Category Archives: Books

Gleanings from a Book: “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail

Note: This book sat on my shelf for several weeks, waiting until I had time to read and review it. Despite the delay, it turns out that the timing is perfect. Here we are, right in the midst of the Paschal season, and the book is full of references to the Resurrection of Christ. And it should be so! For how else can we, Christ’s followers, better celebrate His Resurrection than by responding with joy? If we truly know and believe what He has accomplished for us, our “light and momentary troubles” – yes, even the impossible ones we may be facing at this very moment – pale in comparison to His victory. St. John Chrysostom’s homily which we all just heard at Pascha says, “Christ is risen! And the angels rejoice!” My brothers and sisters, let us join with the angels!

Phoebe Farag Mikhail’s book “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” is a balm for the disheartened soul. The author has found a way to simultaneously calm, soothe, and reassure the reader while also challenging them to live in an attitude of godly joy. Readers will step away from the book knowing what they need to do, with tools at the ready to assist them as they pursue true joy.

The book begins with an invitation section which answers the question, “What is joy?;” then offers insights into who/what steals joy from our life. The (much larger) second section of the book introduces seven joyful practices. These seven practices which the author offers as means to the pursuit of joy include: praying the hours; visiting the sick; repenting; giving thanks; offering hospitality; praying arrow prayers; and singing praises to God. Each practice is expounded via stories (both from the author’s experience and from others), scriptures, quotes from Church fathers, contemporary writings, scientific findings (as appropriate), and more. The book closes with an appropriate epilogue, casting the joy-filled light of the resurrection on a modern story of martyrdom which to the world seems to be only a tragedy.

The author admits that it took her five years to write this book from beginning to end. This was not because she had to search for so long to find all the right quotes or because she only has to write in the few moments left here and there to a wife/mother (who also happens to be a Coptic priest’s wife). Rather, she took five years to write the book because, at one point as she was writing, she found herself not practicing joy. She wanted the book to be genuine, tested, lived, so she set the writing aside and worked on her heart. It is my opinion that it was worth her wait. The text is a smooth blend of stories, practical advice, and wisdom founded on the strong base of Scripture and the wisdom of the Church fathers.

Although the author is a Coptic Orthodox Christian, this book is written in such a way that any reader who wants to live a more joyful Christian life will benefit greatly from having read the book. The references to Christian practices exercised in Ms. Mihail’s Church may differ from some other expressions of Christianity, but the ideas behind them are helpful to any follower of Christ. “Putting Joy into Practice” helps its readers to find practical ways to live out St. Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians (and to us): “Rejoice always… for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (I Thess. 5:16, 18)

If you are generally a joyful person, read this book. It will give you reasons to continue choosing joy, as well as  tools to boost your not-so-joyful days. If you are a complainer and grouch, say a prayer and then read this book, but prepare to change your attitude. Ms. Mikhail’s challenge is difficult to dodge, because the scriptures and Church fathers are pretty straightforward. Regardless of the attitude of their heart at the beginning of the book, readers will step away from it with a smile on their face and – better yet – with joy in their heart.

Purchase your own copy of “Putting Joy into Practice” here: https://paracletepress.com/products/putting-joy-into-practice

Find additional writings by author Phoebe Farag Mikhail at her website, http://beingincommunity.com/.

 

Here are a few gleanings from this book:

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“Why is living in joy so hard? What can we do to live in the joy of the Resurrection when there are so many ways our joy can be stolen? As I pondered these questions, they led me on a path of trying to learn why joy is so hard, but more importantly, to learn how to live in joy, how to protect it from the thieves that strive to steal it, and how to share it with others.” (p. 8, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“We might not be happy every day; in fact, we might face suffering every day. But we can have joy every day. Running after joy is akin to holding a cup upside down. Joy is there, waiting to be given, but it doesn’t enter in. Rather than running after joy the way we might seek after pleasures or happy circumstances, we must instead rest and reorient ourselves into a posture of receiving, not running. The practices I share here are meant to help us reorient ourselves, to turn our cup right side up so that joy enters, and we exclaim, in the words of the psalmist, ‘My cup runs over’ (Psalm 23:5).” (pp. 15-16, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“Joy thieves can be just like the little animals that steal tomatoes from the garden. On the outside, they can be small, cute, and furry, even comforting, and yet somehow they can still manage to steal our joy. The early church fathers called them ‘the passions.’ In this context, passions are not to be completely confused with our modern use of the word to describe a positive, driven desire to do something good or meaningful. Nor are they to be confused with the ‘passion of Christ,’ which is related to the Latin word for suffering and endurance. Rather, these passions are extreme versions of human behavior that lead to sin.” (p. 22, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“Praying the Hours helps us, even in the bustle of our days, to stand in God’s presence and feel this ‘fullness of joy.’ The Hours are not just for ascetics, then, but even for busy, distracted laypeople, an anchor to pull us away from the storms of life into God’s presence and the presence of the entire community of believers. The moment I pick up my prayer book to pray, someone else is praying the same prayer, someone else has prayed another prayer a few moments before me, and others will be praying when I stop. In this way, when I pray the Psalms, I become part of an eternal chorus, even if it seems like I am praying alone. ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ (Matthew 18:20)” (p. 37, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“The common thread running through these experiences is that visiting the sick is not about finding the right words to say, giving a sermon, or asking intrusive questions. A visit to the sick that brings the joy of the Holy Spirit is a visit that provides giving, listening, and connection. Bring bright flowers, a gift, a meal, or your hands and feet to serve when needed or asked. Bring listening ears and the ability to be silent when necessary. Bring a smile, a song to sing, or a story to tell. Bring a piece of art or craft you have made—-or bring supplies to create something together. Be joy, and expect the experience the joy of visiting Christ himself. Christ certainly needs no sermons from us.” (p. 61, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“Repentance makes room for joy within us, room that was previously filled with sin, shame, and fear. When we repent by turning our lives around like the prodigal son and the Samaritan woman, we experience its joy, and it is contagious. The heavens rejoice. The church rejoices. We cannot help sharing that joy with others, so they too might encounter Christ. Putting joy into practice means practicing repentance, even on a daily basis.” (p. 76, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“I am learning… that when I thank God ‘in any condition, in every condition, and in whatever condition,’ I might not be asking God to take me out of a condition of suffering, or even to see a silver lining around that suffering. Rather, I am thanking him in that condition of suffering, and sometimes I might even thank him for that suffering… Thanking God for suffering is… acknowledging that perhaps that suffering can serve a greater purpose.” (p. 85, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“Sometimes discovering who needs hospitality is a matter of taking a few moments to sit outside, linger on your front porch, or say hello to the neighbor living on the same floor in your apartment building. We might feel overwhelmed by great needs of the world presented to us on the news, but it is our simple acts of hospitality that will change the world, not our worries.” (p. 122, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“These days, when we find ourselves waiting, we fill the time by looking at our smartphones, checking our social media feeds or our emails, making every moment a constant input of information—often information we cannot control or tasks we cannot take action on while in line or sitting in traffic. This can add to our general sense of stress and lack of control… Using arrow prayers can help us reclaim control of our time and energy. Information overload drains us, but prayer fills us.” (pp. 127-128, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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Need to learn a few “arrow” prayers? Here are some of the arrow prayers found on pp. 136 -137 of “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail. You may wish to print them onto cardstock, cut them apart, and glue to decorative paper or a blank index card (which you can decorate if you’re so inclined). Place these prayers around the house, in your purse or briefcase, even in the car so that you remember to pray.

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“The joy of the Lord’s presence starts in the fiery furnace, not outside it… We begin the hymn [of the three saintly youths in the fiery furnace] with an exhortation to the youth in the fire to sing to the Son of God who is there with them in their suffering—and therefore also in their joy. This exhortation applies to us as well. We don’t wait to praise God until after we are saved from the furnace, when our prayers are answered the way we hope they will be. We praise him even in our troubles, acknowledging and confessing that he is there with us in those troubles. When we can wipe away from our eyes the smoke of our problems and praise him, we see him in his glory there—and this is powerful. This is joy.” (p. 146, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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“My hope is that, by drawing from examples of how my church helps us live in the joy of the Resurrection, this book might open your eyes to the ways your tradition helps you practice joy. Once you begin to see it, whether you are in a happy situation or in great pain, it is all joy.” (p. 163, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” by Phoebe Farag Mikhail)

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Gleanings from a Book: “Spyridon’s Shoes” by Christine Rogers

Christine Rogers’ new book, “Spyridon’s Shoes” is a comfortable fit for its readers. The language is simple enough for mid-elementary-level readers to read on their own. The story line is intriguing, though, and will capture the attention of younger or older children as well as the adults who read this book.

Young Spyros’ family is hard-working, but nonetheless they experience one hardship after another. The book tells the story of how Spyros (a nickname for Spyridon) and his family face each of their struggles with faith. It also reveals the ways in which God chooses to send help.

The grandfatherly man who arrives and helps Spyros when he badly cuts his foot early in the story is, interestingly enough, also named Spyridon. Spyros offers to call the grandfather “Abba” and the man accepts that nickname. After the first meeting, Abba continues to show up in Spyros’ life, helping him as needed and inspiring him to do what is right. It takes the reader almost the entirety of the book to realize that “Abba” is actually Saint Spyridon himself, appearing to and physically assisting his young namesake who truly needs his help.

Although “Spyridon’s Shoes” is a work of fiction, it is a highly believable and delightful read. This book very naturally shares much of the wisdom of St. Spyridon, challenging readers to growth in their own Christian walk, without the reader feeling at all that they are being preached at by anyone. It incorporates some true stories of ways in which God has used St. Spyridon in the lives of those who have asked for (and received) his help. The book offers a glimpse into the saint’s real life on earth, within the context of a fictitious story.

Besides the story itself, there are a few extras that make this book so helpful to its readers. Vladimir Ilievski’s cover and occasional illustrations throughout the book are true to the story, giving readers a face for each Spyridon, while also bringing to life the setting on Corfu. The pages about St. Spyridon himself, found near the end of the book, help readers to learn even more about this wonderful saint. His troparion and icon are at the end of the book, for those who wish to ask for his prayers and see his icon.

This book is an enjoyable read for young and old alike. If you choose to read this book to your Sunday Church School students, it will probably take two or more class periods to finish, but your students will be engrossed in the story, and they won’t mind at all. Children will resonate with Spyros and love his story so much that they will probably ask to borrow the book when you finish, so that they can slip back into the story, re-reading it on their own. Just like St. Spyridon’s shoes, this book will be well-worn by the classes that own it. We can’t help hoping that Christine Rogers writes more books!

 

Purchase your own copy of “Spyridon’s Shoes” (available in paperback or ebook) here: https://store.ancientfaith.com/spyridons-shoes/

Here are some gleanings from the book (mostly quotes from “Abba”/St. Spyridon, so as not to give away any of  the story line), as well as a few additional resources that you may find helpful if you choose to teach your Sunday Church School class a lesson about the saint:

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“‘Prayer is our link to God, young Spyros. We should give our problems, whatever they are, to God, as we say in the Divine Liturgy that we “commend our whole life to Christ our God”.’ Abba stopped to cross himself and readjust his position on the boulder. ‘We leave everything to the Lord. Whatever He wills… Prayer is beneficial for everything, even the simplest things.’” (p. 33, “Spyridon’s Shoes”, by Christine Rogers)

***

“Abba looked out over the waves. ‘With God, as with people, we seek to form a relationship, a friendship. The more you converse with God, which is what prayer is, the more natural it will become. Like speaking to an old friend.’

‘Like you, Abba,’ Spyros said, smiling.

Abba chuckled. ‘You are so young to have such old friends.’” (pp. 55-56, “Spyridon’s Shoes”, by Christine Rogers)

***

“Father Theodore nodded. ‘You can pray to Saint Spyridon too and ask for his prayers. The saints in heaven, they are there with Christ, surrounded by His love and interceding for those of us on earth. Their prayers are great gifts.’” (p. 88, “Spyridon’s Shoes”, by Christine Rogers)

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“The miracles Spyros and his family learned about are all true. Saint Spyridon’s shoes continue to wear out every year, even to this day, and they are replaced on his feast day, which is December 12. The worn-out shoes are sent to churches all over the world, and many miracles are worked for the faithful who venerate them.” (p. 99, “Spyridon’s Shoes”, by Christine Rogers)

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St. Spyridon was present at the first ecumenical council. Around that time, he used a brick to demonstrate the unity of the Trinity. He held the brick in his hand and then squeezed it. Miraculously, fire shot up from it, water dripped out of it onto the ground, and then all that was left in his hand was dust. “There was only one brick,” Saint Spyridon said, “but it was composed of three elements. In the Holy Trinity there are three Persons, but only one God.” Read this and more about the life of St. Spyridon, including many miracles worked in his lifetime, here: https://oca.org/saints/lives/2000/12/12/103526-st-spyridon-the-wonderworker-and-bishop-of-tremithus

If you choose to share this story from St. Spyridon’s life with your students, you may want to bring a brick to class and invite them to hold it and see if there’s anything they can squeeze out of it before (and again after) sharing the story with you.

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Teachers of young children may want to read the Potamitis Publishing book “Saint Spyridon: the Miracle with the Clay Tile” with their students. http://orthodoxchildrensbooks.com/eng/index.php/Books-in-English/Paterikon-for-Kids-Saint-Spyridon-and-the-Horses/flypage-ask.tpl.html

After reading the book, you could make this craft. It uses three ingredients to make a “potsherd/brick” ornament, on which your students can draw the saint. It will remind your students of how St. Spyridon used a brick to demonstrate the Holy Trinity: http://www.theorthodoxchildrenspress.com/diy-kids/tocp-diy-family-st-spyridon-clay-ornament/

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Listen to the accounts of several miracles of St. Spyridon, recounted by Fr. Peter Shapiro, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9iWjfYTzBM

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If you read “Spyridon’s Shoes” with your class and share some other stories from St. Spyridon’s life and miracles with them, you might find this reproducible page helpful. It allows children to recall some of the things St. Spyridon has done to serve and help others. It then invites them to consider how they themselves can “wear out their shoes” by serving and helping people around them.

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After a lesson on St. Spyridon, you may wish to pray this prayer (also found at the end of the akathist hymn to him) with your class: “O great and all-marvellous Spyridon, holy hierarch of Christ and wonderworker, boast of Kerkyra [Corfu], most radiant beacon of the whole world, fervent intercessor before God and speedy helper for all who have recourse to you and entreat you with faith! Amid the Fathers at the Council of Nicea you expounded the Orthodox faith most gloriously; you showed the unity of the Holy Trinity with wondrous power, and utterly put the heretics to shame. Hearken, therefore, unto us sinners who entreat you, O holy hierarch of Christ, and by your mighty intercession before the Lord deliver us from every evil circumstance…To many living in dire poverty and want you rendered assistance; you abundantly sustained the poor during famine and performed many other signs through the power of the Spirit of God living within you. Wherefore, forsake us not, O holy hierarch of Christ. Remember us, your children, at the throne of the Ruler of all, and beseech the Lord that He grant us remission of our manifold sins, that He bestow upon us a peaceful life unbeset by misfortunes, that He vouchsafe unto us a tranquil and unashamed end and everlasting blessedness in the age to come, that we may unceasingly send up glory and thanksgiving to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to ages of ages. Amen.”

 

 

Gleanings from a Book: “A Child’s Guide to Confession” by Ancient Faith Publishing, Illustrated by Nicholas Malara

Ancient Faith Publishing’s editors have compiled and created a beautifully illustrated guide that will help children to prepare their hearts for confession. “A Child’s Guide to Confession” is full of helpful information and questions as well as beautiful illustrations. Here is a brief overview of the book, followed by a few gleanings from its pages.

Don’t let the child-friendly size fool you: it may be small, but this little book is gold. Its engaging illustrations paired with text which gently nudges readers towards repentance make each of its 104 pages invaluable. The book is divided into color-coded sections including a welcome; what confession is; preparing for confession; self-examination; prayers and scriptures to read while waiting for confession; a prayer after confession; a note for parents; and an extensive glossary explaining difficult terms found elsewhere in the book.

The book acknowledges that there are many ways to prepare for confession. The editors decided to focus on 1 Corinthians 13 for this book. God is Love, so it follows that Orthodox Christians prepare for confession by looking at their actions in light of love to see how they measure up, discover where they have fallen short, then repent and confess those shortfalls. Each phrase of the scripture is appropriately illustrated and is followed by a number of child-friendly questions related to the phrase.

Throughout the book, Nicholas Malara’s illustrations offer glimpses into the lives of Orthodox children who are interacting with the Church and their world. The illustrations make the book more accessible to young children, and more delightful for older children. They truly bring Orthodoxy to life for a child (and a few even include a subtle touch of humor that will make the reader smile!).

This book is a must-have for any Orthodox Christian library. It will be a great help to Sunday Church School teachers who are helping their students learn more about and prepare for confession. The book helps children to embrace confession, then walks them through the entire process, from beginning to prepare for confession all the way to the rejoicing that follows. Children of all ages (and their Church school teachers, too!) will benefit from preparing their hearts for confession with this little gem.

 

Contributors to the project include Elissa Bjeletich, Fr. Noah Bushelli, Fr. Nicholas Speier, and Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick.

 

Purchase your own copy of the book here: https://store.ancientfaith.com/a-childs-guide-to-confession/

Here are a few gleanings from the book, as well as a few suggested resources for a lesson on confession:

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“When preparing for confession, find a peaceful place where you can sit and pray and think. If it helps, have a pencil and some paper handy to help you remember what you’d like to confess to your priest. Always start by asking the Holy Spirit to help you…” (p. 15, “A Child’s Guide to Confession”, by Ancient Faith Publishing)

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“You will be speaking to God directly, reminding Him that you believe in Him, that you are one of His disciples, and you will be saying sorry for the things you have done that have created distance between you…” (p. 19, “A Child’s Guide to Confession”, by Ancient Faith Publishing)

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“Love is kind.
Have I hurt a person or an animal on purpose?

…Have I been caring when someone gets hurt?

Have I ignored someone who needed help?” (p. 25, “A Child’s Guide to Confession”, by Ancient Faith Publishing)

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“A Prayer from St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain

O Jesus, the most-good goodness

I have done no good before You;

But grant that I may make a beginning because of Your goodness.” (p. 48, “A Child’s Guide to Confession”, by Ancient Faith Publishing)

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“Now you are at church, waiting your turn to speak with the priest and offer your confession. While you wait, read thoughtfully through a selection of these prayers or Bible verses to help soften your heart…” (p. 51, “A Child’s Guide to Confession”, by Ancient Faith Publishing)

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“Dear Child of God,

You did it! The distance that came between you and Christ is now erased. All of the beauty and light and goodness that is beaming out of Him is beaming out of you too! For He is filling you with His powerful light…” (p. 73, “A Child’s Guide to Confession”, by Ancient Faith Publishing)

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“Preparation for confession is best founded in daily watchfulness and open discussion at family gathering times of meals, prayer, and spiritual study…” (from the Note to Parents, p. 85, “A Child’s Guide to Confession”, by Ancient Faith Publishing)

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“Absolution – the removing of sins through the act of confession. When your sins are absolved, they are wiped clean, and the separation between you and God has been erased!” (from the Glossary of Terms, p. 89, “A Child’s Guide to Confession”, by Ancient Faith Publishing)

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After reading portions of “A Child’s Guide to Confession” to your Sunday Church school students, you may want to give them each a copy of this printable, which provides space for them to draw or lines to write notes about what they are ready to confess. They can take the copy home and use it if it would help them to prepare for their next confession.

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In addition to sharing parts of “A Child’s Guide to Confession” with your class, you could also share this episode of “Be the Bee”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDrcKX1mpqs

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Find a variety of lesson plans and ideas about confession, for a variety of age levels, here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2018/10/19/on-the-sacraments-the-sacrament-of-confession/

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The activity featured here could pair well with a sharing of the book “A Child’s Guide to Confession” in your Sunday Church School class, as part of a lesson on confession. https://www.goarch.org/-/confession

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Gleanings From a Book: “Easter in Ramallah” by Wafa Shami, Illustrated by Shaima Farouki

As we prepare to approach the holy and glorious Paschal feast, we do well to remember that we are not the only ones preparing for and then commemorating the resurrection! Sometimes we may forget that people in other parts of the world are celebrating as well. But they are! Easter in Ramallah by Wafa Shami offers its readers a sweet glimpse into Paschal traditions in Ramallah, Palestine.

It is a delight to read the story of Noor and her best friend Laila, as they share the experience of Holy Week and Easter together. Western readers may be surprised to learn that the girls are of different faiths: one is Christian, one is Muslim, yet they are truly best friends, which is not always what westerners expect from relationships in that part of the world. These girls literally (and figuratively) live side by side, for they are next-door neighbors who play together and find themselves one moment frankly discussing the struggle the other must experience while fasting according to her faith tradition; and the next moment they are together attending the “Parade of Light” so that they can each light a candle with the Holy Fire.

Readers will come away from this story with the sense that they’ve visited Palestine over Easter. They will feel the warm sun on their heads; imagine sharing the fresh green almonds with their friend; and almost hear the bands marching in the Light Parade. They will wish to taste the ka’ek and ma’moul sweet treats which sound so delicious. They’ll wonder if all of those natural vegetable dyes actually work for coloring eggs. They will want to put on their own best Easter clothes, and try to crack Noor’s eggs with one of their own. Best of all, readers will step away from this story delighted by the peace and friendship that it exhibits between Palestinians of different faiths.

Shaima Farouki’s watercolor illustrations of the story are gently whimsical, visually enlivening spring in Ramallah. Each beautiful illustration contains just enough detail to offer an accurate glimpse into Palestinian life. They round out the story, adding details that delightfully enhance it.

We recommend Easter in Ramallah as a lovely addition to any home, school, or Church school library. It expands its readers’ world by allowing them to think beyond their own celebration of the resurrection. It also offers the opportunity for readers to notice what traditions are the same the world over; which ones are slightly different; and which ones are brand new (and perhaps ones which they, too, would like to embrace). This book offers a satisfying taste of what it is like to celebrate Pascha in Palestine.

 

Purchase your own copy of Easter in Ramallah here: https://www.amazon.com/Easter-Ramallah-story-childhood-memories/dp/0960014705/

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Readers who want to see photos of Easter in Palestine can scroll through these: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2014/04/pictures-palestinians-celebrate-201442185435930350.html

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What makes Palestinian Pascha unique? Read this to find out: http://www.anothervoice.info/blog/2016/5/1/5-ways-palestinian-eastern-orthodox-easter-is-unique

 

Gleanings from a Book: “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger

The Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education’s Staff Assistant for Social Networking, Kristina Wenger, shares some of her side of the story behind the book which she co-authored with her friend Elissa Bjeletich, as well as a few gleanings from the book itself.

It began with an invitation from an online friend, Elissa Bjeletich, who I had met in person just weeks before the invitation came. The invitation went something like this: “I’m thinking about writing a daily meditation for families for Great Lent. Will you help me?”

I was tired. The previous twelve months had drained me. They included a failed business endeavor and the ensuing financial strains; the engagement and marriage of our daughter to our wonderful son-in-law; both kids moving out of our home; 3 trips to other parts of the country to help them get settled (one of them moved twice); additional responsibilities at work to be completed in the same amount of work time; and then an extended illness over Christmas. I felt that I had nothing left to give to the world when this invitation came.

But it came, and I was a little star-struck, to be honest. I had admired Elissa’s work from afar for years, and was tickled to have actually met her in person. And then she reached out and asked me to help her? Unthinkable, and yet there it was! So I stretched through my exhaustion and considered her invitation. How could I say no? Although I was depleted, I knew this project would be good for my soul and I wanted to work with Elissa. So, empty but honored, I accepted, and then the work began.

And it was work. In one month’s time, we chose a name, pitched to Ancient Faith Radio the idea of a podcast special for families, were granted approval, created a website, and wrote and recorded the first three weeks’ worth of daily Lenten meditations. For each episode, we brainstormed together, and shared the writing (Elissa did the bulk of it, thank God: she has more writing experience than I). Early on, we decided that it would be best to offer each meditation at two levels, one for older children and one for younger ones. We each recorded a level for the podcast: Elissa did the older children’s, and I, the younger.

We wrote each meditation with the desire to care for – and encourage – growth in the garden of our own hearts, praying that somehow God would bless our efforts and allow others to grow along with us. We resonate well with St. John Chrysostom’s exhortation, “Fasting is wonderful because it tramples our sins like a dirty weed, while it cultivates and raises truth like a flower.” We hope that our writing will help readers to embrace such an attitude about fasting (and Great Lent in general), so that truth can grow and bloom in their lives.

We continued to work away at the project throughout Lent of 2018, and by the time Holy Week rolled around, we had finally finished. We went from idea to completion in 2 and a half months (Pascha was only 83 days after Elissa extended the invitation to me!). By the grace of God, we were able to write and record fifty different meditations, each at two levels, in that time.

As Pascha approached, we did not feel that the project was finished. We had grown so much throughout the experience, and we really enjoy working together. We decided to continue our work with a weekly podcast, and Ancient Faith once again accepted our proposal. The continuing podcast is aimed at whole families, and we record it together each week. You can listen in at https://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/tendingthegarden if you are so inclined.

We thought that perhaps our Lenten meditations could become a book, so we approached Ancient Faith Publishing, proposing the idea. They accepted our proposal, so we began adapting and rewriting the older children’s version in a way that would work for entire families to read and discuss together. This book is the result.

“Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” offers one meditation each day for every day of Great Lent and Holy Week, including a final meditation for Pascha. Each week is themed as follows: Forgiveness, Orthodoxy, Prayer, The Cross/Humility, The Ladder/Almsgiving, Fasting/St. Mary of Egypt, and Holy Week and Pascha. (We loosely based our themes on this calendar of lenten activities which I wrote several years ago: https://orthodoxchristianparenting.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/great_lent_and_holy_week_activity_calendar.pdf.) Beginning each Sunday, every day’s meditation relates in some way to the theme for the week. Some days feature a scripture and thoughts on that scripture. On other days, we learn from the life of a saint. Every meditation concludes with a few questions, then a discussion question that allows the readers to make the book their own by talking together about how to apply that day’s lesson.

The book concludes with a fairly extensive appendix of related ideas for each week’s theme. There are craft and activity suggestions that could be done every week, if the readers are so inclined. The appendix begins with suggestions of ways to count down to Pascha. These countdown ideas are intended to help solidify and mark the passage of time in a way that can help young children for whom time is rather nebulous. Following those suggestions are ideas centered around each theme. As we say in the book, some weeks the reader might want to (and have time to) do some of these things. Other times, they will not. Readers will know which (if any) of these ideas will help their family, and can use the appendix accordingly. At our website, there are a few printable pages and supplemental resources related to some of these ideas. They can be found at https://tending-the-garden.com/supplemental-resources-for-the-book-tending-the-garden-of-our-hearts-daily-lenten-meditations-for-families/.

I am so grateful to God for His mercy and strength that extends beyond our exhaustion. Perhaps it is when we are most depleted that we are best able to allow Him to work in and through our lives. Certainly it is then that we know His kindness, for He extends grace when we feel that we have nothing left to give. This book (and the project as a whole) is evidence of that, for me. The project was a lot of work, but for me personally, it has also been incredibly restorative and helpful. Glory to God!

I want to thank Elissa for inviting me on this journey with her. Together we invite you and your family to join us, and grow alongside us. It is our prayer that “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” will be a help to those families who read it throughout Great Lent.

Although the book is written for families to share and walk through together, we are sharing it with the Sunday Church School community for two reasons: 1. It would make a great (very early!) Pascha gift for your Sunday Church School students to share with their family. 2. If you as a Sunday Church School teacher read through the book, perhaps some of the meditations will inspire you. It could be that some of them could be used in Sunday Church School as part of a lesson.

Purchase your copy of the book here: https://store.ancientfaith.com/tending-the-garden-of-our-hearts-daily-lenten-meditations-for-families/

Here are a few gleanings from the book:

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“Have you ever prayed for someone who was mean to you? God asks us to pray for our enemies, because mean people really need our prayers to help their hearts soften so they will repent, and also because when we pray for someone we begin to see them as God sees them. We begin to love them and to feel sad for them because they are so twisted up and mean and unhappy.” (p. 36, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger)

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“We Orthodox love to light candles at Pascha and throughout the year. They provide light for our services, but they also remind us of the fire of God. Our God is light and truth—and He comes to us as a fire that burns away sin but does not consume us. When we light candles, we are reminded who our God is.” (p. 65, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger)

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“Imagine if you were to take a piece of clay and rub it in your warm hands. The clay begins hard and almost solid and impenetrable, like our hearts, but as we work it with our warm hands, the clay becomes soft and flexible. God’s warm presence does that for us; He transforms the hardness of our hearts into softness. And just like that clay, our hearts might just grow hard again if we stop praying for a while, but simply returning to prayer begins to warm us up again.” (p. 83, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger)

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“Sometimes we expect healing to look a certain way, but in fact what God sends is different from our expectations and much better for us. Like Naaman, when we come to the Lord for healing, if we can humble ourselves we will find that God sends both spiritual and physical healing.” (pp. 119-120, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger)

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“When we have become non-possessive (meaning that we have stopped caring so much about owning things), we trust completely that God will send whatever we need, as we need it. Instead of trying to own everything we will ever need and holding it tight, we turn to God. We trust that if we need something, He will send it. We pray to God for our needs, but we don’t mention them to anyone else because of our complete faith that God will send what we need. And then when someone gives us what we need, we thank God and recognize that it was really God who sent it.” (p. 145, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger)

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“…It is never too late. No matter what kind of life we are living, we can truly repent, and God will help us. While some saints are simply saintly from their birth, others spend years of their lives in sin and do terrible things. But God loves the sinners too, and He will help us in our struggles if we repent.” (p. 174, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger)

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“We don’t know when the Bridegroom will come—the Second Coming of Christ could happen today, or it may not happen for a long time. We just don’t know. But we do know that we have today. Today we can pray, today we can fast, today we can show love to the people around us, softening our hearts and building up that supply of oil. When the time comes, no one can give us soft hearts—we will have to work on our hearts now, by loving God and loving one another.” (p. 208, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger)

***

“On this Holy Thursday, may we all think about how Jesus gives Himself to us. We are not worthy of Him, and yet He comes to live in our hearts. May He live inside of us in Holy Communion, and may we follow His example of humble service and great love.” (p. 214, “Tending the Garden of Our Hearts: Daily Lenten Meditations for Families” by Elissa Bjeletich and Kristina Wenger)

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“Tending the Garden of Our Hearts” co-author Kristina Wenger shares three ideas of lenten countdowns which are featured in the book:

 

 

 

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Blogger and beautifully creative mom Sarah Gingrich created printable ornaments for each day’s meditation. They can be found in her review of the book, here: https://thelivescript.wordpress.com/2019/02/25/lent-a-hand/

Learning About a Saint: St. Kendeas (Commemorated Oct. 6/19)

St. Kendeas, who lived sometime between the 7th and 10th centuries, was born in the Alemanni region (part of today’s Germany). When he was 18, he became a monk in Palestine, near the Jrdan River. He lived there in a cave, spending his days in prayer and fasting. While he was there, a rich man nearby was trying very hard to find a way to heal his possessed child. He spent a lot of his money trying to help his child. When he heard about the monks who lived by the Jordan, he took his child to one of them, named Ananaias. God told the monk Ananaias to send the child to the monk Kendeas. Kendeas prayed, and the child was healed!

After that miracle, Kendeas became known in the area. He was made the Metropolitan of Jerusalem, and served in that role for a while. He missed living as a monastic, though, so a few years later he went back to the cave to live.

Some people came to the monks to be healed, but many others came to steal things from the monks. Being robbed so often became frustrating to the monks. Eventually the monks left that area and traveled to the island of Cyprus, to live there instead. The seas were terribly rough as they traveled, and their ship broke into two pieces! But Kendeas and the others walked on the water and arrived safely at the shore. Kendeas ended up in the Paphos region of Cyprus. Another monk, his friend Jonas, went on to Salamina.

After a few years, Kendeas went to Salamina to visit his friend Jonas. Along the way, Kendeas found a cave near the village of Avgorou. He went inside the cave. He liked it so much that he promised God that he would stay there until he died. However, Kendeas was so hot that he knelt down on a rock inside the cave and prayed for water. He also prayed to see his friend Jonas. Two miracles happened because of his prayers: clear water began to pour from the rock, and a cloud full of light carried Jonas to Kendeas, to visit him! The two friends were so happy to see each other again, and they enjoyed talking together. After a while, the cloud took Jonas back to Salamina.

The people in the neighborhood saw that water was coming from the rock in the cave. They knew that there had not been water coming from there before, and they wondered about it. They asked Kendeas how it got there. When they found out that his prayers were so powerful that he could pray and have water pour out of a rock, the people began to bring sick people to him so that he could pray for them and heal them!

Kendeas lived in his cave for a long time. During the time that he lived there, there was a long stretch of time when there was no rain on Cyprus. When there’s not enough rain, we call it a “drought.” This drought on Cyprus went on for 17 years. Finally the people begged Kendeas to pray for rain. He told them all to go home! When they were home, he held his hands up in the air and began to pray for rain. Right away, clouds gathered, and it rained and rained!

Kendeas did not like to be comfortable. You might have guessed this because he chose to live in a cave instead of a house. But there was something else that he did so that he would not be too comfortable. Beginning when he was a child, Kendeas did not sleep in a bed. He slept instead on the ground.

One day when some of the people of Cyprus brought their sick family and friends to Kendeas to ask for his prayers for healing, they discovered that he had departed this life. His body was still there in his cave, and it smelled miraculously beautiful, like heavenly flowers. The people buried Kendeas right there in his cave.

A church was built in the area of his cave after he died, and a monastery, too. Today, the nuns in the monastery continue St. Kendeas’ work of caring for the sick. The water from his miracle prayer still pours out of the stone in the cave.

St. Kendeas’ miracle working did not stop when he died. He continues to pray for people, and God hears his prayers and heals them. He also often appears to people. Many people who live in the area have seen him, especially the nuns who live in the monastery. But the people who meet him are not afraid, even if they do not know who he is. He is so friendly, that if people meet him who do not know him, he just introduces himself!

St. Kendeas is celebrated on October 6/19. Holy St. Kendeas, please pray for our salvation!

Source: http://www.ayiosnektarios.co.uk/stkendeas/stkendeas.htm

 

Troparion to Saint Kendeas

Having hallowed through struggles the Jordan wilderness and the island of Cyprus,

You shone out upon all through remarkable battles as a fixed star.

Therefore, having seen the fullness of your wonders,

O God-bearing Kendeas, we lift our voices:

Glory to You, O Christ, through him who extols.

Glory to You through him who magnifies.

Glory to the One who through you heals illnesses for all.

Here are some related links that you may find helpful as you plan a Sunday Church School lesson about St. Kendeas:

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Teachers of young students, Paterikon for Kids has just released a new, perfectly-child-sized book about St. Kendeas. Sweetly illustrated, it tells many of the stories from his life in a way that children can easily understand. The book is written by Dr. Chrissi Hart. http://orthodoxchildrensbooks.com/eng/index.php/Paterikon-for-Kids-81-86-NEW/87-Paterikon-for-Kids-Saint-Kendeas/flypage-ask.tpl.html

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Teachers of middle years or older students, “Under the Grapevine” is a picture book by Dr. Chrissi Hart. It tells the true story of how her grandmother was healed by St. Kendeas under the grapevine at her family farm. The book is no longer in print, but is still available here: https://www.amazon.com/Under-Grapevine-Miracle-Kendeas-Cyprus/dp/1888212845

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Listen to Dr. Hart read the story of her grandmother’s healing in the first episode of her podcast “Under the Grapevine,” here: https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/grapevine/readings_from_under_the_grapevine_program_1

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Here’s an idea of a way to help children learn more about St. Kendeas: http://orthodoxyforkids.blogspot.com/2014/10/st-kendeas-of-cyprus.html

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If your class studies the life of St. Kendeas, you may want to invite each student to think of someone who they know who would benefit from a visit with the saint. Let each student draw/write about the person on this printable pdf. Take some time to pray and ask St. Kendeas to pray for those friends and family members.

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Studying the life of St. Kendeas could be a great segue into studying monasticism. Here are a series of lessons on monasticism for ages 4-6. http://dce.oca.org/assets/files/focus-units/Monasticism4-6.pdf

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Students of all ages will enjoy hearing this recent account of another miracle through the prayers of St. Kendeas: http://www.chrissihart.com/2010/10/saint-kendeas-feast-day-2/ Glory to God in His saints!

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Gleanings from a Book: “Lights on the Mountain” by Cheryl Anne Tuggle

Author’s note: Long ago I committed to reading fiction that strengthens my faith instead of dismissing it. I am fine with reading stories of people who struggle with life or with what they believe, as long as they are struggling towards God, not ignoring or shying away from Him. Because of these self-imposed limitations when it comes to reading adult-targeted fiction, I have limited my reading mostly to Christian fiction and classics. Suffice it to say that I have read a fair amount of both over the course of my five decades.

In all of my reading, I have yet to read a book like this one. “Lights on the Mountain” by Cheryl Anne Tuggle is Christian fiction at its best. The characters are so believable that you expect them to step right out of the book so you can marvel at the sunrise together, or share a cup of tea. Their struggles are real, as is their growth: painfully real, as is our human experience. Their story is carefully and beautifully told. This book is written as though it were already a classic.

Tuggle offers her readers a glimpse into mid-20th-century rural Pennsylvanian life, with its clash of cultures and challenges. Characters include a host of rural-minded Americans, a handful of hippies, a pair of Hungarians, a few Romanian “gypsies”, some Orthodox Christians, and more. (One character has Amish roots, but this is anything but another “Amish Christian Fiction” book: his cultural heritage is far from the focus of the book.) The characters interact with believable honesty, by turns disagreeing and misunderstanding; then accepting and helping each other as would be expected in a rural community such as theirs. (I live in Pennsylvania and married into a rural Pennsylvanian family, so I am familiar with such a community.)

Tuggle’s writing is lyrical and poetic. She refuses to spoon-feed her readers, instead inviting them to mull over the story, perhaps re-read sections, and ponder the reading. Her expertly-crafted sentences are clad in words befitting their message, saying just enough to allow the reader to find the pieces of the many puzzles in the story. Tuggle’s words spin ordinary farm life into gold, without sugar-coating the dirt.

“Lights on the Mountain” is filled with purposeful pain, glazed with moments of joy. How else could the story of a boy-becoming-a-man be genuinely told? The readers follow pensive Jess Hazel from his late boyhood through the moment when he fully embraces his adult responsibilities. Constant to his tale is the everyday glory of life on the farm. A host of colorful characters appear in different parts of his life, and not until the end of the book does the reader fully understand each one’s significance. True to life, some parts of this account leave the reader hanging until the parts come full circle, and there is beautiful completion.

This book is an interesting blend of thoughtful words, difficult subject matter, complex characters, deep faith, and simple glories. Readers will come away from reading “Lights on the Mountain” knowing that their time was well spent. I’ll warrant that many of them will read the book again, to revisit the characters and gain further insight into the puzzle pieces that they missed the first time around. I am particular with my fiction selection, and I will be among those re-readers.

By the way, according to my research, Tsura is a Romanian name. It means “light of dawn.” You’ll find that interesting when you read the book.

 

Purchase your own copy of “Lights on the Mountain” here: https://paracletepress.com/products/lights-on-the-mountain

Watch the trailer for the book here: https://youtu.be/VfCLI998hh4

 

While this book is a work of fiction, the insights that it offers will encourage you as a Christian, a spouse, a parent, and a Sunday Church School teacher. Here are a few gleanings from the book, to offer you a tiny taste:

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“No doubt his father was right. Clyde always was. The beam of light probably was an extraordinary reflection of the everyday sun, but did that mean it couldn’t also be more? It might also be a kind of ladder, the means for God to get down to this patch of soil Hazels had been working since old Penn first claimed these woods and set things back to the way they used to be.” (pp. 19-20, “Lights on the Mountain” by Cheryl Anne Tuggle)
***
“Now that he knew how it was a man should live, it was clear that it was no more than his lot to do so. He still grieved, still felt acutely the pain of his aloneness. But there was a great deal of solace, he found, in taking Clyde’s approach to existence. Acceptance had its own plain reward. To be sure, living in such a way, a man’s sense of wonder was muted. But so was his sense of tragedy. Jess did not pine now for the old joy or wish for knowledge beyond his ken. And except for that which he now put in himself, and that which ought to be placed (with caution) in his fellow man, he did not long for faith. He did not long at all. Or he did but did not know it. And then, while he was longing without being aware that he longed, Gracie came to him. In the cool
of an evening. Almost as if she’d been sent. As if someone knew it was not good for man to be alone.” (pp. 42-43, “Lights on the Mountain” by Cheryl Anne Tuggle)
***
“For if there was anything he knew about Gracie Morozov after three months of loving her, it was that she was serious about God. It wasn’t a thing she talked about endlessly like some religious girls Jess had known—she seemed to take her faith as a natural gift, much as she did the shine and gloss of her hair or the unusual hue of her eyes, and rarely spoke of it directly, but he would have to be a fool not to see how it affected everything she said and did.” (pp. 65-66, “Lights on the Mountain” by Cheryl Anne Tuggle)
***
“She was quiet for a minute, thinking. Then she said, ‘I haven’t met Mr. Zook. But he’s human, right? And don’t we all suffer? We all have weaknesses. Injuries. Battle scars. Sins. Even the Amish. Straw hats and horse-drawn buggies don’t buy paradise. Or else none of us would need a savior.’”(p. 102, “Lights on the Mountain” by Cheryl Anne Tuggle)
***
“It seemed to Jess that he was being humbled on purpose, as if having stood for a few brief moments before the icon of Christ, he was now somehow standing within it, viewing himself through those all-seeing eyes. And from this view it was pretty clear that he had acquired more than just his father’s so-called natural way of taking his place the world. He had also acquired his stiff-neckedness. ‘There’s a way seems right to man,’ he remembered Orville Hays saying, ‘and oft times it isn’t.’ Jess wondered then if this was to be the response to his prayer. (If indeed such silent groaning was prayer.) God, after all these years, speaking to him in voices he could recognize. Or (and this was a sorrowful thought, weighted with regret) it could be that God had been speaking all along, and Jess only could not hear because he was not with any real amount of honesty listening.” (p. 184, “Lights on the Mountain” by Cheryl Anne Tuggle)
***
“Silence is a good teacher, but most of us make poor students.” (p. 210, “Lights on the Mountain” by Cheryl Anne Tuggle)
***
“‘There is a prayer we make to Christ,’ Father Daniel said, his voice growing tenderer, as if he’d heard Jess’s thoughts, knew the reason for his sigh. ‘“Wound my heart with love for you.” Is that not a strange request? It’s madness! And yet, don’t we understand it, you and me? At least a little. From the moment I saw you, I said to myself, now here’s a pilgrim I recognize. A fellow wounded. He has heard tales of a singular healing salve and has been limping about the earth to find out if one truly exists. Tonight, you’ve made a discovery. Yes, this miraculous ointment does exist. And what is it? More madness! More sweet pain to be endured. More sorrow mingled with joy. It’s love.’”(p. 214, “Lights on the Mountain” by Cheryl Anne Tuggle)
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