Posted by on Jul 26, 2009 in Reflections | 10 comments

Simplicity

Back in my Bible college days it wasn’t unusual to, while
grabbing a third helping of Apple Jacks from the student cafeteria cereal bar,
be confronted out of nowhere by classmates and professors with
invasive inquiries such as, “So, how is your walk?”  Meaning my Christian walk. How was I doing in
terms of growing and maturing spiritually?  One hundred percent of the time my answer was, “Fine.”  Never mind that I’d all but stopped
attending church and had taken to sleeping in on Saturday mornings instead of
participating in the women’s Bible study being held in the common area of our
dorm floor.

With but a grin and a nod and maybe a, “Praise the Lord,”
thrown in for good measure, I could avoid the discomfort of being prayed over
right there on the spot and keep my lack of joy, and disillusionment, to my own
burnt-out self. I was having what you might call a “crisis of faith” – a
condition not all that uncommon among twenty-something, life-long believers.  I was annoyed by the cliché-ness – the
“Got Jesus?” t-shirts, the “What would Jesus do?” bracelets, key chains, breath
mints, white-faced mimes reenacting Christ’s Passion (silently, of course) on
the streets of Chicago.

Secretly, I’d already begun the literally scary as hell process
of inwardly distancing myself from not necessarily my childhood convictions but
rather an expression of those convictions I was becoming increasingly less and
less devoted to. And yet that evangelical sub-culture was all I’d ever known,
the only language I spoke, my only means, I assumed, for gaining access to
God.  I couldn’t bear to reveal
publicly the gnawing misgivings I felt for sure would be read as a sign
of my capriciousness, as dangerous, and worst of all as a betrayal of those I cared
for and respected.  “Hey, I’m
struggling here!”  I thought near
constantly beginning in the spring of 1996. But you wouldn’t have known it by
looking at me or conversing with me because I (and I hardly think I’m alone in
this) would bend over backwards for the approval and admiration of my
peers, which in that particular context was easily garnered with a few
strategically placed references to God’s omnipotence, grace and awesomeness.

Fast-forward thirteen years, through thirteen years of
significant transitions. I am married now and wearing a tri-bar cross around my
neck (representative of my commitment to the Orthodox Christian Faith I have converted
to).  I drive a mini-van. That’s
right, I’m a mom. I am Orthodox.  I
am immensely grateful for these developments in my life, but still get so
utterly flustered sometimes when it comes to those inevitable periods of despondency and insecurity within motherhood and faith that seem always to precede both
humility and enlightenment.  With
each new stage and trial I tend to panic, failing to pace myself one inch by
prayerful inch at a time (Learning curve, schmearning curve – I can and will overcome
and master all of it instantaneously!). Instead of factoring in my uniqueness –
unique temperament, vulnerabilities, circumstances and background, when working
out with fear and trembling my salvation, I chase vigorously after a one-size
fits-all ideal, pieced together by yours truly from a smorgasbord of
characteristics I’ve observed in others, representing to me what defines a “good”
mother, a “good” Orthodox Christian.

It can be lonely, I tell you, and embarrassing to
struggle.  Behind closed doors, I agonize
over a rebellious son or daughter, my doubts increase in strength and number
and overtake me, I give in, once again, to the same old tired temptations.  Being imperfect, having children who
are imperfect, makes me (I hate to admit it) feel ashamed.  And then there is the added burden of trying
to maintain a reputation I have fostered with such care and diligence. I forget
too easily that all of those moments in which I find myself way in over my head
are imperative for becoming more and more dependent on Christ’s direction and
mercy.

But what will my neighbors, my co-workers, my fellow
parishioners think if word gets out that I screw up, like all the time? Even worse, how do I go on if the intensely personal cross I am asked to carry is misinterpreted, generating negative assumptions about my degree
of piety, my mothering know–how or my intentions?  Could it be, I’ve been asking myself lately, that the
forfeiting of my pride – the pride that flares up like a flame burning my insides
every time I say something stupid, every time I fail to control one of my
children’s outbursts, every time my beliefs, as an Orthodox Christian, are
scorned – is the key to my freedom? 
How much more of a blessing I could be to those around me if, instead of
being so tethered to my self-esteem, I just put myself out there, as is (un-glossified,
un-airbrushed) – as a walking, talking, breathing manifestation of God’s
continuous compassion. Because those most acutely aware of how many, many times
they’ve been forgiven, are far more apt to forgive and really love, themselves,
without judgment or stipulations.   

The opinions of others
about us,
wrote Father Alexander Elchaninov, – this is the mirror before which we all, almost without exception,
pose. A man moulds himself in order to be such as he wishes to appear to
others. But the real man, as he is actually is, remains unknown to all, often
himself included, while what acts and lives is a figure invented and dressed up
by his own imagination. This tendency to deceive is so great that, distorting
his very nature, a man will sacrifice his own self – the unique and inimitable
element present in every human personality.

But how great is the
attraction we feel whenever we meet a person free of this cancer, and how much
we love the complete simplicity and directness of children, who have not yet
entered into the realm of self-consciousness! Yet we have the alternative of
struggling consciously to return from this evil complexity to simplicity. In
any case, when we become aware of the presence of this evil in us, the task is
already half accomplished.

Complexity versus simplicity.  Self-protection, self-promoting, self-assurance,
self-loathing, self-justification, blah, blah, blah (whew! How exhausting!)
versus  fruit- bearing, peace-rendering,
soul-healing self-denial.  If there
is one thing we all share, it is our longing to be understood. That woman in
your parish with the crying baby on her hip receiving annoyed glances from
those who prefer it quiet while worshiping, may very well be seconds away from tears
and your warm smile and, “Boy have I been there too,” could make the difference
between her staying and feeling welcome or leaving in despair.  Your priest, who may be working a
full-time job and raising a family, could surely benefit from, and become
energized by, a little more appreciation and support from his flock. Think of
how liberating it would be if instead of getting our feathers all ruffled by
those who disagree with our positions, those who flaunt their accomplishments,
those who belittle us, we prayed for Christ to correct our thoughts immediately,
in the moment.  Imagine if envy
held no sway over our words or actions.

I am sorry, my brothers and sisters, if I ever
been anything but forthright with you, if I have ever presumptuously summarized you, if I have ever purposefully painted an overly rosy, inauthentic
picture of myself or my skills or my family and you experienced even a twinge
of discouragement because of it.  There
is already too much heartache in this world, too much hatred, too much fighting
against us in our quest to become more Christ-like. Distrusting the power of Jesus’
Resurrection by declaring our true selves, or anyone else, un-redeemable is
tragically and unnecessarily crippling. 
We are all in this together, friends. Let us uplift one another, always.