(75) Glory to God for all things

“Glory to Thee for calling me into being
Glory to Thee, showing me the beauty of the universe
Glory to Thee, spreading out before me heaven and earth
Like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom
Glory to Thee for Thine eternity in this fleeting world
Glory to Thee for Thy mercies, seen and unseen
Glory to Thee through every sigh of my sorrow
Glory to Thee for every step of my life’s journey
For every moment of glory
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age” (source)

One of the most breathtaking characteristics of a truly holy person, someone who is pure in heart and has seen God, is this tendency, this inclination, to truthfully give God glory for all things. When you read about the saints, or hear about contemporary Christians suffering persecution or watch godly people suffer the loss of health or loved ones or other sorrow, this characteristic is a theme.

It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow, which happily coincides with my recent reflection (obsession?) on (with) this phrase. It’s almost a cliché to say this, but I’ll say it anyway:  It’s easy to thank God for the stuff that seems good to me. I suppose this is an appropriate starting point – learning to give God glory for the “good” things – but it is just that: A starting point. After all, how do I really know what is “good” for me? I perceive sweet, gentle, pleasant, fun, convenient things as “good.” But as our priest so often says, if you’re sick and the doctor prescribes a bitter medicine, wouldn’t you take it regardless of how unpleasant?

“Glory to God for all things” means that I trust Him to absolutely act correctly, to accurately provide exactly what I need for my greatest benefit, to prescribe the perfect cure for my soul-sickness.

I am so unbelievably far away from living this out, it often seems. And I am so absolutely terrified of really opening willingly toward God’s molding, shaping, hand in my life. I’m afraid of suffering, I’ll admit it.

But this is the path I am on and I am curiously drawn deeper into this life of trust and welcome and thanksgiving. In the same breath that it is terrifying, it also helps make so much sense of what I see in the world around me, in the lives of others and even in my own life. Maybe if I start on the “easy” stuff now, I’ll be more prepared to say this when the harder stuff comes around.

“Glory to God for all things.”

 

***

In case you didn’t follow the link to the source of the quote above, this is from a hymn called “Glory to God for all things,” (also called the Thanksgiving Akathist) which has been attributed to Fr. Gregory Petrov, who supposedly wrote it before his death in a Gulag prison camp in 1940. Alternately, it may have been written by Metropolitan Tryphon of Moscow (a Russian bishop during the Russian Revolution) as per this source.

(67) live well in the chaos

“All deaths were accidental, or none was, for disease was just as random an accident as injury, and all die. None died prematurely, for death battened on only the living, and all of those, at any age.

“It was all the same and predictable except in detail, whether a heart collapsed and seized in an old woman, or a runaway buggy crushed a growing boy: the people took the boy’s death harder, for they longed to have him with them longer, and to see him grown and fruitful. They were not ready for him to die, but they knew for a fact that death was ready. Death was ready to take people, of any size, always, and so was the broad earth ready to receive them. A child’s death was a heartbreak–but it was no outrage, no freak, nothing not in the contract, and not really early, just soon.”

(from The Living, by Annie Dillard)

 

I woke up Sunday morning to a Facebook post sharing that the baby daughter of an acquaintance had died Saturday night. She was only about 4 months old, I think. Her mama and daddy are both active duty Navy, which is how we know them. Grief for this tiny life, seemingly extinguished too early, was overwhelming all day Sunday. In church, I rocked and remembered their names. And I remembered the other children I know and have known who struggle so valiantly. Why do some live and others die? Annie’s words rang out in the confusion, “not really early, just soon.”

What really makes me crazy is the need to keep living, keep going, when I’m overwhelmed by the feeling that things are falling apart. How can I sit still and type nonsense when a child is gone and parents are empty? How can I focus on work that feels meaningless and continue to eat regular meals when, at any moment, grief will rip through the world again?

Where is Jesus in this painful, beautiful, bittersweet, piercingly captivating life that we are caught up in? Where are You? I know that if we could just catch hold of the hem of your clothing, we would be healed (Mk 5:28). And healing is what we so desperately need. Maybe not healed from the brokenness, but within it, because of it. Healing is what I need.

I want so much to figure things out. I want to know “how” to live well in what feels like chaos. But You aren’t giving me any how. (And I hate this, it infuriates me, but I sense You are holding on to me even when I’m wrestling with a question You don’t seem inclined to answer). The only how is  to love and keep loving even when I weep over a child I never knew. And to keep living faithful to you, even in ridiculous jobs. Maybe the healing is already here in the brokenness. That would be so like You, I think, to hide Yourself here in the middle of our mess.

(58) death/life, life/death

On Friday, I found out that my college roommate’s 9-month-old son was undergoing a heart transplant that morning. My own heart was heavy, torn between grief for the donor’s family and hope/fear for my friend’s family.

Thousands of miles away, the even-younger son of the sister of an acquaintance of mine (a.k.a. we do not know each other, but I have been following their story via Facebook) is struggling to survive. Oddly enough, he was born with the same rare heart condition as my college roommate’s son. Sadly, he has not done quite as well and his parents are facing decisions that range from terrible to worse.

Almost once every week or two, we will get texts that Grandpa is going to the emergency room again. I remembered him today, taller than me, driving Grandma to all the piano recitals, taking us out to dinner. He was a bottomless font of perseverance, strength, opinion, and of course (it seemed to us), money, supporting us as we learned piano and traveled the world. He allowed us to play with him, he allowed us to move him with our music. He would listen with eyes closed, but would always insist that he wasn’t asleep, just listening. And when he met my future husband, he was one of his biggest fans right away, making him feel right at home in the family. But that person I remember already seems faded and frayed, difficult to detect in the person now struggling to keep breathing and maneuvering the bottom floor of his beautiful home in a power wheelchair.

And the work I am now doing often feels overshadowed by death and suffering, as I transcribe details of patients’ lives and medical histories.

***

Just a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated Pascha (Orthodox Easter). As the priest reminded us many, many times, the crowds of Palm Sunday quickly dispersed, abandoning Christ until only a handful of disciples remained to witness his death at the end of the week. “Don’t desert Christ,” he admonished the congregation, “Walk with him faithfully through Holy Week.” On Thursday evening in church, we read every Gospel reading pertaining to the Crucifixion. The priest carried the large cross from behind the altar into the center of the church and hung the icon of Christ upon it, then we were invited to come and kiss His feet. On Friday afternoon, we were there when the priest removed the icon from the cross, wrapping it in a white cloth. By all appearances, death had swallowed up Life.

But Saturday morning the church was brilliant in white. Because even though Christ’s body still lay entombed, He was already trampling the gates of hell. Life has defeated death.

Skip ahead to today.

In the brief memorial service that followed liturgy today, the priest reminded us that even as we grieve the loss of those we love, we are passionately hopeful. Christ’s resurrection changes everything – even if I forget to live as though this were so.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:24 ESV)

***

I feel as though we are left living in a strange space between death and life. It feels overwhelmingly narrow and dark, living in this cycle where all life ends in death. And yet…

It also feels incredibly expansive and blazing with hope, for we are living toward a death that is swallowed up in life.

***

My heart is still heavy. All the words of truth in the world could not heal the grief of having to decide if it’s time to bring your little one home to die. I am empty of reassurance for my grandpa as he faces the reality of his own end of what is known.

Somehow it is reassuring to me that the Gospel reading at the final service of Holy Week, on Pascha Sunday in the afternoon, after everyone comes back together one last time after celebrating the Resurrection at midnight Sunday morning, feasting until the wee hours, and going home to rest, ends with Thomas saying:

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (Jn 20:25 NIV).

I do not know why this is the final Gospel reading of Holy Week.

But somehow, it reassures me and fans my little flicker of hope. After all of that, Thomas? You’ve been with Christ in person, your fellow disciples have seen Him alive again, and still you doubt? And yet, Thomas became the apostle who carried the Gospel to India and died there. Maybe I am reassured because I feel so small to be entrusted with such a vibrant hope of victorious Life. Maybe I am reassured because I too have tasted this Life-that-swallows-death and yet I do not know how to live honestly and hopefully here in the shadowlands.

(56) is this idolatry?

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”     – Jesus   (Jn 16:33 NIV)

***

I am going to engage in a little bit of hyperbole, or perhaps blatant exaggeration. Consider yourself forewarned.

You wouldn’t know that I had voluntarily signed a contract to work for this company, with the amount of griping and crying I’ve done over this new job. I have spent hours, days, slaving over the computer, by turns desperate/frantic and angry. And yes, sometimes simply resigned, sometimes reminding myself of all the lovely truths:

Everyone works. No job is perfect. The beginning is challenging, but it’ll get better. Any job would require you to give up your free time. You can’t have everything you want, my dear. And you did get yourself into this one, you know.

…but sometimes I am just angry. Angry at myself, for ever thinking this was a good idea, for walking through the various doors I’ve had to walk through to get here. And angry at the gods of work for the vast injustice of it all.

The only reason I condescend to work hour after hour to learn this job is because I expect to profit in the future from all of this. Maybe even profit considerably. But my hopes are waning and expectations slipping, particularly after a weekend during which I worked many hours, but my sisters probably could have taught two piano lessons or cut and colored someone’s hair and made as much or more money than I have. Ah, the unfairness! How is it that the life of work continues to be so unfair?

Or perhaps the better question is, who promised you, Anna, that life would be or feel fair?

Perhaps it was the gods of work who, like those shady friends you’ve always been warned about, slipped a few lying expectations into a heady cocktail of aspirations, a cocktail I have apparently gulped right down.

When I consider “working” and “getting a job,” I have a deeply rooted set of expectations. I want to do something that I will enjoy, so that I do not feel like I’m sacrificing time on the altar of another person’s ambition (it’s their company, after all), time that would be better spent on my own pursuits (or even wasted). I want to profit considerably, not just making a wage I can subsist on, but a wage I can play with. Plus, I’m a college graduate, which is supposed to mean something (a.k.a. I am better than other people and deserve a better job). And I am embarrassingly flippant about all of this, not stopping to consider that if I do not work to support myself, than someone else* will have to.

It is becoming clear that none of these expectations are based in the life experiences promised by Jesus (see quote above). And if I really am looking to find a job that can feel some desire or need that I have or a job that indulges my tending-toward-selfish (ok, selfish) nature, then maybe it could be called idolatry.

 

It would be nice to say that I am totally ready to give all of this up and embrace this reality. Except I am not all the way repentant about it yet. But I am getting tired, tired of fighting so hard against what life is holding out for me, and maybe I would do well to take one sister’s advice and just decide to like the job, like the process. Just decide to like it. Embrace reality, Anna.

And, if it helps, maybe think for just a fleeting moment about the women working in wretched conditions in Asian factories, making a dollar or two a day, who can’t even quit and find another job. That is not a very nice thought.

It is really hard to turn this attitude around, I am finding.

I hope that awareness is a good beginning. And fortunately for me, I get to practice every. single. freaking. day.

 

***

*The “someone else” I’m thinking of is my husband. Isn’t it amazing (in a terrible way) that in my despair and frustration with this new job, I have been thankful relatively infrequently for his sacrifice in going to work, day after day, to a job he doesn’t particularly like and which has taken him far (to the nth power) out of his comfort zone? It is clear that I need more of Christ and less of my self to conquer these sneaky attitudes and expectations.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

(44) live everything

“And the point is, to live everything…” (Rainer Maria Wilke)

 

Stay here with me, dear one. Stay here with me in this moment.

Hold still for a moment and allow those rogue tears to escape.

I am here to catch the tears as they fall.

Choose to be present. Feel the deep sadness.

Don’t be afraid.

Don’t be afraid of the anger at events beyond your control.

Feel the anger and let it go. When things are beyond your control, they are still within mine.

Don’t be afraid of the sadness that looks like an inky well without hope.

Feel the sadness and weep. Say goodbye with integrity, with tears.

Don’t be afraid of the loneliness, of sleeping on your side of the bed with emptiness beside you.

Be bold, be strong! My name is Emmanuel. I am with you.

Don’t be afraid that the little ones won’t remember you.

The moments you shared with them matter. Let the sweet memories become prayers.

Don’t be afraid to live everything.

 

You want to be strong, sensible and brave. But be brave with a heart wide open, beloved daughter. Don’t confuse emotion with weakness, Dearheart. Open your heart wide to receive and to overflow and to grieve. Grieve bravely. Live everything.

(27) doing life

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Baby Antonia

 

She’s here! That sweet little child gave her mama a bit of a hard time, but she slipped happily into our world the evening of November 1st, brand-new and miraculous. It’s amazing what a difference one life makes. How one person changes the roles that so many others play, making sisters aunties and brothers uncles, making a mama and daddy out of a husband and wife, making other mamas and daddys into grandparents. Everything changes, one birth makes waves into all of our lives.

Oddly enough, after some of the long-distance excitement had died down and the little one had celebrated her one-day anniversary of birth, I found my own return to “normal” somewhat disillusioning. For one day, I had lived in suspended action, body present here, heart invested there, a thousand miles away (or so). And now, the return to routine, to my own life, seemed dull.

Last night I cried to my husband, “what am I going to do with my life?”

I actually struggle with this question often. I also usually ask it in a version of future tense. He and I both noticed this as we talked last night.

The question of what am I going to do with my life is already in the process of being answered. I am doing, I have already done, all of the bits and fragments, the scenes and acts that I have participated in and lived through, these are all the life that I am doing. Is this really so hard? Or do I make it much more difficult for myself expecting something big to come along? I’ve heard something about life being made up of small moments. Silly me, I still expect and hope for that big something, to become famous, to really make a big difference. Even sillier still, I equate my sister’s having welcomed life into the world as something big, but haven’t I heard many, many mothers attest to the “dailyness” of motherhood? No matter how big and fantastic and heroic it may look from the outside, I imagine it feels quite different from within.

And then, of course, my husband called me out on the sin of comparison…again. Learn from others, admire others, pray for others, encourage others, but live the life that you are in, live in your own body, be thankful, be content, be yourself, simply be. And then out of that you-ness, do the stuff that you’re called to today. Even if it’s just the grocery shopping, or the practice of being kind and accepting another, or the practice of praying, or making a gift for Christmas, or eating lunch. How many times have I heard this or reminded myself of this? Maybe as I practice I will learn to let go of my own expectations for myself, to look at life from a more gracious perspective, to “be and let be” as someone once said. For some reason, it’s harder than it sounds! I have not lived up to my own expectations so far in life and I naturally tend to assume that I have failed. When perhaps the appearance of failure is just pointing to the insufficiency of the expectations themselves. I remember a poem from Rainer Maria Rilke that captures the difficulty and beauty of living now:

Be patient with all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

 

(24) still a newlywed

“Oh, so you’re still a newlywed!” my new acquaintance, Bonnie, exclaims.

I guess so, although I haven’t thought of myself that way in a while. Since about August of last year. I’ve moved beyond those early stages, I think. I’ve made progress, right?

Bonnie tells me she got married for the first time at 46, her husband was 50, and they’ve been married 12 years. “I kissed a lot of frogs along the way,” she tells me when I ask her for any tips. What I want to know is, how do you make it work for 12 years? Do you know the secret to happy marriage, as a 50-something woman and wife of 12 years?

She’s checking her email at the hotel lobby’s computer after dropping her husband off somewhere. It’s a drizzly day, one of the first of many to come. She responds directly, thoughtfully, without hardly glancing away from the screen as if a steady focal point helps her articulate her thoughts. “The first thing that comes to mind,” she tells me, “is accepting the other person for who he is. You’re probably not going to change him. And then listen. And also patience.”

Funny, I’ve heard this advice before. From friends who have been married 3, 4, 10 years. From my parents, who have been married 31 years. From mentors and friends who are single, but have learned from deep friendships. I bet my grandparents (married 64 years!) would also agree, although they might phrase it slightly differently. I’ve thought it myself before.

Bonnie’s right, I am still a newlywed, having nurtured marriage with my husband to the grand old age of 17 months (as of tomorrow). It’s crazy then, isn’t it, that she and I are working on some of the same things? We both need to accept our husbands for who they are, to listen to them, to be patient with them (and with ourselves). And how many members of other marriages have testified they are working on similar projects after 3, 4, 10, 15, 31, 64 years and ongoing? I find myself recognizing (yet again!) that, like so many other parts of life, marriage will be a work in progress, for better or worse, in sickness and health, til death do us part?

I understand now one of the reasons my choice of a marriage partner mattered so much. It is not so much about picking the person who will perfectly complete me or who will make my life “happy ever after,” but more about choosing a partner who is just as invested in building marriage and working on it for the rest of his life as I am. Because that is exactly what we will get to do together.