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!

 

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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

apple_with_heart_565561

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.

Love is a Weakness

loveisaweakness

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

Submission. It’s the first thing a writer wants to know about when querying an agent or publisher with a manuscript. What are the submission requirements? How do I submit? And while submitting a short story or a few chapters of a novel is a wonderful and desirable thing to be invited to do, the actual process is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, the submission guidelines for lots of literary agencies refer to a work of writing its author wishes to submit as “a piece”. A very fitting term, I say, for what is about to be exacted is no mere manuscript, but a pound of the writer’s rib-flesh, carved deep from the bone with a dull knife.

Pretty twisted stuff. Nevertheless, it goes on in the literary world all the time. Just not nearly so often as many hopeful writers, myself included, would like.

If submitting sounds hard to do, that’s because it is. Not only for fiction writers, but for saner folks as well. There’s a certain humility, a lowliness, a bending of the ego required and usually we need some motive for doing it. The writer wants to be published, of course, will nearly grovel to make that happen. But there are lots of other reasons people allow themselves to submit. Employees submit to company policy because they want to keep a salary coming in, further their careers or earn a raise. In the hospital patients submit to tests and treatment because they want to be cured. Teenagers submit to peer opinion because they need to fit in, to know they belong.

There are those, too, who submit for reasons of the heart. Fans of the movie “The Princess Bride” will recall the scene with Westley and Princess Buttercup in which she gives him several commands in succession, addressing him with the rather humiliating title of “Farm boy”. To each command, Westley replies, “As you wish”.  The rest, of course, is cult classic history. Had Westley not answered the way he did, had he handed Buttercup an extend-a-reach tool instead and told her to fetch down her own pitcher, there would be no happy ending. No perfect kiss.  But Westley does obey when Buttercup commands and so the story proceeds.

The scene of Westley’s compliance is not written into the movie’s screenplay to convey a message of feminine triumph over the weaker male psyche. Not at all. We the viewers immediately understand that there’s something much more important going on between these two characters than dominance and subservience. Westley is being weak on purpose. For the sake of true love.

Love, then, is the best reason one can have for bending to the will of another. And it’s the only motive that comes anywhere close to pure.

It is love, after all, that motivates the Virgin Mary to submit, to take on the role of being Christ’s mother.  Out of adoration for God, pure and simple, she replies to the archangel’s incredible announcement with, “Let it be”.

Love is the reason, too, for Christ’s miracle at Cana. There is evidence of this in the command his mother gives just after Christ has told her that his time for working miracles has not yet come:”His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.”  Not only does Christ demonstrate filial love by turning the water to wine, Mary seems to know before he does it what his action will be, no doubt because for all his earthly life she’s been loving him.

The highest expression of this submission that is love is seen in the relationship between the three persons of the Holy Trinity, most beautifully illustrated in Rublev’s icon. With skill belonging to the other world, Rublev uses color, light and composition to evoke the perfect harmony that exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Taken from the Old Testament story of the hospitality of Abraham, the three angels are shown, each with head inclined to another, seated in an intimate circle around a table on which sits a single vessel.

holy_trinity_-rublev (2)

For me, the great gift of this icon is in its movement. Gazing at it, I have a sense of perfect, selfless love being infinitely exchanged. I can almost see it happening before my eyes. Each bends to the other and gives the eternal answer, “As You wish.”

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

 

Of Soil and Hearts

by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

Reading is one of the ways writers hone their craft. And there is no literature better for this than the Holy Scriptures. The parables of Christ are especially rich in imagery and contain some fine examples of literary device. Probably because I was raised on a farm, I’m particularly drawn to the allegories that have agrarian themes. When our Lord talks about dirt, barns, grapevines, or sheep and goats, he’s speaking my language. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”.

Where I go deaf is in the lesson.

 Luke 8:5-14 paints a typically vivid picture: “A sower went out to sow his seed”.

 Here, I’m all ears and inner eyes, seeing the planter setting to his task. I’ve never been to the Holy Land, so the sower of my imagination, heading into the dawn on a misty morn, is wearing—not a tunic—but overalls, and the burlap sack slung across one thick shoulder bulges with cotton seed.

Jesus is a great storyteller. Character and setting are established in a single opening sentence. The scene building continues and just three sentences later the tale has a beginning, middle and end.

“And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up it withered away because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.”

The next line caused me to roll my eyes when I read it as a young girl:

“And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?”

I was unimpressed with the disciples at that point. Anybody could see the Lord wasn’t just spinning yarns for the fun of it. I don’t remember now what I thought the meaning to the parable was at age 7 or 8, but I recall thinking them awfully slow for not grasping it. Those poor fellows just hadn’t been steeped in fairy tales and folklore like I was, I figured, or they’d have gotten the message right off. Being God in the flesh, Jesus is of course more patient in his answer than I would have been. He even gives his disciples special status as receivers of the mysteries of God before saying, “Now the parable is this.

The seed is the word of God. Those by the wayside are they that hear; then comes the devil, and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away. And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection. But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.”

sprout (2)

That child, so adept at gleaning the moral from a fairy tale, is gone. As an older adult I seem to be growing denser by the day, more lesson resistant. According to our parish priest, who gave a homily on this parable not long ago, my difficulty is a common one and chronic. With the passing of childhood, so goes openness and simplicity. Children might fib to each other and on occasion to adults but, unlike us, they do not lie to themselves. The key, then, to restoring spiritual childlikeness to a soul grown stony and hard, to giving it the freshness of new-turned earth, must lie within the last passage of this gospel reading, the line our priest stressed his homily. In it, Jesus defines good ground:

…“they which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it.”

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!”