holy.  I am sinful and broken.  That sinfulness and brokenness is also dangerous, because it tends to hit everyone else with the shrapnel of the little bombs that go off in my life.

I don't know what it is that makes my sin become more apparent while becoming Orthodox than my righteousness.  I know that's an arrogant question, but it is the question I've been asking.  I really wish that people could see my growing faith and piety rather than be scandalized by my apparent regression.  It's frustrating, and it's the life I'm living in as we speak.

I'm praying that God will forgive me every day, and every day I find more reasons to ask for forgiveness.  I pray for God to give me mercy and strength to make it through the day, and every day I feel like I fall into bed exhausted and defeated by the weight of sin and struggle that rests on my shoulders every day.

Please pray for us.  Please pray for my wife as she gives birth to our new daughter.  Please pray for us as we move all of our worldly possessions once again to a new place.  Pray that as more sharp edges get revealed they get smoothed once again.  Most of all forgive me.  If you run into me and get struck by the shrapnel of my sin, please forgive me and pray for me.  God is love.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Living in the desert

I'm having a bad day.  I'd like to just begin by saying that.  I've pounded my keyboard, slammed down on the left click button of my mouse, and have generally ignored the world around me for the last hour.  I'm not sure what crawled up my hinder and died, but it's something.  I want to give you the context for this post--at least emotionally--before things get rolling.  You've all been warned.

I borrowed this picture from S-P's blog at  I found it the other day, and I found it both funny, satirical, and convicting all at the same time.  Since deciding to become catechumens, I've been giving a lot of thought to the direction of our lives.  Suddenly questions of "how long..." are coming to the forefront; whereas before I was more than contented to think in terms of years down the road--if at all.  I think I expected that something would come up (as my parents do now) that would prevent me from entering Orthodoxy.  Now, in some respects, I've already "come in".  I'm still waiting to be invited to come further into the house and eat at the table, but I'm in.  I've stopped sitting on the outside and peeping in like a spiritual voyeur.  I've now become a full-fledged catechumen.  I'm not sure what it means, but I know that it means I'm not just playing games anymore.

So I look over this to-do list, and I can honestly laugh at the irony presented by it.  I can giggle at the snark.  I can roll my eyes at "those ridiculous people" who think that by becoming Orthodox they become a lay monk--a monkabee.  When I give it a closer look, though, I realize how easily I fall into these types of things and I worry about keeping myself in balance between doing too little and not doing enough.

I've received no clear instruction on anything remotely touching on preparing for chrismation.  None.  We're not even fasting.  I'm not upset by this, but it is weird.  I think I expected our entrance into the catechumenate would come complete with welcome packet including instructions on when to meet with the priest, how many Jesus prayers to do, and instructions for setting up a home icon corner.  None of these things have happened.  This is ok.  We're moving.  Fr. C. will not be our priest for much longer.  Our preparations will be handled by another man.  I think if it weren't for the even keeled way that Fr. C. has handled our inquiry and our new catechumenate as prepared us for the long waits that await us.  A to-do list like the one above is nice, but let's be honest, it's absurd.  All of the important things are left undone, including denying yourself, picking up your cross, and following our Lord.

Denying myself is not something I do well.  (More on that later)  Right now I'm having trouble being humble enough to mend a growing rift between me and another member of my family.  It's so easy to be selfish.  It's so easy to be angry.  I don't want to take another step until I have figured out how to follow Christ by giving of myself and giving up on my self.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Catechism breeds impatience

I'm sorry that it's been a month since I last posted.  Felicity came down on me the other day because she's been blogging more regularly than I.  I've been through a lot in the past few weeks, and it always seems to happen when I don't have internet connection.  For example, I was in Annapolis on the world's longest job interview and had no internet connection the entire week!  So when I got the job on Wednesday, I wasn't able to do anything about it in my internet life.  Having had time to process a lot of this, allow me to start with my point made above: Catechism breeds impatience.

That could be unfair and inaccurate.  Perhaps more precisely, being catechized enhances my already natural predilection towards impatience.  Understanding that we were being patient until the notion of being catechized was presented to us by our priest last month.  After talking with him, lots of prayers, and considering our position we thought it best to step that much closer into the Church.  Since my new job brings us to Upstate, New York, we wanted to go to a new parish as Catechumens with the blessings of our priest than as "inquirers" and remain nebulous for another year.  So on July 25th all three of us were welcomed into the Church and began our Catechesis...three weeks before we move to a brand new state, city, parish, but hopefully not jurisdiction.

I had a dear friend tell me that Catechism was the beginning of a long life spent waiting.  Learning patience, I assume.  Our priest hasn't given us a lot of instruction as newly catechized members of the church, though he has given a little direction.  I think I expected a huge list of stuff to start doing (or stop doing) in preparation for Chrismation and life confession.  And that may still come from our next parish.  Right now, I'm trying to fit into my new clothes of Orthodox Christian.  It's so much the right thing and so much different from what I used to be.  I feel as though I've come home into the fold.  That The Good Shepherd finally found his 100th sheep wandering and was able to coerce it back into the fold without breaking its legs.  But maybe not.  Maybe He carried me in, and that's ok, too.

Monday, July 26, 2010

After a very busy week

This will probably not be a very long entry, but it is necessary to do a bit of updating - hopefully we'll have time to fully reflect on all these changes later on.
Over the past week or so we have had two very important developments, both in our "normal" life and our "Orthodox" life - as if one could separate the two.
The first is that Peter was able to land a teaching position at a school in upstate New York.  It is with much rejoicing that we will be moving to a more permanent location and a consistent financial stream, but with much sadness that we leave our mission church family here.  We have been well loved over the last few months.
The second development, which stems from the first, occurred yesterday - we were officially received as Catechumins. Our priest felt this was an important step to take before our move, and after consideration we agreed.
We'e looking forward to a third significant development (the birth of our second daughter) within the week.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My First Orthodox Funeral

Peter mentioned a few posts ago that we had a death in the parish.  It follows, therefore, that there was a funeral service as well.  While Peter had to work, his parents were able to watch our little one, so I was free to attend.  This was a relief for the choir director, he was happy to have another soprano at an otherwise sparsely attended service, as well as for our priest since I promised to bring a pasta salad for the after-service luncheon and he wanted to be sure there was enough outsider-friendly food for the newly reposed handmaiden's non-Orthodox family.

I'll admit that I was mostly concentrated on accurately sight reading the completely unfamiliar music and was not really able to take in everything about the service, but I did make a few observations that I'll share here.

The first thing I noticed was the set up of the room.  The casket was placed where the icon of the week usually stands in the middle of the nave.  The usual candle stands were there, but between them was a body.  The priest administered the service from the head of the casket, instead of behind the iconostasis/in front of the altar.  I know there was deep symbolism in this change, most of which at this point I don't really understand.  But, I did appreciate the fact that she both was and was not the center of the service.  While she was repeatedly mentioned by name throughout, it was clear that the point of the service was Christ and his resurrection - not her death.

Secondly, I was struck by the fact that we were encouraged to venerate the body.  I think that my terminology may be off though, reflecting the fact that I still just don't get so much of this.  It seemed more that we were venerating the body as an icon of the whole person who, though still in existence, had been unnaturally (though temporarily) separated from her physical body, and is currently in the presence of Christ.  So much of the language was similar or even exactly the same that we use during the weekly liturgy about the saint of the day.  I suppose this follows the logic: if she's actually seeing Christ face to face, why wouldn't we ask her to pray for us the same way we'd ask any other saint who is also in His presence?

Finally, I was glad to see that the service provided appropriate emotional space for grieving and yet also encouraged closure.  Now, it must be remembered that I was not in anyway related to the deceased.  In fact, I first saw her was at the funeral and her son, though he means well, rarely remembers my name from week to week.  I should also mention that my personal experience with funerals has been few and far between.  My grandfather, who died this past January, is the first person in my family to die since I was in elementary school.  Needless to say, the semi-Episcopalian memorial service held in his honor was so utterly lacking in, well, everything meaningful, it almost seems disrespectful to mention it.  In any case, I was struck by how the Orthodox funeral service encouraged the family and friends of the reposed to grieve the loss.  Death isn't natural, it isn't just the next step in nature's cycle, it is the product of our sin that both separates us from God and, in death, from each other and we should mourn that.  At the same time though, we were encouraged to remember that this separation is temporary and, while her body may be dead for now, her soul is still very much alive.  This seemed to me to be a very comforting thought.

In conclusion, I was both intrigued and impressed by the service.  I'm looking forward to attending more of the 'other' Orthodox services - baptism, weddings, etc., and learning more about how differently (refreshingly so, I think) the Orthodox view all aspects of life.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Being sensitive

This is designed to be a follow-up on the last post (found here).  Felicity and I have been doing a lot of praying and self-examination, waiting to hear from God about our next move: in deeper or status quo.  We were supposed to be having a conversation with our priest late this morning, but Matushka's mother is doing poorly, and she has gone to be with her, so Father is home with the boys.  Understandable, but it means that I need to do some "out loud" thinking.

Question 1: Do I see anything in Orthodoxy (after 4 months of active investigation plus 3 years of touristing) that makes me think we won't be joining the Church in 2 years' time anyway (enshalla)?

Answer: No.  I know that I don't even come close to scratching the surface of the fullness of everything that is Orthodox Christianity, but at this point there would have to be a fertility rite or cannibalistic orgy to deter me from continuing.  For the first time in my life, I would echo the sentiment of so many converts: it's like coming home.

Question 2: What, in reality, separates us from actual catechumens?

Answer: The ceremony.  At least as we see it.  We want to have the conversation with Father about it more specifically, but we feel that emotionally and spiritually we have entered into the catechumenate already.  We want to be part of the Church.  We just don't kwon what that all entails, but I have this inkling that the answer to that question is partially answered during the process of being catechumens.  
On a related note, there is is something to be said for that missing piece.  Last night in the Inquirers' Class we discussed the Holy Mysteries and the importance of symbols: making manifest to us the Reality.  Without that symbol of being received into the Church as catechumens, it doesn't matter how we feel because that Reality has not been made manifest.  To continue...

Question 3: What happened to taking it one year at a time?

Answer: No good answer.  There are elements of that decision which are still very relevant to our situation: parents, we haven't experienced everything yet, and the list goes on.  If we're only becoming catechumens because it would be nice for all of us as a family to be received at the same time, that's a bad reason.  If we're not becoming catechumens because we're waiting to have it all together with all the answers, that's a bad reason.  No good answer.

At this stage in the game, we're still inquiring.  God is faithful, though, and we have all of Eternity to "get it right."  I'm not in a rush any longer, but I feel like, having come to the place where I want to die in the Arms of the Church, I'd like to begin forming a deeper relationship with her.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Facing facts, naming names

This post dedicated to the memory of the newly reposed handmaiden of the Lord, Anna.

There's a book written about the Church and committing to it.  It's not a Bible or a text from the Holy Mountain.  In fact, it comes from the heart of the neo-Protestant movement and a young pastor (slightly older than myself) whose fame precedes him as "the dating guy"--or maybe the anti-dating guy would be more like it.  Joshua Harris (of I Kissed Dating Good-Bye fame) wrote a book several years ago now called Stop Dating (And Fall In Love With the Church).  His argument is straightforward: as Americans we need to stop church shopping, settling on the preaching or worship style we find the most appealing in a given month, and make a commitment to the People of God--Christ's Body.  Stop being so selfish, might be a good subtitle as well.  Where I come from we say it a little more bluntly (here self-censored) crap or get off the pot.

We've been "dating" Orthodoxy now, officially, for 5 months.  Beginning in early February, we began, in earnest, to listen, read, and learn about what makes the Orthodox Church unique and whether or not we want to be part of a tradition so rich and full yet so foreign and strange.  Through resources recommended by priests and available on Ancient Faith Radio, we've been podcasted, booked, lectured, lunched, conversationed, and prayed for in this journey and it's been incredible.  I feel like I don't know anything, but at the same time like I know more than I did before we got started.  I don't have time to go into the relationships we've discovered with the Faithful (living and departed), and the joy we experience each week in Liturgy and prayer; but know that these last 5 months have been incredibly life changing, which makes our upcoming decision so hard.

We had a memorial service this Sunday for a woman who reposed in the Lord on Friday.  She had expressed interest in joining the church, and with the blessing of Metropolitan Jonah was Chrismated and Communed last Sunday in her hospital bed in the ICU.  Her story affected me in a powerful way: I know how I want to die.  When I go, I want to be buried in the arms of the Church.

I'm not sure how to describe the moment.  It was like being in church, but we were surrounded by clouds and voices and singing.  We hadn't left the ground, but I was aware of being part of something so much larger: as though our hymns and prayers joined with the voices of angels and saints welcoming this woman into the eternal rest prepared for her.  I don't know that the unOrthodox can't go to heaven, but I know now that the Orthodox can.

Our priest presented us with a question which has really unsettled me.  Having gone through that experience, the next phase in our journey was opened to us.  With our second daughter on the way, Father commented to Felicity that he would like to receive the whole family together (it being slightly awkward to baptize a little one whose parents aren't Orthodox), and that he would be willing to receive us as Catechumens within the month.  We don't really know what to do.  Our plan was to take everything one year at a time both for our own mental and emotional well being and that of our families.  No sense in rushing in and playing catch up later, right?

I don't know what we're going to do--except talk with Father about it.  He's a wise, sensitive, and compassionate individual.  We want to make sure that he is aware of all of our concerns and fears before moving forward.  The question I'm now asking myself is, what holds me back from becoming a Catechumen?  Why not just do it?  I can't think of anything (except for externals) that make me believe we won't be joining the Church within 2 years anyway, so what am I worried about?  Doing it wrong, I guess.  Thoughts?

Friday, July 2, 2010

A thought on relevance

You probably remember my saying that I used to work in a church.  Working in a church is a special kind of hell (read heaven).  I absolutely loved my job, my co-workers, my kids, the building, everything.  Even the custodians were awesome!  This post isn't really about working in a church.

Once I remember having a conversation with my boss about preaching and teaching.  Our senior pastor had a habit of picking a new Christian book to preach out of that was based on a biblical passage rather than just preaching straight through Scripture.  All of this is fine, except people started to realize that our sermons month after month were based on something by Chuck Colson or Rick Warren rather than St. Paul or Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.  This presented a problem for those of us on staff, especially in ministry.

My boss commented once that what people, especially people who are struggling, really want (read need) to hear is the Bible.  They don't want gimmicks.  They don't want bestsellers.  They want to hear God's words, not another author who has an opinion.  This idea came back to me this afternoon, after we had returned from another beautiful, moving, wonderfully mundane Divine Liturgy.  Orthodoxy's main concern isn't relevance in the modern understanding of the word.

As a youth pastor I was always concerned with being relevant.  New technology, new movies, new music, new clothes, new new new new new new...  You get the point.  If it wasn't cutting edge, it wasn't relevant.  As long as the kids were shocked and amazed, it was relevant and we had truly communicated the Gospel to them.  What I've noticed about our weekly services is that they're incredibly Relevant without being at all relevant.  The question isn't how do we make this more accessible? but how do we adequately and accurately communicate the truth of the Gospel to every person who walks through these doors?  That to me says more about the love the Church should have for a fallen and dying world.

Ask yourself, am I telling people that Jesus loves them?  When they come to my church, do they understand what it's all about?  For a newcomer, the Liturgy can be very confusing and overwhelming.  We need to hear the message spelled out: God loves you so much He died for you, and He wants to make you into His image. This is the most Relevant message available.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Life without baby

My (Peter's) parents took our daughter for the weekend.  It's a Father's Day present either to my dad or to me.  I'm not sure which.  Maybe both.  We're going to take the offering either way and enjoy some much needed husband and wife time before little girl #2 comes along sometime around Dormition.  As a consequence, we have been enjoying a wonderful weekend of church services, outings, dinners, and a soon-to-be experienced Toy Story 3 outing.

This was our first opportunity to take in the Vespers service at church this weekend.  Usually, do to our little monkey's sleep schedule, we aren't able to make it.  It's also a long drive.  We made it a point to go this weekend, because we wanted to go to the Akathist service to the Mother of God Healer of Cancer that our parish celebrates whenever it can fit into the calendar.  This was our first time we've been able to attend.

If you recall from the second part of my story from earlier in the year (found here) my first Orthodox service was an Akathist service to the Mother of God.  This was the first official Akathist I have attended since our decision to explore Orthodoxy began, and it was a very interesting experience.  I'm afraid I don't have a whole lot to say about it now.  I'd like to make a posting later about my experiences getting to know the Theotokos and devotion to her.  To say the least, it was a very moving service and we were personally very blessed to have been part of that experience with our parish.

This Sunday I was able to be part of the whole service!  Usually, I am in and out with the little girl; but without her there, we were able to stay (and stand) through the whole of the Divine Liturgy.  I find that week after week, I am learning and seeing things that I haven't experienced before.  The most significant part of this week was the sense of belonging that I have started to feel.  We've begun singing in the choir.  I was asked to play chess with an old Russian gentleman.  Felicity was having very personal conversations with various people and women in the church!  I got this sense of family that I haven't had since graduating from seminary and moving away from all our friends.

My family and I may never get along over Orthodoxy.  We may always have arguments about Saints, the Theotokos, Liturgy, Theology, et al.   It's ok.  We have family.  There are people who have entered into our life (some temporal and others eternal) who are looking out for us and will make sure that we're never truly alone.  Sorry if this posting is a little vague.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Weakness and Strength

Peter has been encouraging me to blog, despite my instance that there's "nothing" to blog about.  Of course, I realize that not actually having anything specific to write about hardly stops a blogger, in fact it probably encourages most of them.  I, on the other hand, like to wait for big events to happen which might provide for interesting reading material.  Lately, there haven't been too many of these.

Since we returned from our numerous vacations (to the beach with my parents, to a wedding in Ohio, to my sister's bridal shower) life has been relatively monotonous.  As an introvert, I'm really okay with this.  I like to spend my days at home, playing with our daughter, doing some house work, reading, sewing, and being quiet.  Lately, however, even these mundane and simple tasks have been difficult, the reason for which lends me my topic for today.

I'm not sure if we've mentioned it before, but I am currently in my seventh month of, so far, a wonderfully uneventful pregnancy.  The biggest problem I've had has been keeping my iron count and, consequently, my energy level up.  I've never been big on exercising or physical labor, but lately even little things like having breakfast in the morning or going up and down the stairs leave me out of breath and longing for a nap.  I know that there are many people with many conditions that have similar issues, but as a young woman who has been healthy her entire life this experience is completely new and foreign to me.  My natural inclination is to use the exhaustion as an excuse to be lazy, this then leads me to feel guilty about letting Peter pick up the slack in the house work, as well as thoughts about how bad I am at being a good wife, stay at home mom, etc.
Here's where our journey into Orthodoxy has met me head on.  First, I have a name for those depressing thoughts: logosmoi.  Just having a label is nice - it allows me to recognize them for what they are and dismiss them.  Second, I have found that I have the strength to do some things and that that strength comes from the Father and no where else.  That I have the ability to do anything by myself, even when not pregnant, is an illusion.  All my strength comes from Him - this experience has made that fact more apparent.  Finally, I know that I do not have the strength to do all that I feel is expected of me, but I can do all that He expects of me and there is much freedom in that.  I may be able to do the dishes, but I can't do the dishes, mop the floor, vacuum, do laundry and go shopping.  
That's okay.  Things will get done in their own time.  I can let go and rest in his light yoke.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Let Us Attend: Part 2

It's been several weeks since my last post about Let Us Attend, by Fr. Lawrence Farley from Canada.  Here's the link in case you forgot what I wrote and/or need a refresher on the book and where you can buy it.  Since I wrote the last post, I've had time to finish the book (twice) and process a little bit more about my Sunday morning experiences at church.  The last time I wrote, I was thinking a lot about the focus of worship on Sunday morning.  This time, I've been contemplating about the lessons of worship.

Each week I leave church reminded of three things: Who God is, Who I am, and Who Jesus is.  I am thrust into these reminders very quickly.  The first few Antiphons serving as a prologue or thesis statement on the rest of the Liturgy.  If you asked me what Church was about, I would tell you (with very little variation), that it was about those three things.

Who God is
Without being a theological treatise on the nature of God, this is what I learn each week: God is loving, good, compassionate, merciful, forgiving, and holy.  The words of the first two antiphons (Ps. 103 and 145, respectively) remind me of these truths.

"Bless the Lord, o my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy Name...  The Lord is compassionate and merciful, of great goodness....  He will not always chide....  He maintains His faithfulness to all generations...."

We then get to hear about His work in history through the reading of Scripture (always preceded by psalms and Alleluias).  The service climaxes with the request that He come into our lives, fill us, bless us, and turn the gifts on the table (mysteriously) into the Body and Blood of Christ.  God is.  That is what I learn each week about God.

Who I am
In a metaphysical sense, I am a creature of material make up.  More than that, though, I am created in God's image and destined to be made like Him by His work in me through the Holy Spirit.  We remind each other throughout the service to worship God with our whole being, that He is compassionate and merciful to the humble; but He resists the proud.  Lay aside pride.  Sit at His feet.  Drink deeply of His mercy.

The Scripture lessons remind me that I am sinful and in need of a savior.  They also remind me that God chose to be that savior.  That He loved me so much that He became a human being to live and die for me and rescue me from Hell.  That reality is never more clear than at the time of communion.  As I sit and watch the faithful go forward to the chalice, I truly do wish for them to taste the Bread of Life and drink from the Fountain of Immortality.  I want that for them, because I want that for me.  We are all one body, and I am so dependent on each of them right now--their prayers and support.

Who Christ is
Christ is God incarnate.  Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who took on flesh and blood and lived and died in real time.  His picture is in our room.  His mother and His faithful followers adorn our church.  His eyes follow me.  His presence permeates the room where we worship.

The icon of Christ at our church is in English.  The Gospel text is "Come unto me all you who are weary...."  Every week I approach that icon and place all my cares into his hands.  I come to Him, asking to have my burden lifted.  I teach my daughter to worship Him alone.  When I leave church each week I go out knowing that He was born, lived, died, rose again, ascended, intercedes for us, and will someday come again.

Let us attend.  Let us be attentive.  It's a call for each of us to "lay aside all earthly cares" and to listen to what is being said.  The human mind wanders, and the imagination gets away from us.  Those times when we are reminded to listen are there for our benefit, because God knows what it's like to have distractions, and the Church knows that people are weak and need reminders.  So let us attend.  God is present.  God is loving.  You are a sinner who needs Jesus.  Jesus loves you so much He died for you.  Remember.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Coming up empty

This week has been really hard.  Beginning at the beginning, Felicity's parents visited church this weekend.  We had let them read Frederica's 12 Things article to prepare them for the service.  Even though they've had a girl living with them who is also exploring Orthodoxy, they've never been to the Divine Liturgy before.  (In case you don't remember, her parents grew up either irreligious or very strictly fundamentalist.  Neither is very comfortable around a lot of ceremony.)  This Sunday being Pentecost, the service was really different.  We didn't even know what was going on, and trying to help them follow along was also hard.

The trip back home was really nice.  A lot of good conversations: what was happening when..., why did they..., what did that mean...? Good questions, good conversation.  It also continued into the afternoon and evening.  They both thanked us for taking them and I think they're doing some processing of their own.  My mother-in-law kept saying, "I'm a Protestant!  This is so different!"  Not in a bad way, just as an observation.

Sunday afternoon I also had a conversation at a McDonald's with my parents.  My mom kept calling it my "Greek Orthodoxy Thing" (she doesn't get Jurisdictional heirarchy any more than I do).  She asked me "Is this Jesus plus?"  No.  "So you don't worship Mary?"  No.  "Transubstantiation in communion?"  It's still bread and wine, but it's not just bread and wine.  I felt really blindsided by the conversation.  I knew it was going to be coming up, I just wasn't prepared for it.  Their main concern was that we spend time thinking about all that we're doing--as opposed to just popping up and doing it because it's new and shiny.  Good concern to have.  They're very wise people.

If a few weeks ago I felt fine not knowing anything, I don't feel that way anymore.  Why is it so hard to have a good day after you spend the morning and evening praying?  Why are the attacks so much more violent now?  How come I can't "greet the coming day with peace" or see "everything that happens as sent by You"?  Why does our relationship feel more strained than it used to?  How come I can't just answer the questions our parents ask?  I'm just coming up short in so many ways, and that's very hard.

The past few days have been very hard as well.  My last check from the old job comes this week.  I work for very little money--not enough to really pay all of the bills that we have.  I had a really good interview on Monday with a school down here, but I'm still waiting to hear if I'll have a job or not.  No one else is calling.  This is where real life meets fantasy, and I'm caught somewhere in the middle of it all.

It's hard to keep praying, when praying seems to make things harder.  It's hard to stay faithful, when you realize that you haven't given as much thought to what you're doing as your parents (or others) think you should have.  I know we're only in the beginning of this experience.  I know there's more, better things to come.  Right now, the sky is dark and I'm waiting for the moon to rise.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Parents' Visit

This past week we enjoyed a wonderful vacation in a beach side condo with my parents.  Oh the joy of Sabbath.  The week culminated, after our return home, with my parents coming to liturgy with us.  It was their first time in an Orthodox service and maybe their second in a liturgical service - they usually attend a non-denominational, "low threshold" church (see my previous entry about growing up in the Vineyard).  We did our best to prepare them by talking about the service and having them read Frederica Matthewes Greene's essay "12 things I wish I'd known..."
The service itself went well, aside from it being Pentecost so following the Liturgy in the book was difficult, and my mom took a break from the incense for fifteen minutes or so after the homily.  Coffee hour was great, since it gave them a chance to talk to some members of the congregation.
I think the toughest part, at least for my mom, was the lingo (Theotokos, antiphon, anaphora, Eucharist, etc.). As she said "it takes Christianese to a whole other level."  Somehow we also failed to impart the fact that the iconostasis (you know, the wall with the pictures at the front) separated the congregation from the altar, not a storage closet.
Overall, it was a good visit and led to many conversations.  My parents are very interested in parts of Orthodoxy that I haven't thought about.  For instance, missions has always been big for them and they wondered how modern Orthodox reach out to the "unchurched", both in the States and around the world.  It's definitely something we will be looking into - I know Orthodox mission organizations exist, but that's about all I know at this point.
Basically, I think as long as we can keep the communication lines open they'll be okay with our eventual conversion - if we decide to go that route.  They don't seem to be opposed to anything in particular, just ignorant.

Here's one final anecdote from the weekend that I'll share because I found it to be very encouraging:
On Saturday evening, after a long conversation about Orthodoxy and the upcoming service, my mom asked my dad if he recalled the first time my grandmother had visited their church shortly after they were married.  Oh yes, he remembered.  My grandmother had always attended very strict traditional churches (my mom grew up Brethren, at the time I think she was attending a CMA church) and my parents were worried about her reaction to their more modern non-denominational church.  I think they were mostly concerned about the extreme difference in musical style, but come the Sunday of the visit a rather charismatic guest preacher spoke on the gift of tongues.  My grandmother, however, slept through most of the service and didn't have nearly the reaction they had feared.
Hearing this story, I thought back over all the conversations Peter and I have had about how our parents may or may not react to our exploration of Orthodoxy.  While my mom had no knowledge of those conversations, it was clear in that moment that Someone who did knew I needed some reassurance.