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.


Be a Stegosaurus

by Michele Latham

To-Do-List_PrintableI discovered pretty early on that kids love to-do lists. Just like adults, they feel that sense of accomplishment when they mark a task as being completed. I began using a chalk board to make daily lists for my children when they were young. Items included school work, chores, and some fun activities. When a friend came by the house one day, he looked at the board. He questioned something on my son’s list.  No. 4 read “Be a Stegosaurus”. He was so amused by my choice of words. Why hadn’t I written “Pretend to be a Stegosaurus” or “Act like a Stegosaurus”? I laughed about it at the time as my son roared at us from the other room.

But how does one Be a Stegosaurus? I thought about it for a while. It would involve taking on the characteristics and habits of a stegosaurus. There would be some studying involved. Time spent practicing, emulating, and then being.

I think there’s a pretty good lesson here. If I want my children (or myself for that matter) to become persons of honorable character or to strive to attain  Christian virtues, I can use this model. It may seem false to act courageous or honest, or generous if one hasn’t practiced those traits before.  But it’s the first step to becoming those things. In fact, the Greek form of the word virtue is more properly called ηθική αρετή, or “habitual excellence.” This implies we must forever practice. We must study, emulate the saints and hope to become more like Christ.

So, as my children grew older, I no longer made to-do lists for them. But, I always prayed that they would continue to practice the axioms we had talk about for years.

As they left the house each day for school, work and sporting events, I wanted to give them some encouraging words. I always stood on the porch waving. “Have a good day!” or  “God bless you!”  But inside, I was pumping my fist in the air shouting, “Be a Stegosaurus!”


A Simple Lesson

light_lamp_196504by Michele Latham

Teachings of the  Orthodox church can be complex. This is exactly the thing that drew my husband to research the church so many years ago. He knew there was more to the spiritual life than what we were finding in the typical modern American churches.  He was right. And we hit the jackpot with Orthodoxy! There is always more to learn: to strive to understand. This is an important part of living an Orthodox life.  I pray and read and attend church, but I still struggle to grasp some of the loftier ideas. Then once in a while, God shows me something so simple that I smack my head. Of course it would be wonderful to understand the many layers of Christ’s teachings, but perhaps the basics are enough for me to handle right now. And what better way to get something through my thick skull than to use parenting as the example. After all, that’s what I do. That’s what I am… a parent. I can identify.

My latest lesson came about during the empty-nest stage of my life. If you have older kids, you know the stage I mean. The hands-on part of parenting is tapering off and I’m watching our five children begin to live their lives as young adults.  Two are in college and the other three are working, living in different towns . This year, everyone was home for Thanksgiving, Christmas and several other weekend breaks. We’ve always had great family time. We love the holiday rituals which have been in place since the kids were young. We enjoy talking, eating, and laughing together.  But, for the last year or so I have been anxiously watching my offspring. Specifically, I’m watching their relationships with each other.

I’m wondering about those days and months between the festivities. I can’t help but notice the siblings are moving in very different directions. Will they stay in touch? Will they go out of their way to be interested in each others’ lives? Will they call on one another for help? Will they offer help without being called? I hope…I pray they do all these things. When I see  signs that they are, it makes me feel so much love for them. It makes me feel happy and proud and so blessed. My husband and I have loved and cherished them, now they are following our example with each other.

Listening to a sermon one Sunday morning, it dawned on me! As God’s children, this is exactly what we must do. Love one another. Look out for our brothers and sisters. God has loved us and taught us how to love. He has protected us and blessed us and now it’s our turn to reflect those things by loving one another. As strongly as I want my children to care for each other, how much more does our Father in heaven want His children to do the same? We can practice being good sons and daughters by staying in touch, being interested in one another and helping out when needed even when our lives take us in different directions. Now, that  I can understand.  Simple.



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Monastery Days

by Michele Latham

We called it Thursday Class. And although it was meant for the children, I cherished every minute.

My family was fortunate to live just a few miles from a women’s monastery here in the Ozarks. A handful of Orthodox nuns (and their m20150924_104745any helpers) had carved out a beautiful skete in the middle of the woods. They graciously offered to host the children on Thursdays for a short class and prayers. Many times we stayed after class and the children helped to tend the chickens, guineas, and goats that lived on the place. The monastery grounds were so enticing for the children. There were trails through the woods and building projects in progress everywhere. The kids clamored to be of help and the nuns were so patient, supervising their work. One day as my six-year-old  was struggling to pull a wagon full of rocks from a garden spot, I was horrified when he looked over his shoulder at Mother Thecla and called out, “Hey, can you push?” I was unfamiliar with monastery etiquette and was walking on egg shells, hoping the children and I behaved properly.  I shouldn’t have worried, though, because I saw the smile on her face as she bent to help with the wagon. It was such a blessed time and I loved the sweet way in which the sisters taught us all about God and the Church.

One Thursday, as we were driving through our small town on route to the monastery, my son searched the empty yards of the houses we passed. “Where are all the kids?” he shouted. Being the youngest of five children, he often felt the need to shout. When he didn’t get a quick reply, he shouted the question again and then supplied his own answer, “Where are all the kids? Oh, I know! They’re at their nun’s!” I smiled at the thought that his 4-year old mind assumed all children had their own nuns to visit.
In reality, a lot of Americans don’t know anything about the pious monastics spending their days in prayer. And there are many Orthodox Christians who don’t live near a monastery or don’t have the means to make a pilgrimage. They never get the chance to have a conversation or sing a Troparion with these saintly folks. We were truly blessed. And we are blessed still, because although that monastery moved to Kansas City years ago, another one is now located 30 miles away in the other direction.

As for the children, they are all practically grown and are scattered around the country, working, going to school, starting their adult lives. I’m so thankful for those beautiful days spent at the monastery.  I still pray for “our” nuns although I’ve lost contact with many of them .We are bound by the holy spirit and I feel comforted to know that they are still praying for the children of that long-ago Thursday Class.

Planting Seeds

by Michele Latham

Watching videos of my kids as young toddlers transports me back in time instantly. My heart stores memories which are awakened by the sound of tiny voices saying “mommy”. There was so much work, and worry and love packed into those years! As new parents, my husband and I agreed upon a parenting style and philosophy. Of course, various situations arose which caused us to re-think our plan and act upon instinct. But we were doing our best. Our main objective was to plant the best seeds in the children and pray that they took firm root. Choosing which seeds to plant was easy. We just looked to the teaching of the Orthodox Church. Prayer, love for God and our neighbors, respect for authority, truth and beauty. Well, as hard as we tried to tend the planting of those seeds, sometimes everyday hustle and bustle got in the way. Looking back, I worry that we didn’t do enough. We were so busy keeping everybody fed and cleaned and home schooled that I wonder if we took enough time to prepare them for leading grown-up Christian lives.

I am in the midst of all this worrying when it hits me…

I am so glad I was able to read the lives of the Saints to the children, and take them to church. I loved praying with them in our icon corner and celebrating the feast days with special food and activities. But really, who is the gardener here? I’m trying to take way too much credit (and blame) for what happens in the souls of these children. God is the ultimate gardener, I am just the assistant. I will continue to watch over and pray for my children. Perhaps I’ll even get the chance to knock out a weed that wants to intrude on the work of the Holy Spirit, but how arrogant I am to think my guidance will “make or break” them as Christians?

In Wounded by Love, Elder Porphyrios instructs, Say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, give Your light to my children. I entrust them to You. You gave them to me, but I am weak and unable to guide them, so, please, illuminate them.’