Swarms of trouble

I used to take wilderness canoe trips during summers in my college years. On my first trip, my boots were too small, something I didn’t realize until I put them on with my wool socks, hundreds of miles from anywhere. I shall spare you the gory details, but I ended up with blisters that made my feet look a WWI soldier with trench foot. I was completely miserable, and barely able to put one foot in front of the other as I hauled a canoe and backpack from lake to lake in Northern Ontario.

I had been warned about the mosquitoes, but I didn’t realize how bad they were until the first time I flipped the canoe up over my head and swarms of the little buggers huddled up under the dripping Fiberglas, attacking any piece of open skin on my head, hands, and arms. And woe to me any time I happened to slow down to give my poor feet a rest, or to shift the canoe, or whatever. Any lag led to those needle-nosed demons declaring open season.

That’s what the last 24 hours have felt like. Welcome to Lent…

It’s not the big stuff that trips me up, that ruins my focus, spoils my mood, and renders me completely ineffective. It’s the little nonsense–technology trouble at work, general clumsiness, traffic delays, and some bizarre hyper-sensitivity to EVERYTHING. I’m pathetic.

I have been aggravated, angry, annoyed, critical, criticized, discouraged, impatient, and, (need I mention?) whine-y.

In Orthodoxy we talk a lot about our “passions”–those things that often lead us to sin. We are constantly reminded of the danger they pose to us, and how they keep us from becoming more like Christ. We pray for help in controlling them, and seek to bring them to submission.

I have been told, often, to expect more struggle during Lent, both internal and external. Obviously, I am consciously wrestling with more–intentionally trying to focus on my need for a Savior and healing. And, of course, the enemy wants me to do none of that, for as long as I am distracted, disinterested, or distressed, I am ineffective.

I could not shake these thoughts last evening. They already had their proboscises in me, drawing blood. I went to sleep with them, and I awakened to them. But then I recognized them for what they were, and I started swatting them off. (It was best accomplished in my icon corner with the book of Psalms.)

I expect they’ll come back. I’m tired, walking slow, and feeling ouchy, so I guess I’ll make an easy target. But like the portage under the dripping canoe, I have places to go, and I can’t get there standing around whining about the bugs.

Today’s morning psalm:
LORD, how they have increased who trouble me! Many are they who rise up against me. Many are they who say of me, “There is no help for him in God.” Selah
But You, O LORD, are a shield for me,
My glory and the One who lifts up my head.
I cried to the LORD with my voice,
And He heard me from His holy hill. Selah
I lay down and slept; I awoke, for the LORD sustained me.
I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people
Who have set themselves against me all around.
Arise, O LORD; Save me, O my God!
For You have struck all my enemies on the cheekbone;
You have broken the teeth of the ungodly.
Salvation belongs to the LORD. Your blessing is upon Your people.
Selah

Swat!

Road weary

I’m homesick.

Tonight, the CD player is filling my living room with sounds from The Fellowship of the Ring. When I first read the books and, of course, watched those marvelous movies, I felt a great affinity for Samwise—his loyalty, devotion, and commitment. But at the end, I felt for Frodo, still feeling the pain from the wounds suffered on his journey.

For some reason, today, this second Monday of Great Lent, I am mindful of my own journey. Step by step, sometimes wavering, sometimes steady, but hopefully always heading home.

We don’t belong here. The intention was never the frosty winters of Narnia under the White Witch, the fires of Mordor, or the soul-stripping consumerism of 21st-century America. We’re supposed to be somewhere else. We’re supposed to be with the King.

That’s what He created us for—to walk with Him, to know His voice, and to be in His presence, all the time. But we have always had other things in mind for ourselves—fruited trees, Turkish delight, Rings of Power, and Hummers. We know better, thanks. We’re our own people. We are self-actualized, credit-rated, and able to choose.

Thank God that He acted apart from our choices. Thank God that He loves us in spite of them.

Yesterday was the Sunday of Orthodoxy. We take the icons off the walls, and march them around the Church, singing of our Faith, and praising Him who has saved us. We reflect on the Seventh Ecumenical Council that restored the use of icons in worship (rightfully). Icons, of course, mean more to us than pretty pictures on the wall. They are the portraits of our friends who have gone before, but most importantly they are the images of the Incarnation, they are reminders of Emmanuel. They show God with us, in spite of us, and for us. He revealed Himself to us. The Only-Begotten Son, the Word of God, took on human form to lead us out of here. He chose not to hide Himself from us, in spite of our refusal to look at Him.

Our choices have poisoned this world where we live. The weight of the sins that I commit destroy the planet, harm my brother, and fly in the face of my Redeemer’s love.

I have misplaced myself. Instead of a life surrounded by the peace of the garden, I awake in a world that kills those who are no longer expedient, a place where the slow, the weak, and the poor are destroyed. I numb the reality with countless frivolities–television, idle chatter, food, drink, noise, whatever.

But I am in exile. I am the Israelite in Egypt. I am the prodigal eating with the swine. I am Eve, cast out.

Yet He has come. The steady and difficult march of Lent will ultimately bring me to the glorious Pascha, the day of my rescue. It reminds me of the weight of sin, and the beauty of Redemption.

I can’t allow myself to forget where I belong. I should not get too comfortable here, for someday…home.

From Fr. Thomas Hopko’s book, The Lenten Spring:
To forget God is the cause of all sins, to be unmindful of Zion is the source of all sorrows. To settle down in this fallen world, which is not God’s good creation, but rather the Babylon which the wicked has made, is death to the soul.

Then, Fr. Thomas quotes from the First Friday matins:

Blinded by sensual pleasure, I bear within me a darkened soul, and the crafty enemy laughs when he sees me. Give me light, O Christ, and deliver me forever from his malice.

Safe travels. And Good Lent.

Forgiveness Sunday (and Monday, and Tuesday…)

Sunday was Forgiveness Vespers. If “Meatfare Sunday” was “get-right-with-God” Sunday, I guess you could say that “Cheesefare Sunday” (this past Sunday) was “get-right-with-your-brothers” Sunday.

Last year, having not been joined to the Church through Chrismation, I did not participate, by my own choosing. It felt too much like “family time” and I was not yet there. But this year, I need, so very badly, that family. Thanks be to God!

This year, with timing being once again everything,Forgiveness Sunday, the beginning of Great Lent, the day we reflect on how our own sins affect those around us and the world-wide community, came sandwiched between the death of an elderly family member and this.

I was unaware of the second item as I participated in the Forgiveness Vespers service. For the non-Orthodox friends of this blog, Forgiveness Vespers involve each member of the church bowing, embracing, and seeking the forgiveness of the others in our church family. We bow, and ask their forgiveness for any way in which we have offended them, regardless of how well we know them. They respond, with an embrace, and “I forgive, and God forgives all.” It is truly a humbling and beautiful time.

Because our building is liturgically challenged, I got kind of wedged between the pew (yes, I know) and the wall. As I tried hard not to knock the icons off the wall behind me, I had little room to bow, and neither did the poor soul approaching me in the line. I ended the evening with a small knot on my head from an elbow. {Mike, I forgive, and God forgives all! :)} As we awkwardly bowed, and furiously hugged each other, I could not help but be strangely convicted of my own sin, with each congregant that passed by me.

Then (the above linked item) this morning, sitting in a courtroom, staring at the back of the head of a man whose “alleged” actions caused great grief to so many people, I struggled to remain in that same spirit of forgiveness, and to control the anger and frustration I have vowed to wrestle with during this Lenten season. Sigh…

So now, sitting in my quiet home, with the Akathist of Thanksgiving on the CD player, I feel vulnerable, sad, and yet, at the same time, comforted by the great forgiveness of God.

From the Akathist…(written by a pastor imprisoned in a Russian gulag):
That which is broken cannot be restored, but You can set aright those whose conscience has become decayed; You restore the soul to its former beauty in those who have lost it beyond all hope. With You there is nothing that cannot be put aright. You are all love. You are the Creator and the Restorer. To You we sing praise: Alleluia!

And from Forgiveness Vespers:
The grace of our Lord has shown forth, the grace which illumines our souls.
This is the acceptable time; the time of repentence is here.
Let us put aside the works of darkness; let us put on the armor of light, that passing through Lent as through a great sea, we may reach the third-day Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls.

Amen.

Judgment Sunday (Farewell to meat!)

Meatfare Sunday–the day we give up our carnivorous ways until Pascha. It is also the day on the calendar where we reflect on the judgment. It’s “get right with God” Sunday.

The passage the Church gives us today is the parable of the sheep and the goats (made me think of Keith Green). It always makes me very somber, though I’m not sure if it’s the part where they say “Lord”, or the part where He says “Depart from me…”

I could write about eternal security, how that played into my journey, or talk about the importance of doing His work here, as a vital part of our faith. But I won’t. I’m going to stray a bit from the blog (I know, after just outlining its purpose).

There’s an icon with Christ in the center, and a river flowing upward to heaven, and a river flowing down, toward hell. The river finds its source in the One in the center of the icon–Jesus Christ. The river, Fr. Isaac said, expressing the views of early Christian writers, is the love of God, both in heaven, and in hell.

For those who spend their lives denying the love of God, running from it, avoiding it, and hating it, such brilliant love would be blinding, painful, like the midday sun to a mole. Instead of providing comfort and safety, it would be the last thing they would want. As St. Isaac the Syrian said, what would be worse than the scourge of love. And, it would be something they would do themselves–a torment of their own earthly and spiritual choices.

Conversely, for those who have embraced Him and His gifts, that love would provide life itself. They would not be able to get enough of it, drinking deep, finding all they need inside. It is what we were created for.

Behold, what manner of love the Father has given unto us: that we may be called the sons of God!

Drink up!

Just a quick note

I have greatly appreciated the lively conversation on the earlier posts. Writers like it when people read their stuff, and that seems to extend to the blogosphere.

But, ask anyone who knows me even half-way well, I am a paranoid freak. I hate being misunderstood, and I want to make sure the purpose of this blog is reiterated, and that I say once again that I am not trying to attack anyone.

It took me about 12 years to come to Orthodoxy from my earlier states of spiritual unrest, and five years to make up my mind once I became acquainted with the Church. During those years, inside my warped little mind, I wrestled over these issues, argued with myself, and flirted with change. But other than my occasional cynical jabs, no one in my family or any of my friends really knew what was going on in my mind. This blog is an attempt to get it down on “paper”, for them and others (I hope) to read, think about, disagree/agree with, or ignore.

Consider it postcards from my journey home.

But that journey involved leaving, and I left a place I still hold dear and important in my mind (believe it or not), and a place where the majority of those I love still live. I know that my decision has caused frustration, and even pain, to those who love me. I hope, for them, this helps them understand me a bit more, though it probably just exacerbates the situation.

It is not in anyway my intention to attack specific people, or specific churches, though things I observed in those churches concerned me, and were counted among those things that I left.

I hope this blog sparks more discussion. I hope that friends and family members aren’t pulling out their hair, slamming their laptops closed, and gritting their teeth in frustration. I hope those that are not Orthodox forgive my zeal when it goes overboard, and look past my feeble efforts to see the glory of the Church created at Pentacost. I hope that those who share my love for the Holy Orthodox Church forgive my errors, and my efforts to explain this great Mystery.

May God richly bless all of you on your journeys!