Sunday, February 26

Forgiveness Sunday; or, The Inconvenience of Lent

Matthew 6:12; 13-14

"And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors."

"For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

About seven weeks ago, I felt ready for Lent. I really felt ready! At that time, I was chatting with one of my favorite "cradle" Orthodox people, asking him if he was ready. I remember saying to him, "I'm just so READY for Lent, so that I can go ahead and get OVER myself!!" Having always had Lent in his life, he gently let me know that he never really enjoys Lent. It's hard, plain and simple. 

During the weeks preceding Lent in the Orthodox church, we have four Sundays where we concentrate on certain Scriptures to prepare us. (You can read about them in more detail here.) First, there is the Sunday of the publican and the Pharisee. It is a call to true repentance. Second, there is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. We concentrate on the lavishness of the Father's love when we turn to Him. The third Sunday is the Sunday of the Last Judgement, where we are reminded that whatever we did to the least of these, we did to Him. Matthew 25 is a fearsome and inspiring chapter, is it not? 

Today, the fourth Sunday, is Forgiveness Sunday. Tonight, we will go to Forgiveness Vespers. The key verses for this week are Matthew 6:13-14. And therein lies the rub. The difference between me seven weeks ago and me now is that I am sadder and angrier. I have unforgiveness in my heart. There are people who have caused chaos in my life. There are people who do not see the good things I am trying to do, and inhibit my moving in that direction. There are people who have kicked me when I am down, just out of what seems to be sheer meanness. 

I've spent time lately being sad and mad... and I feel like the dude in Dodgeball: "NOBODY makes me bleed my own blood! NOBODY!!" In truth, I wish that these people could feel some of the hurt and discomfort they've made me feel. I am horrified to find that I actually wish them ill. I justify that to myself by saying that I'm just so sick of people being ridiculous and hurtful.

My favorite principal ever and I were talking about life one time, and she said, "Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the OTHER person to die." 

That thought took me aback. Even more sobering is the thought that to other people, I am probably the chaos-inducing mean person. I am the one who does not see the good that others are trying to do. As there are people who are stumbling blocks for me, I am probably that to others. I need forgiveness.

All that pales in comparison to the verses in Matthew 6; that if I do not forgive, I cannot be forgiven. If I do not forgive, I effectively cut myself from all that is good, true, and beautiful... God. I truly will die if I live in unforgiveness, because I will have dis-united myself from Him who is Life. 

I can't tell you how much I don't want to go to Forgiveness Vespers tonight.

But I will go. And I will be grateful. What I am so grateful for is this: I don't have to, I can't wait to FEEL ready for Lent. I can't take my heart back to the more peaceful state it was in seven weeks ago. Yet my feelings on the subject just don't matter, and for that I am so incredibly relieved. I am glad that the Liturgical Calendar does not make concessions for if I feel ready to get over myself. In truth, I should be getting over myself daily, as a living sacrifice. 

Twice this week, two men I respect greatly have told the same story. (One of them is my non-Lent-enjoying friend.) I always sit up and pay attention when that happens. It's never a coincidence. It is in this story that I see that the point is not merely "getting over myself" or "self-forgetfulness," but to be filled with Him. In this story, a student is asking his teacher (St. Seraphim of Sarov) how to know that he is filled with the Spirit of God. During this conversation, St. Seraphim and the questioner ARE in the Spirit of God, and this conversation ensues:

"How do you feel now?" Father Seraphim asked me.
"Extraordinarily well," I said.
"But in what way? How exactly do you feel well?"
I answered: "I feel such calmness and peace in my soul that no words can express it."
"This, Friend of God," said Father Seraphim, "is that peace of which the Lord said to His disciples: My peace I give unto you; not as the world gives, give I unto you (Jn. 14:21). If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (Jn. 15:19). But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn. 16:33). And to those people whom this world hates but who are chosen by the Lord, the Lord gives that peace which you now feel within you, the peace which, in the words of the Apostle, passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7). The Apostle describes it in this way, because it is impossible to express in words the spiritual well-being which it produces in those into whose hearts the Lord God has infused it. Christ the Saviour calls it a peace which comes from His own generosity and is not of this world, for no temporary earthly prosperity can give it to the human heart; it is granted from on high by the Lord God Himself, and that is why it is called the peace of God. What else do you feel?" Father Seraphim asked me.
"An extraordinary sweetness," I replied.
And he continued: "This is that sweetness of which it is said in Holy Scripture: They will be inebriated with the fatness of Thy house; and Thou shalt make them drink of the torrent of Thy delight (Ps. 35:8) And now this sweetness is flooding our hearts and coursing through our veins with unutterable delight. From this sweetness our hearts melt as it were, and both of us are filled with such happiness as tongue cannot tell. What else do you feel?"
"An extraordinary joy in all my heart."

Saint Seraphim goes on to explain that when the Spirit of God comes, "the human soul overflows with unspeakable joy, for the Spirit of God fills with joy whatever He touches." 

So tonight, I will forgive in order to make room for Him. During Lent, that's what we do. We endeavor to be self-forgetful, in order to be filled. I cannot pretend that forgiveness is a one-shot proposition. But I can begin to align my heart in such a way that the aim is forgiveness, to have the poison sucked out of me, to fill the space with Life. And I am so grateful that the timing of Life does not depend upon me. 

Ready or not, here it comes... tonight. 

And p.s. ...when I am older and wiser, I will know that what I need to be forgiven is so much greater than that which I have to forgive. I hope to achieve that wisdom sooner rather than later. Please forgive me for the ways in which I hurt, offend, or fail you. 

Peace of Christ to you.

Saturday, February 18

The Opposite of Dancing

Context, for those who might not know: My parents are divorcing.

Because of the unseasonably warm weather this winter, I had hoped that I would escape my usual February doldrums. Not so. 

I invited Mom down for her birthday, primarily because I thought I needed to be fair since I had invited Dad for his. My sister said I was crazy, and I know she’s right. I just hate the idea of being estranged from my family; primarily because I don’t think it is “nice.” “Nice” is such a stupid, insipid idea. I guess I think that maintaining a tie with my family is more than nice… it is stability, loyalty, sense of place. Yet the visit with my mom left me bereft.

I guess that I have always been trying to make Mom and Dad what I need them to be; a real picture of a mom and dad; whatever that means. But they aren’t what I need. Unless what I need is something to rise above. 

When she left, I felt such a sense of emptiness, an infinite sadness. Futility. My great fear is that I have spent my entire life trying to be a peacemaker and healer of my parents’ relationship, costing myself my own ideas for adulthood, my own plan for a life. (Not that I had any great plans of my own...) My sister, who feels less beholden to them, has built a “real” life for herself; married, kids in the house. Sometimes I feel that my life was like that of a second child born to donate organs to a chronically or terminally ill older sibling, except the illness in this case is an illness of soul on the part of my parents. Sick and dysfunctional, I know.

So, now it feels that not only have I not succeeded in healing my parents, I have no life that is my own.

When she left town, I did not call anyone to talk. There is nothing left to say. There is nothing left but the sense of futility and emptiness. The only thing would suit is a long cry and a cuddle.
“I wish that I could just lay my head in your lap and cry for awhile.” But even that is denied me. As I knew it would be. And this right before Valentine’s Day. Of course.

To extend to myself a greater bit of grace, I could say that my adult life has been not a seeking of healing and peace for my parents, but a seeking of healing and peace for myself. It feels to me as if I spent my 20s trying to get my life quiet; that I have always been seeking peace. But my more honest friends have told me that I spent quite a bit of my 20s seeking fun. (Yet I find peace in fun and communion with friends.) 

It is said that Jean Vanier (a spiritual mentor to Henri Nouwen) once gave this blessing:
“May all your expectations be frustrated.
May all your plans be thwarted.
May all your desires be withered into nothingness
That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child and sing and dance in the love of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit.”

But I am not singing, and I am not dancing. I am heartsick.
Maybe Lent will bring the cure.

Thursday, February 16

Quilted Kittens

Disclaimer: This is not a deep blog entry. At all.

Last night, I had a crazy nightmare...

I dreamt that I found two stray kittens that were really odd-looking. Their skin had been taken off, and swatches of cloth had been put on instead. They looked like kitten-shaped quilts, but they had their regular furry faces and tails. One of them had vinyl sewn around his middle, and I thought, "That can't be comfortable at all!!" However, they did not seem to be in pain.

I was outraged. Who had taken the skin off of kittens to give them quilt bodies?!?! This is something that a Nazi would do to a cat!

Absolutely incensed, I took them to a vet (not my own) to get them checked out, make sure they were not bleeding internally or anything. The vet took one look at them and said, "These are designer cats!! It looks like whoever did the quilting did really good work on them. You should be THANKFUL to get such expensive cats for free... they cost a fortune!!!"

Apparently, my subconscious is ready to go really bohemian and stick with regular 'ol cats. Down with ostentatious materialism and creature comforts... literally!!!

Thursday, February 2


As I have mentioned before, my parents are divorcing. And as I have mentioned before, I have not ever been married. The first statement has a lot to do with the second. I was chatting with a friend tonight; funny how conversations become mirrors...

We were discussing my belief that I would not have been able to be in any kind of healthy relationship until I was about 32 or 33. I told him that my strongest prayers about marriage and children have always been prayers of negation: that I would much rather have a broken  heart outside of marriage than live with a broken heart inside one. My sweet, jaded conversation partner (who is also resolutely single) was quick to assure me me that most marriages are this way.

That might be true. But for my whole life, I've always believed that marriages do not have to be that way. I got home after our chat and wondered... How is it that I have such a high view of marriage? Nothing in my background or experiences would suggest that a high view of marriage would be natural for me.

How do I have such a high view of marriage?


There are two types of theology within Christendom; non-sacramental and sacramental.  I came from a distinctly non-sacramental theology, and have moved into a sacramental one. One of the sacraments of the Church is marriage.

When I was younger (and non-sacramental in my theology) , the teaching on marriage that inscribed itself most on my mind and heart was Ephesians 5:25-33: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.(Emphases mine.)

How is this possible for a human man? It's NOT!! But I always saw this as a picture, an icon. A very, very beautiful one. Orthodoxy defines sacraments as "vessels of the mystical participation in divine grace of mankind. In a general sense, the Orthodox Church considers everything which is in and of the Church as sacramental or mystical. 

The sacraments, like the Church, are both visible and invisible. In every sacrament there is a combination of an outward visible sign with an inward spiritual grace. Saint John Chrysostom wrote that they are called mysteries because what we believe is not the same as what we see; instead, we see one thing and believe another. 

The sacraments are personal — they are the means whereby God’s grace is appropriated to each individual Christian. In most of the sacraments, the priest mentions the Christian name of each person as he administers the sacrament." (

A sacrament is an outward, physical sign of an inward work that God is doing; that only God can do. Baptism is for remission of sins. Communion is Christ. Marriage is a picture of Christ and the Church. How is that possible??

What I realized tonight is that marriage was my first sacrament, my first belief in sacramental theology. I see quite clearly that no one, no one can live in marriage well. Some movie I saw once said; "We are all used car salesmen when it comes to love." And it's true. But I loved the beauty in this scripture so much that I believed; that I believe. I knew even as a teenager that it would take more of me than I have to be married. To my mind, for anyone to be married well would take strength, love, and grace from beyond oneself. But I do believe that two people can (and do) live together in sacramental, redemptive ways.

And so irony of all ironies, marriage has served me well. Always has. The phenomenon of marriage and the testimony about marriage has caused me to be the kind of person who "believe(s) as many as six impossible things before breakfast," like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland. (Wonderland is another place the led to a looking glass, much as tonight's conversation was.)

Marriage led me to sacrament, and for that, I will always be grateful to it.

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