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

 

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!”

 

Evangelism

russian_orthodox_church_of_all_russian_saints_lovely_and_elegant_blue_and_gold_domes_between_the_fence_spires_burlingame_california_usa_516353by Mary Michal Rogers

About once a month, I get together with some very dear girlfriends to reconnect, share, and bolster each other’s spirits. During a recent gathering, the discussion turned to religion. Or, more specifically, churches and our feelings about them (none of these friends are Orthodox).

By that point in the evening, the group had dwindled to me and two ladies that are particularly special to me. We began talking about how tough it can be to get an entire family ready, out the door, and to church on time. The conversation shifted to the churches we attend; my friends had spent years trying and leaving various churches, and one had decided to just stop going altogether. She and her husband did a Bible study together, and she felt that was sufficient for them. The other (whose husband refuses to attend any church) had settled on one she liked because it was “old”. But, she admitted, that church was going to change denominations and she wasn’t sure how she felt about it.

 
My friends were clearly looking for something they hadn’t found, as are many noncradle Orthodox when we find the True Faith. They wanted their children to be involved in a church family. They themselves were yearning for something they did not know, and didn’t know where to look.

 
I care very much about these women. And yet I didn’t tell them about Orthodoxy.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this since then; why wouldn’t I share this Light, this missing piece of the soul? Would it have taken too long to explain? Was I afraid of the way they’d look at me? I had done them an incredible disservice and assumed they
wouldn’t/couldn’t accept what I had to say. For the time I’ve spent reading of the Saints and the Fathers and Mothers and hoping I would channel a small piece of them, I certainly shied away from looking like a “fool for Christ”.

 
We, as Orthodox, are still little known and little understood in America. If we are to fill this earth with the Truth that we know, we cannot be silent about it. As Fr. Seraphim Rose would say, “it’s later than you think.” And so, when the opportunity presents itself again, I will prove that I care very much about these women (and men, and children) and share with them.

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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I Remember…

Donna and her husband John lived in southwest Missouri for many years and are a part of the “Unexpected Joy” family.  They now reside in Colorado.

by Donna Mills

I remember thsun_and_clouds_197172e gladness of heart I felt each time we crossed the tracks and rounded the corner of the country road that led to our church, the peace that quieted my mind, the expectation of entering into the deep heart. A greater love that any friend or family could inspire awaited in the stillness of preparatory prayers, the lighting of candles for intercession, the movement of the Priest,  wafting the mysterious fragrance of incense, punctuated by the clanking of the censor’s chains.  We are all drawn into the ancient faith with the invisible presence of angels and saints, witnessed by the gaze from their icons, lifting our minds, guiding, offering their prayers for us.

As more gather, first acknowledging the presence of Christ through venerating the icons, then one another with unspoken but loving greetings, my spirit rises with gratitude for the tangible love of God through His people. Warm rays of light stream in through the colored glass, embellishing the occasion as if laden with jewels from above.  The last confessor wipes away a cleansing tears, and Fr. Moses enters the altar, laden with burdens to lift upwards. When he opens the doors of the iconostasis, encompassing the Holy of Holies, and asks forgiveness, the awaiting congregation responds, “May God forgive us all.” In such a humbled state, we begin our worship as one.

Time ceases its clamor as the songs of ancient faith are sung in sweet harmony, drawing down the Grace of the Holy Spirit, experienced by each one in an individual way and yet we are bound together through its flow.  The swelling of my heart often brought tears – for what reason? The beauty? The love that cannot be contained? Sometimes from a remembrance of a harm done, a continual shortcoming that keeps me from accepting the fullness. The longing that has no definition ignites a flame that burns away the significance of my own unworthiness, and there in its place is unexpected joy.

Sometimes the Grace became tangible – when, more than once, the fragrance of roses greeted me as a shower in the narthex before the entrance into the chapel. Where were they? I looked around – in the small bookstore, the stand in the corner, the kitchen. There were no roses.  There was only the Mother of God smiling sweetly through the somber lips of her icon, inviting me to join the others already in prayer.  Others experienced this around other icons, as well.

I remember … when the coyote howled in the distance as Fr. Moses was lifting the crown of thorns and taking down the icon of Christ from the cross on Good Friday.

I remember… when the storm ceased and the sun shone through gentle drops of rain after the chalice was raised and Fr. Moses thundered, “Holy things are for the Holy!”

I remember… the oft repeated theme of the sermon to “try and love a little more.” Such a simple thing to do – we could all try.

I remember… partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ and experiencing a sense of rebirth.

The memories of these gifts from The Theotokos of Unexpected Joy Church in Ash Grove still serve to strengthen the foundation of my faith, and soften the soil of my heart to continually receive the seed of the Word of God wherever the liturgy of Christ is celebrated.  Come and See!

How am I to do Laundry?

by Michele Latham

How am I to do Laundry after I’ve Seen a Weeping Icon?

This was my question after Hawaii’s Myrrh-Streaming Iveron Icon visited our church.The experience was beyond anything I could put intflower_and_clothespin_199412o words. The beauty of the icon, the sweetness of the service, the humble sincerity of all the clergy and people who came to venerate the miraculous icon.  And the fragrance! The scent of heaven! Time seemed suspended that morning. I don’t think any of us wanted to leave the church after the service concluded. I know that none wanted the icon to leave! We wanted to stay in that moment when the Holy spirit and the Mother of God were so real. We wanted to be together with our  brothers and sisters talking about what we had experienced. As we drove home, we messaged each other. What a blessed day!  My car is permeated with the scent of roses!

I told many of my non-Orthodox friends about that day. I let them smell my myrrh drenched cotton swab and gave them paper copies of the icon. And I was so happy.  But I was left with that question: how do I go to work, go shopping, engage in everyday life when something so miraculous has touched me?
I got my answer from a variety of sources. My patient husband, a dear friend and my priest, Fr. Moses. Sometimes it takes several doses of information for me to absorb the meaning.

This is what I now understand: the visit from the Iveron Icon was miraculous, but I shouldn’t think of it as a singular event. The veil between heaven and earth is thinner than we sometimes realize. An equally tangible manifestation of heaven takes place during the Eucharist every Sunday. When we receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, there is no greater miracle. I am working to recognize and be more grateful that I am allowed to participate in this awesome event on a regular basis.

I will never forget the amazing day we were visited by the Iveron Icon. But now I  know  I must remember that marvels surround us. From an unexplained healing, to Holy Communion, to the grateful look in a brother’s face when you offer a helping hand…God is everywhere present.   Let’s strive to love one another as we go about our daily tasks, watching all the time for the blessed heavenly signs.

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.’

Amen.