The Sign

[ESA Advocate, June 1993] I am looking at a painting of a woman with her arms upraised in prayer. But her eyes are not closed, or even lifted up; they gaze out at the viewer with steady solemnity. The most startling thing about this image is at its center. Upon the woman's red-robed torso rests a large circle of blue, and this disk represents her womb. Within it we see her unborn child, clothed and haloed, surrounded by stars and radiant as the sun. His hand is lifted in blessing. This icon of the Orthodox Christian Church is called “The Virgin of the Sign,” recalling the familiar prophecy of Isaiah: “The Lord will give you a sign: behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son...” (Isaiah 7:14)

Tasteless Miracles

[NPR, “All Things Considered,” December 27, 1996] As I zipped open the cardboard envelope a sweet, heavy fragrance began to spill out. Rifling among the magazine and newspaper clippings I found it, a plastic bag containing a cotton ball. A drop of golden oil was soaked into the cotton. I gently opened the bag, and the scent of roses spilled into the room.

To Hell on a Cream Puff

[Christianity Today, November 18, 1995] It's hard to know just how to take an invitation to write about gluttony. “We thought you would be the perfect person,” the editor's letter read. “Gee, is it that obvious?” I thought, alarmed. “No, no,” I wanted to protest, “that's not really me. It just these horizontal stripes.” But, if I'm honest, I have to admit that it is me. It's most of us. Food is an intoxicating pleasure, and it appears superficially like an innocuous one; it's not one of the bad sins, like adultery or stealing. We wouldn't do that; gluttony is different. All it does is make you soft and huggable. It's the cute sin.

Everyday Faith

[NPR, “All Things Considered,” June 6, 1996] Michael's been gone about a month now, and we miss him. In a small church like ours, you need everybody. Now the choir's down to just one bass, and the other Sunday School teachers have to do double duty. At the same time we're happy for Michael, even proud. Our little church started just three years ago, and we're almost all converts--some from various denominations, some from no faith at all. Michael was one of the few who'd actually grown up Eastern Orthodox. When he announced he wanted to join Holy Cross Monastery in the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain, we felt somehow honored.

Dignity, Always Dignity

[World, February 18, 1995] When Oregon passed “Measure 16” last November, it became the first state in the nation to give doctors permission to prescribe poisonous drugs in order to kill dying patients. In fact, according to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Oregon is “the first jurisdiction in the world to legalize assisted suicide by popular vote.” Oregon was a well-chosen test site; it has the lowest church attendance in the nation, and pro-euthanasia messages played on bias against pro-life Catholic leadership (it's been said that “Anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the elite class.”) The lines don't split precisely between Christians and non-believers, however. Many Christians feel an innate revulsion for legalized killing of the sick, but some do not. A recent letter in our Mailbag column proclaimed, “Thank God for Dr. Kevorkian.” It's human nature to feel panic at the thought of dying in misery, and to long to circumvent the possibility.

The Embodiment of Us

[World, November 26, 1994] “Hey, you got stuff all over your car!” the boy called out. He staffs the gatehouse at the retirement home where my son waits tables. The stuff I had all over my car was large white daisies with sun-yellow centers, carefully painted on by hand. Yes, it draws attention. It's my daughter's car, I explain, but she hasn't learned to drive a stick-shift yet. While she tools around in my massive station wagon, I'm in her lumpy old sedan. When this car rolled off the assembly line ten years ago, Megan was in the first grade. It kept rolling for 114,000 miles until it crossed her path, and as soon as she caught it she scattered daisies all over its powdery dull-brown hide.

Go Ahead, Offend Me

[First Things, May 1998] Last spring saw a free-for-all break out in the evangelical Protestant camp over a proposed new “inclusive language” translation of the New International Version Bible. While World magazine, which sounded the alarm, was scolded for joining battle in hysterical and sarcastic tones, the translators were compelled to explain in what sense it was “accurate” to render masculine terms neuter, singulars plural, or produce grammatical whimsies like “everyone...they.”

All We Can Bring

[Orthodox Christian Mission Center, Summer 1998] How can we transfigure the world? The world presents itself to us damaged, restless, wronged and wronging, bent of heart and broken of spirit. We present ourselves, come to be its healers, and we are bent and broken as well. How can we transfigure the world? An old Western prayer of confession says, ”There is no health in us."

Bible Misquotes

[NPR, “All Things Considered,” October 6, 1997] I was thumbing through a high-brow magazine the other day and came across an interesting essay on the virtue of Hope. But before I'd finished the first page I caught them in an embarassing blooper. The author stated that hope is ranked alongside faith and love in the 23rd psalm. In case you didn't catch the faux pas, run through the 23rd psalm in your mind--you probably memorized it in kindergarten. Yes, “the Lord is my shepherd is there,” and the part about the valley of the shadow of death, but there's no mention of faith, hope, and love. For that, you have to flip to the other end of the Bible, to St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. In his famous meditation on love in chapter 13, he writes, “So faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” --Now, does it ring a bell?

Embarassment’s Perpetual Blush

[Christianity Today, July 14, 1997]* Selected for Best Spiritual Writing 1998 * As I saw my children swept up into the night sky I knew I had made a terrible mistake. I held the baby in my arms, but the two older ones--Megan, 7, and David, 4--were locked behind the bar of a ferris wheel in a shopping-center carnival. They had begged and clamored until I agreed to let them board the contraption but now, as they rose into the night, they panicked and began to scream. David's little legs were kicking as he skidded sideways on the slick metal seat. I saw how easily he could slip beneath the narrow bar and fall to the asphalt below.