I spent the weekend in Portland, Oregon where I was treated ever so kindly by the warm and hospitable ladies of St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church. Have you ever been to Portland before? I hadn’t. If you’re into awesomeness, you’d love it. I felt healthier just looking at all the bike trails, walking trails, vegetarian restaurants and organic grocery stores lining its scenic landscape. I’d like to go back someday and take my time exploring more of Portland’s fascinating regional treasures.
This particular trip was a whirlwind. I arrived on a Friday afternoon and flew back home early Sunday morning. Those brief hours were jam packed, however, with valuable insights and meaningful interactions. I was there to lead a Women’s Retreat but found myself being ministered to by the attendees themselves – everyone of them so kind, sincere and earnest in their desire to work out their salvation with fear and trembling.
It’s incredibly encouraging to every once in awhile come away from my computer, exit my cozy little house, little town, and get on out there and witness Orthodox Christianity being lived and embraced by sisters in The Faith. With every heartfelt conversation that took place between us, I could feel my resolve to love God and neighbor strengthening, and the clouds of earthly concerns hindering my view of the one thing needful clearing. We were mercifully designed to depend on, sometimes carry, and uplift one another.
On the second day of our retreat, the topic of beauty came up – the kind of beauty that inspires one to ignite their every day with sparks of radiance and creativity. We spoke of nature and pieces of music, literature and iconography. Then one woman told a story of meeting a monk from Mount Athos whose face, she’d assumed before seeing it would be stern, austere and serious, was surprisingly luminous and cheerful. His joyful expression bore into her, soothing her anxious spirit. I was moved by her unexpected account of peace and hope being gifted wordlessly.
It’s becoming rare to be greeted by passersby on the street or in the store with eye contact, or a genuine smile – a respectful look that says, “You are here. You exist. I acknowledge you.” We tend to keep our heads down and our focus locked in on the iPhone in front of us, shuffling from here to there in our own little self-absorbed bubbles of worries and to-dos. I am guilty of this myself, believe me, which is why I’ve been driven to figure out what it is that most often prevents me from, not just glancing through, but actually seeing the people around me. What was I missing out on by self-protectively keeping my distance?
Half of my problem is just plain forgetfulness, quite frankly. I wake up in a rush and neglect to seize a moment in which I prayerfully evaluate and reorder my daily priorities in light of eternity. As a result, I often find myself swept up in impetuousness, and overly concerned with many, ultimately inconsequential, things. I allow my attention to drift to tomorrow where confusion, restlessness and confoundment abound.
The peace of Christ is only here in the present, where I am supposed to be. The peace of Christ is beyond reason in that it overrides the bumpy ups and downs of my changing circumstances, freeing me up to act decisively – to choose beauty, to choose joy, to choose gratitude, to choose love even in the midst of chaos and uncertainty. Recognizing and addressing the person in front of me, with sincere interest and gentleness, is also a deliberate choice – and a risky choice at that, in that it invites a conversation to take place that might very well infringe on my time and agenda. To be fully aware of this potential inconvenience and yet in faith proceed anyway is a spiritual sacrifice.
I’ve tried it a few times now, on the plane, in the airport, at the grocery store with both predictable and unpredictable results. I’d anticipated looking someone full in the face and saying “Hello, how are you?” would lead to follow-up statements on their part and eventually a dialogue. I heard about: a daughter leaving for college, what it was like growing up with nine siblings, playing on stage once with Jimmy Buffet, and a favorite recipe for spicy guacamole. What I hadn’t foreseen, however, was how these tiny connections would bring such purpose and meaning to my day, mysteriously diffusing the stress and aggravation of always go, go going in a million different directions. It just plain put me in a better mood to step outside of myself for a minute.
“Joy is thankfulness, and when we are joyful, that is the best expression of thanks we can offer the Lord, Who delivers us from sorrow and sin,” said Elder Thaddeus. For joy to be miraculous and healing to others, and ourselves, it must be irrational – independent of our circumstances, and fierce in its determination to combat darkness and despair with intentional hopefulness and light.
I long to see you. I am bound to you. I feel whole when I am weeping with you, and rejoicing with you, and caring more about you than my own wants and whims. In spite of the hatred, evil, vulgarity, and egotism threatening to drown out what is redemptive and lovely and good, I choose, I choose, I defiantly choose joy, for your sake, and my sake, and in resolute anticipation of the Kingdom which is to come.