Not here

I kept waiting for his eyes to open and his smile to reappear. I had never seen Fr. George without that smile–like there was a big joke he couldn’t wait to let me in on. But he remained still inside that coffin and the hand which was so warm the dozens of times I kissed it after services was cold when I said goodbye.

But the beauty of my faith, the belief in the THERE that is not here and yet so close, tells me that Fr. George sang the Thrice-Holy hymn with us this morning. I know he will participate in that ongoing work that occurs in heaven, the one we haltingly try to join into here.

That thin veil between life and death, between the temporal and the eternal, broken in just an instant, does not keep THERE always out of here. It seeps through, oozing into our lives in ways we could never imagine. It calls to us. It beckons us. It reminds us that this is not all that we are. That we are more, meant for more and will be more.

Fr. George (the man formerly known as William M. Smith) is now more. He is now that which he was always meant to be (though I think he got closer to it here than most people). Our hearts mourn him but we rejoice too in knowing that he will find rest in the place where the saints repose.

I made it through much of the memorial service Monday night without tears, but when we got to the part of the service, a part common to all our services, in which we sing so beautifully “Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Father, bless!” We ask our father, this one who has committed to guiding us and shepherding us through to THERE, to pray for us one last time in the service.

I broke down completely as I thought about how I will miss seeking Fr. George’s blessings and his advice. I was so sad.

But then today, as we sang the Liturgy and then the funeral, I was reminded throughout of how he’s not gone so much as just THERE. But he will still, I am sure, ask God to bless us. He will still serve, albeit THERE, alongside the saints, and all the angels, in the mystical supper always served in the high places.

So today, when I kissed that hand for the last time, I whispered to him, almost completely out of habit…

Father, bless.

 

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A good and faithful servant

This week started off with that glorious day at Holy Dormition Monastery. But it wrapped up with a dreaded, but not surprising, email announcing the death of the beloved Fr. George Smith.

A few weeks ago, while I was on vacation and standing next to my mom and grandma in St. Mary’s Orthodox Church in Goshen, Fr. Matthew announced Fr. George had taken a turn for the worse–his cancer had returned and he was becoming very ill very quickly. I made up my mind to send him a note, thanking him for all he had done for me personally. I bought the card on Wednesday. He died Thursday night.

I never got to tell him how much he meant to me. And the news of his death hit me harder than I thought it would yesterday, making me much more upset and irritable than I know Fr. George would have liked.  But I’ll do better with it today and I am going to tell you why that wonderful little priest meant so much to me and to nearly every Orthodox Christian in the northern half of the state.

Fr. George had a wonderful career prior to becoming a priest. He retired from the Fort Wayne Police Department, after years as an officer and bomb technician. I am sure that his friendly and unflappable personality served him well in both of those tasks. His wife, Charlotte, is equally warm, and in contrast to someone like me, has never been known to say a cross word about anyone or anything.

Fr. George never had his own parish, instead being content to serve as a “supply priest” for the Antiochian Orthodox Church’s Midwest Diocese.  He attended, officially, St. John Chrysostom’s, which was where I first attended and later joined. He was one of the founding members of St. Mary’s before that.

He was at St. John’s when it fell apart, less than a year after my chrismation. When my friends and fellow parishioners scattered to the wind, some moving and others starting their own “orthodox” church, Fr. George and Charlotte worried about what would become of me.

I too left the church, even not attending anywhere for a few months. I eventually wandered into the Greek church, out of some unfounded fear of the then-priest at St. Nicholas and his reaction to the split at St. John’s.  Nearly two years later I drug myself to a Theophany service on a snowy bridge over the lunch hour. I had grown weary with life at the Greek-language Holy Trinity Church, finding it hard to connect with the service and the people.

There, standing in the snow, in his vestments and earmuffs was Fr. George. Both he and Charlotte wrapped their arms around me, giving me a huge hug.

We’ve been praying for you for these past years. We worried you would leave Orthodoxy because of what happened. You were so new to the faith.

I nearly did, I told them. But I just couldn’t.

Oh, my dear, we have just prayed so much for you, they said again. You should go to St. Nicholas where they speak English. It will be OK.

For some reason, whenever Fr. George said it would be OK, I always believed him. Normally, when people tell me something is going to be OK, I believe the exact opposite will be the case.

I took their advice and went to St. Nicholas, which unbeknownst to me was in the midst of its own “unpleasantness.”  About 18 months later, the priest there left to go back into the military full time as a chaplain and my beloved Fr. George served as our priest for a year until Fr. Andrew came.

Fr. George was never the most polished priest, and never was he showy. He quietly served the Liturgy, giving simple homilies and practical advice during confessions. There was that one time he set the carpet on fire during Pascha with the incense, but that was an outlier.

He fit well in our altar, looking just like the icon of St. Nicholas mounted in the front of our church. And whenever I saw him up there, I always felt so spiritually safe. I always believed it would be OK. Anytime I heard his voice lifted in prayer, I always knew I, and all his other little sheep, were on his mind and heart as he spoke to our Lord.

I will miss him so much–his twinkling eyes and quick laugh. But I know, and this is reason #129 why I love Orthodoxy, that his prayers for me will continue now as he has gone just beyond that thin veil that separates “here” from “THERE.” I will light a candle for him on Sunday, and probably a few other candles in the weeks and months ahead. I will ask God to take good care of His faithful servant, the Archpriest Geroge, because he meant so much to us here and we will miss him. May He grant him rest where the saints repose.

I know that his legacy, his faithful work, continues on here. It continues on in me every time I come into church. It continues in my sister and her husband, Orthodox now three years. That would have been less likely to happen had I grown frustrated and left the faith. It continues now with my mother and grandmother, singing and praying at St. Mary’s, a church he helped to found.

Vechnya Pamnyat! May his memory be eternal!

 

Our things

Every morning, I take a small cream-colored pill. And every night, I take a white one. The cream-colored pill helps me get through my day and the white one, my night.

I have PTSD. And I’ve probably had it most of my life.

I got it from my father, but unlike my hair color and blue eyes and weak chin, it’s not genetic. It’s just something I picked up along the way. How it came to me is a story for another time, maybe not even this place. But it is who I am. It is as much a part of me now, of my personality, as those blue eyes and my loud laugh. It makes me warier than I would probably want to be. It makes me restless and edgy on some days, tired and unfocused on others. But mostly it makes me frustrated.

Frustrated because it is here. Frustrated because I had to explain it to my boyfriend when we “got serious.” Frustrated because there are certain places I don’t go, certain things I don’t eat, certain situations into which I try not to place myself because I just don’t feel safe and certain times of the year when I cannot seem to get it together. The situations and places are probably safe, but my brain no longer registers them as such.

I came to this place, which is actually now a pretty good one, after years of struggle and denial and anger. And like an addict, I had to reach the “rock bottom,” which for me was a particularly embarrassing and volatile encounter with a police officer (yes, I know, the irony) that probably could have resulted in my arrest and subsequent loss of my job. But it didn’t because God’s gracious and my friends were there to help me out and I, praise God, took the hint.

I got some help. I found a therapist. I joined the Orthodox Church and found a priest. I have a psychiatrist and a golden Retriever with the softest ears and most peaceful demeanor God ever bestowed upon a creature.

I don’t know why I am sharing this with you, my five or six (I’m optimistic) loyal readers, tonight. Maybe there’s someone that needs it. Maybe I need to say it. I say it, I tell it, because we all have our things: our PTSD, our loneliness, our alcoholism, our cancer, our cheating spouses, our hideous parents or our difficult kids.

But whatever our things, we have this NOW, this place where our things are with us, and God is with us and our lives are lived. And we have this grace, this tremendous thing God does for us in His love –this provision, this care, these relationships that help carry us across the asphalt (like the turtles).

I want for all of you, and for me, to be well, to be safe and to know that we are all still in His hands. We are all forever in the grip of His grace, regardless of our experiences, our choices and our struggle.

Our souls are safe.

Searching…

So much is on my mind tonight…I could write about most of it. How I feel about the rising gap between the top 1% of Americans and the rest of us. (Outlaw motorcycle gangs call themselves 1%ers. FWIW.) How another Father’s Day passed with estrangement. How nearly 70 of my colleagues at the Indy Star lost their jobs today, a few months after Gannett’s CEO gave himself a $1.5 million bonus. About how proud I am of my mom because of how hard she fights for her patients.

So much.

What do you want to know?

I want to know about justice. I want to know when this all makes sense. I want to know when I’ll attain theosis and behave the way I’m supposed to, when I will uncover the mirror of that Divine Image within me.

I want to know where my favorite verse in the Protestant Bible — Jeremiah 29: 11-13 — went in the Orthodox Bible. Our Bible has the additional,  original, canonical books and Jeremiah is one  of the books numbered differently, based on the Septuagint.

I’ve been looking for that passage for a week now and cannot find it to save my life.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord…”

I hope He does. I’m counting on that. I always have, I guess. Not in some kind of Jesus-is-going-to-pull-my-butt-from-the-fire way, but in an I’m-glad-someone’s-watching way.

All those years, all those different pews I sat in, sermons I listened to.

“plans to prosper you and not to harm you…”

All those times I ran and ducked to avoid trouble in my house as a child. All those fights, all the arguing.

“plans to give you hope and a future.”

All the times I tried to make what I knew about God, all His vast unknown-ness, fit into the little box of what I was taught.

“Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.”

All the times I struggle and fall, grow weary and discouraged about the way things are. All the times I forget to pray, ignore study and fill my mind with idle thoughts that tumble out of my idle lips.

“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all of your heart.”

I’m going to keep looking, I guess. I know it’s in there.

Running in the background

I promised myself (and my five readers) I would be more disciplined with writing. I figured this week would be easier because the workload at the office wasn’t as bad and my stories were a bit more pleasant.  But just like I always got better grades when I was playing sports, I am apparently not as good at this when I’m not as harried.

I was thinking this week about my first encounter with Orthodoxy, 12 years ago right about now. I remember wanting so badly to believe in something for real, and yet not being able to figure out how to believe in something I didn’t trust (protestantism). I was in Washington, D.C. for a journalism program through the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and the program director was about a month-old convert into the Orthodox Church.

I remember telling him on evening walks that I really wanted to give up. I couldn’t be Episcopalian because, well, they were just going to hell in a hand basket. I couldn’t be Catholic because I wasn’t down with that Pope thing. Something had to give, though, spiritually or I was probably going to have some serious mental health issues. So I figured I was just going to bag it and be this sad little Christian atheist (seriously).  Terry said, “have you thought about Orthodoxy?”

I thought he meant Jewish and I was totally confused. He told me a little bit more about it and then we probably talked about newspapers and religion writing, our favorite things. I didn’t think much more about Orthodoxy for awhile, but I think it kind of germinated in my mind without my knowledge or attention.

Remember that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the crew of the Enterprise gets it in their head that the way to solve the problem of the Borg is to introduce some kind of mathematical equation into the collective that cannot be solved? Yeah? You don’t? OK, well there was this episode…

Orthodoxy was like that for me: this riddle I didn’t understand, a different answer to the question I was asking. My heart took it in, downloaded it if you will and let it run quietly in the background of my mind: a kind of “malware” that wasn’t malicious. It grew and grew until 2003 when I had nowhere else to go spiritually and realized the map home had been in my heart all this time.

Hey, tmatt, thanks for the walks and for pointing the way.

(Sigh)

That’s a contented sigh, in case you couldn’t tell. My friends finally received the answer for which they’ve been waiting.  An investigation is under way, there has been a necessary submission by those who have wronged to those who were harmed.

I’m sure I’ll blog more about this later because I learned so much from it. I was reminded again of what true godly character looks like. I saw what it means to patiently bear up under great weights put on by others. I saw what a difference it makes when a few people consistently cry out for justice. (I know, too, it shouldn’t take that much work in a Christian setting)

In some kind of strange way, arguing for my friends helped me argue a bit for myself. I don’t know yet what that means, but I know that I was changed in the telling of this story. I am awed by those little girls, now amazing women, for boldly going into such a terrible battle with no guarantee of victory.

I can’t wait to see how it works out for them. I can’t wait to see the things God does in the life of that family, those other families and in everyone who came into contact with this over the past few weeks. I know DK’s survivors have a difficult journey ahead as new horrors will be uncovered, old hurts will be revisited and ghosts will come back to haunt. But I know that God gives beauty for ashes. I know that He will restore the years the locusts have eaten. I know that in Him we all will arise.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever.

Fixin’ to pray

It’s been one of those strange days. You know the type: you’re head says everything is ok, all is going relatively according to plan, but your heart, well your heart’s just not quite comfortable with things.

(I have these days a lot)

I’ve been blogging a lot about a particular situation God placed in my path. This is not connected to that, other than it’s probably a reason why my heart is just not quite comfortable.

On the surface, everything looks OK today. I had a relatively smooth day at work. A meeting that was supposed to go badly actually went well. I had a wonderfully entertaining dinner with my man (who made me laugh more than once) and took the dog for a nice walk in a warming evening (free of rain for the moment).

But something is pulling on my heart. I feel a restlessness I can’t seem to shake, a call to something beyond a good night’s sleep. It is as if the icons on the eastern wall of my office are acting as a kind of magnet, pulling me in there.

I have never been a particularly good pray-er. I guess I tried really hard (too hard) when I was a Protestant/Evangelical/Fundamentalist to make things sound really good, for posterity (if I died unexpectedly, maybe they’d remember me as a really good Christian ‘cuz I prayed all pretty), to impress others, whatever. But mostly, I knew that what was on my heart, I mean really weighing me down, what I really needed to say to God, wasn’t getting said. I didn’t have the words because I got in the way. There was too much Becky/Bec/Rebecca. Way, way too much.

One of the most comforting things about my practice of faith now is that I don’t have to worry about what to say. King David wrote out some pretty good Psalms (it served as the prayer book for the Jews and later for the early Church). St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, St. Gregory, et al, they all wrote some pretty good ones too. If I really can’t think of what to say, there’s always that prayer that Jesus said (If it’s good enough for God…). 

And then there’s that one, that key to Orthodox spirituality, the combination of the words of the Wise Thief and the Publican: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner. They all end up in my prayers at some point. I rarely ad lib any more.  I know I can’t improve on what’s already been said.

Among others, I’ll probably pray this one tonight:

0 Eternal God and King of all creation, Who kept me safe to attain to this hour, forgive me the sins that I have committed this day in deed, word, and thought; and cleanse, 0 Lord, my humble soul of all stain of flesh and spirit, and grant me, 0 Lord, to pass this night in peace; that, rising from my bed, I may praise Your most holy name all the days of my life, and vanquish the enemies, both seen and unseen, that contend against me. Deliver me, 0 Lord, from tribulation, evil and distress. For Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory: of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

Is there really anything else I need to say? Nah. Going to go light a candle now…and pray.