Birth Experience

by Michele Latham

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It seems like yesterday, but really it was 20 years ago.  I was sitting in my kitchen chatting with the midwife. My due date had come and gone a few days previously and we were tired of talking about when this baby would show up. The midwife brought up an interesting topic. I think it was her effort to distract me for a while. She had delivered over 700 babies and had some great stories. What she explained to me then was the idea that a child can actually remember his or her own birth experience for a time.  I laughed, but she insisted that an especially articulate youngster should be able to tell you about being born! Wanting to test her theory, I called my two year old son over. “Luke”, I said, “do you remember when you were born?”

 

Without pause, he shouted out, “Yes! Father Michael dunked me in the water!” He scampered off and I was left nodding my head. Of course! He was a year old when we were baptized into the Orthodox Church and he knew that was his birth experience.

 

 

I remember feeling a bit flustered the day of our baptism. My husband and I, along with several patient godparents, juggled squirming children, towels, baptismal robes, and candles.  The words of the prayers seemed a bit blurred by the practical tasks of getting the kids baptized. I was nervous. I was worried that something would go wrong. But underlying all of that earthly care was the understanding that what was happening to us was real. It was much more than a symbolic act or mere profession of faith. It was a sacred event, attended by saints and angels and we were being initiated into Christ’s Church. We were becoming new. It was the beginning of a life in Christ complete with happiness, sorrow, struggles, joys, forgiveness and God’s mercy.

 

baby baptism

 

I love attending baptismal services now because it reminds me of all these things.  The church family gathers expectantly around the font. If a baby cries, my friends and I glance at each other and smile, remembering our own children. And if an adult candidate gasps a bit in reaction to the water temperature, we nod in sympathy. The newly illumined may not comprehend every word of the service, but that doesn’t mean the miracle of baptism isn’t taking place. And for the rest of us, our joy comes in being able to witness and participate in this holy sacrament. We listen carefully to the words of the priest and are comforted to know these are the same prayers have been prayed for each of us.

 

 

Of Taper-Bearers and Altar Boys

by Michele Latham

Altar boyI’m one of the lucky converts. When I first walked through the door of an Orthodox Church, I knew it was right. When I started reading books on Orthodox
doctrine, I knew it was right. I didn’t need detailed explanation or convincing. Venerating Mary? Of course.  Infant Baptism?  You bet!   Confession? Finally!  The true Body and Blood of Christ? Yes, please!

Through the Grace of God, I was ready to embrace orthodoxy. The apologetics would come later. And so they have. I continue learning about the teachings of the church and I’m not surprised when something I read causes me to nod in agreement. “Yes, I knew that was right. Now I know why!” This was the case recently when I learned that the meaning of the word “liturgy” is actually “the work of the people”. I’ve known since the beginning that attending a Divine Liturgy was more than just wholesome entertainment and an inspiring sermon. I’ve known that Christ’s resurrection is celebrated by heaven and earth each time a Divine Liturgy is held. And I know that it’s hard to be a spectator at such a service. Even visitors are swept into the real-ness of the worship.

This is because we, as Orthodox Christians, come to church to participate. We actively worship God through singing the responses, the psalms, the creed and the Lord’s Prayer. We make the sign of the cross, we bow, we venerate. We confess our sins, forgive one another, pray and light candles for our loved ones. And the work isn’t designated for a select few. Everyone is called upon to engage in the worship, even the children. Allowing them to serve as taper-bearers and altar boys teaches that they are indeed full-fledged Christians who are needed by the church to serve and participate.

So, yes, I guess it is work. It’s our job to partake with our brothers and sisters and all the saints in worshipping God. Then the reward comes when we receive the body and blood of Christ. We are clean and armed to go back into the world.

As we greet one another after the service, it’s as if we’ve survived summer camp together, or completed an intense group project. We have been toiling together and it has been good. We are bound by the work and worship. And it is good.

The Importance of Being Quiet

Shhhh

By Michele Latham

Do you remember All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten? I read this book in the late eighties when it was first published and thoroughly enjoyed it! Robert Fulghum took the simple rules we learned as kids and applied them to life as adults. Things like “Play Fair” and “Clean up your own mess” became moral, political and environmental precepts when viewed through a grown-up lens.

I can see the wisdom in Fulghum’s premise. The book is humorous, but rings so true. Adults tend to complicate things. Some of the simple lessons I taught my kids when they were growing up are still relevant today and worthy of applying to my own life.

 

One such rule that I worked hard to instill in the children was “take time to be quiet.” When compiling their daily to-do lists, I always included quiet time. There was more behind this idea than just wanting a little mid-afternoon break for myself, although that was a happy side effect!  I wanted them to be cut off from the craziness of the world. Just for a bit.  And by craziness I mean noise. We had limited technology back then, but there was a computer in the house, CD players, toys and lots of voices! (Do all kids talk really loudly and all at the same time?)

 

Quiet time involved going outside when weather permitted. Each child found a private spot in which to be alone in the quiet. Sometimes they took journals or sketch pads and climbed into the branches of a tree or sat in a shady spot next to the shed.  I wanted them to have a chance to hear their own thoughts and form their own ideas and to pray. As you know, it can be really hard to pray in a high-tech world.

 

After 30 minutes, the timer sounded and I called them in. They always returned looking happy and energized. I never asked what they thought about or what they wrote in their journals. I knew it was time well-spent.

 

So now the challenge is to include “quiet time” on my own to-do list. I usually start with some writing, which is good. Then my unplugged brain can move on to other things such as appreciating a walk outside or composing a quick note to someone I haven’t been in touch with for a while. Sometimes, more practical thoughts appear in the form of cleaning lists or ideas for things I’d like to do or make. It’s all refreshing because it’s coming from my own brain, not an electronic screen.

 

Then, it never fails, my mind and heart turn toward the prayer corner, which is where I should have started. My thoughts have slowed and uncluttered which seems to clear the path to prayer. This is a quiet place where time is well spent.

 

Correction: a quiet place where time is best spent.

 

 

Turns Out…It is the Destination that Matters

by Michele Latham

 

Social media is full of inspirational tidbits. One that I have always liked was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Life is a journey, not a destination”. Another take, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” is a good one, too. Bwhich_wayut when it comes to my journey to the Orthodox church, it was all about the destination. Not to say that the journey was unnecessary. Sometimes I mentally trace the steps I’ve taken to arrive at the Church.

I was raised by loving parents in a Southern Baptist Church. I was baptized as a youngster, attended Sunday school class and revivals and learned about Jesus and the Bible. I left home to start my adult life, having not asked many questions. During the next several years, I attended some Protestant churches and met many lovely people. My husband and I loved God and yearned for a spiritual life, but to us, there was something missing at the churches we were visiting. God was definitely present, but it seemed there should be something more to support the reading of scriptures. While I visited different churches observing the services, my husband started researching Christianity. Where was the original, pure form?

Roughly 18 months and numerous books later (this was pre-internet time) we found what we were looking for. The Orthodox Christian Church. Christ’s church. Teachings based on Holy Scripture, complete with ancient traditions, saints and wisdom of the church fathers passed down unchanged for 2000 years. We had found the ancient Church and it was alive in our hometown!

I am so grateful for my particular journey. If I had skipped ahead at some point, I might have missed some important lessons. My parents, and the Baptist church, the pastors whose words inspired me, the youth directors and old folks whose lights shone so brightly: all of these people fed me along the way and kept me safe on my path.

But God could have used any path to direct me to the Church.

I am always interested to meet other converts and hear about their experiences. There are many and varied paths that lead us to Orthodoxy.

And now that I have found my home, I know that the destination, the true Church is the most important part of the journey.

 

 

*Want to write a post about your journey? Email a draft to sophiacardcompany@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you!

 

Choose the Good

by Michele Latham

When my kids were young and we were in the midst of the read-aloud years, I was pretty choosy about what books I brought home. I missed so many of the classics as a child (hello, English teachers?) that I felt as though I discovered child_and_books_208363a new and amazing world with my kids. We devoured books. We had a read-aloud time built into our home school day. And of course there was story time before bed. Some mornings we opted to start the day with reading…okay, we read all the time! And now that they are grown, we share a cultural reference that binds us together. We laugh at the same type of Dickensian humor.  And spend hours discussing the merits of the latest Lord of the Rings movie or Sherlock Holmes adaptation.

Our reading choices weren’t only limited to classics. But I really wanted to check out an author or book before I brought it home. I am a firm believer that what we put into our minds, stays there. Children and adults alike. The arguments “it’s just a story, it’s not real” or “it’s not a great subject, but it’s entertaining” just don’t fly with me. It’s really hard to un-see something and everything we put into our minds also touches our hearts.

So when current authors published fantasy books that seemed appealing or a certain series of kids’ books were flying off the shelves, I took a hard look. What I found was that I couldn’t base my choices on what might be potentially harmful, but I could base them on what was potentially good. Rather than asking what was wrong with a book (as many critics like to do) I started asking what was right. What was good. 

I knew that the classics we loved had stood the test of time. We were challenged by the vocabulary, thrilled by the plots, shocked by the villains and inspired by the noble and good characters. Books that fit this description are still being written, they are just a little harder to find. And as Christians, we have to be discerning.

The conclusion I came to (as you probably guessed) is that choosing the good is an idea that should apply to all aspects of our lives, not just our reading habits. I knew I couldn’t shelter my children from all the bad things in the world, but I could choose the good whenever possible. Books, movies, activities, friends…

Remember Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Choose the Good.

 

 

 

For Those in a Coma

cafe paradisio

At first glance it’s not always easy to see how those in our Christian family resemble us. The likeness is there, though, and looking again, we can usually find it. When Steven Berger arrived at Unexpected Joy, I didn’t need a second look. Just minutes into our first lively conversation, I recognized this converted Jewish hippie from Long Island as a brother. Steven is what I like to call a “paradise peddler”, a lay missionary with a penchant for the mystical. He works as head chef at Cafe Paradisio, the Redding, California restaurant he owns with his wife, Barbara.  But Steven’s real job is selling heaven to everyone he meets.

My guess is Cafe Paradisio wasn’t named on a whim. The teaching that we can become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) and be restored to the paradisaical state is a favorite theme of Steven’s.  The truth of this doctrine of “theosis”, so central to the Orthodox Christian faith, is exemplified in the miracles that naturally occur around fully sanctified, or “deified”, people—those holy humans we call saints.

The beauty of theosis, though, is that it isn’t limited to saints. Or, to put it a better way, we are all called to be saints (Romans 1:7). Anyone who has set forth on the path to salvation is already being transformed, renewed, restored.

When Peter dropped his fishing nets and followed Christ, he began in that moment the process of theosis. He started to be deified, began to become like God. It was this process taking place that allowed the future great apostle to walk on water as Christ did,  though he was not yet a saint. We know from the scriptures that it didn’t take Peter long to become afraid, succumb to gravity, and fall back to earth. But for that brief suspended moment, walking on the waves, Peter was allowed, by the One “through whom all things are made”, a glimpse into his full human potential.

peter and christ

Recently, Steven shared a story with Orthodox in the Ozarks that he believes illustrates theosis at work, though in an unlikely place and through an unlikely person: a  priest whose great-grandparents were slaves, serving Divine Liturgy at Unexpected Joy Orthodox Christian Church in his tiny hometown of Ash Grove, Missouri.

Here’s the story in Steven Berger’s own words:
“I owned a pizza place in Greenfield Missouri called Aloha Pizza. One Saturday evening, a couple came in for pizza who lived there in town. They started telling me this terrible story about how they had been in a car accident the night before and how their daughter was in a coma and would I please pray for her… So, ‘of course! I say, of course I’ll pray for her. In fact, I’ll tell my Pastor about it tomorrow at Church and the whole congregation will pray for her!’
So, like the dummy I am, by next morning, I forget all about it and don’t say anything to anybody about it. Then comes the part in the service where Fr. Moses comes out with the Holy gifts to pray for the living and the dead. He prays for the usual people and any other special needs he knows of and then turns to go back into the Altar. Suddenly, he stops, comes back out and prays: ‘And for all those in a coma’ and goes back into the Altar.
Then I remember! I rush into the Altar myself and ask Fr. Moses, ‘Why did you say that about those in a coma?’ ‘I don’t know’ he says. Then I tell him about the couple who talked to me last night and how I was supposed to tell him about it and all. ‘I guess that must be why!’ he says.”

I think what Steven’s story illustrates best is that while theosis is an exalted final state, it begins in a very humble way: with obedience. Most of us will not become miracle working saints, but we might, by obedience, be given gifts we hadn’t thought were ours to receive.

Christ says, “come,” and Peter obeys, stepping into the sea as if onto dry land. A priest is prompted to pray for “those in a coma” and so he does, only to learn later that there was a reason for his prayer he himself had not known. And with such strong evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in others, we get the chance to believe that He is also at work in us.

Just another moment in paradise.

 

Love Lives…at the Public School

by Michele Latham

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A public school can be an unfriendly place. There are constant deadlines, misunderstandings, peer pressure, and the ever-present feeling of being judged and criticized. And I’m referring to the teachers! Students, of course, have their own set of challenges and struggles and it sometimes seems that the system is designed to discourage children and staff alike.

One may question how love can survive in such an atmosphere.I’ve come to realize it is one of the best arenas in which to practice Christ’s command to love one another. My opinion has been formed through watching a certain history teacher, my husband, as he uses the power of love every day in his job. He may not love the current climate of the public school system, or the random drug testing of his students, or being a part of yet another non-education related committee. But he loves those high school kids every day.

He uses a respectful manner of teaching and engaging with the students. Many of them have been negatively labeled before they get to his class (lazy, stupid, discipline problem, bad home situation, etc). He makes a point of ignoring the labels and treating each one like an actual person! Although he can’t exactly teach about Orthodoxy ( he sneaks in as much as he can in Western Civilization class), his actions are based on Christ’s teachings.

There are ups and downs as the classes progress each semester. Some days he comes home questioning if teaching is the best job for him. Then the year ends and it’s time to say good-bye to the seniors. It never fails, a few of the students write thank you notes to him. And they always go something like this:

“I can’t begin to tell you how thankful I am for having the wonderful opportunity to have you as a teacher and role model. You have had a tremendous impact on me and my life. I have learned so much from you and your classes. Not only have I learned about history, but about life and how to live it. I can only hope to have teachers at the University that teach like you do, that care about students like you do, and that question things like you do. You’re one of my biggest heroes.”

It is amazing to me that there are kids who take the time to put into words their gratitude for him. I don’t think they will realize until later that what they learned from their teacher was not history, or politics or even how to appreciate good roots music, but rather they learned how to love. How to use a situation or a job (even one that seems less than ideal) as an opportunity to minister to others.

I must remind myself to look for opportunities in my everyday life to serve others and I see from my husband’s example that there are opportunities all around me. Standing in church with my brothers and sisters I’m aware that they are busy looking for opportunities also. In fact, I am thinking that the title of this post could just as easily have been:

 
Love Lives…

at the Office
at the Construction Site
at the Library
at the Gym
at the Hospital
at the University
at the Winery
at the Farm
at Home

We have only to look for it.

 

 

Opposite Day, Everyday!

by Michele Latham

 

The idea of Opposite Day is that everything we say or do is the opposite of what it hot-fudge-sundae-23-450x565normally is. So, saying “I love housework” on opposite day really means I hate it. And “I won’t be eating a hot fudge sundae today” means…well, you know! There are several countries which have designated unofficial holidays for Opposite Day! Kids love this way of thinking, but I think it unsettles adults a little. After all, we are creatures of habit and have had many years to establish our thoughts in a certain way.

 
The idea of opposite thinking came to mind a few week ago when I went to visit a sick friend in the hospital. The events leading up to the visit were typical of when a brother or sister is ill. I heard about the trouble this friend was having and the thought occurred to me, I should go visit her. Take her something. Let her know I’m thinking of her. So that’s what I did. Poor thing, she would be happy to have a visitor and take comfort in knowing I was praying for her.

 
I walked into her hospital room and there she was. She looked to be tired and in obvious pain. I gave her my gift and said some lame words about hoping she felt better soon. Then she spoke (softly because she had trouble breathing) and told me about a visit from a priest friend. She shared what he said about using the Jesus Prayer to get through the pain and fear she was experiencing. She was so grateful for his words. She sweetly thanked me for coming and let me kiss her cheek as I left.

 
There it was. Opposite Day.

 
I had gone to the hospital thinking I would offer her my love and encouragement, but instead God blessed me through her words. Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t doubt that God hears my prayers when I ask for her healing and I believe that showing my love for her is an act that can comfort and help. But, what I didn’t expect was the blessing I received by trying to be of service to her.

 

 

Although the commandment is “Love one another”, this love isn’t only for the recipient’s sake. It is for the giver, too. As a modern human being, I understood this commandment as a way I could make a difference for someone else. But I soon realized something important. Through loving others, God softens the heart. He makes us able to hear and learn and appreciate the light of Christ shining in all those around us.

The Lingering Scent of Kindness

chicken farm sign (2)

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

When I was small my mother had what she called an “egg route”. With baskets of fresh hen eggs—washed and stacked into cardboard flats or single-dozen cartons—filling the back  of our station wagon, she drove over roads that twisted like pretzels from our farm in the small borough of Prospect, Pennsylvania to the larger nearby town of New Castle to deliver her wares. Many of Mom’s customers were homemakers, wives of men who left in the dark each day to work in the steel or coal industry. These were strong, capable women in middle-age who did not seem to know they weren’t supposed to love their jobs. With their wide, apron-wrapped waists and wider smiles they seemed to me as inseparable a part of their kitchens as did their flour-dusted tables and busy steaming stoves.

I always liked riding along with Mom on a delivery day, but never more than at Christmas or Easter time, when these women would be slow roasting meats and baking sweetbreads stuffed with dried fruits and scented with anise and icing dozens of cookies.

“You must come in. Come in,” they’d command, in heavily accented English, when we knocked at their back doors. And Mom always obeyed, to my great delight. Not only did those egg buyers’ houses smell like I imagined heaven would, but I knew from experience that for the next fifteen minutes to a half hour, while she visited over a cup of strong coffee, my brother and I would gorge ourselves on sweets. (We were the youngest in a family of five at the  time—all boys, except for me.  A platter of anything never lasted long on our table.)

lingering scent of kindness

The extra minutes we spent visiting with  Mom’s customers could be seen as wasted, especially since they extended our delivery day considerably.

But they were not wasted.

Throughout my life I’ve kept the memory of those women and the gift of their warmth, recalling the effect their neighborliness had not only on my brother and me but on my mother. Young as we were, we could tell that Mom enjoyed our visits in those homes as much as we did. Although she wasn’t the type to complain, I think her customers knew she had troubles. In their kind kitchens the pain and fatigue that came with her rheumatoid arthritis seemed to lift for a time. Refreshed by their friendship, her brow would smooth, her spirits would lighten, and she’d break into song or entertain us with a story from her childhood as we drove up and down the hilly streets of New Castle, finishing the day’s deliveries.

There have been other moments like those over the years, instances in which other human beings, other children of God, showed a bit of generosity or did me or my loved ones a kindness. And it strikes me that a few of those gestures—an encouraging grin, a sympathetic glance on a difficult day—could be considered so ordinary, so commonplace, so slight, as to be downright insignificant.

They have in truth all been earthquakes, changing the landscape of my life.

It’s an amazing thing, and awfully humbling, to consider how huge a small offering—just a plate of cookies and a bid to sit a while—can be.

 

Songs of the Saints

 

by Michele Latham

I’m not sure I agree with the concept of the tortured artist. I’d like to think our world contains beautiful art that is born of happiness and love.  But,  if it’s true that suffering inspires some of the best creations,  I have a musician friend who has had plenty from which to draw.  It seems that she’s hguitar_strings_instrumentad more than her fair share of tough times, sadness and loss. I’ve known this sweet woman for 12 years, but I heard her voice long before that. My husband grew up with her. In the early years of our marriage, he often played a tape of her singing  original songs. When I heard her voice, I instantly knew. I knew she was a kindred spirit. I sang along, harmonizing with her and wondered if circumstances would ever bring us together.

Fast forward several years. We finally met and we have spent hours talking and singing together.  My family has ended up in the Orthodox church. And so has my friend, the song writer! Her music can still break my heart. The sadness she has experienced is sometimes blatant in her lyrics and other times hovers just below the surface.  No matter what the subject of the song, the listener is drawn in. You want to cry with her and get angry with her, but mostly you feel her hope. Hope that things can be better. Hope that we will all pull through the dark times.

One day, though, something changed.  My priest motioned me to where he was sitting in the church hall, “you have to hear this…”. He pointed to the CD player next to him. The music began and I listened. It was my songbird! It was her beautiful voice, her style of acoustic guitar accompaniment…but something was different. As I listened to the words, I couldn’t stop the tears. The songs were about our saints. The words were simple, almost childlike in the description of the saint’s lives.

There was still an element of sadness, but it was transformed. The pain had become the sound of sweet longing. She was putting into those simple, beautiful songs the yearning she felt to know the saints better. And to know God better. That yearning that  we all feel at sometime or another. God has given us this glimpse of holiness through his saints and we long for more.

My dear sister has been guided by the Holy Spirit to perfectly capture the beauty and sorrow of  God’s love in her songs. How blessed I am for knowing her.

“St. Innocent of Komel”
by Jennifer Latham Sherrill

St. Innocent withdrew into the great and mighty forest
at the River Sora, in the Russian wilderness
he set a cross, dug a well, built the monastery cells
and a church for God

St. Innocent, pray for me
that I be filled with love and peace
I want to walk and talk like you
I want to be “innocent” too

As his friend was dying he told Innocent, “The Lord
wants you to go the River Nurma.” so Innocent did go
and he spent 30 years building a monastery nearby,
he worked day and night for God

We pray for love in Christ
We pray to live a holy life

St. Innocent, pray for me
that I be filled with love and peace
I want to walk and talk like you
I want to be “innocent” too