Frosted windows flanking double doors greet congregants, “Shalom”, upon entering the old building, with its neat and unobtrusive exterior which opens into a wide carpeted stairway. Neat, clean industrial carpeting in a neutral shade lead up to the foyer, which is lined with comfortable couches that have a lot of wear left in them, though their colors and upholstery proclaim them as cast-offs from congregants living room redoes. The high walls are panelled in a style that went out in the 70’s and early 80’s, but are clean and polished. It feels like walking into a time warp. The wide opening beyond the foyer beckons you to enter the sanctuary, and a brief look around there is both repelling and fascinating. To the right, wood grained accordion doors contain the sanctuary to roughly the same size to the right and left of the stage.

Wall size painted wooden cutouts (Note: photos show that these are just painted on the wall) of a seven-armed oil lamp candelabra draw your attention above and behind the “altar” or communion table. The far left wall looks like an old overhead slide of seven old testament feasts, redone in carved, painted wooden relief. The message is unclear. Like most overhead slides, the visual requires explanation, but this one is not forthcoming. The sound stand is paneled and adorned with another carved piece, this time a painted representation of an Old Testament priest. Nothing indicates this as being a representation of any particular priest, just of a generic priest, intended, perhaps, more as a representation of a typical priest’s garb.

Large pots contain shiny colored flags and long tall horns, whose use or meaning is not readily apparent.

I’m here for our son’s wedding, and while I was a Protestant so recently that my name is scarcely dry on my chrismation letter (I don’t even know if there is such a thing, it’s a literary device I’m using, so bear with me), I guess I have been spoiled by the richness of Orthodoxy.  I am now accustomed to the faces of the saints depicted on the icons that surround our sanctuary, looking down on us as we celebrate the liturgy. This constant reminder of those who have gone before is a mysterious thing. It gives strength to me when I’m failing, it is a comfort when I’m sad, to know these have gone before me, it is a convicting notice when I am faithless that these have suffered all, born great sorrows, heavy trials, given much, endured much for the sake of the cross.  The great crowd of witnesses that surround us is represented in part in these icons.  The icons of the Blessed Mother and of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Light of Light, True God of True God, everywhere present and filling all things…these are what I have come to expect or to appreciate in our church.  To have these blessed gifts absent and some incomprehensible lesson in their places is painful…jarring, even.

The people are lovely and gracious, welcoming and kind, but I feel the way you do when there is a buzzing of unknown origin nearby.  It’s unsettling, disturbing.  I feel like I’ve entered a foreign country by mistake.  As if I had tickets for Granada, Spain, but opened the door of the aircraft to discover I’d arrived in Grenada.

So it turns out that my heart and my spirit longs for the Orthodox Church, the icons, the incense, the liturgy, the prayers, the peace, the sense of holiness and of peace.  And that’s a good thing.



Beneath the Veneer

I have tears in my eyes so often these days. It seems that the world is coming apart. I am wondering what it is that keeps up this thin veneer of civility, and am amazed at how quickly the rules of behavior are swept aside. I’m thinking of Ferguson, Missouri, yes, but of world conflicts as well, as ISIS is sweeping through Iraq and killing those who are “other”. We live in a world where one day things are so-called normal and understandable and the next they aren’t. Today I know where my water comes from, where I get food, that there is gasoline for my car, medicine for my pain, clothes to cover me and shoes for my feet. Tomorrow? I don’t know.

The thing is, you don’t know either.

What keeps us from the refugee camps? What keeps you, keeps me from being wrongly accused, wrongly convicted? What keeps us from being the victim of some random crime that forever changes our lives, or from a tragic illness? What keeps us from the horror of war?

The truth is that I have been living as if these things CANNOT happen. But throughout the middle east, my brothers and sisters have been fleeing for their lives, have been asked to give up their lives for their faith.

In my church there are those who grew up living stories that are the tales of history, of difficulty, of trial, of war, of being refugees, and who know what it is to have peace one day and terror the next. These are not mere stories, but a truth I am slowly grasping.

I’ve been reading “Five Days at Memorial” and “The Zookeeper’s Wife” as well as reading/viewing the news, and one thing I am gathering from these varied sources is an idea of how quickly people go from one idea of normal to another.  It took less than five days at Memorial for people to change their ways of life from the civilized, to an emergency culture, one in which it seemed okay to euthanize hospital patients because the regular rules no longer applied.  It is curious how quickly people’s internal selves, ideals, beliefs and actions changed, or rather were revealed.  With the normal civil and social structures stripped away, one’s inner humanity, one’s inner character and real beliefs are revealed.

What will be revealed when the troops march through the streets?  What will be revealed if machete-wielding zealots reach our streets, our homes, our churches? What is revealed in my own heart, when faced with the things that are happening around the world, even if they are not happening to me?

How crazy is my enjoyment of fashion blogs in the face of children being slaughtered in one part of the world and starved in others? How shallow is the spectacle of the Emmys, glorifying the “achievements” of those in the television industry? How shallow and embarrassing is my enjoyment of it?

Even without the horrors half a world away, how crazy is it to spend my time in this way when there is the entirety of Christian life and experience, in the manifestation of God in the created world, and even in the liturgy of the church and the lives and writings of the saints that I can pursue?

How has the pursuit of these things that are less noble, less good, less praise-worthy, etc., harmed me?  How has it stolen from the love I owe to God, to my neighbors and to my family?  How have these pursuits, these interests stood in the way of doing good?

So this is why I have tears in my eyes.  I am looking at the wasted time, the wasted energy, the wasted love, and the wasted money, when their are horrors going on, people who have real needs, and I am thinking about how quickly our world can change and those in need could be my friends, my family, my neighbors, myself. And I’m wondering what will be revealed in me when the testing comes.

UPDATE: Testing has come for friends in Morrison, IL.  The news said it “looks like a war zone”, which makes me wonder if they have SEEN a war zone.  But there is a lot of mess and destruction.  Thankfully, I did not read of any loss of life associated with the storm that brought down trees all over the place.  Morrison is a lovely town and I’m praying my friends are okay.

Joseph’s Bones

Taken early 1900’s.  Photo is in the Public Domain.

Exodus 13:19
Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the Israelites swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.” (NIV)

Joshua 24:32
And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, buried they in Shechem, in a parcel of ground which Jacob bought of the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for an hundred pieces of silver: and it became the inheritance of the children of Joseph. (ESV)

It puzzled me in random moments, why the bones of Joseph were given such treatment. Why did it matter where his bones were buried? What was the point? Dead is dead, right? The body is merely an earthly container for that which is spirit and soul, right?

Well…perhaps not. Do we not subconsciously know this on some level? The question may seem an odd one for many of my acquaintance, but in my family and in my church heritage, the body is treated as a husk, once the person dies. It is a thing of matter and not of spirit, not containing our essence anymore once death has come upon us. The physical, the material world is seen as less than, It is a trifle, fleeting, unimportant. And so, we cremate our dead. Why spend money on a coffin and all the trappings when we can scatter someone’s ashes to the wind?

But the bones of Joseph trouble me. Even my husband, who wants to be cremated, wants to be brought “home” to Colorado. Why? Why does it matter where our remains are laid to rest? But it does, doesn’t it?

My niece is buried in a plot outside of Rock Springs, Wyoming. Buried, not cremated, her physical being, though deceased, is not burnt to nothing, She lays there among other kin, other children, mothers, fathers, grandparents…and it provides some sense of comfort to the grieving to know that their loved ones remains are treated with respect and dignity.

I’ve undergone a huge shift…from wanting a “Viking funeral” with my body set alight by the flames of burning arrows as I am set to sea in a wooden boat, to earnestly wishing for an Orthodox burial. I do not wish to be embalmed. I find that hideous and unnatural. I wish to be buried in a coffin like this. And to have an Orthodox funeral service and burial service.  Granted, this costs more than a burn ’em and bury ’em plan such as I had before, and I understand the need for such.  I also know that this means I will not be buried with my grandmother and grandfather, or the rest of my kin.  Sad, but I’m at peace with that.

How I came to think so differently is a matter of some wonder to me, though perhaps not to my reader.  I puzzled over the different views of the body and of the veneration of relics, the utter respect shown to the physical being of the deceased, but a light came on when we read the story of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’s garment.  The hem.   And he felt power go out of him.  There is something to this.  The physical is important and is affected by the spirit.  If the hem of his garment was infused with his power, how much more his physical body?  And if his physical body was affected  by the spirit, it stands to reason that all physical matter, all our bodies are affected, even infused, perhaps, by our spirit.  We are not mere spirits trapped in a body, but they are intertwined in some way that I do not understand.  If our physical bodies MATTER, and retain or are infused with our spirits, then the dignity of a Christian burial seems to make more sense.  I wonder how it is we have gotten away from that?  Or is it just the particular church I came from?  I don’t really know.

I will admit, we had two of our dogs cremated upon their death.  But when it came to it, I could not bury them because I did not have land that belonged to me.  I could not bury them in land that would belong to another, where I could not come and sit by them.  If you knew me, you would understand why this is an odd thing.  But I find it to be an impossibility to unceremoniously spread their ashes at the beach, or on a trail…somewhere to which I may not be able to return.  And it bothers me that I do not know the precise place where my paternal grandfather and grandmother had their ashes spread.

Perhaps I don’t have a full understanding of the Orthodox way of thinking on this matter, but now, being convinced that the physical matters, I cannot go back.