In this week's episode, we are challenged by the Gospel of John, "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit for apart from me, you can do nothing." (John 15:5)
Mariam Haddad, successful entrepreneur, community supporter, and devoted mother, shares her encounter with the pruning shears wielded by the Lord. In the solitude of the pandemic, she gives up her grandiose plans for her children and business and loses every possession in the Houston freeze. Mariam glorifies God for this new season of repentance by which the dead branches of pride and personal agendas are pruned and cut away.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. I'm delighted to be interviewing Mariam Haddad, CEO and founder of the Performance Communication Company, where she helps leaders of organizations and their management teams to unleash the fullest potential of organizations, people, and products through strategic communication, delivery, and leadership transformation. Mariam has been a featured speaker for Electrify Houston, Women's Day, TEDx Houston, and The Diversity Summit, to name just a few venues. She is the chair of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council for the Institute of Hispanic Culture of Houston and serves as a key advisor to Be the Peace, Be the Hope, a social and emotional learning program for children and vulnerable communities. She has also been responsible for bringing in innovative arts programming into South Union Community Corporation's STEM program for vulnerable youth through her original program, Bach to Soul. And on top of all of this service to her community, she directs choir at her home parish, St. Basil's Church in Houston. Mariam, I don't know how you have time to do it all and still have time to talk with me today, but I'm so grateful! Welcome.
Mariam Haddad 1:36
Hi, Hollie, thank you so much. I'm so grateful to God to be here today with you, to have a conversation, and I just lift it up to the Lord and pray that it will be a blessing to whoever hears it. Thank you, Hollie.
Hollie Benton 1:49
So today we'll be discussing shifting priorities, particularly with respect to living a life of repentance, as we're called to do as Christians. So whether you're a manager at work, a volunteer coordinator, a priest, a business owner, a teacher, even a parent, you've likely shifted priorities, especially in the past year or two with a pandemic situation. The experience of shifting priorities is even more pronounced when you realize that your priorities aren't aligning with what the Lord is guiding you to do. If we ascribe to the faith of Christ, what is it we are called to do in our jobs at work, or parishes or nonprofit organizations, our classrooms, and our homes? How does the faith of Christ not only influence or inform or intersect, but truly permeate the work we are called to do? Or the people we are called to serve? Mariam, you've wrestled with this question in your own life as you lead and serve those around you. And today, you're willing to share your own story about how the Lord reached out with the hook of a shepherd's staff so to speak, and pulled you back into the flock.
Mariam Haddad 2:58
Yeah, wow. That is a power packed set of questions, Hollie. So by the grace of God, definitely as a cradle Orthodox, I was raised in a Christian home, and introduced early on to the love of Christ, thank God, with a mother who taught us how to read the Bible very early, and went to Faith Club as kids and memorized scriptures. We were so blessed in her passing on the love of the Lord, and my grandmother from Syria, just covering her head and always found her reading the Bible in the garden. But I have to say there have been many seasons in my life, and there have also been many seasons of repentance, thank God. And the most recent one has been a very, very, very profound season of repentance. And I'm so grateful to God for that season. And for the opportunity to talk about how the season the last couple of years has really shifted my entire life view, thank God, and very likely, I pray to God, is saving my soul. For me, my priorities couldn't shift until the Lord really took a weed whacker to my soul, and managed smashing the idols that I had made, unwittingly, unknowingly out of my children, out of things like I've got to earn enough money for the family, out of work, out of my ideas, my dreams, the list just goes on and on. Because what we don't realize is how much those idols are keeping us not only from the love of Christ, God forbid, thinking that we're better than anybody else. So thank God it was during the pandemic that the Lord really brought to view that my own personal line of thinking did not align with a living truth that is the word of God. And in that state, I couldn't even hear really what the Lord was guiding me to do. The whole of me, my heart, my eyes, my ears needed absolutely the healing touch of the Lord. And while I had done a lot of study and worked with cognitive therapists and studied neuroscience and all kinds of stuff, that's the world's healing and I can attest to you that the world's healing is not the Lord's healing. There is nothing on the face of the universe that rivals the healing touch of the Lord. What am I called to do in every space? If you'd asked me that question, Hollie, maybe six months ago, I would have said, Oh, I'm called to serve my clients in the corporate space, I'm called to help my friend Karine with her program, Be the Peace Be the Hope. I'm called to serve my children. I'm called to do all these things. No, I don't get to conjecture, my purpose. The Lord already wrote it. In fact, the other day in Psalm 139, I was reminded of that, when he let me know I wrote your story before I ever created you. That means I just need to be humble enough to say, I got nothing Lord, like, show me what my next best steps are in your purpose for me. And so by the grace of God, I have understood that purpose to be, I'm simply called to love everyone. And as Fr. Marc likes to say, I need to love the ones in my neighborhood. That means the nice ones, the ones that show me their good side on one day, and the ones that on a different day may show me a not-so-good side. And the ones who show me a truly evil side, may the Lord allow me to love them, love them enough to pray for them. So while I've known, I was called to love, I would say from very early on, I can't say that in the condition spiritually that I was in. I couldn't align my beliefs, truly my thoughts, my words, my actions, to be love, in that love of Christ, always everywhere.
Hollie Benton 6:40
I hear what you're saying, because our ego creeps in all the time. You mentioned the children and how even our own children can become the hands of our own making, where we idolize them and craft them a certain way and make it all about me, and what I want, and my visions for them. And like you said, in Psalm 139, it's the Lord's purpose that he has and we are to submit to that faithfully.
Mariam Haddad 7:05
Amen. Yeah, that was a very profound shift. I think, especially as a single mother, where you are both mother and father. That was probably the biggest idol in my life, not because I needed to control them, but because all my time went there, even to the point of being so exhausted. Oh, no, I'll just read my Bible at home, I'll get more out of it at home. All of those lies that the enemy sends us that we don't even realize that keep us from being within that love that is the Lord and we can't see it because we're blind and getting blinder and more stupid by the second, from those lies of the enemy. There was a key moment, and it was just shortly before the pandemic, that I heard this still small voice within my soul saying, What if every face was mine? And when I heard that, I'm so grateful, because it was in that moment, that's the healing of the Lord. Right? It's this gentle healing, sometimes it's just so gentle and St. Seraphim of Sarov had taught us like you can't be gentle enough, you can't be kind enough. That level of gentleness, which I can't even fathom as a human being, is what I felt that day, when the Lord gave me the sight to frankly see how little I was capable of loving in the truth of the love that Jesus loves us with. And frankly, I was a Pharisee. And the sad thing is, I didn't know it. I stood and proclaimed love loudly at the top of my lungs, serving some, ignoring others, and destroying others. We can destroy people in our thoughts even. We can have violent thoughts, and meanwhile, be saying a prayer out there in the world, which for me came from 1,000% pride, which at the end of the day, no love can actually be where pride is. What comes to me in First Corinthians, chapter 13, verse one, "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but I have not love, I am nothing." And that's really where I'm delighted to position this today, is to say, I am nothing. I would pray over every word that you hear from me that the Lord sees in them with His grace, that they would not be my words, but his love that comes to whoever is listening to this.
Hollie Benton 9:43
I love that question, What if I were to consider that every face I see is the face of Christ? I think a lot of times as Christians we talk about bringing the love of Christ to others as though somehow I'm embodying Christ. We strive to emulate Christ but really that shift in thinking like, you know, Matthew 25, "In as much as you did it for the least of these, you did it unto me." It doesn't talk about bringing Christ to the poor, to the thirsty, to the naked, but actually seeing them as Christ and submitting and serving them as though they are Christ Himself. And I think that shift in thinking is just so powerful, thank you so much for that.
Mariam Haddad 10:24
Even one degree further, for I am nothing, I am less than dust. And yet Christ made himself less than me on the cross, to the humiliation of man, in the humility of God, for us. I am called, therefore, to be even lower than the cross, when I approach anyone. And that has been my daily prayer, Lord, please heal me of pride.
Hollie Benton 10:56
Mariam, you suggested that we look to John 15, for today's daily bread, to serve as the foundation for our conversation today. So what is it about John's gospel that's been resonating in your life recently?
Mariam Haddad 11:10
So this has to do with the whole question of shifting priorities, right, as you mentioned, in the pandemic, and I mentioned that I'm in this latest season, thank God, of having been brought to my knees to return home. So I would just assert that while being a cradle Orthodox and having been raised in the love of Christ, I had become very wide in my beliefs, as many of us do in this modern, sadly, modern world. A friend of mine called to let me know that her husband had unexpectedly passed, both of them were good friends of mine, and Hollie, it was June 2020. So we'd been in the shutdown, I guess, three months or so. And it was through the catalyst of his funeral, that the Lord really moved the veil just enough of a smidge, and allowed me to hear. It was just a chilling and deafening sound, that all I can describe it is that it was roaring through my whole being, and it was awful. So I ran to my Bible, the minute that that happened, and threw it open. And I landed right at John 15. The words really leapt off the page as a living voice. And as I read, John 15, it was really the Lord calling me home, in the most profound way that I have experienced in all seasons of my life. At that moment in prayer I asked, please stop whatever this is that I'm experiencing. It's awful. Please help me. And I heard him say very clearly, Go to church, go to confession, and take communion. And I was like, Okay, great. I'll do it. And then there was only one word, and that was Obey. I wanted to know, what do I do next after that, I want to make sure that this is shut down. And the answer was simple, Obey. So thank God for Vespers. And I was able to go to Confession right away, thank God for our priests who stayed serving during the pandemic. We are always called to repentance, but we may not know how much we need to repent. And so I'm personally grateful.
Hollie Benton 13:17
Glory to God. Here is the gospel of John, "I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit he takes away and every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me and I in you, as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit for apart from me, you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers. And the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full." So this passage harkens back to Isaiah's parable of the vineyard where although the choicest vines were planted, it yielded only bad fruit, and was finally left to be trampled and laid waste. Likewise, Jesus speaks a warning that every branch that does not bear fruit is pruned. And if a man does not abide in Jesus as the vine he is like a branch that withers and is cast into the fire. Jesus contrast this outcome by bearing fruit which comes by abiding in him. It's a promise of joy resulting from obedience to His commandments, and abiding in His love. And I love the straightforward simple line, "I am the vine, and you are the branches." But don't you think honestly, that we try to flip these roles? Wouldn't we much rather graft Jesus on to my apple tree and bear fruit that sells well in the marketplace to the masses, a beautiful, tasty product desired by many with just enough Jesus spice to entice people to come pick from my tree? I mean, think of all the flavors of Christian denominations for starters. We use Jesus to justify our posts on Facebook and Instagram. And if Jesus can help sell our sneakers or chicken sandwiches, marketing services and financial advice, we'll graft him onto that tree too. But the Gospel of John makes it clear that there is one vine and I'm not it. I'm a mere dangling branch, and I'd better abide in the vine that produces the life and sustenance, lest I'm cut off and thrown into the fire. Mariam, you work in strategy and communications? Why are we so tempted to graft Jesus into our various wild and thorny vines that are rooted not in keeping his commandments and abiding in His love?
Mariam Haddad 16:35
Hollie, I loved this. I'm going to answer that question, but I just have to say I loved so many of the things that you were mentioning just now, you know, "beautiful, tasty product desired by many with just enough Jesus spice to entice people to come pick for my tree." I wrote that down. And I have to say, God, forgive me, God forgive us all for the moments where we use Jesus in a manipulative way thinking that we're actually being the love of Christ, when all we are doing is trying to achieve something that is of our own agenda and making and just literally putting on a mask of Jesus, rather than having humbled ourselves where we would be happy that no one would see our face, we would be joyful if all they would see in us is the love of Christ and his face. So, wow, to the question, why are we so tempted to graft Jesus into our various, I love this, "Wild and thorny vines that are not rooted in keeping his commandments and abiding in His love?"I think it's an amazing question. And I, by the grace of God would answer it this way. Simply, I believe that the bitter root from whence these wild and thorny vines have grown, within all of us, would be the insane amount of pride we've been conditioned to think is our right to have, to hold, to maintain, and sadly, to be justified in having. The essence of the world, at least through the lens that I can see it through today, and that includes myself, God forgive me, is an "I" driven model, really based on a prideful expression of man's fallen thought which is utterly devoid of love itself. So based on our behaviors, and the evidence of our actions, very frequently would give the evidence for that we don't believe we even need God. There are many times when I'm talking to someone and they'll say, Well, you know, I don't believe in God, or I don't believe that there is a God. And in our pride, even in our thinking, when we put on a mask of Christ, rather than being lesser than the least of these, we murder the living God, in our actions, in our words, and our thoughts and our beliefs, and we can only serve our own agendas. And by holding ourselves up as a little god, in our minds, we're big God, but it just, it's heartbreaking. I can't imagine how heartbreaking it must be through the lens of our Father. I can see how heartbreaking it is with just a little tiny bit of grace of sight, thank God of even looking at myself, to say, Wow, we become our greatest idol. Just blind and then with hearts of stone. We shape the illusions and the lies and the deceptions that are fueled by the enemy. And in this inverted world, we would call that truth. I was really struck by the other day Job 35:16 where Job opens his mouth with empty talk. And without knowledge, he multiplies his words. As I was reading a little while later, then came chapter 38. And that's why I say I think in this moment, thank God, the fear of God, it began in me truly for the first time. It was like the voice of God, like thundering, off of the page. Then the Lord spoke out to Job, out of the storm, and he said, Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man, and I will question you, and you will answer me. And we will answer to God. Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me if you understand who marked off its dimensions? Surely, you know, who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footing set or who laid its cornerstone? This one laid me flat . . . while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? At that point, I literally fell on the ground. And if you continue to read from there to the end of Job, it's like, iteration after iteration after iteration of God telling us what He has done. And when you compare that to our piddly things, yeah, God help us. I was like, Oh my gosh! Yeah, so it's just love cannot be where pride lives. And I believe that the bitter root is the disease of pride. God help us, you know, and may He come to us with his pruning shares. I'm grateful for his pruning shares so we can abide in Him. Because so long as it's there, we're not even alive. I mean, we are the dead branch.
Hollie Benton 21:30
Right. It's kind of painful to face the pruning shears, isn't it? I can't help but think of tending my own raspberry patch and apple trees and the numerous weeds and unproductive branches that flourish and grow merely due to their proximity to the fruit-bearing vines. It's like thinking that because I'm getting rain, and because I'm getting sunshine in the fertile soil, that everything must be okay. Or if I have leaves that look like those on the real fruit-bearing branch, I might deceive myself that everything's okay. I've got leaves that look like it, but no fruit. For example, if I say all the right things about serving my neighbor, but I don't actually feed the hungry or care for the widow and the orphan, I think I might be facing those pruning shears.
Mariam Haddad 22:17
Yeah., it's so true. Shortly after my journey home began again, in June of 2020, that's the latest season of pruning shares, right, the next month, I realized I needed to not only surrender my heart actively to Christ daily, but I needed to submit my life to Him. And that's really where he whipped out some massive pruning shears. And I literally remember saying, Lord, I submit my life to you and I surrender my heart. I have no idea what that means, but I know you will show me. So do be careful. I say that as a warning as to what you say, because literally two hours later, my daughter knocked on my door and said, Mom, we are moving to Mexico to live with our dad and his families. And we want to work on having more time with him and building our relationship with him and get to know our siblings and dad's family, and you know, the other half of my culture. And you know, you already set us up on homeschool. So we'll just do school from there. It laid me flat. As a single mom, I was like, and I knew it was coming, like she's gonna be going to college, right? And I was like, no, no, this is my time with you. This is not what I envisioned. I went for a walk. And you had said earlier, you know, like, we have these visions, right, of how we want our life to go. And I had a vision that right before COVID, I told my daughter, let's put everything in storage, and I want us to go to Europe. We're gonna AirBNB it in Italy, France, and Spain and Germany, I can work remotely, we're gonna have the adventures of our life. But inside really, I wanted to make up for all the time I'd missed out on, because I was always working so hard. My priorities were as straight as they could be in the blindness of which I existed, within the scope also of just a lot of work as a single mom. And that's not how the Lord played this out, thank God. I now was in solitude, I won't say solitary confinement, I mean we were all locked in our homes. But I was in solitude, thank God, for the saving of my soul. The Lord gave me a timeout just as surely as you give a tired three year old a timeout. I was a business owner, I was a, by the world standards, a powerful woman! I had overcome a lot of hard things on my own. That was when I realized no, no, that was the hands of the Lord carrying me through those times. It was grace alone, really, that it saved me. I would say those were pruning shares enough for the Lord to continue with his major overhaul. You know, it was a massive surgery apparently I needed. Because a few months later during the Texas freeze that we had in February last year, the pipes burst and flooded my whole place. And I had, I will say it this way, the beautiful good grace of God to wipe away literally every possession that I had. He cleared the slate. He took away, Hollie, every idol, thank God. So it was an idol smashing season, and pruning shears as well. But I remember the day that I was leaving my apartment, the old apartment for my new place, I opened my Bible and the Lord brought me to that passage, you know, where he's sending out the twelve into the world. Go preach the good news. and this is the part that really also struck me more so was, and don't take anything with you. Not a staff, not a loaf of bread, nor even an extra tunic.
Wow, in a very real way.
Everything you've made by your hands are nothing in my sight and have nothing to do with the purpose of which I created you. So thank God, he pruned everything to heal me. So that in humility, my heart of stone would be made a heart of flesh, so I could just lovingly obey Him with all my mind and my heart and my soul. And for me, that's the grafting of myself onto the vine of Christ, and that abiding in Him, I could truly begin to even fathom how to love my neighbor as myself, and I'm just at the very beginning of this journey. I pray that I'm at the beginning of the journey, let me not assert that it is. So it's a construction zone in here.
Hollie Benton 26:29
So it's a process, it's a journey, and every day we have the opportunity, if we're willing to listen to what the Lord would have us hear, you know, just an opportunity to allow His pruning shears to cut away at our hearts and our minds and help us focus on the priorities to shift to the priorities that he has for us rather than our own ways, our own desires, our own priorities, our own visions, our own strategies. So may it be so for us today, and for tomorrow, and all the years that he may give us to continue working out our salvation.
Mariam Haddad 27:08
Oh, yes. What if Christ had only talked about the cross rather than actually, humbly obeying the Father? I mean, He sweated tears of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. He didn't want to go through what he was going to go through for us, but he humbly obeyed the Father. Thank God, His talk wasn't cheap. What if our most Holy Theotokos had only talked about humbly obeying the Father? We would have no hope. What if Abraham had only talked about going to a new land, but had not listened to God, right? Telling him to pack up his wife Sarai, and to leave the land of his Fathers. So our talk is cheap. Thank God the Lord's is not. But I learned this, in this idle smashing pruning shears season as I dove into the Bible, thank God, and that solitude and the timeout, very simply, in every story of the Bible, whoever it was heard God. They actually listened, and they heard Him. And second, they listened to his instruction. And this is an important one, they obeyed God. And they did what He said. May we follow their example, and not just talk, but do! All I have is a pittance of love, by which to enliven any of my thoughts, words, actions, contributions to others. It is I who is nothing. It is I who is less than dust. But when I'm grafted on to the branch of Christ, and I become that living branch by abiding in Him, then it is the Father who will give that person in front of me what they need. And that's when I shift from pridefully giving of my own agenda inside my mind that I may not even be cognizant to actually being and serving by grace as the hands and feet of Jesus in love of that person in front of me.
Hollie Benton 29:00
Amen. Thank you so much Mariam, for sharing your story today. It feels a little vulnerable to share about those seasons of idle-smashing and shear-pruning. But we are encouraged by it, and may it be so in our lies, if only we can hearken to the voice of the Lord and submit. May there be hope for us too.
Mariam Haddad 29:21
Amen. You know, I think we take it for granted - communion. I realize that the grace that just comes to us in such wealth, if we can just open our eyes. If thhe Lord can just open our eyes to see it and love Him with all our hearts. Thank you, Hollie, for this time.
Hollie Benton 29:40
Thank you, Mariam. Thank you so much.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai