Author Archives: Johnna

About Johnna

I am a Christian educator and writer.I have worked in churches, denominational offices, and seminaries. I have a PhD in Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, with a focus on Practical Theology and educating in faith. In 2010, my book, "How the Other Half Lives: the challenges facing clergy spouses and partners," was published by Pilgrim Press. I believe that words can build doorways that lead to encounters with God through the Spirit.

Choosing the Stick

We thank you, for you have not destroyed us with our sins, but have continued to love us; and though we were sunk in despair, you have raised us up to glorify your power. St. Basil’s Prayer

That’s enough! Go pick a stick!

When I was a kid, two of my playmates were Linda and Brenda McDonald; they lived in the house across the street from me, and they both had a great sense of adventure that got them into trouble. I could always tell when it was their father who caught them in one of their misadventures because of the punishment they received. He sent them out into the back yard to pick the stick he would use for their spanking. Linda always picked the thinnest, greenest one she could find; Brenda always chose a fat, rotted one that was falling apart. Sticks chosen, they would sit on the back stairs to think about what they had done and wait for their father.

It only took a few times for Linda and Brenda to realize that the outcome was always the same: their father would come outside, sit down with his daughters, then declare that he just didn’t have it in him to spank them. He’d give them a hug, ask them not to repeat whatever had gotten them into trouble in the first place, and tell them to go play.

Perhaps our own misdeeds end in similar circumstances, with us thinking we need to choose the stick we’ll be beaten with. Perhaps the point isn’t choosing a stick; it’s taking the time to think about our actions, fess up to them, and remember that we are loved even when we have made mistakes. And be grateful our sins haven’t destroyed us.

For the full prayer, click St. Basil’s Prayer: Lent 2024 above…

Grant Us Sleep

You grant us sleep for rest from our infirmities, and repose from the burdens of our much toiling flesh. Saint Basil’s Prayer

[For the full prayer, click St. Basil’s Prayer: Lent 2024 above.]

Sleep is one of those graces that I only notice in its absence. It is how the body and mind repair themselves, and the place of dreams. A good night’s sleep can restore our good humor and our perspective as well as refresh our bodies. It is a nightly blessing, and its absence can feel like a curse.

Why am I so willing to give up this blessing to worry or overwork?

Not A Numbers Game

We bless you, O God, most high and Lord of mercy. You are always doing great and inscrutable things with us, glorious and wonderful, and without number. St. Basil’s Prayer

[For full prayer, click St. Basil’s Prayer:Lent 2024 above.]

When my sons were born, they were measured and weighed almost immediately. While these numbers were an important part of assessing their health, they had nothing to do with the immeasurable joy and love each brought into the world. I suspect counting and measuring the things God does with us is much the same.

Inscrutable Things With Us

You are always doing great and inscrutable things with us, glorious and wonderful, and without number.

[For the full prayer, click St. Basil’s Prayer: Lent 2024 above.]

Inscrutable – impossible to understand or interpret; impenetrable; incapable of being analyzed or investigated.

I don’t think this means that God is doing things in a devious way, or with the intention of keeping us ignorant of divine actions. I think it’s more a matter of scale and depth. I can no more comprehend the great things that God is doing with us than I can view the entire state of Vermont from my living room window. I can only see a part of it because my life is held in its geographical embrace. What I see is real and true, but the view is limited and my understanding equally limited. I’m in no position and in no shape to claim anything I experience as universal or all-encompassing.

I hope I remember this when I am tempted to discount the ideas and vantage points of others.

I hope I remember this when I am tempted to limit God’s great doings with us to God’s great doings with me.

My Vermont View

Bless You!

We bless you, O God, most high and Lord of mercy.

I’m used to God blessing, and people blessing all manner of life and situations in God’s creation. I’m comfortable with any and all of that. But we the creatures blessing God? I’m not used to that, and the words feel strange in my mouth when I’m praying them. Until I remembered something that happened in December, 1986.

I had just fed and changed my three month old niece, Jill. When I picked her up and held her, she did something I’ve never forgotten. Resting her head against my shoulder, she reached up and over, and patted me on the back. A simple gesture that conveys comfort and deep love; something Jill had received for her whole life, something she returned to me in that moment and in many moments to come. Even now, tears come when I remember that marvelous gift of love.

I’d like to think God feels the same way when I offer a blessing as I did so many years ago when Jill blessed me with a pat on the back.

[For the full prayer of Saint Basil, click Basil’s Prayer above.]

Mary and Child by Margaret Hill

Praying with Basil

Lent begins early this year. Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s Day are coming in less than a week. It’s time to pare down and choose a focus – in daily life and in writing. In my blue and gold copy of Daily Prayers for Orthodox Christians I found a guiding prayer for this year’s walk to the tragedy of the cross and the joy of Easter:

We bless you, O God, most high and Lord of mercy. You are always doing great and inscrutable things with us, glorious and wonderful, and without number. You grant us sleep for rest from our infirmities, and repose from the burdens of our much toiling flesh. We thank you, for you have not destroyed us with our sins, but have continued to love us; and though we were sunk in despair, you have raised us up to glorify your power. Therefore, we implore your incomparable goodness. Enlighten the eyes of our understanding and raise up our minds from the heavy sleep of indolence. Open our mouth and fill it with your praise, that we may be able without distraction to sing and confess that you are God, glorified in all and by all, the eternal Father, with your only begotten Son, and your all holy, good, and life giving Spirit, now and forever, to the ages of ages. Amen.

I hope you will pray with me on this Lenten journey.

[Saint Basil, Bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia, was born in 330AD, and died at age 49 in 379AD. He is remembered as a powerful theologian and orator, who helped define and defend what became Orthodox theology from Arianism. He worked for the uplifting of the poor and needy, and is remembered for his pastoral work. His feast day is January 1st or 2nd, depending on the tradition.]

Tending the Plant

The Jasmine was a housewarming gift that arrived last January, already budding. The instructions attached were quite specific: 1) place in a cool room that is bright with indirect sunlight; 2) make sure the room has no artificial light coming in at night; and 3) in addition to watering, keep a tray of water under the plant to keep it hydrated. Within days, it was covering in small, white, fragrant flowers – offering just enough fragrance to notice and appreciate.

With a move to another house a few months back, I wasn’t sure the Jasmine would bloom this winter, but buds appeared in mid-January. In spite of many being eaten by my son’s cat (they are non-toxic), the first few have opened up – a flash of white on green and a hint of fragrance in the air.

Sometimes, I think that chores in general are much like tending a plant: the means for a flash of beauty to grow in our lives. The effort it takes to do this daily work is what gives us the eyes to see the beauty and the heart to love both the process and the result. Without doing the chores, perhaps no beauty would bloom in our lives; without doing the chores, we might not notice it even if it did.

Cleaning the Bathroom

From start to finish, it takes about half an hour. Once it’s done, it looks great until the first handwashing. Then there are water spots on the mirror and a little dribble of soap down the newly wiped dispenser. The hand towel is wrinkled and no longer hanging straight.

When anyone in the house is sick, there’s extra disinfecting and cleaning. The toothbrushes have to be sterilized in the dish washer, and the towels changed out frequently. Maintaining a clean bathroom is a thankless and necessary job offering little satisfaction when it’s done. I slog my way through it with little joy or gratitude. When the job is done, the best I can say is that no one will catch a dread disease by using it – and the towels on the bars are all clean and ready for use.

Perhaps there will be a day when I appreciate cleaning the bathroom. That day was not yesterday, when I cleaned it, nor will it be when I clean it next. The best I can say now is that I enjoy it in a secondary sense: it’s wonderful to sink into a clean tub full of hot water after a cold January day. Enlightenment in all tasks and thoughts eludes me still. Maybe some day…

LAUNDRY

More to wash…

I can tell how busy I am by the level of the laundry in the hamper. If I can’t shut it without a good push, it’s been busy; if I’m out of socks, it’s been hectic; if I’m out of clean towels, there’s too much on my plate.

I’m not sure why the laundry reflects the state of my life pace. Is it because I can’t do without it, and I can’t avoid the consequences of not doing it? Laundry is an outward sign of my life’s inward state, a revelation of how I am living in this world and inside my own skin. When I lose touch with my own life, all I have to do is open my closet door and look at the state of my hamper.

Or check my sock drawer, and act accordingly.

DISHES

Every meal, every snack, every cup of tea or coffee in a thermos adds to the daily pile of dirty dishes. Eating meals out or bringing in take-home doesn’t really change the task much – it’s just the number that varies, not the necessity of doing the work.

Ready to wash

Having a dishwasher helps, especially when company comes for a meal or a weekend of meals. Still, there are pots, pans, and delicate glasses that must be done by hand. There are also the other tasks that fall under the “doing the dishes” heading: clearing the table, putting away various condiments and leftovers, wiping down the stove and cupboards, and cleaning out the sink.

Making the daily bread and cleaning up afterward takes time and a willingness to see in the repetitive nature of it all an opportunity for contemplation – or at least the ability to value the result. Because there’s something about a clean sink and a cupboard of dishes ready for the next meal that’s a doorway to something important. Perhaps that’s why doing the dishes before bed ranks up there with making the bed each morning for beginning each day with a sense of peace, order, and hope.

ready and waiting

Lord of all pots and pans and things…Make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates!

Brother Lawrence