Absolute Heartbreak

Over the years, I’ve learned the importance of self-care. I take to heart the airplane analogy to put the oxygen mask on myself first before I try to care for another. Maybe it comes more easily to me precisely because I had been alone for so long. Then again, maybe I was alone as long as I was because I cared more about myself than anyone else.

I don’t know which it is.

I just know that I’m having a tough time of it. It’s like I’ve lost the ability to administer self-care. Death and senseless violence are coming from every angle and I can’t take it anymore. I want to reverse it, but I can’t. The pipe bombs, the synagogue shooting, then the Thousand Oaks shooting.  Those are just the most recent big ones.

My oldest son couldn’t believe that some people survived the Las Vegas shooting last year only to become victims again, both dead and alive, of the one in Thousand Oaks. He was looking to me to confirm how insanely coincidental it all was. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised at all. I explained it was a matter of when, not if, we’d know a shooting victim. The only question would be how close it would touch our inner circle. I told him to be prepared because it was coming.

I wish I had been wrong about that.


After a joyous Sunday celebrating our church’s feast day with liturgy followed by a banquet with our bishop, we started a new week of work and school this Monday. I came home after my 6am CrossFit class to find my husband on the phone.

It was immediately clear that something was really wrong, and my heart sank with first thoughts of my elderly mother-in-law but it turns out she is fine. As Ryun wrapped up the phone call, I discovered he had actually been talking to our priest, which was highly unusual. Then again, Ryun is just a couple months into his tenure as our new church president so he’s bound to get phone calls at strange hours from here out. Given that our priest was on the other end, my thoughts drifted to our bishop, and I feared that he got in a bad car accident on his return trip home.

What Ryun told me next was beyond comprehension: one of our deacons and his wife were murdered – shot to death – in their own bed, just hours after we had dinner with them Saturday night. As of Monday morning, we didn’t know exactly what happened or who did it.

The air was sucked out of my lungs while we both sobbed over the news. It was totally incomprehensible. Who would do such a thing to such kind, upbeat, unassuming people? It was absolutely frightening to think they were targeted. How could that possibly be? Another senseless shooting? How could they be with us one day and gone the next? How?


Saturday night, a group of us gathered for vespers since our bishop was in town, and we all went to dinner with him afterwards: our two deacons, our choir director, the board of trustees, and all spouses. 18 of us in all. Our reservation was messed up and we had to wait an extra 45 minutes to be seated so some of us grabbed a cocktail and chatted at the bar. Then when it came time to sit, the restaurant prepared a table for only 16 of us, so they had to scramble to find another table to tack onto the end.

There is something poetic about initially there only being a table for 16 but we made special accommodations for all 18 of us.

Ryun was really flustered and embarrassed. He felt it was a reflection on him, how disorganized it all ended up being, especially since this was personally our first time to meet the bishop. Ryun was equally concerned about the optics and finances of hosting such a big dinner when we’re struggling to balance our church budget. We don’t have enough revenue to cover a growing body of expenses, so this dinner felt especially frivolous and completely counter to the financial objectives Ryun communicated to the parish. Our priest insisted that we host the bishop in this manner especially since he himself could not attend due to a prior commitment. Ryun went forth as instructed, uneasy as he was, and didn’t want to make a big stink of it that night as it would be crass to do so in front of that whole group.

We ended up having a wonderful time with lots of lively conversation and laughter. You could feel a really lovely, positive energy among us, so much so that I suggested to Ryun that we get a photo of us to commemorate the night. So we did.

In retrospect, I’m so very grateful. It all makes a little better sense to me now why that large group of us ended up together that evening, and what a blessing it was to share a meal, to be in communion, together with each other one final time.

Our entire church community is reeling in shock and disbelief. As of this writing, their son has been charged with their murder. We can’t imagine the pain and suffering that led him to take their lives. We grieve for the kind people we’ve lost and the family they leave behind, including several relatives within our church community. We grieve for the fallen world we live in. We grieve for each other.

We are numb. I am drifting aimlessly through the week. I can’t begin to fathom how we’ll overcome this as a church community. I want the horror to stop but it keeps coming. I don’t know how to administer self-care or group-care. I don’t know anymore.

Why is our world falling apart? I feel every last bit of it, every day, with every incident.

mike-labrum-151765-unsplashI will miss Dennis. He was my choir buddy, and always complimented my singing and writing, both on Facebook and this blog. It was so comforting to know I got a big thumbs up from a deacon who supported my feisty, liberal, open-hearted beliefs. He loved Ryun’s music and enjoyed a rapport with him, musician to musician. We were both so tickled that they came out to hear him perform. I will miss Helen and wish I knew her better. I remember walking away from our conversation Saturday evening impressed by her youthful curiosity, particularly admirable from someone who was 72 yet looked and acted nothing of the sort.

Memory eternal, Protodeacon Dennis and Matushka Helen. You are loved and missed so dearly by your entire church community. Vechnya pamyat. And God willing, I will see you again and greet you with great joy even as much as I wish you were still here with us right now.

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

The Bible ABCs

Have you seen this little boy reciting a Bible verse for each letter of the alphabet?  Apparently several folks are convinced it is Prince George but no, it’s a little boy named Tanner from Texas. British accent…Texan accent….same difference!

I was completely mesmerized and delighted watching him. I want to squeeze him, he’s so darn cute!

He’s 4. What gets me, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, is how I can’t quote 26 lines of scripture and I’m, um, older than 4. Now, it’s true that I recognize nearly every single line of scripture that Tanner says, but I couldn’t quote them verbatim.

I’ve been shown up by a four-year-old. Good for him. Even better for his parents! Man, you gotta love good parenting.

Let me back up a sec: I’ve been Christian all my life. I grew up Orthodox, which is pretty much code for “complex Christianity”. Orthodoxy is not Worship 101. It is off-the-deep-end stuff, unchanged since the very early days of the church a couple of millennia ago.

Let me emphasize: Orthodoxy is relatively unchanged from the early days of the church regardless of the world’s issues du jour. There’s a lot of emphasis on fasting, repentance, sin, suffering, symbolism, repetition, mysticism, ritual… My parents guided me what to do in church growing up but didn’t really explain why. They didn’t know why themselves, and so it went for generations before them.

Now my parent were steadfast and pious in their devotion to be sure, but well, I’m an inquiring mind. I always have been. I just knew I wasn’t going to get any answers from them. And reading scripture on your own wasn’t part of the ritual so it hasn’t been as top of mind as it should be for me.

It’s been a slow journey for me ever since. Many “cradle Orthodox”, as we’re called, don’t bother. Several of them just leave the church than explore their faith any deeper.

Despite not quite understanding about Orthodoxy, despite endless questions on my part and despite a few aspects that strike me the wrong way, I am still drawn to it.

During each Divine Liturgy we read an epistle and a selection from one of the Gospels, but they often use one of the older translations so the language shared aloud with the masses is archaic, clunky….and often times we have a guest reader for the epistle which is read at a volume and speed or cadence that doesn’t do much to facilitate understanding. I hear many comments from people about how they tune out during that part of the service.

They tune out! And we hear the same scripture verses annually so you’d think after a couple of decades, the message would sink in. And some of the messages do but they don’t speak to me personally and what I am struggling with. That’s something I need to remedy on my own.

So yes, yes, I should read the Bible frequently and deeply. I admire the people who can recite and take comfort in scripture for the various trials of life. I want to be that person. But I’m still a baby Christian. I should study the Bible, underline the parts that resonate with me, and commit some to memory. I haven’t done it. Only last year did I commit to reading more period, let alone more from the Bible. I even have an app on my phone so I can study it at a moment’s notice but it didn’t do much to immerse me more frequently in the verses.


Earlier in the week I also saw the image below online, and it too stopped me in my tracks. How many times have I allowed those very same outer messages to penetrate me? I found myself somewhat in awe of the spiritual armor this woman has. I get that she may not be real.

Still.

There have been times I felt those things deep inside of me, but I didn’t have the actual quotes ready to go in my head when I’m feeling down. The quotes are fantastic. Balm for the soul.

29216501_10214167534134875_4737592666882048000_nThis malady doesn’t affect just me. My young daughter and I had a little kerfuffle this week. She was feeling overlooked and unloved, and she lashed out in a minor way in both her behavior and words. It made me wonder have I been neglecting her? Am I giving her the love she truly needs? It struck me that I should be helping her build this same incredible spiritual armor and I’m failing.

We spent some time hugging and cuddling and I shared my hopes and dreams for her. I reassured her that she was wanted and loved and this love I have for her is an eternal thing. I worked hard to refill her love bucket. That’s what we call those words of affirmation, and this is a technique I picked up from reading How Full Is Your Bucket? by Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton.

Yet I told her how my Mom’s been gone for 30 years now, and while I don’t remember uplifting, encouraging words from her, the fact is I won’t always be around to build up my daughter’s spirits. I truly believe it’s a parent’s job to do that for their children, and I will absolutely step up the effort, but I told her she needed to remember my words and let them echo forever in case I’m not always there to give her this love.

But let’s be real: my words aren’t as good, as strong, as the ones in this image. Those words have been fortified by God. Those are the words I should be sharing with her so that when I am long gone from this earthly place, she can open up a Bible and receive comfort in hearing, remembering, what I’ve told her first hand.

How did it take me this long to figure that out? Thank God I figured it out.


Along comes Tanner. Whoa! Now, I know a 4-year-old doesn’t necessarily grasp an understanding of every line he’s learned but for heavens’ sake, he has learned the scripture. He can call upon these verses whenever he needs to in the future. You know how some people wait until they feel something before they do it yet it’s really the other way around. Sometimes you need to think it before you can feel it. Tanner has a jump start, ladies and gentlemen. He’s got the words today and the Spirit will whisper the meaning in ways big and small over the years.

Tanner is wearing a suit of armor.

At our house we have weekly family meetings otherwise known as The Louie Scoop. I have been wondering how best to teach our kids more about what it means to be Christian and how best to incorporate the messages of love as noted in the Bible.

I know what we’ll be doing for the next 26 weeks.

What do you think? What is your favorite Bible verse and why? I’d really like to know. We have several more weeks in the year beyond those first 26. God bless and peace out.✌🏻

Dear Fellow Parishioners

For the record, I’m weighing whether or not to read this letter aloud during coffee hour or have it added to next week’s church bulletin…

Dear fellow parishioners,

Recently a question was raised whether the church rules had been relaxed such that it was now ok for people to walk in and out whenever they wished during the Divine Liturgy. In particular, a comment was raised about children in the parish with “bladder problems”, and how on at least one witnessed occasion, someone walked in during the Gospel reading and brushed up against the robes of Deacon Dan while he was preaching.

Let me confess right now that our youngest, the youngest child of your newly elected church president, is one of those children. He’s 7. He loves church. We’ve made a point to sit in the front rows since he was a baby precisely because he was enthralled watching the priests and seeing the icons, and these last few years he’s been pretty close to the action when Deacon Dan reads the Gospel.

Archangel-Michael-webOver the years at Archangel Michael, this son of ours would ask me questions about the icons during liturgy. I took the time to teach him right then and there, in the middle of service, because it was so encouraging to me when he would remark over the story he recognized in the pictures. Our son spends an inordinate amount of time hugging me during liturgy, and I feel like it must make for the biggest scene to all those who sit behind us, but you know what? He’s 7. And I love him, so I hug him back, the entire time. I want every little thing about church to be a positive experience for him, because the language, the motions, the things we do over 90 long minutes, don’t really resonate too well for him since he’s just a little kid.

I mean, I know plenty of Orthodox Christian adults who don’t understand the language, the motions, and the things we do in church despite witnessing it every single week over their lifetime, so I cut our youngest some slack for not understanding. And like his two siblings before him, he’s going through classes right now to receive the sacrament of holy confession for the first time this Palm Sunday. I’m sure he’s learning more about liturgy in the process, to supplement what I, a cradle Orthodox, have been trying to teach him these few short years. But 2nd grade, when a child is 7-8 years old, is when the church considers the child to be of the “age of reason”. So again, I cut him some slack if he isn’t a perfect angel in church every Sunday. His halo might need a little polishing, but it isn’t too awfully crooked.

We drive 35-40 minutes each Sunday to arrive at Sunday School which is supposed to start at 9 but doesn’t really start until 9:10 or 9:15, and then we jump straight into church at 10:00 am. No break in between. At this point, he’s the only one that has breakfast.

For whatever reason, during each of the last five Sundays he has told me about 20 minutes into liturgy that he needs to use the potty. I tell him no, and then I see that look of desperation on his face. He pleads with me a couple more times, and I try to hold firm, but realize that I know my kid, and he’s not being mischievous. For whatever reason, he’s gotta go. Nature calls. After all, 2nd graders get potty breaks mid-morning in elementary school, no big deal. I judge whether it’s too close to the Gospel to let him go, but I usually let him because each time he’s asked, he has enough time to return to his seat before then. I don’t follow him to the back of the church to police his actions because he doesn’t need that kind of supervision.

I’ll be honest, I’m a little exasperated myself, because one recent Sunday our youngest had to go an unprecedented 2nd time during liturgy. I shot him that look that only moms can deliver, and chided him, “You JUST went!”, but you know what? I trust that he knows his own body and his own needs, and I’m not going to crush his spirit over something like this because he’s only human, and he’s only 7.

It’s a good thing it takes all types to make the world go round. The way I see it, you can be dismayed over the lack of formality and respect during liturgy, which I suspect has been an issue for a couple of millennia, or you can rejoice that young people grace the halls of this temple when so many other churches are falling silent without the melody of young children inside.

There is a time and a place for everything under the sun, so it says in Ecclesiastes. So in this time and place, I want to say to the other parents with young children in the church: you are welcome here.

  • What? Your infant is crying inconsolably? That is music to our ears, because you, and your child, are the future of this church.
  • Your toddler squeals with delight having broken free, running a beeline toward the altar? That is a joy to behold. Didn’t the Lord say, “Let the little children come to me”?
  • Oh, what did you say? You have a rambunctious child, maybe even one with ADHD? I get it. I know you’re exhausted and overwhelmed and YET you still come to church anyway with your family in tow. GOD BLESS YOU. You have a choice and you choose to spend it with us in communion.
  • And to those of you with a child on the spectrum who is longing for a welcoming community? I pray that we offer that collectively to you. I get how hard it is for your kid to fit in and you want nothing more than for him or her to be welcomed here. I pray that we open our arms to you in a loving embrace.

You are welcome here. Don’t let anyone make you feel otherwise. We are all sinners. We are all broken in some way. No one here is perfect, but we come together to grow and learn and love in Christ. Some of us know the rules of the church very well, while others of us know only the love in the heart. No one is to despise the other because of it. If you had heard the Epistle reading I delivered this morning (Romans 13: 11-14:4), that was the whole point.

Yet sometimes, because we’re human, because we don’t understand what cross you already bear, our guidance can sound unforgiving. However I want you to know that we welcome you. Come exactly as you are. Just come, and be in communion, in a community, with us.

In Christ, Denise

PS – The restroom, should you or your child need it in the middle of liturgy, is toward the back of the church toward the elevator. You are most welcome to use it.